Highly accomplished and in-demand, classical collective yMusic host a range of notable peers on their second album.
It might take a bit more time before consensus determines if the (relatively) recently coined term ‘indie classical’ -- a blanket that covers a blurry crossover where young star composers (Nico Muhly, Owen Pallett) and artists from the rock milieu who have branched into classical forms (Jonny Greenwood, Sufjan Stevens) both dwell -- will stick around longer than the usual labels of convenience. In theory, there may in fact be a kind of music that sits equidistant between that of Bach and Built to Spill, but unlike the peculiar hybrid form the term might suggest, in practice it approaches the ‘indie’ part more by way of aesthetic signifiers than by sound and structure (while the ‘classical’ part is, of course, apparent).
The preponderance of evidence does show indie classical to be on a pronounced upswing, but it is worth noting some of those who have bridged this gap before. Think chamber music ensemble Rachel’s, who ceased releasing studio recordings not too many years before the first members of yMusic broached the idea of playing together while hanging out after a show by the National at Brooklyn’s BAM Opera House. Rachel’s were indie by scene, a refined branch on the Louisville, Kentucky post rock tree, whereas yMusic are perhaps more indie by association. Key differences aside (Rachel Grimes’ piano was always at the fore, and their music swam more in minimalism and melancholy), but they both use(d) not-too-dissimilar means to reach audiences of their peers whose record collections aren’t exactly brimming over with Brahms.
A recent interview with yMusic in the Boston Globe noted that the group’s name stems from the six members – violinist Rob Moose, trumpeter C.J. Camerieri, violist Nadia Sirota, cellist Clarice Jensen, flutist Alex Sopp, and clarinetist Hideaki Aomori – all being part of Generation Y, and it is tempting to see an aspect of generational outreach at work. Or, at least, some of the same shrewd marketing spirit that has driven hip-hop hits to be all about the guest list on any given track. Individually or in various configurations, the six of them have played with practically everyone, and as yMusic has collaborated with artists such as St. Vincent and My Brightest Diamond on Beautiful Mechanical, their first album, while Balance Problems brings in the aforementioned Muhly and Stevens, and a shortlist of other current leading young composers like Andrew Norman and Timo Andres. They are not exactly working with Lorde yet, but Son Lux, who produced Balance Problems, recently did, so perhaps that’s not too far off.
The music that the collective creates is thankfully less intimidating than their curriculum vitaes. The album’s eight pieces all succeed in similar measures, give or take a degree. Each collaborator’s signature is visible on their respective tracks, but their presence never feels outsized in its place among the rest of the record. The sequencing also keeps an eye on, yes, balance, with the longer, more challenging tracks typically followed by calmer, but no less engaging, pieces. Among those, “The Bear and the Squirrel”, which yMusic and composer/cellist Jeremy Turner have performed at venues such as Carnegie Hall and the Sydney Opera House, stands out for its restraint, as its foggy muted trumpet line drifts over a moss bed of strings, the whole of it tranquilly inhaling and exhaling, peaking in the middle with a brief mournful swell.
Muhly’s title track, Andrew Norman’s two-part “Music in Circles”, and Timo Andres’ “Safe Travels” will likely be the passages of Balance Problems that placate more dedicated classical fans, being the most outwardly ambitious. Indeed, the swirling, spiking peaks of “Music in Circles (Part 2)” pack enough fireworks to light up any climactic film scene the song could be set to soundtrack. Similarly, the penultimate “Everness”, featuring Marc Dancigers of the NOW Ensemble, awes with its descending figures that leap across a tense staccato surface, before a stretching thread of violin joins it to a more winding second half. A calming coda, Sufjan Stevens’ “The Human Plague” succeeds in finally putting all of the players’ instruments, heretofore restlessly bouncing off one another, in sync, via a gated effect across the entire track. Were “The Human Plague” placed at the start of Balance Problems it might have proved an equally fitting path in to the record, putting at ease those more at home on the ‘indie’ side of the spectrum, but it makes a fine way out all the same.