Modern chamber music isn’t an easy sell, except when it is. Film composers put forth suites of music that are accessible to the untrained Western ear, emotionally evocative, and tonal. Gimmick groups like Vitamin String Quartet offer up watered down versions of familiar pop songs in limited sonic palettes for the layman. Occasionally you’ll get a more ambitious project, like Ben Folds’ recent foray with Brooklyn chamber group yMusic, to sate the ears of both the dilettante and the aficionado, but current tastes dictate the rarity of this sort of music to make much of a widespread impact.
Francis MacDonald — drummer for perennial power-pop pros Teenage Fanclub, not that you’d know it from this album — has put together a sensitive collection of original compositions for piano, celeste, and string quartet. It’s middle-of-the-road tonal chamber music, with the violin swells that could heighten the hardest heartbreaks but the obscurity that means most of those heartbreaks will go unscored. Let’s look at the pieces where interest lies:
“Ghent” is a stark, lovely moment. It parries forward with unaccompanied cello before bringing in the other strings. It’s dark and romantic, with crescendos that ache and recede. Its melodies are spare and complementary — in the same school of affecting instrumental music as film composer greats Yann Tiersen and Michael Giacchino. In a similar vein is the album closer “17 Days”, which takes a lot of time in its development. It breathes beautifully.
The most adventurous — or maybe, the least atmospheric — piece on the album is the “Triet for David Hockney”. The piece is for cello and two violins, and unlike the dreamy legato most of the other pieces on MacDonald’s album expect from the string section, here we hear extended passages of pizzicato in one or more voices, with the bowed notes keeping vibrato to a minimum, rough and scraping, maybe sul ponticello. The angularity of this piece is refreshing, it’s really a standout on the album.
The first track released for general consumption is the wintry “September Weekend”, which could as easily underscore a teenager’s gothy OTP fan video as anything else. It’s not that it’s not beautiful — it’s melancholy and it has cadences that satisfy something basic in a listener — but, like the rest of the album, it takes very few risks. Francis MacDonald is still advertising himself as “Francis MacDonald of Teenage Fanclub”, so although this album is hardly related, let’s say it’s fair to draw just one small comparison between the two: Bandwagonesque was so successful because tracks like “The Concept” and “Alcoholiday” were daring, subverting pop tropes to make something new. Unfortunately that same spirit, for which this instrumental music is desperately crying out, is absent.
Ultimately MacDonald’s Music for String Quartet, Piano, and Celeste is what it says on the tin. There’s no blame to be assigned: this is music that will be enjoyed by the people who hear it, the author of this review included. It’s unfortunate that the modern classical composition we’re seeing is toothless and tame, while there’s a world of talented composers writing daring, terrifying music who go unacknowledged. It’s unfortunate that these two ideals are being pitted against each other. It’s unfortunate that so much of the business of being a musician is tied up in trying to please enough people to pay your rent, regardless of your own artistic visions and ambitions. There are things to love about this album. Sometimes that’s just not enough.