Composer Marc Mellits revels in the process-orientated bent of post-minimalism. “Tight Sweater”, his work for cello, marimba, and piano, is a driving work that owes more than a passing nod to Steve Reich. “Flatiron”, written for a traditional bluegrass ensemble (guitar, mandolin, fiddle, bass, banjo), is a powerful suite that treats the acoustically-oriented group like a rock band. His compositions pull no punches, yet he’s just as capable of lyrical beauty as he is full-throttled aggression (case in point, his ethereal “String Quartet No. 4: Prometheus”).
Smoke: Music of Marc Mellits is a collaboration between the man himself and the wildly talented New Music Detroit. With a set ensemble of five members, working a roster of fantastic guest musicians, New Music Detroit actively promotes living composers and cutting-edge collaborations throughout the Midwest and beyond. The first recording of their 12-year career, Smoke reflects the group’s longtime association with Mellits and represents a fantastic debut for the virtuosic new music ensemble, as well as a testament to one of the most singular voices in contemporary classical today.
The titular opening work, written for electric guitar, saxophone, percussion, and marimba, takes no prisoners. A 2009 commission from New Music Detroit, guests guitarist Gyan Riley and marimbist Daniel Bauch fit in perfectly alongside core NMD members Ian Ding and Erik Rönmark. Lacking any evocative titles, each movement brims with unique character, from the visceral “I”, the charming and goofy “III”, and the jittery “VII”. An extended composition focused primarily on grooves and slinky, interlocking melodies demands a water-tight group, and New Music Detroit delivers in spades.
Despite its virtuosic and unrelenting nature, the composition lags at moments due to the lack of variety. Throughout its eight movements, every instrument seems to be playing at a consistent volume level, and the absence of dynamic diversity starts to feel old a few tracks in. The quartet is undeniably precise and delivers a stellar performance; it’s just a shame the source material isn’t more involved.
Thankfully, “Red”, written for two marimbas, provides more musical contrast. The lightness of “I: moderately funky” displays the depth of interplay available between two identical mallet instruments. Mellits is fantastically adept at balancing intricate, interlocking melodies and massive stacked chords that stand like wooden harmonic totems. “IV: slow, with motion” revels in a quiet, almost aquatic murmuring effect, fluttering mallets giving birth to delicate harmonies throughout its all-too-brief three-minute duration. The closing movement “VI: fast, obsessive, bombastic, red” could not have a better title. Frenetic and jubilant, it still retains a sense of nuance and dialogue between the two players, making Red as a whole a standout composition on the album.
“String Quartet No. 3: Tapas”, a work dating back to 2008, collects eight movements of twisting rhythms and whirling melodies. The title reflects the diversity between tracks, each one revealing a taste for a different musical sensibility, from the pounding propulsion of “I” to the regal spirit of “III”. A long-favored ensemble for classical composers for hundreds of years, Mellits’ propulsive compositional voice sounds wonderfully nuanced and textured in the hands of violinists Gina DiBello and Adrienne Rönmark, violist Samuel Bergman, and cellist Úna O’Riordan. The fifth movement, the longest at just over four minutes, is also perhaps the most striking, a slow affair that balances sorrow and optimism in equal amounts.
“Prime”, the 16-minute monster album closer written for bass clarinet, baritone saxophone, percussion, and piano, expertly transverses a wealth of moods. It’s one thing to move from heavy riffing to graceful fluttering to off-kilter funk, yet it’s another to do so with skill and expertise. An epic work from Mellits, the players from New Music Detroit deserve heaps of praise for maintaining the energy and virtuosity necessary to honor the composer’s complex vision. There’s no denying that “Prime” would be a show-stopping work to see in person, but the new music world is undeniably blessed to have such a clear recording, complete with minimal processing and tasteful panning to clearly articulate the nuance of such a brilliant work.
New Music Detroit’s tribute to the Chicago-based composer comes together as a brilliant testament to the ensemble’s virtuosity and musicality as well as Mellits’ compositional prowess. Alternating between the vibrant and the serene, it’s an excellent addition to Innova Recordings’ already stellar roster of modern new music masterworks.