Contemporary classical music can be intimidating. Case in point: an upcoming Philadelphia performance of Philip Glass’ Music in 12 Parts will be five hours long, with two intermissions and a dinner break. That’s a whole lot of Glass, enough to remind Simpsons viewers of the time when Marge informed Homer that they were going to see An Evening with Philip Glass. Homer’s reply? “Just one evening?”
Glass casts a long shadow over modern classical music, but at least one — and more likely two — generations of new composers have emerged since Music in 12 Parts debuted in 1974. Plus, while Glass would seem like a logical entry point for timid but curious listeners who want to investigate modern classical, both the quantity and scale of his work can be overwhelming. yMusic, a six-member ensemble of extraordinarily talented musicians founded in New York City in 2008, can help. On their new fourth album, Ecstatic Science, yMusic have created a focused opportunity to experience current classical music through the works of four young composers.
Each member of yMusic has individually become a sought-after musician for sessions and live performances. Together, as yMusic, the ensemble collaborated with Ben Folds on his album So There. Also, yMusic recorded rearrangements of two lesser-known Paul Simon songs, “Rene and Georgette Magritte with Their Dog After the War”, and “Can’t Run But”, and performed these songs live with Simon during his farewell tour.
Anyone interested in these collaborations can find videos for them on YouTube, but to really understand the dynamic of yMusic, watch the video for Gabriella Smith’s “Tessellations”, the opening composition on Ecstatic Science. While I generally don’t know that watching a video always adds much to the understanding of the song it depicts, in the case of yMusic, I think the “Tessellations” performance video is crucial. The video clarifies who is playing what, but it goes beyond that. It shows how each musician creates the unusual sounds that combine in the introduction to the piece, from Gabriel Cabezas tapping out the rhythm on his cello to Rob Moose scraping his fingers along the violin strings. One can also see how each of the wind instrumentalists create some of the piece’s unconventional sounds. You also see the eerie wordless vocalizing of Alex Sopp, which you might only subliminally notice when just listening to the audio.
Most importantly, though, the “Tessellations” video shows each of the six yMusic members deeply immersed in their own performance yet contributing to something bigger than any individual member. It’s a fascinating video and watching it enhances subsequent purely audio explorations of “Tessellations”, as well as the whole of Ecstatic Science. Smith, the composer of “Tessellations”, notes that the composition is about “patterns that fit into each other like an Escher print, additive patterns, subtractive patterns, patterns that disintegrate and dissolve into chaos and then re-form. yMusic clearly get it.
Also, it is worth noting that, clocking it at just 4:30, “Tessellations” would fit nicely on a 45 r.p.m. record. While there is surely no business model that would recommend releasing a modern classical work on a vinyl single, from a purely aesthetic viewpoint, “Tessellations” would sound and look amazing emanating from a spinning single on a turntable.
Hearing (and seeing) “Tessellations” might give a potential listener a strong idea about whether they’d like to pursue the rest of Ecstatic Science. While nothing else on the album sounds quite like “Tessellations”, nearly every piece shares a similar sense of artistic restlessness. Calm passages throughout the album often give way to blasts of dissonance. This is not classical music meant to soothe your jangled nerves. This is music meant to fire up the neurons in your brain and keep those neurons on alert for the album’s duration.
In addition to “Tessellations”, Gabriella Smith is represented by the album’s closing epic, “Maré”, which was inspired by ocean tidal movements, but might conjure for some listeners the sound and feel of trains in the distance. Also, Ecstatic Science includes work by composers Missy Mazzoli, Caroline Shaw, and Paul Wiancko.
The album’s title track was commissioned by yMusic to Mazzoli, who is also one of the first female composers to be commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera. “Ecstatic Science” is a mid-tempo piece, but with plenty unusual twists and turns that yMusic negotiate with ease. “Thous&ths”, by Paul Wiancko, is an intriguing mini-symphony, which, in the composer’s words, “zooms between the micro and the macro, baring its inner workings to alternately reveal and obstruct the view of a larger entity”.
Caroline Shaw, a Pulitzer Prize winning-composer who has collaborated with Kanye West, is represented by a three-movement work, “Draft of a High-Rise”, that was initially inspired, according to Shaw, by depictions of people in architectural renderings. Much of “Draft of a High-Rise” is serene, but it is interrupted by jagged moments that might have been influenced by the U.S. 2016 presidential race, which was in full-force as Shaw was composing the work.
While Ecstatic Science features the work of four composers, yMusic ties it all together nicely, creating a cohesive album that provides one glimpse (of many possible glimpses) of the state of modern classical music. And, with all due respect to Mr. Glass, Ecstatic Science can be experienced in one sitting. No dinner break necessary.