ACME: Thrive on Routine
Sono Luminus

A number of things distinguish ACME (the American Contemporary Music Ensemble) from other groups specializing in contemporary classical music. Its members are not only musicians but composers, too, exemplified by the fact that four of the five pieces on Thrive On Routine are by ACME members. It's also an inordinately flexible outfit that changes shape in accordance with the needs of the material performed. Though eight names are identified as constituting ACME on this release (Artistic Director and cellist Clarice Jensen, violinists Yuki Numata Resnick and Ben Russell, violist Caleb Burhans, pianist Timo Andres, celesta player Peter Dugan, and vibraphonists Chris Thompson and Chihiro Shibayama), two settings are for string quartet and two others solo pieces for cello and piano; further to that, Caroline Shaw, who composed two pieces, doesn't play on the album, though she is a group member.

As a name, ACME functions as an umbrella term designed to accommodate any number of possible permutations. Recently, for example, four members of the group performed with theremin virtuoso Carolina Eyck on Fantasias for Theremin and String Quartet (Butterscotch Records, 2016); other recordings of note include Max Richter's Sleep (Deutsche Grammophon, 2015) and Jóhann Jóhannsson's Orphée (Deutsche Grammophon, 2016). Though ACME was founded more than a decade ago and has performed works by seminal composers such as John Adams, Louis Andriessen, Gavin Bryars, Philip Glass, Charles Ives, Olivier Messiaen, Steve Reich, Terry Riley, Arnold Schoenberg, and Ingram Marshall, Jensen regards Thrive on Routine as something of a debut recording for ACME, simply because its five pieces have become staples of its concert repertoire and are ones the group's members particularly love and with which they share an intimate connection.

The first of Shaw's pieces, in manus tuas (2009), which draws for inspiration from a sixteenth-century Thomas Tallis motet and was designed to distill the moment of hearing the motet at Christ Church in New Haven, Connecticut into a single-movement setting, is exquisitely realized by Jensen in a performance marked by sensitivity and expressiveness. Subsequent to that, Andres tackles Shaw's second piece, 2012's Gustave Le Gray, which she characterizes as a multi-layered portrait of Op. 17 No. 4 using some of Chopin's ingredients overlaid and hinged together with my own. However it's described, Shaw's re-imagining honours the past without being overly constricted by it, and one finds oneself especially transported when a wistful, almost sentimental melodic treatment elbows its way into the work's structure at the five-minute mark. Shifting from performer to composer mode, Andres drew for inspiration for his lively, multi-scenic title work, executed by ACME's string players in four continuous movements, from Jan Swafford's biography of Charles Ives and specifically the composer's morning routine.

As fine as those central pieces are, it's the opening and closing works that leave the strongest impression. Written in 2009 around the anniversary of the death of his father, Burhans' Jahrzeit (for string quartet) sets the bar dauntingly high at the outset (the title refers to a commemorative ritual that involves reciting the Kaddish, lighting a twenty-four-hour candle, and remembering someone who has died). Anyone fortunate enough to have heard his 2013 release Evensong already knows what an exceptionally gifted composer Burhans is; for those unfamiliar with that collection, Jahrzeit offers a sublime, ten-minute primer. The material really takes hold two minutes in when lilting triplet figures lay the groundwork for the piece's supplicating melodic content, the combination of which proves heart-stopping.

The full ensemble is called upon for John Luther Adams' In a Treeless Place, Only Snow, a gorgeous evocation of landscape written in 1999 whose elegant textural design ACME renders with consummate care. The intermingling of strings, vibraphones, piano, and celesta imbues the material with a near-magical quality that's particularly stirring during those moments when the arrangement strips down to little more than vibraphone, celesta, and a single string instrument. Here and elsewhere, Adams' music is marked by so much grace and refinement one expects it'll be performed long after he's gone. All five works on the recording are worthy of one's attention, but Thrive on Routine earns its recommendation on the framing pieces alone.

April 2017