Latitude 49: Curious Minds
Latitude 49

Add Latitude 49 to an ever-growing list of forward-thinking contemporary classical ensembles that includes Eighth Blackbird, Bang on a Can All-stars, yMusic, and Alarm Will Sound. The Chicago-based sextet, whose debut album features performances by Jani Parsons (piano), Timothy Steeves (violin), Andy Hall (saxophones), Jacobsen Woollen (cello), Jason Paige (clarinets), and Chris Sies (percussion), is so named because its members hail from both sides of the Canada-United States border (note that though Woollen appears on the album, the group's current cellist is Max Geissler). Curious Minds, recorded between 2013 and 2016 at various locations in Ann Arbor and Chicago, is distinguished by that fact all six of its freshly minted pieces were composed expressly for the group. More than thirty works have been written to date for Latitude 49 since its founding, with pieces by Christopher Cerrone, Marc Mellits, Justin Rito, and Chris Sies scheduled to increase that total in the coming months.

One of the strongest settings is Gabriella Smith's Huascarán, whose title refers to Peru's highest mountain and the national park surrounding it; the composer drew inspiration for the piece from the landscapes, mountains, and lakes she witnessed when backpacking there in January 2016. Against an animated percussive backdrop, woodwinds, piano, and strings weave long, contrapuntal lines to mesmerizing effect; sophisticated the writing is, but the material swings with forceful energy, too, whether it be during a subdued passage or an aggressive one. Adding to its impact, sax and clarinet tones race past one another, much like cars speeding down the expressway, until all six musicians collectively replicate the churn of a massive, high-performance machine. One imagines any of the aforementioned new music ensembles would be delighted to add such a dynamic piece to its repertoire.

As its title indicates, Garrett Schumann restricted himself to one five-note set for all of the notes in A Five-Note Chord, seen from the porch of a curious mind—not that such a self-imposed restriction ended up limiting the range of effects he was able to work into the piece's dazzling presentation. Abetted considerably by the breadth of timbres the group itself is able to generate, Schumann's delicate setting consistently captivates as its elements slowly blossom. In his four-part The Duality of Nostalgia, Jared Miller attempts to capture two of its facets, the sweetly satisfying comfort it offers on the one hand and an almost irrational longing for it on the other. In keeping with the concept, themes initially stated re-emerge in altered form, much like past events fondly revisited through memory, until the piece culminates beautifully in the fourth part with hushed voicings of a Brahms-inspired theme. Written with feelings of empathy for “uprooted strangers from far-away places and different cultures,” Virgil Moorefield's A Wish for the Displaced unfurls meditatively across fourteen minutes, with the six players blending their instruments' sounds into a slowly rising mass before agitated swirls of vibraphone, piano, and woodwinds patterns inject the piece's second half with kinetic energy.

Also appearing on the album are the ponderous soundscape Sextet II: Apostillas a Mil Panaderos by Tomás I. Gueglio Saccone, which the group renders with meticulous attention to detail, and the rather Ivesian Puzzle Lunch Tulips Cheezborger (and other non sequiturs) by John Dorhauer, where the cello's independent lines appear concurrently with ensemble parts that range from bluesy swing to eerie, Ligeti-esque textures. All of the pieces reward one's attention, but it's the ones by Smith, Schumann, and Moorefield that speak most powerfully on the album's behalf. Regardless of one's preferences, the group itself brings an equally high level of care to each one of the performances. Curious Minds turns out to be less a curious tapestry and instead one filled with many oft-dazzling hues.

September 2017