Now Ensemble: Now
New Amsterdam

Much like Icebreaker and Bang On A Can All-Stars, the New York-based Now Ensemble, a so-called “chamber music outfit for the 21st century” that formed in 2002 at the Yale School of Music, dedicates itself to exuberant performances of elegant, formally-composed (“classical” seems too stuffy or misleading a word to use in this case) works by contemporary composers. The virtuosic ensemble is primarily acoustic and electronics-free (flutist Alex Sopp, clarinetist Sara Phillips, electric guitarist Mark Dancigers, pianist Michael Mizrahi, and double bassist Peter Rosenfeld are the instrumentalists), and the seven pieces comprising its eponymous debut are splendidly realized. Like the Kronos Quartet, Now Ensemble has brought to life multiple new works (over thirty-five in fact) that composers created especially for the group and so a critical interdependence has developed between the two: the group needing the material in order to have works to play, and the composers needing the group in order to have their works live beyond the score. Throughout the Now, lyrical passages segue smoothly into aggressive episodes and the players sustain formation through the contrasting tempo changes. At times, the album material suggests kinship with the intricate through-composed style associated with English composers such as Michael Torke, Steve Martland, and Graham Fitkin with traces of Steve Reich-inspired minimalism creeping in too. Now Ensemble definitely takes its composing seriously: two of the group's seven members—Patrick Burke and Judd Greenstein—don't formally play in the group at all but rather compose exclusively for it. The outfit's relatively small size enables it to interact like a well-oiled machine with instruments playing in unison or counterpoint, playing solo, pairing up, or playing en masse.

Two works by Greenstein frame the album: “Folk Music,” a restless travelogue rich in contrasts of mood and dynamics, and “Sing Along,” which, just as the name suggests, impresses as especially lyrical when the players scale the piece's dramatic peaks. Led by the flute, the instruments in “Folk Music” weave in breezy counterpoint. Following a romantic intro, the melodic lines become intricate and knotty, and certainly a Reich influence is discernible in the repeating piano patterns that hammer beneath the soloing flute. Halfway through, the “folk” dimension comes fully to the fore in a graceful cello episode that blossoms into a full-band arrangement before decompressing to a peaceful resolution. Burke's “Hypno-germ” begins in Torke mode as a staccato web of jittery syncopations and aggressive melodic flourishes punctuated by rapid interjections before eventually slowing for a stately conclusion. The group's other composer, guitarist Dancigers, is represented by “Hanging There” where the ensemble nimble-footedly navigates the agitated passageways and detours, and “Cloudbank,” which impresses for the heightened emotional impact made by a serene middle section for flute and piano that floats in cloud-like manner. Nico Muhly's “How About Now” is a bit of an odd man out in this context: it's more ambitious than the others in its explorative range (there's a more pronounced percussive dimension and hints of Reich's Electric Counterpoint even emerge in a quiet middle section) but also less cohesive compositionally; indicative of imaginative overflow, the piece ends up seeming a bit of a stylistic mishmash. But taken as a fifty-one-minute whole, Now shows the group making good on its “chamber music outfit for the 21st century” claim.

September 2008