BACKTRACKING WITH YMUSIC'S BALANCE PROBLEMS
yMusic's sophomore release Balance Problems is a superb album, justifiably one of the current issue's albums of the month (reviewed here), but it did leave me puzzling over one thing in particular: why exactly Nico Muhly, Sufjan Stevens, Andrew Norman, Mark Dancigers, Jeremy Turner, Marcos Balter, and Timo Andres titled their pieces as they did. It's a puzzlement that's compounded by the fact that the release includes no background detail on the classical chamber compositions or the composers responsible for them. So with that in mind, I approached yMusic—Rob Moose (violin, guitar), CJ Camerieri (trumpet), Clarice Jensen (cello), Alex Sopp (flute), Hideaki Aomori (clarinet), and Nadia Sirota (viola)—with the idea of a Backtracking piece that would shed some light on the recording's pieces and was thrilled that the NY-based sextet proved receptive to the idea. textura is especially grateful to Nadia Sirota, Rob Moose, CJ Camerieri, and album producer Son Lux for the words that follow, which are illuminating in all kinds of ways.
“Balance Problems” (Nico Muhly)
Son Lux: Sometimes the jobs of the producer and mixer are to fix, but there were no, er, problems with “Balance Problems” to start with. Instead, I got to explore the possibilities of its presentation as a piece of music for the recorded medium. This was the aim of the record as a whole: wanting more than just a documentation of great performances, our goal was to produce an album that feels and sounds different than any other chamber music record (including yMusic's 2011 debut Beautiful Mechanical).
(Backing up a bit... It is well understood in many musics, but not generally in chamber music, that a recording of a thing may exist separately from the performance of that thing, and that the recorded thing is no less “pure” an expression than the live act. Rock musicians understand, for example, that one song may live two distinct lives in the ears of listeners: there is the live performance of a thing one does in front of people, and there is the recorded thing, designed for repeated listens, embedded with texture and dimension and space that is unique to the medium. Chamber music has yet to catch up to the truth and musical possibility of this “second life” ... which is too bad! Especially since chamber music can be so multi-dimensional, so able to encompass and express complex stuff. All the more reason to look to the recorded form for additional technicolor. There are musical ideas, both simple and complex, that can find an added dimension in the recorded medium. Even very traditional ones.)
So I wound up doing an enormous amount of futzing with “Balance Problems.” Here's a couple of especially fun ways I futzed:
Nico divided up the ensemble into clear “teams” throughout much of the piece, so I chose to enhance this aspect of the writing and push the teams further into divergent places. I did this by creating altered states of each, imbuing them with distinct qualities. For example, after recording the full ensemble, I instructed the motoric group to perform each measure twice, before proceeding to the next. Then after the fact, I doubled the speed of the recording of that performance, maintaining the rate of harmonic change, but halving the value of each note. The effect is a “fast-forward” sounding version of that group that doesn't move through the harmonic progression any faster than the original. I added this double-time layer to the original in special moments where I wanted to enhance the kinetic quality of that motoric group. I then went one step further and layered the quick version in at various octave levels.
I also created an altered state of the melodic group. I wanted to enhance and further articulate the dynamic, prickly quality of the writing in this group. So I created a scenario wherein the especially loud peaks of volume trigger a special response. So in the recording, loud moments also become wider and more reverberant.
“Bladed Stance” (Marcos Balter)
Nadia Sirota: This piece by Marcos Balter is a weird little etude in colour and timbre. I think of it as a sort of gemstone, rotating and catching the light in different ways. Marcos is absolutely brilliant at thinking about instruments in unconventional ways, molding timbre and overtones to produce something other than the default. He figured out, for example, that trumpet with a silent mute would match, almost exactly short harmonics on the cello. He took our group and turned us into a different animal altogether, adding whistling and reverb and mixing it all up into one glittering, ethereal beast.
“Music in Circles” (Parts 1 & 2) (Andrew Norman)
CJ Camerieri: A piece that has quickly become a yMusic favorite, Andrew Norman's “Music in Circles” uses innovative techniques and one simple melodic idea to create a frenetic, exciting, and incredibly expressive piece of chamber music. In addition to taking center stage as soloist in the opening and closing of the piece, the viola uses a technique that none of our string players had ever seen before. The violist bounces the hair of the bow entirely vertically on the string, allowing her to grab entire chords at once with a percussive yet warm sound. A fun fact about this work is that it was composed during an especially hot New York City summer during which Andrew says he began to hear melodies and textures in his air conditioner, which made their way into the piece.
“The Bear & The Squirrel” (Jeremy Turner)
Rob Moose: Jeremy Turner is a cellist and composer, and a great friend of the group. yMusic has recorded a film score of his (A Birders Guide to Everything) and Jeremy has even filled in on cello at a few of our concerts over the years. After hearing a number of our performances, he noticed that a lot of our repertoire was nimble, rhythmically oriented and virtuosic, and wished the group had some music that showcased the more expressive sounds it's capable of making. Armed with the vision and appropriate ambition, Jeremy set forth to create the missing work himself, and it has been a staple of our repertoire since. He was inspired by John Osborne's play, Look Back In Anger, in which two main characters whose relationship is crumbling choose to role play as a bear and a squirrel in order to temporarily avoid reality. According to the composer, this game, and the piece, evoke a short moment of sunshine in the midst of a very bad storm.
“Safe Travels” (Timo Andres)
Nadia Sirota: Both individually and as a group, the members yMusic spend a lot of time in the sky, getting from one concert or recording session to another. Much to the chagrin of some (many) around us, we have a competitive and borderline obsessive relationship with the real-life video game that is Frequent Flyer Status. When composer Timo Andres set to writing us a piece, he wanted to riff on this frenetic travel scheme with a piece named after his most common farewell to us, “Safe Travels.” This piece seems to always be changing altitudes, moving upwards and downwards while bouncing through different textures and orchestrations and thicknesses. It's many ascents and descents all piled one on top of each other.
“Everness” (Mark Dancigers)
CJ Camerieri: Taking its title from a Jorge Luis Borges poem of the same name, “Everness” by Mark Dancigers is yet another example of how our composers are using the unique instrumentation of yMusic to create new textures and colors. Borges writes in the poem, “Unending are the mazes,” and from the opening violin solo to the repeated wind arpeggio and culminating in the hauntingly beautiful closing chorale, this piece uses the ensemble's unique orchestration to both create and navigate these mazes. One would probably never guess after listening to this work that Mark Dancigers is also a shredding guitarist!
“The Human Plague” (Sufjan Stevens)
Rob Moose: yMusic owes a significant amount of its existence to Sufjan Stevens, with whom many of the members played in various configurations between 2005 and the present. After having adapted some of the electronic pieces from Enjoy Your Rabbit, it seemed natural to approach him to craft an original work for the group. Sufjan was in the early stages of writing Everywhere We Go, a score commissioned by the New York City Ballet, and the piece he created for us was a product of that period of writing. From my understanding, he started on the piano, creating a chord progression that cycles sort of endlessly, almost without a discernible structure. Next, he introduced the rhythmic element, settling on a constant 16th-note texture voiced by the violin, which is joined by the rest of the ensemble for rippling swells. Then he chose to vary the bar lengths, employing measures of five and seven and even the occasional four, which actually seems the most avant-garde by contrast. yMusic tinkered with the orchestration a bit, settling on trumpet and bass clarinet instead of horn and Bb clarinet, and tried to find a light and dance-like way to express a piece filled to the brim with notes. But the major breakthrough was Son Lux's production, which took a few rounds to refine but really helped provide a sense of structure and development and a beautiful close to the album.