Now Ensemble: Awake
That the Now Ensemble's music has been described as “chamber music for the 21st century” is both apt and accurate—and note that while the group's music is thoroughly contemporary, it's also free of electronics. Awake is the Ensemble's fine follow-up to its 2008 self-titled debut, which not only brought the band deserved recognition but also inaugurated the New Amsterdam label itself. The group is also different from most in not only listing instrumentalists as members—specifically Alex Sopp (flute), Sara Budde (clarinet), Mark Dancigers (electric guitar), Logan Coale (double bass), and Michael Mizrahi (piano)—but in citing composers Judd Greenstein and Patrick Burke as Ensemble members too. Like kindred spirits such as The Bang On A Can All-Stars, Build, and Icebreaker, the Now Ensemble expands upon the classical tradition by stepping outside the established canon and invigorating it with through-composed works by modern-day composers. It's the kind of outfit that's just as comfortable performing at Merkin Hall as Le Poisson Rouge and as adept at bringing a work by someone like Louis Andriessen into its orbit as one by a group member.
Sopp's flute playing leads the charge in Greenstein's “Change,” with the flute's melodic figures drawing the other instruments along in its wake and the piece's sunny disposition and light-footed rhythms calling to mind the equally vibrant colour of a prototypical Michael Torke composition. As occurs throughout the album, the five instrumentalists interact with an athletic grace that suggests a well-honed familiarity with and sensitivity to each other's playing. There's an episode where the clarinet and flute blend so completely during David Crowell's “Waiting in the Rain for Snow,” for example, that the two register as a single voice, an effect that makes their eventual separation all the more noticeable. Though the mood darkens considerably for Sean Friar's “Velvet Hammer,” which is brazenly dissonant and hard-edged compared to the opener, the clouds again part for Missy Mazzoli's “Magic With Everyday Objects,” which unfolds with magisterial wonder despite underlying currents of tension. Sopp's flute exudes a Debussy-esque quality during Dancigers' “Burst,” which otherwise impresses for its graceful coupling of subtle African-styled guitar playing and classical counterpoint.
Throught the recording, the players' voices coalesce into a brillant, sometimes charging mass, with Budde's swooping clarinet and Sopp's bright flute offset by the jagged accents of Dancigers' guitar and the dense clusters of Mizrahi's piano, and the album's material is constantly engrossing, regardless of whether it's pensive (“Awake”) or aggressive (“Velvet Hammer”). The players also keep their ears wide open and their music receptive to both Western and non-Western traditions, with African (“Burst”) and Javanese gamelan (Burke's “Awake”) influences seeping into the pieces. By the time the recording reaches its conclusion, the uninformed listener could be forgiven for thinking that the six tracks were all created by the same composer. But that's not meant to suggest that the composers lack individual voices so much as it stresses how unified an impression the Now Ensemble brings to its renderings of those creators' pieces.