Flexible Music for Flexible Listeners

Contemporary classical music has it rough. It’s taken for granted in the theatre world that new plays should be produced all the time. But in the classical world it’s pretty common that both musicians and fans who like their Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms won’t know much written after 1950 (to be generous), and won’t particularly want to. It’s as if the theater world decided that everything written after Shaw was crap. So when a group of talented and passionate young musicians commit to 21st century composers, it’s always cause for rejoicing, and such a group is Flexible Music, who made their official New York debut this Sunday at the Tenri Gallery on 13th Street.

Even Flexible Music’s unique configuration of piano, sax, guitar, and percussion says “now,” with its instrumentation referencing rock, jazz, and the avant-garde among other things. And given that there’s only one piece to my knowledge that has been written for this particular group of instruments (Louis Andriessen’s 1991 piece Hout) it’s intrinsic to Flexible Music’s existence that they’ll be commissioning composers to write brand new pieces for them. Everything on the Sunday night concert except Hout was written for Flexible Music and was receiving its world or New York premiere.

All the young composers featured Sunday evening are unabashedly involved with pop culture. Nico Muhly has collaborated with Bjork, Ryan Streber’s piece was informed by his background as a blues guitarist, and Adam Silverman’s piece threw down a conga beat you could dance to. It might’ve been this dual musical citizenship that lent all the pieces their immediacy and spontaneity, particularly Orianna Webb’s Sustenance Variations with its many mercurial leaps between violence and lyricism. I was also impressed by the way the performers and composers managed to blend these disparate instruments, creating novel musical colors–it’s not as if there’s some orchestration book out there advising how to write for this kind of group! The composers were very well served by Flexible Music, whose individual mastery of their instruments was matched by the strength of their communication. With intelligence and energy in equal measure, they worked wonders as a group, whether creating glowing resonant combinations, interlocking rhythmic lines, or just thrashing away together.

Andriessen’s Hout was the real tour de force of the evening. The piece is a really close canon–each of the four instruments are playing the same fast moving line, just one note apart. It’s really hard. But the better a group plays it, the less you really think about that. With Flexible Music, I was just digging the pops and stops and starts, the rhythmic brio, the rare moments where melody gives way to unisons or pulsating Steve Reich-like chords, and of course that overlapping canonic texture. It’s like a stop-action photo of a ball traveling through space where you simultaneously see all the parts of the ball’s journey; except that in this piece you hear it.

The concerts took place at the Tenri Gallery on 13th street which is a lovely space for music-listening; the performance corner is presently decorated with ragged and jagged masses of fabric suspended to the walls in such a way that they looked like birds-eye views of nasty craters. Tenri regularly has cheap or free music events which tend to range between New, traditional Japanese, and Classical–listings can be found at www.tenri.org.

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