The popularity of the “small ensemble” is quickly becoming one of the most exciting and progressive developments in art music today. With ensembles like Victoire (who released their debut LP last year), Osso (who recorded Sufjan Stevens’ Run Rabbit Run project), and now yMusic, the lines between terms like “ensemble,” “band,” “classical,” and “pop,” are being crossed like they don’t even exist. These young, classically-trained dropouts have all the prestige and virtuosity of classical music degrees with all the attitude and energy of an indie rock band, and yMusic is no different. Having collaborated on stage with acts like St. Vincent and Bon Iver, the ensemble is already well-versed on what it takes to function in the overlapping worlds of pop and classical.
As far as instrumentation goes, yMusic is a sextet made up of a string trio, a trumpet, a flute, and a clarinet. While that might not strike many as being necessarily groundbreaking, the unique ensemble gives yMusic a great amount of flexibility that definitely lends to the success of Beautiful Mechanical, their debut album. These guys can sound as pleasant as a cuddly pop song at times and then without a flinch guide you into swirls of tumultuous avant-garde. That is both in compliment to the ensemble’s committed musicianship and to the composers/musicians who wrote tracks on Beautiful Mechanical.
The album starts off with the title track, which is written by electronic musician Son Lux. The artist’s background in electronica shows through in the track, which is a bubbling piece of post-minimalism that chugs along in frantic rhythms and relentless repetition. The piece’s sound feels akin to the way the composers on Run Rabbit Run interpreted Sufjan Stevens’ album of electronic bleeps and bloops: screeching violins, pulsating rhythms, and an unbridled use of extended techniques.
Although yMusic certainly worked closely with the various composers involved with the album, the fact that yMusic does not write their own music obviously puts the album at a disadvantage. Because of this, Beautiful Mechanical doesn’t have the kind of undeniable character of albums like Victoire’s 2010 album, Cathedral City. While all the tracks certainly exist in a specific musical framework, Beautiful Mechanical probably won’t leave you with the strong impression that yMusic probably hoped it would. However, while this is certainly a weakness of the album, it also allows for some great contributions from some of all of our favorite indie musicians.
One of the strongest moments of the album is the track “Proven Badlands,” which was written by Annie Clark of St. Vincent fame. What’s great about “Proven Badlands” is that it sounds unmistakably like St. Vincent in its harmonic language and melodic structuring. The heavy repetition in the syncopated trumpet hits sound remarkably familiar to songs off St. Vincent’s most recent album, Strange Mercy, maintaining that same bizarre tension between being beautifully sweet and aggressively harsh that runs through so much of Annie Clark’s music.
I really enjoyed some of the chances yMusic boldly took, and many of the them really paid off artistically. One good example is on the final track on the album, “Song,” which features a haunting duo between a tremolo electric guitar and a lone trumpet. However, I was a little less impressed by some of the more cliched “risks” the album took. In particular, Shara Worden’s two short contributions don’t quite stand up to the fine-tuned quality of the rest of the album, unfortunately. “A Whistle, A Tune, A Macaroon” features flutter-tonguing that feels just as needlessly gimmicky as its title, while the bongo drum in “A Paper, A Pen, A Note To A Friend” feels equally out of place.
The centerpiece of the album, “Clearing, Dawn, Dance,” is where yMusic really soars though. The prolific Brooklyn-based composer Judd Greenstein really gives yMusic something to shine with. The 10-minute piece takes the ensemble in a number of directions, but yMusic always seems to one step ahead of the pages and pages of notes that fly by. Greenstein’s contribution is pristine and beautifully pastoral in the same ways that a lot of American classical music has always been. Filling the gap between Aaron Copland and Steve Reich, Greenstein paints huge strokes of color across landscapes and sweeping backdrops and manages to be just accessible enough to effortlessly take the listener along for the ride.
Upon hearing the album, many will wonder at what kind of target market yMusic is after. But that’s also what makes the ensemble so good. The members of yMusic aren’t concerned with labels and demographics, just with producing music that moves them. Will yMusic make classical music relevant again? Probably not. Even still, yMusic’s debut album features the kind of indie pop name-dropping to get new folks interested, while still holding on to the substantial chops that will attract classical music nerds and probably get them featured on NPR’s “Classical” page.