After Many Fiascos, Rock Gets a Handle on Classical Music

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After Many Fiascos, Rock Gets a Handle on Classical Music

One of the highlights of this year’s South by Southwest Music Conference was Austin’s hometown classical-pop ensemble Mother Falcon. Crowding onto the small stage at the Hideout, these 13 classically trained youngsters proved they could be as edgy and as riveting as any of the much louder rock bands blaring forth along Sixth Street. They did so by harnessing the strong melodies and pushy rhythms of their competitors to the kind of mind-boggling shifts from theme to theme and harmony to harmony that only classical musicians can pull off.

The four strings, four horns, two guitars, bass, drums and keys alternated between instrumentals and vocal numbers. Only occasionally did they all play at once; more often various subsets of the group would be showcased. At one point the two cellists were playing a throbbing ostinato against a surf guitar; at another point a breathy female vocal from the acoustic guitarist was slowly overtaken by a storm of horns and strings. A stabbing, pizzicato rhythm from the four strings was picked up by the upright bass, drums and horns and built into a rumbling train rhythm, only to be eased to a stop by the wordless, cooing “ooh”s from the cellists.

It was a wonderful evening of music, for these twentysomething musicians had all the lush tone and precision intonation of their classical training but also the resolve to flout decorum and push boundaries. They understand the power of pop music’s muscular, repeating rhythms and catchy, memorable tunes and have found a way to integrate them into ambitious, art-music compositions.

As such, Mother Falcon is part of a new wave of classically trained musicians employing rock vocabulary with thrilling results. Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, The National’s Bryce Dessner, San Fermin and Mother Falcon aren’t art-music stars trying to cross over; these are young musicians who, on the brink of their careers, diverted their fledgling classical skills into a genre that might actually reach their own generation: modern rock.

Three factors have enabled their efforts to succeed where so many previous stabs at a classical/rock fusion have flopped. One, these newcomers have a genuine knowledge and respect for both classical music and rock. They’re not classical conductors who sneer at the material as they arrange rock songs for a symphonic pops concert. They’re not status-hungry rockers just adding Beethoven quotations from BBC Radio 3 to add some “class” to their bar-band music. Nor are they adding Hollywood-style strings to pump up the grandiosity of their ballads. Both art music and pop music are part of their unconscious vocabularies, so they compose with both.

Two, these young players know that classical music didn’t stop with Giacomo Puccini (a fact that many symphony audiences still haven’t grasped). They are conversant with 20th century and even 21st century art music, which blend more easily with modern rock than music from the prior centuries. And, three, these musicians don’t dabble in the cerebral puzzles of so much contemporary art music; they aim their skills at the same emotional impact that rock ‘n’ roll has always targeted.

Mother Falcon grew out of Nick Gregg’s desire to hang onto his chosen instrument, the cello, and all the classical technique that went along with it while also writing new songs in the same vein as so many rock and Americana musicians in his hometown of Austin. Today that connection with Austin’s fertile Americana scene is further highlighted by Mother Falcon cellist Diana Burgess’ ongoing duo with singer/songwriter Curtis McMurtry (son of James, grandson of Larry).

Gregg was still in high school in 2008 when he gathered some like-minded string players his own age to create collaborative arrangements and compositions. The concept was so attractive to a generation of classically trained, rock-loving teenagers, that the string players were soon joined by accordion, trumpet, tenor sax, bouzouki, pedal steel guitar, drums and more. Before long, Mother Falcon became a large pool of young Austin musicians, with anywhere from 10 to 20 participating in any given live show or recording.

The group held together through high school and college graduations to release its third full-length studio album, Good Luck Have Fun, last year. The record divides neatly into two parts: five vocal numbers that blend elliptical indie-rock lyrics with pulsing contemporary art music, followed by seven instrumental selections from the score for a forthcoming film documentary about competitive gaming.

“Kid,” the first single, features mandolinist Claire Puckett whispering enchantingly about dangerous and cruel adolescent escapades in Texas’ limestone riverbeds, her dreamy soprano countered by spiky string figures that keep mutating into new themes. Even better is accordionist Tamir Kalifa’s keening tenor on the coming-of-age ballad, “Quiet Mind,” backed by music that breaks loose from the verse-chorus-bridge pop format to leap from theme to theme as rapidly as a recent college graduate might change personalities.

San Fermin was the highlight at last year’s South by Southwest Music Conference. The group could easily have been mistaken for just another indie-rock band from Brooklyn. The set-up was a little odd—trumpet, tenor sax, fiddle, lead male singer, lead female singer and rock rhythm section—but the thumping pulse and heart-on-a-sleeve vocals were familiar.

If you were one of the few still sober enough to listen closely, however, you could hear surprising twists: odd intervals in the vocal melodies, counterpointed instrumental lines, chord substitutions in the variations and turn-on-a-dime tempo shifts. The composer was obviously classically trained, but this guy wasn’t using the classical elements as gaudy baubles sewn onto a rock song like rhinestones on an old dress. He had woven his knowledge into the very heart of the song.

And unlike most rock bands, the composer was neither a lead singer nor a principal soloist. Ellis Ludwig-Leone did his best to fade into the background at Austin’s Central Presbyterian Church. With his short, brown hair, pointy nose, nerdy glasses and rolled-up sleeves, he stood behind his two electric keyboards and steered the band while his comrades occupied the spotlight.

San Fermin demonstrated the rewards of such an approach on their second album, Jackrabbit, released a year ago. Lead singers Charlene Kaye and Allen Tate often seemed to be singing from opposite sides of the same relationship, hinting at opera conventions without aping them. When they sang about love thwarted and love gratified, they ventured into territory where thousands of pop songs have preceded them, but Ludwig-Leone always gave them an unexpected note and/or an unexpected chord to make it seem as if the listener were hearing such confessions for the very first time.

On “Emily,” Tate tried to convince his object of affection that they should forget all their reservations and seize the “moment when it all feels right.” The strutting syncopation and R&B melody are convincing at first, but the more Tate sings of his desperate loneliness, trapped in his bedroom, the less convincing he seems—and the music becomes less single-minded, fracturing the confidence of both the rhythm and the harmony.

Kaye responded with “Ladies Mary,” confessing that she felt nothing for the man who idolized her. Ludwig-Leone had created a dreamy mood with the sweet female harmonies for Kaye and violinist Rebekah Durham, but then hollowed out the mood with disjointed drums, prickly violin pizzicato and sour chords. The romantic and anti-romantic tendencies pushed and pulled at each other with riveting dramatic tension. Another new song, “Reckoning,” began with Tate’s romantic disappointment, which grew more turbulent and finally erupted into a series of wild horn solos.

Like Ludwig-Leone, who once worked as noted composer Nico Muhly’s assistant, both Greenwood and Dessner have also received the stamp of approval from major figures in contemporary art music. Greenwood was recruited as a principal performer on Steve Reich’s 2014 album Radio Rewrite, and Dessner was commissioned to compose a whole album, 2013’s Aheym, for the Kronos Quartet. Dessner’s latest album, Music for Wood & Strings, features So Percussion.

For that disc, commissioned by Carnegie Hall, Dessner worked with instrument maker Aron Sanchez to create an eight-stringed, table-top, stringed instrument they’ve dubbed the “chordstick.” Dessner describes it as “a cross between a hammer dulcimer and an electric guitar” that can be played with “pencils, bows and mallets.” Each of the four members of So Percussion were given their own chordstick with a different range, supplemented by more traditional percussion to perform the album’s title composition.

The result is a 35-minute piece that simultaneously evokes Appalachian folk music, the pulse music of Reich and Philip Glass and the melancholy trance passages of Dessner’s rock band The National, while pulling never-heard-before sounds from a never-glimpsed-before instrument. Another Dessner composition, “Quilting,” was premiered last year by Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and he seems to be gaining a higher profile in the classical world than any rocker before him.

Taken together Mother Falcon, San Fermin, Dessner and Greenwood suggest that there is room in contemporary art music for rock’s rhythms, hooks and textures and in rock for new chords, new intervals and underused instruments. After so many misbegotten attempts at fusing classical music and rock, a new generation is finally getting it right.

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