Because of their unorthodox lineup, up-and-coming New York chamber quartet Cadillac Moon Ensemble basically have two choices when choosing their repertoire: they can either reinvent older works, or commission new ones. On their debut album, Atlas, violinist Patti Kilroy, flutist Roberta Michel, cellist Michael Midlarsky and percussionist Sean Statser have chosen to do the latter. The result: an auspicious collection of new compositions by contemporary composers that combines the fun and wit of rock and film music with the intensity and challenging sonics that have come to define the best of the New York indie classical scene.
André Brégégère’s Enroute is the first piece, cleverly caching what are essentially three variations- one each for violin, cello and flute – within an intricate architecture with deft exchanges of voices and wryly noirish percussion flourishes that make full use of pretty much every strikable target in Statser’s arsenal. The piece de resistance here is Shawn Allison’s Towards the Flame, a menacing, often macabre four-part suite on the theme of moths – creatures which throughout history have been associated with the supernatural. Michel’s trickily rhythmic, dancing lines snake between Kilroy and Midlarsky’s intricate harmonies on a bracingly acidic, opening miniature titled Tun’tawu, the Cherokee name for a pale yelllow moth said to originate from and then return to the fire. Part two, Death’s Head – a Silence of the Lambs reference, maybe? – is a creepy masterpiece worthy of Bernard Herrmann, driven on the wings of shivery, buzzing, murderously insectile strings, jagged incisions against ominous drones, sudden agitations, scurrying drums, and finally a coda where something seems to get killed. Whether it’s the bug or something else isn’t clear.
The album’s title track, Atlas – inspired by the world’s biggest moth – employs the instruments in vividly imagistic reconnaissance, looking for landing spots, with unexpected dynamic shifts on the part of all the voices, all of this anchored by a matter-of-fact series of percussion accents ranging from a steady prowl early on, to a big marching crescendo lush with sustain from the cymbals and jarring overtones ringing from both of the strings. The final segment is Crysalis, a brief tone poem punctuated by the occasional gentle swoop or dive from the violin or cello.
Erich Stem’s Revisited is a sonatina based on devices used in shakuhachi music (tone bending, dynamics and shifts in timbre or rhythm rather than rather than in pitch). It’s got a Prelude, livened by Michel’s alternately subtle and jarring tonal variations over creepy music-box accents from the percussion and similarly flitting notes from the rest of the ensemble. The second part, San’An packs a suspenseful drone, apprehensive Gil Evan/Bernard Herrmann bongos, conspiratorially spiraling exchanges of motifs and Michel’s sepulchral Asian temple melody into just two minutes. Zangetsu – based on a famous Japanese poem lamenting the brevity of human existence – is surprisingly lively and funky, driven mostly by the cello. It’s also a showcase for Statser, a clinic in how to max out the quietest tones available to a percussionist.
The closing cut is Edward RosenBerg III’s Galactic Mouthematics, a roughly ten-minute mini-suite influenced by 1960s sci-fi movie themes. Yes, there’s a Richard Strauss allusion, but there’s also a whole lot more: a whispered poem bookending terse noirish dialogues and three-way conversations, more film noir bongos, and an apprehensive chromatic cello riff that undergoes several costume changes but never loses its visceral unease. As dark as this piece is, it’s also genuinely funny: the faux Beethoven of the outro might seem a little obvious, but it’s spot-on.
There are two other brief pieces here, which are…um…an acquired taste. The shorter one seems to sample a local television news theme: if the melody isn’t a direct quote, it comes pretty close. That seems to be a signature trait of the composer. Some people find such irrepressibly cheery motifs, herky-jerky rhythms and wilful use of vocals to be playful and fun; to more sophisticated listeners, they’ll come across as cloying and whimsical, ad nauseum. Cadillac Moon Ensemble play the album release show at the DiMenna Center, 450 W 37th St. at 7:30 PM on Sept 30. Cover is $10; for a bargain of $20, you get the show plus a copy of the cd.
The New York composer/performer collective Counter)Induction has an intriguing collection of new and relatively new chamber works, Group Theory, just out. The quintet of Steven Beck on piano, Miranda Cuckson on violin, Benjamin Fingland on clarinet, Sumire Kudo on cello and Jessica Meyer on viola tackle an ambitious and challenging series of works and pull them off with flair and conscientious attention to emotional content. The most unabashedly atonal of the lot is a piece by Salvatorre Sciarrino which is more of a study in textures and waves of shifting dynamics than melody. The real knockout here is Kyle Bartlett’s Bas Relief, a grimly resolute diptych unexpectedly juxtaposing twisted boogie woogie piano bass, icy upper register piano glimmers, apprehensively fluttering strings and a chilling crescendo anchored by an ominous bass clarinet drone. It’s avant noir in the best possible sense of those two words; as with many of the works here, the quintet’s somewhat unorthodox instrumentation enhances its plaintive edge.
Right up there with it is Douglas Boyce’s triptych Deixo Sonata. Spacious fugal tradeoffs between voices lead to a creepy dance of sorts that quickly descends to a furtive sway, rises to a crescendo with hints of ragtime and old-world Romanticism and then a neat false ending. Ryan Streber’s Partita, for solo cello utilizes a similar architecture, sostenuto forebearance versus insistent staccato, steady arpeggiated cadences punctuated by the occasional dramatic flourish or chordally-charged crescendo. Lee Hyla’s rather minimalist Ciao Manhattan is considerably less sad than the title might imply: pensive hints of the baroque and graceful, sustained layers of strings shift to a simple but affecting piano/violin duet that ends on a surprise note.
Eric Moe’s Dead Cat Bounce (Wall Street slang for a stock on the way down that’s recovered for just a second) follows a jauntily bittersweet trajectory, from a rondo to a sort-of-tango to a fullscale dance, the entire ensemble in and out of the melee, winding out on a puckishly ironic note. The longest work here, Erich Stem’s four-part suite Fleeting Thoughts juxtaposes a terse, balletesque pulse with icily moody piano-and-string interludes that eventually leads to a richly satisfying noir bustle on the way out. Frequently dark, challenging, compelling music utilizing an imaginative mix of devices and genres from across the decades to the present: watch this space for upcoming NYC concerts.