ALBUM REVIEW: yMusic’s ‘Ecstatic Science’

by Peter Tracy

yMusic’s Ecstatic Science is out now. Photo by Graham Tolbert.

Think about the last time you were in an airplane: the stale, recirculated air, the mediocre food, the seemingly endless wait until you finally arrive at your destination. For those whose day jobs find them crisscrossing the country and the world, it can be easy to take for granted the incredible processes that make a high speed trip through the clouds possible.

For yMusic, though, the thrill of flight hasn’t lost its sheen. In fact, the close-quarters excitement of being on tour and flying together provided the inspiration for the ensemble’s latest record Ecstatic Science. With commissions and collaborations from young and in-demand composers like Caroline Shaw, Missy Mazzoli, Paul Wiancko, and Gabriella Smith, Ecstatic Science sees yMusic and their collaborators getting energized about the fast-paced, almost magical side of modern science.

The theme of flying, which is one of yMusic’s favorite activities, influenced the whole album, including the airplane-themed cover art designed by yMusic’s own flutist, Alex Sopp. For Sopp, “being a person and seeing the tops of clouds is ecstatic science,” and it’s easy to see this sense of wonder and movement at work in the music.

The album begins with a piece titled Tessellations by the San Francisco-based composer Gabriella Smith, kicking things off right away with a grooving drum pattern tapped out on the body of the cello. The rest of the ensemble, including flute, clarinet, trumpet, viola, and violin, join in gradually with exclamations and driving rhythms, and the track even features some lyricless singing by one of the instrumentalists before swirling back around to the percussive rhythms where it began.

Next up is the title track by Missy Mazzoli, a fluttering dance of string chords and woodwind shimmers. Arpeggiated figures and pizzicato gestures in the strings stop and start, the trumpet finds its place here and there, soaring above the texture or providing punctuation marks, and instruments weave in and out with little solo statements of the piece’s twirling main motif. 

Following up this flowing exploration of yMusic’s instrumental palette is Caroline Shaw’s Draft of a High-Rise. The first movement, “Inked Frame,” sketches out a scene full of strings that pluck, stop, and start again, woodwinds that cycle and build upwards, and the occasional percussive strike of the bow, like a building being nailed into place. A driving, steadily building finish segues into the second movement, “A Scribbled Veneer,” with a more tense feeling featuring snapped plucks from the strings, chaotic arpeggios, and swirling runs that continually rise and fall. The movement finally builds into a faster groove, growing more agitated as instruments come in to comment in little scribbles of their own before losing steam for a more tranquil fade out into the final movement, “Their Stenciled Breath.”

True to its name, the final movement begins with a calm, plaintive, and breathy clarinet melody, which is joined and imitated by the rest of the ensemble for a texture like the fog over an early morning skyline. Plucky string figures enter, bringing with them enough momentum for a fast-paced, rollicking finish as the city seems to wake up to meet the day. 

Thousandths, by cellist and composer Paul Wiancko continues the album with an almost folky cello motif, string tremolos, and an off-kilter, jazzy feel. Warped slides, tremolos, and fast, flighty gestures litter the piece, and the trumpet shines in miniature fanfares above shifting, wobbly harmonies.

On the last track titled Maré, we return to the world of Gabriella Smith, where a static field of fluttering, scratchy harmonics and soft harmonies builds up into a warped groove. Aggressive, relentless string rhythms fade in and out amid syncopated gestures, like ambulance sirens sliding in pitch as they speed into the distance. Gradually the music becomes more frantic and off-balance, emerging into a fast-paced drive to the finish featuring steady string arpeggios and whistling winds and brass for a sound like a train speeding to a halt.

Whether flying through at a break-neck pace or soaring serenely over a bed of chords, the musicians of yMusic seem to be in sync with the energy of their collaborator’s musical styles, so much so that Ecstatic Science makes for an incredibly fun and cohesive listen. The many upbeat and driving pieces on the album show that all that time spent flying and touring together has cultivated not only a tight and precise ensemble, but an inspired one. For these six musicians, nothing inspires the magic of music quite like speeding through the air, high above the clouds. 

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