ALBUM REVIEW: Thrive on Routine by American Contemporary Music Ensemble (ACME)

by Maggie Molloy

Photo credit: Ryuhei Shindo

We all have our morning routines. Some of us like to go for a brisk morning walk, read the newspaper, flip through the daily comics, or have a leisurely cup of coffee. Some of us like to hit the snooze button six or seven times, roll out of bed, rub the sleep from our eyes, and scramble to work. American modernist Charles Ives liked to wake up at 4 or 5 in the morning, garden in his potato patch, and play through some of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. (How’s that for a little early morning exercise?)

Ives’ idiosyncratic early morning regimen was the inspiration behind composer-pianist Timo Andres’s Thrive on Routine, the title track of a new album by the American Contemporary Music Ensemble (ACME). A flexible music collective comprised of over 20 musicians (Andres among them), ACME is an ensemble known for championing masterworks of the 20th and 21st centuries. Their newest album is no exception: Andres finds himself in good company amongst works by John Luther Adams and fellow ACME members Caroline Shaw and Caleb Burhans.

Andres’ “Thrive on Routine” was, in fact, first commissioned and premiered by the ACME string quartet in 2009. Structured in four short, continuous movements, the piece offers abstract imitations of Ives’ Bach-and-potatoes routine, evoking a rustic alarm jingle, the pastoral drone of the potato patch, and a folk-infused passacaglia. The earthy, textured landscapes come to life under the fingers of violinists Yuki Numata Resnick and Ben Russell, violist Caleb Burhans, and cellist Clarice Jensen.

That same group gives voice to Caleb Burhans’ composition “Jahrzeit,” a requiem for his late father. In Judaism, the jahrzeit is a time of remembering the dead by reciting the Kaddish, lighting a 24-hour candle, and remembering the person who has died. In Burhans’ piece, the strings flicker and glow like a quiet flame, the colors blending and separating in a warm and pensive haze.

The work is followed by two similarly introspective compositions by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Caroline Shaw. The first is her solo cello suite “in manus tuas,” inspired by a 16th-century motet by Thomas Tallis and performed by ACME Artistic Director Clarice Jensen. Shaw’s composition makes the cello sing, its strings echoing like sacred choral music against a serenely silent cathedral.

Shaw’s second work, the achingly gorgeous “Gustave le Gray” for solo piano, features Timo Andres as the performer. Inspired by Chopin’s Op. 17 A Minor Mazurka, Shaw maintains the poignant, long-breathed melodies but forgoes the trademark Chopin ornamentations. The resulting music plays like an improvisation on Chopin, transforming phrases of the original mazurka as it blossoms ever outward into new chromatic melodies and characters.

The album closes with John Luther Adams’ breathtakingly beautiful “In a Treeless Place, Only Snow,” featuring the ACME string quartet along with Andres on piano, Peter Dugan on celesta, and Chris Thompson and Chihiro Shibayama on vibraphones. Atmospheric melodies, delicately detailed textures, and enchanting celesta embellishments bring this immersive sonic landscape to life, evoking the extraordinary vastness of the natural world and the overwhelming sense of awe that comes with simply being in its presence.

Because whether it’s a potato patch or a snowy mountainside, there’s beautiful music to be found all around us—sometimes we just need to step out of our routine.


STAFF PICKS: Friday Faves

Second Inversion hosts share a favorite selection from their playlist. Tune in on Friday, March 3 to hear these pieces and lots of other great new and unusual music from all corners of the classical genre!
Nico Muhly: Beaming Music (Bedroom Community)

Marimba and organ are not your average keyboard duo, but it works so well I could cry. Thank you, Nico, for doing this. and what’s in a name? “The title refers not only to the various metric subdivisions of the main material, but also to Chris Thompson, the percussionist who commissioned it, whose his sunny disposition colored each stage of this piece’s conception, rehearsal, and performance.” If that doesn’t make you smile, I don’t know what will. – Maggie Stapleton

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 12pm hour today to hear this piece.

Nico Muhly: Fast Cycles (Bedroom Community)

When I was in college, organ music (specifically that of J.S. Bach) was one thing I used as a study aid. The continuous tone of the organ and the steady harmonic and rhythmic movement of Bach’s compositions kept me focused. Now, I’d like to present a piece of organ music that might be less relevant as a study aid, but that is vastly more useful as a source of inspiration. Nico Muhly’s Fast Cycles brims with inventive uses of the organ. While this piece might not literally be “pulling out all the stops,” it certainly delivers on excitement and beautifully novel sounds from an instrument that is too often forgotten. – Seth Tompkins

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 5pm hour today to hear this piece.

Alejandro Bento: “Heartbeat” from Ripples (Subtempo Records)

In such troubling times as these, there’s nothing quite like an introspective solo piano piece to help you find your center. Alejandro Bento’s “Heartbeat” is one of three such works on his EP Ripples, a simple and stunning collection which traces a wide emotional arc through modest musical means.

Bento’s fingers float above the piano in soft washes of sound, each melody shaped with striking intimacy and refreshing sincerity. The piece ebbs and flows organically up and down the piano keyboard, gently persuading you into a soothing musical meditation and—if you listen closely—quietly connecting you to the beat of your heart. – Maggie Molloy

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 8pm hour today to hear this piece.

Nico Muhly: Honest Music (Harmonia Mundi)

I’m fascinated by this piece by Nico Muhly, scored for violin and pre-recorded sound. (I guess we used to say “violin and tape” for works like this, but it’s never a tape nowadays, is it? The performer(s) play with a CD or sound from digital download.) It’s interesting how the layers of pre-recorded harp, percussion, and electronic organ don’t really seem to interact with the solo violin part (which layers over itself, and is thus played by two violinists in this performance), at least not explicitly. The elements stacked on top of each other just seem to exist, and all have distinct purpose of their own, like people living above and below each other in an apartment building. The title seems to stem from the earnest, forthcoming character of this music. Honesty, even in wordless musical form, feels so refreshing.

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 9pm hour today to hear this piece.