ALBUM REVIEW: Marc Mellits’ ‘Smoke’ ft. New Music Detroit

by Gabriela Tedeschi

“Moderately funky” is not usually a tempo marking you see on a classical music score—unless it’s the music of Marc Mellits.

Mellits has a gift for animating his chamber music with funky grooves and driving beats. Sometimes called a miniaturist, he frequently uses small, contrasting sections to create one large, dynamic work with a rich emotional palette.

In his newest album, Smoke, all of this works together to create lively and diverse additions to the classical genre. Featuring the adventurous ensemble New Music Detroit, the album unfolds across 23 tracks, most just short movements of one to three minutes each. As a collection of diverse musical snippets, Smoke creates the effect of meandering through a city of street performers and finding yourself captivated by the wide range of musical worlds.

Encompassing eight short movements, the title piece is scored for saxophone, guitar, marimba, and percussion. Smoke explores the timbral possibilities of the ensemble as it traverses through wide-ranging genre influences: funky saxophone grooves, distorted electric guitar, circling marimba motives that create a soundscape ambience. This makes for a piece that is dramatic, complex, at times jarring, but always accessible.

The same could be said for Red, a six-movement piece for two marimbas. The intricate interlocking patterns—impressively complex for just two players—create a colorful array of harmonies and textures. While it’s no surprise that the bright, gentle timbre of the marimba lends itself well to a peaceful aura, Mellits also manages to generate suspense and mystery with dark harmonies and driving rhythms.

New Music Detroit.

Mellits’ String Quartet No. 3 is subtitled Tapas and, like Spanish appetizers, each of its eight movements offers a quick burst of distinct flavor. Though this piece harkens back to traditional classical influences more so than the rest of the album, Tapas also finds ways to subvert expectations. Starting with simple motifs, it rearranges and layers these patterns to create intriguing composite rhythms and lush harmonies. The quartet introduces different bowing and plucking techniques over time to create unusual timbres, adding to the rich texture. Like the rest of the album, Tapas is highly emotional, but difficult to interpret: as it alternates between dark and hopeful themes, distinctions begin to blur, yielding a powerful and bittersweet combination.

Prime—scored for bass clarinet, baritone saxophone, two percussionists, and piano—unfolds in one long movement that traverses through wildly different sound worlds. Percussion and baritone saxophone take the lead in the beginning with a suspenseful, funk-influenced theme, but the piece transitions on a dime into a soft, slow, and melancholy piano interlude. Mellits bounces back and forth between the disparate musical styles but eventually, the ideas begin to integrate; the sultry sax and clarinet mingle with the delicate, gloomy piano and percussion theme to create a beautifully unorthodox mix of moods and timbres.

Smoke is a fascinating experiment in construction and integration, piecing together works with short, contrasting movements and diverse musical influences. Yet each unique flavor unites to create a delectable whole: the complete and complex palette of Marc Mellits.

ALBUM REVIEW: Eleonore Oppenheim’s Home

by Maggie Molloy

In classical music, the double bass is one of those instruments you never really hear much about. In fact, you rarely even hear it very much at all—usually the bass is pushed to the back corner of the stage, largely reduced to providing rhythmic support, textural depth, and a lower pitch range for the rest of a larger ensemble.

But not anymore.

Eleonore Oppenheim

Bassist Eleonore Oppenheim recently released her debut solo album Home: a collection of five contemporary works which explore the vast and varied possibilities of the double bass as a modern solo instrument. To bring the vision to life, she enlisted the talents of five fearlessly innovative and experimental composers.

“We as bassists have a conundrum,” Oppenheim said. “As our technique evolves, and as we explore the ever-expanding possibilities of our instrument as a voice that can stand on its own, we need music to play that will grow and evolve with us. I am fortunate enough to have a number of talented and adventurous composer friends who all have an interest in pushing the limits not just of the instrument, but of preconceived ideas of genre and form.”

Among those friends are the likes of Angélica Negrón, Florent Ghys, Wil Smith, Jenny Olivia Johnson, and Lorna Dune—each of whom contributed a composition for the album.

Home

The album begins with composer Angélica Negrón’s contribution, “La Isla Mágica.” Brimming with whimsy and wistful nostalgia, the piece combines punchy, video game-worthy electronics with bowed bass, percussion, and even some ambient vocals. At times it almost sounds as though Oppenheim and her bass are in the middle of a theme park, playing among the neon signs, the colorful carnival games, and the translucent
stars above.

Florent Ghys’ “Crocodile” takes a decidedly more avant-garde turn: double the double basses. Composed for live bass, prerecorded bass, and audio samples, the piece layers two independent bass lines above excerpts from the 1996 French documentary La fabrique de l’homme occidental (The Fashioning of Western Man) by filmmaker Gérard Caillat and psychoanalyst Pierre Legendre. Broad bow strokes set the scene before shifting to funky pizzicato syncopations which showcase both Oppenheim’s technical skill as well as her musical finesse.

Percussion takes on a new meaning, though, in Wil Smith’s “Heavy Beating.” The piece features Oppenheim literally beating her bass in a series of dramatically percussive blows both on the wood and the strings. Glitchy electronics trickle in as she begins to bow, digging deep into the strings as her bass howls and growls in response.

The album’s title track, composed by Jenny Olivia Johnson, is a bit more patient in its intensity. Oppenheim slowly saws away at her lowest strings, each note buzzing, ringing, and echoing in the surrounding silence as the piece builds toward the shrill reaches of the instrument’s higher range, climaxing in a swirl of agitated bowings and electronics.

The album comes to a close with electropop remix of “Home” by composer Lorna Dune. Synthesized melodies and hypnotic drum machines dance above a slow and solemn bass line as the album slowly fades into silence.

And at just under 40 minutes, the album is over too soon—yet the musical terrain traversed over the course of just five pieces is astounding. Oppenheim drifts seemingly effortlessly from classical to noise rock, jazz to synth pop, and even toward the outer reaches of the avant-garde. In doing so, Oppenheim and her team of composers prove that 21st century bass is in very good hands indeed—and when it comes to center stage, the bass is right at Home.

Eleonore Oppenheim Photo