If you’re looking for the latest in contemporary classical, it doesn’t get any more current than NOW Ensemble. The dynamic seven-member group is committed to pushing the boundaries of the classical chamber music tradition, often crossing into new genres and artistic media.
True to their name, NOW ensemble infuses traditional Western art music with contemporary music styles such as indie rock, jazz, pop, and minimalism—bringing classical music to new audiences in the here and now.
The foundation for their one-of-a-kind sound is their eclectic instrumentation: electric guitar, flute, clarinet, double bass, and piano. Currently in their 10th year as a group, the ensemble is comprised of artistic director and guitarist Mark Dancigers, flutist Alexandra Sopp, clarinetist Sara Budde, double bassist Logan Coale, pianist Michael Mizrahi, and composers Patrick Burke and Judd Greenstein.
So NOW, what’s the latest?
The ensemble just released their fourth full-length album, an eclectic new music mash-up titled “Dreamfall.” The expansive new release features works by seven remarkable composers of contemporary music: Scott Smallwood, Mark Dancigers, John Supko, Nathan Williamson, Sarah Kirkland Snider, Andrea Mazzariello, and Judd Greenstein.
“It is a state of immense freedom,” Dancigers said of the album’s title. “The sounds on this record reflect this freedom, this sense of something a little out of our hands, and, beyond all else, the practice of making music that is NOW Ensemble.”
Scott Smallwood’s “Still in Here” is the first piece on the album, and it begins with low, grumbling piano trill—in fact, the graphic score denotes a “slow, drunken piano trill” throughout. The piece is atmospheric and dark, even apocalyptic at times. It swells in dynamics, periodically highlighting the unique texture of each instrument above a blur of musical vibrations. Listen for the soft crinkling of a foil stove burner liner amidst the ambiance. (According to Smallwood, “the handi-foil type 302 liner is a good candidate” if you’re looking to perform this one at home.)
The title track, written by Dancigers, showcases a more expressive side of the ensemble. The three-movement work explores an eclectic collection of melodic fragments, similar to a dreamland—one moment here and the next somewhere completely different. “Dreamfall” showcases the ensemble’s full range of timbral and textural possibilities, capturing the ever-shifting moods and melodies that we experience once we finally let go and start dreaming.
Speaking of dreams, John Supko’s “Divine the Rest” is nothing short of a mesmerizing daze. It immerses the listener in an ambient electroacoustic soundscape, with calm narration whispering over sparse instrumentation. Each and every note gently rings over the surrounding static to create a slowly shifting musical landscape.
The listener is abruptly awoken from this trancelike state with an audacious piano slide introducing the next piece on the album, Nathan Williamson’s vivacious “Trans-Atlantic Flight of Fancy.” Harmonies sprawl across the keyboard with rhythmic verve, restlessly pushing forward beneath bold and brash woodwind melodies.
The ensemble again switches gears for Sarah Kirkland Snider’s “Pale as Centuries,” a musical collage which combines diverse, distinctive, and sometimes even mismatched melodic fragments into a single cohesive image.
Andrea Mazzariello’s “Trust Fall” has a somewhat more linear development, growing gradually in drama and expressivity, from its sparse and simple introduction to its climactic close. However, one thing remains a key focus throughout: lush, dolce melodies.
The album ends with Judd Greenstein’s “City Boy,” a colorful musical depiction of a free and fearless young boy, his eyes twinkling as he playfully explores the world around him. The piece moves rapidly from one melodic idea to the next, switching from a jazzy guitar groove to a circling piano motive to a flowing clarinet melody within a matter of minutes.
The piece serves as a reminder of the major themes present throughout NOW Ensemble’s musical ventures: experimentation, innovation, and above all, a genuine enthusiasm for pursing curiosity. NOW that’s what I call contemporary classical!
(NOW Ensemble’s November 2014 visit to our studios)