“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.
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.