Be, Hear, Now: yMusic brought its contemporary classical and crossover collaborations to Rackham


yMusic by Graham Tolbert

Photo by Graham Tolbert.

If you aren’t paying attention at the beginning of Andrew Norman’s “Music in Circles” you might miss it. The first note is just so quiet, an almost imperceptible harmonic whispered high in the viola, the kind of airy, insubstantial noise you have to strain to hear.

But once you hear it you’re hooked.

That first lonely pitch is like a slow intake of breath, interrupted after a moment by a stuttering spiccato exhalation that foreshadows the energy that is to come. Slowly the viola is joined by other strings, and patiently the music unfolds and intensifies until, some two and a half minutes in the viola takes off with an up-tempo rhythmic pulse produced by bouncing the bow vertically off the strings, generating a sound that is a blend between being pitched and being a percussive noise.

From here the music grows in volume and intensity as the cello and trumpet play yearning arpeggiated lines, the bass clarinet pitches in with a fluttering falling figure, the violin scratches wildly and the flute shoots jets of air. It’s thrilling. And then it winds down again, just as patiently as the music of the opening developed.

Eventually, the piece closes out with soft, slowly moving echoes of the previous material, pared down until it’s only the viola, again, playing alone, with that same airy harmonic it began with.

“Music in Circles” has always been one of yMusic’s more popular pieces, at least on the classical music side of things, so it’s no wonder that the group chose to program it on last Friday’s performance at Rackham Auditorium.

One of the leading contemporary music ensembles in the country, the sextet was founded just over a decade ago in New York City. Comprised of the unusual instrumentation of violin, viola, cello, flute, clarinet, and trumpet, since its beginnings the ensemble has rocketed to the forefront of the contemporary classical music world, and has won ever greater renown through numerous cross-genre collaborations with big-name artists like Paul Simon, Regina Spektor, and Sufjan Stevens. 

Performing at Rackham as part of UMS’s Chamber Arts series, however, the group mostly stuck to contemporary classical repertoire.

In addition to Andrew Norman’s “Music in Circles,” during the first half the audience got a taste of music by Gabriella Smith, Missy Mazzoli, Shara Nova (from the band My Brightest Diamond), Sufjan Stevens, Caroline Shaw, and yMusic itself. Many of these pieces were written specifically for yMusic, one of the exciting byproducts of having such unique instrumentation. All of these were played with the skill and sensitivity one has come to expect from musicians of yMusic’s caliber, but Gabriella Smith’s “Tessellations” and Missy Mazzoli’s “Ecstatic Science” stick out as the most interesting musically. 

Smith -- an up-and-coming young composer working on her doctorate at Princeton -- wrote “Tessellations” for yMusic last year, and with its percussive use of the cello and interlacing lines in the other instruments, the piece served as an excellent opener for the concert.

Mazzoli’s piece, also written for yMusic, is a couple of years older and makes captivating use of contrasts between stillness and movement. Throughout the opening of the piece the strings sustain long chords like an accordion, blurring between colors with glissandi, the winds interject sporadically with fluttering gestures. Gradually this gives way to more active material, with quick lines and arpeggiated figures in the strings, before working its way back down to the character of the beginning.

It was after intermission, though, that one of the main draws of the night occurred, a world premiere of a new piece by Andrew Norman, “Difference.” 

“I’ve collaborated with yMusic a few times before,” Norman said in a phone interview last week. “We've had kind of a long relationship now, going back, I think, six or seven years. And they asked me for a big piece a few years ago now, and we’ve just been looking for the right time and place to get it going.”

That time and place ended up being over the last half-year or so, and Friday’s performance was the first time the piece has ever been played in public. Whereas most of the music written for the ensemble tends to run in the 5-10 minute range, Norman’s new work clocks in at around 25 or so.

“I actually thought it would be cool to see if I could write a continuous movement for them, like a really big single musical span that was not broken up into movements, just to see if I could stretch the palate, and stretch the kind of architectural thinking onto a bigger canvas,” Norman said. This was motivated, in part, by Norman’s idea for the musical form of the piece, in which one idea would morphe seamlessly into another like an illustration of M.C. Escher’s. 

“Another idea comes from thinking about their instrumentation, which is a little bit odd, and thinking about issues of sameness and difference,” Norman continued. “What I decided early on was that I wanted to not think about instrumentation as I normally think about it, in terms of how to orchestrate a piece of music, but really think about the material that was absolutely equally spread between all six instruments, things that all six of them could do … they behave in the same way, with the same material. … [S]o, for me, that was about looking at what makes those instruments different by actually giving them the same things to do.” 

In the concert, this manifested as a piece that felt obsessive and well-planned. Starting on the same pitch but in different rhythms, each of the instruments gradually worked their way outward in register, punctuated by periodic, rhythmically unison swells. Gradually this gave way to several other types of musical material, the most striking of which had a way of weaving together in a kind of vibrating, pulsating texture produced by rapid repetition of pitches, one which was reminiscent of moments in another recent composition of Norman’s, “Sustain,” which was written for the L.A. Philharmonic and was a finalist for this year’s Pulitzer Prize. 

When the Norman finished, the audience clapped the ensemble off the stage and then clapped them back on again for an encore. Sitting down for the last piece of the night, the ensemble elected to play a short version of Sufjan Stevens’s “Year of the Dog,” arranged by yMusic violinist Rob Moose. It was a good choice, and more than a few audience members left Rackham humming the infectiously catchy tune. 

Dayton Hare is the former managing editor at The Michigan Daily and is working on his BM in music composition and BA in honors English.