Chamber Music of Memory and Mischief: Now Ensemble, Awake

By Daniel Garrett

Now Ensemble, Awake
Produced by Judd Greenstein and Jesse Lewis
New Amsterdam Records, 2011

I hear a piano, flute, guitar, and bass in “Change,” a recording by the Now Ensemble, and it is a relief to be able to easily identify the instrumentation.  The rhythms and tones of “Change” are immediately engaging, and they—light, short rhythms—have a playful musicality, even when they become more melodious and intricate.  The musicians in the Now Ensemble are clarinetist Sara Budde, double-bassist Logan Coale, guitarist Mark Dancigers, pianist Michael Mizrahi, and flutist Alex Sopp.  The collection Awake by the Now Ensemble is the presentation of music that is not easily found, music that must be searched for: here are Judd Greenstein’s composition “Change,” Sean Friar’s “Velvet Hammer,” Missy Mazzoli’s “Magic with Everyday Objects,” Mark Dancigers’ “Burst,” David Crowell’s “Waiting in the Rain for Snow,” and Patrick Burke’s “Awake.”  It is music composed in the European and American classical tradition with the knowledge and experience of modern life and contemporary rhythms.

The Now Ensemble’s performance of “Change” seems both cheery and disciplined, though without the frequently severe rigor expected of music that is intended to be taken seriously.  The influences in it—whether classical or contemporary—have been absorbed and blended.  “Velvet Hammer” is austere, with a contrast of sounds, including sharp pitches and guitar distortion.  It seems a fusion of classical music and rock, and possibly, distantly, jazz.  Even with its tumult, it seems demanding, experimental—and classical: one hears the control of instrumentation and effect, the designed and extended patterns.  What sounds like a melancholy cello in the rather long “Magic with Everyday Objects” is oddly comforting, along with a melodious but forceful piano.  Apart from the piano, bass, and wind instruments in “Magic with Everyday Objects,” one discerns a rumbling guitar sound; and there is an apex of noise that makes one think, inevitably, of machinery.  The Now Ensemble—Alex Sopp, Sara Budde, Mark Dancigers, Logan Coale, and Michael Mizrahi—are playing music and also playing with our expectations.  After a pleasantly quiet beginning, a strong rhythm emerges in “Burst,” and I thought I heard, faintly, the blues in it (its inspirations are Mozart and Ali Farka Toure); it is a merry score for memory and mischief—one can dance to it, or enter a reverie.  “Waiting in the Rain for Snow” is very melodic, with flourishes, seeming to contain fewer internal contrasts than some of the other pieces, suggesting a singular purpose, wholeness; and “Awake” is first somber—quiet, thoughtful, even warm—then sprightly, the tempo and volume rising dramatically for the conclusion, and it is recognizably in the classical tradition.

Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House, is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black Film Review, Changing Men, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Offscreen, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wax Poetics, and World Literature Today.  Garrett has said, “Being an artist is not a pursuit of success or an acceptance of failure; rather, it is an openness to life and its deepest possibilities, an openness to imagination, intellect, and spirit, and a correspondent commitment to craft experience and objects influenced by that openness.”  Contact: dgarrett31@hotmail or