Seven Compositions (Here Playful, There Serious): Beautiful Mechanical by the classical group yMusic

By Daniel Garrett

yMusic, Beautiful Mechanical
Engineered and mixed by Dan Bora
Produced by Ben Russell with group
New Amsterdam Records, 2011

I was not expecting a zig-zag, horn-whistle rhythm suggesting wild energy, but that is what I heard when I began to listen to the composition titled “Beautiful Mechanical,” from which the intriguing seven-composition collection by yMusic, a new classical group, takes its name.  The seven compositions on Beautiful Mechanical are by Son Lux, Annie Clark, Shara Worden, Sarah Kirkland Snider, Judd Greenstein, and Gabriel Kahane (Worden is associated with My Brightest Diamond, and Clark with St. Vincent); and the musical pieces are performed by yMusic, a classical group made up of clarinetist Hideaki Aomori, trumpeter C.J. Camerieri, cellist Clarice Jensen, violinist Rob Moose, viola-player Nadia Sirota, and flutist Alex Sopp.  Thus far, in their careers the young musicians have been presented in classical and popular settings, an important aspect of their liberal aesthetic sensibility.  The group’s members have worked with David Byrne, Peter Gabriel, Grizzly Bear, Yo-Yo Ma, Ryuichi Sakamoto, and Sufjan Stevens.

On Beautiful Mechanical, the title song has a nearly comic frantic energy, something the strings both soften and deepen, before going off on their own quick currency against a droning beat.  The piece is actually hard to grasp, to think about, as it contains much frequently fast textured movement.  “Proven Badlands,” featuring cello and horn, is slow, sonorous, and has a cinematic quality, especially in the rise of the horns in repeated phrases.  The high, mellow but still sharp, soaring trumpet playing, and a three-beat rhythm, and a scraping against strings, distinguish it.  There is an eruption into near-cacophonous volume, then sudden silence evolving into somewhat muted exploration.  I began to wonder, Is rhythm used to unsettle, and melody to soothe?  Something like a voice, something singing in the instrumentation, emerges in “A Whistle, A Tune, A Macaroon.”  There is an oriental accent in “A Whistle, A Tune, A Macaroon,” derived primarily from the flute, but also a result of the piece’s sparse arrangement.  Its melody lines rise like curling smoke, and its rhythms ring with echo.  A strumming tension from the somber cello and strings is fulfilled by a harsh tumult in the admirable “Daughter of the Waves,” which—yet—ends lightly.  I thought “Daughter of the Waves” full of events, which could be waves of sound miming waves of water; but I wondered if they existed for aesthetic purpose or to stave off boredom.  The piece could be mellow and reassuring, but it sounds modern and is not mellow and reassuring; and I began to wonder if it was using a musical language to signify modernism, rather than to articulate an experience.  The percussion in “A Paper, A Pen, A Note to a Friend” is almost tribal.  I suppose it’s dull-witted to describe its music as cinematic if all I mean is that it reminds me of music I might have heard in a film, but there is also the sense of movement taking place in social space, something vivid enough to become vision.  “Clearing, Dawn, Dance” is a longish, strong piece, here playful, there serious, almost martial, culminating in a sound of triumph, and “Song” is quite quiet.

The music on Beautiful Mechanical is a wonder for more than one reason.  What is the ambition behind this music, when it has become very difficult to live as a musician?  Music may be, like so much else, its own reason for being.

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, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wax Poetics, and World Literature Today.  Daniel Garrett has written extensively about international film for Offscreen, and comprehensive commentary on music for The Compulsive Reader.  He has an internet log, “The Art Notes of a Solitary Walker,” focused on visual art.  He has written a novel, A Stranger on Earth.