Sounds Heard: Flexible Music
John Link – Around the Bend (excerpt)
Flexible Music: fm
Haruka Fujii – percussion
Eric Huebner – piano
Timothy Ruedeman – saxophones
Daniel Lippel – guitars
Works by Louis Andriessen, Nico Muhly, John Link, Ryan Streber, Orianna Webb, and Vineet Shende
New Focus Recordings FCR105
Part of the 21st century D.I.Y. new music mantra has been to turn the page on tired, old school instrumental combinations like the string quartet, the brass quintet, or the woodwind quintet. Hell, even Pierrot ensemble is starting to feel a little passé. Sure, they’re still around, and composers will continue to write music for them because even though those types of ensembles might be listed in the “been there, done that” category, they’re also tried and true. But it seems like new music composers and performers these days are looking for something different. Something edgier. Something that captures the spirit of the music they grew up listening to—be it The Beatles, Debbie Gibson, or Nine Inch Nails, et al.—not necessarily the music they were taught in their music history classes and composition lessons.
One need only take a quick look around the current new music landscape to see the effects of popular music on the work of a new breed of composers who have embraced it equally alongside their conservatory training. But yet for all of the borrowing from pop music new music professes to be engaged in, the one-hit wonder is something that hasn’t quite caught on yet. So whether an upstart ensemble with a limited repertory sinks or swims depends wholly on what new compositions they are able to generate for their group. This is the path the members of Flexible Music, a young and vigorous New York City-based quartet, have chosen for themselves.
Aggressiveness, virtuosity, and seamless ensemble playing are obviously Flexible Music hallmarks, and these strengths are revealed immediately with a blistering account of Louis Andriessen’s Hout, the piece that one imagines was the catalyst that brought the quartet together. While calling any work a tour de force may seem terribly cliché, it’s really the only term that aptly describes Hout. It’s a relentless piece, beginning with what seems like a never-ending canon at the 16th note. From there, the work never really lets the ensemble take a breath, but the players of Flexible Music handle the music’s technical and ensemble demands so well that they seem like the musical equivalent of deep sea pearl divers.
On an album dedicated to introducing us to Flexible Music and showing off the breadth of the group’s abilities, Hout displays a monolithic quality that seems to have wielded a tremendously powerful influence over each composer’s approach to writing for the ensemble. Works such as Vineet Shende’s Throw Down or Shut Up and Ryan Streber’s Closing Time use many of the same devices—virtuosic instrumental writing and tricky composite line ensemble pass-offs—that make Hout so successful, even if the composers’ language is different. And Orianna Webb’s Sustenance Variations, though given to fleeting moments of repose, is never far away from the aggressiveness that permeates the entire album. Of the new works written for Flexible Music included on the disc, John Link’s Around the Bend does the best job of exploiting some of the more unique color combinations of the ensemble.
In the present new music milieu of countless oddly staffed ensembles, Flexible Music has one of the more exciting combinations of instruments and probably one of the most, um, flexible out there in terms of their ability to capture such a broad range of sounds and styles. And with what appears to be a stable of many willing and able composers and over 30 commissioned works to their credit so far, they don’t appear in danger of becoming a one-hit wonder. But as the group moves forward, they should work to expand their range and embrace their namesake so as not to become a one-trick pony.