The quartet known as Flexible Music derives its name from the title of the Nico Muhly piece that the group plays on its new disc. Like that score, the programme's other works by Louis Andriessen, John Link, Ryan Streber, Orianna Webb, and Vineet Shende take percussion, piano, saxophones, and guitars through fascinating textural, rhythmic, and colouristic terrain. The results are varied and vital, a feast of intimate musical possibilities. The disc's springboard is Andriessen's beguiling Hout, which has been recorded by several other ensembles. Dutch for "wood", the piece is a canon that finds the instruments chasing each other at pell-mell speed, occassionally stopping in their tracks amid the hypnotic activity, sensual gestures and group exclamation points. Muhly's Flexible Music is exactly that. Inspired by video games, its energy is relentless, with swirling, punching ideas momentarily relaxed with lyrical lines. In Link's Around the Bend, something surprising is always lurking, from exotic tambourine sighs to quickly shared fragments, dreamy piano lines and sudden outbursts. An electric guitar broods in Streber's Closing Time, which is animated through saxophone flights and feisty interaction. Tidbits emerge from hushed moments, and the saxophone and guitar have extended solos before the music fades away. The aura veers from the frisky to the still in Webb's Sustenance Variations, whose punchy chords and confrontational episodes find a keen balance amid lines of haunting poetry. Shende pays homage to James Brown in Throw Down or Shut Up, whose vigorous activity includes vocal grunts, riffs, shifting rhythms and a sassy finish. The members of Flexible Music are undaunted by the repertoire's formidable demands. Haruka Fujii (percussion), Eric Huebner (piano), Timothy Ruedeman (saxophones), and Daniel Lippel (guitars) appear to relish the sense of discovery that these composers have invested in their captivating creations."
-Donald Rosenberg, Gramophone August 2009
"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 passe. Sure, they are 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 are 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 cliche, 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.
—Brian Sacawa, New Music Box, August 2009
In something like the way that the makeup of Schoenberg's "Pierrot ensemble" -- flute, clarinet, violin, viola, and piano, plus sometimes voice or percussion -- established a template for 20th and 21 century chamber ensembles, Louis Andriessen's 1991 Hout, for saxophone, electric guitar, piano, and percussion, has been the model for turn-of-the-millennium ensembles and composers. Flexible Music, founded in New York City in 2003, opens FM, its first release, with Hout, and includes five other works for the ensemble by American composers: Nico Muhly, John Link, Ryan Streber, Orianna Webb, and Vineet Shende. A modern classic whose impact deepens with repeated hearings, Hout is notable for amalgamating the timbres of rock and the repetitive gestures of minimalism with Andriessen's fecund imagination, and the result is an immediately engaging work bristling with manic energy and wit, full of rhythmic and melodic surprises. Each of the remaining pieces on the album, four of them recorded for the first time, is to some extent an homage toAndriessen's work. Shende's Throw Down or Shut Up ventures farthest from Andriessen's model and his sound world; it's an unpredictable patchwork of vividly contrasting ideas, including startling vocalizations from the players, that never loses its grip on the ear. Flexible Music, which took its name from Muhly's 2002 piece, plays with remarkable focus, vitality, and subtlety, carefully observing the nuances of these demanding scores. The sound is clean and well-defined but very close -- some listeners may think too close -- but it's actually suited to the in-your-face quality of the music. This is an album that should appeal to new music fans and anyone interested in compositional trends of the early 21st century.
- Steven Eddins
Modern chamber ensembles like Flexible Music do for classical instrumentation what Iron Chefs do for secret ingredients: they memorably blend unlikely elements into classy finished products. In Flexible Music’s case, the New York quartet combines guitar, percussion, piano, and saxophone; since composers haven’t traditionally written pieces for such an ungainly ensemble, Flexible Music commissions most of their repertoire. They favour modern classical music squarely in the downtown NYC tradition of bucking tradition, blending atonality with gestures out of minimalism and soundtracks, and pushing complex syncopated rhythms right out front. FM’s facility with rhythm makes sense – they’re basically a rhythm section plus sax, schooled in pop music along with classical – though they’re also capable of moments bulging with lyrical beauty.
Mostly, though, their debut album fm is an exuberant notefest. (FM guitarist Daniel Lippel released fm in 2009 on his New Focus label; it’s receiving – ahem – new promotional focus thanks to the label’s deal with classical distribution giant Naxos.) The album opens with Louis Andriessen’s 1991 “Hout”, one of the few pieces written prior to this millennium for FM’s instrumentation. The Dutch composer wrote “Hout” as a nearly-strict canon, with saxophone leading the melodic charge and the other instruments following at 16th note intervals. The resulting piece sounds like a long, jazz-influenced melody getting dragged through a lake, sending out ripples of echoes that threaten to swamp the tune but never do. As a musical experiment, it’s cool; as a piece of music it’s something more, given Andriessen’s talent for mixing the instruments’ sonorities into indelible blends. Though the notes move constantly, with saxophonist Timothy Ruedeman’s fingers clacking away, the piece swells and breathes with a large-scale shape all its own.
Also wonderful is Orianna Webb’s 2004 “Sustenance Variations”, a study in violent group attacks alternating with mysterious sustained passages. At first the group attacks sound a little stiff and composed, reminiscent of orchestral stabs out of West Side Story. But later in the piece they turn shattering. Pianist Eric Huebner lulls you with a delicate music box melody, and then, out of nowhere, Lippel and percussionist Haruka Fujii start smacking their instruments around. The effect startles, and it achieves the grab-you-by-the-throat physicality that’s one of FM’s goals.
Another FM goal is premiering new works, and the other four pieces are recorded here for the first time. Nico Muhly’s 2002 “Flexible Music” (he named the band!) uses familiar gestures out of movie scores and video games to create an accessible tone poem that sort of evokes a hero’s quest in a hot air balloon. John Link’s 2006 “Around the Bend” has a cheerful mania. It veers between complex chirrupy rhythms and danceable grooves led by Fujii’s tambourine, stretching tonality to its breaking point before relapsing into minimalist breathers. Ryan Streber’s 2004 “Closing Time” is the thorniest work, a set of atonal studies featuring mournful electric guitar. And the closing piece, Vineet Shende’s 2005 “Throw Down Or Shut Up”, is the pandering encore of the bunch, full of funk references and grunting. FM paced the disc well, moving from the new standard “Hout” through progressive degrees of musical difficulty, before coming back to earth with “Sustenance” and “Throw Down”.
One quibble, though, about “Throw Down”. For all its James Brown allusions and slapped guitar strings, it’s just not funky. The musicians’ arch grunts sound more like Beavis and Butthead, and the rhythms are painfully square. In his liner notes, Lippel writes of the piece, “The balance between visceral and brainy ... is a bit of an FM hallmark. It’s like composers think we’re cool because we’re smart. Not too smart to grunt, apparently.” Musicians of all genres would do well to realize that James Brown was one of last century’s smartest musicians, up there with Stravinsky. That doesn’t mean you can’t imitate him. But simply copping a couple mannerisms reveals a shallow understanding of his chief innovation, a precise rhythmic pointillism that coalesces into free-floating grooves. Don’t condescend to the Godfather. (OK, I’m done.)
But let’s face it – any crowd-pleasing classical concert will have at least one moment that makes you cringe, and cringing is better than falling asleep. Throughout fm, the members of Flexible Music show that they can please crowds while wading into the harmonic thickets of modern composition, a trick they pull off with great dexterity.