Intersection (Curtis New Music Ensemble): “New music” from the rebranded ensemble

The Curtis Institute’s new music ensemble is called Ensemble 20/21—or at least it was called that, up until a few days ago. It was a reference to the twentieth and twenty-first centuries that doubled as a confusing as hell name, since anyone who heard it out loud was far likelier to think of the year 2021. And in the year 2024, that results in a charming bit of irony: even in trying to be modern, the classical music institution steps on a rake and sets the clock back three years.

So the Curtis new music ensemble has rebranded as … the Curtis New Music Ensemble. Flashy though it may not be, it’s a helluva lot easier to fit into the old mental filing cabinet. In addition to its admirable semantic economy, this revised name also includes that key word, the word that rattles the walls of the academy and inspires astral hemorrhoids in its esteemed emeriti: new.

What does new mean, exactly? In the sepia-toned drawing rooms where classical music earns its reputation (and its grant money) the word is awfully relative.

Take, for instance, the closing piece at the inaugural concert of the rebranded Curtis New Music Ensemble: György Ligeti’s Six Bagatelles for wind quintet. In what other walks of musical life would a piece composed more than seventy years ago by a composer born more than one hundred years ago constitute new music?

I’m not trying to gratuitously pick on Curtis or the classical music establishment writ large. (Well, maybe the latter a teensy bit.) But the name change underscores just how many liberties are taken in this austere community with words like new, modern, and contemporary. And I get it, to an extent. When you’ve got centuries of development in your rearview, as opposed to mere years or decades, 1953 might as well be yesterday. 

Still, it’s encouraging that Ligeti’s was the oldest piece on the bill, and by a wide margin: the next-oldest composer had not even been born when the Bagatelles were written. What’s more, Ligeti was the only deceased composer we heard on the Night of the Great Rebranding. These facts, along with the tameness of his six character pieces relative to the newer work on offer, helped illustrate just how new new could be for this ensemble.

Adventure is on the program from the very start. Anna Meredith’s Tuggemo for string quartet and electronics swoops in and yanks us out of our seats and into the airy world of the avian and the insectile. According to the composer, tuggemo is “a (sadly obsolete) old English word for a swarm of birds or flies.” True to its name, Meredith’s piece positively swings—not like jazz or big band, but like a playground swing, sweeping you up one moment and pulling you back to earth the next.

The music is wonky and imprecise in the best way possible; we lose ourselves in the interplay between the acoustic and electronic sounds. Synthetic sitar brings a slight psychedelic touch, while a pounding house music beat keeps the high-flying strings tethered to the ground. Playing to a pre-recorded backing track must be a unique challenge for the classically trained, but the quartet of Gawon Kim & Yesong Sophie Lee (violin), Sofia Gilchenok (viola) and Carson Ling-Efird (cello) remain locked in even as their bows aspire the stars. It’s chaotic and weirdly sweet and above all new.

Meredith’s piece, transfixing as it is, provokes some unsettling questions about musical performance in the digital age. For instance: if the sitars and drums can be synthetic and pre-recorded, why not the strings? Why do we need these four performers to be in front of us if the rest of the music comes from an iPhone? What does the liveness of the strings add to this piece? What are we really witnessing when we see live music?

One thing we long to see is performers taking risks. Sometimes you gotta just try stuff, like when Jimmy Page apparently forgot what guitar picks look like and played the “Dazed and Confused” solo with a cello bow. Or when Jimi Hendrix looked at his bassackwards Fender Strat one day and said “I wonder what would happen if I EAT this thing.”

For Meredith, having live musicians lock gears with an undulating, unsteady electronic soundtrack is a risk. For Tyshawn Sorey, the risk is more subtle, perhaps, but no less rewarding. His piece For Fred Lerdahl—written for piano, viola, and two vibraphones—creeps in like a dream sequence in a weird French movie from the mid-’50s. Everyone is playing quite gently; violist Chih-Ta Chen gets to show off some impressive control of dynamics as her bow only just whispers long, lamenting notes. In contrast to Meredith, Sorey favors a light touch—so light that the sound of cello bows scraping ever so gently the undersides of the vibes breaks through with a sort of soft feedback that reminds us of a glass harp.


Safe to say that Sorey, too, follows the dictum of Just Try Stuff.

I guess you could say that our third composer of the evening, Dmitri Tymoczko, was inspired, at least in part, by not trying things. He claims that his piece for chamber orchestra, Nerdz, was indeed named after the unmistakable candies that look like weird little neon-colored tumors. (They’re actually called Nerds, with an s, but the z is zanier and therefore more awesome.) Tymoczko also claims that he has never actually tried Nerds, which as a child of the tubular ‘90s I find troubling and deeply bogus. How to truly capture the magic of those dumb little sugar nuggets without inviting them to erode your teeth and discolor your poops?

Tymoczko says he wants his music to provide three things for listeners: fun, drama, and intellectual stimulation. Luckily, he’s got plenty of all three. The first movement of this two-parter contains no small amount of Hollywood in its vibes, with great swells that deliver on Tymoczko’s promised drama. The intellectual stimulation, then, comes from our inability to tell just how serious Tymoczko is about all this. He plays at first like he’s just kidding, making something bouncy and cartoonish. But then a pair of pianos burst onto the scene and suddenly he means business. Like my favorite composer, Dmitri Shostakovich, Tymoczko uses humor and silliness as a weapon: luring the audience in and bestowing a false sense of lightheartedness before declaring that he’s actually been dead fucking serious the whole time.

Tymoczko likes chaos: overlapping sounds, things crashing into other things. Angélica Negrón, composer of the chamber/electronic piece Dóabin, finds the chaos in one of humanity’s most elemental tools: speech. Inspired by the private language of twins, Negrón’s piece was written for the unusual combo of trumpet, trombone, bass clarinet, and voice, and features an electronic foundation of pulsating synths and distorted, childlike voices. We hear the development of a language from rudimentary, inarticulate noises to syllables with assonance, consonance, and rhythm. The instruments at first offer odd spurts and squelches, as if trying to capture the many undefined noises that float around our infant skulls as we try to sort the various sounds of our strange new surroundings into categories of semantic value. As the language matures, the voices and instruments begin to echo each other, sound synchronizing with meaning. In other words: music, in its purest form.

The reference points in this concert touch the farthest reaches of history, the highest altitudes in the stratosphere, and the tangiest shelves of the candy aisle. But in an age positively drowning in program music, the occasional non-representational piece can act as a digestif, a soothing tonic that asks nothing of us but to listen. That’s not to minimize the impact of Edgar Meyer’s Concert Duo for Violin and Bass, the first movement of which is the last stop before Ligetisville. It’s a wonder to watch double bassist William McGregor test the upper limits of his instrument. The use of this double bass, as opposed to the more predictable cello, means that McGregor’s high notes come with an uncommonly rich timbre, adding depth while also leading the melodic dance. Meyer builds exquisite harmony-worlds from this odd combo, and the interplay between McGregor and violinist Maya Anjali Buchanan does them great justice.

The theme of this concert was Intersection. As in, music that “explore[s] the terrain between traditional genre boundaries.” I can dig it, but I also think that genre is a collapsing concept anyway, and that the artists who are making the most interesting work across the musical spectrum are the ones sashaying back and forth over those once-sacred “boundaries.” We’re living in the year of Beyoncé’s country album, after all. If such stylistic adventures are how we define what’s new, then the Curtis New Music Ensemble is living up to its (new) name.

[Curtis Institute of Music, Gould Rehearsal Hall, 1726 Locust Street] March 30, 2024;

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