© 2021 KMUW
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

yMusic Demands New Repertoire

Ben Folds

In the classical world, forming a new ensemble often involves finding the right material to draw from. There are scores of string quartets or pieces for chambers ensembles.

New York City’s yMusic offers listeners a chance to hear classical instrumentation -- but not in a configuration normally heard. There’s a string trio, flute, clarinet and trumpet and, when the group formed, says one of the group’s founding members, C.J. Camerieri, the unit faced a sizable problem.

“There was no pre-existing music written for the instrumentation of yMusic,” he says. “No repertoire existed. That was perhaps our greatest challenge and our greatest opportunity.”

Brahms and Beethoven, Camerieri notes, had not created mixed ensemble pieces, so yMusic began turning to contemporary musicians who could write pieces for the then-new configuration. If people haven’t heard yMusic, they’ve probably heard of the composers who have helped create the group’s repertoire: Son Lux, Sufjan Stevens and Annie Clark, who performs under the name St. Vincent.

“We have drawn some of our repertoire from popular music artists who were trained as composers and who are well-versed in classical music,” Camerieri says. “We hope that we’re making a whole other scene for chamber music.”

yMusic’s popularity and its collaborations with artists such as Ben Folds, Dirty Projectors and Jose Gonzalez serves as a reminder that seemingly immovable lines between rock and classic music that existed 25 years ago are perhaps completely gone. Camerieri says that the disappearance of those divides may have something to do with how we consume music today.

“I think that the internet doesn’t have genres,” he says. “When you went to Tower Records in Lincoln Center in New York City, there was a classical section. It was walled off, there were big, intimidating glass doors and, to go into the classical section, that was a whole other place that you had to go. Today, you hear about this group called yMusic or Kronos Quartet or whatever and it’s sitting right next to the Rolling Stones and The Beatles. It’s on the internet. You don’t have to go to the concert hall to hear the music. You can just go on YouTube. It’s sort of bridged those divides for us.”

yMusic’s latest effort, titled First, is due out in mid-February. Featuring music composed by Son Lux, the album works against many norms of both the rock and classical worlds, as CJ Camerieri explains.

“We really wanted to make a record that represented one compositional voice that felt more like the records that we listen to,” he says. “Classical music is great at form but it’s not great at records. Song make great records. So, if you think about a record, it’s 20 minutes Side A, 20 minutes Side B, you flip it over, it’s got a certain arc. It has nine to 11 tracks that each sort of function as a singular thing, where in classical if you have a 40-minute piece of music, it’s going to be in three movements that take journeys throughout one long movement. In rock music, each song has a different function and at the end of that you’ve been taken on a 40-minute journey.”

The band also approached the recording of the material differently than it had before.

“We encountered the music for the very first time in the recording studio,” Camerieri says. “Normally, for our other records, we rehearsed and performed the pieces endlessly, getting them down to a degree where we feel that we really know the music and we try to capture that on a record. This process was different. When we perform this music live, we’re trying to emulate the recording because that’s what this music was created for.

“We wanted the album to feel like you were hearing us playing this music right for the very first time," he continues. "Each one of the performances you hear on the record is us figuring out what’s cool about this music.”

yMusic’s new release, First, is out Feb. 17. The band performs at Salina’s Stiefel Theatre Friday, Jan. 27.