The Meridian Arts Ensemble performs the brass chamber works of Andrew Rindfleisch in their newest album In The Zone, released by Innova in the end of April 2013. What began as a the commission for the title piece eventually spun into a much larger collaboration, resulting in new works for the brass repertoire as well as arrangements of folk songs and hymns.
Rindfleisch’s style is quickly described in the program notes as “genre bending,” with consistent references to the blending of old and new styles. The opening piece In The Zone affirms this sentiment, as the familiar Renaissance harmonies move in concert in a very familiar way, yet with wildly different motivations. The two-movement piece encompasses the very best characteristics of brass music, with sharply articulated fanfares, bold, loud harmonies, and an adept use of extended colors. The second movement, Canons, is perhaps the highlight of the entire album, with skilled counterpoint and a boldness to it that is clearly enjoyable for the players as well as the listener. Coupled with it are also small, efficient fanfares for two instruments in Four Fanfares for Two Trumpets and A Little Fanfare Music (by Lady MacBeth) that embrace this boldness even further, with fully modern, microtonal aspects in the latter piece.
The album is arranged in two very clear sections: energetic, modern compositions up top complete with hammering fanfares, dissonant harmonies, and efficient motivic development, eventually giving way to softer, emotive folk arrangements in the back half. It’s an interesting choice of pacing to be sure, and the switch over between the two styles is jarring. The album is so clearly divided that it adds a level of labor to get through its entirety. No matter the musical quality of the respective sides – and Rindfleisch’s folk arrangements truly are interesting, not to mention beautifully, beautifully played – one would suspect a listener’s motivation to purchase an album be related to its stylistic obedience on some level. The dissension feels a lot like two feuding siblings who are certainly related, but clearly having trouble seeing eye to eye.
There’s a familiar line from Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity that I can’t help but mention, as it has for better or for worse colored my opinion of album pacing. “You’ve got to kick off with a corker, to hold the attention … and then you’ve got to up it a notch, or cool it a notch…” Neurotic character undertones aside, the opportunity to curate a record also allows the opportunity to create a larger experience of all the works, and the pace with which this experience is consumed should be high on the list of importance. This record, to put it flatly, felt extremely unbalanced between highs and lows. It might be the intention of the ensemble to start off with a high point and have a slow, steady ride to the bottom; And it could certainly be situation in which they chose the lesser of two evils, where the folk arrangements sounded even sleepier interspersed between the frenetic fanfares. But to these ears, the efficient modernist fanfares of the first half do not play nice with the pastoral pieces in the second half.
And this is a real shame considering the beauty of Rindfleisch’s arrangements. When pressed with finding the common thread through those pieces, I did feel that another level of understanding of his musical style on the macro sense was achievable. His arrangement of Abide With Me continually struck me as a modern piece of music, and this is perhaps because of the long, extended stretches of muted unison lines and the smearing leading tones of the middle harmonies. The Austere fourth-movement in Four Fanfares for Two Trumpets, with its Copland-esque nods to the modern American harmonic style, seems a natural complement.
It is important to keep in mind, however, that in this case the quality of music is in no way a shame, and that the way we consume music now is not beholden to track listings or insurmountable programming. The Meridian Arts Ensemble and Andrew Rindfleisch seem to have an incredibly successful collaboration on their hands, one that will undoubtedly birth even more intellectually stimulating and performer-friendly pieces for brass. When we are inevitably tasked with creating a Greatest Hits For Brass by Andrew Rindfleisch and The Meridian Arts Ensemble in the future, perhaps we can look back at this grievance with nothing more than a wink and a smile.