In 2016, Sybarite5 launched a crowdfunding effort for a tenth-anniversary recording project. Nearly two years later, a record label called Bright Shiny Things appeared on social media and announced that its first release, Sybarite5’s Outliers, had already reached the top of the Billboard Classical chart. The story of this group and its latest album is in many ways the story of a moment in American new music. From commissioning to recording, Sybarite5 maintained control over the creation of its CD – down to the label that issued it. The Creative and Managing Director (and “Head Ninja”) of the Bright Shiny Things is Louis Levitt, Sybarite5’s bassist.
Outliers lunges into being with Jessica Meyer‘s taut Getting Home (I must be…) (2015), originally a solo piece for its composer. It makes for a tour de force opening statement. Within the first minute–propelled mainly by a seize-you-by-the-collar viola ostinato played by Angela Pickett–Meyer’s piece layers moods of urgency and longing. The advantage of adding a double bass to the string quartet becomes clear when an entrance for Levitt provides the equivalent of an EDM drop.
Recording engineer and producer Paul Zinman gives the ensemble both coherence and individual agency throughout. The record sounds amazing, stem to stern. If there’s one possible exception, it is the mixing of Shawn Conley‘s Yann’s Flight. The piece contains some inspired string writing, somewhere between the sad, sultry swaying of Piazzolla and a harder-charging minimalist impulse. Its bass groove recalls the soundscape of a hip coffee shop, however, and so does the mixing of the track. It calls attention to each player, to the extent that it sounds more like a live recording.
The appeal of cellist Eric Byers’ Pop Rocks–another arrangement of a piece for the composer’s instrument and effects pedal–becomes clear around two and a half minutes in. All of a sudden, the interlocking rhythms of the first section give way to a choppy texture for high strings, and Sybarite5’s violinists Sami Merdinian and Sarah Whitney shine in perfect intonation.
Dan Visconti‘s suite Hitchhiker’s Tales (2006-2012) opens with “Black Bend,” an evocation of an out-of-control train. One portion sounds like a countrified take on Gershwin’s “Summertime.” A later pastiche of roadhouse electric blues charms at first, but overstays its welcome, but the magical-sounding violin glissandi that follow make up for this. An “all-pizzicato jam” titled “Dixie Twang” runs for a concise minute and forty seconds, and the meatier finale, “Pedal to the Metal,” finds Levitt churning away in the bass’ lowest register, in homage to rock ‘n’ roll.
Andy Akiho‘s Revolve (2012) makes sense as a turning point on the album, even beyond its title. It raises the stakes in terms of rhythmic play and overall complexity. Dominated by terse pizzicato riffs, it’s the disc’s best demonstration of Sybarite5’s hyper-accurate yet fiercely vivacious approach. Accented syncopations have all the expressivity and apparent spontaneity of bebop, yet every note is in its right place.
Together, the final six tracks compose an undeclared collaborative composition: a postmodern answer to the traditional baroque dance suite, beginning with Mohammed Fairouz‘s Muqqadamah (2014). The work takes its name not only from the Arabic word for Prelude, but also from the medieval historian Ibn Khaldun’s greatest treatise. Fairouz obviously had history on the brain when writing the piece. It has the same two opening notes as Richard Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll. From there, Fairouz seldom strays from the gorgeous musical language of the late Romantic adagio; Gustav Mahler might approve.
Kenji Bunch leads listeners into the lighter-hearted world of his Allemande pour Tout le Monde (2015) – a dance for all. Buoyant throughout, it incorporates but skews the characteristic rhythm of the baroque allemande. Composer, violinist, and noted disruptor Daniel Bernard Roumain opens his Kompa for Toussaint (2015) with an earworm of a motto. Inspired by Roumain’s heritage and named for a Haitian dance form, it honors Toussaint L’Ouverture, leader of the Haitian revolution. Roumain, whose work bends toward activism, splits the piece into both martial and mournful moods.
Eric Byers pays tribute to Bach in his deeply somber and even devastated Sarabande (2014). The players gnash and float, adhering to a traditional sarabande pattern that Byers exaggerates for greater emotional punch. Michi Wiancko also pays tribute to Bach in her Blue Bourée (2014), capturing something of the sparseness of the baroque legend’s solo string music while making clever use of the full quintet. Cellist Laura Metcalf shines in a pair of passages that place her sound at the forefront. Ljova‘s Gi-gue-ly (2015)–the title is a portmanteau of gigue, a baroque dance, and Zhiguli, a Soviet car brand–could serve as the soundtrack for an emotionally laden travel sequence in a film.
From the clever cover art by Modern Dog Design and sleek cardboard jacket by Michael Muscarella, Outliers looks first-rate. From Zinman’s production, mixing, engineering, and mastering to Sybarite5’s playing, it sounds that way as well. The title may strike lovers of the eclectic as somewhat misleading, given the album’s steady focus on post-minimal styles. However, anyone with a taste for crisp playing and next-level ensemble coordination will find something to love on this record–it is itself an outlier.