Nouveau Classical Project released their debut album Currents with Gold Bolus Recordings on December 6, 2018. Made up of just three compositions totaling roughly twenty-four minutes, Currents is in the realm of EP rather than full album. Perhaps the association of this shorter format with punk and indie rock is entirely fitting for an ensemble that has become known for working on the periphery.
Nouveau Classical Project (NCP) is a New York-based contemporary classical music ensemble made up of Laura Cocks (flutes), Mara Mayer (clarinets), Maya Bennardo (violin), Thea Mesirow (cello), Sugar Vendil (piano), and Isabel Kim (additional clarinet on Cy for this album). Currents features three electro-acoustic works commissioned by the ensemble and composed by David Bird, Olga Bell, and Isaac Schankler. Each composer has harnessed electronics in a distinctive way: through playback of prerecorded conversation (as in Bell’s Zero Initiative); triggered cassette tape samples (Bird’s Cy); and a response to the meeting point between electronic and acoustic (Schankler’s Artifacts).
Currents grew out of a live program by the same name, which premiered on May 25, 2017 at National Sawdust and also featured video projections by VJ Mamiko Kushida. Notably, the premiere was not without controversy; more eyes may have been on NCP than usual thanks to online fallout over a written concert preview that described the group as “comely young women.” However, the ensemble’s performances that evening — and on this album — are victories, showing that NCP’s approach (described by artistic director Sugar Vendil as “unabashedly female”) is about intelligently and eloquently pushing against many boundaries, not just the sexist ones.
The Currents EP opens with David Bird’s Cy, described by the composer as “a muted and intricate work inspired by the off-white colors and scribbled, graffiti-like lines in Cy Twombly’s paintings.” Combining prepared clarinet with triggered cassette samples of tones and hiss, the result is a bit like a nightmare trip or a scene from the scifi TV show Black Mirror. I particularly appreciated opening the EP in this way, immediately immersing the listener in a sort of musical dystopia where everything becomes instantaneously possible. NCP’s performance on this recording dances thrillingly on the boundary between breath and machine, making the difference nearly indistinguishable. By the end of Cy, the listener understands that this is music-making in the midst of the anxious world of 21st century technological dependence and image bombardment.
Next up is Olga Bell’s Zero Initiative. Bell describes herself as “a music composer, producer and performer who operates comfortably across many genres,” and her own musical releases often fluctuate between the worlds of electronic and classical music. In Zero Initiative, Bell adds orchestration to a “field recording” taken at 2am from the queue outside a New York City dance club. The audio’s centralizing quality is a young man describing an acquaintance, with the phrase “zero initiative” forming a recurring motif. As this phrase is incessantly re-played, the listener takes on the fun and almost haughty perspective, and the resulting composition is smart, rhythmically intricate, and raucous. To hear these women virtuosically playing over the top of this man’s clearly condescending voice feels–to me–inherently personal and political. In a way, Bell is washing the speaker’s mouth out with soap, asking, “did you hear what you just said?”, taking his off-the-cuff statement and really making us think about each and every word, the nuances of bias and stereotype that must have gone into making its formation possible. Much like the events surrounding the premiere concert at National Sawdust, the fact that this is written by a female composer and performed by a female ensemble is simultaneously empowering and beside the point.
The album concludes with Isaac Schankler’s Artifacts, a piece the composer says was born from an exploration of the “the collision of time scales that often happens when electronic music and acoustic music meet.” For Schankler, electronic music is slower and more singularly focused, while acoustic music is more expansively virtuosic, and they say, “When I tried to smoosh these things together, a lot of unexpected byproducts popped out. I decided to keep these artifacts.” The fact that the composer includes the word “smoosh” in their program note is enough to make me like it. But beyond that, the performance by NCP is creative and beautiful. Belabored interwoven acoustic repetitions are interspersed with long tones from the upper registers, slowly building long-form intensity and then morphing into a mournful and mysterious electro-acoustic chorale. Suddenly bursting like a sunrise, we hear baroque (or maybe Disco?) counterpoint, and just as suddenly, it is gone, leaving us with an electronic chorus and woodwind dripdrops. Schankler calls this piece “artifacts” of “conflagrations” and that’s what it feels like to listen to–a pastiche or collage of sounds.
In total, Currents represents a confident and singular debut for Nouveau Classical Project. Creatively conceived and boldly executed, this album makes me excited to hear more from this ensemble and from these composers.