Arts Feature

Yes, Classical Music Has a Future

yMusic Plays Southern Exposure Series on Friday

By Eva Moore
Wednesday, March 19, 2014
yMusic | courtesy photo

There are only two kinds of music — good and bad.

That sentiment has been attributed to Duke Ellington, among others; it also goes a long way toward explaining the music philosophy of yMusic, which plays the Southern Exposure new music series at the University of South Carolina on Friday at 7:30 p.m.

Formed in 2008, the members of yMusic — a six-member group whose members play violin (Rob Moose), viola (Nadia Sirota), cello (Clarice Jensen), trumpet (C.J. Camerieri), flute (Alex Sopp) and clarinet (Hideaki Aomori) — do not limit themselves by genre. On its own recordings, the group plays contemporary music by contemporary composers, but it takes an expansive view of who can be considered a composer. As a group, it collaborates far outside the confines of classical music with such artists as experimental rock band Dirty Projectors, electronic musician Son Lux and singer-songwriter project My Brightest Diamond. Individually, its members have toured and recorded with such artists as Grizzly Bear, Bjork, The National, Bon Iver, Sufjan Stevens and David Byrne.

Oh, yeah — and Paul Simon.

When reached for an interview, trumpeter C.J. Camerieri is in Philadelphia on a tour with Simon. Asked how he landed such a prestigious gig, Camerieri is nonchalant.

Simon admires yMusic’s work, he says. They have mutual musical friends and collaborators in New York, too. And it didn’t hurt that Camerieri plays French horn in addition to trumpet; in that sense, Simon got a two-for-one deal by hiring him.

Despite the members of yMusic’s many associations with high-profile artists in the rock world, that’s not what brings them to USC’s Music School Recital Hall on Friday. Instead, it’s their status on the cutting edge of the classical world. Their 2011 debut, Beautiful Mechanical, was named the No. 1 classical album that year by Time Out New York. And NPR’s Fred Childs has called yMusic “one of the groups that has really helped to shape the future of classical music.”

What that future looks like is this: Genre barriers have been busted wide open, and musicians eagerly embrace and build upon the subtle territory between them.

For yMusic, that means focusing on the music of their time, no matter how the person writing it is classified genre-wise.

“We are curating what’s going on in the world of composing and songwriting,” Camerieri says. “Beyond playing, what we can do is find these people — we have all these different experiences with these songwriters and composers.”

Thirty years ago, the idea of a classical-pop project was the disco-themed Hooked on Classics series — or, on the cooler end of things, Kronos Quartet’s 1986 cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze.” Now, contemporary classical music has moved far beyond one-off attempts at mixing and matching genres. Instead, a new generation of musicians steeped in multiple genres melds them in an authentic, organic way.

yMusic’s Beautiful Mechanical is a perfect example: The record includes music by Judd Greenstein, a young classical composer, as well as music by Son Lux. It includes music by indie songwriter Annie Clark (St. Vincent) and music by Gabriel Kahane, who’s both a composer and a songwriter.

But it wasn’t a calculated effort to make a statement about who is or isn’t a composer, Camerieri says.

“First of all, it is the people we know,” Camerieri says. “I don’t know 25 composers; I know 15 composers and 10 songwriters. The conceit of it is wasn’t, ‘Oh, we want to mix all these things together and make this combo of indie rock and classical.’ But that is who we fundamentally are.”

The wide mix of people yMusic collaborates with means the music-making process itself can take different forms. Sometimes they receive a complete written score from a composer, the traditional approach. Other times they might just get a sound file and have to figure out their parts from it, or they might work directly with the composer on numerous rounds of revisions.

“It’s living, breathing music that is alive and is a process — and I am sure that happened in Beethoven and Bach’s time, too,” Camerieri says.

The group’s wide-ranging ties in the indie-rock world have led some writers to dub their music “indie classical,” a term Camieri tolerates but doesn’t entirely agree with.

“Aahh — it’s fine,” he says of the term. “I don’t love it. I think what we do is we play the classical music of our time. I much prefer being referred to as a contemporary classical music chamber group ... we commission pieces and we go and play concerts. We sit down. We have music in front of us. We work with composers.”

“There is nothing particularly indie rock about what we do,” he adds, other than playing with passion and energy. “People have a tendency to put the term indie in front of anything that is young or different.”

What they play, he says, are great songs, great pieces and great arrangements.

There are two types of music; yMusic plays the good kind. 

yMusic plays the USC School of Music Recital Hall at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, March 21. The concert is free. Early arrival is recommended, as many Southern Exposure concerts are standing room only.

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