Wednesday, January 15, 2014

the pickPocket Ensemble

the pickPocket Ensemble...replete with pockets!

Continuing on my journey in discovering new classical music I discovered this skillful and creative lot: the pickPocket Ensemble, a diverse quintet that can often be found playing cafes and venues across Northern California. 
      Their music, which they aptly call "cafe music", exudes a relentless exoticism and yet they manage to make listeners feel right at home amid tunes inspired by Appalachian folk, jazz, and Balkan music traditions. Our pickpocketers include Rick, the founder, accordionist/pianist, and composer; Marguerite, the versatile violinist; Yates Brown, whose name is so cool I had to write it out on guitar and banjo; Kurt on bass; and fellow abettors Brian Rice with percussion and Sam Bass ironically on cello.

If a classical ensemble had the spirit of a jazz band and the soul of a folk musician they'd be pickPocket Ensemble. 

I quickly listened to and watched everything I could by this group falling more in love with their music with each new song. Every piece takes you on a miniature journey that begs a cinematic companion. Their piece Remember the Moon has Arabic qualities with its rhythm and harmony (liberal use of augmented seconds and 5/8 have a way of doing that). The timbre of the accordion lends it a folk feel, as if you're at a chaotic Middle Eastern bazaar midday. The melody is memorable and Remember the Moon simply makes me want to grab a sash, some finger bells, and start belly dancing.

What makes their music particularly infectious are its song-like elements with use of doubling, small range, and few melodic themes (usually just one) that generally break for instrumental solos. Their music began heavily influenced by jazz but evolved to include the Mediterranean sounds of the Balkans (so much so I was seriously wondering where the clarinet was in all this!). If you've never heard Balkan music here's an example from Youtube (from a teacher who tried to sell me on eastern European music; I just smiled at the way the violinist's head bobbed). I always lose the downbeat when I hear it, but then maybe that's the point. 

I'll leave you to enjoy For Those Who've Left which is a "French cafe meets rustic Americana" type of tune. The pickPocket Ensemble truly is something special, not just in repertoire but how they relate to the music they create and to audiences. So if you live, work, or plan to travel to Northern California go see them. They are definitely worth having with your coffee. 

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Exploring Blurred Lines with Maria

I have a confession. Lately, I've been listening to jazz. A lot.


I know! I know. I've surprised myself. This is classical music blog; I'm only supposed to listen to that. But I've been spending my waking hours actively searching for and wantonly consuming its riches. Could you ever forgive me?

(*Melodrama over*)

On a serious note, though, as I've been riding this jazz wave for the past three weeks I've come to notice that much of the current jazz scene sounds a lot like current classical one. Maybe it's just me. So as heretical as this may come, this post is dedicated to one such composer whose jazz compositions have me conflicted over where my loyalties lie ('cause she knows I want it).

I just met a girl named Maria

Maria Baptist

OK, so maybe she's a woman and from Germany, but that doesn't stop me from loving her heartbreakingly beautiful music. Maria Baptist rocks!

She recently released an album last November called Episodes for piano and string quartet. In it she crosses all over traditional boundaries exploring the relationship between the styles of chamber music and jazz. Each track varies in length from the barely there Interludes that each last an average of thirty seconds, to the longer more contemplative Impressions of a Journey. She only offers clips on Soundcloud, so I highly recommend buying the album.

First off, this clip begins deceptively a lot like a contemporary classical piece. It actually wasn't until 20 seconds in when I noticed the syncopated rhythm in the violin that I began to suspect anything. And even if screaming angsty strings aren't you're thing, hang in there because about halfway through this clip it transitions into this Scott Joplin fangirl piano melody.

One could even argue that she's making a statement. Seriously, the zeitgeist at the turn of the 20th century is not that different from that of the new millenium--a focus on upward mobility, fashionable multiculturalism/cultural appropriation, the ever increasingly socioeconomic disparities, and the (misguided) accumulation of personal and sovereign debt with the vain confidence of future security. 

You begin to see the parallels...but best to just enjoy the music! Buy this track as it continues its playful batting match between the two timbres and styles for dominance and equilibrium. 

Now, this clip comes from her earlier album Gate 29 (click the link to buy it) and I love it. Really, the whole album is gold, but this track! There's a fragile hymn-like quality about this track, so much so that you can almost hear the drawn breath of someone about to sing. I especially love the added touch of solemnity from the baroque-esque walking bass before the cymbals come in and you finally realize that this is a jazz work. I would have sooner classified this a contemporary classical piece if I didn't already know that it was part of a jazz album. But I'm wondering if this was the beginning of a beautiful journey for Maria in exploring the similarities between two genres, two worlds, and two countries. 

Say it loud and there's music playing
Say it soft and it's almost like praying'

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Happy New Year!

Resolutions and Such

Ah, the first blog post from a long winter's break. Now it's back to the music, and I couldn't be happier! My resolution with this blog is to bring you more of what I already do--great music from young composers and great performances by young ensembles. 

In addition to reviewing awesome new music (and their writers and champions) I will also cover the awesome venues that regularly (or only) offer new music concerts. I will try to find a venue in each state in the U.S. from New York to North Dakota, new music will be yours! (Or something like that, if I can find places in ND). Also, maintaining that Pinterest profile where I gather as many images as possible for those pieces that conjure places people, and visual eye candy.

So far, going on this musical journey has been incredibly fun, and who knew new music could be fun?! OK, so maybe I strongly suspected it, but discovering so much great music being made near and far and that doesn't clash with the other songs on my phone was surprising. Cheers to a the new year and keeping our resolutions!

Classically Yours