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In yMusic, indie rock meets classical, with satisfying results



A techno-utopia surrounds classical music today: The composers are tweeting! The orchestras are flash mobbing! Presumably, if we all use the Internet enough, the future of the form is assured.

So when the ensemble yMusic launched a stylish Kickstarter campaign for its debut album in 2011, it was a pioneering move—chamber music's first foray into the realm of crowdfunding. If online savvy is the latest chapter in the saga of How To Save Classical Music From Its Inevitable Doom, yMusic seemed to fit the bill.

Two years later, hundreds of classical projects jostle for money on Kickstarter, from tiny choirs to the New York City Opera's $1 million fundraising fiasco. The ubiquity of these online endeavors has allowed yMusic's more audacious mission to emerge: a classical ensemble whose performers are fluent in, and reflect the vernacular of, varied popular musical styles.

That will be on display Tuesday night, when the sextet performs eclectic new compositions at Casbah as part of a season-long Duke Performances residency.

yMusic includes violinist Rob Moose and trumpeter C.J. Camerieri, who are touring members of Bon Iver; violist Nadia Sirota, who works regularly with celebrated composer Nico Muhly; and flutist Alex Sopp, who plays in the New York Philharmonic (and gave Alec Baldwin a flute lesson for an episode of 30 Rock).

Such is the nature of today's top New York classical freelancers. Orchestra jobs are juggled among other options, and it's possible to balance Debussy alongside the Dirty Projectors. Camerieri entered the pop world after graduating from Juilliard; he started gigging with Sufjan Stevens. Moose joined the indie sphere when he answered a Craigslist ad seeking a violinist and became an early member of My Brightest Diamond.

Supplying a list of famous collaborators only goes so far. While yMusic members have performed with this hip cadre, it is more significant that in doing so they have appropriated the tools to expand their performance practice. Many composers today write music steeped in the pop vocabularies in which they were raised. But just as a pianist does not take on Chopin without understanding the lilt of a mazurka, yMusic stands as one of the few groups capable of playing with the rhythmic verve of contemporary pop—a sensibility toward groove natural to anyone in a band but often foreign to the classically trained.

The instrumentation of yMusic—a trio of winds and a trio of strings—is also noteworthy. Most contemporary groups are based on standardized setups derived from a previous modernist canon. Eighth blackbird, which will perform at Duke on Nov. 23, is a so-called Pierrot ensemble, a configuration based on the instrumentation of Arnold Schoenberg's 1912 Pierrot Lunaire.

Yet rather than derive their instrumentation from 20th-century classics, Moose and Camerieri formed yMusic in order to bring together six friends who shared a similar musical sensibility—a new music/indie rock supergroup.

As a commissioner of instrumental compositions, yMusic has a dual role, also serving as a backup group for bands including The National. Their albums—the second will be released in the spring—are filled with new works written specifically for the ensemble. These are often created through an intimate, flexible relationship between composer and performers. yMusic works closely with producers such as Son Lux in the recording studio, or trades MIDI files with St. Vincent's Annie Clark. Scores become fluid sets of instructions rather than fixed documents to be strictly adhered to. Less flashy than a Kickstarter campaign, these innovations carve out a collaborative, multistylistic space for classical music today.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Rescuing classical music."

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