“yMusic’s performances live in the territory, genre-wise, that has emerged in the last decade between indie rock and classical music,” said Aaron Greenwald, Executive Director of Duke Performances. “They have an idiosyncratic instrumentation that has enabled them to commission really talented composers who are their contemporaries, more or less, to write new music specific to their ensemble.”
The performance is part of a broader year-long residency at Duke University. Given that yMusic’s success is deeply entrenched in their collaboration with composers, Duke offered them a year-long residency in order to to read, rehearse and record the music of the students in the PhD program for composition. The residency gives yMusic the opportunity to interact with the next generation of contemporary composers but also grants the composers in the program the challenge to compose within the framework of yMusic’s unique instrumentation.
“They perform other people’s music, but there’s still a kind of aesthetic to the composers who write for yMusic because yMusic has worked so much with pop and indie groups,” said William Robin, a PhD candidate in Musicology at UNC. Robin has studied yMusic for his dissertation and written about them for the New York Times. “To a certain extent, composers today have grown up with both pop music and classical music and they generally split into one or the other. Since yMusic has fluency in both of those languages, it allows them to position themselves as a group to perform as a back-up to indie groups or as a classical music group.”
yMusic was formed when old friends who played back-up for Sufjan Stevens reconnected after playing for The National. While chatting, they observed the disparity between a band playing together since high school and a motley set of instrumentalists hired for an individual show. From this conversation, they conceived of yMusic as a cohesive group that boasted classical fluency and the camaraderie of a garage band.
“One of the first and best decisions we made was that we would build the group based on individuals, rather than instrumentation, which yielded the challenge of having no existing repertoire, but the opportunity to assemble a truly unique group,” said Rob Moose, the violinist of yMusic, over email. “Still, we play chamber music, purely and simply.”
Although yMusic is rooted in chamber music, the members have performed in a variety of engagements, ranging from playing in the New York Philharmonic to backing Bon Iver in his last tour. This has permitted the group to work with composers who interact and direct the musicians in diverse ways, whether through recorded ideas, exported midi files or the more familiar pristine notation.
“There have been all kinds of music cross-pollinations over time, certainly as long as there has been popular and folk music, but I think one could argue that CD stores stopped being the place where genre is defined, so it has become easier to craft a cross-over career,” said Greenwald. “There’s a huge concern amongst classical music lovers that the audiences are getting older and older, so there are experiments from younger musicians, like in yMusic, to make music appropriate and to connect with people their age.”
The concert at the Casbah is just one of the many ways in which yMusic continues to expand the audience of classical music. They have a full album’s worth of new material that they will be playing at the Casbah, which will include pieces by Timothy Andres, Marcos Balter, Mark Dancigers, Nico Muhly, Andrew Norman, Jeremy Turner and Sufjan Stevens. On the same day as the show, they will be premiering their 7” EP, "Year of the Dragon."
“Our musicality and execution is informed by years of studying classical chamber music, in the form of string and woodwind quartets, and our performance aesthetic is informed equally by the concert hall and the rock club,” said Moose. “We always like to say that we bring the energy of a rock show to chamber music, and the precision of classical music to indie rock.”
yMusic will perform this Tuesday, Nov. 5, at 8 p.m. at the Casbah in downtown Durham. For tickets and more information, visit http://casbahdurham.com.