For the 10 years of its existence, NOW Ensemble—Sara Budde (clarinet and bass clarinet), Logan Cole (double bass), Michael Mizrahi (piano), Alexandra Sopp (flute), and Mark Dancigers (guitar)—has been on a constant uphill rise as it’s coalesced as a quintet. Dreamfall (New Amsterdam Records) is an album that deals in panoramic widescreen vistas, but populates them with objects in intense, sharp definition. Apropos of its name, it works in drifting, shifting moods, but breaks this up with a taste for the surreal as a surprising juxtaposition.
The record’s heart is its title piece, which was written by Dancigers and is divided into three movements. The first movement glitters with tiny cells that pulse and shift. The breathy growl of Budde’s clarinet seems to nudge on the lush lyricism of Mizrahi’s piano. Cole’s bass moves between a pizzicato heartbeat to gorgeous arco work that feeds and enriches everything else like a heart pumping blood to the rest of the body. The flute carries most of the melody with a tear in its throat. The pulse-quickened harmonies of the flute and clarinet recede broad swaths of background color as Dancigers’ guitar arpeggios bubble to the fore, teasing the piano. The woodwinds come back like a chorus and the overall effect is a blossoming, a time-lapse. There’s some pain in its seduction and the worry that mystery implies. The finale amplifies both the tense melancholy of the middle section, but also delivers on the warm promise of the opening. As the melodic material introduced earlier coalesces and resolves, there’s a warmth that flows over everything like a golden light, led by Mizrahi’s piano lines shaded by Sopp’s flute, with bursts of group-playing toward the end activating and engaging the senses. The introduced chaos that rushes in at the track’s conclusion doesn’t rely on false drama; it’s a wake-up call, but it doesn’t lose that warmth. The breathtaking conclusion of this multi-headed beast manages to sum up the preceding 20 minutes without betraying the ambiguity at the dark heart of its beauty.
Dreamfall never lags, but there are definite highlights. From its opening guitar notes, Sarah Kirkland Snider’s “Pale As Centuries” conjures the ornate beauty of antiquity and strips it away to show every layer and bone. Budde’s clarinet and Sopp’s flute circle higher around one another into flights of fancy that crystallize into gorgeous shapes. When Dancigers’ sharp, percussive chords rise to the fore like a summer storm, it’s a clarion call to attention before melting back into a thick sensual bass and bass clarinet thrum with thick strokes of flute. Andrea Mazzariello’s “Trust Fall” uses percussive piano and slightly distorted, ringing guitar to drive a fluid piece that makes the best use of negative space on the record. It lopes with an assured swagger and conjures that feeling of nerves, of not being sure if you’ll be caught, as well as that’s been captured in music.
Dreamfall gold-plates NOW Ensemble’s status in the NYC new music world and anoints it with beautiful flame. It’s a snapshot of where contemporary chamber music is now and where it’s going next.