What's Up, Chamber Music?

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New Music is flush with chamber music these days! Small ensembles of virtuosic musicians are popping up left and right. But how does an ensemble of saxophone, electric guitar, piano, and percussion fit into the classical canon?

For a couple of hundred years (say, 1760-ish to 1960-ish), chamber music was written for a handful of tested and trusted ensembles: sonata pairings, the piano trio, the string quartet, the woodwind quintet, piano quartets and quintets (all of these with the occasional guest woodwind), the odd octet, etc. Composers who wrote chamber music that fell outside these categories were either mocked (“Oh, that Paul Hindemith, always writing some trio for viola, piano, and heckelphone”) or lauded as “game changers,” composers writing works so important that their particular ensembles became standardized. For example, Schoenberg wrote this great eccentric set of quasi-cabaret songs in 1912 called Pierrot Lunaire. In addition to the vocalist, it was written for an ensemble of flute, clarinet, violin, cello, and piano. That was a wild orchestration in its time, but in the ensuing decades became the de facto instrumentation of the modern new music ensemble (often with added percussion or, ahem, viola).

Somewhere around the 1970s, the Pierrot-style New Music ensembles were joined by increasingly visible composer-oriented groups like the Philip Glass Ensemble and Steve Reich and Musicians. These groups had synths and guitars and vibrato-less singers! They had amplified strings!

The 1990s saw a flush of smaller groups using these new sounds and styles, such as The Bang On A Can All-Stars and Eighth Blackbird. What set these groups apart was their commitment to their odd instrumentation. They commissioned music specifically for their members, thus creating a body of music that relies on their very existence. In the ‘00s, this idea was expanded big time with groups like the NOW Ensemble (flute, clarinet, bass, electric guitar, piano), Flexible Music (saxophone, guitar, piano, percussion), and So Percussion (percussion quartet). What I really love about this trend is that it’s conducive to so much new stuff! New scores, new orchestration concepts, new relationships between composers and performers, new performance practices, and, ya know, just a lot of new art!

Institutions like the Wordless Music Series took this concept and ran with it. The question is now: Well, if that’s chamber music, where do ambient music, some indie rock, and all manner of other art music lie in the chamber music continuum? If we are not restricted by orchestration, where do our boundaries lie?

Of course, the classic ensembles are still very much thriving in New Music. The Kronos Quartet and Ethel are two groups that have ensured that the string quartet will remain as vital a genre as any. Where’s this gonna go, though? What do you think the quintessential 21st century ensemble will be? Or, are we living an era where the inconsistent is the only constant?