The standard knock on the New Amsterdam crew is that their music tends to be overly pretty and easy-sounding. And though it's true the young composers on the label (who mostly hail from New York) hardly ever ask you to keep track of hexachords or meticulously-varied cycles of dissonance arranged for their own sake, that doesn't mean they're afraid to grind from time to time.
Awake, the second album from NOW Ensemble — something of a NewAm house band that employs clarinet, bass, guitar, piano and flute — offers useful pushback to the reductive conventional wisdom regarding their scene. To begin with, the ensemble recorded this collection of pieces in a church, allowing for a grandness of ambience to permeate each work. To say nothing of the music contributed by the group's composing members. Note the holy disquiet announced by a piercing flute that Sean Friar stretches over grandly sustained piano-poundings during his "Velvet Hammer." (And be sure to hang around for the piece's kinetic, whirling final seconds.) Anyone want to call that soft?
Or take "Magic with Everyday Objects" from Missy Mazzoli of eMusic Selects alums Victoire — a song that repurposes some thematic material from the overture to Mazzoli's opera Song From the Uproar. In this context, a hazed-out and heavy guitar part sucks up the oxygen that might normally have been reserved for the vocals — the chart's dark textures sounding positively diva-like in their outsized grimness as they dive-bomb into a realm you'd be hard pressed to describe as untroubled.
Elsewhere, there are some minimalist-inspired, hop-skipping moments, as on Mark Dancigers's pleasant "Burst." But it never pays to stop listening to a NOW Ensemble performance halfway through; if you do, you'll miss beautifully articulated moments, such as the yearning second theme that pops up during David Crowell's "Waiting in the Rain for Snow." Or else you'll fail to notice how, during Judd Greenstein's "Change" — which at first seems to be a generative work primed only to fill in its early melodic holes — the rhythmic interplay between instruments is also morphing, until the listener is tangled up in a surprise, jaunty swing. If only music this inventive actually were so easy to come by.