Newspeak, Sweet Light Crude

John Schaefer

By John Schaefer

on 07.03.12 in Reviews

The so-called “indie classical” scene in New York has spawned numerous composer-led ensembles, and David T Little’s Newspeak has helped establish the format: accepted classical instruments joined by the sounds of rock or jazz (here including Little’s own drum kit), usually employing amplification, and a roster of composers that includes the band’s own founder and like-minded colleagues. Where Newspeak sets itself apart from the others, though, is its sociopolitical bent. The band name comes from the intentionally mind-numbing language of George Orwell’s novel 1984, and Little’s own works have extra-musical concerns that he hopes will engage your mind. (These vary widely, from the treatment of returning veterans with post-traumatic stress syndrome in “Soldier Songs” to the early history ofBrooklyn in “Am I Born.”) How you respond to the title track of this Newspeak record may well depend on whether you find “serious music” (whatever that is) and politics to be an uncomfortable fit.

Indie classical with a sociopolitical bent

Sweet Light Crude is a twisted love song/power ballad to that object of universal desire, oil. Melissa Hughes’s vocals begin sweetly enough, but as the ensemble becomes increasingly driven and amplified, those vocals take on an edge of hysteria. The piece, the central work as well as the title track of this collection, concludes in the sound world of rock, with the electric guitar and drums leading the way, and the text offering a kind of ambiguous acceptance or resignation.

Most of the composers represented here forgo the usual classical chamber music gentility for an in-your-face, urban vibe, beginning with Oscar Bettison’s bruising “B&E (with aggravated assault)” — a work that has now been recorded several times and seems to be a worthy companion to Pulitzer Prize-winner David Lang’s new music classic Lying Cheating Stealing. But violinist/composer Caleb Burhans (ubiquitous on the New York scene and an almost inevitable member of Newspeak) offers something quite different to wrap up: “Requiem for a General Motors in Janesville, WI” is a lovely, atmospheric lament for a lost source of jobs in the eponymous Wisconsin town.