The formation of the ensemble yMusic was initiated at a concert by the National at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, early in 2008. The National was one of several bands and songwriters who regularly incorporated parts for classical instruments into their recordings and live shows.
Rob Moose, a violinist, and C.J. Camerieri, a trumpeter, were both playing that night. They knew each other from earlier gigs. Standing 45 feet apart on the BAM stage, they both had the same realization: The National sounded like a band, while the other musicians sounded like a bunch of other musicians.
“We were struck by the contrast between the fact that the band had been playing together since high school and had brothers in it, and there’s this closeness and seriousness in what they do,” said Moose by phone from San Francisco, where he was touring with guitarist and songwriter Blake Mills. “And [they had] an interest in working with instrumentalists, but there [wasn’t] a group that existed that approached the music with the same intricacy and depth that they did. They just sort of slapped different people on stage, and all of a sudden it’s ‘The National with Strings!’ And we felt like this was deserving of going deeper.”
Another friend and veteran of pop-classical gigs, violist Nadia Sirota, was in the audience, and met up with them at the afterparty. Shortly thereafter, they formed yMusic with three other colleagues. The six were all members of Generation Y — hence the group’s name. They had gone through conservatory education in New York at the same time and had wide-open listening tastes. (The group now comprises Moose, Camerieri, Sirota, cellist Clarice Jensen, flutist Alex Sopp, and clarinetist Hideaki Aomori.)
Talk about “genre-crossing” is ubiquitous now, almost cheap. But yMusic became the first classical group to rest its identity on the notion that a collaboration with Sufjan Stevens or My Brightest Diamond was worth taking as seriously as any so-called “serious” piece of music. “We like to say that we approach the musical challenges of pop music as if it were Bach,” wrote Camerieri in an e-mail, “and we approach classical music with the performance aesthetic that we learned through these experiences in popular music.”
Having made its name through collaboration — the band comes to the Sinclair on Tuesday, opening for and playing with Mills, and accompanies Sam Green’s “The Measure of All Things,” a documentary film with live narration, at the ICA on Oct. 23 — yMusic is also coming into its own as a self-standing ensemble. It is featured on a new album of works by Richard Reed Parry of Arcade Fire, “Music for Heart and Breath” (Deutsche Grammophon). And it is about to release its second album under its own name, “Balance Problems” (New Amsterdam), featuring new compositions by Nico Muhly, Timo Andres, and Andrew Norman, among others. The album was produced by the electronica composer Son Lux.
Innovative as the ensemble is, you might still wonder about the unusual instrumentation — three strings, two winds, and trumpet. But it goes back to the impulse that brought them together in the first place. “We started with the idea of who are the people we would want to be in this group, rather than what is the instrumentation that makes sense,” said Moose.
“It’s a strange orchestration,” admitted Sirota, speaking from New York, “but it’s one that came out of friendship and not out of a desire to have a trumpet in a string trio.” Forming the group was almost more of a statement about artistic intention than about specific instrumental availability. In Sirota’s words, “We are the people we want to work with. You don’t have to hire people individually; you can hire us. You know we’ll bring something good to the table.”
More than the instruments, the defining characteristic of yMusic is a flexibility of working method that liberates both them and their collaborators from a dependence on written notes, something still anathema to many classical-music practitioners.
“We respect the printed page, but we’re tied to the idea that music is the movement of sound in space, so we’re trying to make that the best that’s possible,” explained Sirota. “That means that sometimes the page is the word of God, sometimes the page is something that vaguely resembles what we end up doing, sometimes the page is a jumping-off point, and sometimes the page doesn’t exist.”
At one extreme, Moose said, are artists like Gabriel Kahane and the band Dirty Projectors, where the songwriters write the arrangements. Even so, “we tend to be really opinionated about the things people write for us. . . . Even with the pieces that are written for us, we at least tend to workshop them a lot and put parts of ourselves into them.”
At the other end of the spectrum is a just-initiated project with Ben Folds, which began with almost nothing thought out. “We’ve gone into the recording studio with sometimes almost no music, just kind of memories of things he’s created spontaneously on stage,” Moose said. “And he’ll show us different parts, and we just are able to all create a structure out of that.”
Different, in almost every way, are the various “Heart and Breath” pieces on Parry’s album, all of which require musicians to play in synch with their own breathing or their heartbeat, or another musician’s heartbeat (aided by a stethoscope in one ear). A casual survey of the album makes the music seem almost dull, but a close, attentive listen reveals rhythms falling in and out of coincidence in a way that’s almost discomfitingly intimate.
“It works against you as a player, especially the breathing part,” said Sirota. “The way I play viola is very breath-dependent. I want to connect lines. And so by controlling my breath, making it just a default in and out, you can’t create these long legatos and connections. And what’s really interesting is that every time he puts an obstacle there, you have to find a musical way around it. And I found that this music made me play so consciously, which I really loved.”
All the yMusicians spend a lot of their lives on the road and have other gigs and commitments. Far from a detriment, Sirota said, those outside experiences help to refresh the experience. “I think that’s part of what makes us a wonderful group. We’re always thrilled to see each other, and I’m not sure that’s true if you’re only playing with the same people every day.”
Blake Mills with yMusic
At: The Sinclair
Tuesday, 8:30 p.m.
Tickets: $23.50, 800-745-3000, www.sinclaircambridge.com
‘THE MEASURE OF ALL THINGS’
At: The ICA
Oct. 23, 7 and 9 p.m.
Tickets: $25, students $20
617-478-3103, www.icaboston.orgDavid Weininger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.