The Uncommon Ground of Common Sense
It's been nearly a decade since the music of the Common Sense Composers Collective first surfaced on CD. Like other contemporaneous discs in the CRI Emergency Music series, their eponymous debut disc challenged the rarified asceticism of the then still-reigning though waning contemporary music orthodoxy with joyous abandon. Even its cover, featuring eight clearly fun-loving folks, already dented the wall of solemnity that is suggested by the ubiquitous dour tweed-suit mugshots on many contemporary music recordings. But, ultimately, it was the sheer persuasiveness of the music that ultimately crashed down those walls.
What made that first Common Sense disc a highlight among a stellar group of mid-1990s recordings, and what has made the Collective's subsequent projects provocative and engaging, was the counterpoint of eight clearly distinct voices responding to the same compositional stimulus. While the members of this group simultaneously share an Ivy League pedigree and a distrust of "academic" music, they frequently indulge rather divergent stylistic inclinations. Their musical inheritance—a combination of classical compositional training filtered through the legacy of minimalism and an unapologetic exposure to rock and other forms of so-called popular music—plays out in exciting juxtapositions. While Dan Becker seems to revel in the meticulousness of minimalist procedures while paradoxically subverting them, Marc Melitts's music feeds off of minimalism's raw energy and Belinda Reynolds's off of its potential for exuberant melody. Randy Woolf's music synthesizes and incorporates pop elements while John Halle's music seems to be critiquing them. The unbridled ecstasy of Carolyn Yarnell's music is a stark contrast to Melissa Hui's introspection. And Ed Harsh's postmodern collages seem to tie these various opposite strands together while at the same time sounding completely unrelated to any of them. But, of course, this is a glib oversimplification. It is perhaps at best only an opening aesthetic position from which each of their initial personal idioms then take flight once their compositional inspirations start flowing and their ideas begin to bounce off each other. This inevitably happens during Common Sense’s unique collaborative workshop process, which is what makes these projects so exciting.
The other fundamental ingredient along with this counterpoint of compositional personalities is the additional element of a specific fixed ensemble. In that first recording, it was an assembled ensemble that resembled ragtime bands of the early 1900s, but playing music that was, for the most part, decidedly not ragtime. For their second recording, The Shock of the Old (for Santa Fe New Music recordings), the collective upped the ante by enlisting American Baroque, an 18th century period instrument ensemble, as the voice through which their music spoke.
Perhaps after such unexpected gambits, this current collection, involving seven of the eight members of the collective, might at first seem tame. Scored for a "Pierrot plus percussion" ensemble, this combination of flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano and percussion seems ubiquitous in 20th century music. It is even named after the instrumentation accompanying an unhinged expressionistic voice in the landmark 1912 Pierrot lunaire by gnarly new music's patron saint, Arnold Schoenberg. Yet, somehow choosing such an established contemporary music medium is somehow even more subversive. In the first years of the 21st century, which their music composed in the last few years of the 20th predicts, the Pierrot ensemble seems as much a period instrument band as the groups assembled for the other discs. In fact, John Halle goes as far as describing it as a "well-worn" ensemble suggesting "musty, not to say oppressive Viennese associations.” So, by creating their own anything-but-musty-or-oppressive music for these forces the members of the Common Sense Composers Collective are somehow redefining and recontextualizing the core sonorities of what new music has been for previous generations, and reclaiming it for future generations.