Music on the Edge presents NOW Ensemble -- but don't call their music "New" | Music | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Music on the Edge presents NOW Ensemble -- but don't call their music "New"

click to enlarge Rub-a-dub dub: NOW Ensemble
Rub-a-dub dub: NOW Ensemble

Composer Patrick Burke expresses concern about "New Music," the hermetic, academic realm where his elder 20th-century colleagues had their pieces realized for the last few decades. "It started with the snobbish idea that we do something that other people don't do, that most people can't understand it, and that if an audience likes it, it must be terrible," he says. "The term 'New Music' is the kiss of death."

Burke, a North Hills native who plays piano and guitar, formed NOW Ensemble with fellow composer Judd Greenstein while at the Yale School of Music. He drew upon underground rock and minimalist influences rather than classical. Burke now teaches at Duquesne's music school, where he once studied with Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble founder David Stock, and is earning a doctorate in composition.

The New York-based NOW Ensemble's 2007 debut CD is part of a growing, vibrant indie label run by Greenstein called New Amsterdam Records. The label's hip business acumen reflects the new-school DIY attitude that NOW has about their work. "The reason why Reich and Glass come up so much is that they're a good model," says Burke. "Unlike other composers, they performed their music, or had something to do with the production, getting their hands in it as if it were a rock group or jazz combo. Our ensemble has a unique combination of sounds to begin with -- flute, clarinet, electric guitar, piano and bass."

Similar groups might play a work once or twice and move on, but NOW can play a piece many times, like a rock band, internalizing its physicality. Burke's "All Together Now" is a prime example of why that succeeds. "It starts off in minimalist tradition but turns into an explicit 'rock' song -- sometimes everyone is playing the same line, and sometimes it's staggered or slowly transforming into everyone having their own part and function."

Whether you call NOW an instrumental post-rock chamber ensemble, or stick to the dreaded New Music label, there's no denying that they stretch the composer/performer dichotomy while searching for a wider, if still erudite, listener base. "It's not just people from the universities who are moving in that direction," says Burke. "Pop musicians like Björk and Radiohead are getting closer to what contemporary classical composers are doing. I feel like it's reciprocal."


Music on the Edge presents NOW Ensemble 8 p.m. Sat., Nov. 22. Bellefield Hall Auditorium, Oakland. $10-15 (Pitt students free). 412-394-3353 or

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