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Marc MELLITS (b. 1969)
Smoke (2003) [20:36]
Red (2008) [13:02]
String Quartet No. 3 Tapas (2008) [15:05]
Prime (2008) [16:50]
New Music Detroit
rec. Orchestra Hall, Max M. and Marjorie S. Fischer Music Center, Detroit; Brown Hall, New England Conservatory, Boston; Dover Studios, Chicago
INNOVA 004 [65:35]

I hadn’t heard much about Marc Mellits before receiving a review copy of Smoke, and there’s no help in this regard from this release, which has full credits and track listings but no booklet. His website reveals a considerable CV with works performed by leading ensembles and orchestras, his music appearing in recordings alongside the likes of Steve Reich, and by skilled musicians such as the Strike duo. The present CD is the result of a long collaboration between this composer and the innovative musicians of New Music Detroit.

The word ‘eclectic’ pops up more than once in Mellits’ own biography, and you will find associations of various kinds popping into your head as you listen to Smoke. The eight movements of this piece are unnamed, but each is a more or less brief vignette like a window through which we can peek into a variety of goings-on. Influences which can, to my ears, be identified are a Frank Zappa rawness in the sophisticated rock-energy of the first movement, contrasting with Michael Nyman in soft film-music mode in the second and fifth with an acoustic guitar adding a Mediterranean feel, and more up-beat Wim Mertens vibe in the third. Some of these connections are due to the instrumentation, with saxophone, guitar, marimba and percussion including drum kit providing a surprisingly wide range of colours and atmospheres. The fourth and sixth movements have a ‘Tubular Bells’ quality with marimbas providing its ostinato basis, while the finale returns to the more grungy feel of the opening.

Red is for two marimbas and is in six movements. Mellits explores the low and mellifluous range of these fine sounding instruments in the opening moderately funky movement, and even in the fast, aggressive, vicious second there is no escaping the relatively sweet character of those woody notes. This is music written in a quasi-minimalist style, but with the longest of these movements being 3 minutes Mellits’ reputation as a miniaturist is secure. Each piece arrives without the need for an introduction, tells its story and leaves without any fuss. Most fascinating is the fourth movement, slow, with motion, in which soft sticks turn the sound into a kind of woolly organ out of which a descending harmonic progression emerges.

String Quartet No. 3: Tapas opens with a striking unison sound that is remarkably un-string quartet like. Another set of eight short movements, this is music that examines interesting sonorities that grow out of close canonic chases, and almost folk-music like melodic/rhythmic patterns performed by all four players at once. Even where a simpler melodic line has the lead there are always fascinating things going on in the accompaniment in ways that make you want to look at the score to see how it has been done. The timeless and dramatic atmosphere of the final movement, that rises to and ends on a single note, is also rather special.

The last piece here, Prime for bass clarinet, baritone saxophone, two percussionists and piano is at nearly 17 minutes by far the longest single movement on the CD. The pots and pans of the percussion ‘kitchen’ department set up a funky rhythm into which the low winds and rolling bass of the piano dive with relish. Prime moves through a variety of sections, keeping up a miniaturist feel but presenting these musical vignettes on a large and colourful canvas. These sections cover a now familiar clutch of idiomatic tropes, but there is never a dull moment in this piece and the end is wild and exhilarating.

Well recorded and performed with palpable verve, this is a highly entertaining and skilfully crafted release which will provide a juicy new source of musical vibrancy for many, if not the depths of profundity you might seek if your world is framed only by composers whose names end in ‘er’. Artistic Director and percussionist Ian Ding is quoted on the Innova website: “Marc is one of our oldest friends and collaborators so it was only natural to feature his music on our first official album. We were especially excited to record 'Smoke', which was commissioned and premiered by NMD.” Established in 2006 I was surprised to read that this is New Music Detroit´s first album. Let´s hope it will be the first of many.

Dominy Clements

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