It begins much like any show at any small club in New York. Under glowing lights, the musicians, in casual clothing, take up their instruments. They smile at one another with a relaxed warmth; they acknowledge their audience. They begin to play.
It sounds like indie rock, familiar and pleasant. The singer’s voice is sweet and smooth. And then you notice: She’s not singing words, but making sounds that mimic actual lyrics. What started as a melody line is lasting too long and becoming strange. One of the players moves his body in a way that looks painful, then does something to his instrument that makes it sound like it’s breaking. It is otherworldly and uncanny. It is definitely not a rock concert.
This is Invisible Anatomy, a contemporary classical chamber ensemble. On January 28 they premiere a new evening-length work, Dissections, at National Sawdust, Brooklyn’s recently opened hub for experimental music. Like the venue, Invisible Anatomy aim to break down the barrier between pop and so-called New Music — and they want it to be fun.
“The notion [that] you need to suffer through New Music isn’t something we’re interested in,” explains pianist Dan Schlosberg, one of the seven composers who together constitute Invisible Anatomy. “We are trying to have a more direct relationship with our audience.”
Although the group is now New York–based, it began in New Haven with its members’ studies at the Yale School of Music. In the composition program there, students personally select which classmates perform their pieces; the musicians who would become Invisible Anatomy found themselves choosing to play together often. With several of them eyeing graduation, the ensemble formed in 2014 so that they could continue performing together. In so doing they joined New York’s vibrant tradition of classical experimentation — and found themselves among like-minded outfits, such as Wet Ink Ensemble and Bang on a Can, revitalizing the genre.
At first, Invisible Anatomy mostly knew what they didn’t want to do. “A normal concert of New Music is often a grab bag of unrelated pieces” by different composers, explains Schlosberg. The players wear all black, the lighting is overhead and glaring, and the fourth wall might as well be solid steel. Warmth, humor, and narrative are absent. “[You end up] pretending that just playing beautiful music creates an exciting experience,” Schlosberg says. Invisible Anatomy believe that this dogmatism turns many listeners away from contemporary classical, and those are precisely the people whose ears the ensemble aims to win back.
Guitarist Brendon Randall-Myers had played in bands before turning to New Music, and his input led Invisible Anatomy to draw on the model of the former. “We talked early on about what a band does that a chamber ensemble could do better, especially the fact that a band cultivates a relationship over a long period of time,” says Randall-Myers. “Bands are saying something true about themselves, whereas classical is letting someone else” — the composer — “speak for you. This is an opportunity to do both those things.”
In operating this way, the members of Invisible Anatomy have all become intimately familiar with one another’s discrete personal style; they can thus devote rehearsal time to finesse and expression, rather than trying to determine just what the composer or conductor is asking each player to do. Each of their seasons is, in its way, an album: Last year’s Body Parts was the first. Dissections, meanwhile, is a suite of interconnected pieces, one from each member, exploring what Randall-Myers calls “intimacy as a physical discomfort,” the notion that there is a threshold beyond which closeness ceases to be inviting and instead becomes unbearable. “When you’re trying to get to know someone, you have to overcome that. It’s a very active process,” he explains. “It’s not quite violence, but it’s a lot of energy expenditure.” In Dissections, instruments serve as proxy for that invasion, and Invisible Anatomy hope to bust open the relationship between player and piece, between performer and audience.
The performance employs two dozen fluorescent tube lights to illuminate the stage. The players manipulate them to form shadows and spotlights, and the act becomes one of movement, not just music. It’s a technique reminiscent of indie electro superstars Purity Ring, whose similar use of light creates riveting visuals. The production value is higher than that typically enjoyed by New Music acts, the resulting experience more accessible.
“The visual presentation of classical is ‘people on a pedestal being amazing,’ ” says Randall-Myers. “Having gone to grad school, I’ve been to so many goddamn…” He trails off, sighs, and continues. “We’re very conscious of making sure we’re creating an altered performance space. It’s an experiential breach between walking on the street and being at some stuffy concert.”
In Dissections, each piece fixates on one element of a musical phrase or text, repeating — or dissecting — it until it becomes unrecognizable. Randall-Myers chose to split a single passage across multiple instruments playing at different tempos. The phrase becomes harder to identify as the piece progresses: “It sounds like the boundaries between things are fuzzy. They’re not exactly separate or unified. You can parse what you’re hearing, but it’s out of focus.”
The other composers make use of disparate means. Cellist Ian Gottlieb’s piece calls for tuning down a keyboard a quarter-tone from the rest of the ensemble, effecting a subtle dissonance that bleeds the edges of chords together and bores into the in-between. Vocalist Fay Wang studied microexpressions — the involuntary facial tics that betray otherwise concealed emotions — with the goal to interpret them musically while simultaneously reproducing them with her own mien. (Randall-Myers, who is also Wang’s husband, finds the piece “mechanical and creepy.”) Percussionist Ben Wallace places a deadpan reading of an Enigma machine manual over gimmicky vaudeville and smooth jazz, the schlocky tunes clashing with this morbid history. Pianist Paul Kerekes pulls the first word from Wallace’s text (“press”) and breaks it into syllables — puh-reh-ess — mirroring the breakdown in the music.
Schlosberg’s contribution to Dissections is the most demanding: Five players coax sounds from the strings of a grand piano with screwdrivers and knives while Wang uses its soundboard as a vocal resonator. “It’s like real surgery,” says Schlosberg. “Being one-sixteenth off will hit the wrong string. We basically had to learn a new instrument.” Leonardo da Vinci’s meticulous examinations of cadavers, the first recorded studies of their kind, provided the inspiration and textual component for the piece. “I’m subjecting the piano to various inflictions that it normally does not experience, mirroring that visual element of opening the piano up as a body,” Schlosberg says. Da Vinci splayed open his corpses in search of a tangible human soul, and although Schlosberg says he isn’t trying to find the soul of the piano, his work creates a new identity for a familiar instrument. Of all the pieces, his is the only one that can be seen, literally, as a dissection.
Schlosberg hopes that mining these undiscovered spaces will also offer the opportunity for audiences to explore themselves. “We want people to find their own intimate encounters with the music, just as we are doing with the elements of the pieces,” he says. “As musicians, all we can hope for is that people experience an emotion that allows them to find a relationship with our work, whatever it is.”
Invisible Anatomy will perform Dissections at National Sawdust on January 28 at 7 p.m. For ticket information, click here.