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American Wild Ensemble evokes nature with 'Duos and Trios' 

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Few musicians are as tied to nature as those in American Wild Ensemble. Directed by flutist Emlyn Johnson and cellist Daniel Ketter — who both received their doctorates at Eastman School of Music — the contemporary classical group commissions new chamber music from composers with the goal of helping audiences connect more directly to their environment.

Originally created to play new music in national parks, the American Wild Ensemble has tasked composers Margaret Brouwer, David Liptak, David Clay Mettens, and Aaron Travers with writing works that are influenced by nature. “Duos and Trios,” released in July by New Focus Recordings, was the result.

“Stillwater Marsh” by Aaron Travers is anything but still. It evokes the many species of birds found at that marsh in Bloomington, Indiana. Ketter’s cello sounds as if its sound is feeding back through an amplifier, as he plays around with distorted timbres and harmonic overtones. Meanwhile Johnson’s flute flutters through complicated articulations. “Stillwater Marsh” is less about communicating a melody than it is about evoking a vibe. At no point, however, does it veer into atonal territory.

The link to nature is less overt in Mettens’s “Avaloch Sketches.” The composition is notable, however, for its captivating range of moods, from the complementary roles of the flute and cello in “I. Floating” to the caustic interplay in “II. Aggressive.” To call this music “mercurial” is like calling the music of Mozart “melodic.”

For “Two Nocturnes” by Liptak, Johnson and Ketter are joined by clarinetist Ellen Breakfield-Glick, who adds brightness while providing a buffer between the sometimes harsh differences in tone of the flute and cello. The two movements, titled “Stone and Leaf” and “Under Starry Skies,” are meant to be performed outside. Breakfield-Glick’s clarinet brings intrigue to the American Wild Ensemble’s sound, and Liptak’s deliberate use of sonic space between the three instruments makes for a more open, resonant sonic environment.

“Fear, Hiding, Play” by Brouwer draws from the vocalizations of birds in the Great Lakes region. The trio of musicians uses a full palette of unconventional techniques to create a different range of expressive possibilities that prioritizes an ambient environment rather than melodies.

“Duos and Trios” is the perfect album for those listeners wanting to dip their toes into experimental sounds without abandoning melodies altogether. A winning combination of accessible and adventurous, “Duos and Trios” finds American Wild Ensemble operating with sensitivity and precision. The music is impossible to pin down, but that’s not the point. Johnson, Ketter, and Breakfield-Glick understand that hooking the audience means providing people with the familiar while also leaving room for mystery.

Daniel J. Kushner is CITY’s arts editor. He can be reached at
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