By David Templeton | From the July-August 2023 issue of Strings Magazine

It was simply a matter of time. Although all six members of the NYC-based classical ensemble yMusic have devoted themselves to bringing original music to life through their collective and individual collaborations with world-class musicians and composers, it was only recently that they started taking a crack at writing their own unique compositions.

And it was none other than Paul Simon who pushed the idea.

“He explicitly had a conversation with us, telling us to start composing our own music,” says yMusic violinist Rob Moose, describing the moment when everything changed for the 15-year-old ensemble he co-founded in 2008. On a Zoom call with yMusic’s violist Nadia Sirota and its cellist Gabriel Cabezas, Moose recalls how Simon—during a 2018/19 tour in which the uniquely structured sextet served as backup band to the musical legend—encouraged the players to tap into the inner composers they’d been gradually growing into since they joined together as recent music school graduates. “After our ten-plus years of playing and interpreting other people’s music, Paul pointed out that we had the keys to the kingdom, that we understood better than anyone what our group sounds like and could sound like. It was an example of someone else seeing the best version of us, and we were immediately, like, ‘Okay. Sure. Let’s do it. The worst thing that could happen is we would fail.’”

Four years later, yMusic has created its first album of music composed entirely by the members of the ensemble, and based on the early responses from music writers and fans, the result is not only not a failure, it stands as one of the most exciting and confident chamber music releases of the year. Appropriately self-titled yMusic (StorySound Records), the May 2023 release marks a major turning point for the group, the other members of which are flutist Alex Sopp, clarinetist Hideaki Aomori, and trumpeter C.J. Camerieri.

yMusic self-titled album
yMusic, yMusic (StorySound Records)

According to Sirota, the album’s debut remains a bit of a surprise to the entire group. “This project basically came into the world kicking and screaming and fighting not to be born,” she says with a laugh. “When Paul had that conversation with us, we were really flattered by it, so we put some writing days into our rehearsal schedule, and I think the general attitude—at least from me, initially—was to wonder if it was a waste of our time. But we gave it a go, and immediately, the first time we sat down to compose, we wrote something really cool. I think it shocked us all.”

Even then, it took a while for the group to shift its view of what it was and what it was supposed to be creating. Its genesis, after all, was all about supporting the creativity of other artists. And it’s been a successful model. From the very beginning, yMusic has drawn the attention and interest of such acclaimed composers as Caroline Shaw (winner of a 2013 Pulitzer Prize for her Partita for 8 Voices), Missy Mazzoli (whose numerous works include a 2016 opera based on Lars von Trier’s award-winning film Breaking the Waves), and Nico Muhly, a prolific composer whose works include the 2014 oratorio Sentences, inspired by the life of logician Alan Turing. yMusic has also developed fruitful collaborations with a number of popular artists such as José González, Emily King, John Legend, Son Lux, Bruce Hornsby, and the Staves, performing around the world from Carnegie Hall and Madison Square Garden to the Sydney Opera House and the Elbphilharmonie Hamburg. In addition to recording with several of the previously mentioned artists, they’ve released four of their own recordings of commissioned music: Beautiful Mechanical (2011), Balance Problems (2014), First (2017), and Ecstatic Science (2020).

“Most of us graduated from conservatory at around the same time, in the mid-2000s,” Moose says, “and we all separately found ourselves doing combinations of freelance performing in New York City—some classical, some less so.” After a number of years, it became clear that a core group of those performers were frequently showing up for various collaborations with bands and singers, specifically acts like Sufjan Stevens and the National. As much as Moose, Camerieri, and some of the others enjoyed those opportunities—particularly the chance to work with specific for-hire musicians—they soon recognized an inconsistency in which for-hire musicians would be brought on to accompany such performances.

“So,” Moose continues, “we decided to take the initiative to start our own group of musicians who really enjoyed playing together, and we would specialize in those kinds of collaborative opportunities.” In 2008, the six members of the group officially became yMusic, their Generation Y–inspired name a temporary placeholder that was never replaced. Featuring flute, trumpet, clarinet, violin, viola, and cello—originally with Clarice Jensen on cello—the group displayed an unusual blend of instrumentation that made them more or less one-of-a-kind among NYC backup/session teams. “We were really happy with what we landed on,” Moose says, “because we ended up encompassing a kind of small Greatest Hits of the Orchestra structure, with strings, winds, and brass.”


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Eventually, yMusic worked its way into commissioning music and performing on their own, but in the beginning, they were all about collaborating with existing artists and groups who needed additional musical support. “The cool thing is, once we started playing together in this unorthodox instrumentation—string trio, trumpet, flute, clarinet—we realized we loved the chamber music dynamic of the group,” says Sirota. “Before we even played with bands and singers onstage, we had composers writing music for us, so our identity grew in tandem with this music that was written just for the group.”

For example, one of the first pieces written for yMusic was the 2010 composition Clearing, Dawn, Dance by composer Judd Greenstein. If some elaborately shifting, ever-moving Rube Goldberg version of a cartoon perpetual-motion machine could be transformed into music, this would be it, a piece so delightfully inventive and fun it takes one a moment to recognize how cleverly and creatively constructed it is. The way the musicians toss the bouncing, twirling, interweaving melodies back and forth could easily make a listener wonder what kinds of tag-you’re-it games might be played by the various instruments in a chamber orchestra if they magically came to life late at night.

“In the context of that piece,” explains Sirota, “we realized that together, we could make this really interesting sort of rhythmic music and that we could sound like a brass section if we all imitated the trumpet articulations, that we could sound like an all-string section if the woodwinds did certain unexpected things. It became really exciting for us to think about that kind of rule-breaking articulation and the identities of the different instruments in our group as a sort of jumping-off point to create some really different sounds and textures.”

Five years later, when Jensen departed and Gabriel Cabezas joined the group, “something really magical happened,” affirms Sirota. It turns out that Cabezas—whom the Washington Post recently named as one of its “23 Composers and Performers to Watch in ’23”—had been following the rise of yMusic and counted himself as a bit of a fan. “He believed in us,” says Sirota, “believed in the reality of yMusic in a way that inspired us to live up to that belief. He joined the group in 2014, and we’ve been playing together ever since.”

“I was coming out of music school. I graduated in 2013,” says Cabezas, who studied at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, “and I was really interested in finding out how broad a musical career could be. I was just really pushing myself to take advantage of a lot of different opportunities to play different kinds of music and not fall into some very defined role of whatever I might be expected to do.” While at school, Cabezas had become familiar with the work of yMusic—especially the 2011 album Beautiful Mechanical—and only realized after joining the group that he’d also been hearing them on a number of indie rock albums he’d been listening to for years.

That flexibility is one of the group’s most impressive features. “A big part of the job, whether we’re working in the classical realm or the pop music realm, is to help the composer realize their vision,” Sirota explains. “I think there is definitely a yMusic sound, mainly because our instrumentation is so specific. If someone hears anything similar, they might go, ‘Hmmm, I wonder if that’s yMusic.’ But also, speaking mainly of my five colleagues, not one of them ever plays a note blandly. All of us will see a note on the page and really try to do something interesting with it.”

That’s what drew the yMusic players to each other, they all agree—that idea of constant invention, constant music making. Which has always meant collaboration with others. “Something that has always been important to us is giving voice to composers of all ilk, really rooting for the underdogs for helping to make the compositional pool more diverse and varied,” says Moose. “In our first few albums, we worked with lots of different writers, some established and some not, some from the more conventional, classical, composer-y world and some who hadn’t really considered themselves composers.”


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That latter category would definitely include themselves. Even after discovering they enjoyed composing together—having accumulated a stock of partially finished pieces—it was not until the pandemic forced them apart and off the road, increasingly eager for opportunities to connect over long distances, that they began composing with an album in mind. They took about 20 ideas they had in hand and began writing and recording in earnest.

“There are, of course, a ton of different challenges that our instrumentation presents,” says Sirota. “We’ve found over the years that these are wonderful challenges to solve, and different composers we’ve worked with have solved them in amazing ways. Now that we are writing for ourselves, we are facing the same challenges, so we are being subjected to the same kind of insanity that we’ve subjected other people to, but it gives us room to do some really cool stuff.”

Many of the pieces on the new album started from the group experimenting with getting a rhythmic center going, a challenge for a group with no drummer. “We’ve solved that in a lot of different ways,” Sirota says. “And then we have the ability to sound like a horn section or a woodwind section. It’s really fun to play with all of those colors and textures.”

In one absorbingly ambient track titled “Peter Inn,” Moose and Sirota create a repetitive rhythm track by plucking entirely behind the bridge of their instruments—it reads as almost non-pitched. In the piece “Cloud,” Cabezas plays the main riff while also beating on his cello. 

“If we have an overriding philosophy to how we compose together,” explains Cabezas, “it’s one of constant creative problem solving.” As he describes the process, one member of the group will make a creative decision about a piece of music, perhaps presenting a musical idea or a bar of music, and like a line of dominoes knocking each other forward, everyone reacts to the previous decision with a new decision, requiring another new decision and on and on until the group has written a composition they are all happy with. “That is very rewarding for us,” Cabezas says. “It scratches our brains in a satisfying way.”


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Designed for easy access for listeners who might be somewhat intimidated by yMusic’s classical/chamber identity, the album is made up of pieces created primarily in “song form,” even incorporating stylized vocals on some of the tracks. And every piece is just so, for lack of a better word, cool. It is easy to imagine people sharing it with one another, saying, “You’ve never heard anything quite like this!”

One of the album’s most striking pieces, the track “Zebras,” is an example of the group’s experimental problem-solving approach to writing. There is a noticeable key-click sound throughout the piece, made by clarinetist Hideaki Aomori, more of an accident than an act of intentional creation. “Hideaki wasn’t saying, ‘Hey look, check out this weird sound,’” Sirota says. “It was more that he was just kind of messing around on his instrument, and we all went, ‘Whoa!  What’s that?’ A lot of the main kernels of ideas come from observation rather than improvisation.” 

It is the group’s mutual admiration of each other’s artistry, combined with the highest possible artistic and professional standards, that supersedes any individual desire to promote one member’s creative idea over another. “We are six extremely opinionated people,” Sirota confirms, “so if an idea can go through all six of us and still come out a winning idea, then we are all really happy and confident with it.” 

Moose points out that the pieces they ended up with were created primarily just for themselves, with little initial thought of how others would react. “Now, though, having actually completed the album, I think people will really like what we’ve created, these pieces that are both familiar but really different,” he says. “I’m very proud of what we’ve ended up with on this album.”

Sirota agrees. “Now that the album has been released,” she says, “there is something neat about getting to say, ‘Hey! Look! We made that. This music isn’t in our heads anymore. It’s out in the world.’”