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Across the Universe

Fivebyfive turns classical music loose with album 'Of and Between’

 Fivebyfive from left, Marcy Bacon, Laura Lentz, Sungmin Shin, Eric J. Polenik and Haeyeun Jeun.
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Fivebyfive from left, Marcy Bacon, Laura Lentz, Sungmin Shin, Eric J. Polenik and Haeyeun Jeun.

Laura Lentz and Marc Webster are sitting in front of a mixing board that sprawls along one wall of Webster’s Blue on Blue recording studio. They’re speaking an exclusive language that straddles the classical world and the pop-music world: Reverb. Echo. Sonic environment. Audience engagement.

The music of the Rochester chamber ensemble fivebyfive is classical that thinks like rock. Fivebyfive also speaks jazz, although Lentz notes that it is “improvising on classical language rather than jazz language.”

The quintet doesn’t settle for static boundaries. Webster dials up “Blue Jewel,” from the group’s fascinating and uncategorizable debut album, “Of and Between.” The piece opens with anarchy, as though someone has rolled a piano down the stairs. But in a few moments, a recognizable composition emerges.

“We spent a lot of time in the mixing sessions,” Lentz says, “using words like, ‘We want this to sound like being wrapped in a blanket.’”

“And so, how do you create that?” she adds. “Classical groups usually don’t think in that way, they don’t talk in that way. They record and, like, that’s pretty much it.”

But fivebyfive is classical turned loose in the toy store. And over the last two years, Webster says, “the pandemic just put it into overdrive.”

“We started doing crazy amounts of recording,” Lentz says.

Fivebyfive is Marcy Bacon on clarinet, electric guitarist Sungmin Shin, bassist Eric J. Polenik, pianist Haeyeun Jeun and Lentz on flute. Then add Webster, who describes his role with fivebyfive as similar to what George Martin was to The Beatles. A producer, a knob-twiddler, yet as key to the sound as the musicians themselves. “We use the studio, like another instrument,.” Webster says.

The group is very much of the classical world. It has a board, and an advisory board. Financially sustained through grants, it commissions pieces from composers.

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Yet fivebyfive ranges across the entire planet. Webster can apply to the music the sonic textures of a cathedral in Reykjavik, Iceland, without leaving his Park Avenue-area studio.

The very name — fivebyfive — reflects not only the group’s membership, but also the technology of U.S. Army radio communication during World War II. On a scale of one to five, a five in both signal strength and clarity was the best signal possible.

Yet the technology of fivebyfive is often buried where a listener would never notice it. Seeming mundanities such as the placement of the microphones during recording sessions. Will it be one mic for the entire room, or each instrument isolated on its own spot mic?

“What I found is, since we were starting to record a little more often, the more often that you do something, you start getting your own ideas,” Webster says. “And you start wanting to push the ideas, and push the boundaries.” Soon, it was all about the spot mics. “Which is the way you record rock bands, not the way you record classical bands.”

This is evident in “Dancing About Architecture,” the opening track on “Of and Between.” The phrase is drawn from the famous quote, “writing about music is like dancing about architecture,” which Lentz attributes to Frank Zappa, although others have been credited with it as well. The music is the architecture, we’re all just gyrating around it.

Marc Webster
Provided
Marc Webster.

“I got to one point in the piece,” Webster says, “and I was thinking, like, you know, if this was just a rock band, that was a singer and they did this ‘daaa-daaaa,’ I would naturally put a little echo on it. So we get ‘daaa-daaaa, wha-wha-wha’ — that kind of a thing that would be a really normal thing on a rock mix.”

The group performs only music by living composers. That’s good news for the composers -- that they’re alive. “And we want composers to be like, wowed, by the possibilities,” Lentz says. “The palette, the color palette, that we have with just flute, clarinet, electric guitar, piano and bass.”

In fact, the sonic palette heard on “Of and Between” is inspired by visual artists. Three pieces by New York City photographer James Weller, known for his images fusing architecture and dance. That part of the album is the “Choreograph Collection.” Four by Judith Schaechter, a glass artist from Philadelphia who had a show at the Memorial Art Gallery a couple of years ago. The tracks inspired by her make up the “Glass Works Collection.” Plus, there’s a bonus track tacked onto the end.

“It seemed to call for this combining the seven pieces into one album,” Lentz says. “This idea of ‘Of and Between,’ the space in which these two meet, they intersect.

“So you explore this idea of how visual art and music interplay with each other.”

And these image-inspired pieces lend themselves to video. The latest is “Tamboreño,” a piece so new it’s not even on “Of and Between.” In the video, Webster uses computer-generated technology to imagine a carnival parade in the Uruguayan hometown of the composer, Miguel del Aguila. Except, from the music’s tenuous opening, “Tamboreño” explodes into a parade past Rochester landmarks, street scenes, showers of fireworks, the band’s favorite local restaurants and bars, and even their friends.

The collaborations go beyond composers. Fivebyfive has recorded with sixth-graders at Rochester’s Dr. Charles T. Lunsford School 19. It has performed for audience members who are on the autism spectrum, or who have social or learning disabilities. And, for its first live show in quite a while, it has a March 20 gig at Artisanworks. “A classical concert with drinking,” Lentz says. Audience participation is expected.

Fivebyfive creates audience participation. What the group calls “community art pieces.” For a song called “Persevering,” at the last KeyBank Rochester Fringe Festival, Lentz says “people tweeted from how they persevered during the pandemic.” Those tweets were projected onto a screen in Hatch Recital Hall, and a poet turned them into a poem and a drawing.

Two years ago, as fivebyfive played the Memorial Art Gallery ballroom, the audience sorted through and arranged pieces of glass that were fired into a pair of art pieces after the show.

“We’ve been on this glass video art kick,” Lentz says.

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Provided
The cover of fivebyfive's debut album, "Of and Between."

And fivebyfive still is. Coming up, the group visits the Corning Museum of Glass. Lentz has a glass flute that was made there. Fivebyfive will soon have a glass clarinet, a glass piano, and a glass guitar to accompany new music and a video.

“This is kind of the weird stuff that we do,” Lentz says. “And at the end of the piece, they’re actually playing their glass instruments.”

“We’re working with the composer,” Webster says, “we’re working with the glass blower, we’re working with the musicians, we’re working with the studio, who can help clean things up a little bit. Because it won’t be quite in tune -- but we can make it in tune -- because it’s a piece of blown glass, right?”

Schaechter’s glass art was also the inspiration for “Blue Jewel.” It’s “looking at Earth from a distance,” Lentz says.

“If you’re up close, you see the wars, the problems, whatever. But if you go back, you see this blue jewel in space.”

Webster dials up “Blue Jewel” on the sound board. These are the outer-space sounds. “Imagine you’re pulling back, and you’re seeing like, a tiny little Earth,” he says.

This, as Lentz plays alto flute. Otherworldly, detached, cold. That’s the sound of the cathedral in Iceland, recreated through a technique called “impulse response.” The reverb from a simple click recorded in the cathedral captures its essence, and from there, the software’s math cloaks the notes in the proper gloom.

Lentz says this is an example of “asking questions, and not being satisfied by the sound we heard at that moment.”

“Musicians who are curious need to do things that are not expected.”