If classical music were an animal, what would be its natural habitat? What landscape would you visualize for its stomping grounds? The first image that probably comes to mind is the concert hall: the tuxedo-clad conductor waving a baton in front of a somber orchestra playing for a well-dressed, well-heeled audience.
There are organizations in the Valley that have been trying to wrest instrumental music free from that stuffy box. "New music," that genre where classical music and the avant-garde intersect, is thriving in Arizona. Schools like Arizona State University and Paradise Valley Community Collegehave been putting together new music concerts for years. Ensembles like Crossing 32nd St have been bringing the music of new music pioneers like John Cage back to life in front of downtown audiences. And the folks at OME (Oh My Ears) have been organizing multiday music festivals that bring in guest composers and new music artists from across the country to turn Phoenix into a hotbed of musical experimentation. Many of these shows happen outside the confines of the concert hall, with ensembles performing for audiences in parking lots, bars, art galleries, and other unconventional spaces.
The Driftwood Quintet are no longer strangers to making sweet music in strange places: They’ve performed in comic book shops, for example. “Our bassoon player arranged a '90s superhero TV show medley,” Driftwood Quintet member Dominique Holley says. “Batman, X-Men, and a bunch of other shows mashed together."
An ensemble of reed players, the Driftwood Quintet — Melissa Malork, Ben Paley, Olivia Erwin, Dominique Holley, and Jillian Kaplan — aren’t afraid to court audiences with pop culture. They’ve made video game, anime music, and film music (including the themes to Star Wars and Star Trek and the work of film composer Max Richter) a part of their repertoire. They even do the occasional silent film live concert, like when they scored a screening of Lon Chaney's Phantom Of The Opera at FilmBar in 2015.
Part of what spurs the group’s willingness to play with pop culture is that they don’t have the luxury of a huge historical repertoire to fall back on. “There isn’t a lot of repertoire already written for reeds,” Holley says. “It’s an interesting challenge when you’re in a group like this, because you’re forced to either write your own music or arrange your own music. So it offers a lot of opportunities for us to be creative and really tune our repertoire toward what we individually as members like to play.”
The quintet are poised to release their debut LP as part of the OME music festival: Their album release show will cap off the festival’s second day.
“This is our third year playing at OME,” Holley says. “We really like the chance to play at OME because a lot of our concerts that we do outside of the new music world is generally focused and directed at non-musicians, so a lot of our rep is very accessible music. OME gave us a chance to really experiment with sound since that's what the audience is kind of expecting and what they're open to.”
Titled .lost (@see?), the record deals with themes of coping with loss and separation. “It’s this idea of being lost or separated or being in the unknown,” Holley explains. “So all the pieces kind of encapsulate that theme in some way.” The title track, Holley points out, “showcases what it feels like to have waves crashing you and being lost out in the middle of the sea.”
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Other songs on the albums tackle other kinds of loss, whether it’s a song about how witch trials were used to persecute the mentally ill or how a close friend of the quintet struggled to fit into the LGBT community. There’s even an ambitious, multi-movement track called “Special Ops” on the record that chronicles a military unit experiencing a sudden loss — a loss the band literally plays out onstage in performances.
“Towards the end, our clarinet player actually ‘dies’ and has to walk offstage,” Holley says. “The last movement is us lamenting the loss of our clarinet player; It’s kind of like we’re trying to remember her.”
Correction: A previous version of this article included Dan Meadows as one of the band's members. He is no longer with the band and has been replaced by Jillian Kaplan.