Steal This Track: The Playground Ensemble - Reverb

Steal This Track: The Playground Ensemble

Denver contemporary classical outfit the Playground Ensemble

The Playground Ensemble is: Brian Ebert (from left), Rachel Hargroder, Ben Cantu, Sonya Yeager-Meeks, Heidi Brende-Leathwood, Conrad Kehn, Megan Buness, Sarah Johnson, Anna Marshall, Reginald Berg, Jason Rodon, Don Schumacher, Alix Corboy, Richard vonFoerster, Jonathan Leathwood. Photo by Mark Woolcott.

If the mere phrase “classical music” makes your eyes roll back into your head and your tongue loll out the side of your mouth, you obviously don’t know the Playground Ensemble. Sometimes simply called the Playground, this collective of musicians and composers approach classical music with a very different mindset. Rather than viewing classical music as a canon of works that already happened, and that can only be rehashed by contemporary musicians, the Playground Ensemble sees classical music as something that is still being created. Some of the group’s most recent compositions and performances were just released on the album “Dreams Go Through Me,” and one of them is ready for stealing.

As someone who spends most of his time listening to rock, pop, hip-hop, folk, country, punk or metal, I sometimes find classical music — contemporary or otherwise — a little intimidating. The rich historical background, heady theoretical frameworks and erudite symbology can make a guy feel like he needs an advanced degree just to listen. At the end of the day, however, it’s just music — an art form that expresses ideas and emotions through rhythms, melodies, harmonies and frequencies. An intellectual grounding certainly helps (and the liner notes of “Dreams Go Through Me” do an excellent job of providing just that), but it isn’t necessary for simply enjoying and appreciating what the Playground Ensemble is up to.

“Dreams Go Through Me” is an apt reminder that music is music is music. There’s no reason why this record couldn’t be loaded into your iTunes library, next to Lady Gaga, the Wu-Tang Clan and the Clash. Its seven pieces — inspired by topics as diverse as Abe Lincoln, contemporary painting, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and, of course, dreams — tackle a range of human experiences with a variety of sonic approaches achieved through mostly traditional instrumentation. Just as rock musicians can turn the standard guitar/bass/drums/vocals setup into everything from the Rolling Stones to Mumford, so classical musicians can find seemingly endless possibilities in piano, cello, violin, flute, clarinet and other familiar instruments. Creating moments of harmonious beauty, ugly dissonance and raw power, the Playground Ensemble should open even the least educated ears (like mine) to a new way of appreciating classical music.

Three of the album’s compositions were written by members of the Playground Ensemble and one by a recent graduate of from Lamont’s graduate composition program. “Elegy,” the track we’ve isolated for your thieving pleasure, was composed by the ensemble’s founding director, Conrad Kehn. An accomplished performer, educator, multimedia artist and, of course, composer, Kehn loosely based the piece on the five stages of grief: denial, anger, sorrow, bargaining and acceptance. Each is expressed by different choices of instruments, modes (major vs. minor) and rhythms, while a unifying melody weaves through all five sections. In under nine minutes, “Elegy” languishes in sad beauty, rocks through rage and settles into a melancholy peace. Even if you’ve never listened to classical music before, steal this track and hear for yourself. Then keep an eye out for one of the group’s many artistic or educational events. The website linked above appears to be a work in progress, so Facebook seems to be the best way to keep up with the Playground Ensemble.

Please note that downloads offered via Steal This Track are intended to whet your appetite, and are NOT CD-quality recordings. If you want those, please support the artists by buying their music and/or seeing them live.

If you’re a band or musician ready to expose your fresh sounds to the readers of Reverb, email your tracks — along with any interesting facts about them, as well as a photo or album art — to Eryc Eyl for consideration.

Eryc Eyl is a veteran music journalist, critic and Colorado native who has been neck-deep in local music for many years. Check out Steal This Track for local music you can HEAR, and the Mile High Makeout for stories about Denver musicians doing extraordinary things. Against his mother’s advice, Eryc has also been known to tweet. You can also follow Steal This Track on Twitter. Sorry, Mom.

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