The house lights the night of The Nu Deco Ensemble’s second performance, earlier this month, in Miami were provided by nature. Not far from the still waters of Biscayne Bay, only disturbed by a small group of passing manatees, at the historic Deering Estate, the musicians of the 24 piece chamber orchestra settled into position, as the sun came down. As night fell and the mosquitoes retired for the night, the large, brightly lit stage exploded with the sounds of Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D minor.”
But there was something else going on with the piece, too. It has a salsa swing to it, featuring a percussive element that’s far from Bach. After the piece, conductor Jacomo Bairos reveals the piece’s title: “Tocatta Y Fuga en Re Menor,” and it was arranged with a Latin flair by composer Sam Hyken. Bairos and Hyken are the masterminds behind the Nu Deco Ensemble, a 2014 Knight Arts Challenge winner just beginning its first season of performances.
As they explained after the show, Hyken and Bairos are not content to recycle the classics. They are here to push against expectations and limitations of classical chamber music on various levels. Besides reinventing classics by Bach and others, their repertoire also includes adapting the electronic dance music of Daft Punk and the disco-rock of LCD Soundsystem. They are also on a mission to support new works by living composers, including the work of Japan’s Andy Akiho, who was represented that night with “Ki’lro,” an angular yet entrancing piece of music.
Hyken and Bairos wear the badge of “Miami’s 21st Century Chamber Orchestra” with pride and an excited pioneering spirit. The two complete each other’s thoughts but also talk over one another to explain the Nu Deco Ensemble’s mission. The two first loosely crossed paths while pursuing undergraduate degrees at Julliard. Bairos was senior to Hyken, but he knew of him. They really got to know each other, however, in Singapore while auditioning for the city’s symphony. They were both hired the same day in 2004. Both brass players (Bairos played tuba and Hyken trumpet), they got on famously.
That was also where the idea to make something new happened.
“Just two young Americans having a ball over in Asia,” says Bairos, “and we had similar musical tastes. We had similar ideas of what an orchestra’s gonna be in the future and started brainstorming then about everything we wanted to do.”
Both also tapped into personal connections to South Florida. Bairos grew up in Homestead. Though he conducts several city orchestras across the U.S., including San Diego, Atlanta and St. Louis, his attachment to South Florida is indelible.
Hyken, meanwhile, was born in New York and grew up in New Jersey, but he moved to Miami 10 years ago. He graduated with a Master’s degree from the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music. The musicians in the ensemble are all classically trained and hail from the most prestigious organizations in South Florida. Some are New World Symphony fellows, others are professors at UM’s Frost School of Music and some also play in the Florida Grand Opera.
To note what makes the group different from other chamber orchestras begins with the fact that there are only one of each instrument (save for clarinet) as opposed to a formal setup of a chamber orchestra, which has pairs of instruments. There’s also electric bass and guitars and a drum kit. Bairos also conducts the group like a rock star gesticulating to an arena. It’s unintentional, he assures.
“I don’t know. Sometimes I try not to,” he admits. “Sometimes it gets a little out of control. Tonight I’m a little tired, so my body was probably flailing even more. I feel like the music is coming through, and I just try to feel it and express it. Sometimes it’s funny,” he adds, and Hyken joins him in amused laughter.
Nothing about Nu Deco is traditional, and almost every element is about breaking formal rules. Asked if they are committing a purist sacrilege by giving Bizet a Reggaeton feel (“Refried Farandole”), Hyken says, “I think everyone has their own point of view on that. We can only be true to our own art. That’s how I feel.”
“The funny thing is,” adds Bairos, “I’ve connected to [Hyken’s] music literally all over the world, basically, from San Diego to Charlotte, and you know what? People clap like crazy, so I think we’re on to something. There could be some purists out there who don’t appreciate the fact that we’re taking an old piece of music and reinventing it, but you know what? We’re all about making sure that the future of classical music is alive.”
“Also, some of the greatest composers did the same thing,” chimes in Hyken.
“Brahms with the Hyden variation, Liszt,” says Bairos.
“They made a symphonic metamorphosis, and there’s jazz,” Hyken continues. “There’s different elements of that. And Britten took Purcell and made it into all these crazy variations, so it’s happened in the ‘50s and the ‘40s and the ‘20s. It’s a continuation of a tradition.”
“Looking back informs the future,” notes Bairos. “Why it spawned the way it did informs what we do in the future. The most important thing is we speak to society today and make sure we’re preserving this great classical art, at the same time supporting these musicians but building a culture in Miami that’s savvy, that loves art and understands its value to the community.”
Further in their ethos to push forward while breaking the rules, is Hyken’s work in adapting electronic music for their small orchestra, something that has earned the Nu Deco Ensemble a lot of attention. Hyken says adapting the music is not as complex as one might assume.
“When you’re dealing with electronics so much of that is sonic based,” he explains. “You’re trying to create a sonic type of sound that doesn’t exist with the acoustic instruments, so you have to do a version of that, but that kind of contemporary music, LCD, Daft Punk, it all has a beautiful counterpoint. There are lines that go back and forth. It’s almost like a minimalist type sound. It happens to translate very well to acoustic instruments. It gives it a new kind of life.”
Asked if either of these contemporary dance music groups are aware of what the Nu Deco Ensemble has done with its music, Hyken says, “I don’t think Daft Punk is. You never know these days with the Internet, but sources say that LCD may be aware because we had somebody who was at our last concert who has been in touch with them, and he said he shared it, but we don’t know for a fact.”
“Unofficially, we think maybe,” Bairos adds.
This week, the Nu Deco Ensemble is more focused on its upcoming collaboration with Miami’s renowned jazz, funk Afro-Cuban fusion group The Spam Allstars.
“Spam Allstars is an iconic Miami band with an iconic Miami sound,” says Hyken. “Adding orchestral instruments to this creates a whole new world of possibilities and layer of richness. It’s a unique combination that is exciting, lush and sophisticated.”
Spam Allstars’ founder and turntable maestro, D.J. Le Spam (a.k.a. Andrew Yeomanson) offered a hint of what is in store at the North Beach Bandshell this Thursday night when his seven-piece band joins the 24 piece of Nu Deco on stage. “We are going to play four songs from our catalog, which Sam Hyken has created very exciting arrangements for,” says Yeomanson.
Yeomanson also says audiences should expect to see them perform a new piece called “Ibakan,” a collaboration with Hyken. It debuted at The New World Symphony as part of the orchestra’s annual lightshow/dance party hybrid “Pulse,” in November of last year.
Yeomanson says the rehearsals have been an amazing experience.
“It’s thrilling for me to hear our stuff with these added textures and colors,” he says. “It opens up a whole new palette of sounds and range of emotions.”
For now, Nu Deco is only a live experience, but Bairos and Hyken have been hearing about requests for recordings. Though he clearly appreciates the interest, Bairos sighs about the added pressure, “Yeah, we have,” adding that it is indeed something they are considering for the future.
“We want to take next summer and really decide what it is we really want to record first, what we want to put out there first. We’ve gotten some requests from some major artists here in town, and we’re just kind of waiting to see where all that falls. But we definitely want to put out an album that not only has living composers but some of [Hyken’s] arrangements, just our signature style.”
Though the future may see the release of a recording, for now the ensemble’s first season is packed with performance dates that include new suites based on the music of Jamiroquai and Radiohead, performances of music that range from the likes of Paul Hindemith to Paul Dooley and collaborations with more guest musicians including Brooklyn’s Project Trio and Japan’s Akiho. For all upcoming dates and tickets, visit: nu-deco.org/seasonone