New Classical Tracks: The 442s are far from ordinary

by Julie Amacher
June 4, 2014

Listen New Classical Tracks: The 442s
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The 442s are (L to R) Shawn Weil, Adam Maness, Bjorn Ranheim and Syd Rodway. (Sandra Calvo)

The 442s — The 442s (self-titled release)

Violinist Shawn Weil grew up in Chicago. Cellist Bjorn Ranheim is a Minnesota native. They met while both were fellows in the New World Symphony in Miami Beach, Fla. Now, both are musicians in the St. Louis Symphony. The music community in St. Louis is pretty close-knit, according to Bjorn. That's how he and Shawn teamed up with Adam Maness and Sydney Rodway to form The 442s, and they've just released their debut recording. "Our wonderful composer and pianist and multi-instrumentalist, Adam, and Sid, our bass player, play full time with the Minnesota native jazz singer, Erin Bode, and they travel the world with her playing jazz and all kinds of new music as well," he says. "And then we realized we had a common shared love for delicious beer and good food and we started to get together for these little dinner parties that turned into jam sessions. We're all using muscles and ideas and parts of our brain that we traditionally weren't [using] as much, and I think it has made for a really exciting partnership.

"The 442s name is inspired by the standard orchestral tuning of 442 hertz," Bjorn continues. "We were looking for something that would capture the acoustic vibe and that seemed to ring out to us. It also has a couple of other meanings. It's the street address of where Adam lived in New York City, and it's also the street address of where Sid, our bass player, and his wife Erin Bode live in St. Louis."

Composing for strings was initially pretty intimidating according to Adam Maness. Once he found the right inspiration, things really fell into place. "Well, a big inspiration for me, orchestration-wise, is Astor Piazzolla and some of that art tango music that he composed," Adam explains, "because it is a small group with no percussion and we're doing music that's more on a folk side, some kind of American-folk hybrid, using some of the similar techniques that Piazzolla used with tango music, applying some hints of classical forms, but with a bit of extended techniques to get some percussive effects out to keep more of a folk feel. I mean, that's the biggest inspiration for me for the arrangements. I have a lot of fun writing for everybody because I make these guys whistle and sing and do crazy things that they never do on stage at Powell Hall, so it's really fun for me." The opening track on the 442s' debut recording is titled "Shibuya." Adam says it's named after a neighborhood in Tokyo. "There's a lunch-restaurant district with a bunch of noodle shops in three or four blocks," he says. "The first day that I was there, I looked for the longest line outside one of the shops and it was the best Udon noodles in a bowl I'd ever had. And I never forgot about that day and those noodles. Sort of the inspiration for the tune is the hustle and bustle of the neighborhood and the smell of the noodles."

Another piece on this recording was inspired by a place much closer to home. "Heston's is about actually northern Minnesota," Adam says. "It's about a resort on Gunflint Lake, one of the Boundary Waters lakes, just up the Gunflint Trail from Grand Marais. I've recorded two albums on this grouping of cabins on this resort called Heston's with Erin Bode. And it's just one of my favorite spots on earth."

Violinist Shawn Weill and cellist Bjorn Ranheim appreciate Adam's collaborative approach. "He'll come in with ideas and a sketch of a piece that we'll all be working on and he'll ask for feedback, which is quite unusual for a quote-unquote 'composer'," Shawn says. "And it opens the dialogue and makes us feel so much a part of the invention of what it is we're doing. Where other composers whose pieces I play, and I'm sure Bjorn feels this way — they have a sound they're looking for and traditionally have worked with orchestral musicians or specific classical chamber musicians and it's very much compartmentalized. And the way Adam works is very much open to whatever is possible and accessible and it frees Bjorn and Sid and myself up so much to expand and not limit ourselves — so it's really quite a process for all of us, I think," Shawn explains.

"And if I can add, it also gives us a sense of ownership for these pieces," Bjorn says. "But through rehearsing and working on them, we all become part of the process which really isn't as common for us. Another area where that really manifests itself is in the improvisatory nature of some of the solo sections. So when Adam brings in a piece — he's got a big section in the middle that may say 'violin solo' and Sean can then explore this world of improvising and that has been such an incredible part of this partnership for us — we've never improvised in front of people and now we do it nightly when we perform for groups all over the place."

From his perspective as a composer, Adam Maness says the 442s have also been an exciting, new challenge. "Until this band, I'd never had to take a theme through its paces and expand on my musical ideas. It has really just opened my world as a composer about where I can take simple ideas and get the most out of them &3151; it has been really fun."

They may be named for the typical orchestral tuning of 442 hertz; however, what the 442s have to offer on their debut release is far from ordinary.