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Desegregating Music


There's no dress code or strict behavioral mode for the Absolute Ensemble, the acclaimed new music ensemble that freely stirs rock and jazz elements into its contemporary chamber music.

"Basically, Absolute Ensemble was formed on the idea that we should break down the barriers, and desegregation of music was our goal," founder and director Kristjan Jarvi said last week.

The 18-piece ensemble will make its Los Angeles debut on Saturday at the Skirball Cultural Center during its first official U.S. tour.

"This idea, we stuck to it and actually now this awesome band has been formed out of it, which is really a hybrid between a chamber orchestra and a rock band," Jarvi said. "We're really working the concert like a rock band or a jazz group would do theirs. There are no intermissions and everything is kind of one after the other."

It all began in 1994 when Jarvi, originally from Estonia, was a young student at the Manhattan School of Music. Jarvi's distaste for the stiff conventions of the classical scene was reinforced when he discovered that composer peers were incorporating ideas from rock into their work. This new generation of composers around him "were classically trained, but basically taking the popular idiom and using it to the fullest."

What has now grown into a respected ensemble with an international presence, a kind of next-generation new-music outfit, began humbly. Initially, it was just an idea whose time and logistical foundation hadn't quite come. "When we started this thing, it was just an idea that attracted people," Jarvi recalled. "Anyone who could hold anything resembling an instrument was in. So you can imagine what the sound was like. We were playing to five people in churches in Harlem, with a whole stage full of people, but nobody to listen to us."

Gradually, legitimizing elements came together as better and better musicians joined the fold, and the makings of an economic base were established.

"It was really an organic kind of thing that developed over the years," Jarvi said. "Now, it's a real tight group, which has the most versatile players there are.

Diversity comes naturally in the Absolute's world. Listen to the group's live album of last year, "Absolute Mix," which opens with an exhilarating burst of energy by Paul Hindemith and closes with the ethereal reverie of a Debussy arrangement.

Although breaking down barriers and appealing to younger, rock-inclined audiences is important to Jarvi's mission, he said he never wants to sacrifice musicianship or a classical root system. That's what's so impressive about "Absolute Mix," an album teeming with energy and irony, but bolstered with stellar music-making.

"We're firmly rooted in classical, and that's where we come from," Jarvi said. "But we also have that link to progressive jazz, more popular jazz and then rock. You couldn't find players 20 years ago who would be comfortable doing this type of stuff."


The Absolute Ensemble performs Saturday at 8 p.m. at the Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Sepulveda Pass. $25-$23. (310) 825-2101.

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