Fantasies and daydreams color the way we think, but what possibilities can arise when music illuminates the imagination? Composer Mark Dancigers and his chamber music group NOW Ensemble attempts to explore the moments where the distance between reality and imagination suddenly and unexpectedly converge with their new album Dreamfall, a title taken from the name of a piece that premiered at last year’s New College New Music series performed with Fuzion Dance artists. Dancigers is also a visiting assistant professor of music at New College of Florida.

DANCIGER’S OWN JOURNEY through music began when his father gifted him with a record player for his sixth or seventh birthday. After playing the ubiquitous “Birthday” song by the Beatles, his father put on Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, an orchestral frenzy of deep bells, squawking clarinets, the beating of violin and viola strings with the wooden stick of the bow and glissandos that tells the story of self-destructive passion. “I remember being completely blown away by the huge bells that come in late in the symphony,” Dancigers recalls of the piece. “It didn’t sound like anything I had heard before. That memory always stuck with me and created the impulse to explore new sounds.”

A few years later, he began playing the guitar and eventually studied music composition at Yale University. During his time at the Yale School of Music in 2004, he met fellow composers Judd Greenstein and Patrick Burke. Imbued by a sense of urgency to create chamber music that spoke to their generation, the young composers formed NOW Ensemble, a classical group borrowing from a broad range of styles and defying the attributes usually associated with traditional chamber music. With an unusual instrumentation of flute, clarinet, electric guitar, double bass and piano, the ensemble strives to produce bold and challenging music through close collaborations with composers and compelling performances, whether in traditional concert halls or unexpected rock and jazz venues. “We had this idea to form an ensemble that was more about making chamber music that directly connects with an audience, that bypasses some of those gatekeepers in the classical musical world, an ensemble that doesn’t go out and play competitions or wait until Carnegie Hall calls,” Dancigers explains. NOW Ensemble’s performances have been featured on NPR’s “All Things Considered” and and its sophomore album Awake charted at number one in Amazon’s Classical Chamber Music Charts.

While Dancigers considers NOW Ensemble one of the primary strands of his musical career tapestry, he has also been involved with numerous projects including composing for film. One of his most recent collaborations was with Oscar-nominated director Sam Green on and his film, The Measure of All Things, which premiered as a live documentary at last year’s Sundance Film Festival. Exploring themes of fate, time and the “outer contours of the human experience,” and inspired loosely by the Guinness Book of Records, the film pieces together portraits of record-holding people, places and things from the woman with the longest name to the man struck by lightning the most times (seven). The film is narrated live and accompanied by a live band. The challenge for Dancigers was to write compelling chamber music that would not get in the way of the narrator and would allow the story to unfold.

“You’re creating the emotional context for these events,” he says about the role of the composer. “In this film I scored with Troy Harian called The Dog, it was about trying to let the character speak for himself and supporting the internal drama in his mind.”

The role of the composer evolves from one type of project to the next, which Dancigers seems to deftly attach himself to, whether it is a collaboration with New York City Ballet choreographer Justin Peck for a pas de deux or creating arrangements for acclaimed trio Time for Three. “You are writing for you, the musicians you’re going to give the music to and the audience who is going to hear the music,” Dancigers says of writing chamber music. “You’re creating a world for the audience. Some composers are a little more hands off and create scenarios for music to happen. I’m a little bit more hands-on. I like to create an active story for a listener.”

These stories are recalled and reiterated, perpetuating and transforming the images that music can evoke. Ultimately, it’s an ongoing relationship. “Music resonates with our memories and our emotions,” Dancigers says. When writing music, he tries to create a space for that resonance between the listeners’ emotions, memories or prior experiences with music. “It’s an interaction, then they start to shape each other.” Dancigers is inspired by motion to propel these emotions forward. When writing music, he asks himself “If this piece were a dancer, what kind of dance would it be?”—a challenging question since music expresses motion in a myriad of ways.

Incorporating movement in music in exciting and contemporary ways is the challenge for the young composer who is working on new pieces constantly. For NOW Ensemble, he also has had the chance to commission other composers, including 25-year-old Gabriella Smith who wrote a piece for the ensemble that will premiere next year. “She’s an incredible young voice,” Dancigers says. “Finding someone like her is really exciting because we started when we were about 25, and now we’re finding people that age. So that’s been a really rewarding part of this journey.” SRQ

Photos by Evan Sigmund