Continuing education

ACME bones up on post-rock basics with Wordless Music at the Whitney.

DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENTS Clarice Jensen, second from left, and her ACME colleagues bring contemporary music to the masses.

DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENTS Clarice Jensen, second from left, and her ACME colleagues bring contemporary music to the masses. Photograph: Liz Linder

Over the past few years, New York’s indie crowd has gotten a painless introduction to the classical repertoire through maverick impresario Ronen Givony’s visionary Wordless Music series. But the introduction works both ways: Givony has the classical musicians he books base their offerings on their personal responses to the post-rock and electronica artists with whom they will share bills. That’s why cellist Clarice Jensen, whose American Contemporary Music Ensemble (ACME) anchors four Wordless Music events at the Whitney Museum this month, has shelved her Alban Berg for a crash course in the Berg Sans Nipple—not to mention A Sunny Day in Glasgow, Prefuse 73 and Times New Viking, all joining her group at the Whitney.

Happily, Jensen, 27, has always been a quick study…which explains how a player who had never even heard contemporary music before enrolling in college at the Juilliard School is now leading one of the city’s most vibrant young new-music ensembles. Originally from Independence, Missouri, Jensen started cello lessons at age three. Her sister Christina, three years older, played the violin; classical music was around the house but not a compulsory pressure. Jensen got a thorough grounding in the Romantic repertoire from her cello instructor during high school; the passion for Smashing Pumpkins she developed on her own.

Arriving at Juilliard as a freshman brought on a mild case of culture shock. “The first piece I played was the Hindemith solo sonata, and it really opened up my playing and my ears,” Jensen says. Studying with cellist Joel Krosnick, a champion of rugged modernists, and playing under Joel Sachs in the New Juilliard Ensemble brought her up to speed in a hurry. The fresh sounds she was encountering in Juilliard recitals, as well as the controlled perfection of performances by the New York New Music Ensemble, made Jensen a convert.

Visiting Christina at the Spoleto Festival in Italy during the summer of 2004, Jensen, her sister and conductor Donato Cabrera hatched plans to form a new-music ensemble of their own. Jensen would handle the programming; Christina, who had earned a master’s degree in arts administration at Boston University, would take care of the business aspects. In August, with no players enlisted and no programs set, the Jensens and Cabrera booked the newly formed ACME its first date, in November at the Tenri Cultural Institute.

Cabrera was lured away by the San Francisco Opera after ACME’s first season, and Jensen spent much of the following year working as Björk’s production coordinator in Iceland. Since then, the ACME roster has consistently featured some of New York’s brightest, busiest players: among them violinists Miranda Cuckson and Caleb Burhans, violist Nadia Sirota and pianist Eric Huebner. And Jensen has earned a sterling reputation for her fresh, inclusive mix of minimalists, maximalists, eclectics and newcomers in concerts presented at Tenri, the Noguchi Museum and elsewhere.

Givony, who hired some of ACME’s regulars for a Max Richter concert last November, was impressed by their open-minded attitude. “The players of ACME embody what happens when classical people stop being defensive, judgmental or condescending toward sound worlds other than their own, and view them instead as friendly and complementary territories with which to engage,” Givony says. “The fact that Clarice was willing to spend time with four different groups she had never heard of before, and tailor the ACME programs accordingly…I can’t help but think this is precisely the sort of temperament the classical world could use more of.”

Rising to the challenge, Jensen selected pieces by John Adams, Kevin Volans, Ingram Marshall, Chen Yi and Jefferson Friedman (Jensen’s partner, a vastly gifted composer) to pair with Givony’s offerings. Eager to reach a new audience, Jensen is pleased to note that no compromise was necessary. “Some of the indie music that people listen to now requires a lot of the listener, in terms of paying attention and accepting different things,” Jensen says. “I think that will translate for the stuff that we do.”

The American Contemporary Music Ensemble plays at the Whitney Museum every Friday in June.