In an age of effortless access to music of all kinds, exploring the commonalities between seemingly disparate music styles is one way to make sense of it all.
Violinist Gene Hahn and cellist Jeremy Crosmer are doing just that, deconstructing the stigmas associated with different genres through their acoustic string group, ESME.
ESME (eclectic string music ensemble) combines classical training with pop sensibilities through interactive live performances and enrichment programming at local schools. From Justin Bieber to Led Zeppelin and Mendelssohn, ESME makes music of all genres engaging to audiences of every age and predilection through creative mashups and arrangements. The group recently released a conglomeration of pop earworms, rock anthems and classical melodies in its first studio recording, a self-titled album.
“The fundamentals of music always come with the same reward,” Hahn said. “Our job is to find those fundamentals and draw on them to stretch expectations of how classical music can sound.”
The group first materialized from jam sessions at Crosmer’s apartment after the duo discovered a mutual penchant for dabbling in pop arrangements. After some experimentation, they created a playlist to perform at open mic nights. Today, the compositions are derived from audience requests. In order for a mashup to congeal, Hahn and Crosmer search for the “eureka moment,” or common musical element between the two pieces. That could be a similar melody for a bar, as in the mashup of Ravel’s “Bolero” and Katy Perry’s “Dark Horse.”
“It doesn’t matter what class of music you’re used to listening to,” Crosmer said. “There’s always something you can connect to.”
ESME’s approach finds the balance between the highbrow and lowbrow — recognizing that many listeners today have diverse tastes and are constantly exposed to new types of music. Hahn believes that bringing different genres together is an effective tool to teach musical elements and train ears in ways that are not taught in traditional music classrooms. Most of all, it’s a way to motivate students to be creative.
“Playing only one genre is not something young people can relate to anymore,” Hahn said. “Pop music is cliff notes for classical music — it’s a great way to teach phrasing, groove, harmony and more.”
Bryan Kolk, who was the Caledonia High School orchestra director and Crosmer’s roommate when ESME first started performing, overheard ESME’s Bolero/Dark Horse mashup and invited the duo to play for his students. ESME crafted arrangements for the school orchestra students to learn and prepare. On the day of the performance, ESME visited the school to perform the solo parts together with the students.
This model catalyzed numerous other school collaborations and clinics around West Michigan, including with East Grand Rapids High School, Grandville Middle School, Forest Hills Northern Middle School and Grand Rapids Christian High School. ESME is looking forward to returning to Grand Rapids Christian for a clinic later this month, as well as to the group's first gig outside of West Michigan at Troy High School, where Kolk is now orchestra director.
According to Hahn and Crosmer, the students become more engaged and enthusiastic when familiar songs are introduced to their usual orchestra routine. On the other end of the spectrum, classical music aficionados always find something unexpected in ESME’s music.
“People who lean more toward the traditional audience are usually pleasantly surprised at how much they enjoy the pop music,” Crosmer said.
As they continue to pursue new compositions, ESME hopes to experiment with different permutations of the group — merging traditional chamber repertoire with newer forms of music and sparking a homegrown chamber music scene in Grand Rapids. Hahn would like to work with the Michigan School Band and Orchestra Association (MSBOA) to expand and integrate ESME’s education model in more schools across the state.
The ensemble is also keeping one foot in the Grand Rapids entertainment industry, creating TV-show medleys for trivia nights and performing at movie premieres, as they did at Celebration! Cinema this past year for Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.
“We want to see how far we can step into those arenas where you wouldn’t typically find a classical music group,” Hahn said.