STAFF PICKS: Friday Faves

Second Inversion hosts share a favorite selection from their weekly playlist. Tune in on Friday, March 23 to hear these pieces and plenty of other new and unusual music from all corners of the classical genre!

Max Richter: Shadow 4 (Deutsche Grammophon)
Max Richter, electronics

I’m listening to this piece again as I write. It sounds like spring in a meadow on a parallel planet—one that’s a lot like ours, with all of the sweetness of plants and animals waking up from long winter’s naps, but with none of the Rite of Spring madness. It’s bright and peaceful and hopeful, and also brief, like having a flash of realization that the world is amazing when it wants to be. The piece comes and goes that quickly. I like this piece even more knowing that Max Richter’s impetus for writing the album was that he was trying to regain the appreciation he’d once had for Vivaldi’s Four Seasons by digging into the work, recomposing it, and interpreting what he found at its heart. The idea that you can breathe life into things in your world which have become familiar and dull by reframing your own point of view is a powerful one. Plus, I’m a sucker for music with bird calls. – Dacia Clay

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 12pm hour today to hear this piece.

Christopher Cerrone: South Catalina (Cedille Records)
Eighth Blackbird

It’s always a joy when you encounter an instance of an artist putting forth a very specific idea with which you connect, especially if that idea is one that has made you feel isolated in the past. I had this perpetually rare and delightful experience as I discovered Christopher Cerrone’s South Catalina this week. Specifically, I have a long-running and deep personal connection with a feeling Cerrone outlines as an inspiration for this piece: the strange mix of enchantment and oppression that a consistently sunny climate can catalyze in people unfamiliar with that type of environment. – Seth Tompkins

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 1pm hour today to hear this piece.

Joan La Barbara: Cathing (Lovely Music Records)
Joan La Barbara, voice

Joan La Barbara spoke up for experimental vocalists everywhere with her witty response to mezzo-soprano Cathy Berberian’s scathing critique of avant-garde vocal music. Berberian, who interviewed La Barbara during the intermission of one of her concerts, dismissed extended vocal techniques as at best “research” and at worse the work of “freaks” who can’t actually sing.

In response, La Barbara composed “Cathing,” a piece which takes electronically manipulated samples from the interview and weaves them into a scintillating sound-off of vocal techniques: shrieks, squeaks, whispers, wails, moans, drones, and a slew of sounds you didn’t know humans could even make. The result is eight minutes of pure vocal virtuosity—with a bite. – Maggie Molloy

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 5pm hour today to hear this piece.

Valgeir Sigurðsson: 1875 (Bedroom Community)
Reykjavik Sinfonia

Valgeir Sigurðsson’s 2017 album is titled Dissonance, something that as a musical device can have many purposes and characteristics. Dissonance can be harsh and clashing in a way that is shocking and uncomfortable, or it can be soft and subtle, adding a strange beauty to the music it colors. It can be short and punctuated, or it can be long and sustained.

1875, the three-part final work on the album, actually uses dissonance sparingly, but to dramatic effect. Its long, lingering textures have the atmospheric sounds that are typical of Sigurðsson’s palette: deep, sometimes electronically-augmented chords; twinkling string tremolo and scattered Pollock-esque pizzicato; and long, slowly-unfolding string melodies. However, the opening of 1875, a piece that details the first arrival of Icelanders in the frozen landscape of Winnipeg, Manitoba in the late 19th century, uses dissonance in a way that immediately makes a stunning impression. The grandeur of the dissonance in that first orchestral introduction with its imposing wall of sound makes the work worth hearing all on its own. Other interesting ideas are realized throughout the three movements (Waterborne, In Dead of Winter, Displaced), including bell tones that ring out not through the use of percussion instruments, but the use of orchestral strings and brass.
– Geoffrey Larson

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 7pm hour today to hear this piece.

Music for the (Un)faint of Heart: Bernd Alois Zimmermann at 100

by Michael Schell

People ill-disposed toward modern music often claim that it sounds like the work of tormented souls. It’s a philistine argument, but there’s one case where the old cliché might ring true: the German composer Bernd Alois Zimmermann (1918–1970), whose centenary has just arrived.

Born and raised in a small Catholic town near Köln (Cologne), Zimmermann spent most of his life in Western Germany. Readers attuned to historical details will have already done the math—Zimmermann’s youth encompassed the Nazi period, and he was eventually drafted into the Wehrmacht, spending over a year on the Eastern Front and in France before receiving a medical discharge in 1942. Germany’s collective shame over the Holocaust—amplified by a generous dose of Catholic guilt and Cold War apprehension—weighed heavily on Zimmermann, and he struggled with depression and anxiety for the rest of his life.

After the War, Zimmermann started writing neoclassical music in the tradition of Hindemith. His Fairy Tale Suite from 1950 displays his formidable sense of rhythm and his ease working with large orchestras. The Epilog from the suite seems to be one of the models for what became a standard Hollywood genre of triumphalist marches.

After becoming acquainted with modern composers such as Schoenberg, whose music had been suppressed under Nazism, Zimmermann wrote increasingly experimental music until by the end of his career he had fully embraced the aesthetics and techniques of the postmodern avant-garde. Like other German composers, he also became interested in African-American music, both because of its anti-authoritarian associations and because the flexible swing beat of jazz offered an alternative to the regular beat associated with the martial music that the Nazis had relentlessly broadcast to “tune in” their populace. An early convergence of these interests is the 1954 trumpet concerto Nobody knows de trouble I see, a kind of funky 12-tone fantasy on that famous spiritual.

The stylistic eclecticism on display in this concerto became a trademark in Zimmermann’s music. He called it pluralism: mixing disparate elements and influences within the same composition. His 1962 viola concerto Antiphonen is another example of this. The fourth movement begins innocuously enough with a cadenza for the soloist, but then we start hearing the voices of several musicians reading passages aloud from Dostoevsky, Camus, Dante, the Bible, and most prominently of all, the ending of Joyce’s Ulysses. Post-Webernian pointillism continues to alternate with text readings, leading to the final movement, which features slow, overlapping F♮-G♮ trills on several instruments until a soft ride rhythm emerges on the snare drum to close out the piece. Within a few years, this kind of eclecticism would burst out all over Europe and North America, often described using terms such as totalism or polystylism.

Besides quoting literary texts, Zimmermann also grew obsessed with musical references. He often quoted the Dies irae hymn (like many other composers before and since). And his ballet Music for the Suppers of King Ubu is made up almost entirely of quoted material, both old and new (even Stockhausen gets cited), creating an atmosphere of prickly levity, befitting the self-indulgent title character of Alfred Jarry’s absurdist play Ubu Roi.

But the burdens of the past never left Zimmermann, and his music took a particularly dark turn during the 1960s. His Requiem for a Young Poet (finished in 1969) is kind of an evil twin to the contemporaneous Mass (1971) by that other 2018 centenarian, Leonard Bernstein. Both works appropriate liturgical and modern texts, employ singing and speaking, mix live music with prerecorded material, move musicians around in the concert space, and blend contemporary composed styles with vernacular idioms (jazz in Zimmermann’s case, folk and rock in Bernstein’s). But Zimmermann’s Requiem has none of the manufactured optimism that prevails in Bernstein’s offering. Even the title is despairing, referring to the death by suicide of three of the poets whose texts Zimmermann set. And whereas Bernstein’s work is a pastiche, Zimmermann’s quotes actual music—from Wagner to the Beatles. It’s interesting that the greatest Requiem settings of the 20th century (including those by Britten, Stravinskyand Ligeti) all came from the 1960s, amid social turmoil in the West, the specter of nuclear annihilation, and the still fresh memories of WW2 and the Holocaust.

But it’s Zimmermann’s most famous work that really sets the bar for unmitigated cynicism: his opera Die Soldaten. Seemingly tailored for people who find Berg’s Wozzeck too soft-hearted, this magnum opus, premiered in 1965, is an angry denunciation of military power, greed and authoritarianism. In some ways it’s comparable to Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea, a landmark of early opera that’s likewise set in a police state with an array of (mostly) morally compromised characters. But few music theater works mete out the pessimism quite as brutally as Zimmermann’s. As it reaches its climax, the middle-class protagonist Marie is sexually assaulted, whereupon her estranged lover Stolzius fatally poisons the aristocratic perpetrator and then himself. In the last scene, Marie is shown as a vagabond begging alms from her passing father, who does not recognize her.

Not surprisingly, Zimmermann’s music is loud, ruthless and discordant. It opens with a succession of drumbeats over shrieks and flurries in the rest of the orchestra that seem to depict a phalanx of storm troopers despoiling a city whose residents scream and flee chaotically in horror. Even the opera’s love scenes have an angular dissonance to them, implying that the participants are ultimately two-faced manipulators. Though Jakob Lenz’s original 1776 play sets the action in 18th century Lille, Zimmermann makes his intentions clear by changing the timeframe to “yesterday, today, and tomorrow.”

The absolute apogee of musical expressionism, Die Soldaten is not for the squeamish, and the sadistic violence is difficult to watch (Zimmerman saw the rape of Marie not just as a depiction of society’s pervasive misogyny, but also as a metaphor for how totalitarianism penetrates the psyche of everyone living under it). Despite this, and despite the incredible technical and financial challenges that the work presents (among other things it requires an enormous orchestra, with organ, jazz band and more than a dozen percussionists), its power and sheer audacity continues to intrigue audiences, and to attract the attention of leading singers, directorsand opera companies. As current events remind us of the brittleness of democracy and civic society, the themes of Die Soldaten are looking more ominously relevant.

If Die Soldaten overwhelms with its scale and ambition, then Stille und Umkehr (Stillness and Return), Zimmermann’s last orchestral piece, astonishes with its fragility and single-mindedness. It’s basically a ten minute essay on the note D, sustained softly and passed gently among groups of instruments to the accompaniment of a snare drum tapping out one of Zimmermann’s beloved ride rhythms, now devolved into a kind of faltering heartbeat. Above this background rise fleeting splashes of color, such as the heterophonic flute murmurings that open the piece. The heartbeat, played with bare fingers, is the only trace of a distinct pulse, and it has enough rests in it that you generally lose the beat when it isn’t playing. It’s as though we’re inside the mind of a deathbed patient whose fragmentary memories are playing out one last time.

After a few minutes, a musical saw adds a somewhat sinister buzzing sonority to the mix. Bass instruments start to be heard, and the heartbeat shifts to a deeper tenor drum played with brushes. But the mood of the opening returns, the color splashes dissipate, and the impact of this gripping soundscape lingers long after the music stops.

Stille und Umkehr is a remarkable departure for such a normally maximalist composer, and deserves to be counted among postmodernism’s masterpieces. Zimmermann wrote it in 1970 during a psychiatric hospitalization—perhaps subconsciously prefiguring his own demise. Later that year, haunted by the demons made so visceral in his music, and by deteriorating physical health, Zimmermann took his own life at the age of 52. His last work was a theatricalized setting of Ecclesiastes which he titled Ich wandte mich und sah an alles Unrecht das geschah unter der Sonne (“I turned and saw all the injustice there was under the sun”).

Few composers in any era have felt so impelled to confront the uncomfortable things around and inside them, and articulate them in a way that is musical, contemporary and provocative. In exchange for this expressive honesty, Zimmermann demands a commitment from his listeners to receive the music with patience and integrity. To engage with his work is to explore a deeply intense and personal idiom. In the end, one wonders whether the lens it offers into the composer’s psyche is also a mirror.

VIDEO PREMIERE: Portland Cello Project Plays Radiohead and Elliott Smith

by Maggie Molloy

Equally at home in rock clubs and concert halls, Portland Cello Project is an ensemble known for pushing the boundaries of the classical cello tradition. The group reimagines classical favorites and contemporary hits alike for their famous choir of cellos, with an expansive repertoire ranging from J.S. Bach to Jay-Z and Kanye West and beyond.

In Seattle last December, the group performed the entirety of Radiohead’s OK Computer in celebration of the album’s 20th anniversary. We caught up with them at the station and filmed a video of one of their favorite Radiohead tracks, “Paranoid Android,” along with their cover of Elliott Smith’s “Tomorrow, Tomorrow.”

Radiohead: Paranoid Android (Portland Cello Project)

Elliott Smith: Tomorrow, Tomorrow (Portland Cello Project)

Catch Portland Cello Project performing LIVE in Seattle on Tuesday, May 15 at 7:30pm at the Triple Door. For tickets and more information, click here.

ALBUM REVIEW: ‘No Answer’ by Steve Layton

by Michael Schell

Steve Layton is a noted creator, producer and journalist of new music. He edits the Sequenza 21 website, and stands as one of the foremost figures in Seattle’s busy electronic music scene. His proficient studio chops are showcased on No Answer, a new collection of 17 short solo tracks available on Bandcamp.

The general tone for the album is set right at the outset with “Bullfrog,” an uptempo, beat-driven affair, quirky enough with its polyrhythms that it comes “with no guarantee you’ll be able to dance to it.” Other pieces, like “The Moment of Equinox,” contrast this with a darker, more drony feel. And for novelty value there’s the title track, whose source material comes from the telephone answering machine of Charlotte Moorman (1933–1991): cellist, producer, and frequently risqué collaborator of Nam June Paik and other avant-gardists. Altogether, the set makes a worthy introduction to Layton’s prolific output.

Second Inversion’s 24-Hour Marathon of Women Composers

by Maggie Molloy

In celebration of International Women’s Day on March 8, we’re featuring a 24-hour marathon of women composers on Second Inversion. Tune in all day long to hear works by over 100 women who have helped shape, inspire, and expand the world of classical music.

Click here to stream the marathon from anywhere in the world, and click on the icons below for more resources on women composers.

Second Inversion hosts share a favorite selection from their Women Composers Marathon playlist. Tune in on March 8 to hear these pieces and plenty of other new and experimental music from women composers in the 20th and 21st centuries.

Meredith Monk: Dolmen Music (ECM Records)
Meredith Monk, Julius Eastman, Andrea Goodman, Robert Een, Monica Solem, & Paul Langland, voices

Meredith Monk has secured a place in history as one of the most singular and significant voices of the 20th and 21st centuries. For nearly six decades, she has redefined and revolutionized contemporary vocal music and performance, seamlessly weaving in elements of theatre and dance to create visceral musical experiences that transcend the confines of the classical tradition.

Her 20-minute masterwork Dolmen Music is an iconic example of her uncanny ability to merge ancient and modern musical ideas. In this piece, abstract vocalizations, primal rhythms, hypnotic dances, and ritualistic soundscapes come together in an intimate embrace of the human experience. – Maggie Molloy

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 8am hour today to hear this piece.

Maria Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir: Aequora (Sono Luminus)
Iceland Symphony Orchestra; Daníel Bjarnason, conductor

Mallets and string scrapes lend a creaky shanty boat sound to the opening of Maria Huld Markan Sigfusdottir’s Aequora, which seems appropriate given that her piece is about the moods of the sea throughout the day. The calm sea at sunrise feels like a warm, melodic blessing before the swelling strings and brass undertones breeze forward in a sheen of joy that sails through midday and retreats again at nightfall until a lullaby of soft mallets and harp details fade out to end the work with serenity. For its luminous and congenial atmosphere, Aequora is a musical wave that stands taller than the rest.
 Rachele Hales

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 10am hour today to hear this piece.

Amy Brandon: Scavenger (Self-Released)
Amy Brandon, nylon-string guitar

The boldly cross-genre music of Canadian guitarist-composer Amy Brandon fuses elements of jazz, classical, electroacoustic, and improvised music. Scavenger, the title track from her 2016 release, blends the meditative pacing of traditional classical guitar slow movements with repetitive structures and non-traditional harmonies from the 20th and 21st centuries. Fittingly, Brandon is currently pursuing an interdisciplinary PhD at Dalhousie University. – Seth Tompkins

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 12pm hour today to hear this piece.

Shih-Hui Chen: Fantasia on the Theme of Guanglingsan (Albany)
Little Giant Chinese Chamber Orchestra

Crossings presents a mix of Chinese and American composers writing for a mix of Chinese and Western instruments. It features a Taiwan-based chamber orchestra brought to the U.S. by Shih-Hui Chen, a composer from Taiwan who teaches at Rice University and specializes in the cultural intersections between traditional Chinese music and modern Western art music. Her own contribution to the album is a concerto for zheng (forerunner to the Japanese koto) that’s loosely based on a classic Chinese piece depicting the assassination of a cruel king by a musician whose father had been one of his victims. Compare her martial passage starting at 5:03 to a corresponding section in the original for a taste of the relationship between new and old. – Michael Schell

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 1pm hour today to hear this piece.

Veronique Vaka: “Gaetni (Care)” (Moderna Records)
Veronique Vaka, violin & cello

Before I learned anything about this piece, I knew that I loved it. It grabbed me because it reminds me of so much of pieces of other music that I love: It’s got the warm embrace of early Sigur Ros, the hint of tragedy of some of Angelo Badalamenti’s music for Twin Peaks, a little bit of the watery mystery of Missy Mazzoli’s “Song from the Uproar,” and a shimmering depth that I can only assume is Vaka’s. It’s like a mermaid singing to you. I can’t wait to hear more of this album.
Dacia Clay

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 2pm hour today to hear this piece.

Julia Wolfe: Big Beautiful Dark and Scary (Cantaloupe Music)
Bang on a Can All-Stars

The raw emotion that defines this work by Pulitzer Prize-winner Julia Wolfe really taps in to a characteristic of new music that is so important to me: the idea that this is what real life feels like. Julia’s music always makes powerfully personal connections, but this one really seems as personal as it gets, chronicling her feelings after the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center, which she witnessed from two blocks away with her young children. An unrelenting wall of sound and steady rhythmic energy drives the piece’s ever-increasing intensity, and though it feels inevitable, the ending leaves the listener more shell-shocked than anything else. – Geoffrey Larson

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 6pm hour today to hear this piece.


LIVE BROADCAST: Roomful of Teeth on Friday, March 9 at 7:30pm PST

by Maggie Molloy

Classical vocal music is nice—but if you’re looking for a vocal ensemble with a little more bite, look no further than Roomful of Teeth.

The Grammy Award-winning a cappella ensemble is dedicated to exploring the vast and limitless musical possibilities of the human voice. In fact, Roomful of Teeth’s eight vocalists have studied singing traditions from around the world, including vocal techniques as diverse as yodeling, belting, Tuvan throat singing, Inuit throat singing, Korean P’ansori, Georgian singing, Sardinian cantu a tenore, Hindustani music, Persian classical singing, and more.

This Friday, Second Inversion is thrilled to offer a LIVE concert broadcast of the group performing as part of Town Hall’s Town Music series curated by Joshua Roman. Click here to tune in and stream the concert live from anywhere in the world on Friday, March 9 at 7:30pm PST.

Concert Program:
Caroline Shaw: Partita for 8 Voices

Caleb Burhans: Beneath
Caroline Shaw: The Isle
Merrill Garbus: Quizassa

Town Music presents Roomful of Teeth on Friday, March 9 at 7:30pm at Seattle First Baptist Church. For tickets and additional details, please click here.

Women in (New) Music: Women Who Score

by Angela Drăghicescu

About a year ago I was given some music to play by Louise Farrenc. The music was so heavenly it moved me to my very soul. It had the same quality that the music of the most famous composers of the era had, and I wondered as a trained pianist with an extensive repertoire list how it came to pass that I had never heard of this composer or her music.

I looked for more pieces of hers and found an incredible body of work, greater than or equal to the best composers of her era. I read up on her and not only discovered a life and experience of heroic proportions, but a life spent fighting uphill battles simply to get the respect she deserved. Despite ultimately earning the respect and admiration of the finest composers of her era, the musical establishment after her death ignored her work both in performance and in education, and in an insidious fashion erased her from history.

Much of her work sat in libraries collecting dust for over a century until a French graduate student rediscovered her in the 1980s. I quickly began to realize that this was a pattern that spanned centuries and crossed oceans. Scores of talented female composers were treated in this fashion. Measures were taken to prevent them from joining the classical canon of composers, and when their talent was too great to be contained, the music itself was shunned by the establishment, or subjected to specious and clearly bigoted smears in the press. 

It is a universal truth that great music, like great art, is a pure expression of the soul and a thing of deep and abiding beauty. It is priceless, unique, and each piece has a power to stir the soul. To anyone capable of appreciating such things—whatever the gender—the idea of destroying or hiding this music from the world is truly appalling. The fact that so many women’s legacies and achievements, along with their incredible music, were deliberately erased from history by the bigotry of small minds is a profound injustice that cries out to be rectified.

This year Felipe Vera and I co-founded a new concert series in Seattle titled Women Who Score with the goal of showcasing musical works by women whose creative voices were stifled or silenced as a result of religious, racial, cultural, or systemic oppression. This Sunday, March 11 we are proud to present a special preview concert featuring music by a handful of history’s most influential women composers: Louise Farrenc, Clara Schumann, Amy Beach, and Libby Larsen.

But these women are just the beginning. Throughout our inaugural concert season, we plan to commission new works, highlight local living composers, and also pay tribute to historic women composers who paved the way for today’s generation of musicians. This series is about empowerment; about a community uniting in sharing the untold stories. With an open mind and open ears, we can work to diversify the world of classical music and continue to discover the musical voices of women across history.


Angie Drăghicescu
Artistic Director of Women Who Score

The Women Who Score preview concert is Sunday, March 11 at 7pm at Nordstrom Recital Hall. For tickets and more information, please click here.