All Tomorrow’s Parties: Paying Homage while Looking Ahead with Nadia Shpachenko

Photo by Albert Chang.

by Dacia Clay

Nadia Shpachenko is a multiple Grammy-nominated pianist and Professor of Music at Cal Poly Pomona University who has never stopped playing with her toys.

Shpachenko’s love of playing—both with toys and on her piano, and sometimes, with her toy piano—is part of what makes her new album, Quotations and Homages, so much fun to listen to. She’s got this wide-open sense of adventure that comes across not only in her playing, but in the pieces she commissions and the composers from whom she commissions them. (Shpachenko seems to choose composers by their willingness to be co-conspirators in her exploits as much as for their compositional aptitude.) An album of pieces that pay homage to everyone from Messiaen to the Velvet Underground? Yes! A piece inspired by Stravinsky called “Igor to Please” written for 6 pianists on 2 toy pianos, 2 pianos, and electronics? Yay! Let’s do it!

In this interview, Nadia talks about why she’s such an advocate for new classical music, about the ideas that inspired this new album and the pieces therein, and about breaking piano strings. 

VIDEO PREMIERE: Joshua Roman’s ‘Tornado’ ft. the JACK Quartet

by Gabriela Tedeschi

Photo by Hayley Young.

Joshua Roman is a native of Oklahoma, where the gentle beauty of spring is routinely dismantled by the awesome and destructive power of tornadoes.

His newest composition is inspired by just that. Composed for cello quintet, Tornado paints a musical portrait of his childhood storm experiences, using chaotic string textures to conjure up the stunning and terrifying natural imagery of tornado season. The piece was commissioned by Town Hall and Music Academy of the West and premiered this past spring by Roman and the JACK Quartet.

With its complex and vivid musical storytelling, Tornado depicts the fear and destruction that tornadoes bring while also capturing their wild beauty. Tender and playful pastoral melodies repeatedly give way to sinister, driving motifs and unsettling dissonances. Over time, the thrilling sonic storm builds as the quintet begins plucking, scratching, and striking the strings. Some parts of the performance are even left up to chance, with aleatoric writing and microtone smears gesturing toward the unpredictability of nature.

We’re thrilled to premiere our video of Joshua Roman and the JACK Quartet performing Roman’s Tornado.

Notorious RBG in Song

by Dacia Clay

Today—that’s August 10, 2018 if you’re reading this from the future world—marks Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s 25th year on the Supreme Court of the United States. In 1993, she became the second woman in history to be confirmed to the court, and since then, she’s been a part of important court decisions on everything from gender equality and same-sex marriage to Bush v. Gore. When the Court gutted the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Ginsburg’s dissenting opinion was so impassioned that she earned the nickname “Notorious RBG” after a college student started a meme on Tumblr.

Patrice Michaels and Ruth Bader Ginsburg at the Glimmerglass Festival, 2016.

Notorious RBG is now the name of a new album of art song released to celebrate Ginsburg’s 25 years with SCOTUS. The album came about organically through a series of family commissions and personal projects. As it turns out, Ginsburg’s son James is the head of Cedille Records, and her daughter-in-law is soprano and composer Patrice Michaels. In this interview, James and Patrice tell the story of how the album came together, and talk about the woman its songs were inspired by.

Snapshots from the Bang on a Can Summer Music Festival

This July Second Inversion’s Maggie Molloy was thrilled to be among four writers covering the Bang on a Can Summer Music Festival as a participant in the first ever Media Workshop! Under the mentorship of John Schaefer (of WNYC’s New Sounds) and Will Robin (writer and musicologist), Maggie wrote five articles for the New Sounds website highlighting unforgettable musical moments from this year’s summer festival. Click the links below to read each installment.

Bang on a Can, Sing through a Vacuum Tube

The world is Mark Stewart’s orchestra, and every pipe, tube, tabletop, and balloon is an untapped vessel just waiting to make beautiful music. Take a step inside Stewart’s Orchestra of Original Instruments. Click here to read more.


Vicky Chow Mesmerizes MASS MoCA (And She’s Just Warming Up)

“Please do not touch or play this piano” reads the sign atop a shiny Yamaha grand standing in the center of the Wardwell Gallery at MASS MoCA. That sign, of course, doesn’t apply to Vicky Chow. Go behind the scenes of her gallery performance of the Philip Glass Piano Etudes. Click here to read more.


Folk Songs from the Bang on a Can Festival

Scottish composer Ailie Robertson loves a good folk tale—and the spookier, the better. Explore the influence of Scottish folk traditions in Robertson’s music through two pieces performed at the Bang on a Can Summer Festival. Click here to read more.


Playing Like a Girl

There are 40,320 different ways to make music like a girl. Or at least, that’s how many ways you can perform Eve Beglarian’s piece Play Like a Girl. The Bang on a Can Fellows performed just one rendition of the piece in an afternoon concert of Beglarian’s music. Click here to read more.


The Celestial Music of Samn Johnson

“There’s something very comforting about music’s ability to manipulate time,” says composer Samn Johnson. Explore the influence of space, time, and the cosmos in Johnson’s music through three of his pieces performed at this summer’s festival. Click here to read more.

Oliver Knussen (1952–2018): Music of New Epiphanies

by Michael Schell

Oliver Knussen’s recent passing occasioned an outpouring of tributes to this much-loved British conductor and composer. His most iconic compositions are two one-act operas based on the Maurice Sendak children’s books Where the Wild Things Are and Higglety Pigglety Pop!. With their Sendak-derived décor and full-body costumes they must be seen to be fully appreciated, and there’s an attractive DVD that offers both. Easier to sample online are his orchestral works, which combine the colorful sound world of early 20th century music with a contemporary approach to time and melody.

Knussen’s Horn Concerto from 1994 is a good example. Written for the great Barry Tuckwell, it begins with some woodwind chirps and string harmonics that sound right out of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. After some flute flurries reminiscent of early Stravinsky, the soloist enters with the most fragmentary of melodic ideas: a three-note trill that gets longer and more discursive—but hardly more substantial—as it recurs throughout the piece. Though the horn plays almost continuously, its lines are rhetorical and assertive, often beginning with repetitions of that little three-note cell in various guises. It’s an obsessive, postmodern approach to melodic line, quite unlike the neat rounded curves you get in a Mozart or Strauss horn concerto. Knussen’s emphasis is on the soundscape itself, almost like a French impressionist ballet that’s had its melodies removed, causing what was previously introductory or accompanimental to be elevated to the foreground.

Knussen’s chromatic chords and luscious orchestrations often suggest Ravel. One example is a passage toward the end of the Concerto that’s reminiscent of the “Pantomime” from Daphnis et Chloé (with a horn swapped for Ravel’s flute). Knussen is one of the most French-sounding of all British composers, and he was an important influence on younger compatriots like Thomas Adès and Charlotte Bray who favor conventional ensembles, enjoy mixing tonal and atonal harmonies, and embrace the French tradition of sensuous, colorful orchestral writing. His US-based counterparts include many of the New Romantics, such as John Harbison and John Corigliano, but also musicians like Chen Yi, whose octet Sparkle resembles Knussen’s Flourish with Fireworks.

If listening to a 19th century concerto is like taking a walk in a familiar neighborhood, then hearing Knussen’s Horn Concerto is like being dropped in a foreign city whose unknown language makes its sights and sounds seem abstract. Sometimes this makes it easier to see the art in previously overlooked details. Knussen’s music is all about the joy in doing just that.

Second Inversion at the Bang on a Can Summer Music Festival!

Second Inversion’s Maggie Molloy is thrilled to be attending the Bang on a Can Summer Music Festival this year as a participant in the festival’s first ever Media Workshop! She will be at MASS MoCA from July 22-29, working alongside three other music journalists under the mentorship of John Schaefer (of WNYC’s New Sounds) and Will Robin (writer and musicologist).

If you see her there, say hello! We are excited for an opportunity to take Second Inversion to the opposite coast and connect in person with composers and new music-makers from around the world. Maggie will be attending rehearsals and concerts throughout the festival and would love the chance to talk with you about new music and upcoming projects. She’ll also be armed with free Second Inversion swag, so be sure to grab a magnet or pin when you see her!

Plus, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram for summer music updates from North Adams, Massachusetts. See you at the festival!

Scott Johnson: Mind Out of Matter, Music Out of Speech

by Michael Schell

Musicians of every stripe have spent centuries exploring the range of vocal expression from straight speaking to pure singing. The development of recording technology has added a few new possibilities to the mix, and one of them, called speech melody, has become closely associated with the American composer Scott Johnson.

Born in 1952, Johnson grew up and studied in Wisconsin. Like Joni Mitchell, he played guitar, moved to New York in his 20s, and for a time fancied himself more of a visual artist than a musician. Johnson quickly integrated into the Downtown New York music scene, performing with Rhys Chatham and Laurie Anderson (before her pop star days), and exploring the regions where minimalism, jazz, rock, and electronic music all came together.

His breakthrough came in 1982 with the album John Somebody, which inaugurated his speech melody technique. Its workings can be easily discerned from the title track (above). Johnson starts with a snippet of recorded speech, then makes it into a tape loop as Steve Reich had done in his piece Come Out:

Johnson then fashions a guitar melody that aligns with the contour and rhythm of the speech, and plays this melody in sync with the loop. Accompanying chords, extra tracks of looped speech and guitar obbligatos, and an increasingly dense texture soon follow by way of musical development.

Photo by Patricia Nolan.

Johnson compares his speech transcription style to Messiaen’s practice of transcribing bird songs for use in compositions. He also cites the call-and-response patterns common in blues (as in this exchange between Bessie Smith and trombonist Charlie Smith) as an influence alongside Reich and Messiaen (“those three things kind of collided one afternoon”). Other musicians have experimented with speech melody in the years since John Somebody, including Florent Ghys in Petits Artéfacts (2015) and Reich himself, borrowing back from Johnson in Different Trains (1988).Learn 

Now Johnson is out with a new piece conceived for Alarm Will Sound. In place of the humorous tape loops of John Somebody, this work features the digitally sampled and recombined musings of Daniel Dennett, one of America’s leading philosophers and cognitive scientists, and a noted freethinker whose writings and speeches about the evolution of human consciousness are aptly reflected in the work’s title: Mind Out of Matter.

A good demonstration of Johnson’s updated approach for this composition comes at the start of “Winners,” the third of its eight movements. From the following spoken phrase…

“you can’t get ‘em out of your head”

…Johnson constructs a stuttering four-bar phrase using progressively longer excerpts:

Next, drums and percussion come in to reinforce the rhythm. Then, four bars later, the piano starts to melodicize the sampled speech…

…whereupon chords and other instruments are added to complete the texture:

You can hear this passage starting at 2:37 of the following rehearsal video:

With a length of 74 minutes, a gestation period of six years, and a broad timbral pallet befitting the instrumentation and virtuosity of Alarm Will Sound (a 21st century chamber orchestra equipped with wind, string, percussion and electric instruments), Mind Out of Matter is Johnson’s most elaborate composition to date. It has been called an “atheist oratorio,” not altogether ironically, since like Handel’s Messiah, it’s an epic, multi-movement voice and instrumental setting of texts about religion (and there’s even a “choral” movement where several of the musicians sing). In its structure, theme, and dimensions it also strikes me as a rationalist counterpart to Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde.

Johnson says he “tried to imbue this music with the sense of awe and wonder that lie at the heart of Dennett’s scientifically informed philosophy, while still emulating his gift for crafting a disarmingly playful presentation.” Mind Out of Matter succeeds by ritualizing the rational, creating a kind of secular age surrogate for religious music that acknowledges our persistent human attraction to sacralized culture.