ALBUM REVIEW: The Hands Free

by Gabriela Tedeschi

Over the course of the past decade, the four composer-performers who make up the Hands Free have performed together in a variety of contexts. They found that what they loved doing the most was holding informal late-night jam sessions—which is what led to the quartet’s inception.

James Moore, who plays guitar and banjo for the group, became interested in a 1937 book that combines the poetry of  Paul Eluard with Man Ray’s line drawings. It’s called Les Mains Libres (Hands Free), a phrase Eluard and Ray used to describe allowing the imagination to play freely. Inspired to make music based on this concept, Moore thought of his late-night jams and invited Pulitzer Prize-winning Caroline Shaw (violin), Nathan Koci (accordion), and Eleonore Oppenheim (bass) to join him for imaginative musical play, creating The Hands Free and their debut self-titled album, out now on New Amsterdam Records.

The ensemble likes to perform unamplified, sit in a circle, and incorporate improvisation in almost every piece so performance feels like play and the sound is especially organic. For The Hands Free, they’ve also worked to integrate a mix of genres from folk music to jazz while drawing from the contemporary classical scene as well.

By making use of the cultural associations of genres and instrument colors, The Hands Free transports you to different parts of the world. Drawing themes from folk songs, the lively violin melody in “Kellam’s Reel/Rusty Gully” takes you to the Scottish countryside for a jovial dance. The gentle, romantic melody in “Lirr Bleu” conjures up images of Paris. With its bittersweet quality and the bass’s soft, melancholy countermelody, the piece seems to depict a broken heart in the City of Love.

In other pieces, The Hands Free challenges your perception of instruments and genres by combining them in new ways. “Lost Halo” begins with a banjo pattern that evokes the stereotypical twang of rural folk music—but when the violin enters with legato melodic lines, the banjo becomes more versatile than we often imagine it to be, intermixing tender consonant chords with dark, suspenseful dissonance for a surprisingly modern sound.

“Sade” almost sounds as though it could be from a horror movie soundtrack, with unpredictable percussion and blares of sound leading the piece into a creepy folk melody variation. Eerie tone clusters form as accordion slides clash against the rest of the ensemble. Alternately, in “It’s She” the violin transitions from another Scottish jig into a rich, lyrical melody. Beneath the violin quick, quiet bursts of tone and soft melodic humming add depth to the texture, creating something hopeful and grandiose.

With its complexity and variety, The Hands Free takes you on a journey around the world while maintaining the warmth and spontaneity of an impromptu jam session. With their beautifully eclectic mix of sounds that depict an immense variety of places and emotions, the quartet invites you to join in their play and let your imagination run free.

Nat Evans “Flyover Country” at the Grocery Studios

by Dacia Clay

Nat Evans and Will Hayes at the Grocery

Nat Evans and Will Hayes at the Grocery (photo by Dacia Clay)

Imagine that you’re having a nightmare. There’s a monster chasing you. It’s a dark, shadowy threatening thing that devours everything and everyone in its path, working its way ever-closer to you. You instinctively try to run. And then, at the inevitable moment when it’s upon you and you know that you’re done for, something unthinkably terrifying happens: you realize that the monster is you.

That moment of Edvard Munch-level terror is at the heart of Nat Evans’ multimedia work, Flyover Country: How do contemporary people deal with, as Evans puts it, our “disconnected collective consciousness,” wherein we have convinced ourselves through the stories that we tell that we are separate from the natural world and from our origins?

Flyover is also a meditation on the power and function of story in our lives, starting with Evans’ own family. In 2017, he began to look at family trees and photos dating to the 1870s, piecing together the stories of his forebears; he also began to dig into the stories of contemporaneous indigenous people. What emerged from his research clearly mortified him. Where his family’s historical records petered out, stories of their indigenous counterparts came violently to the fore. In short, Evans began to suspect that there was a direct link between his family and mass atrocities of the past.

The audience at Beacon Hill’s Grocery Studios this Sunday night (May 20, 2018) experienced the horror of what Evans unearthed along with him – his family’s link to the genocide of indigenous people, the slaughter of the bison, and the pillaging of the earth – when the performance reached a climax of truly scary cognitive and musical dissonance. For most of the piece up until that point, Will Hayes’s guitar had been dreamy and expansive. But at that moment, it escalated to wretches and squeals, and the room went dark as the audience choked on the starkness of what Evans had laid out for us. The story completely unraveled leaving us to sit with the heartlessness, callousness, and opportunism deep in the roots of the United States.

But what were we to do with that information? Where were we to go from there? Especially when, as Evans pointed out, our country is still doing it. We’re still, for example, draining the Ogallala Aquifer and leaving behind dead lands (aka, “flyover country”). The land beneath the building we were sitting in, as Grocery Studios’ Janet Galore pointed out before the performance began, was part of unceded indigenous lands that belonged to the Coast Salish people.

I don’t want to spoil the experience of Flyover Country for you so I won’t tell you about the edict/conclusion that Evans left the audience with. But I will say that it had to do with harnessing the power of story for good. And that it involved a really stubborn buffalo.

Flyover Country is the distillation of one artist wrapping his head around the enormity of his origins – both those of his family and of his country – and what those things mean here and now. Through acoustic and electronic music, a slideshow of archival photos and video, field recordings, and spoken text, Evans has woven together a deeply personal story, but he leaves enough space for us to inhabit it. It’s a piece that’s impossible not to think about for hours and days after, precisely because it’s a story that we’re all still writing.

Westerlies Go West: Wednesday, May 23 at the Royal Room

by Maggie Molloy

Photo by John Abbott.

Far from your typical brass band, the Westerlies are a Seattle-bred, New York-based quartet known on both coasts for their bold artistry, impeccable finesse, eclectic musical interpretations, and remarkable versatility. Fresh off a tour with the indie folk band Fleet Foxes, the Westerlies are back in the Northwest this Wednesday for a show at the Royal Room in Columbia City.

Comprised of Riley Mulherkar and Zubin Hensler on trumpet with Andy Clausen and Willem de Koch on trombone, the Westerlies grew up together playing music in Seattle under the mentorship of pianist and composer Wayne Horvitz, who is the co-founder and music programmer of the Royal Room. The homecoming concert is made even more special by the fact that it will be Zubin Hensler’s last performance with the Westerlies, as he is leaving the group to focus on music composition, production, and his solo project twig twig.

The Westerlies performing with Wayne Horvitz at the Royal Room. Photo by Daniel Sheehan.

This Wednesday, you can expect to hear a little jazz, a little classical, some folk, roots, blues, and chamber influences—but no matter what the Westerlies play, the one element that remains constant across all of their music is the warmth, camaraderie, charisma, and humor of four longtime friends.

“Whatever ‘sound’ the Westerlies have stumbled upon is the result of four friends channeling these diverse interests through warm air, buzzing lips and conical brass tubes—with a lot of love and saliva in there too,” says Andy Clausen.

For a sneak preview, check out our in-studio videos of the guys performing works by Charles Ives, Andy Clausen, and Wayne Horvitz:


The Westerlies perform at the Royal Room Wednesday, May 23 at 7:30pm. For tickets and additional information, please click here.

LIVE VIDEO STREAM: A Far Cry on Friday, May 18 at 4:30pm PT / 7:30pm ET

by Gabriela Tedeschi

Photo by Yoon S. Byun.

Next Generation is the name of tonight’s A Far Cry concert, which centers on the experiences of young musicians. Not only does the program focus on early experiences with musicwith variations of Mozart’s beloved children’s song, “Ah! vous dirais-je, Maman” and works from Benjamin Britten and Galina Ustvolskaya that allude to their music mentorsit will also feature several young musicians. 

A Far Cry welcomes the Honors Quartet from Project STEP, a program that provides comprehensive musical training to students from underrepresented communities, for a pre-concert performance at 7:30 p.m. During the concert, the ensemble will be joined by Sean Diehl (violin), Keina Satoh (cello), and Julide San (double bass), winners from A Far Cry’s New England Conservatory Prep School Competition. Click here to learn more about the student performers.

Visit this page on Friday, May 18 at 4:30pm PT / 7:30pm ET for a LIVE video of A Far Cry’s Next Generation.

Check out the program below, and click here to read the full program notes.

W.A. Mozart / Ethan Wood
Variations on “Ah! Vous dirais-je, Maman”

Galina Ustvolskaya
Concerto for Piano, String Orchestra, and Timpani

Benjamin Britten
Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, Op. 10


A Far Cry’s Next Generation performance streams live on this page on Friday, May 18 at 4:30pm PT / 7:30pm ET. For more information about the orchestra, please click here.

ALBUM REVIEW: ‘writing on water’ by David Lang

by Gabriela Tedeschi

In Grammy and Pulitzer Prize-winning composer David Lang’s new album writing on water, the quality of Lang’s music is as wide-ranging as water itself. Exploring new forms and different combinations of instruments through four ensemble pieces, Lang stretches the limits of what a large ensemble can be, uncovering wildly different textures, colors, and emotions.

The album’s title track, scored for choir and chamber orchestra, was created in 2005 in honor of the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar, a naval battle during the Napoleonic Wars that resulted in a decisive victory for the British and the loss of 22 ships for the Franco-Spanish forces. For this piece, Lang partnered with film director Peter Greenaway, who wove together a libretto with descriptions of drowning and shipwrecks from Moby Dick, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and The Tempest.

“writing on water” dramatically captures the anguish and fear of catastrophe at sea. Synergy Vocals imbue the choral parts with a broad, grandiose color. The individual vocal lines are largely stagnant throughout the piece, creating an almost demonic sound and empowering slight pitch changes to have an intense emotional impact. The instrumental accompaniment, with its dense texture and dark tone, evokes images of turbulent waves, stormy weather, and the destruction of ships.

The drama overflows into tracks “forced march” and “pierced,” which explore the possibilities that emerge when groups within the ensemble work against each other.

“forced march,” performed by the Crash Ensemble, aligns a boisterous, unwieldy rock melody with steady, militaristic percussion. As the piece unfolds, the restrictive beat changes the melody. The original motif bursts free at times as if rebelling against the structure, but is always absorbed back into the more regulated version of the theme, leaving listeners with the disturbing feeling of being repressed.

“pierced” layers a rhythmically unpredictable melody over a variety of supporting textures, allowing the ensemble—comprised of Logan Paul and FLUX quartet on strings and the electroacoustic group Real Quiet—to color and at times overshadow the melody to inhabit different moods. The result is that sections of the same work with the same melody sound like wildly different pieces, outlining the impact that each instrument has on the overall aesthetic.

Lang wrote “increase,” the third track on the album, in 2002 as a wedding present for friends and a gift for the ensemble Alarm Will Sound’s inaugural performance. While considering old Puritan baby names with his wife, the name Increase struck him as the kind of blessing you’d want for both a marriage and for a new ensemble.

“increase” starts with a mystical, galloping feel. It’s both hopeful and mysterious, as though you don’t know what’s about to come, but believe it may be something good. The mystical motif runs throughout the piece as the suspense builds and the texture intensifies. “increase” develops into a beautifully tempered blessing, one that takes into account both the hope and the uncertainty that comes with a new endeavor.

writing on water is a dramatic and innovative exploration of the possibilities large ensembles present. Lang masterfully layers melodies, harmonies, and textures—allowing them sometimes to work together and other times to clash—to unearth every opportunity for beautiful sound within the ensemble.

VIDEO PREMIERE: Robert Honstein’s ‘An Economy of Means’

by Gabriela Tedeschi

Robert Honstein. Photo by Elisa Ferrari.

From Bach to Philip Glass, composers have long been fascinated with economical design. Working with simple materials requires innovative approaches from the composer and impressive virtuosity from the performer—which can often lead to intense, intricate works.

Robert Honstein’s new album An Economy of Means is inspired in part by this long-standing tradition. Featuring two large solo works, the title track and Grand Tour, the album seeks to show what incredible variety and complexity one performer on one instrument can develop within a piece.

An Economy of Means is a six-movement piece scored for solo vibraphone. Performed by percussionist Doug Perkins, the piece utilizes a variety of mallets and props to create wildly different colors on the instrument. Though Perkins makes it sound effortless, a performance of this work requires intense concentration and athleticism—which is why one of the piece’s most rigorous movements is titled “Cross Fit.”

It’s dazzling to watch Perkins’ coordination as he develops an intricate polyrhythmic pattern with four mallets. Making use of a metal sheet over the keys as well as tapping the sides and sliding across the resonators, Perkins generates an array of percussive sound and crisp melodic motifs. Without seeing it, you wouldn’t believe only one performer was playing.

Luckily, you can see it right here in our video premiere for “Cross Fit” from Robert Honstein’s new album An Economy of Means, created by Four/Ten Media.


Robert Honstein’s new album An Economy of Means comes out May 18. Click here to purchase the album.

STAFF PICKS: Friday Faves

Second Inversion hosts share a favorite selection from their weekly playlist. Tune in on Friday, May 11 to hear these pieces and plenty of other new and unusual music from all corners of the classical genre!

Pauline Oliveros: “Pauline’s Solo” (Innova Recordings)
Pauline Oliveros, accordion

“Listen to everything all the time and remind yourself when you are not listening,” Pauline Oliveros said in her 1998 keynote address at the ArtSci98 symposium.

Twenty years later, those words have come to encapsulate the astonishing legacy left behind by the late composer, who passed away in 2016. An artist, accordionist, and pioneer of experimental and electronic art music, Oliveros is remembered for her revolutionary tape experiments, her poetic and aleatoric musical scores, her groundbreaking musical philosophies, and above all, her unwavering devotion to the exploration of sound.

“Pauline’s Solo” embodies that legacy. It is an intimate, improvised accordion solo that explores not melody so much as the music of sound—the clattering keys, wavering dissonances, swelling drones, and fluttering breaths of the instrument easing the listener into musical hypnosis. – Maggie Molloy

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


No Lands: “Icefisher” (New Amsterdam)
Michael Hammond, electronics

Michael Hammond’s recording project No Lands opens it’s album Negative Space with a confusingly-titled track. Despite being titled “Icefisher,” this piece brings a distinct sense of warmth. The slow, bendy chords are reminiscent of surf rock, while the heavy electronic static might be a sonic translation of the sensation of relaxing outdoors on an evening that is too hot. The end result? This track makes me want immediate access to a cold drink and a lawn chair. – Seth Tompkins

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 4pm hour today to hear this piece.


William Brittelle: Hieroglyphics Baby (New Amsterdam)

If you’re looking for some Friday night grooves, William Brittelle’s got the tune for you. “Hieroglyphics Baby” is a colorful art-pop-meets-classical mashup from his full-length, lip-synched (when live) concept album Mohair Time Warp. Tongue-in-cheek lyrics spiral through Technicolor melodies in this art music adventure that splashes through at least six musical genres in the span of three minutes. See if you can keep up. – Maggie Molloy

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


György Ligeti: Lux Aeterna (EMI Records)
Groupe Vocal de France

It’s always fascinating for me to hear the atonal landscape of György Ligeti applied to vocal works—for me, it magnifies the majesty and magic that is a somewhat lesser characteristic of his instrumental compositions that I know and love. Lux Aeterna is a highly difficult work for 16-part mixed choir that uses constantly shifting rhythms and high notes for all vocal parts to create a floating, ethereal feeling. Stanley Kubrick was attracted to its celestial sound, using it in his film 2001: A Space Odyssey. The Latin text comes from the Catholic Requiem Mass, and translates to:

“May everlasting light shine upon them, O Lord, with thy saints in eternity, for thou art merciful. Grant them eternal rest, O Lord, and may everlasting light shine upon them.”

 Geoffrey Larson

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 9pm hour today to hear this piece.