Frederic Rzewski at 80: Directions Inevitable or Otherwise

by Michael Schell

Photo by Michael Wilson.

Composer/pianist Frederic Rzewski, who turned 80 on April 13, has had one of the most impactful careers in modern music. He has experimented with, embraced and advanced many of contemporary music’s most significant ideas, and his credits include such landmarks as the minimalist masterpiece Coming Together and the monumental piano variations The People United Will Never Be Defeated!. He’s arguably the most important living composer of piano music, and is surely one of the dozen or so most important living American composers.

Beginnings and Musica Elettronica Viva

To his colleagues he’s “Fred Shevsky,” the silent “R” a marker of his Polish-Jewish parentage. Born near Springfield, Massachusetts in 1938, he studied music at Harvard and Princeton, then went to Italy on a Fulbright Fellowship in 1960. There he joined the circle of Luigi Dallapiccola (1904–1975), a much-admired teacher and composer whose music was an important bridge between the neoclassicism of older Italian composers like Respighi and the post-WW2 radicalism of Berio and Nono. Rzewski quickly made a name for himself as a piano virtuoso capable of performing new and difficult music, and he went on to premiere and record works by Stockhausen, Pousseur, Christian Wolff, and others.

MEV in the 1960s, with ample hair and idealism. (Left to right: Rzewski, Teitelbaum, Curran.)

Living in Rome in 1966, Rzewski and two fellow expatriate Americans, Alvin Curran and Richard Teitelbaum, began presenting group improvisations using a mix of acoustic instruments, vintage synthesizers, and homemade electronic gadgets. They called themselves Musica Elettronica Viva, or MEV for short, and their performances, often augmented by a rotating roster of vocalists and other musicians, frequently went on for hours.

SpaceCraft was an early MEV workhorse, ultimately receiving over 80 performances in Europe. Its “score” was an elaborate set of abstract verbal instructions written by Rzewski as an example of what he called prose music (other examples are Pauline Oliveros’s meditation pieces, and Stockhausen’s intuitive music pieces in the collection Aus den sieben Tagen). Conceived in the social and musical maelstrom that was the 1960s, SpaceCraft’s goal was to “create unity and harmony among human beings through the creation of a sound-space environment.”

But heady idealism aside, the sonic results bear comparison with contemporaneous free jazz epics such as Song for Charles (recorded by the Art Ensemble of Chicago in 1969, when they were based in Paris) as well as more conventionally composed works like Mauricio Kagel’s Acustica (1970). Although MEV’s own inspiration had been primarily drawn from the live electronic music of John Cage and his brethren, they would soon collaborate directly with prominent African-American musicians such as Anthony Braxton, Roscoe Mitchell, and George Lewis, helping to link these traditions in anticipation of the international free improvisation movement that rose to prominence in the 1980s.

MEV’s activity peaked in the late 1960s, but its core musicians have continued to perform together over the years, including a 2016 appearance here in Seattle.

Minimalism

Photo via Lovely Music.

Rzewski spent the early 1970s back in the US amid the rising tide of musical minimalism. He had been an evangelist for the movement in Europe (it was Rzewski that introduced Louis Andriessen to Terry Riley’s In C, something that the Dutch composer later acknowledged as a turning point in his career). Rzewski’s own innovation was to combine the rhythmic energy and musical process of a piece like In C with the collectivist philosophy that informed MEV. Several of the resulting compositions have become classics of their genre.

Les Moutons de Panurge is one of those classics. The instrumentation is unspecified, and everyone plays the same 65-note tune. But they play the notes as follows: 1, 1-2, 1-2-3 etc., until the entire melody is heard. Then the musicians begin subtracting notes from the beginning, playing notes 2 through 65, 3 through 65 and so on, holding the very last C♮ until everyone has finished. A key performance direction reads “Never stop or falter…Stay together as long as you can, but if you get lost, stay lost. Do not try to find your way back to the fold.”

If things go as expected, musicians gradually lose their place, and the unison turns into a multi-voice canon that resembles a line of sheep meekly following one another, hence the reference to the character Panurge and his gullible flock in Rabelais’ Gargantua. Rzewski’s piece succeeds because of the elegant simplicity of its form and because it has a really great tune.

Coming Together, from 1972, is an even more iconic classic. It uses a text adapted from a prison letter written by Sam Melville, an anarchist bomber who was killed in the Attica uprising in 1971 (depending on your politics he was either a political prisoner, a domestic terrorist, or both). 

As usual with Rzewski, the text is declaimed, not sung, to ensure its comprehensibility and emotional impact. Its treatment in Coming Together is similar to the treatment of the melody in Les Moutons de Panurge—that is, we hear the first sentence, then the first two sentences, then the first three and so on (an effect akin to stuttering), after which sentences start getting dropped from the beginning until we’re left with only the last one:

I read much, exercise, talk to guards and inmates, feeling for the inevitable direction of my life.

The accompanying music is remarkable for its limited range, constrained to a mere seven pitches in a simple G minor blues scale:

From this, Rzewski spins 392 bars of continuous single-line sixteenth notes. They start out tethered to low G, trying to climb the scale, first to B♭, then as high as C in bar 2 and D in bar 4. But we keep stumbling, falling back to G, starting over…

The incarceration metaphors are obvious: prisoners trying to escape, to find some variety within the drudgery of their daily lives, or even to “feel for the inevitable direction” of their lives. Rzewski is a practical musician, so for textural variety he gives performers the latitude at various points to choose notes to sustain or play in counterpoint with the running bass line. And none of the measures are literal repetitions (this idea of a continually striving but never repeating bass line was embraced more recently by David Lang in his symphony without a hero, which was premiered by Seattle Symphony in 2018).

But though we finally make it to the end of the text, the music winds up where it started: chained to low G. In fact, the ending of the piece is an exact retrograde of the beginning, and the final three-quarters of the piece are constructed from serial-style inversions and retrogrades of material in the first quarter. Whatever inevitability is attained is only partially liberating.

Rzewski’s own musical direction seemed to be inevitably leading him toward postminimalism, but in a remarkable career shift, his next major piece became a landmark of a different kind.

The Composer-Pianist

The People United Will Never Be Defeated!, composed in fall 1975, is an hour-long set of variations on a protest song associated with resistance to the 1973 CIA-backed coup in Chile that ushered in the brutal Pinochet dictatorship. Premiered in 1976 and first recorded in 1979, the piece was widely embraced as a breakthrough for what was then called the New Romanticism: a prominent move away from the Darmstadt-era avant-garde toward traditional tonality and forms.

The categorizations of the moment are often simplistic though, and Rzewski’s work, while predominantly tonal, includes enough atonal passages and postmodern devices such as verbalizations, proportional notation, piano harmonics, and noise effects to be more appropriately positioned within the American tradition of eclecticism that originated with Ives. Regardless, it has since become Rzewski’s best-known and most recorded piece, firmly ensconced in the pantheon of the 20th century’s epic piano compositions. So powerful and substantive is the music that Igor Levit’s recording can place it alongside Bach’s Goldman Variations and Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations with no loss of continuity.

The 36 variations are organized into a unique scheme where every sixth variation (up to No. 30) is a summation of the previous five. Variation 31 in turn summarizes the first variation of every set, while Variation 32 summarizes the second, and so on. It can be tough to follow all this without a score—some variations follow the theme more closely than others, and the theme itself includes two passes through the same melody. Here are a few highlights, with timings referring to the above video:

  • Variations 9 (10:39) and 10 (11:48) present a striking contrast: No. 9 is soft and tonal, suggesting Respighi’s Pines Near a Catacomb, while No. 10 plays homage to Stockhausen’s groundbreaking and unapologetically avant-garde Klavierstück X (which Rzewski once recorded for Wergo).
  • Variation 11 (12:50) continues the “shock value,” with effects such as whistling, crying out, and slamming the keyboard lid shut (with the pedal down) seeming to come out of nowhere. The vocalization effects return in the summarizing Variation 35 (51:50).
  • Variation 13 (15:09) has a gospel/swing feel to it, and ends with a cadenza where the right hand quotes the Italian labor song “Bandiera Rossa.”
  • After a succession of relatively short variations, No. 27 (35:44) begins in a rhetorical style before moving into a funky Herbie Hancock-esque episode that digresses from the theme for two minutes. After a brief return to the opening style the variation ends with a Sibelius-like ostinato that leads directly into the martial Variation 28 (41:12).
  • After the final variation, the pianist is invited to improvise a cadenza (54:50) to transition back to the restatement of the theme (1:00:46).

It’s hard to convey how disorienting this piece was when it was first heard. It’s not a straightforward return to 1930s neoclassicism or 1960s collage/quotation style, but an attempt to construct a new and coherent language from elements previously considered disparate. That it no longer sounds jarring is testament to its success.

Rzewski and his daughter in 1990. Photo by Françoise Walot.

In 1977 Rzewski returned to Europe to take a teaching position at the Royal Conservatory of Liège. Since then he has spent most of his time outside the US, focusing his compositional energy on solo piano music whose reputation owes much to Rzewski’s own skills as a touring performer. Rzewski has been compared to Liszt in this regard, and his career-summarizing The Road (1995–2003), a semi-autobiographical album of 64 pieces lasting nine hours in all, is a postmodern counterpart to Lizst’s Années de pèlerinage (Years of Pilgrimage). In it, Rzewski covers even more stylistic ground than in The People United Will Never Be Defeated!, channeling the rhetorical philosophizing of Ives, the improvisational flourishes of Cecil Taylor, and various folk tune quotations and twelve-tone techniques.

Second Hand, or, Alone at Last (2005) is at the other extreme, an album of six miniatures for left hand alone. Written in a single week when Rzewski was suffering from stiffness in his right hand, it’s a fine sampler of his late style, an American counterpart to Ligeti’s Piano Etudes.

Somewhere in between are the American Ballads, a group of fantasies on folk and political songs that make an easy introduction to Rzewski’s more accessible side. The fourth Ballad, “Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues,” is especially popular, its lively riffs suggesting the constant movement of the spinning machinery. Following the example of Ives, Rzewski holds back on quoting the full song until the very end. You can hear Pete Seeger singing the original tune here.

De Profundis

The most admired of all Rzewski’s post-People works has to be De Profundis (1992), a 30-minute essay for speaking pianist based (again!) on a prison letter, this time written by Oscar Wilde during his incarceration in Reading Gaol in 1897. The piece alternates between textless musical commentaries and accompanied delivery of excerpts from the letter. Despite the despairing tone of the text, the music is often playful, and includes a quote from “London Bridge is Falling Down,” a Bachian four-voice invention, and a body and piano-slapping passage punctuated by toots from a Harpo Marx horn.

Wilde’s narrative—significantly condensed by Rzewski—describes his humiliation and anguish while in custody, reflects on his earlier life (including his relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas), and searches for redemption in his sufferings. Eventually Wilde tries to gird himself for the future…

While for the first year of my imprisonment I did nothing else, and can remember doing nothing else, but wring my hands in despair, and say, “What an ending, what an appalling ending!” now I try to say to myself, and sometimes when I am not torturing myself do really say, “What a beginning, what a wonderful beginning!”

…but the music knows better, and the piece ends in a quiet, resigned mood. In real life, Wilde was broken by his physical and emotional ordeal, and he died three years after his release, aged 46.

Retrospective

With Elliott Carter in Berlin in 1965, via Paris Transatlantic.

Minimalism, free improvisation, verbal scores, electronic music, neoromanticism, serialism, pastiche and quotation, indeterminate notation, composer-performer praxis—almost every major trend in postmodern art music is present somewhere in Rzewski’s output. Rather than “an inevitable direction,” his lifetime of exploration seems to have circled and zigzagged in many unpredictable ones. Even as he reaches 80—his younger revolutionary visage transformed into a more grandfatherly persona—he continues to perform and compose, including a new work for the Del Sol String Quartet being unveiled during his birthday week.

True to his socialist leanings, and carrying an unusually modest personality as creative musicians go, Rzewski avoids many of the trappings of musical careerism. Long skeptical about the commercial exploitation of music (“If you write music for a living, you’re doing the wrong thing—it won’t be very good.”), he makes most of his scores available for free at IMSLP and eschews the regimen of self-promotion embraced by many of his colleagues. What he relinquishes in fame and fortune he retains in a sincere independence of thought and action that has enabled him to help define the landscape of contemporary music for half a century.

Women in (New) Music: What Better Than Call An Interview?

by Lauren Freman

Quick! Imagine a genius. Don’t think about it, just, whatever comes to mind first. What do they look like? Do they wear glasses? How old are they? What color is their hair?

What color is their skin?

What’s their gender?

I’d wager a guess that most of us have a very specific image of the kind of person who counts as a genius. But there are glimmers of hope that the narrow parameters for the moniker are beginning to loosen: Shuri, the teenage tech-whiz character in the box-office record breaking film Black Panther, for example, or, more recently, Kendrick Lamar’s historic Pulitzer Prize win.

The fact is, we carry around our assumptions until they’re confronted. I was lucky enough to experience such a confrontation, when I sat down with new music chamber ensemble Kin of the Moon (comprised of Heather Bentley, Dr. Kaley Lane Eaton, and Leanna Keith), and dancer-choreographer Karin Stevens (of Karin Stevens Dance) to ask a few questions about their collaborative performance this Friday, What Better Than Call a Dance?

From left: Kaley Lane Eaton, Leanna Keith, Heather Bentley, Karin Stevens, Beth Fleenor.

The performance will feature original pieces by Bentley and Eaton, each inspired by dance forms running the gamut from waltz, tango, the Scottish cèilidh—and even EDM. Kin of the Moon’s more-or-less-through-composed music will be interwoven with improvised movement and music by Karin Stevens and clarinetist Beth Fleenor.

I admit I initially felt a certain skepticism around the name Kin of the Moon. This is a highly educated ensemble that plays intellectually complex, heady musicwhy choose a name that evokes a certain nag-champa-laden mysticism? Was that title truly serious enough to describe serious music that is to be taken seriously? I was surprised to find that the line came straight out of a poem from one of the most established figures in the English literary canon, W.B. Yeats. Strike one, assumptions.

What Better Than Call An Interview? with Kin of the Moon and Karin Stevens

We got exclusive access into the brilliant minds behind Kin of the Moon and Karin Stevens Dance. Join us as we discuss everything from W.B. Yeats, the #metoo movement, and of course, their April 20th performance What Better Than Call a Dance?

Posted by Second Inversion on Tuesday, March 27, 2018

 

Kaley Lane Eaton (KLE): I didn’t start composing until my last year of college, and I had never even thought about it until then. It had not even crossed my mind. I had been a concert pianist, I was winning concerto competitions, I was surrounded by classical music composers my entire life, studying opera, and all that. But I went to Whitman College and I took a course by the incredible Dr. Susan Pickett. She teaches a course called Women As Composers…I really had to reckon with the fact that I had never considered women as composerswhich was odd, given that I’m a woman musician, raised by a raging bra-burning feminist, who made sure that everything I consumed as a young child was feminist. And that says something, that even having a mother like that, who puts everything on the line to make sure that her daughter is aware that she can be anything, STILL I didn’t even know.

Karin Stevens (KS): It’s been essential to me to advocate for local new music, and to build this work that I do together with these amazing composers and artists in music in Seattle. Beth [Fleenor] and I go way back, we’ve done a lot of work together through various groups: the Seattle jazz composers ensemble, the Sam Boshnack quintet, she was a player in a work I did… playing music by Wayne Horvitz, Mike Owcharuk, Nate Omdal (just to give all those lovely people a shoutoutthat’s the advocate in me! We’ve gotta be building audiences for each other). For me, I hope that it’s another layer of the people that have come to support my work, to see music from another direction.

Leanna Keith (LK): I think part of it is that we try to focus on certain types of voices that you may not hear anywhere else. We tend to focus on a lot more female composers if we can. This particular show, it is genreless, going from all these different types of dance from the waltz to EDM, so it’s one of those things where, even if you’ve never heard anything like this before, that’s kind of the point.

Heather Bentley (HB): That EDM piece is really quite unique. This is one that Kaley put together.

KLE: Yeah, this is gonna be the final thing that concludes our pieces, but then [Karin and Beth] will come in on the bass drop. I write electroacoustic music, and I love EDM, I love dance, I love trap musicall of this stuff is really movement-based…We’re going to sing this Hildegard chant into this microphone that picks up our signal and takes little granules…and then turns them into a beat. So you’ll hear this kind of driving, four-on-the-floor beat that’s actually made out of our voices, from the Hildegard chant. So our singing will kind of dissolve into this beat that will emerge, and then [Karin and Beth] will join us

KS: —for the Finale.

KLE: It’s Hildegard and EDM, it’s like

LK: —Trap Hildegard!

Strike two, assumptionsthis time about the limits of what Serious Artists™ are allowed to draw inspiration from. To review: The finale of What Better Than Call A Dance? will be a club-music inspired dance piece, using electronics to manipulatein real-timea chant by an 11th century abbess into an EDM mix.

Incidentally, St. Hildegard von Bingen, said 11th century abbess, was a genius. She was a writer, scientist, composer, philosopher, playwright, medical healer, Doctor of the Church—and currently the only woman listed in the Wikipedia entry for “polymath.”

HB: When I was a kid, I always did many, many, many things…So, this is this idea that I’ve been trying on since #metoo. I should get a t-shirt, I want it to say “I’m a Genius Polymath.” As a woman, my first inclination is to be like “Oh, well isn’t that presumptuous?” I don’t know if I am a genius polymath or not, but why not say it anyway? …So that’s something to try on. I was asked to write a piece for the Thalia Symphony, and it’s going to be about the shape of the universe, which means I need to learn some astrophysics. So I said to myself “I can learn that, because I’m a genius polymath.” What if women—and especially younger girls—just had the sense that it was allowed to them, to say that about themselves, or just to have that self-knowledge? That takes a lot of ceilings away from one’s attitude.

KS: I’m fabulously excited about this side of Kin of the Moon, to be surrounded by all these women…The movements and sounds we make together matter—they have power, and have effect. So I’d like to imagine…that there is something beyond the traditional transaction of art consumption or aesthetic gesture—that we’re doing something that is important. We haven’t had a lot of support for our voices, especially in music…I’m just really excited to be a part of this energy that they’re building with their own music. I kinda don’t care if people like it or not.

LK: To be honest, this is very integral to what we do. The whole gender spectrum, and feminine identity, and these kinds of ideas, across age differences. Kaley, and myself and Heather, we span a rather different amount of time, and so have very different perspectives between the three of us…When we sit down and talk and start to make music together, we’re like, “What do we want to talk about in our music, what do we want to get across?” so a lot of this is what you’ll hear.

KLE: I have to add a little addendum to that article I wrote [“Things I Wish I Had Known When I Thought I Couldn’t Be A Composer”], that you have to just do it. You have to just commit, you have to just be like “I’m not gonna care if anyone tells me I can, I’m not gonna wait for funding, I’m not gonna wait. I’m just gonna do it, and I’m gonna advocate for myself, and I’m not gonna sit around being like ‘nobody wants to hear my music.” Who cares? Just, f***ing do it. So that is my number one advice for people, especially young women, who feel like “I don’t know if I can do this,” well, you can. Just do it.

Which is to say: strike three, assumptions.


What Better Than Call A Dance? is Friday, April 20 at 8pm at the Chapel Performance Space at the Good Shepherd Center. Tickets can be purchased at the door, on a sliding scale of $5-$15 (cash only). Click here for more information.

For a full transcript of the interview, please click here.


 

Lauren Freman is a multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, and composer, hell-bent on blurring the boundaries between high and low art. Follow her at www.freman.band, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

 

Ecco Chamber Ensemble Makes Waves for Earth Day

by Maggie Molloy

Photo by Dan Mastrian, Jr.

Immerse yourself in the music of water this Saturday at the next On Stage with KING FM concert hosted by Second Inversion! We’re thrilled to welcome to the stage the Ecco Chamber Ensemble in a special Earth Day program featuring music about, inspired by, or in some cases, made from water.

Comprised of soprano Stacey Mastrian, flutist Sarah Bassingthwaighte, and guitarist Mark Hilliard Wilson, the Ecco Chamber Ensemble is dedicated to exploring the intersection of art and social change. For this Saturday’s program, titled Water is Life, the group explores the vital role of water in both our survival and our art, provoking listeners to think critically about humanity’s impact on Earth.

The concert juxtaposes adventurous water works by the likes of John Cage and Alvin Lucier with the oceanic art songs of Gabriel Fauré, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Joaquín Rodrigo, José de Azpiazu, and John Corigliano. Also on the program is music of Toru Takemitsu, a composer who seamlessly blended the musical languages of East and West, exploring a “sea of tonality” in many of his works. Plus, the concert features new pieces penned by Ecco members Sarah Bassingthwaighte and guitarist Mark Hilliard Wilson.

Photo by Stacey Mastrian.

Some music on the program is even made from water itself. A world premiere by Stephen Lilly (written specifically for this event) features the ensemble performing alongside a block of melting ice, and audience members are invited to make their own music out of water for a piece composed by Cornelius Cardew.

Not only does the performance inspire audiences to listen to our environment, but it also urges us to take the next step: action. A portion of the proceeds from the concert, as well as audience donations, will go to the People for Puget Sound, a water advocacy group that has worked for the past 20 years on state, county, and municipal levels to create cleaner water for the native species and the humans in this area.

To learn more, we talked with the Ecco Chamber Ensemble about Earth, environmentalism, and the music of water.

Second Inversion: Water exists in many different forms. What are some of the nontraditional instruments or musical elements you are incorporating in this performance in order to capture its essence?

Photo by Britt Olsen-Ecker.

Stacey Mastrian: To quote the character Stefon from Saturday Night Live, “This place has everything”: an egg slicer, a bucket of rocks, bird-warblers, dripping ice, guitar drumming, a plastic bag, an oatmeal container, a photosensitive digital water instrument, and triangles and a pot lid in a bucket of water.

We also have electronic manipulation of the voice and the incorporation of physical theater with related utterances (Cage’s Song Books), recordings of water from all over the region and the use of vases, bowls, etc. (Lucier’s Chambers), and water sounds created digitally via transforming the sound of orating politicians (Lucier’s Gentle Fire, realized by Stephen Lilly, based on an idea of mine). 

Tom DeLio’s work that light for soprano playing percussion incorporates silences that aurally render the visual sparseness of poetry by Cid Corman, an American composer who lived in Japan.  Additionally, the consonants in the work bring to life the onomatopoeic elements of the nature images therein.

Sarah Bassingthwaighte: My piece, H2O, uses primarily unusual sounds, with no traditional notation. Key clicks, tapping on the guitar, rubbing our hands together and slapping our hands against our legs are sounds we’re using to represent rain.  We utilize the unvoiced syllable “p” to represent snow, egg slicer and dissonant harmonics to represent ice, crumpling paper and scraping the edge of a quarter along the string of the guitar to represent frost, bending notes to represent water droplets, and a soup pot with a whisk and spatula to create the sounds of a storm. 


Mark Hilliard Wilson:
My piece Wind and Water features an exploration of stillness and motion and internal drones on the guitar.  In the end it is ultimately an exploration of my testing your patience with having two players play in two different time signatures, or heartbeats if you will. Too often it seems that we hold an opinion that we will not yield on only to find that there can be another perspective that fits equally in the measure, so to speak, but just at a different division.

SI: What makes water compelling to explore through music? 

Stacey Mastrian: The sounds and images.  Water is interwoven throughout every aspect of our life, from our physical makeup, to our tears of joy and sadness, to the multitudinous descriptions of nature that we emphasize in poetry and music.

Mark Hilliard Wilson: Water is so mysterious and yet so normal, so essential to every day. What I find so compelling about water is its mutability.

Photo by Sarah Bassingthwaighte.

SI: What do you hear when you listen to water? Has putting this program together made you hear water differently?

Sarah Bassingthwaighte: Something I’ve noticed since working on this program is the constant presence of water in our lives. I’m listening to the waves of Puget Sound lap against the shore as I type this, I notice the sounds of the creek in the woods as I walk my dog, water as I pour my tea or brush my teeth or wash the dishes. I appreciate the great need for water after I go for a run. I even had the experience this last week, while backcountry skiing for four days, that we were at an elevation higher than any of the rivers or streams and had to melt snow for water for all of our needs. 

Stacey Mastrian: I am more closely aware of water now.  I am paying attention to it in all of its states and “see” the white noise, the distinct variances in dripping, and the changes in pitches and rhythm. This project also likely made people look at me differently, since for a while I was going around recording every single type of water that I encountered!

It definitely has made us all learn more about what is going on with water in our region and around the world, feeling even more strongly about the need for changes on our planet. Since I saw the film Chasing Coral at SIFF last summer (it is on Netflix—watch it!), I started thinking about the water on Earth as an entity that is ill; particularly striking to me was this description:  “A temperature increase of just 2 degrees Celsius may not seem like a lot in the air, but for marine life, this is like living with a constant fever.”  How would we feel going around with a 102.2 degree fever at all times and without having a reprieve for the rest of forever?

Photo by Stacey Mastrian.


SI: This program features a mix of classical works and experimental works. How do these two general styles differ in their interpretations of water?

Sarah Bassingthwaighte: Offhand, it seems to me that the more traditional works refer to water in terms of story—that something happened next to the water’s edge or that the water provided a setting for the story. The more experimental works seem to focus more on the sensory aspects of water (color, sounds, temperature, textures) or on our interpretation of these senses (how water is calming or invigorating).  

Stacey Mastrian: The more traditional works tend to be “about” water, and some of the more experimental works actually use water itself (or objects related to water) as sonic materials or to control some aspect of the work. This concert juxtaposes very new and more adventurous works with gorgeous art songs; with one exception (Fauré’s “Au bord de l’eau”) all of the works are from the 20th and 21st centuries.

Photo by Becca Bassingthwaighte.

SI: Many of the works on this program also feature aleatoric elements—how does this tie in with the concert’s broader themes of water, environmentalism, and social change?

Sarah Bassingthwaighte: A link between what we’re doing and social/environmental issues is that when we play much of this music, we are expected to improvisethat is, the music is affected by the choices we make and is not dictated to us.  Likewise, how we respond to the issues concerning water will require explicit choices and actions that we makeif we want safe drinking water (such as in Haiti), we will have to work to keep the water clean or to decontaminate it. If we’re running out of water (such as in Cape Town) we’ll have to create ways to preserve it. 

In our music, as in these issues surrounding water, we are asked to be resourceful and creative and to take action. 

Stacey Mastrian: Composer Stephen F. Lilly, on his new composition, Melt III:

Humans have spent centuries trying to control water—fixing the paths of some rivers while creating new channels for others, harnessing the power of its currents, and even using it to farm arid land. In this piece that relationship is reversed. The melting block of ice controls the pacing of the instrumentalists, whose dynamic levels and expressive abilities are constrained so as to balance with the delicate sound of dripping. To further bring the role of water to the foreground, the piece begins and ends with the water dripping on an empty stage.

As the crystalline structure of the ice breaks down, drop by drop, so does the ensemble slowly deconstruct the harmonic series of their lowest note–the open E produced by the guitar’s sixth and lowest string. However, this process is viewed as if through a microscope by the slow pacing of the piece, controlled and coordinated by the dripping of ice-melt. Thus, we are much more likely to focus on each individual event as it occurs rather than hear any overall relationship or trend, much in the same way a significant portion of the population cannot see beyond the current weather in their own backyard to the alarming trend threatening their very existence.


Second Inversion presents the Ecco Chamber Ensemble in Water is Life this Saturday, April 21 at 7:30pm at Resonance at SOMA Towers in Bellevue. Click here for tickets.

VIDEO PREMIERE: Pascal Le Boeuf’s ‘Into the Anthropocene: I. Cognitive Awakening’

by Gabriela Tedeschi

The cover of Into the Anthropocene, Grammy-nominated composer Pascal Le Boeuf’s new video EP,  is a photo from the Trinity nuclear test of 1945. That’s because the Manhattan project’s successful test of the atomic bomb is widely considered to be the start of the Anthropocene epoch, an ecological era characterized by significant changes in the earth’s ecology and biodiversity as a result of human activity.

Into the Anthropocene tells the story of humanity’s impact on the earth in three movements: “Cognitive Awakening”, “Requiem for the Extinct”, and “Amid the Apocalypse.” With the use of electronic layering, “Cognitive Awakening” features Gina Izzo on the flute, bass flute, and piccolosometimes all at once.

As a somber, legato melody unfolds over long, sustained chords, the piece is augmented by birdlike twittering from the piccolo, key clattering, electronic sounds, and muffled dialogue that can’t quite be made out. “Cognitive Awakening” is a beautiful evocation of nature, but at the same time, a sobering reminder of what has been lostand what might still be lost.

We’re thrilled to premiere the video for Le Boeuf’s “Cognitive Awakening,” performed by Gina Izzo.


Learn more about Le Boeuf’s new piece in our interview with the composer below:

Second Inversion: Into the Anthropocene features three movements scored for the flute family, viola, and cello, respectively. What was the inspiration behind this form and how do the individual movements relate to one another?

Pascal Le Boeuf: Into the Anthropocene is scored like a lead sheet to be inclusive of any instrument. The score specifies only the most essential elements to dictate structure, basic ideas, and guide improvisation. Beyond the conservation ecology concept, my intention was to create a series of simple pieces to invite classically trained musicians to experiment with improvisation and hardware electronics (guitar pedals). I generally engage with improvisation as a compositional device to provide performers with a platform for self-expression. This allows for a different interpretation with each performance (as opposed to a ridged set of directions to translate the composer’s singular intended expression). 

Commissioned by choreographer Kristin Draucker for the Periapsis Open Series, Into the Anthropocene was written for violinist Todd Reynolds whom I met at the Bang on a Can Summer Music Festival in 2015. I worked with Todd as well as violinist Maya Bennardo while at Bang on a Can, and later completed the piece with the help of violinist Sabina Torosjan while in residence at the I-Park Foundation’s 2015 Composers + Musicians Collaborative Residency Program. In addition to performing with electronics and improvising in his own music, Todd occasionally works as an educator, specializing in improvisation and electronic music. He has always been kind to me, offering advice and artistic input, especially when I was first began working with “contemporary classical” identifying musicians. I wanted to return his kindness with a piece of music, so when choreographer Kristin Draucker commissioned me to compose a piece, I thought of Todd immediately.

Unfortunately, due to unforeseen circumstances, Todd was suddenly unable to attend the recording session, so the same day, Todd and I called the best musicians we knew who were uniquely qualified to perform the music (i.e. musicians with experience in classical, improvisation, and electronic music). I thought it best to split the responsibility between multiple performers, and assigned the movements based upon the musical personalities of the performers: Mvt 1 – flutist Gina Izzo, Mvt 2 – violist Jessica Meyer, and Mvt 3 – cellist Dave Eggar. In retrospect, I see this outcome as a happy accident, which not only benefited the music by introducing a variety of timbres and musical personalities, but led to numerous collaborative projects with these wonderful musicians.

The formal structure of the three movements, and the conservation ecology concept in general, were initially inspired by author Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind and were further developed through conversations with notable conservation biologist Claudio Campagna and ecological/behavioral biologist Bernard Le Boeuf (my father). 

In Sapiens, Harari recounts our history as a species through a lens of evolutionary biology, postulating that biology sets the limits for global human activities, and that culture shapes what happens within those limits. I became particularly interested in prehistoric sapiens, their initial diaspora, the cognitive revolution, and the resulting extinctions of other species as a result of human impact. Following the cognitive revolution, humans developed the skills necessary to expand beyond the Afro-Asian landmass into Australia, the Americas, and various remote islands. Before humans intervened, these hosted an array of unique and flourishing species ranging from two-and-a-half ton wombats in Australia, to giant ground sloths and saber-toothed cats in the Americas. But without exception, within a few thousand years of setting foot on these territories, humans managed to kill off tremendous collections of diverse species. As Harari puts it, “Homo sapiens drove to extinction about half of the planet’s large mammals long before humans invented the wheel, writing, or iron tools,” including other human species with whom we once coexisted and even interbred. 

As a musician, I find it interesting to explore the extensions of patterns in sound, but when we consider the extensions of the destructive behavioral patterns we exhibit as a species, it is difficult to imagine a positive outcome. The three sub-movements (I: Cognitive Awakening / II: Requiem for the Extinct / III: Amid the Apocalypse) outline the past, present, and future of our ecological history. Through Harari’s lens, conversations with Campagna and my father, and subsequent research, I learned about the extent to which our planet is currently experiencing a crisis of mass extinction. We are losing species, whole ecosystems, and genes at an ever-increasingly rapid rate. Today, species disappear each year at a rate hundreds of times faster than when humans arrived on the scene. As a species known for 100,000 years to bury our dead, it is amazing we have such little respect for the deaths of other species, dozens of which are disappearing daily as a result of human activities—activities sufficient to mark a new epoch based upon human impact on the Earth’s geology and ecosystems: the Anthropocene.

SI: How does “Cognitive Awakening” relate to the beginning of the Anthropocene and human impact on the Earth?

PLB:
The cognitive revolution is a precursor to our dominance as a species and thus a precursor to the Anthropocene. According to Harari, humans became a dominant species through our ability to cooperate flexibly in large numbers—an ability derived from our unique capacity to believe in things existing purely in the imagination. The evolution of this ability is referred to as the Cognitive Revolution (c. 70,000 BCE). The first movement represents this cognitive awakening musically through an additive progression of increasingly complex elements. Something like this:

  • Static noise
  • Static droning 
  • Melody
  • Harmony
  • Call and Response
  • Speech
  • Improvisation
  • Electronic Manipulation

I like to imagine that the evolutionary progression that resulted in language, expression, and cognitive awareness has an analog in the development of music. This is how I chose to represent such a progression based upon my personal understanding of music (and perhaps based on the order in which many learn/teach music). 

SI: Into the Anthropocene features a lot of electronic layering and manipulating sounds. How does this compositional choice tie in with the overarching themes of the piece? What were some of the unique challenges or rewards of composing in this way?

My intention was to create a series of simple pieces to invite classically trained musicians to experiment with improvisation and hardware electronics (in this case, guitar pedals). Though I have a background in electronic music and enjoy complex approaches, I made a special effort to keep the electronic elements simple and accessible to performers without prior experience in electronic music.

Guitar pedals can be acquired easily at various prices at nearly any music store and are much easier to use than complex software programs like Max MSP, Protools, Logic, etc. (and are easier to understand). Each pedal represents a sound effect (in order from input to output): loop, reverb, vibrato, and delay. Each sound effect has basic parameters that are uniform across most brands. I hope that more classically trained musicians will be encouraged by this project to experiment in a similar fashion, as a gateway into composition, independent artistic development, and interdisciplinary collaborations with artists from backgrounds that transcend traditional classical environments. Every musician involved in this project is a wonderful role model for unconventional approaches to a career that began in classical music.**

**(Dave Eggar, a founding member of the FLUX Quartet, can also be heard on the opening of Coldplay’s Viva La Vida or Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange; Gina Izzo frequently performs with pedals in various contexts, and co-founded the flute and piano duo RighteousGIRLS; and Jessica Meyer, in addition to performing a one-woman show with loop pedal and viola, is a fantastic composer with recent premieres by A Far Cry, PUBLIQuartet, and Roomful of Teeth.)

The compositional choice to include electronic elements preceded the conceptual development of the piece. I view these electronic elements as raw materials for expression, and worked with them to articulate the conservation ecology concepts I described earlier. Most of the compositional challenges I faced were related to the strict parameters imposed by the loop pedal. Using a basic loop pedal means the form of each movement is additive, and will inevitably look something like this:

1
1+2
1+2+3
1+2+3+4
1+2+3+4+5

…with elements of improvisation and knob turning interspersed between stages. 

More complex loop pedals offer more structural options, but I wanted to keep this simple. Fortunately, placing the loop pedal at the beginning of the signal path allowed the subsequent effects pedals to sculpt/develop the existing looped material. Additional challenges included working with each performer to translate the score for their instrument. Since the composition doesn’t specify a particular instrument, I had the pleasure of working with each performer to find extended techniques that produced the desired effects. For example, Dave imitates a rhythmic shaker at the beginning of Mvt III by swiping his hand back and forth along the body of his cello, but if Gina were to imitate a shaker, she would blast air into her mouth piece with consonant sounds like this: [T k t k, T k t k].

The most rewarding aspect of this process is seeing how different performers interpret the music, and how rewarding the process of interpretation can be. Frequently, especially when performing standards, jazz musicians will prioritize the creative expressions of the performer over the composer. One might say the composition is not what makes the music work, but the way it’s played. When John Coltrane plays “My Favorite Things,” it sounds good because of the way he and the band play it—it’s not about the composition. The composition it just a guide. This freedom allows performers a chance to put themselves in the music, self-expression, a cathartic release. Audiences can feel it when it’s happening. I want to bring this aesthetic to classically-trained musicians. These movements are only a guide to highlight the individuals performing them. The performers and what they think about when they interpret this music… they make it work. I only provide a platform.


Pascal Le Boeuf’s Into the Anthropocene video EP will be released April 20. The album art photo is from the Los Alamos National Laboratory, and was taken 16 milliseconds after the first atomic bomb test.

Click here to pre-order the video EP on Bandcamp.

Timbre, Sound, and Subjective Time: Seattle Modern Orchestra Plays Orlando Jacinto Garcia

by Gabriela Tedeschi

Composer Orlando Jacinto Garcia takes it as a compliment when listeners tell him his music is strange. That’s what he’s going for.

“The reaction from someone that says, ‘Your music is very strange, but very beautiful,’ that doesn’t in any way, shape, or form offend me,” Garcia said. “On the contrary, I take that as kind of reaching the goal that I want.”

Garcia is less interested in traditional harmony and melody than he is in exploring the timbre and color of instruments with his music. Drawing influence from minimalist composers and the New York School of composers, including his former mentor Morton Feldman, he also works to change listeners’ perception of time.

“I usually do this by using materials that are somewhat restricted that slowly unfold over time with the hope that the listener will be caught up in the moment and once the work is over, they won’t know whether the work was two minutes long or two hours long,” Garcia said. “It creates kind of a subjective time as opposed to an objective or chronological time.”

This Friday, the Seattle Modern Orchestra presents the world premiere of Garcia’s new piece, the clouds receding into the mountains for viola and ensemble, featuring violist Melia Watras. the clouds receding manages to intermix musical fragments with long, angular melodic and harmonic lines, bringing the fragments together at the end of the piece in a more intuitive way to create the sense of subjective time. But because of this trademark quality, the form of the piece presented challenges for Garcia.

“Any time I write a piece for a soloist and an ensemble there are challenges because right off the bat, when you think of a solo work with an ensemble, you think of a traditional virtuosity,” he said. “My music is not really directed toward that virtuosity so I’m looking at some other aspects of technique and control from the soloists.”

Whenever Garcia writes works that feature a soloist, he has a specific performer in mind, one whose sound color and control of their instrument inspire him. Hearing Watras play during a Seattle Modern Orchestra performance in 2015 led him to begin working on this piece.

“Melia played The Viola in My Life by Morton Feldman, my mentor, and I was very taken by her playing,” Garcia said. “The sound that she has, the control that she has.”

Garcia stayed in touch with Watras after the performance and began discussing a work for a violist and chamber orchestra. Together, they approached the Seattle Modern Orchestra about premiering this piece.

As Garcia began to compose, he studied recordings of Watras playing in order to tailor the work to her specific strengths. Understanding her sound was pivotal for Garcia’s unique approach to the solo line. He wanted to create something beautiful and complex enough to keep the performer engaged, but also stay true to his aesthetic.

“The emphasis is on the beautiful sound and the beautiful tone that she has and her beautiful control over the instrument,” Garcia said.

Also on the program are Beat Furrer’s Aria for soprano and six instruments and György Ligeti’s Melodien for chamber orchestra. Furrer is known for his exploration of the human voice. In Aria, making use of extended techniques, he integrates the percussive soprano line with the instrumentals to create an eerie and suspenseful interlocking pattern of quick, jarring sounds.

Ligeti, pioneer of micropolyphony, utilizes a three-layered texture in Melodien, with a melody, secondary ostinato-like figures, and long, sustained notes in the background. Over time, he allows the layers to blur and interact, creating a beautifully dense, complex sound.

It’s the perfect ending to a program that brings texture and timbre to the forefront of music, exploring new ways to interpret time and layers of sound.


Seattle Modern Orchestra’s upcoming concert, The Clouds Receding, is this Saturday, April 14 at 8pm at the Chapel Performance Space at the Good Shepherd Center. A pre-concert interview with composer Orlando Jacinto Garcia will take place at 7:30pm. For tickets and more information, please click here.

Remembering Cecil Taylor (1929–2018)

by Michael Schell

The passing of Cecil Taylor on April 5 gives cause to reflect on the long life and career of one of America’s most innovative musicians. An enterprising bandleader and a pianist of prodigious technique and stamina, Taylor was one of the key figures in the development of free jazz.

In this respect he is often mentioned alongside his contemporary Ornette Coleman (1930–2015). But whereas Coleman learned to play saxophone in blues bands, and usually worked squarely within African-American musical traditions (jazz and later funk), Taylor was classically trained in composition and piano (including three years at New England Conservatory), and readily combined the rhythms and instrumentation of jazz with the forms and atonal harmonies of modernism. His synthesis of musical influences launched a movement in the late 1950s that was subsequently embraced by Eric Dolphy, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, and Anthony Braxton before eventually merging with European and rock-influenced styles to form the broad multi-ethnic genre of free improvisation that has been prominent since the 1980s.

Taylor’s approach is well documented by a pair of classic Blue Note releases from 1966 that remain his most frequently cited albums. Taylor begins the title track of Conquistador! with a piano intro that sounds like Stockhausen. But after a few seconds, his side musicians enter with a flourish-filled theme whose vestigial swing feel and instrumentation (two horns, drummer Andrew Cyrille, and two bass players) reveal the music’s jazz roots. We hear an alto sax solo from Jimmy Lyons, then a trumpet solo from Bill Dixon, and then at 7:21 comes a new theme in E♭ minor, the sort of tune that ordinarily comes at the beginning of a jazz track. But then it’s back to improv with an extended clattering solo from Taylor. The E♭ minor melody is reprised by the horns at 13:26, whereupon we get another Taylor solo, this time with Alan Silva adding prominent counterpoint on a bowed bass. The final section features two entrances from the horns bracketing a duo for Silva and the other bassist, Henry Grimes.

The title track from the Unit Structures album employs a similar ensemble (including the same drum and bass players), but the music is more extensively composed, featuring the unpredictable block form used in such landmark 20th century compositions as Debussy’s Jeux or Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments. The first five minutes is a chain of contrasting ensemble sections, after which an animated jam finally gets going, led by a Ken McIntyre bass clarinet solo. An alto sax solo from Jimmy Lyons follows, then at 10:30 we get another chain of structured ensemble sections. At 12:25 the tempo picks up once again for Eddie Gale’s trumpet solo, followed by a Taylor piano solo filled with glissandos and tone clusters. One last tutti section closes the track.

After recording these Blue Note albums, Taylor started to focus on solo piano work. His closest predecessor among jazz pianists was Thelonious Monk, but in the Indent album from 1973, it’s clear that Monk’s melodic eccentricities and love of dissonance have been jacked up several notches. It was about this time that Taylor’s high-energy atonality, which owed so much to European modernism, began to influence younger composers of piano music, as evinced by Frederic Rzewski’s Squall from 1979 (compare it to the first track of Indent at around 4:40).

Taylor continued to perform as a soloist and a bandleader well into his 80s. He also partnered with artists from different backgrounds, such as the dancer Min Tanaka and the British electric guitarist Derek Bailey. One of his more unusual collaborations was this 2008 duet with composer/accordionist Pauline Oliveros:

The two musicians had never performed together before, and the beginning of the duo is a bit tentative, with Oliveros often echoing Taylor’s licks. But starting at 3:09 the pair establish a more complementary footing. Often Oliveros plays sustained notes and chords as counterpoint to Taylor’s trills and flourishes. In the quiet passage starting at 15:28 you can hear Oliveros exploiting the tuning clashes between her just-intoned Titano accordion and Taylor’s equal-tempered piano.

Though Taylor is usually the one doing the leading, he is conscious of the delicacy of his partner’s instrument, and his playing is notably softer and sparser than usual. The result is a surprisingly compelling musical experience from two unique American masters.

At the same time, though, this coupling highlights a prejudice that continues to haunt conventional narratives of Western art music. Of these two musicians—both of similar age and similar stature among musicians, and both clearly capable of articulating a shared musical language in a public space—only Oliveros is consistently mentioned in textbooks and retrospectives on contemporary classical music (see, for example, the otherwise admirable surveys by Paul Griffiths, Jennie Gottschalk, and Tim Rutherford-Johnson). The oversight comes from the notion that art music requires a score, that it must be “fixed in some sort of notation for a performer or creator to interpret or execute” (Rutherford-Johnson) to be authentic. This was a legitimate premise prior to the 20th century, but it has become obsolete in the age of audio recording, radio, and digital media. Nowadays the record, not the score, is the real “text”, and the persistent conception of classical music as an exclusively literate tradition has pushed the music of Taylor, and his fellow improvising avant-gardists (many of them from backgrounds that effectively barred them from the academy), to the margins of the canon.

Ironically, Oliveros also emphasized improvisation in her work, and almost all of her published scores use verbal instructions rather than musical notation. But she was still invariably described as a “composer”, and was able to achieve success in the milieu of universities, concert venues and foundations, whereas Taylor was always a “jazz musician” who mainly performed at night clubs and festivals. And so his eminence languishes in the domain of jazz history, jazz radio, and jazz CD bins. Despite today’s well-publicized efforts to improve diversity in musical opportunity and programming, it seems that the segregation borne of professional biases can be just as intractable as the cruder chauvinism of social bigotry. Taylor’s music, so powerful and innovative, deserves recognition that transcends these boundaries.

VIDEO PREMIERE: Kevin Clark’s ‘Eleanor & Hildegard’

by Maggie Molloy

In the 12th century one of the Middle Ages’ greatest patrons and politicians, Eleanor of Aquitaine, wrote a letter to one of the the era’s greatest composers, Hildegard of Bingen, asking for advice. Eleanor’s original letter has since been lost, but Hildegard’s reply remains.

That legendary correspondence was precisely the inspiration behind composer Kevin Clark‘s newest chamber work, Eleanor & Hildegard. Commissioned and premiered by Seattle’s own Sound Ensemble with mezzo-soprano Elspeth Davis this past February, the piece celebrates a regular occurrence that is rarely documented in history books: two influential women, talking to each other as autonomous individuals, independent of men.

Watch our in-studio video of Clark’s Eleanor & Hildegard and read the composer’s program note below.

Eleanor & Hildegard

Eleanor of Aquitaine was the most powerful woman in politics in 12th century Europe. Hildegard of Bingen was the most important woman in religion in the same time and place, as well as being a composer.

History doesn’t give us many stories of powerful women, much less of what they had to say to each other. But these two wrote. It was 1170, and Eleanor’s marriage to Henry II was collapsing. She was on the verge of a new life. The queen wrote to Hildegard of Bingen asking for advice. Hildegard’s reply survives.

This piece fills in the missing pieces. Tania Asnes wrote a poem to take the place of Eleanor’s missing letter, which begins the piece. As the composer, I brought in music Eleanor might have heard throughout her marriage by Bernart de Ventadorn. At the end, we hear Hildegard’s reply to Eleanor, telling her to flee, ‘Fuge’, from her troubles.

Within a few years she wasn’t just free from her marriage, but making war on Henry II with the aid of her son, Richard the Lionheart.

– Kevin Clark, composer


This Saturday, the Sound Ensemble turns from the Middle Ages to something a little more modern: an evening of chamber music penned by some of today’s top rock stars. You Didn’t Know They Composed features the Sound Ensemble performing music by the likes of Björk, Beck, Bryce Dessner, and more, plus a new commission by James McAlister.

You Didn’t Know They Composed is Saturday, April 7 at 7pm at the Good Shepherd Center in Wallingford. For tickets and additional information, please click here.