Video Premiere: Oracle Hysterical’s ‘Helen’

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by Gabriela Tedeschi

Euripides’ tragedy Hecuba tells the story of the queen of Troy’s descent to vengeful violence after her city is destroyed and her children are killed during the Trojan War. This ancient Greek play is the inspiration for Oracle Hysterical’s new album Hecuba, the latest in a series of projects by the group that seek to breathe new life into classic literature with contemporary music.

Oracle Hysterical is comprised of five composer-performers: twins Doug (double bass, viola de gamba) and Brad Balliett (bassoons), Dylan Greene (percussion), Elliot Cole (keyboards, guitars, vocals), and Majel Connery (keyboards, vocals). Hecuba also features guest percussionist Jason Treuting on drum kit.

The first song on the new album, “Helen” gives the perspective of the woman who is said to have started the Trojan war: Helen, the wife of King Menelaus of Sparta, who eloped with Prince Paris of Troy. Connery’s smooth, sultry vocals flow in long, legato lines over subdued, mournful chords and melancholy ostinatos from the bassoon, guitar, piano, and double bass. The percussion stands out in the gentle, continuous flow of sound, adding texture and intensity.

The result is a work that is quiet and subtle, but dramatic, with a beautifully bittersweet indie-rock sound. “Helen” translates the power and pain of a very old story into something that feels new and universal.

We’re thrilled to premiere the video for Oracle Hysterical’s new single “Helen,” created by Four/Ten Media.

Learn more about the new album in our interview with bassoonist Brad Balliett.

Second Inversion: What drew you and the group to Euripides’ Hecuba as an inspiration for the album?

Brad Balliett: We describe Oracle Hysterical as ‘part band, part book club’ because we are constantly turning to literature for inspiration. One member of the group will read something that they feel would make a great musical project, and the other members take up the suggestion and get to work on some music! In this case, Doug Balliett, who is a major fan of Greek drama, brought a passage from the Euripides play to a summer work session and we developed the song Helen together. We had such fun creating that song, and were so pleased with the results, that we embarked on a journey to set an album’s worth of passages from or inspired by the play. The incredible drama and pathos of the play, along with the beauty of the language, kept us continuously engaged and inspired.

SI: “Helen” and the rest of the album prominently feature talented vocalist Majel Connery. Were the vocal lines tailored to suit her unique sound? How did the source material shape the vocal lines?

BB: Like a large portion of the music Oracle Hysterical creates, all of the songs on Hecuba were written collaboratively. For most of the songs, Majel devised her own vocal lines in working sessions with the rest of the band. A lot of times she would improvise several versions and we would decide together on the most compelling line. Sometimes we all worked together to craft a specific line based on the harmony. The timbre of Majel’s voice is almost impossible to describe—something otherworldly. We are lucky to have her unique sound in our ensemble.

I think that the source material inspired us to attempt to wed an archaic, monumental sound (one that reflects the enormous distance between us and the original text) and a contemporary style (one that shows that the immediacy of the emotions of the play are still as visceral now as they were back then). This is a fine line to walk, but it was a joy to balance these feelings.

SI: Between the unique combination of instruments, the literary source material, and your rock-leaning sound, Oracle Hysterical’s music can be hard to classify. How would you describe your music in general? How would you describe “Helen”?

BB: We draw from an enormous range of influences: Baroque music, Romantic music, various current pop and rock groups, the Beatles, certain kinds of world music, and so on. The result is a kind of music that is difficult to put into a single genre, which suits us just fine. Among the various titles we’ve heard applied to our sound, I’m a fan of ‘Baroque Indie Pop.’ “Helen” occupies a world that variously turns towards rock, minimalism, art song, and hyper-produced pop. Hopefully, for the listener, the genre titles fall away and the song is left as a single musical object.


Hecuba will be released May 11 on the National Sawdust label.

Seattle New Music Happy Hour: Tuesday, April 24 at 5:30pm

by Maggie Molloy

You like new music. We like new music. Let’s get together and talk about new music, drink a couple beers, and make some new friends along the way.

Join us Tuesday, April 24 at 5:30pm at T.S. McHugh’s for New Music Happy Hour, co-hosted by Second Inversion and the Live Music Project. Bring a friend, make a friend, have a drink, and discover connections with fellow new music lovers from all over Seattle!

Click here to RSVP and invite your friends. Plus, sign up for alerts for future happy hour dates and day-before reminders so you’ll never miss a beer—er, beat.

STAFF PICKS: Friday Faves

Second Inversion hosts share a favorite selection from their weekly playlist. Tune in on Friday, April 20 to hear these pieces and plenty of other new and unusual music from all corners of the classical genre!

Hildegard Westerkamp: Fantasie for Horns II (Empreintes Digitales)
Brian G’Froerer, horn; Hildegard Westerkamp, electronics

Let it be known upfront that this is not your average horn solo. Composed by sound ecologist Hildegard Westerkamp, Fantasie for Horns II explores the sound of horns we hear in our everyday lives: trainhorns, foghorns, factory and boathorns. This piece is about how those sounds often give a place its character—foghorns echoing across a charming coastal village, trainhorns ringing amid a bustling metropolis, or factory horns blasting in a gritty industrial town.

But this piece is also an exploration of how horns are shaped by their surroundings: how the horn reverberates across the ocean waves, or how it changes pitch slightly as the train approaches. Fantasie for Horns II laces together field recordings of all of these different horns, creating a whole city of sounds with one single live French horn echoing across it. – Maggie Molloy

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


itsnotyouitsme: “Lost Nation Municipal Airport” (New Amsterdam)
Grey McMurray and Caleb Burhans

“Lost Nation Municipal Airport” is the aural version of how the world looks when your vision is readjusting after waking up from a deep sleep that you fell into while waiting for your plane at an airport gate—it’s the music of the strangers and planes and signage slowly taking shape around you. The longer and more closely you listen to this piece, the more you find in it, much like staring at one of the giant paintings in the Rothko Chapel.

There’s something about airports that’s hopeful and optimistic—maybe leftover from the Jet Age of the 1950’s and ‘60’s—with their diverse and ever-fluctuating populations, their busy purposefulness, and their technology. I like that this song slows down that perpetual motion of humanity. The album that this is from, fallen monuments, was recorded from live performances because Caleb Burhans and Grey McMurray—the members of itsnotyouitsme—wanted to capture the fleeting nature of the improvisations that they tend to play at live shows. That spirit is beautifully captured in this piece, with—I’m guessing—a little nod to Brian Eno. – Dacia Clay


Pauline Oliveros and the Deep Listening Band: Suiren (New Albion)
Deep Listening Band

As the weather in Pacific Northwest proceeds at its typically leisurely pace toward its version of summer, I’m thinking a great deal about the pleasures of time spent outdoors. I was struck by The Deep Listening Band’s Suiren this week because it replicates a special atmosphere often found in the solitude of nature.  This specific and rare character of  the environment, often found in the amoral companionship of an empty and quiet sky at a high altitude, is present in this piece. That’s ironic, considering this piece was literally recorded underground. – Seth Tompkins

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


Nils Frahm: Kaleidoscope (Erased Tapes)
Nils Frahm, keyboards; Shards, voices

“Kaleidoscope” is one of my top three songs from Nils Frahm’s latest album All Melody.  The album itself features a wider instrumental palette compared to Frahm’s earlier work, which focused mainly on piano, yet he maintains the same exploratory spirit and continues to give his works space to evolve.  “Kaleidoscope” is a great example of that as it features the human voice, lots of plinky synth, and a pipe organ (which Frahm himself helped build!) among other instruments. The textures combine slowly and create a warm and gratifying listen, making “Kaleidoscope” a great starting point for anyone unfamiliar with Frahm’s repertoire. – Rachele Hales

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

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.