ALBUM REVIEW: John Cage’s Music for Speaking Percussionist by Bonnie Whiting

by Michael Schell

One of the more esoteric musical subgenres that emerged in the 1970s is the “talking instrumentalist” piece. Frederic Rzewski composed and performed many piano works where the performer recites a text while playing, and thanks to the contrabass virtuoso Bertram Turetzky, we now have a number of talking double bass pieces in the repertory. Even wind players have gotten into the act, including Seattle’s own Stuart Dempster, who in Robert Erickson’s General Speech recites General Douglas MacArthur’s retirement speech through a trombone.

Now we can add Bonnie Whiting to this distinguished list. Head of Percussion Studies at the University of Washington, she has made a specialty out of commissioning and performing speaking percussionist pieces. In her debut album from Mode Records, she turns her attention to John Cage (1912–1992), famous both for his witty creative writings and for his groundbreaking percussion compositions.

The centerpiece of the album is a 51-minute track titled—appropriately enough—51’15.657” for a Speaking Percussionist. It’s a personal showcase for Whiting, who has been performing it since 2010, including at Seattle’s 2016 John Cage Musicircus. Since Cage did not write any compositions that explicitly call for a talking percussionist, Whiting combines two chance-determined “time length” pieces from the 1950s that Cage suggested could be performed simultaneously.

Whiting performing 51’15.657” for a Speaking Percussionist at the John Cage Musicircus, Town Hall, Seattle, November 2016. Photo by Lee Goldman.

The first, 45’ for a Speaker, was built by Cage out of randomly selected excerpts from several of his contemporaneous lectures. These mostly come across as juxtaposed humorous vignettes, rather like his later Diary: How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse), which Second Inversion profiles here. The pacing of the words varies, so Whiting’s vocal delivery is sometimes rapid, sometimes sparse, and there are many long silences. Cage supplied a fixed script, which is published in his collection Silence.

By contrast, the score of the accompanying piece, 27’10.554” for a Percussionist, is open-ended, specifying only the timing of notes, their relative loudness, and whether their sound source should be wood, metal, drumhead, or “anything else.” It’s up to Whiting to assemble a suitable battery for the task, something that she does with aplomb, using both conventional and “junk” instruments. As with 45’ for a Speaker, the timing of the percussion music ranges from very active to very sparse, but since it’s always in free rhythm it’s mainly up to the text to convey a sense of tempo and beat.

Although Whiting’s playing occasionally drowns out her voice (this is by design!), her diction is clear, and the text is usually intelligible—even if owing to its chance selection it doesn’t always make normal sense. Whiting’s light and agile speaking voice offers a refreshing contrast to all the male voices that have traditionally dominated recordings of this kind of piece, and the feat of covering both vocal and instrumental roles at the same time is an impressive tour de force. Listening to it is like imagining Gertrude Stein deliver a lecture on modern music in a room occupied by a crazy robotic drum corps.

Excerpt from Whiting’s annotated score to 51’15.657” for a Speaking Percussionist.

The following track, Music for Two (By One), lasts a more modest 13 minutes and was similarly fashioned by Whiting from two different Cage pieces, one for voice and one for percussion. Both were written with indeterminate notation, and both come from his late collection Music for _____ (completed in 1987). Here the texts are bare letters and isolated syllables, so the emphasis is on tone color rather than meaning. Though the texture is relatively thin, as in 51’15.657” for a Speaking Percussionist, the result is more compact and integrated. In Whiting’s hands, it makes a nice entry point to this style of Cage piece.

A different side of Cage is revealed in The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs, a tiny classic for voice and piano from 1942. It was this work that launched Cage’s lengthy artistic engagement with Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. Clearly astonished by that unique monument of 20th century literature, Cage seems to have endeavored to stand back and let the text speak for itself as much as possible. After selecting a passage depicting a child’s lullaby, Cage wrote the voice part using just three pitches. For the piano part, Cage doesn’t even open the instrument, instead simply directing the performer to tap and rap on the closed cover and lid. He could hardly have intervened any less while still having set Joyce’s words to music!

Although The Wonderful Widow is fully written out in standard notation, Cage’s humble approach to his source material anticipates the even more ego-effacing attitude evinced in his later, chance-determined works. Whiting tackles the piece as another solo effort, doing both the singing and the piano tapping. The softness and simplicity of her interpretation gives it an unmistakably nurturing tone—a kind of release after the complex tracks preceding it.

Excerpts from Cage’s autograph of The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs.

Two more tracks wrap up the album: Cage’s A Flower (which is a kind of companion work to The Wonderful Widow) and a performance by Whiting’s frequent collaborator Allen Otte, where he plays Cage’s prepared piano piece Music for Marcel Duchamp while reciting a text and adding frame drum embellishments.

For an album with such a focused concept, John Cage: Music for Speaking Percussion offers an admirable range of musical experiences. Mode Records is making it available both in conventional audio formats and as a Blu-ray Disc, with the latter featuring a video interview with Whiting and Otte and HD footage of all the works in performance, thus conveying the theatricality that’s so impressive when you see them live. The release is Volume 52 (!) in Mode’s longstanding project to record Cage’s complete compositions, and it’s essential listening for enthusiasts of Cage or percussion music. Here’s hoping that there’s much more yet to come from both Bonnie Whiting and Mode Records.

 

ALBUM REVIEW: Los Angeles Percussion Quartet’s Beyond

by Seth Tompkins

The Los Angeles Percussion Quartet’s Beyond places intimacy front and center.  The delicate sonic encounters that permeate these two discs (or just one if you’re listening to the Blu-Ray) are not classic fodder for percussion ensembles.  While there are a smattering of grooves and some loud moments, Beyond leans much more strongly toward the ethereal and the delicate.  This forward-thinking curation, paired with LAPQ’s sensitive and thoughtful musicianship, makes this release a delight.

Daníel Bjarnason’s “Qui Tollis” is a microcosm of the whole of Beyond, with beckoning atmospheric figures framing a collection of engaging grooves that are made all the more striking by their juxtaposition with the gentle outer material.  This atmospherics-to-groove ratio and pattern runs through many of the individual pieces on this release, but also throughout the entire album as a whole.

Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s “Aura,” like much of her music, explores the boundaries of perception.  A collection of diverse and austere timbres unfolds throughout this piece as it plays with the edge of silence.  A deeply meditative piece, “Aura” benefits, as do many other pieces on this album, from listening in headphones or on a good surround-sound system.  Fancifully, “Aura” could be the musical version of experiencing an unfamiliar landscape: a place that, while neither particularly hostile nor favorable toward you, is captivating in its natural strangeness.

Christopher Cerrone’s transformational “Memory Palace” was the only piece on this release that was not new to my ears; Second Inversion recently released a video of Ian David Rosenbaum performing the entire work.  However, it was very interesting to experience the piece in an audio-only version.  In the video, the visual depiction of the enormous variety of instruments and performance techniques was a delight, but the audio-only performance on this recording offers a sense of intimacy and mystery that the video does not.  Ultimately, both performances are certainly worth a listen: they provide different ways of experiencing a tremendous piece that seems to have already staked out a lasting place in the percussion repertoire.

“Fear-Release” by Ellen Reid is an exercise in well-defined color palettes.  Most instruments used in this piece are metallic, although there are integral parts for marimba and bass drum.  This is perhaps a more traditional soundscape than some of the other pieces on Beyond, but it certainly matches the others in terms of its sophistication.  All five pieces on this release follow internal guiding principles—”Fear-Release” just happens to use a more traditional instrumentation within that same laudable compositional ethic.

Beyond closes with “I Hold the Lion’s Paw” by Andrew McIntosh.  This piece occupies nine tracks and comes packaged by itself in a separate disc (in the CD version).  This is a slightly puzzling setup until you take into account the listening note that accompanies this piece, which  recommends that this piece is best taken in its entirety.  This instruction makes sense, given “Lion’s Paw”‘s tendency towards percussive recitative. This is a slower burn than the other pieces on Beyond, but it is perhaps the most dramatic work on the album.

At many points during Beyond, it is easy to forget that you are listening to a percussion ensemble.  These moments, when the music itself becomes the primary focus, beyond any considerations of the instrumentation, performers, or extra-musical context, are rare—and the ability to deliver them is a triumph for any ensemble.  The fact that Beyond presents so many opportunities in which to become lost in the music is a credit to the curation of the quartet.  The construction of this collection deserves as much praise as the intelligent performances and thoughtful compositions contained therein.

ALBUM REVIEW: Sophia Subbayya Vastek’s Histories


by Maggie Molloy

In Indian classical music, a raga is like a melodic mode or scale—but with more depth than the scales of Western music. Far from just a simple collection of notes, a raga is a musical framework which holds emotional significance and symbolic associations with season, time, and mood.

Ragas are just one of the overarching musical ideas at work in pianist Sophia Subbayya Vastek’s new album, Histories. Using her Indian heritage as a jumping off point, the album explores the intersections between her own cultural backgrounds, using a traditionally Western instrument to meditate on scales, modes, harmonies, intervals, and ideas inspired by East and South Asian musical traditions.

Composer Michael Harrison’s two contributions to the album most closely embody this blend of European and Indian musical styles. Both are scored for tanpura (a long-necked plucked lute), tabla (small hand drums), and piano in just intonation (as opposed to equal temperament)—and both are performed by the composer (tanpura), Nitin Mitta (tabla), and Vastek (piano).

The first, “Jaunpuri,” is based on a traditional Indian raga, but shaped with Western compositional notation, structures, and harmony. An embellished piano melody twirls and spins through a buzzing tabla and tanpura trance, building in intensity until the circling rhythmic cycles spin out into a breathtaking piano rhapsody. Vastek’s fingers fly through the rapturous piano solo with passion and profound tenderness, almost as though the melodies were born in her bones.

Harrison’s other work, “Hijaz Prelude,” is more somber in tone, showcasing Vastek’s graceful touch and emotive phrasing. Based on the modal harmonies of a raga most often associated with morning, the introspective prelude combines a Western, arpeggiated keyboard figure with the patient, steady pulse of the tabla and the textured vibrations of the tanpura, rich with reverberating overtones.

If Harrison’s compositions speak to the music of Vastek’s Indian heritage, then Donnacha Dennehy’s contribution represents Vastek’s Western background. Dennehy’s 15-minute “Stainless Staining” for piano and soundtrack is based on a fundamental low G# (lower than the lowest note on a piano). The soundtrack is comprised of audio samples from pianos which have been retuned to showcase a massive harmonic spectrum of 100 overtones based on that one single pitch. Performed on an equal temperament piano, the resulting concoction immerses the listener in a thick cloud of harmony—but with a pulsating rhythm that swirls the overtone series into a dizzying trance.

Scattered between the works of Harrison and Dennehy is the music of John Cage, a composer whose work was famously influenced by East and South Asian cultures (and in particular by his studies of Indian philosophy and Zen Buddhism). Vastek moves to a prepared piano for her performances of Cage’s musing and meditative “She is Asleep” (a wordless duet with soprano Megan Schubert), and captures the percussive heartbeat of Cage’s pulsating prepared piano solo “A Room” with equal warmth.

Interspersed throughout the album are three separate performances of Cage’s ethereal “Dream” (for unprepared piano), each played in a different octave across the keyboard. Vastek’s fingers float freely from one translucent note to the next, the pedal blurring all of it into a beautiful and hazy dreamscape. The album closes with the highest-pitched rendition, drifting softly upward until the music evaporates into silence.

It’s a far cry from the impassioned piano rhapsody that started off the album, yet Vastek is equally at home in both worlds. In just under an hour, she travels from Indian ragas on a just-intoned piano to an immersive exploration of the overtone series, and all the way through to Cage’s prepared piano and pedal-laced dreamscapes.

The result is both an homage to Vastek’s own individual histories but also a beautiful mosaic of the larger cultural intersections of our world—and how we weave those histories together through music.

ALBUM REVIEW: Bearthoven’s Trios

Photo by Jaime Boddorff.

by Seth Tompkins

Trios, the new release by New York City-based piano trio Bearthoven is a masterclass in eclecticism.  With this album, the trio, which consists of percussion (Matt Evans), piano (Karl Larson), and bass (Pat Swoboda), set out to create a collection that presents a sample of the more than 20 new works that Bearthoven has commissioned as well as to showcase music from composers with markedly different musical backgrounds.  Trios more than achieves these goals; the blend of sharply contrasting aesthetics and exceptional musicianship here yields a fascinating and joyful product that fuses exuberant eclecticism with top-quality performance.

Although each of the six pieces on Trios comes from quite different musical places, there is an overarching structure.  Broadly speaking, these selections fit into two groups: three of the six tracks are rhythm-forward, “post-minimalist” pieces, while the other three tend toward soundscape and abstraction.  Trios begins with one of the post-minimal compositions, and alternates between the two categories, ending with Adrian Knight’s peaceful and contemplative “The Ringing World.”

While Bearthoven identifies as a “piano trio,” their instrumentation (percussion, piano, and bass) is decidedly unusual.  This setup is common in other types of music (jazz, pop, etc.), but is largely unexplored as a vehicle for contemporary classical.  One other notable group that shares this interesting space is the all-acoustic ensemble Dawn of Midi, similarly composed up of drums, piano, and bass, and also based in New York City.  Both groups occupy similar inter-genre spaces.  However, their divergent raisons d’être result in musical outputs that are complementary and non-duplicative: while Dawn of Midi focuses on self-composed and improvised groove-based music that is influenced by global traditions, Bearthoven is oriented around collaboration with a diverse range of composers whose music tends strongly toward contemporary classical.

That is not to say that Bearthoven has an aversion to grooves, however.  In fact, the opening track, Brooks Frederickson’s “Undertoad,” and the second-to-last track, Brendon Randall-Myers’s “Simple Machine,” have collections of grooves that are both wantonly energetic and fascinating in their complex construction.  Bearthoven executes both enjoyably and with great attention to detail, which is typical for tracks on this release.

The more atmospheric pieces on Trios also showcase Bearthoven’s remarkable energy and outstanding musicality.  Especially in these tracks, the constant communication between the players is obvious.  On Knight’s “The Ringing World” and Fjóla Evans’ “Shoaling” particularly, the unity with which the trio executes (sometimes quite subtle) shifts of volume, intensity, and time is a triumph.  The responsiveness and individual mastery necessary to pull off that kind of seamless groupthink is rare and requires real dedication.

Diversity of repertoire, attention to detail, flexibility, and commitment to individual and ensemble excellence are Bearthoven’s strengths.  With these assets, Bearthoven has achieved a consistent ensemble sound that is apparent even in the face of broad eclecticism.  Based on Trios, Bearthoven is an ensemble that can be counted upon to deliver with poise, mastery, and style—and to produce new material that is both diverse and superlative.

Photo by Jaime Boddorff.

ALBUM REVIEW: Max Richter’s Three Worlds: Music from Woolf Works

by Geoffrey Larson

Three novels by Virginia Woolf, the British modernist writer living 1882-1941, shaped a choreographic work by Wayne McGregor created for The Royal Ballet in 2015—a triptych that Max Richter was given the risky task of scoring. These three works show the great variety in Woolf’s writing, each contrasting dramatically in subject matter and purpose. In his score, Richter has drawn on his own varying talents as a pianist, film composer, and electro-acoustic producer. But is this music worthy of its inspiration?

It’s worth mentioning that Richter is not the only living composer who has undertaken the task of creating a musical companion to Virginia Woolf’s writing. Philip Glass’ challenge of scoring the 2002 film The Hours was both different and similar: the story of Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway was the key subject of the film, but the action took place in three different time periods. Glass’ aesthetic was successful at weaving together the different storylines, using the bare materials of pulsing, repetitive rhythmic patterns and simple harmonic changes to help the listener connect the dots. Perhaps minimalist music, the genre that both Glass and Richter subscribe to in different ways, is that which serves Woolf’s narrative style and subject matter the best. Apart from the most obvious fact that both phrases of minimalist music and sentences of Woolf’s stream-of-consciousness writing seem to go for pages, both artistic forms create magic out of seemingly basic, ordinary materials.

“Minimalist” music makes use of repeating simplicity (say, continuous groups of eighth notes) and fairly straightforward harmony, while Woolf looks to the realistic lives of everyday people for her subject matter. The first few pages of Mrs. Dalloway are a complete tour-de-force of narrative storytelling, creating something stunningly engrossing out of the doldrums of daily routine: Woolf takes an ordinary London street scene, and with great care delves into the thoughts and dreams of one random passerby after the next, looking past the mundane to essentially create something fascinating from nothing.

It seems perfect then that the Mrs. Dalloway section that begins Richter’s album starts with a sample of London street sounds: Big Ben, church bells, etc. Slipped in at the very beginning is the only surviving recording of Virginia Woolf herself, a BBC archive of her reading the essay “Craftsmanship” in 1937. As this gives way to a gentle piano line played by the composer himself, we immediately understand that this project is something deeply personal for Richter, who spent much of his early 20s with his nose in Woolf novels. The sound of Richter’s piano anchors the music of this part, and although it has clear emotional depth and a richness of sound flowing from the Deutsches Filmorchestrer Babelsberg under the baton of Robert Ziegler, there are a couple moments that sound so similar to Philip Glass that they could be mistaken for the other composer’s heavily piano-based score of the same Mrs. Dalloway subject matter. However, what follows next in Orlando is stunningly different.

Richter always seems at his best when he brings his skill as an electronic musician and producer to bear on the world of the orchestra, and when he is confronted with Woolf’s more unusual story of a fictional 16th-century male poet who transforms into a woman and lives to the present day, things get interesting. In “Modular Astronomy” he patches together a beat using a mosaic-like conglomeration of orchestral sounds, each of them bizarrely clipped. If you are a classical musician, you are either awed and fascinated by this effect or it gives you a conniption. Richter uses analogue modular synth, sequencing, digital signal processing, and computer-generated synth as he explores Orlando, sometimes eschewing the orchestra for exclusively electronic sounds. These tracks may be the most beautiful surprise on this album, although it’s hard to beat the breathtaking reference in “Love Song” to a famous theme that composers such as Rachmaninoff also couldn’t resist modernizing.

The final track is by far the longest, and is the sole selection dedicated to The Waves, a 1931 novel consisting of the soliloquies of six characters. The sound of waves at the outset seems to have a sort of triple-significance: beyond the allusion to this most experimental of Woolf novels and the current of the river that would ultimately take the author’s life in her suicide, we can feel the relentless weight of depression washing over her. A reading of her suicide note would have seemed cheap here if they had gotten a less-than-fantastic actor to record it; we’re lucky Gillian Anderson was given the chance to do such a poignant reading. High strains of violin in wide-open intervals begin to accompany the words in a heart-breaking progression, and when the orchestra and soloists are left alone at the conclusion of the letter, the music continues on with ever-deepening orchestration and intensity. We’ve been without a true emotional climax of great orchestral scale so far in this album, but the final track does not disappoint.

There’s something else to address here. Many a graduate thesis has been written on the subject of Virginia Woolf’s great subtlety: she masterfully leads us deeper into the lives of seemingly unimportant characters and pulls us in unexpected narrative directions without our knowledge, all while crafting language that makes use of colorful, existential references and imagery. Does the music of Richter’s score to Woolf Works possess a similar subtlety? The answer is a complicated yes and no.

Richter’s music is often disarmingly and purposefully simple, which for many makes it instantly accessible. Most listeners’ ears will easily absorb the trademark “cinematic” harmony and orchestration that create drama and emotion in a straightforward way, and in a sense, what you hear is what you get. Certainly, opening the album with a recording of the voice of Virginia Woolf herself is anything but subtle. However, poetic details in this music’s construction are hidden beneath the surface. Richter claims “asymmetries and trapdoors” in the rhythm and harmony of the music for Mrs. Dalloway, with the intention that this music is meant to feel “misremembered after a long absence.” The electronic creations of Orlando draw heavily on variations on a fragment known as La Folia, popular with a huge variety of composers starting in the 17th century. A ground bass is the backbone of this sort of music, and music to The Waves is also structured this way. A “suicide” theme in the final track connects to musical allusions to the shell-shocked character Septimus in “War Anthem” from the Mrs. Dalloway music. The subtlety of these details makes Woolf Works a richer musical offering, and is probably Richter’s greatest gift to the world of art influenced by the writing of Virginia Woolf.

ALBUM REVIEW: Sound from the Bench by Ted Hearne

by Maggie Molloy

If U.S. politics is all just a puppet show, then who’s pulling the strings?

The Crossing. Photo by Becky Oehler.

That’s the big question behind Ted Hearne’s probing new choral work, “Sound from the Bench.” The sprawling 40-minute political cantata casts corporations as the grand puppeteers: after the Supreme Court’s controversial Citizens United decision back in 2010, businesses and the multimillionaires who run them were free to funnel their corporate money into politics—and to directly influence the course of history.

But of course, the answer is not so simple. In fact, court decisions like this one merely raise a myriad of other questions—questions of power, privilege, politics, and perspective.

Ted Hearne. Photo by Nathan Lee Bush.

“Sound from the Bench” is the title track and centerpiece of Hearne’s new album, a collection of four choral works which examine many of those unanswerable questions. Performed (and co-commissioned) by Philadelphia’s contemporary chamber choir the Crossing under the artistic direction of Donald Nally, the four featured works delve into the depths of our current political climate, stitching together historical political texts and haunting literature in gripping musical settings.

The title track, for instance, combines text from landmark Supreme Court cases with words from ventriloquism textbooks and poetry from Jena Osman’s Corporate Relations, a collection which explores the history of corporate personhood in the U.S.

Scored for choir with two electric guitars and percussion, the five-movement work is a kaleidoscope of influences: ethereal choral polyphony, infectious rock grooves, dense harmonies, and dramatic utterances color the dry legal language of Citizens United—reminding us of the humanity at stake in these formal and detached court documents. The manic fantasia boomerangs between conventional choral settings and heavily distorted rock riffs in a fiery exploration of opposites: individual vs. corporation, man vs. machine, and puppet vs. puppeteer.

“Guitars are loud and they can growl menacingly,” Donald Nally said of the work. “Machines can always speak louder than individuals—even louder than a whole lot of individuals combined into a unified voice. Drums keep beats, but the beat that you hear may not be trusted. And harmony tells stories.”

Donald Nally. Photo by Becky Oehlers.

Another story is at stake in the album’s opening track, “Consent” for 16 unaccompanied voices. The haunting motet takes its text from love letters, religious wedding rites, and text messages used as evidence in the 2013 Steubenville Rape Trial. The piece begins with tense breathing in the soprano and alto parts, deeply contrasted against obsessive advances in the tenor and bass. But as the work progresses, the women begin to sing—and yet the men still do not listen. The drama climaxes in a chaotic clash of voices and ends with sweet choral harmonies singing the Catholic wedding phrase, “Who gives this woman?”, leaving us to reflect on how, even in the 21st century, our society still conditions us to treat women as property.

“Ripple” for unaccompanied choir uses simple, sweet harmonies to underscore another type of discord: America’s blissful ignorance. The piece ruminates on a single, haunting sentence of the Iraq War Logs across eight short, continuous movements—each becoming progressively more introspective with the quiet and overwhelming realization of the tragedy at hand.

The album closes with “Privilege,” a collection of five short pieces exploring generational privilege, the deep class divide, and the unjust erasure of the poor.  The movements shift between clashing perspectives: Hearne’s own personal reflections, Bill Moyer’s 2009 interview with The Wire creator David Simon, and an English translation of an anti-Apartheid song from South Africa. Hearne spins the listener through a dizzying maze of musical styles, sporadically shifting between densely harmonized, mechanical rhythms and airy, organic melodic lines: a musical representation of our search for meaning in an ever-shifting media landscape.

Photo by Becky Oehlers.

“Hearne’s work is fundamentally about asking questions—questions about the world we live in, about art, and about language and music,” Nally said. “He asks questions that don’t have easy answers, and his art makes artistic demands that are not easily reached.”

Yet the Crossing reaches every single note on this album, shifting effortlessly from warm, immersive harmonies to disembodied and detached percussive textures when the music and libretto call for it. Each court case, war log, letter, and poem comes alive through the choir’s stunning vocal precision, balance, and depth—and the result is a visceral and deeply moving mosaic of the horrors of modern America.

It’s a story that couldn’t be told quite so compellingly in any other musical medium: choral music in itself represents community, harmony, and humanity. In this album, the Crossing’s voices become all of our voices, blending together to tell both individual and universal stories of our humanity.

Because for all the probing questions Hearne asks with this album, this is perhaps the most central one:

Who has a voice in the U.S.—and more specifically: how do they use it?

ALBUM REVIEW: Recurrence by Iceland Symphony Orchestra with Daníel Bjarnason

by Maggie Molloy

Iceland is the most sparsely populated country in all of Europe—with a population just half the size of Seattle’s—and yet somehow, it has cultivated one of the biggest, boldest, and most iconic new music scenes of the 21st century.

Exhibit A: the Iceland Symphony Orchestra’s newest album.

Recurrence is a collection of five utterly ethereal works written by a handful of emerging and established Icelandic artists: Anna Thorvaldsdottir, Thurídur Jónsdóttir, Hlynur A. Vilmarsson, María Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir, and Daníel Bjarnason, who also serves as the orchestra’s conductor and Artist-in-Residence on the album.

It’s a lineup that is emblematic of Iceland’s radiant new music scene, known for its massive, slow-moving sound sculptures illuminated with delicate instrumental details. Each piece on the album is a gorgeously abstracted soundscape in itself, showcasing the small Nordic island’s all but unparalleled explorations of texture, timbre, and immersive, atmospheric colors in music.

The album begins with Thurídur Jónsdóttir’s surging “Flow & Fusion,” a sparkling sound mass for orchestra and electronics—but here’s the twist: the electronics are all derived from recordings of the actual instruments of the orchestra, creating a kaleidoscopic aural effect that plays off the concert hall’s acoustics. The sonic seascape ebbs and flows across the entire orchestra, swelling in glorious waves of sound and evaporating back into near-silence.

It’s followed by Hlynur A. Vilmarsson’s sprawling “BD,” which gradually transforms from an amorphous blur of low-pitched vibrations into a rhythmic, tightly-constructed sound off of nearly every distinctive timbre and extended playing technique in the orchestra. Muliphonics, glissandos, prepared piano, vertical bowing, harmonic overtones, and nontraditional percussion instruments all make an appearance in this playfully orchestrated exploration of the symphonic outer limits.

An entire ocean of sound comes alive in María Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir’s “Aequora,” which takes its name from the Latin word for the calm surface of the sea. Sigfúsdóttir takes the image a step further, emulating the majestic beauty of the sea both under softly glistening sunlight but also under the exquisite lightning of an ominous storm: soft strings and whispering winds evoke the sustained surface of the sea amidst swelling percussion motives and brilliantly colored washes of deep brass.

The theatrical climax of the album comes with Daníel Bjarnason’s cinematic three-movement “Emergence,” an aurally arresting exploration of darkness and light. The piece traces the arc of existence from the vast expanse of total darkness to the life-giving warmth of breath, touch, and worldly textures—and all the way out into the luminous, incandescent light of outer space.

The album closes with Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s “Dreaming,” an icy and ethereal illumination of the beauty of utter stillness. Enormous sound masses sparkle with delicate orchestrational nuance in a sound world so stunning that it almost seems to halt time itself.

It’s a reminder, like so many of the works on this album, to be still, to listen—and to dream in shimmering detail.