Staff Picks: Friday Faves

Second Inversion hosts share a favorite selection from their weekly playlist. Tune in on Friday, October 6 to hear these pieces and plenty of other new and unusual music from all corners of the classical genre!

Michael Gordon: Timber (Cantaloupe Music)
Remixed by Ikue Mori

Michael Gordon could make music out of just about anything. His piece Timber, composed for six percussionists playing 2×4 planks of wood, is not just good—it’s so good  it spurred an entire album of remixes by 12 different electronic artists.

This particular remix by Ikue Mori slows down the texture and explores the space between the notes, with the music slowly oscillating up and down, side to side, from one headphone to the other and back again. With an echoing, almost ritualistic pulse, Mori’s version feels ghostlier than the original. It’s almost as though the wooden planks were cut from haunted trees—evoking a spookier interpretation of the title Timber. – Maggie Molloy

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


Julia Wolfe: Lick (Cantaloupe Music)
Bang on a Can All-Stars

This is an intense piece in many ways. It’s rhythmically difficult, aggressively pounding, and relentless throughout; it features no sound softer than a determined forte until possibly the very end. Generally I would abhor something like this, but the Bang on a Can All-Stars are able to give it a truly fascinating showcase: raucous and full of indomitable character.

It’s the first piece that Julia Wolfe wrote for the ensemble, hoping they would “go over the top” with the work’s “intense energy” born of the body-slamming rhythms of Motown, funk, and rock music of Julia’s childhood. I think it worked. – Geoffrey Larson

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 3pm hour today to hear this piece.


Florence Price: Dances in the Canebrakes (MSR Classics)
William Chapman Nyaho, piano

William Chapman Nyaho: Asa is the second of five volumes curated by Ghanaian-American composer and pianist William Chapman Nyaho. All five volumes feature a fascinating and impressive collection of music of Africa and the African diaspora.  This second volume is focused on dance music, and Nyaho certainly shines as he dances his hands across the keys of his piano with striking expertise.

In Florence Price’s Dances in the Canebrakes, Nyaho treats the listener to three movements that feel like a courtly cakewalk.  Price, I should note, was the first black woman in the US to be recognized as a symphonic composer and to have her work performed by a major American orchestra. Price was a pioneer and is perfectly at home in this anthology of musical unity. – Rachele Hales

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 7pm hour today to hear this piece.


Ballaké Sissoko & Vincent Ségal: “N’kapalema” (No Format Records)

I’m currently going through a months-long phase of discovering West African music, which started with Peter Gabriel’s collaborations with Youssou N’Dour and then led me through to Toumani Diabaté and Rokia Traoré. (Give them a listen!)

It looks like Ballaké Sissoko will carry the torch next. In “N’kapalema,” a collaboration with cellist Vincent Ségal for Sissoko’s album Musique de nuit, the composer plucks precise, intricate melodies on the kora while Ségal overlays the cello’s husky voice. For me, it evoked an image of a lot of families in their homes at dusk, all saying prayers before a candlelit dinner. – Brendan Howe

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 9pm hour today to hear this piece. Plus, catch the duo in Seattle when they perform as part of the Earshot Jazz Festival on Oct. 22.

Staff Picks: Friday Faves

Second Inversion hosts share a favorite selection from their weekly playlist. Tune in on Friday, June 30 to hear these pieces and plenty of other new and unusual music from all corners of the classical genre!

Florent Ghys: “An Open Cage” (Cantaloupe Music)
Bang on a Can All-Stars

If you don’t have five hours to listen to John Cage’s sprawling, narrated sound art piece Diary: How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse), Florent Ghys’s “An Open Cage” offers a compelling (and surprisingly catchy) four-minute summary. In Ghys’s version, a solo pizzicato bass line dances within the rhythms of Cage’s calm and serene narration, painting his deadpan delivery with a funky groove and a distinctly contemporary color. The unconventional duet expands as the piece grows in musical force, gradually adding more and more instruments until finally a small chorus of voices appears, echoing Cage’s words:

“The avant-garde is flexibility of mind and it follows like day the night from not falling prey to government and education. Without avant-garde, nothing would get invented.”

 – Maggie Molloy

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 12pm hour today to hear this piece.


Anthony Barfield: Soliloquy (Albany Records)
Joseph Alessi, trombone; Stentorian Consort Quartet

Here at Second Inversion, I hear new music every single day. But sometimes, no matter how far you’ve traveled, you need to go home. So…I picked trombone music this week.  Anthony Barfield’s Soliloquy is a delightful and thoughtful piece. There is a lightness here that belies the seriousness of this piece’s genesis. Beyond the composition, the quality of the performance on this recording is exceptional. In case you’re wondering what good trombone playing sound like, this is it. – Seth Tompkins

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 3pm hour today to hear this piece.


Augusta Read Thomas: “Incantation” (MSR Classics)
Stephanie Sant’Ambrogio, viola

In 1995, Augusta Read Thomas wrote three iterations of “Incantation” for solo strings—violin, viola, and cello—as a tribute to her friend Cathryn Tait. Tait, battling cancer at the time, premiered the piece a few weeks before her death—a piece which celebrates her generosity of spirit with grace, richness, and elegance.

Stephanie Sant’Ambrogio’s solo viola performance of “Incantation” speaks with a distinctly eloquent, present, and meditative atmosphere. She moves through the short, five-minute work’s loose ABA form and concludes on a major seventh, unresolved, as though ending with a question. – Brendan Howe

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


Bright Sheng: Silent Temple II (Telarc Records)
Ying Quartet

I’ve always been a big fan of the pizzicato obbligato movement, which, in limiting all performing instruments to one motion (the plucking of strings), immediately achieves a unique character. Bright Sheng creates mystery with his pizzicato in Silent Temple II, evoking droplets of water, the creaking and cracking of old wood planks, or the rustling and knocking of bamboo. Or is it the plucked Chinese zither instrument, the guzheng, that we hear? In any case, he succeeds at evoking the stunning environment of his inspiration for the work, an abandoned Buddhist temple he visited in the 1970s in northwest China. Left empty and unattended at the height of Mao’s Cultural Revolution and falling into disrepair, it retained its quiet grandeur. In the case of the pizzicato here, only the smallest gestures of the quartet are necessary to paint a vivid picture. 
– Geoffrey Larson

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

Women in (New) Music: Timeline of Women Composers

by Maggie Molloy

women-in-music-timeline

“New” music didn’t just start up out of the blue. The contemporary classical music we know and love and treasure today is the product of centuries of innovation and experimentation in the field.

Likewise, women didn’t just pick up instruments and staff paper in the 21st century—we are the product of hundreds of years’ worth of women who fought to have their music heard. So if we’re going to celebrate Women in (New) Music, it’s important to pay tribute to the women who paved the way.

The following timeline briefly outlines the contributions of a number of history’s most influential women composers, past and present. Please note that this list is by no means comprehensive, but rather is meant to summarize some of the key accomplishments of women composers in the Western classical music tradition.

So the next time you’re looking for some fiercely empowering musical inspiration, check out some of these ladies:

HISTORIC COMPOSERS:

inanna

Enheduanna (2285-2250 BCE): Regarded by scholars as the earliest known author, poet, and composer (regardless of gender), Enheduanna was a high priestess of the moon god in the Sumerian city-state of Ur. Her temple hymns were held in high esteem, and were in use at temples across Sumer and Akkad long after her death.

Image is of Inanna, the Sumerian goddess of love, fertility, and warfare.

 


hildegard

 

Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179): Hildegard was a German Benedictine abbess, Christian mystic, and one of earliest female composers. There are more surviving chants by Hildegard than by any other composer from the entire Middle Ages, and she was one of the first composers (male or female) to create her own idiosyncratic compositional style.

 


maddalena-casulana

 

 

Maddalena Casulana (1544-1590): Casulana was the first woman in Western music history to print and publish her music, and the first to regard herself as a professional composer.

 

 


francesca-caccini

 

 

Francesca Caccini (1587-1645): Caccini had a successful career as a singer, teacher, and composer, and was one of the most prolific composers of dramatic music in the 17th century. She was also the highest-paid musician at the Florentine court.

 


barbara-strozzi

 

Barbara Strozzi (1619-1677): Strozzi was the most prolific composer, man or woman, of printed secular vocal music in Venice during the mid-17th century. Her father, a poet and librettist himself, nurtured her ambitions as a composer and introduced her to the intellectual elite of Venice. Unlike her male contemporaries, she was restricted to performing at intimate, private gatherings rather than for large, public audiences.

 


elisabeth-jacquet-de-la-guerre

 

Élisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre (1665-1729): Born into a family of musicians and instrument makers, Jacquet de la Guerre was the original child prodigy in music. From the age of five, she sang, composed, and played the harpsichord at Louis XIV’s court, supported by the king’s mistress. Throughout her life, she enjoyed the patronage of the king and dedicated most of her works to him.

 


maria-szymanowska

 

Maria Szymanowska (1789-1831): Szymanowska was one of the first professional virtuoso pianists of the 19th century. She toured extensively throughout Europe and composed for the court at St. Petersburg, gave concerts, taught music, and ran an influential salon. She wrote a number of piano pieces and songs which made her an important forerunner to Chopin.

 


fanny-mendelssohn

Fanny Mendelssohn (1805-1847): Later known as Fanny Hensel (after her marriage), she was the sister of the early Romantic composer Felix Mendelssohn. Though she was as talented and musically precocious as her brother, a musical career was considered inappropriate for a woman of her wealth and class at the time. After her marriage she played piano and performed her compositions at small, private gatherings of friends and invited guests, and she published much of her music under her brother’s name.

 


clara-schumann

 

Clara Schumann (1819-1896): Clara Schumann was one of the most distinguished composers and pianists of the Romantic era. Though she was married to the composer Robert Schumann, she tended to be the more famous of the two, and was the main breadwinner for their family. Together, Robert and Clara championed the musical career of Johannes Brahms, and she was the first to perform any of his works publicly.

 


amy-beach

 

Amy Beach (1867-1944): A child prodigy, pianist, and composer, Amy Beach taught herself to compose by studying and playing the works of other composers. Though social conventions of the time excluded her from studying or teaching at any of the top universities, she went on to become the first American woman to publish a symphony and other large-scale works.

 


marion-bauer

 

Marion Bauer (1882-1955): Bauer was an influential composer, teacher, and music critic who played an active role in shaping American musical identity in the early half of the 20th century. She held leadership roles in a number of composers’ societies, and helped found the American Music Guild, the American Music Center, and the American Composer’s Alliance.

 


rebecca-clarke

 

Rebecca Clarke (1886-1979): Clarke was a classical composer and violist best known for her chamber music featuring the viola. She became one of the first female professional orchestral players. Most of her works have yet to be published (or have only recently been published).

 

 


florence-beatrice-price

 

Florence Beatrice Price (1887-1953): Price was the first African-American woman to be recognized as a symphonic composer, and the first to have a composition performed by a major orchestra. Though she was classically trained, her music incorporated elements of African-American spirituals, emphasizing the rhythm and syncopation of the spirituals rather than just the text.

 


nadia-boulanger

Nadia Boulanger (1887-1979): Boulanger was a composer, conductor, and one of the most influential pedagogues of the 20th century. Many of her students went on to become leading composers of the 20th century, including Aaron Copland, Quincy Jones, Elliott Carter, Virgil Thomson, Philip Glass, Ástor Piazzolla, and many more. Boulanger was the first woman to conduct many major orchestras in America and Europe, including the BBC Symphony, Boston Symphony, Hallé, New York Philharmonic, and Philadelphia orchestras.

 


germaine-tailleferre

 

Germaine Tailleferre (1892 – 1983): Tailleferre was the only female member of the group of French composers called Les Six, who were known for writing highly individual works which drew from a wide range of influences, including neoclassical. She composed hundreds of works in all genres, including many film scores.

 


lili-boulanger

 

Lili Boulanger (1893-1918): Lili Boulanger was a child prodigy and a student of her older sister, Nadia. At the age of 19, she became the first woman composer to win the Prix de Rome for her piece Faust et Hélène, but her compositional career was cut short when she died at the age of 24 from chronic illness.

 

 


ruth-crawford-seeger

 

Ruth Crawford Seeger (1901-1953): Seeger was a modernist composer and American folk music specialist, and she was the first woman to win a Guggenheim Fellowship in music. She was a prominent member of a group of American composers known as the “ultramoderns,” and her music influenced later composers including Elliott Carter.

 


LIVING COMPOSERS:

ellen-taaffe-zwilich

 

Ellen Taaffe Zwilich: Zwilich was the first female composer to win the Pulitzer Prize for music. She is one of the most frequently played living composers, and her works draw from a wide range of influences, including atonal, post-modernist, and neo-romantic.

 

 


libby-larsen
Libby Larsen:
 
One of America’s most prolific and most frequently performed living composers, Larsen has cultivated a catalog of over 500 works spanning virtually every genre. She was the first woman to serve as a resident composer with a major orchestra, and she went on to become one of the founders of the American Composers Forum.

 

 


julia-wolfe

 

Julia Wolfe: Perhaps best known as one of the three founders of the wildly innovative Bang on a Can new music collective, Wolfe’s compositional style is just as urgent and relentlessly powerful as her career. In 2015, she earned the Pulitzer Prize for music, and this year, she was named a MacArthur Fellow—the first full-time classical composer to receive this distinguished award since 2003.

 


jennifer-higdon

 

Jennifer Higdon: One of America’s most critically-acclaimed and frequently performed living composers, Higdon has both a Pulitzer Prize and a Grammy Award under her belt. She enjoys several hundred live performances a year of her works, and her compositions have been recorded on over four dozen CDs.

 

 


lisa-bielawa

 

Lisa Bielawa: A prominent composer and vocalist both within and beyond New York’s thriving contemporary classical scene, Bielawa takes her inspiration from literary sources and close artistic collaborations. In 1997, she co-founded the MATA Festival, which has gone on to become New York’s leading showcase for vital new music by emerging composers.

 


amanda-harberg

 

Amanda Harberg: A New Jersey-based composer, pianist, and educator, Harberg’s music has been widely commissioned and performed both in the United States and abroad. She is also the founder and director of the Music in Montclair series, which pairs performances of traditional classical music with new works by living composers.

 


shara-nova

 

Shara Nova: Best known as the lead singer and songwriter for her chamber pop band My Brightest Diamond, Nova is also equally at home as a composer, mezzo-soprano extraordinaire, and musical chameleon. Career highlights include composing and starring in her own psychedelic Baroque chamber opera titled You Us We All and collaborating with practically every major musical voice in New York City (and beyond).

 


sarah-kirkland-sniderSarah Kirkland Snider: Perhaps best known for her rapturous and vividly orchestrated song cycles Penelope and Unremembered, Snider’s utterly immersive compositions have been commissioned and performed by many of the most prestigious orchestras, ensembles, and soloists throughout the world. A passionate advocate for new music, Snider also serves as co-director, along with William Brittle and Judd Greenstein, of New Amsterdam Records—a label which consistently churns out adventurous and thought-provoking new music.


anna-thorvaldsdottir

 

Anna Thorvaldsdottir: As a composer, Thorvaldsdottir is known for creating large sonic structures which immerse the the listener in their austere, somber, and utterly spellbinding soundscapes. She’s the recipient of the prestigious Nordic Council Music Prize and The New York Philharmonic’s Kravis Emerging Composer Award.

 

 


angelique-poteat

 

Angelique Poteat: A powerful compositional voice and new music advocate, Poteat is a Seattle-based composer and clarinetist whose works have been commissioned and performed by the Seattle Symphony, North Corner Chamber Orchestra, and many others. Her five-movement composition Listen to the Girls, scored for girl choir and large orchestra, explores harmful and unfair societal expectations of women.

 


kate-moore

 

Kate Moore: Moore’s award-winning compositions blur the line between acoustic and electroacoustic media, at times even crossing over into sound installation territory. She specializes in creating surprising performance scenarios which feature virtuosic instrumentalists and musicians set amidst unusual and alternative performance circumstances.

 


missy-mazzoli

 

Missy Mazzoli: Mazzoli is a Brooklyn-based composer and keyboardist who’s works flow seamlessly between chamber-operatic, electronic, and abstract sound worlds. She’s also the founder and keyboardist of the all-female new age art pop ensemble Victoire, a group dedicated to the performance of her works.

 

 


caroline-shaw

Caroline Shaw: Perhaps best known as a Grammy Award-winning singer in the boundary-bursting vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth, Shaw is also a prominent violinist and composer in contemporary music. She has performed around the world as a violinist in ACME (American Contemporary Music Ensemble), and in 2013 she became the youngest ever recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Music for her a capella composition Partita for 8 Voices.

 


Are we missing someone? We plan to continue updating and expanding this index of women composers as time goes on. Send your submissions to maggiem@king.org and we’ll make sure your favorite female composers are added to the list.

 

ALBUM REVIEW: David Lang’s the national anthems

by Maggie Molloy

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As we near another anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks, we’re reminded of just how terrifyingly destructive and divisive those events were, both within our country and beyond it. Nearly 3,000 innocent civilians died that day—along with another 6,000 who were injured—and that was only the beginning of what was to come.

The attacks led our nation’s troops into what has become the longest-running war in U.S. history. Since 9/11, nearly 2 million U.S. soldiers have been deployed to Afghanistan or Iraq. Over 6,000 American troops have been killed, another 44,000 wounded, and the rest of our nation’s lives forever changed in the legislation that has followed.

Nineteen hijackers changed our nation, our world, and the entire course of history.

It begs the question: Why?

Why are the nations of the world so divided? Why do we keep terrorizing one another? Why do we keep fighting these wars? Are we really all that different?

These are some of the questions composer David Lang asks with his composition “the national anthems” (note the lowercase, implying equality), a choral work released earlier this summer on Cantaloupe Music. Performed by the Los Angeles Master Chorale (under the baton of Grant Gershon) with the Calder String Quartet, the album takes a critical look at the way we as individual nations define ourselves.

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Los Angeles Master Chorale under the baton of Grant Gershon. Photo credit: David Johnston

“I had the idea that if I looked carefully at every national anthem I might be able to identify something that everyone in the world could agree on,” Lang said. “If I could take just one hopeful sentence from the national anthem of every nation in the world I might be able to make a kind of meta-anthem of the things that we all share. “

He combed through the anthems of all 193 countries in the United Nation, pulling one line from each to use in his libretto.

“What I found, to my shock and surprise,” Lang said, “Was that within almost every anthem is a bloody, war-like, tragic core, in which we cover up our deep fears of losing our freedoms with waves of aggression and bravado.”

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David Lang. Photo Credit: Peter Serling

That underlying sense of fear haunts the entire work, with the choir’s prayerful voices rising above a stained glass string accompaniment. The piece is organized into five movements exploring themes of peace, courage, glory, freedom, and community, ever so slowly sprawling outward from the first movement’s unified, tight-knit harmonies toward contrapuntal chaos.

The piece builds in quiet urgency through the war-stained patriotic glory of the middle movements, the once-unified voices separating as the wounded strings weep softly in the distance. And yet, the final movement returns to a churchlike hymn, the voices once again finding unity in their hopes, their prayers, and their music.

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Calder Quartet. Photo Credit: Autumn de Wilde

The anthem is paired with another largescale choral work: Lang’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “the little match girl passion,” based on the children’s story of The Little Match Girl by Hans Christian Andersen. It’s a classic parable given new depth through Lang’s masterful part-writing: a poor young girl, beaten by her father, fails to sell matches on the street and freezes from the bitter cold of the cruel world around her. Yet in wake of “the national anthems,” her story serves a dual purpose, reminding us of the personal wars and private tragedies we all face—and how truly delicate and cherished is our freedom.

“Hiding in every national anthem is the recognition that we are insecure about our freedoms, that freedom is fragile, and delicate, and easy to lose,” Lang said. “Maybe an anthem is a memory informing a kind of prayer, a heartfelt plea: There was a time when we were forced to live in chains. Please don’t make us live in chains again.

STAFF PICKS: Friday Faves

Second Inversion hosts share a favorite selection from this Friday’s playlist. Tune in during the indicated hours below on Friday, June 3 to hear these pieces. In the meantime, you’ll hear other great new and unusual music from all corners of the classical genre 24/7!

Tyondai Braxton: Casino Trem; Bang on a Can All-Stars (Cantaloupe Music)

coverThe composer Tyondai Braxton has been busy with some interesting projects. We hear of a lot improvised electronic music  performances in Brooklyn, and a 2013 installation piece at the Guggenheim Museum that featured a quintet of musicians sitting cross-legged on sci-fi ovular pods – some interesting stuff. His Casino Trem from Bang on a Can All-Stars’ Field Recordings is a rich tapestry of every electronic color of the rainbow, and makes me feel like I’m in the middle of an installation just listening to it. – Geoffrey Larson

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 11am hour today to hear this piece.


Stephen Sondheim: Johanna in Space (arr. Duncan Sheik); Anthony de Mare, piano (ECM Records)

1444893095_coverThis arrangement is born from Sondheim’s epic horror musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.  In the musical, a handsome sailor spies a young woman (Johanna) at her window and in song he declares his love, learns her name, and promises to come back for her.  Later, Sweeney Todd (Johanna’s father) sings his own version of “Johanna” as he imagines what she’s like as a grown woman.  In Sheik’s arrangement the two versions combine and take on an unearthly vibe created by the layering of dozens of guitar improvisations via a tape echo.  It’s within this echo that Anthony de Mare’s delicate and sleek piano deftly drifts. – Rachele Hales

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


Nick Brooke: Chokoloskee (Innova)

826coverI absolutely love it when music conjures specific images. Nick Brooke’s Chokoloskee is one such piece. Written as a an alternate-reality “tableaux” on the town of Chokoloskee, Florida as part of the album Border Towns, the composer describes this work as “surreal Americana.” For me, this music is the sound of the memory of a legendary summertime party; not the objective sounds of the party in real-time, but what my recollection of the party sounds like, as experienced as an aural memory.

This piece incorporates radio samples, historical and field recordings, as well as “live” performance into a lively and pleasantly strange mashup. Aside from being riotously fun, this piece accomplishes the composer’s goal of “blurring the line between recording and live performance.”

All in all, Chokoloskee is a refreshing listen. I suggest using it to assist the planning of your next outdoor party. – Seth Tompkins

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 5pm hour today to hear this piece.


John Cage: Dream; Bruce Brubaker, piano (Arabesque Recordings)

51cEChNX7tLWhen you hear the name John Cage, you probably think of prepared pianos or philosophical musings, complete and utter sonic chaos, or maybe just 4’33” of silence. But Cage was actually a very thoughtful, introspective composer and thinker—and in few works is that made clearer than in his solo (unprepared) piano piece “Dream.”

Composed on a single treble clef staff (which is extremely unusual for piano), “Dream” features hardly any left-hand accompaniment at all. Instead, the utterly translucent melodic line drifts slowly and freely from one sustained note to the next, with pedal blurring all of it into a beautifully simple and ethereal dreamscape.

The piece was originally written as a piano accompaniment for a dance by choreographer Merce Cunningham, Cage’s life partner and frequent collaborator. Like so many of their cherished collaborations, “Dream” has since become a quiet, hidden Cagean gem—a soft and gentle reminder to immerse ourselves in the sounds around us, both in waking and in dreaming life. – Maggie Molloy

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

ALBUM REVIEW: “Discreet Music” by Brian Eno

by Maggie Molloy

Editor’s Note: Brian Eno was a longtime friend and collaborator of the late David Bowie, who died this weekend after an 18-month battle with cancer. As we mourn the loss of this talented artist and creative visionary, we find comfort in knowing that his bold vision, fierce courage, and revolutionary music live on in the lives and art of his family, friends, fans, and collaborators. Bowie’s immeasurable contributions to the world of music extend far past the confines of rock, glam, pop, or classical genres, reminding us that when it comes to art, the sky is the limit—and a creative spirit like his belongs right up alongside the stars. Rest in peace, David Bowie.

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Brian Eno, courtesy Warp Records

In this day and age, we tend to take music for granted. It’s always playing in the background, whether it’s in on the radio, in the car, around the house, in a movie, or—if you’re really old-school—on your vintage record player. But before technology made it possible for us to stream music wherever we are at all hours of the day and night, the notion of “background music” as we now know it simply didn’t exist.

It wasn’t until 1917 when the French composer and iconoclast Erik Satie first coined the term “furniture music”—that is, music played in the background while listeners engaged in other activities. He wrote many pieces which were meant to be just another piece of furniture in the room—each comprised of interesting colors and textures, pleasing to the ear but not intended to capture one’s full attention.

And in 1975, the British ambient music composer Brian Eno took this notion of furniture music one step further, creating something even more ambient, ethereal and—well, discreet.

Thus was born “Discreet Music,” Eno’s 30-minute ambient music masterpiece: a gentle immersion into the slow, warm sound waves of an EMS synthesizer. The inspiration for the piece came to him when he was left bedridden in the hospital by a car accident. An album of 18th-century harp music was playing in his hospital room with the volume turned down toward the threshold of inaudibility—but he lacked the strength to get out of bed and turn it up.

“This presented what was for me a new way of hearing music,” Eno said, “As part of the ambience of the environment just as the color of the light and the sound of the rain were parts of that ambience.”

And now, another 40 years later, Toronto’s classical Contact ensemble has created a modern arrangement of Eno’s original “Discreet Music” for acoustic and electric instruments. Arranged by Contact’s artistic director and percussionist Jerry Pergolesi, the new recording is scored for violin, cello, soprano saxophone, guitar, double bass, vibraphone, piano, flute, and gongs.

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Contact Contemporary Music

Aside from the expansion of musical instruments, Contact’s version of “Discreet Music” also expands the length of the piece. Contact’s performance is one hour long, so as to fill an entire CD—just as Eno’s original was 30 minutes long, so as to fill one side of a vinyl album.

And no, Contact did not just place a giant repeat sign at the end of Eno’s original score. “Discreet Music” was originally written as an experiment into generative composition: a type of self-organizing music created within compositional parameters predetermined by the composer. Such systems create pieces that could theoretically go on forever—static, ongoing musical material which never repeats exactly the same way twice.

In other words, it is music of process, not product.

In Eno’s original, he wrote two simple melodic lines and then hooked his synth up to a tape delay system that allowed the melodies to transform and evolve with very little input on his part. In Contact’s version, the band itself is the looping apparatus.

It may sound complicated, but the result is really quite simple: ambient, meditative music that’s best listened to while doing something else.

Contact’s recording was completed in one take, in keeping with the spirit of the original—allowing the music to organize itself. The recording is divided into seven parts which blend seamlessly into one another, with the textural details blossoming and transforming ever so slowly across the full 60 minutes.

The result is a mild and melancholy meditation into the process of music-making—a willingness to sit quietly and listen to one’s own surroundings as they merge and coalesce in ever-changing ways.

“We concluded that music didn’t have to have rhythms, melodies, harmonies, structures, even notes, that it didn’t have to involve instruments, musicians and special venues,” Eno once wrote of the mid-20th century movement toward more experimental ways of writing music. “It was accepted that music was not something intrinsic to certain arrangements of things—to certain ways of organizing sounds—but was actually a process of apprehending that we, as listeners, could choose to conduct.”

And in that regard, Contact offers a fresh reinterpretation of the work, following the systems set in place by Eno while also expanding the music melodically, texturally, and timbrally.

“If there is a lasting message from experimental music,” Eno wrote, “It’s this: music is something your mind does.”

As performers, Contact makes the music their own—and as listeners, so do we. With precision, patience, and the utmost reverence, Contact recreates Eno’s ambient masterwork as an echo chamber of circling motives and mismatched musical textures. Each ripple of the repetitious melody is a perfectly crafted piece of the larger pattern, a discreet but unique little gem in and of itself.

So in the end, maybe “Discreet Music” really is just another piece of furniture in the room—but wow, what an incredible piece of furniture.

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ALBUM OF THE WEEK: Anthracite Fields

by Jill Kimball

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When it comes to contemporary music, the biggest cause for celebration is its determination to find inspiration in unusual places. Increasingly, composers have tossed aside those old standbys–rich royals, first-world travel, God–and have instead embraced the unpredictable.

In the past, composer Julia Wolfe has found inspiration in a Vermeer painting, an Aretha Franklin song, and the idea of a slow-motion scream. Last year, she even released a musical hommage to the American folktale hero John Henry, a steel driver who died trying to compete with a machine.

But this time, Wolfe found her muse unexpectedly close to home.

For Wolfe, writing Anthracite Fields began with a rumination on her childhood home of Montgomeryville, Pennsylvania. The dirt-road town straddled polar opposite worlds: on one side of it lay the big city, Philadelphia; on the other lay an expanse of coal mining fields, where men and boys once toiled long hours in dangerous conditions for a pittance. She’d almost never ventured in the latter direction before. Curiously, she set off to explore the mines and soon found herself consumed by the history of the coal fields. By April 2014, she’d written an hour-long piece dedicated to the hundreds of thousands of people who literally powered upper- and middle-class American lives for more than a century.

It’s no mystery why Wolfe has already won a Pulitzer Prize for this work, which features performances by Bang on a Can All-Stars and the Choir of Trinity Wall Street. The sound is intense, evocative, and completely original. The carefully chosen words, taken from historical documents, interviews, and speeches, are heart-wrenching. Perhaps most importantly, the piece explores themes that are just as relevant to American lives today as they were 150 years ago: class inequality, unfair working conditions, and the social cost of using coal to generate electricity.

“The politics are very fascinating—the issues about safety, and the consideration for the people who are working and what’s involved in it,” Wolfe said in a recent NPR interview. “But I didn’t want to say, ‘Listen to this. This is a big political issue.’ It really was, ‘Here’s what happened. Here’s this life, and who are we in relationship to that?’ We’re them. They’re us. And basically, these people, working underground, under very dangerous conditions, fueled the nation. That’s very important to understand.”

The five-movement piece begins below ground, in the midst of a typical coal miner’s long, dark, and dangerous workday. An uneasy collection of sustained notes is interrupted by a loud, jarring noise every minute or so. The choir names off a series of men named John, found on a list of more than 50,000 Pennsylvania mining casualties between 1869 and 1916. In a genius compositional move, Wolfe chose to pair this heartbreakingly endless list of names with sung text, at turns mournful and fiery, explaining how coal is formed.

Sadly, children in Pennsylvania’s anthracite region started working in the mines as early as age 6 to help put food on the family table. The second movement of Anthracite Fields remembers those working children, called breaker boys. The children sat bent over on planks all day, cutting their fingers up to pick debris out of freshly mined coal. The text Wolfe set in this movement comes from a perversely catchy regional folk song (“Mickey Pick-Slate, early and late, that was the poor little breaker boy’s fate”) and from a heart-rending interview with a one-time breaker boy (“You didn’t dare say anything, you didn’t dare quit, you didn’t wear gloves”). I admit it: this movement made me cry.

In the second half of the piece, Wolfe moves above ground to examine the social implications of underground coal mining. Her third movement, “Speech,” mixes sparse choral writing with rock opera-style solo vocals, using text from a union president’s speech advocating for fair working conditions and compensation.

The last two movements come from two very different non-miners’ perspectives. Wolfe says “Flowers” was inspired by an interview with Barbara Powell, the daughter of a miner who says she never felt poor, thanks to her town’s generous community and the cheerful little things in life, like growing her beautiful garden. The last movement, “Appliances,” is an uncomfortable reminder that coal miners put their lives on the line for next to no pay so that the upper classes could live in comfort, whether they were traveling by train or heating their homes. At the very end, the singers whistle, conjuring the sound of a train grinding against the rails.

Composer Julia Wolfe.

Composer Julia Wolfe.

Anthracite Fields is not an easy listen, but I don’t think Julia Wolfe wanted it to be. We Americans tend to gloss over unpleasant parts of our history when, in order to make peace with our past, we’d do better to confront it. In telling these miners’ stories through vivid music, Wolfe has brought an important but often ignored chapter of our country’s story to the forefront. I encourage people of all backgrounds to listen to this award-winning work, daunting though it may seem. You’ll learn a little about life in late-1800s Pennsylvania, you’ll contemplate energy usage and workers’ rights, and if you’re like me, you’ll have a good cry.