ALBUM REVIEW: Michael Gordon’s ‘Clouded Yellow’

by Gabriela Tedeschi

Michael Gordon. Photo by Peter Serling.

After throwing out a piece he’d been working on seriously for months, Michael Gordon sat down for just nine days to create something new, something uninhibited where “all the colors are flying.” That piece became “Clouded Yellow,” titled after the smudged, colorful wing patterns of the clouded yellow butterfly. It also became the title track for his new album, a collection of string quartets where blurred, distorted, and layered sounds coalesce into a vibrant, fluttering haze.

Gordon, one of the three co-founders of Bang on a Can, has a passion for exploring ways in which classical chamber works can be warped with electronic effects and guitar pedals. His latest album is the product of a decades-long collaboration with the Kronos Quartet, an ensemble comprised of violinists David Harrington and John Sherba, violist Hank Dutt, and cellist Sunny Yang that is committed to stretching the limits of string quartet music. Clouded Yellow features four works that revel in blurred harmonies and melodies, shedding light on the beauty of opaqueness.

Kronos Quartet. Photo by Jay Blakesburg.

The title piece, “Clouded Yellow” creates this blurred effect with driving melodic lines and overlapping rhythms that obscure the beat. Chromatic movement with slides and trills encompasses much of the violin lines, developing dark, intricate harmonies that flutter restlessly around the listener.

Similarly, “Potassium” layers different sliding lines of sustained notes and uses a fuzz box to distort the strings, creating a mysterious cloud of sound. The piece alternates between slower, melancholic sliding sections, dramatic periods where the violins slide rapidly above driving viola and cello accompaniment, and conventionally beautiful sections with tender, lyrical melodies. As these contradictory elements are woven together, “Potassium” becomes an ornate musical web that is impossible to untangle.

The album’s blurred aesthetic brilliantly suits the thematic content in “Sad Park,” a four-part piece that layers the quartet’s music under sentences from toddlers who were asked to explain the events of 9/11. Following the pattern laid out by the previous tracks, the piece features electronic sounds, slides, and complex, interlocking patterns that intentionally disorient the listener. As the young children’s words are replayed over and over, they are electronically warped, becoming eerie non-verbal sounds—almost like wails of pain at some moments. The children’s confused words and the distortion of both their voices and the instruments reflects the confusion, pain, and helplessness felt in the wake of 9/11.

“Exalted,” the final track, serves as a response to the mourning of “Sad Park.” Featuring the Young People’s Chorus of New York City, the piece sets the opening of the Kaddish, a prayer sequence recited for the dead in the Jewish faith. The voices layer chromatic, descending lines over a rhythmic violin pattern and the slides of the cello and viola. While the dark intensity of the piece never diminishes, it begins to move over time toward a quiet finality that offers a sense of peace. “Exalted” both captures the complexity of mourning and artfully juxtaposes something ancient and religious with the immediacy of modern sounds.

Clouded Yellow documents Gordon and the Kronos Quartet’s innovative experimentation with electronics, clashing layers, and disorienting rhythmic patterns. The resulting music is intricate, dramatic, and thought-provoking: it speaks powerfully to the confusion we all experience when so much of the world around us is blurred.

All Tomorrow’s Parties: Paying Homage while Looking Ahead with Nadia Shpachenko

Photo by Albert Chang.

by Dacia Clay

Nadia Shpachenko is a multiple Grammy-nominated pianist and Professor of Music at Cal Poly Pomona University who has never stopped playing with her toys.

Shpachenko’s love of playing—both with toys and on her piano, and sometimes, with her toy piano—is part of what makes her new album, Quotations and Homages, so much fun to listen to. She’s got this wide-open sense of adventure that comes across not only in her playing, but in the pieces she commissions and the composers from whom she commissions them. (Shpachenko seems to choose composers by their willingness to be co-conspirators in her exploits as much as for their compositional aptitude.) An album of pieces that pay homage to everyone from Messiaen to the Velvet Underground? Yes! A piece inspired by Stravinsky called “Igor to Please” written for 6 pianists on 2 toy pianos, 2 pianos, and electronics? Yay! Let’s do it!

In this interview, Nadia talks about why she’s such an advocate for new classical music, about the ideas that inspired this new album and the pieces therein, and about breaking piano strings. 

VIDEO PREMIERE: Joshua Roman’s ‘Tornado’ ft. the JACK Quartet

by Gabriela Tedeschi

Photo by Hayley Young.

Joshua Roman is a native of Oklahoma, where the gentle beauty of spring is routinely dismantled by the awesome and destructive power of tornadoes.

His newest composition is inspired by just that. Composed for cello quintet, Tornado paints a musical portrait of his childhood storm experiences, using chaotic string textures to conjure up the stunning and terrifying natural imagery of tornado season. The piece was commissioned by Town Hall and Music Academy of the West and premiered this past spring by Roman and the JACK Quartet.

With its complex and vivid musical storytelling, Tornado depicts the fear and destruction that tornadoes bring while also capturing their wild beauty. Tender and playful pastoral melodies repeatedly give way to sinister, driving motifs and unsettling dissonances. Over time, the thrilling sonic storm builds as the quintet begins plucking, scratching, and striking the strings. Some parts of the performance are even left up to chance, with aleatoric writing and microtone smears gesturing toward the unpredictability of nature.

We’re thrilled to premiere our video of Joshua Roman and the JACK Quartet performing Roman’s Tornado.

Notorious RBG in Song

by Dacia Clay

Today—that’s August 10, 2018 if you’re reading this from the future world—marks Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s 25th year on the Supreme Court of the United States. In 1993, she became the second woman in history to be confirmed to the court, and since then, she’s been a part of important court decisions on everything from gender equality and same-sex marriage to Bush v. Gore. When the Court gutted the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Ginsburg’s dissenting opinion was so impassioned that she earned the nickname “Notorious RBG” after a college student started a meme on Tumblr.

Patrice Michaels and Ruth Bader Ginsburg at the Glimmerglass Festival, 2016.

Notorious RBG is now the name of a new album of art song released to celebrate Ginsburg’s 25 years with SCOTUS. The album came about organically through a series of family commissions and personal projects. As it turns out, Ginsburg’s son James is the head of Cedille Records, and her daughter-in-law is soprano and composer Patrice Michaels. In this interview, James and Patrice tell the story of how the album came together, and talk about the woman its songs were inspired by.

Snapshots from the Bang on a Can Summer Music Festival

This July Second Inversion’s Maggie Molloy was thrilled to be among four writers covering the Bang on a Can Summer Music Festival as a participant in the first ever Media Workshop! Under the mentorship of John Schaefer (of WNYC’s New Sounds) and Will Robin (writer and musicologist), Maggie wrote five articles for the New Sounds website highlighting unforgettable musical moments from this year’s summer festival. Click the links below to read each installment.

Bang on a Can, Sing through a Vacuum Tube

The world is Mark Stewart’s orchestra, and every pipe, tube, tabletop, and balloon is an untapped vessel just waiting to make beautiful music. Take a step inside Stewart’s Orchestra of Original Instruments. Click here to read more.


Vicky Chow Mesmerizes MASS MoCA (And She’s Just Warming Up)

“Please do not touch or play this piano” reads the sign atop a shiny Yamaha grand standing in the center of the Wardwell Gallery at MASS MoCA. That sign, of course, doesn’t apply to Vicky Chow. Go behind the scenes of her gallery performance of the Philip Glass Piano Etudes. Click here to read more.


Folk Songs from the Bang on a Can Festival

Scottish composer Ailie Robertson loves a good folk tale—and the spookier, the better. Explore the influence of Scottish folk traditions in Robertson’s music through two pieces performed at the Bang on a Can Summer Festival. Click here to read more.


Playing Like a Girl

There are 40,320 different ways to make music like a girl. Or at least, that’s how many ways you can perform Eve Beglarian’s piece Play Like a Girl. The Bang on a Can Fellows performed just one rendition of the piece in an afternoon concert of Beglarian’s music. Click here to read more.


The Celestial Music of Samn Johnson

“There’s something very comforting about music’s ability to manipulate time,” says composer Samn Johnson. Explore the influence of space, time, and the cosmos in Johnson’s music through three of his pieces performed at this summer’s festival. Click here to read more.

Oliver Knussen (1952–2018): Music of New Epiphanies

by Michael Schell

Oliver Knussen’s recent passing occasioned an outpouring of tributes to this much-loved British conductor and composer. His most iconic compositions are two one-act operas based on the Maurice Sendak children’s books Where the Wild Things Are and Higglety Pigglety Pop!. With their Sendak-derived décor and full-body costumes they must be seen to be fully appreciated, and there’s an attractive DVD that offers both. Easier to sample online are his orchestral works, which combine the colorful sound world of early 20th century music with a contemporary approach to time and melody.

Knussen’s Horn Concerto from 1994 is a good example. Written for the great Barry Tuckwell, it begins with some woodwind chirps and string harmonics that sound right out of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. After some flute flurries reminiscent of early Stravinsky, the soloist enters with the most fragmentary of melodic ideas: a three-note trill that gets longer and more discursive—but hardly more substantial—as it recurs throughout the piece. Though the horn plays almost continuously, its lines are rhetorical and assertive, often beginning with repetitions of that little three-note cell in various guises. It’s an obsessive, postmodern approach to melodic line, quite unlike the neat rounded curves you get in a Mozart or Strauss horn concerto. Knussen’s emphasis is on the soundscape itself, almost like a French impressionist ballet that’s had its melodies removed, causing what was previously introductory or accompanimental to be elevated to the foreground.

Knussen’s chromatic chords and luscious orchestrations often suggest Ravel. One example is a passage toward the end of the Concerto that’s reminiscent of the “Pantomime” from Daphnis et Chloé (with a horn swapped for Ravel’s flute). Knussen is one of the most French-sounding of all British composers, and he was an important influence on younger compatriots like Thomas Adès and Charlotte Bray who favor conventional ensembles, enjoy mixing tonal and atonal harmonies, and embrace the French tradition of sensuous, colorful orchestral writing. His US-based counterparts include many of the New Romantics, such as John Harbison and John Corigliano, but also musicians like Chen Yi, whose octet Sparkle resembles Knussen’s Flourish with Fireworks.

If listening to a 19th century concerto is like taking a walk in a familiar neighborhood, then hearing Knussen’s Horn Concerto is like being dropped in a foreign city whose unknown language makes its sights and sounds seem abstract. Sometimes this makes it easier to see the art in previously overlooked details. Knussen’s music is all about the joy in doing just that.

Second Inversion at the Bang on a Can Summer Music Festival!

Second Inversion’s Maggie Molloy is thrilled to be attending the Bang on a Can Summer Music Festival this year as a participant in the festival’s first ever Media Workshop! She will be at MASS MoCA from July 22-29, working alongside three other music journalists under the mentorship of John Schaefer (of WNYC’s New Sounds) and Will Robin (writer and musicologist).

If you see her there, say hello! We are excited for an opportunity to take Second Inversion to the opposite coast and connect in person with composers and new music-makers from around the world. Maggie will be attending rehearsals and concerts throughout the festival and would love the chance to talk with you about new music and upcoming projects. She’ll also be armed with free Second Inversion swag, so be sure to grab a magnet or pin when you see her!

Plus, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram for summer music updates from North Adams, Massachusetts. See you at the festival!