ALBUM REVIEW: Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s ‘AEQUA’

by Gabriela Tedeschi

Photo by Saga Sigurdardottir.

Anna Thorvaldsdottir treats each of her works as an ecosystem. Musical materials—motifs, harmonies, textures—are passed from performer to performer through her pieces, constantly developing and transforming. Like different species in an ecosystem, these elements sometimes coexist peacefully and sometimes compete or clash.

In her new album AEQUA, Thorvaldsdottir works with performers from the renowned International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) to create a variety of musical ecosystems of different sizes, featuring both large and small chamber ensembles. The album captures the beautiful chaos of the natural world, the individual voices evolving and intertwining across each piece.

AEQUA’s small ensemble works—“Spectra,” “Sequences,” “Reflections,” and “Fields”—are characterized by the integration of slow, lyrical string melodies into dense, unwieldy sound worlds. As the materials are passed around the ecosystem of instruments, the melodies—calm and plaintive—rise to prominence in some moments and at others descend into the eerie whirl of sound created by sustained, clashing harmonies, percussive bursts, and darker permutations of the melody itself.

There is a constant ebb and flow throughout the chamber works as the performers crescendo, then decrescendo, join in energetically all at once to form an intricate texture, then fade away to leave only a gentle melody or quiet sustained tone. This consistent pattern of rising and falling intensity gives a cyclic quality to the pieces, as though the musical ecosystem is transforming across life cycles and seasons.

The circle effect is also used in Thorvaldsdottir’s large ensemble works, “Aequilibria” and “Illumine.” Running chromatic motifs create wild spirals of sound, the cyclic rise and fall unfolding rapidly and with greater intensity. There are moments of calm when the chaotic texture gives way to lyrical melodies and gentle sustained tones, but forceful percussion and chromatic outbursts quickly interrupt the peace.

The album’s only solo piece, “Scrape,” performed by ICE pianist Cory Smythe, manages to capture this complex interplay of different species in an ecosystem with just one instrument. While the piece is largely situated in the lower register of the piano with heavy, thudding rhythms and a rich, dark timbre, there are clear, piercing runs in the higher register that interrupt and play off of the low sounds. Moments of silence are incorporated, building anticipation for the looming rise in intensity and playing into the cyclical nature of AEQUA.

In its own way, each piece on the album feels as though you’re walking through the forest or staring into the depths of the ocean, observing the peaceful and violent ways creatures and plants coexist. The complex interplay of melodies, harmonies, and rhythms as they develop—both working together and clashing—creates a kind of beauty that, like the natural world, is at times unsettling and overwhelming, but endlessly captivating.

Phil Kline’s ‘Unsilent Night’ Rings Twice this Season in Puget Sound

by Maggie Molloy

Whether you’re the world’s biggest Santa-fan, a grouchy Ebenezer Scrooge, or even just an avant-garde enthusiast looking to expand your holiday music horizons, Phil Kline’s got just the carol for you—and you’ve got two chances to experience it this year in the Puget Sound region.

Kline’s Unsilent Night is a contemporary twist on holiday caroling that is celebrated annually around the globe. But don’t worry, there’s no singing involved. In true 21st century fashion, all you have to do is download an app.

This nontraditional holiday carol is an electronic composition written specifically for outdoor performance in December. Audience members each download one of four tracks of music which, when played together, comprise the ethereal Unsilent Night.

Countless participants meet up with boomboxes, speakers, or any other type of portable amplifiers and each hit “play” at the same time. Then they walk through the city streets creating an ambient, aleatoric sound sculpture that is unlike any Christmas carol you have ever heard.


Phil Kline’s Unsilent Night takes place in Seattle this Friday, Dec. 14 starting at 6pm at Cornish College of the Arts’ Kerry Hall. Click here for more information.

The Tacoma rendition is Friday, Dec. 21 starting at 6:30pm at Mason United Methodist Church. Click here for more information.

Duo Noire: Revolution Classical Style Now

by Dacia Clay

Christopher Mallett (left) and Thomas Flippin (right). Photo by John Rogers.

Duo Noire is made up of two dudes—Thomas Flippin and Christopher Mallett—but their new album is made up entirely of female composers’ music.

As the story goes, way back in 2015, before the #MeToo movement, Thomas’s wife, Rev. Vicki Flippin brought his attention to issues she was having at work. Around that same time, a major classical guitar society came out with their season announcement—and not a single woman on the program.

“I could not believe it,” Flippin said. “I guess you could say that it was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I was just like, I can’t believe it’s 2015, Obama’s been elected, and someone green-lighted them playing this season of all men playing all male music.”

That’s when the idea for Duo Noire’s latest album, Night Triptych, was born. Not only did Flippin and Mallett, the first African-American guitarists to graduate from the Yale School of Music, commission works by exclusively women for their new album—they also made sure to include women from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds. Hear the rest of the album’s story, and the story of how the two former SoCal punk rock guitarists came to do what they do today.

New Music Magic: Our Top Concert Picks for December

Frequency performs Dec. 9 at the Royal Room.

by Maggie Molloy

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Second Inversion and the Live Music Project create a monthly calendar featuring contemporary classical, cross-genre, and experimental performances in Seattle, the Eastside, Tacoma, and places in between! 

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Keep an eye out for our flyer in concert programs and coffee shops around town. If you’d like to be included on this list, please submit your event to the Live Music Project at least six weeks prior to the event and tag it with “new music.”

 

Wayward Music Series
Concerts of contemporary composition, free improvisation, electroacoustic music, and sonic experiments. This month: marimba duos, MIDI accordions, Japanese koto, and modular synths.
Various days, 7:30/8pm, Good Shepherd Chapel | $5-$15

UW Modern Music Ensemble: Webern, Cage, & Neuwirth
In Greek mythology, the satyr Marsyas was a great musician who challenged Apollo to a musical duel—and was flayed alive when he lost. The dramatic tale is the inspiration behind Olga Neuwirth’s Marsyas II, which is performed here by the UW Modern Music Ensemble alongside works by Webern, Cage, Feldman, and Penderecki.
Wed, 12/5, 7:30pm, UW Brechemin Auditorium | FREE

The Esoterics: ADŌRŌ
Seattle’s contemporary choral group performs a concert of works examining the solace, spirituality, and silent prayers present in nature. A song cycle by Joseph Gregorio sets John Gould Fletcher’s “secular humanist” prayers to music, while Mason Bates’ Observer in the Magellanic Cloud is based on an ancient Maori entreaty to the night sky for a fruitful harvest. Ethereal works by Eric Banks, Donald Skirvin, Christina Whitten Thomas, and Karin Rehnqvist complete the program.
Fri, 12/7, 8pm, St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church (Seattle) | $15-$22
Sat, 12/8, 8pm, Holy Rosary Catholic Church (West Seattle) | $15-$22
Sun, 12/9, 3pm, St. John’s Episcopal Church (Olympia) | $15-$22

Sno-King Community Chorale: Holiday Magic
Setting an English translation of a Norwegian medieval folk poem, Ola Gjeilo’s Dreamweaver tells the musical tale of a man who falls asleep on Christmas Eve and sleeps until the twelfth day of Christmas. When he wakes, he rides to church to tell the congregation of his dreams and his journey through the afterlife.
Sat, 12/8, 3pm & 7pm, Nordic Museum | $15-$22

Frequency at the Royal Room
This dream string trio of Michael Jinsoo Lim, Melia Watras, and Saeunn Thorsteinsdottir lend their bows to music by Bloch, Klein, Kodály, and Watras in the relaxed, laid-back atmosphere of the Royal Room.
Sun, 12/9, 5:30pm, The Royal Room | $15

Phil Kline’s ‘Unsilent Night’
In this contemporary twist on holiday caroling, audience members each download one of four tracks of music which, when played together, comprise Phil Kline’s ethereal Unsilent Night. Participants meet up with boomboxes and speakers and each hit “play” at the same time—then walk through the streets of Tacoma creating an ambient, aleatoric sound sculpture.
Fri, 12/14, 6pm, Cornish College of the Arts’ Kerry Hall | FREE
Fri, 12/21, 6:30pm, Mason United Methodist Church (Tacoma) | FREE

Led to Sea & Betsy Olson Band
Drawing from classical, pop, and experimental music worlds, violinist and singer Alex Guy weaves together her own unique brand of chamber pop under the alias Led to Sea. Her trio splits the evening with the blues-based rockers of the Betsy Olson band.
Sat, 12/15, 8pm, The Royal Room | $10-$12

Neal Kosaly-Meyer: Finnegans Wake, Part I, Chapter 5
Though most might consider James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake a work of literature, Seattle-based pianist and avant-gardist Neal Kosaly-Meyer hears music in the words. He’s dedicating 17 years to learning and performing (by memory) each chapter of the sprawling work—one chapter per year. This year is Chapter 5, performed as always with props, costume, sound and lighting design, and acute musical detail.
Sat, 12/15, 8pm, Good Shepherd Center | $5-$15

Electronic Blankets for Winter Solstice
Pacific Northwest sound and visual artists christen the winter solstice with an experimental electronic music showcase featuring borscht soup, auditory hallucinations, planetary chasms, warm drones, glitch portals, and distant raves.
Fri, 12/21, 7pm, Good Shepherd Center | $5-$15

New Series One & Matrio
With influences ranging from Olivier Messiaen to the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Matrio creates set-long experiences that explore the space between sound and noise, music and silence. They’re joined by New Series One, a group exploring the roots of jazz and folk music.
Sat, 12/27, 8pm, Good Shepherd Center | $5-$15

VIDEO PREMIERE: ‘Fields’ by Anna Thorvaldsdottir ft. ICE

by Maggie Molloy

Anna Thorvaldsdottir finds inspiration in nature—her music is its own ecosystem, the nuanced textures shared, traded, and transformed among individual instruments over the course of her works.

You won’t hear any birds chirping or water splashing in this sonic ecosystem, but you will hear the full subtleties of timbre, the complex interplay of voices, the way the music expands and contracts, breathing and humming and vibrating like the earth.

That notion of seismic balance is at the heart of Thorvaldsdottir’s newest album AEQUA, a constellation of chamber works (plus one solo piano piece) that explore shimmering nuances of sound. Her delicately textured compositions are brought to life by the International Contemporary Ensemble with conductor Steven Schick.

We are thrilled to premiere the video for the album’s closing track Fields, featuring a mixture of footage taken by Sono Luminus CEO Collin Rae and Thorvaldsdottir’s husband Hrafn Asgeirsson, woven together and edited by Allison Noah.


Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s AEQUA is out now on Sono Luminus. Click here to learn more and purchase the album.

Drumming Up New Music with Michael Compitello

by Michael Compitello

Michael Compitello. Photo by Matt Dine.

I’m a musician whose mission is to advocate for the efficacy of contemporary music in contemporary society. Whether with my cello/percussion duo New Morse Code, as a soloist, at Avaloch Farm Music Institute (where I am Assistant Director), or as Assistant Professor of Percussion at the University of Kansas, my goal is to build community through and around the arts.

Commissioning and incubating new works from dynamic composers is at the core of my work. I work collaboratively with composers whose music I admire and whose friendship I value. Typically, we brainstorm ideas together and workshop material in the process of being composed, allowing me to have more of a creative voice in new works than I might otherwise.

To that end, I’m excited to announce Unsnared Drum, a new project dedicated to pushing the limit of what’s possible with the snare drum. Over the next year, four of my favorite composers—Nina C. Young, Hannah Lash, Tonia Ko, and Amy Beth Kirsten—will collaborate with me on new works for snare drum solo with or without electronics or video.  These four composers will expand the expressive potential of this underutilized instrument through dramatic, sensitive, creative, and multimedia solos.  In the process, we will change the way that people think about, listen to, perform, and practice the snare drum.

As we work together, we will post video and audio of our explorations, written reflections of our work together, and all sorts of snare drum-related miscellany which you can follow on my website, Instagram, and Facebook. Thanks to Vic Firth, each of the composers will have an assortment of sticks, mallets, and other implements with which to experiment as they write. I’m also grateful for the support of Pearl Drums, whose drums the composers will be exploring over the next year.  

Amy Kirsten: Screenplay

Last July, Amy Kirsten and I began working on her portion of Unsnared Drum at Avaloch Farm Music Institute. Amy and I have known one another since our days at the Peabody Conservatory, and I’ve loved he work since she drafted me to play percussion in the first performance of her Ophelia Forever.  She’s a composer, director, singer, writer, visual artist (and a lot more) who highlights the theater present in music performance. Whether it’s a piece for concert programs or a fully staged production, Amy’s music is gripping, full of melodic invention, otherworldly sounds, and hypnotic rhythms. (Do yourself a favor and check out Columbine’s Paradise TheaterQuixoteand Savior.

Amy Kirsten. Photo by Gennadi Novash.

 Amy is also Co-Founder and Co-Managing Director of HOWL, a collaborative arts ensemble which Amy calls “equal parts storefront theatre, opera company, and grotesque chamber ensemble.” Bringing together artists from across disciplines, HOWL builds integrative, innovative, and unclassifiable new works that defy expectations of genre and medium alike.

HOWL is representative of Amy’s creative process, and a big part of why I wanted to work with her again.  How better to create a boundary-pushing work for a fairly type-cast percussion instrument than by going big?  At the same time, Amy’s process matches very well my collaborative ideal.  She develops most of her new work through workshop sessions which generate and refine ideas and structures.  As a result, her music draws upon the unique skills of the performers with whom she works and turns her interpreters into advocates.

Our Work

Amy’s overarching goal for our time together was to create a mockup of a piece as a feasibility test and proof of concept.  Her initial idea for Screenplay features a single live performer flanked by two life-sized pre-recorded video versions of himself, creating a trio for snare drums.

Amy had two inspirations for our work together.  First, she was taken by the virtuosic interaction between live performer and video in Michel van der Aa’s Blank Out. In van der Aa’s opera, the typical roles of pre-recorded video and live performers are inverted. A single live performer is (spoiler alert) the memory of a child’s deceased mother, and the part of the now-adult child is played by a pre-recorded singer displayed on a 3D screen.  The piece has some wonderful tricks—performers handing objects between the video screen and the stage, and a wrenching trio between the mother and two digital doppelgängers.  Amy was taken with the way in which van der Aa makes the digital images indispensable to the narrative.  In Screenplay, she wants to highlight the intimacy of musical interaction by giving me chamber music to play with myself.

Amy was also inspired by the capability of percussive sound to surprise and shock us. Near the end of each movement in David Lang’s the so-called laws of nature, Lang introduces a shocking new timbre, made more surprising by these unexpected sounds’ synchronicity between players. Similarly, in Thierry de Mey’s Silence Must Be!, a silent introduction is shattered by the introduction of sound miraculously synced with the gestures of the performer. In Screenplay, Amy wants to experiment with synchronizing sound with gesture, and how surprising gestures can inflect the structure of a piece.

Experimenting and Cultivating

With these ideas in mind we devoted our first session to improvisation as a way to explore as many surprising and unique sounds as we could.  For us, this meant exploring techniques and sounds which strayed as far from drumsticks striking a head as possible. Amy is a phenomenal singer, and in our improvising, we looked for ways to make the drum breathe, sigh, and shape a phrase as vocally as possible.

In her stage drama Quixote, Amy asks a percussion quartet to activate tuning forks by striking them against soft rubber objects (a free weight with neoprene covering) then touch the two prongs against a drum, piece of paper, altos tin, or any other sound-making object. The resulting buzz is haunting: full of pitch, but ghastly.  We explored this technique on the snare drum, playing with upward glissandi created when the prongs are dragged along the edge of the drumhead, creating morse code rhythms across the drum’s head and shell, and touching the prongs to egg carton foam to generate a muted beep.  But the most stunning effect was when we touched the vibrating prongs to the snare wires themselves for a shimmering sound.  We then turned the drum over and used two more tuning forks as shims to lift the snares away from the drumhead. By touching the vibrating prongs to the snare wires, we produced a resonant, shimmering, gong-like tone.

Codifying, Refining, Recording

Our next steps were to categorize the sounds with which we improvised, refine them, and record them.  After our wide-ranging improvisations, Amy and I recorded a series of videos in which I improvised with an individual technique with the intention of layering the results into the two video screens stationed on either side of the live performer.  In the end, our sound categories ranged from tuning forks on drumheads to slowly scraping the snares of an overturned drum.

Inspired by the tight rhythmic connection between visual gesture and sonic result in works like Silence Must Be! and Aphasia, we recorded my lips and hands performing a series of improvised gestures.  While Amy edited our “technique improvisations,” I took the silent films of my hands and mouth and worked to assign snare drum sounds to each gesture.  In the afternoon, we recorded each of these sounds and synced them with the video, creating a set of videos with foley sounds.

By the end of our short time together, Amy had a strong sense that Screenplay was viable, and that the snare drum could sustain sonic and dramatic interest.  While our mockups were crude, we left feeling inspired.

To Video and Beyond

Since last summer, Amy and I have remained in communication about Screenplay’s raison d’etre. Amy has become more and more preoccupied with the video’s purpose. What will separate this piece from a work for three live performers? Can the video be an artistic partner in the piece?  Could it highlight elements of the live performance while making its own artistic statement?  Amy’s ideas seemed to require more than a competent videographer.  We had questions about what was possible, what kinds of approaches could be most effective in live settings.  We needed another collaborator.

I immediately thought of Hannah Wasileski, a projection designer and video artist whose work I adore. Hannah designs projections for theater, opera, and concert performances. What I love about her work is the way in which her images intuitively highlight interesting parts of the music while making their own artistic statement.  I met Hannah at the Yale Cabaret, where she designed and filmed projections for a show I was part of which retold the Orpheus myth.  Since then New Morse Code commissioned a video from Hannah for Robert Honstein’s Unwind, where the slowly moving patterns highlight the gradual unwinding of the patterns in the piece.


So that brings us to where we are now: as Amy and I continue crafting the shapes and sounds of “Screenplay,” we have started working with Hannah to integrate a video component that will bring my digital chamber partners to life.

Our collaboration has resulted in an expansion of the snare drum’s sonic and dramatic potential through intuitive dramatic gestures—exactly what I dreamed for Unsnared Drum.  I cannot wait to share the results!

Musical Chairs: Kerry O’Brien on Classical KING FM

by Maggie Molloy

Kerry O’Brien is a new music expert. Not only is she a percussionist specializing in experimental works—she’s also a musicologist, journalist, and educator.

She’s written about everything from the sonic meditations of Pauline Oliveros to the swinging pendulum of Philip Glass, and her writings have appeared in publications ranging from The New Yorker to The New York Times, NewMusicBox, and The Chicago Reader. She also serves as the Research Director of the Nief-Norf Summer Festival in Knoxville, Tennessee, and has presented her work at music conferences around the country.

Kerry has played a big role in shaping the local Seattle new music scene as well. She currently serves on the music faculty at Cornish College of the Arts, and you may know her as one of the masterminds behind NUMUS Northwest (named after the 1970s new music periodical Numus West).

This Friday, Nov. 16 at 7pm PT, she’s the special guest on Classical KING FM’s Musical Chairs with Mike Brooks. Tune in to hear her share a handful of her favorite recordings and musical memories from across her career.

Tune in at 98.1 FM, listen through our free mobile app, or click here to stream the interview online from anywhere in the world!