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!

Seattle New Music Summer Potluck

by Maggie Molloy

Join us on August 7 at Volunteer Park for a special SUMMER EDITION of our monthly new music meetups!

On Tuesday, August 7 from 5:30-7:30pm, Second Inversion and the Live Music Project are hosting a potluck for new music enthusiasts to come together, create connections, and strengthen Seattle’s ever-growing network of artists and musicians. Click here to RSVP on Facebook and invite other friends, musicians, composers, and curious listeners.

Please bring a treat or snack to share with the rest of the group (no alcohol allowed). Instruments are welcome and encouraged! Plates, cups, napkins, and utensils will be provided. This event is all ages, and children are welcome. 

The potluck will be located near 15th Ave E & E Galer St., on the grass across the road from the playground. Click here to access the map, or view the location below. 

See you August 7! Don’t forget to sign up for alerts for future events and day-before reminders so you never miss a new music meetup.


Please note that the use of alcohol, cannabis, and illegal drugs is prohibited in Seattle parks. These items will not be allowed at the potluck.

 

Dieter Schnebel (1930–2018): Radical Reverential Music

by Michael Schell

Photo by Peter Andersen.

With the passing of Dieter Schnebel on May 20, Germany lost one of its last links to the post-WW2 generation of composers who built a new paradigm of music after the old ideas had been pulverized beneath the wreckage of war, fascism, and genocide. As a student of the famous Darmstadt Summer Courses for New Music, Schnebel eagerly soaked up the influence of his fellow students Nono, Kagel, and Stockhausen, as well as their spiritual predecessors Ives, Webern, and Varèse. Like many of his contemporaries, he was also deeply influenced by John Cage, and went on to experiment with indeterminate and graphic notation, distribution of sound sources in space, extended vocal and instrumental techniques, and theatrics of the sort that North Americans often associate with happenings and performance art.

But Schnebel didn’t always follow the script of the stereotypical European avant-gardist. For one thing, he earned degrees in both music and theology, eventually teaching both subjects and becoming an ordained Lutheran minister. And in contrast with the reputation of some composers as vain and temperamental, Schnebel exuded a gentle, collaborative personality that displayed little trace of Stockhausen-sized ego or Partch-sized shoulder chips.

These traits seem to define Schnebel’s oeuvre from its very beginnings. The short piece dt 316 (completed in 1958) is a humble attempt to articulate a modern religious sensibility using the methods of modern music. Written for 15 voices dispersed throughout the performance space, its title refers to Deuteronomy 31:6 (“Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because the Lord goes with you, and will never leave nor forsake you.”). Fragments of that verse are sung, spoken, and whispered both in ancient Hebrew and in various translations. Don’t worry if you can’t make out the words though—Schnebel treats the text almost as a found object, preferring to highlight the transcendent, mystical side of scripture. As he puts it “in the course of the piece, language becomes music and music becomes language.”

dt 316 is the first piece in a trilogy of a cappella sacred works. The second piece is entitled amn (the vowelless Hebrew rendering of “amen”). This work is longer, about 15 minutes in the linked performance (it starts at 33:24 in the video). This time the text comes from the Lord’s Prayer, once again rendered in multiple languages and sometimes paraphrased. Apart from a few coordinated outbursts (like the one in this score excerpt that corresponds to 42:43 in the video), the 16 solo voices proceed independently in a way that suggests the private nature of personal prayer. Indeed the variety of idioms and vocal techniques heard in the piece suggests an assembly of people from diverse cultures and nations, consistent with the universalist ideals of the Lutheran faith.

Such devotion to exploring the full range of human vocal expression can easily lead a composer toward theater, and Schnebel indeed went on to pioneer a hybrid of new music and theatrics that is still influential today. The video linked above is a good sampling. In its use of nonsense syllables, moving sound sources, and strange hand gestures and choreography, it shows the influence of Schnebel’s friend Mauricio Kagel, but also connects with the work of like-minded American contemporaries such as Kenneth Gaburo. Efforts like this helped pave the way for such postmodern classics as Ligeti’s Aventures and Nouvelles Aventures, the new music theater of Meredith Monk and pieces like Mark Applebaum’s Aphasia.

Schnebel’s theatrics also had an occasional whimsical side. Do you participate in a sport where the players wear special headgear? So do these singers. Do you wish that a cello could play sustained chords? Try a special curved bow. Do you prefer riding your Harley-Davidson to attending prim and proper concerts? So do these people:

In the 1970s Schnebel developed an interest in collage-quotation music, one of the quintessential styles of musical postmodernism. His collection Re-Visionen takes a fresh look at several Central European warhorses from the 18th and 19th centuries. Some of them (such as his setting of Contrapunctus I from Bach’s Musical Offering) are straightforward arrangements of the original. Others might remind you of the Swingle Singers in their heyday. The most admired movement is the Schubert-Phantasie, which sounds like an orchestral acid trip with Schubert’s late and poignant G major Piano Sonata playing on a nearby stereo. It was written for the 150th anniversary of Schubert’s death in 1978:

These days a piece like Schubert-Phantasie might be called a “remix.” Either way, it’s a clear precedent for two much newer Schubert homages that have been featured at Second Inversion: Eric Wubbels’ Gretchen am Spinnrade and Vladimir Martynov’s Schubert-Quintet (Unfinished).

Schnebel’s music took a more contemplative turn in his old age, as evidenced by a pair of string quartets that were recorded by Quatuor Diotima. The beautiful String Quartet “Im Raum” (“in space”) from 2006 sounds like the satisfied musings of an old man near the end of a fulfilling life. The texture is slow and sparse, punctuated by several musical quotes, most notably the plaintive beginning of Stravinsky’s Orpheus and the similar-sounding opening of Bruckner’s Fifth Symphony. In a live performance there are elaborate instructions for how the performers should move on stage, which explains both the title and the footsteps you hear in the last movement.

In the Second String Quartet (2000–07) two actors join the quartet, reciting numbers and occasional snippets of text in German and English. It reminds me of Crumb’s Black Angels (without the amplification) and Stockhausen’s Helicopter String Quartet (without the helicopters), but it also belies the notion that intellectual Germans can’t write sensual and playful music. Unusually for Schnebel, the music is often beat-driven, with melodic fragments and little repeating riffs emerging from the instruments. But more characteristically, it explores the full range of associations from abstraction to meaning, and even incorporates musical quotations too, including the familiar Tristan chord, which rears its head in the second movement.

Even as he entered his 80s, Schnebel stayed active, still exploring, still fascinated by the voice and the sacramental connotations of theatricalized performance. One of his last works is a ritualistic setting of Molly Bloom’s soliloquy from Joyce’s Ulysses. It seems fitting that the coda of Schnebel’s career should come from the coda of the 20th century’s most exemplary literary work.

Schnebel with John Cage ca. 1979 (via Croatian Society of Composers).

Though Schnebel’s aesthetic and philosophical interests remained fairly consistent throughout his career, any survey of his work reveals that the music itself varies greatly from one composition to another. This is partly the result of his penchant for graphic and text-based scores, but he also seemed eager to avoid repeating himself. “You ask whether I have a style? I hope I don’t. I would like my pieces to have been born each in its own manner—for each to have a style of its own.”

Can one reconcile this eclecticism with the constancy expected of a Christian clergyman? According to his colleague Godfried-Willem Raes, Schnebel “was not very church minded, and I think his idea of god was rather abstract, certainly not prescriptive. However, he believed in the meaning of rituals.” Perhaps the variety that Schnebel sought in his own music expresses a concept of God as embodying the multiplicity of the world and the cosmos. And perhaps Schnebel’s lifelong interest in ritualized performance expresses a human awe and reverence for that same multiplicity.

Second Inversion’s 24-Hour Star-Spangled Marathon

by  Maggie Molloy

This Fourth of July, Second Inversion is celebrating the history of American musical innovation. Tune in all day long on July 4 for our 24-hour Star-Spangled Marathon, featuring American composers across history.

Throughout the day we’ll take you from the spiritual fantasias of Florence Beatrice Price to the jazzy rhapsodies of George Gershwin, from the musical nuts and bolts of John Cage to the tape experiments of Pauline Oliveros—from the minimalist musings of Philip Glass to the spacious landscapes of John Luther Adams, the avant-jazz stylings of Don Byron, the musical tapestries of Gabriela Lena Frank, and far beyond.

This Fourth of July, we’re celebrating the history of American music in all of its sparkling diversity, from sea to shining sea. Click here to tune in.

Plus, discover our hosts’ favorite musical selections from the marathon below.

Florence Beatrice Price: Fantasie Negre (Sono Luminus)
Lara Downes, piano

Fantasie Negre is such a cool piece, a fascinating mix of romantic era Western European influence and African American spiritual—it’s almost as if Liszt visited the American South and immediately rushed to a piano to interpret the melodies he heard. Fantastic gospel-like moments seep through dazzling displays of technique. It’s even more impressive when you think about all the things Price had to overcome just to compose: a black woman born in Little Rock, Arkansas, she attended New England Conservatory in 1906 but had to pass as Mexican in order to avoid abuse. Though she returned to Arkansas and married, she moved her family to Chicago to flee lynchings; her husband eventually became abusive and she filed for divorce, a rare step for a woman of her time. Despite these difficulties, her prodigious talent produced 300 works in her lifetime.
 Geoffrey Larson

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 12pm hour on July 4 to hear this piece.


Steve Reich: Come Out (Nonesuch)
Daniel Hamm, voice

In 1966, Steve Reich took a four-second audio clip and spun it into one of the most harrowing musical works of the 20th century. Come Out takes as its basis a mere scrap from an analog tape interview of Daniel Hamm, a black teenager who was wrongfully arrested for murder in 1964 (one of what would come to be known as the Harlem Six). In the clip, Hamm describes the horrific police brutality he faced behind bars. But the police would not take him to the hospital unless he was bleeding—so he ripped open one of his bruises and “let some of the bruise blood come out to show them.”

Come out to show them. Reich gradually loops, phases, and transforms these words beyond recognition over the course of 13 minutes, transporting the listener beyond language and into the dizzying and devastating reality of the situation at hand. Over 50 years later, we find ourselves still spinning in the same tape loop, Hamm’s words still echoing in the race relations of today. – Maggie Molloy

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 3pm hour on July 4 to hear this piece.


John Luther Adams: Dream in White on White (New Albion)
Barbara Chapman, harp; Apollo Quartet and Strings

Many artists have long recognized that one of the United States’ most powerful attributes is its natural landscape and the massive scale thereof. However, this essential characteristic of the country has been something that many American composers have neglected (or at least struggled) to incorporate effectively into their music, focusing instead on human-centric cultural or traditional elements.

John Luther Adams breaks that mold, using the beauty, power, complexity, and scale of the American landscape itself as the inspiration for much of his work. Going further, Adams lived in Alaska, that state that perhaps best encapsulates the awesome power of the American landscape, for many years. He has managed to forge a unique and engrossing musical language that transports listeners to mountaintops, ocean shores, and glacial snowfields. – Seth Tompkins

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 6pm hour on July 4 to hear this piece.


Nico Muhly: Mothertongue (Bedroom Community)

Nico Muhly is an American contemporary composer whose mission is to gnaw at the edges of classical & rock/pop. Mothertongue is a fun example of how he melds genres, combining the intimacy and beauty of chamber music with a conceptual pastiche that adds fidgety energy to the mix. In the first movement, “Archive,” Muhly accomplishes this by incorporating the beauty of Abby Fischer’s voice speak-singing a jumble of numbers and places which, turns out, are all addresses where Muhly & Fischer have lived.

In “Hress,” the frenetic third movement, found sounds (pouring coffee, crunching cereal, etc.) create a morning routine. Don’t expect “Hress” to evoke a lazy Sunday sunrise, though. As the music picks up it’s clear these are the sounds of someone either hungover or extremely jet-legged going through the motions to get out the door and on with the day. Mothertongue proves Muhly has a knack for finding the sweet spot between concept and emotional connection; he’s corroding classical boundaries and inviting the next generation to explore his musical Pangaea. – Rachele Hales

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 9pm hour on July 4 to hear this piece.


Amir ElSaffar: Shards of Memory/B Half Flat Fantasy

I love this music! I’ve never heard anything like it. ElSaffar has fused together a lot of different musical traditions in this, but what stands out to me most are the jazz and the Middle Eastern sounds. ElSaffar is the child of an Iraqi immigrant and an American. He was born outside of Chicago, and grew up listening to his dad’s jazz collection. His first musical training was in a Lutheran church choir. Iraqi music came later for him—in 2001 he used the money he got from winning a jazz trumpet competition in to go to Iraq and study something called maqam music, and he spent the next five years studying with Iraqi masters in the Middle East and Europe. Anyway, I love how these traditions come together in his music so effortlessly to make something new. – Dacia Clay

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 11pm hour on July 4 to hear this piece.

VIDEO PREMIERE: Third Coast Percussion’s Paddle to the Sea (Act II)

by Maggie Molloy

Third Coast Percussion performs an entire ocean of sounds in their new film score for the 1966 classic Paddle to the Sea. From skittering wood blocks to water-filled wine glasses, each instrument adds its own unique shimmer to the sound of the sea.

We’re thrilled to premiere a video of the group performing Act II of their original score, which was co-commissioned by Meany Center for the Performing Arts and performed there earlier this year.

(Click here to watch our video for Act I, which we premiered in May 2018.)

The Oscar-nominated film Paddle to the Sea is based on Holling C. Holling’s 1941 children’s book of the same name, which follows the epic journey of a small wooden boat that is carved and launched by a young Native Canadian boy.

“I am Paddle to the Sea” he inscribes on the bottom of the boat. “Please put me back in the water.”

Over the course of the film, the boat travels for many years from Northern Ontario through the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Seaway out to the Atlantic Ocean and far beyond—and each time it washes ashore, a kind stranger places it back in the water.

Third Coast’s new film score (recently released as an album on Cedille Records) is inspired by and interspersed with music by Philip Glass and Jacob Druckman, along with traditional music of the Shona people of Zimbabwe. All of the music in the score is inspired by water, with Third Coast performing an array of sounds ranging from pitched desk bells to bowls of water, glass bottles, sandpaper, and one particularly special instrument: the mbira.

The mbira is a thumb piano that plays a leading role in the Shona music from Zimbabwe. In fact, one of the pieces on the album, Chigwaya, is a traditional song used to call water spirits in the Shona religion—a song which was taught to Third Coast by their mentor Musekiwa Chingodza. By incorporating elements of their Western classical training with their study of the traditional music of the Shona people, Third Coast weaves together their own epic musical journey.

And in the spirit of Holling’s original story, the music itself becomes the small wooden boat: rather than keep it for themselves, the musicians add what they can and send the story out into the world again for others to discover.


Third Coast Percussion’s Paddle to the Sea is now available on Cedille Records. Click here to purchase the album.

Renee Baker: When Two Close Kindred Meet

Article by Gabriela Tedeschi
Audio interview by Dacia Clay

The celebrated, multi-talented composer Renee Baker is joining Kin of the Moon this Saturday for When Two Close Kindred Meet, a concert featuring the world premiere of Baker’s Tyaga: Divine Life Suite.

Structured around the four stages of life in the Hindu faith, Tyaga guides performers in improvisation by allowing them to respond to a variety of media: graphic notation, original paintings, and other printed media. This kind of outside-the-box approach to music is standard for Baker, who is known for her unique notation techniques and innovating by combining multiple art forms. Serving as conductor, too, Baker uses her own system of highly expressive gestures to lead the musicians and give shape to Tyaga.

Renee is after a charged, soloistic, intuitive, committed, take-no-prisoners, uncompromising approach to sound-making,” Kin of the Moon violist and co-director Heather Bentley said. “Renee’s ideas and insights about what new music is and can be are monumental.”

Baker is also co-hosting a film screening this Thursday with the Northwest Film Forum at the Seattle Public Library in Downtown Seattle. She’s presenting two films, one of her own and one by Oscar Mischeaux, both of which she has scored with the Chicago Modern Orchestra Project, a chamber ensemble she directs.

Second Inversion’s Dacia Clay speaks with Baker about her Seattle film screenings, the world premiere of Tyaga, and her wide-ranging musical career. Listen to the full interview below.


Renee Baker presents two film screenings this Thursday, June 14 at 6:30pm at the Seattle Public Library in Downtown Seattle. For more information, click here.

Kin of the Moon premieres Renee Baker’s Tyaga this Saturday, June 16 at 8pm at the Chapel Performance Space in Wallingford. For more information, click here.