Music has a way of transporting us to new and unexpected places. Sometimes, it can even take us out of this world.
If we hop into a spaceship and blast off into the infinite unknown, we might just find there’s even more new music to discover. On this week’s episode of Second Inversion, we’re exploring the music of outer space. Tune in for celestial songs, astronaut anthems, space transmissions, and even some music from the Starman in the sky.
From ocean to desert, forest to tundra, composers have always found music in nature. The rhythm of waves, the rustling of leaves, the song of the mountain—or the colors of the wind.
On this Saturday’s episode of Second Inversion, we’ll explore music of the great outdoors. We’ll hear the pulse of the Amazon River, a duet with the Moab Desert, field recordings from the Pacific Crest Trail, and even music made from living plants.
“I wish I could live in India and America at the same time,” says Reena Esmail, the daughter of Indian immigrants who has become one of the most respected young composers in the United States; “I wish they shared a border, and I could build a little home right in between them. I know I can’t do that in the physical world, but this is where I live every day in my music.”
Esmail’s compositions straddle two of the world’s most sophisticated musical traditions. On one side is the art music of Europe and its system of tonal harmony that developed over the last 400-plus years, and on the other, Hindustani classical music from North India, organized around collections of tones known as raags that go back many centuries further. Studies at the Juilliard School and the Yale School of Music grounded Esmail in the practices of the West’s classical music, including its precise system of notation that allows performers of any background to interpret unfamiliar nuances. As a Fulbright-Nehru Scholar, she was able to spend a year in India studying the classical music of her ancestors, absorbing the oral tradition built on complex patterns and pitches that often can’t be categorized within Western norms.
Writing a Piano Trio has fulfilled one of Esmail’s oldest ambitions as a musician. Growing up as a talented pianist, trios with violin and cello were her favorite form of chamber music, and she won a life-changing competition that resulted in her performing Mendelssohn’s Second Piano Trio with members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. She also counts Ravel’s Piano Trio as an all-time favorite work, noting, “So much of what I’ve learned about color and texture in my writing comes from Ravel.” After three years of work and a pile of sketches that is up to 300 pages and counting (with less that three weeks to go before the premiere), Esmail is still polishing off this substantial score that reckons with the rigorous tradition of the four-movement piano trio.
Authentic raags appear
in each movement of the trio, including the monsoon season raag known
as Megh that informs a chorale from the strings and other
gestures in the first movement. In a tempo marked “Ephemeral,” the smooth modal
phrases and long slurs highlight Esmail’s affinity with Ravel, who also looked
outside the Western canon to expand his shimmering soundscapes. Flutters,
slides and harmonics continue in the slow movement, creating a sense of
improvisatory freedom while the music slips in and out of time.
casting the quivering third movement as a scherzo, Esmail acknowledges her debt
to Mendelssohn (the king of those elfin, lighter-than-air diversions), but
moments of manic hilarity and sheer muscle recall a more subversive master of
the piano trio, Shostakovich. In the finale, a singing string melody supported
by “luminous” piano filigree surges to a droning climax marked “powerful,
broad, intense.” When the unhurried ending arrives with glimmering harmonics
and crystalline chords, this work completes an arc that places it squarely
within the storied lineage of the “classical” piano trio—while making it clear
just how irrelevant such boundaries truly are.
Since its idealistic beginnings in 1987, the Bang on a Can Marathon has attained something of a legendary status among fans and creators of contemporary classical music. With early performances featuring well-loved figures like John Cage, Steve Reich, and Pauline Oliveros alongside music by up-and-coming composers, the yearly marathon has continued to be a welcoming and community-oriented festival that breaks down the barriers between composers, performers, audience, and genre.
Given the circumstances this year, Bang on a Can is livestreaming the yearly marathon this Sunday with over six hours packed with adventurous music of all shapes and sizes. Returning this year is the ever-popular minimalism of Steve Reich and Philip Glass, as well as John Adam’s cinematic China Gates performed by Bang on a Can All-Star pianist Vicky Chow. Also coming your way are performances by genre-defying performers like jazz pianist and composer Vijay Iyer and flautist, vocalist, and composer Nathalie Joachim, whose recent album Fanm d’Ayiti explores music from the women of Haiti.
It’s hard to sum up just how much innovative music is on offer this Sunday, with musicians from around the world and from a wide variety of musical traditions coming together in one back-to-back celebration of sonic experimentation and community. As it’s always done, the Bang on a Can Marathon continues to show that supporting the artists and audiences of new music is a mission that doesn’t stop at the doors of the concert hall.
You can stream the full marathon right here on Sunday, May 3 from 12-6pm PT, 3-9pm ET.
For more details on the Bang on a Can Marathon, including the full performance lineup, click here.
It’s easy to get lost in the immersive sonic landscapes of John Luther Adams. From forest to tundra, ocean to desert, he has a way of evoking the sights and sounds of the natural world in shimmering detail.
In celebration of the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, this Saturday’s episode of Second Inversion is dedicated to one of his most sublime and expansive works: Become Ocean. Get lost in the waves as we hear a full performance of this Pulitzer Prize-winning piece by our own Seattle Symphony—plus, an interview with the composer himself. He talks with us about the intersections of art and environmental activism, the influence of the Alaskan landscape, and the musical precursors to Become Ocean.