A Singer’s Account of György Ligeti’s Requiem

by David Gary

Last week the Seattle Symphony and Chorale presented the Pacific Northwest’s first ever performance of György Ligeti’s ethereal and rarely performed Requiem (1965), conducted by Music Director Ludovic Morlot. This weekend, they’ll present a portion of it again as part of their live performance of Stanley Kubrick’s sci-fi classic 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Perhaps best remembered for his dense harmonies, tone clusters, and micropolyphonic textures, Ligeti was famous for crafting nearly impossible repertoire—and the fact it has taken half a century to mount a Seattle performance of his Requiem is a testament to its difficulty. This musical undertaking was certainly out of the typical chorale wheelhouse and was an audacious selection for the Symphony to perform. As a member of the chorale, I had the opportunity to learn this requiem and will share my experience in doing so.

Looking at the Score for the First Time

The physical score is bulkier than a standard choral scores, elongated both vertically and horizontally by the 20-part chorus notation. As singers, we are typically accustomed to four-part staffs—so it was immediately evident that this was not our standard choral repertoire.

Much of the Introit movement is written with sustained tones with shifts in tonality over quintuplet figures. The intended effect mimics a large crowd murmuring the Latin text of the Requiem Mass. However, the text throughout this movement remains entirely discernable because it is melismatic over so many different parts. (Ligeti’s own instructions call for a distant sound.) For many of us this piece was well outside our comfort zone, so this movement was a pragmatic place to begin breaking into Ligeti’s musical paradigm.

We quickly realized that pitches would not be our main focus throughout our work on the Requiem. Given the short time we had to learn the piece—only about three or four months with multiple other concerts sprinkled in—and the sheer difficulty of the written pitches, our pitch focus was aimed more at staying within certain range clusters and not wandering too far from the tonal core we were looking to find. Because finding pitches was going to prove so difficult, we put much of our initial energy on learning the rhythmic regime of this piece

Unique Musical Challenges

Like many musical undertakings, this piece presented three large challenges: notes, rhythm, and musicality.

Notes: One of the first things we realized was that we would not be able to learn our pitches as they were written. (This is not to say it is an entirely impossible task, but given our time constraints it would have proven impossible.) During the time of composition, Ligeti himself had to retract and edit some of his harmonies because choirs were unable to learn and perform their parts. There are times in the score where a thick black line appears over a vocal part indicating sections where exact pitches can be jettisoned. This is a challenge for any choir who is accustomed to learning and performing exactly what is on page.

Rhythm: This piece was easy to get lost in, so fighting to stay on track in this score was important. For instance, Ligeti subdivides some of his beats over 7 or 9. These unconventional rhythmic figures create an aural effect of dense clouds of quickly moving harmonies—but they are also incredibly difficult to learn and even harder to execute in context. Another challenge of this piece was remaining on your part’s staff within the score. In rehearsals, there were frequent times where upon flipping a page I would shift to a different line without noticing I was singing the wrong part for several measures.

Musicality: Some of the more important musical gestures in the piece have less to do with notes or rhythms than they do with the shaping of a particular phrase to achieve a human (rather than musical) effect. This sometimes proved a bit of a challenge, since many of us as singers are used to having our phrasing guided by melody and word stresses rather than purely visceral emotion.

Presenting the Performance

We had no idea how this piece would be received. For many of us, a piece like this wasn’t exactly the reason we had joined the chorus. Because it was so easy to get lost in the score, performing was a frantic combination of counting, score following, watching our conductor for the count, and finding first pitches. As any performer knows, one does not get on stage to necessarily listen and enjoy the performance but rather to focus in on one’s task as a musician: to present an audience with entertainment and an unforgettable experience. I believe we achieved this goal and helped evoke emotions in the audience that Ligeti strove to encapsulate in this piece.

Though this was an atypical finale for our regular season, I think many of us ultimately found great satisfaction in how this piece was received and the level of admiration bestowed upon presentation. As we move on to our next challenges, we can all agree that as a group our musicianship has been augmented—and I look forward to bringing what I learned from Ligeti to my next musical projects.


David Gary is the Development Coordinator at Classical KING FM 98.1 and a bass in the Seattle Symphony Chorale. The Seattle Symphony and Chorale perform Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey on June 30 and July 1 at 8pm. For tickets and additional information, click here.

LIVE BROADCAST: Town Music Season Finale

by Maggie Molloy

Every end marks a new beginning—and as the 2016-2017 Town Music series comes to a close, artistic director Joshua Roman looks excitedly toward the future with a program of works by living (and thriving!) composers.

For this Wednesday’s season finale, Joshua conducts members of the Seattle Youth Symphony Orchestra as they perform alongside SYSO alums and musical mentors. The wide-ranging program draws from musical traditions old and new, near and far—featuring a tribute to Haydn by Pulitzer Prize-winner Caroline Shaw, the world premiere of a new jazz-inspired work by Gregg Kallor, a tango-infused chamber piece by Osvaldo Golijov, a string homage to Hindustani classical by Reena Esmail, and much more.

Join us as we broadcast the performance LIVE this Wednesday from Town Hall Seattle! Download our app or click here to listen to the broadcast online from anywhere in the world, streaming live on Wednesday, June 21 at 7:30pm PST.

Concert Program:

Caroline Shaw: Entr’acte
Reena Esmail: Teen Murti
Gregg Kallor: A Mouthful of Forevers (World Premiere)

—INTERMISSION—

Osvaldo Golijov: Last Round
Christopher Theofanidis: Visions and Miracles
Jessie Montgomery: Starburst


Town Music’s Every New Beginning concert is Wednesday, June 21 at 7:30pm at Town Hall. Click here for more information, and click here to tune in to Second Inversion’s live broadcast.

György Ligeti’s Musical Odyssey

by Michael Schell

When Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey hit theaters in 1968, it caused quite a stir. Here was a major Hollywood feature film that had no famous actors and very little dialog (indeed none at all during its first and last 25 minutes), a soundtrack built mainly from classical music matched to the imagery with extraordinary symbiosis, and an ambiguous ending that owed more to the aesthetics of experimental cinema than to conventional narrative filmmaking. Although the space age had inspired plenty of science fiction movies, Kubrick’s Odyssey was unique, and it remains so today even on the cusp of its 50th anniversary.

In popular culture, the most iconic music from 2001 seems to be Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra (the first 21 bars anyway), followed by the Blue Danube Waltz and the most degenerate rendition ever of Bicycle Built for Two. But connoisseurs of modern music are drawn to the evocative compositions of György Ligeti (1923–2006) that anchor the film’s monolith and stargate sequences.

With digital projection technology making it easier for traditional concert venues to screen big Hollywood movies, orchestras have begun presenting Kubrick’s classic with live musicians instead of a canned soundtrack—and on June 30 and July 1, Seattle Symphony will do just that, joined by the Seattle Symphony Chorale, Associate Conductor Pablo Rus Broseta, and the vaunted technical crew at Benaroya Hall. Leading up to this will be three concerts June 22-24 featuring the first complete Seattle performances of one of the Ligeti works excerpted in the soundtrack, the Requiem.

After 2001’s release, Ligeti fans quickly embraced it as a landmark for evangelizing his work (“You remember the music in 2001 when the astronaut goes through the stargate? That was Ligeti.”). But it turned out Kubrick had never even contacted Ligeti about the film—and when the composer first saw it, he was furious at the unauthorized use of his compositions. Lawyers eventually worked out the licensing, tempers cooled down, and Kubrick went on to use Ligeti’s music again (this time with the composer’s blessing) in The Shining and Eyes Wide Shut. Meanwhile, 2001 exposed Ligeti’s music to a wide audience, though for better or worse it was now associated with “space music.” But who was this Ligeti fellow anyway, and what was this strange music all about if it wasn’t written specifically for sci-fi flicks?

Early Years

Ligeti was born in Transylvania, a Hungarian-speaking border region that changed nationality twice during his youth (it’s now part of Romania). The family name is Hungarian, accented on the first syllable, and György is pronounced like “George.” A secular Jew of military age during World War II, he defied the odds by avoiding both conscription to the Eastern Front (where hundreds of thousands of Hungarian soldiers died) and deportation to the Nazi death camps (where most of his family perished).

Ligeti came of age musically in the heavily-censored environment of post-War communist Hungary, where contact with contemporary classical music was suppressed, and even a national hero like Bartók was considered dangerously subversive. Most of Ligeti’s music from this time is folkloristic, but his best early composition, the First String Quartet (subtitled Métamorphoses Nocturnes), shows the clear influence of Bartókian modernism, even surreptitiously incorporating a four-note lick from the master’s “decadent” Fourth String Quartet as a recurring ritornello.

In 1956 Soviet tanks brutally suppressed a popular uprising in Hungary, and Ligeti escaped to Vienna, eventually becoming an Austrian citizen. He took advantage of his new freedom to immerse himself in the post-War avant-garde, attending the famous Darmstadt Courses, and getting to know leading European composers like Boulez, Stockhausen, Xenakis, and Penderecki, as well as American figures like John Cage and David Tudor.

Middle Years and Atmospheres

After some experiments with tape music, Ligeti decided that when it came to creating new sounds, conventional instruments playing in unconventional ways could outclass the simple electronic music instruments available at the time. So he created a remarkable series of scores whose exploration of sheer instrumental timbre was unprecedented in Western music.

Atmospheres (from 1961) is perhaps the purest expression of Ligeti’s new aesthetic, in which tone color is elevated to a role equal to or greater in importance than pitch and rhythm. Atmospheres has no recognizable tunes or distinctive rhythms, making it the ideal accompaniment for the entry of 2001 astronaut Dave Bowman into the stargate (a sequence that’s devoid of representational imagery).

Stargate sequence from 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Many listeners whose first exposure to Atmospheres is over the radio or through the soundtrack to 2001 assume that the piece is electronic—but it’s actually written for large orchestra. Ligeti discovered that sustained tone clusters—where all the available chromatic pitches within a specific range are sounded together—diminish one’s sense of definite pitch, leaving behind an impression of pure timbre and register. The piece starts off this way, pianissimo, with the full string section, joined by some horns and woodwinds, holding a chromatic cluster of notes distributed across four and a half octaves. At 4:21 in the above video, the double basses grind out a low cluster that ranges down to the orchestra’s bottommost C.

Rather than coalescing into a chord, this cluster sounds more like a dark pool of color. It soon dissolves into a new sonority, made up of the remaining bowed strings individually sliding stepwise along a narrow range, a technique that Ligeti called micropolyphony. It looks incredibly complicated in the score excerpt—each player’s part is separately notated in 2/2 time with extreme rhythmic precision. But Ligeti’s notation is designed to synchronize the musicians and control the density of the texture without conveying any kind of beat. The effect is that of a slowly moving cloud, like a swarm of insects, with little sense of individually distinguishable line.

Any composer can write a piece like this today, but it was Ligeti who demonstrated how these astonishing sounds could be coaxed out of an ensemble and organized into a new musical language that we now call sonorism.

Aventures

Not all of Ligeti’s music from the 1960s was of the sonorist variety. Aventures and Nouvelles Aventures are closer to the pointillist style common in Europe after World War II, though their craft and invention places them above the pack. Scored for three singers and chamber ensemble, they use no conventional text, only nonsense syllables together with a host of extended vocal techniques, such as the audible breathing at the start of Aventures that’s depicted in the score using triangular note heads:

Poème Symphonique at Benaroya Hall, October 2012 with Ludovic Morlot in the background.

There’s also no explicit libretto, though the singers do seem to be acting out some sort of unspecified comedic drama. Ligeti, like Cage, could deploy humor when he needed to, and that often gave him an edge over his more chronically serious European colleagues. A two-minute electronically filtered excerpt from Aventures accompanies Dave Bowman’s breathing as he walks through his extraterrestrial chambers in the final scene of 2001.

Ligeti’s sense of humor also comes out in a few unabashed “joke” pieces, like the Poème Symphonique for 100 metronomes. Ligeti unveiled it in 1962 as a bit of Fluxus levity, but the gradually decaying clatter of the mechanical devices had its serious side which found expression later in several rhythmically driven “metronome” pieces, such as the third movement of the Second String Quartet, a landmark of the 20th century quartet repertory that applies sonorism to the intimate sphere of chamber music.

Requiem and Lux Aeterna

Ligeti’s Requiem (completed in 1965) combines his sonorist and pointillist styles into a single epic work for large choir and orchestra and two solo female voices. It’s arguably one of the three greatest 20th century Requiem settings, along with Britten’s War Requiem and Stravinsky’s Requiem Canticles (all written in the 1960s by non-Catholics). The fact that it has taken half a century to mount a performance of it in Seattle is testament to its difficulty.

The opening introit, Requiem æternam dona eis Domine, is in the style of Atmospheres. The dynamic range is from soft (p) to extraordinarily soft (pppp), and except for the line exaudi orationem meam (“hear my prayer”) growled by the basses midway through, the movement progresses gradually upward from bass to treble clusters—an obvious metaphor for ascension. At about five minutes in comes the last line, et lux perpetua luceat eis (“and may everlasting light shine upon them”), where Ligeti brings in a bright cluster featuring flutes and string harmonics. It’s like a gentle beam of white light illuminating the afterlife.

The Kyrie appears in 2001’s monolith and stargate sequences. It’s a classic example of micropolyphony that took the composer nine months to write. Ligeti gives groups of choristers distinct entries where they start out in unison (supported by sustained orchestral notes), then fan out in disparate lines whose movement accelerates as their range expands—like a creek that divides into multiple channels as it descends a cascade (click here to see the score). Except for some initial consonants, you can’t really make out any words. Incredibly, the form is very similar to the great choral fugues of Handel and Haydn, but in place of the latter’s triumphalism the effect here is more like a subdued mob of humanity desperately pleading for mercy.

The Dies Irae shifts to the pointillist style of Aventures, but without the latter’s humor (divine justice is serious business!). The crazy leaps in the soloists’ parts have been likened to “the Queen of the Night on acid,” and the accompanying tumult, inspired by Renaissance depictions of the Last Judgment by Memling, Bruegel, Bosch, and Dürer, was aptly described by the composer as “hysterical, hyperdramatic, and unrestrained.”

Pieter Bruegel the Elder: The Last Judgment.

After this ordeal, the closing Lacrimosa prayer functions as something of a release. It begins with a pedal on the orchestra’s lowest C, and progresses through a sound world similar to the introit, but it’s more transparent, with several textures featuring extreme lows and highs with little in the middle. The ending is ambiguous: a high cluster seems to offer illuminating hope, but the last word goes to the bass instruments, as if to reflect a fundamental ambivalence.

Ligeti’s Requiem only sets a portion of the traditional text of the Catholic Mass for the Dead. A few years later, he wrote a separate setting of the closing Lux Aeterna communion for 16 a cappella voices. It’s the last Ligeti piece excerpted in 2001, where it accompanies the moon shuttle sequence, and it resembles the vocal writing in the Requiem’s Kyrie movement, though the lines move more slowly and the texture is more transparent. An interesting detail is that the first half of Lux emphasizes female voices while the latter half emphasizes men’s. Today the work is recognized as one of the classics of postmodern choral music.

Later Years

Ligeti’s sonorist period culminated in 1977 with Le Grand Macabre, his only full length opera. The success of its farcical, surrealist libretto, adapted from a play by Michel de Ghelderode, is still debated. But there’s little debate about the caliber of the music, which is colorful, varied, and unashamed of its voluptuous sound surface.

After Le Grand Macabre Ligeti, like Beethoven, was quiet for a few years before reinventing himself in a third style period that combined avant-garde techniques with more traditional forms. What his middle period music did for timbre, his late music does for rhythm, and one often hears the distilled influence of African indigenous music, American minimalism, and the polymetric player piano studies of Conlon Nancarrow.

Many of Ligeti’s most frequently performed works come from this period, including the Piano Etudes and the Violin Concerto which Augustin Hadelich will perform with Ludovic Morlot and the Seattle Symphony in January 2018.

Ligeti’s last major work was the 2002 Hamburg Concerto for one solo horn, four “natural” (valveless) horns, and orchestra. He contemplated writing a second opera based on Alice in Wonderland, but old age and ill health curtailed his compositional activity. He died in 2006, leaving behind his wife Vera and his son Lukas, himself a noted composer and drummer based in the U.S.

But this hardly scratches the surface of one of 20th century music most resourceful and multi-faceted characters: a cosmopolitan intellectual who taught composition in the local language at universities in Hungary, Germany, Sweden, and the U.S., and who could additionally speak French and Romanian; an atheist Jew who wrote one of the most important Requiems of all time; a gregarious and generous man who spent countless years haunted by the specter of death and evil; and an artist as demanding in his craft as he was daring in his aesthetics, notorious for insisting on precise execution of his meticulous performance directions. He had that in common with Kubrick, who was likewise infamous for his obsessive preparation and endless takes. By the end of their careers, both men were considered by many to be the best in the world at their profession. Perhaps their ultimate affinity was that of a lifetime devoted to perfecting new horizons.

“Dave, I can’t put my finger on it, but I sense something strange about him. He keeps listening to this weird modern music.”


The Seattle Symphony performs Ligeti’s Requiem on June 22-24 and 2001: A Space Odyssey on June 30 and July 1. Click here for tickets and additional information.

Click here for a list of recommended recordings of Ligeti’s music.

Westerlies Go West: Tonight at the Royal Room!

by Maggie Molloy

Photo by Sasha Arutyunova.

The Westerlies are back in the Northwest this week, coming home with new sounds and brand new music to premiere tonight at the Royal Room in Columbia City.

Far from your typical brass band, the Seattle-bred, New York-based quartet is known on both coasts for their bold artistry, impeccable finesse, eclectic musical interpretations, and remarkable versatility. Together, they’ve cultivated an expansive brass quartet repertoire featuring over 50 original compositions as well as adaptations of composers as diverse and wide-ranging as Ives, Ellington, Bartók, Ligeti, and many more.

Comprised of Riley Mulherkar and Zubin Hensler on trumpet with Andy Clausen and Willem de Koch on trombone, the Westerlies grew up together playing music in Seattle under the mentorship of Wayne Horvitz—making their homecoming performance all the more special, as Horvitz is the co-founder and music programmer of the Royal Room.

The Westerlies performing with Wayne Horvitz at the Royal Room. Photo by Daniel Sheehan.

Tonight, you can expect to hear a little jazz, a little classical, some folk, roots, blues, and chamber influences—but no matter what the Westerlies play, the one element that remains constant across all of their music is the warmth, camaraderie, charisma, and humor of four longtime friends.

“Whatever ‘sound’ the Westerlies have stumbled upon is the result of four friends channeling these diverse interests through warm air, buzzing lips and conical brass tubes—with a lot of love and saliva in there too,” said Andy Clausen.

For a sneak preview, check out our in-studio videos of the guys performing works by Charles Ives, Andy Clausen, and Wayne Horvitz:


The Westerlies perform at the Royal Room Thursday, June 15 at 8pm. For tickets and additional information, please click here.

Electroacoustic Operas, Space Odysseys, and More: Summer Music in Seattle

SI_button2Second 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 this flyer in concert programs and coffee shops around town. Feel free to download, print, and distribute it yourself! If you’d like to be included on this list, submit your event to the Live Music Project at least 6 weeks prior to the event and be sure to tag it with “new music.”


June-July 2017 New Music Flyer

Racer Sessions
A weekly showcase of original music with a jam session based on the concepts in the opening presentation.
Every Sunday, 8-10pm, Cafe Racer | FREE

Wayward Music Series
Concerts of contemporary composition, free improvisation, electronic/electroacoustic music, & more.
Various days, 7:30/8pm, Good Shepherd Chapel | $5-$15

Harry Partch Celebration: Works Arranged for Partch’s Instruments
The UW School of Music and the Harry Partch Ensemble, under the direction of Charles Corey, perform three different concerts on the Partch instruments collection, including music by Partch, Lou Harrison, James Tenney, and more.
Wed, 5/31, 7:30pm, Meany Studio Theater | $10
Thurs, 6/1, 7:30pm, Meany Studio Theater | $10
Fri, 6/2, 7:30pm, Meany Studio Theater | $10

Seattle Pacific University: Symphony of Psalms (World Premiere)
In commemoration of SPU’s 125th anniversary, university ensembles perform a new work for choirs and orchestra by SPU Professor Emeritus Dr. Eric Hanson.
Fri, 6/2, 7:30pm, First Free Methodist Church | Free

Kaley Lane Eaton: Lily (World Premiere)
Lily is a brand-new electroacoustic opera by Seattle Composer Kaley Lane Eaton based on the experiences of Eaton’s great-grandmother, an immigrant to the US who fled Europe at the start of the second world war.  Performance includes projected images by Rian Souleles.
Fri, 6/2, 8pm, Good Shepherd Chapel | $5-15

Seattle Modern Orchestra: Mystic Clarinet featuring Carol Robinson
Paris-based clarinetist Carol Robinson joins SMO for works centered around Italian Composer Giacinto Scelsi, including a world premiere composed by SMO Co-Artistic Director Jérémy Jolley.
Sat, 6/3, 8pm, Good Shepherd Chapel | $10-$25

Seattle Symphony: The Merriman Family Young Composers Workshop Concert
Players from Seattle Symphony perform 10 world premieres by composers under the age of 18. Presented in partnership with the Harry Partch Instrumentarium currently in residence at UW, under the direction of Charles Corey.
Mon, 6/5, 7pm, Nordstrom Recital Hall | Free (RSVP encouraged)

Town Music: Every New Beginning (with SYSO)
Curated and conducted by Seattle favorite Joshua Roman, current Seattle Youth Symphony Orchestra members, alumni, and professional mentor artists perform works by a diverse group of living composers, including Pulitzer-winner Caroline Shaw and Gregg Kallor, who contributes a world premiere.  Also broadcast LIVE on Second Inversion.
Wed, 6/21, 7:30pm, Town Hall | $5-$20

Seattle Symphony: Ligeti’s Requiem
Paired with the fifth symphony of Gustav Mahler, the Seattle Symphony and Chorale perform György Ligeti’s Requiem under the baton of Music Director Ludovic Morlot.
Thurs, 6/22, 7:30pm, Benaroya Hall | $37-$122
Fri, 6/23, 8pm, Benaroya Hall | $37-$122
Sat, 6/24, 8pm, Benaroya Hall | $37-$122

Seattle Symphony: 2001: A Space Odyssey LIVE
Join Seattle Symphony for a screening of Kubrick’s masterpiece with the score played live.  The mind-bending classic prominently features György Ligeti’s Atmospheres.
Fri, 6/30, 8pm, Benaroya Hall | $38-$128
Sat, 7/1, 8pm, Benaroya Hall | $38-$128

Seattle Symphony: Helen Grime U.S. Premiere
Alongside works by Felix Mendelssohn and Carl Nielsen, Thomas Dausgaard leads the symphony in the U.S. premiere of Helen Grime’s “Snow” from Two Eardley Pictures, which had its world premiere at BBC Proms last summer.
Thurs, 7/1, 7:30pm, Benaroya Hall | $22-$122
Fri, 7/1, 12pm, Benaroya Hall | $22-$122
Sat, 7/1, 8pm, Benaroya Hall | $22-$122

Seattle Chamber Music Society Summer Festival: Recitals and Concerts
SCMS offers a variety of new music in this summer’s series, including multiple pieces by Aaron Jay Kernis and Lisa Bielawa (one is a world premiere), and Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time.
Mon, 7/3, 7pm, Nordstrom Recital Hall | Free
Mon, 7/10, 7pm and 8pm, Nordstrom Recital Hall | Free-$52
Mon, 7/24, 8pm, Nordstrom Recital Hall | $16-$52
Wed, 7/26, 8pm, Nordstrom Recital Hall | $16-$52

Jesse Myers & Stacey Mastrian: Living in America & Binary Solo+
In a double-header concert, pianist Jesse Myers and soprano Stacey Mastrian share the bill.  Myers performs solo piano music of John Adams, Glass, Reich, Christopher Cerrone, and Mizzy Mazzoli, while Mastrian performs wide-ranging music for solo voice with electronics and piano.
Wed, 7/12, 7:30pm, The Royal Room | Free

Harry Partch: Celebrating a Musical Maverick

by Michael Schell

No composer better fits the “American maverick” moniker than Harry Partch (1901–1974). A genuine U.S. hobo during the Depression era, he invented his own tuning system, built his own instruments, and during the second half of his life managed to scrounge up enough support to leave behind a body of music whose uniqueness and individuality is virtually unprecedented.

Partch riding the rails atop a boxcar. Photo by Levy-Jossman.

Since his music requires specialized instruments and specially-trained musicians, live performances are very special occasions. So we’re particularly fortunate here in the Pacific Northwest to have his original instruments in residence at the University of Washington (see Second Inversion’s virtual tour of the Harry Partch Instrumentarium). And fresh on the heels of Partch’s Oedipus comes another great opportunity to see and hear the instruments: the Harry Partch Celebration at Meany Studio Theater May 31 through June 2, which will feature three concerts of music by the crusty master himself, along with several works by other composers written or arranged for the Partch instruments.

With dozens of pieces and arrangements on the docket (including several premieres), there’s too much music to do justice to in just one article, so what follows is a closer look at a couple works on the program that summarize the vast range of Partch’s music:

Li Po Lyrics and the Adapted Viola

On May 31, Luke Fitzpatrick starts off the Celebration the way Partch started off his career, with a program of music for intoning voice and Adapted Viola. Partch always hated the highly-affected “classical” style of singing, finding it unnatural, and feeling that its emphasis on volume and vibrato came at the expense of diction and nuance.

Searching for a vocal style that was expressive while preserving the comprehensibility of the text, Partch hit on the idea of using microtones (intervals narrower than the half-steps between adjacent piano keys) to simulate the subtle contours of natural speech. He applied his discovery to some texts by Li Po (nowadays spelled Li Bai), an 8th century Chinese lyric poet—one of the greatest ever—who, like Partch, was a wanderer with a noted penchant for alcohol. These ancient texts, so innocent in their emotional directness, and little-known in North America back then, must have struck Partch as an ideal vehicle for his new style.

The grass of Yen is growing green and long
While in Chin the leafy mulberry branches hang low.
Even now while my longing heart is breaking,
Are you thinking, my dear, of coming back to me?
—O wind of spring, you are a stranger.
Why do you enter through the silken curtains of my bower?

The Intruder by Li Po

Listen to Partch performing his setting of this poem in 1949 (above). Notice the ease, the fluency with which the imagery comes through, and the diction is absolutely clear despite the crude acetate recording technology. It doesn’t have all the colors of his later percussion-centric music, but the seeds are clearly there, like comparing an early Beethoven piano sonata to one of his great symphonies.

Partch playing the Adapted Viola, 1933.

The instrument that Partch is playing in the video is his Adapted Viola, built in 1930 to give him a suitable accompanying instrument that was also portable (this being during Partch’s itinerant homeless years). It’s Partch’s earliest surviving original instrument, basically a standard viola with an elongated neck and a flattened bridge. It’s held between the knees to facilitate microtonal slides, and the modified bridge facilitates sustained double and even triple stops. In the recording, when the voice sings “O wind of spring”, the Adapted Viola indeed seems to wail like a mournful wind, perhaps representing the disembodied voice of an unrequited soul.

Adapted Viola fingerboard. Drawing by Irvin Wilson.

To help the player find all those strange microtonal pitches, Partch hammered brads into the fingerboard, giving the instrument a pretty intimidating appearance. The fractions you see in the fingerboard diagram are actually frequency ratios, which Partch used to denote his intervals with a precision not available in conventional notation.

In this score excerpt you can see that he dispenses with the normal five-line staff and just writes the ratios. Those last six ratios in the viola part, for example, are incredibly fine gradations of pitch between concert F♮ and G♮. It takes a lot of practice to read this notation and play those pitches in tune—remember what I said about needing “specially-trained musicians”? Curiously, despite being so precise about pitch, Partch doesn’t bother with rhythmic notation at all, but simply directs performers to follow the natural rhythms of the poem.

Satisfied with his new approach, Partch famously destroyed his earlier, more conventional compositions with a ritual immolation in a pot-bellied stove. He went on to write 17 Li Po Lyrics, all of which will be performed on May 31 using Partch’s original Adapted Viola, recently restored by Charles Corey (Director of the Harry Partch Instrumentarium) and Luke Fitzpatrick after sitting unused in its case for many years. How inspiring it must be to glide ones fingers along the same surface where Partch’s fingers slid 80 years ago!

Over the next four decades, Partch built up his Instrumentarium with the percussion and plucked string instruments that he’s most famous for, but he kept using his Adapted Viola, even including it in his final composition, The Dreamer that Remains (from 1972). This unpretentious instrument, newly reclaimed from the dark, bears witness to a lifetime of discovery and gives eloquent voice to its legacy.

Partch Gets Popular, plus Castor and Pollux

Although Partch wrote most of his music between 1930 and 1966, it wasn’t until later that he really became a cult hero, beloved by listeners that weren’t themselves musicians. The turning point was the 1969 Columbia LP The World of Harry Partch, which was the first modern recording of Partch’s music and its first release on a major record label. The cover photo showing Partch as an old man—that cantankerous-looking bearded iconoclast—with his instruments in the background resonated with the rebellious spirit of the times.

And the Columbia brand got Partch’s music into mainstream record stores and FM airwaves. The LP featured definitive performances of three great percussion-centric Partch compositions, including Daphne of the Dunes and the notorious Barstow: Eight Hitchhiker Inscriptions from a Highway Railing at Barstow, California, whose irreverent and downright naughty texts by a few frustrated Depression-era drifters attracted the attention of novelty DJs like Dr. Demento, thus exposing Partch’s music to millions of young listeners outside the usual classical music crowd.

But it’s the last track on this LP, Castor and Pollux, that eventually became my favorite Partch piece. Conceived for dance, it’s slated for the June 2 concert and will be performed with choreography by Stephanie Liapis—a very rare opportunity to see the piece staged as Partch intended!

As befits its subject (the celestial twins of Greek mythology), the work is in two halves. Each half consists of three instrumental duets, followed by a sextet where all three duets are played simultaneously. In contrast to the speech-driven rhythms of the 17 Li Po Lyrics and their simple voice and viola texture, Castor and Pollux is a lively, beat-driven piece showcasing a battery of Partch’s most characteristic percussion and plucked string instruments.

Excerpt from Partch’s Castor.

Each of the duets last 234 beats. In the first half (Castor) the music alternates between 4 and 5 beats to a bar, and there’s usually a rest on the eighth of the nine beats. In the second half (Pollux) the rhythm’s a bit more complicated, with six bars of 7 beats alternating with six bars of 9 beats until 234 beats are reached. Of course, Partch had to compose the duets so that they’d sound good both separately and together.

Like many of Partch’s works, Castor and Pollux was conceived as a complete aesthetic experience: musical and visual—what Partch called “corporeality.” And seeing the piece performed live helps to follow its unique structure.

Partch’s was an art with no phoniness to it—among the most authentic ever conceived by one person. It belongs alongside that of Ives, Varèse, Cage and Sun Ra in the pantheon of great American composers who created a unique musical identity from a deeply personal world view. If you’re in the Pacific Northwest, you owe it to yourself to experience the sight and sound of the Partch instruments up close and live while you can!


The Harry Partch Celebration is May 31 through June 2 at Meany Studio Theater at the University of Washington. For tickets and additional information, click here.

Second Inversion at the Northwest Folklife Festival

by Maggie Molloy

For over 40 years the annual Northwest Folklife Festival has served as a community celebration of local music and art at Seattle Center. Second Inversion is proud to be a part of that community, and is committed to showcasing vibrant and adventurous new music landscapes from all over the Pacific Northwest and far beyond.

So this Friday, we’re teaming up with Classical KING FM to show off some of our favorite local new music talents in our third annual KING FM and Second Inversion Showcase at the Northwest Folklife Festival.

Join us at the Center Theatre on Friday, May 26 at 8pm for a triple billing featuring the Ecco Chamber Ensemble, TangleTown Trio, and the Skyros Quartet. Here’s a sneak peek of what’s in store:

The Ecco Chamber Ensemble builds concerts around the intersection of art and social change. Comprised of soprano Stacey Mastrian, flutist Sarah Bassingthwaighte, and guitarist Mark Hilliard Wilson, the group programs classical music from around the world and across history which sheds light on issues of our time and provokes us to consider our common humanity.


TangleTown Trio specializes in classical Americana; music inspired by the many unique genres of American music, including jazz, folk, and classic musical theatre. Comprised of mezzo-soprano Sarah Mattox, violinist Jo Nardolillo, and pianist Judith Cohen, TangleTown is the happy outgrowth of three friends, all enjoying successful solo careers, coming together to create something truly extraordinary.


The Skyros Quartet is known for their innovative and interactive approach to classical music both old and new. Comprised of violinists Sarah Pizzichemi and James Moat, violist Justin Kurys, and cellist Willie Braun, the quartet performs, teaches, and leads community events all over the U.S. and Canada. Passionate about the future of music, Skyros regularly performs new works by living composers, and is back by popular demand after having performed in our Second Inversion Showcase at the 2016 Folklife Festival.


KING FM and Second Inversion’s Folklife Showcase is Friday, May 26 at 8pm at the Center Theatre at Seattle Center. For more information on the festival, click here.