Celebrating American (Musical) Independence

The history of classical music in America is as innovative and diverse as the people who form the fabric of our country.

From the spiritual fantasias of Florence Beatrice Price to the minimalist musings of Steve Reich, over the past century American classical music has grown to encompass many different styles and identities. Perhaps its greatest hallmark lies in its unwavering sense of possibility—as wide-ranging as American music may be, it is united by the thrill of discovery.

In celebration of Independence Day, we asked each of our Second Inversion hosts to share one of their favorite pieces from an American composer.

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


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


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


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


Amir ElSaffar: Shards of Memory/B Half Flat Fantasy (New Amsterdam)
Rivers of Sound Orchestra

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


Another version of this article was published on Second Inversion in 2018.

Six Living Legends Playing This Year’s Big Ears Festival

by Maggie Molloy

For the past 10 years the Big Ears Festival in Knoxville, Tennessee has been bringing together composers, performers, and curious listeners from around the globe for an annual weekend of exhilarating and ear-expanding music. From ambient to electric, eclectic, experimental, and avant-garde, the festival showcases over 100 genre-bending artists each year in a celebration of the sheer delight and diversity of new music.

Second Inversion is thrilled to be attending this year’s festival. Keep an eye out for our very own Maggie Molloy at the event, and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram for updates! In the meantime, check out our list of six can’t-miss living legends performing at this year’s festival.

Meredith Monk:

For nearly six decades, Meredith Monk has redefined and revolutionized contemporary vocal music and performance, weaving in elements of theatre and dance to create visceral musical experiences. At this year’s festival, catch her with her vocal ensemble performing Cellular Songs, a multimedia work exploring biological processes, genetic mutation, and the ways in which millions of tiny little cells can come together to form something extraordinary.

Friday, March 22, 9:15pm, Bijou Theatre
Saturday, March 23, 12pm, Bijou Theatre


Art Ensemble of Chicago:

Over the past half-century the Art Ensemble of Chicago has grown beyond a mere band and into a way of life—a collective musical ethos that transcends the individual members of the group. Founded with the motto “Great Black Music: Ancient to Future,” the group draws from musical traditions across history and around the globe. Their live performances are a revelation: their wildly experimental brand of avant-jazz further amplified by loudly colored costumes and face paint. Catch them live this Sunday.

Sunday, March 24, 8:15pm, Tennessee Theatre


Kayhan Kalhor:

Kayhan Kalhor is a modern master of an ancient instrument: the kamancheh, an upright Iranian fiddle with a melancholic tone and a rich musical history. As a soloist and a member of Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble, he has spent his career traversing international borders and transcending musical boundaries. This Saturday, hear him in an intimate solo performance that takes traditional Persian music in new directions—and Sunday, catch him in a cross-genre collaboration with Brooklyn Rider.

Saturday, March 23, 6pm, Church Street United Methodist Church (solo)
Sunday, March 24, 5pm, Bijou Theatre (with Brooklyn Rider)


Joan La Barbara:

Joan La Barbara has spent the past 50 years exploring the furthest reaches of the human voice. A pioneer of extended vocal techniques, her acrobatic vocal stylings range from multiphonics to shrieks, squeaks, whispers, wails, moans, drones, and a whole slew of sounds you didn’t even know humans could make. Hear her singular voice live when she performs her own original works on Thursday, and come back Friday to hear her sing music of Alvin Lucier with the Ever Present Orchestra.

Thursday, March 21, 8pm, St. John’s Episcopal Cathedral (solo)
Friday, March 22, 1pm, Bijou Theatre (music of Alvin Lucier)


Alvin Lucier:

Alvin Lucier has spent his 60-year career exploring not only music but the ways in which we experience sound itself. His historic compositions experiment with the resonance of spaces, the physical properties of sound, and the manipulation of auditory perception. This Friday, Joan La Barbara and the Ever Present Orchestra perform music from across his career—and on Sunday Lucier performs some of his own original works (including his landmark 1969 sonic exploration I am Sitting in a Room).

Friday, March 22, 1pm, Bijou Theatre (with Joan La Barbara)
Sunday, March 24, 1pm, Ann & Steve Baily Hall at the KMA (solo)


Wadada Leo Smith:

“Creative music” is the descriptor Wadada Leo Smith has given to his expansive body of works. Over the past five decades, the trumpeter has cultivated his own inimitable musical language (and notation) informed by jazz and world music histories but deeply rooted in the present moment. This Saturday, he performs solo meditations on the music of Thelonious Monk—and on Sunday he teams up with two former bandmates to play Divine Love, an ethereal and immersive trumpet and percussion suite first released in 1978.

Saturday, March 23, 2pm, The Standard (solo)
Sunday, March 24, 6:15pm, Tennessee Theatre (“Divine Love”)


The Big Earts Festival is March 21-24 in Knoxville, Tennessee. For tickets and more information, click here.

Second Inversion’s Top 10 Albums of 2017

From Icelandic sound sculptures to pan-global jazz, found sounds and field recordings to sprawling, city-wide operas, 2017 was filled with some pretty incredible new music. As this year draws to a close, our Second Inversion hosts take a look back at our Top 10 Albums of 2017:

The Industry and wild Up: Hopscotch (The Industry Records)
Release Date: January 13, 2017

Hopscotch is by far the most inventive, labor-intensive, and meticulously designed work of the year. Live performances of the opera take place in 24 cars on three distinct routes, stopping at various locations-turned-performance spaces throughout Los Angeles. It involves everything from animated sequences exploring themes of identity and community to hearing star musicians perform in the car with you as you ride to your next unknown destination. The album recording is just as expansive, inviting the listener to experience the musical narrative in a non-chronological order, with multiple singers forming a composite of each character’s identity.

Intentionally disorienting, surprising, and overwhelming, artistic director Yuval Sharon and his team at the Industry have created an absolutely immersive experience—and audiences have been blown away. – Brendan Howe


yMusic and Son Lux: First (Communal Table Records)
Release Date: February 17, 2017

Something I hear frequently said about new classical music, from detractors and fans alike, is that it’s hard to listen to. First is a decidedly “new classical” album that does not fit into that framework at all. It’s—and I say this without irony—a freaking delight to listen to. It’s full of stories; for example, in the titular track, the instruments seem to be vying for first place until this looming bass note kicks in, threatening to take them all down. The titles themselves kickstart the imagination: “Trust in Clocks,” “Memory Wound,” and “I Woke Up in the Forest” are some of my favorites. Composer Ryan “Son Lux” Lott and producer Thomas Bartlett took yMusic’s edict to make a chamber music record structured like a rock album to heart and, with the addition of amazing performances by the group, turned it into art. – Dacia Clay


American Contemporary Music Ensemble: Thrive on Routine (Sono Luminus)
Release Date: February 24, 2017

Thrive on Routine was an interesting choice of title for ACME’s 2017 release. Timo Andres’ programmatic string quartet that follows the potato-tending and Bach-playing morning routine of Charles Ives thus becomes the album’s centerpiece, and by relation the rest of the selections are colored by the idea of beauty arising from the mundane. Minimalist textures in Caleb Burhans’ “Jahrzeit” and John Luther Adams’ “In a Treeless Place, Only Snow” provide a sense of calm and even pacing, while a deliberate, almost “learned” style extends from Andres’ title track to Caroline Shaw’s “in manus tuas” and “Gustave Le Gray” for solo cello. – Geoffrey Larson


Iceland Symphony Orchestra: Recurrence (Sono Luminus)
Release Date: April 7, 2017

The massive, slow-moving sound sculptures of Iceland shimmer and sparkle in Recurrence, an album of ethereal orchestral works by five emerging and established Icelandic artists. Daníel Bjarnason leads the Iceland Symphony Orchestra through a luminous program ranging from Thurídur Jónsdóttir’s kaleidoscopic “Flow & Fusion,” to María Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir’s oceanic “Aequora,” Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s icy and iridescent “Dreaming,” and more. Each piece on the album is a gorgeously abstracted soundscape in itself, showcasing the small Nordic island’s all but unparalleled explorations of texture, timbre, and immersive, atmospheric colors in music. – Maggie Molloy


PRISM Quartet with So Percussion and Partch: Color Theory (Naxos)
Release Date: April 14, 2017

Mixing colors takes on new meaning in Color Theory, an album blending the hues of four saxophones with an experimental percussion quartet and the microtonal musical instruments of Harry Partch. The PRISM Quartet teams up with So Percussion and the Partch ensemble to explore the full spectrum of color in music, from the deepest blues to the boldest reds, oranges, and yellows. Steven Mackey’s “Blue Notes & Other Clashes” mixes colors ranging from muted to magnificent through eight short movements culminating in a prismatic fantasy, while Ken Ueno’s “Future Lilacs” explores the shifting shades of the overtone series and Stratis Minakakis’s “Skiagrafies” paints a sonic canvas with color-changing harmonies. – Maggie Molloy


Amir ElSaffar: Not Two (New Amsterdam Records)
Release Date: June 16, 2017

In a year choked with disunity in nearly every part of our lives, trumpeter Amir ElSaffar’s jazzy pan-global album Not Two offers a welcome musical melting of borders. ElSaffar draws inspiration from different cultures and their instruments, primarily Western Asia and America, and declares that they “do not exist as separate entities ‘belonging’ to any people or place.” His humanism coupled with the skill of his collaborators results in an album that pulses with mystical jazz spells, thrills with august horns, and reminds us that music is egalitarian. Knowing that Not Two was recorded in one marathon 16-hour session is just the cherry on top of ElSaffar’s accomplishment.
Rachele Hales


Los Angeles Percussion Quartet: Beyond (Sono Luminus)
Release Date: June 16, 2017

LAPQ’s Beyond pushes the boundaries of what a percussion ensemble can do, with a healthy dose of ambient-leaning music combined with a smaller measure of perhaps slightly more familiar groove-based music that might seem more typical of percussion repertoire. With works by heavy-hitting composers Daníel Bjarnason, Christopher Cerrone, Anna Thorvalsdottir, Ellen Reid, and Andrew McIntosh paired with thoughtful and delicate execution, Beyond is a tour-de-force that stands at the leading edge of music for percussion. – Seth Tompkins


Third Coast Percussion: Book of Keyboards (New Focus Recordings)
Release Date: August 4, 2017

If classical music is a volcanic island, percussion ensembles are the lava and magma that makes the new land. They’re always on the edge, pushing out, making new sounds with new instruments. And that’s exactly what Third Coast Percussion is doing on Book of Keyboards. They’ve recorded two works by modernist composer Philippe Manoury—sometimes sounding like an elaborate wooden wind chime orchestra, and at other times leaving long, worshipful tensions between notes.

Some of the instruments used on this album are familiar enough—like marimbas and vibraphones—but I’m gonna bet you’ve never heard the sixxen, because they were invented by a guy named Iannis Xenakis (also an avant-garde composer) and homemade by Third Coast. I wonder if performing on instruments that you’ve made by hand is as exciting/terrifying as flying a kit plane that you’ve built in your garage? Third Coast never lets on, moving through these two works, “Le Livre des Clavier,” and “Metal,” like seasoned pilots flying in formation. – Dacia Clay


Qasim Naqvi: FILM (Published by Erased Tapes)
Release Date: September 29, 2017

Perhaps best known as the drummer from the group of acoustic virtuosos Dawn of Midi, Qasim Naqvi also plays other instruments and composes both art music and music for television and film. The album FILM, as you might guess, falls into the latter category. Released in September of 2017, FILM contains music written for the film Tripoli Cancelled and the video installation Two Meetings and a Funeral, both by Naeem Mohaiemen. This release, like other projects by Naqvi, celebrates the legacy of Moog synthesizers. The atmospheric sounds on this album were inspired by disused architecture, and sometimes recall the music of John Carpenter. – Seth Tompkins


Bang on a Can All-Stars: More Field Recordings (Cantaloupe Music)
Release Date: October 27, 2017

Some composers can make music out of just about anything—and that’s precisely the idea behind the Bang on a Can All-Stars’ More Field Recordings. A star-studded cast of composers are each asked to find a recording of something that already exists (a voice, a sound, a faded scrap of melody) and then write a new piece around it.

A follow-up to their original 2015 release Field Recordings, this year’s rendition is a colorful patchwork of found sounds and sonic squares from the likes of Caroline Shaw, Ben Frost, Nico Muhly, Richard Reed Parry, and Glenn Kotche (to name just a few), with the All-Stars playing along to field recordings ranging from quilting interviews to Chilean birdsongs, lava fields, and snoring sleepers.
Maggie Molloy

Classical Christmas Carols for the 21st Century

by Maggie Molloy

After years of the same old Christmas carols every December, the holiday hymns start to run together. But whether you’re the world’s biggest Santa-fan or a grouchy Ebenezer Scrooge, there’s still a little sparkle of holiday magic to be found in every classical Christmas tune—buried though it may be beneath the corny sing-alongs and ugly sweaters of the winter season.

This year, we’re highlighting composers who break out from the cookie cutter Christmas carols and reimagine holiday classics for 21st century audiences. From time-stretched hymnal melodies to bluegrass banjo solos and synthy washes of sound, today’s composers are getting creative with their Yuletide carols.

Here are our top picks for contemporary Christmas albums that will add some holiday spice to your winter soundtrack:

Jherek Bischoff: Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire Walk with Me (Self-Produced)

Jherek Bischoff’s new EP reimagines your favorite Christmas carols as timeless trios for electric bass, sleigh bells, and synthesizers. Composed in the style of Angelo Badalamenti’s moody Twin Peaks score, Bischoff offers eerie renditions of holiday classics old and new, ranging from John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s “Happy Xmas (War is Over)” to Charlie Brown’s “Christmas Time is Here” and even a synth-laden “Silent Night.”


Imagine Christmas (Sono Luminus)

They’re classic Christmas carols like you’ve never heard them before: reimagined and rearranged by the likes of the American Contemporary Music Ensemble, the Jasper String Quartet, the Skylark Vocal Ensemble, Cuarteto Latinamericano, and more. The result is a kaleidoscope of musical styles ranging from lute lullabies to Latin percussion, twinkling piano solos to swinging strings and ambient drones.


Phil Kline: Unsilent Night (Cantaloupe Music)

Phil Kline’s contemporary twist on Christmas caroling captures the sparkle and whimsy of the holidays without any of the corny sing-alongs. Unsilent Night blends shimmering bells, time-stretched hymnal melodies, holiday nostalgia, and ambient noise into an ethereal electroacoustic soundscape. Though originally composed as an aleatoric sound sculpture for outdoor performance, you can listen to the  album from the comfort of indoors.


DePue Brothers Band: When It’s Christmas Time (Beat The Drum Entertainment)

Christmas caroling meets bluegrass jam session in this “grassical” family album featuring a twangy twist on holiday classics. The DePue brothers dance through their own festive arrangements of Christmas hits brimming with sweet strings, infectious grooves, and a whole lot of banjo.

November New Music: Prepared Piano, Electric Theorbo, & More

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 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 tag it with “new music.”

New Music Flyer – November 2017

 

Wayward Music Series
Concerts of contemporary composition, free improvisation, and sonic experiments. This month: wind improvisations, sleepy music podcasts, jazz-infused songs on war and poetry, and electroacoustic ruminations on West Coast minimalism.
Various days, 7:30/8pm, Good Shepherd Chapel | $5-$15

World New Music Days: Vancouver, BC
Not technically in Seattlebut definitely worth the drive. Nearly 50 countries come together for this festival of new music, which features over 30 experimental concerts and outreach events.
Thurs-Wed, 11/2-11/8, Vancouver, BC | $10-$39

Live @ Benaroya Hall: Hauschka
German pianist and composer Volker Bertelmann (better known as Hauschka) takes prepared piano to a whole new level, employing everything from ping pong balls to Tic Tacs and tin foil to create stunning new sonic landscapes.
Fri, 11/3, 7:30pm, Nordstrom Recital Hall | $25-$30

Peter Nelson-King: Modern American Piano
Multi-instrumentalist and composer Peter Nelson-King presents a concert of daring modern American works for the piano, featuring music by Dane Rudhyar, Stephen Jaffe, David Diamond, Hugo Weisgall, and more.
Fri, 11/3, 8pm, Gallery 1412 | $5-$15

Pacific Northwest Ballet: Her Story
PNB presents the American premiere of Crystal Pite’s haunting Plot Point, set to music from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. The spellbinding program also features music by Benjamin Britten and Vladimir Martynov.
Weekends 11/3-11/12, McCaw Hall | $30-$187

Saratoga Orchestra: Un/Questionable Visionaries
Oak Harbor-based horn player Sean Brown performs his new Horn Concerto with the Saratoga Orchestra. Symphonies by Mozart and Louise Farrenc frame this world premiere performance.
Sat, 11/4, 7pm, Trinity Lutheran Church Freeland | By donation

Kronos Quartet
Known around the world for their adventurous programming, the San Francisco-based Kronos Quartet comes to Federal Way to share a bold program of string music ranging from George Gershwin to Aleksandra Vrebalov.
Sat, 11/4, 8pm, Federal Way Performing Arts and Event Center | $17-$73

Music of Remembrance: Snow Falls
Two world premieres by Japanese composers form the basis of this powerful program. Ryuichi Sakamoto’s Snow Falls is based around Kiyoko Nagase’s haunting poem of the same name, while Keiko Fujiie’s song cycle Wilderness Mute features English translations of Japanese poetry from Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Sun, 11/5, 7pm, Nordstrom Recital Hall | $30-$45

Cornish Presents: Projeto Arcomusical
World music sextet Projeto Arcomusical reimagines the Afro-Brazilian berimbau through a program of original chamber music which draws from folk, classical, and traditional capoeira music.
Sun, 11/5, 7:30pm, Performing Arts Center, Western Washington University | $10-16
Mon, 11/6, 8pm, Cornish College of the Arts’ Kerry Hall | $10-$20

Opera on Tap
Local singers let their hair down and sing their hearts out, performing famous operatic masterpieces and hidden musical gems alike in a friendly, relaxed atmosphere.
Wed, 11/8, 7pm, Naked City | $5-$8

Early Music Seattle: Forces of Nature
Music and meteorology intertwine in this concerto for electric theorbo by Seattle-based composer Aaron Grad. Inspired by Vivaldi’s famous Four Seasons (adapted here to portray the idiosyncratic weather patterns of Seattle), each movement features its own sonnet narrated by Former KING 5 meteorologist Jeff Renner.
Sat, 11/11, 7:30pm, Nordstrom Recital Hall | $20-$40

Seattle Symphony: DeVotchKa
Denver-based indie rock band DeVotchKa joins forces with the Seattle symphony to transform their intimate melodies into a full-scale orchestral experience.
Wed, 11/15, 7:30pm, Benaroya Hall | $35-$50

Seattle Symphony: Harry Potter
Wizards rejoice! Seattle Symphony breaks out the big screen for Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, performing John Williams’ iconic score alongside the movie.
Thurs-Sat, 11/16-11/18, 7:30/8pm, Benaroya Hall | $50-$120

Cornish Presents: Frequency
Frequency is a new Seattle-based chamber ensemble combining the talents of violinist Michael Jinsoo Lim, violist Melia Watras, and cellist Sæunn Thorsteinsdóttir. In this program, the group lends their bows to music by Daníel Bjarnason, Frances White, and Richard Einhorn.
Fri, 11/17, 8pm, Cornish College of the Arts’ Kerry Hall | $10-$20

Kin of the Moon Debut Concert
Three cutting-edge and iconoclastic women performers come together for a new chamber series that explores sonic rituals, improvisation, and a fearless cross-pollination of genres. Composer and vocalist Kaley Lane Eaton, flutist Leanna Keith, and violist Heather Bentley perform original works, improvisations, and a piece by Kate Soper.
Sat, 11/18, 8pm, Good Shepherd Chapel | $5-$15

UW School of Music: Hindustani Classical Music
Ethnomusicology visiting artist Zakir Hussain is known in India and around the world as a virtuoso tabla player, percussionist, and composer. In this program he performs the tabla solo and also presents the culmination of his work with UW faculty and students.
Sun, 11/19, 7:30pm, Meany Theater | $10-$35