ALBUM REVIEW: Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s ‘AEQUA’

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by Gabriela Tedeschi

Photo by Saga Sigurdardottir.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Duo Noire: Revolution Classical Style Now

by Dacia Clay

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

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

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

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

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

Notorious RBG in Song

by Dacia Clay

Today—that’s August 10, 2018 if you’re reading this from the future world—marks Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s 25th year on the Supreme Court of the United States. In 1993, she became the second woman in history to be confirmed to the court, and since then, she’s been a part of important court decisions on everything from gender equality and same-sex marriage to Bush v. Gore. When the Court gutted the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Ginsburg’s dissenting opinion was so impassioned that she earned the nickname “Notorious RBG” after a college student started a meme on Tumblr.

Patrice Michaels and Ruth Bader Ginsburg at the Glimmerglass Festival, 2016.

Notorious RBG is now the name of a new album of art song released to celebrate Ginsburg’s 25 years with SCOTUS. The album came about organically through a series of family commissions and personal projects. As it turns out, Ginsburg’s son James is the head of Cedille Records, and her daughter-in-law is soprano and composer Patrice Michaels. In this interview, James and Patrice tell the story of how the album came together, and talk about the woman its songs were inspired by.

The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs: Mason Bates’ Inventive New Opera

by Gabriela Tedeschi

We often see opera as a relic from another time. When we think of opera, we think of beautiful, intricate arias, intense dramatic expression, and epic stories that have little to do with our world today. That’s why the iPhone is just about the last thing you’d expect to inspire an opera.

Photo by Ken Howard.

But like every other art form, opera evolves over time, exploring new stories and musical styles.

One intriguing and prominent step in this evolutionary process is Mason Bates’ The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, which the Santa Fe Opera premiered last year. A live performance recording featuring conductor Michael Christie and baritone Edward Parks as Jobs is available now on Pentatone Records. And this February, (R)evolution will make it West Coast debut at the Seattle Opera, marking one of the first times an opera by a contemporary composer has made it to McCaw Hall.

Without discarding opera’s historic blueprint, (R)evolution masterfully incorporates modern themes and sounds to tell a story that resonates with modern audiences everywhere. Bates and librettist Mark Campbell have painted a musical portrait of Jobs that speaks to one of the biggest concerns our time—connecting with other people in a digital world—while retaining the grandiose music and powerful emotion that has always characterized opera.

The story unfolds non-linearly. Jobs confidently announces in 2007 that he is changing the world by releasing a handheld device that can do everything. After the presentation, his wife Laurene arrives, asking him to take time off because their children miss him and she is concerned about his health. Jobs rebuffs her. Then, he is visited by his deceased spiritual advisor, the Buddhist monk Kōbun Chino Otogawa, who guides him through scenes from his past to help him make sense of his future.

Following them back in time, we watch as Jobs and his similarly gifted best friend, Steve Wozniak revel in the success of their now famous “blue box” in 1976 and dream of toppling the technological establishment. Jobs is struck with a beautiful vision for what their computer should be: something elegant and simple, something that we play like an instrument.

Photo by Ken Howard.

But soon, the dark side to his ambition is revealed when his girlfriend Chrisann tells him she is pregnant and he abandons her out of fear that she and the child will stand in the way of his goals. Still, Jobs’ professional life begins to unravel: he mistreats his employees terribly in his quest for perfection, Apple’s business begins to lag, the board of directors demote himand all the while reporters are constantly bombarding him with questions about his daughter.

Then in 1989, he meets Laurene, who begins to change his outlook on life, encouraging him to connect with others and helping him find joy in creating again.

These memory fragments are woven together to create a complex portrayal of Jobs and a modern cautionary tale that speaks to the consequences of technology, perfectionism, and ineffectual communication. Yet the story also traces a timeless narrative arc that has its roots in classical opera: Jobs’ talents and ambition, combined with his mortal flaw of arrogance, immortalize him among the ranks of the legendary heroes like Aeneas (and anti-heroes like Don Juan) who star in beloved operas of the past.

Photo by Ken Howard.

(R)evolution features classical instrumentation in conjunction with electronic sounds—beeps, whirs, clicks, dings—which are particularly prominent during the songs that focus on Jobs’ technological visions. While the style of singing is traditionally operatic, the libretto is modern and conversational, emulating the everyday syntax the characters would use in real life.

The score becomes rhythmic, intense, and dark as Jobs descends into selfishness and cruelty. But in the moments where he feels the power of connection and creation, there’s a divine quality to the music, with gliding melodies and warm, lush harmonies. This is the case, too, when Otogawa sings, especially as his songs incorporate Eastern instruments with sacred connotations, like Tibetan prayer bowls. Guitar often features prominently during Jobs’ own arias because the energetic picking is meant to represent the restless inner-workings of his mind.

The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs paves the way for more operatic exploration of modern stories, electronic instruments, and unique structures. With its dramatic examination of technology, it proves that fixtures of the world we live in today can give rise to stories every bit as epic and visceral as operas of the past.

Sneak Peek Audio Leak: ‘Endeavour’ by Tristan Eckerson

by Gabriela Tedeschi

Photo by Damian Lemański & Ulka Dzikiewicz.

Tristan Eckerson is a pianist, composer, and DIY musician in every sense of the term. He writes, mixes, and masters his own music, creates his own album art, and arranges his own international tours. After working with 1631 Recordings on two previous albums, Eckerson is releasing his newest work, Dream Variations, independently on July 6.

The twelve short piano solos on the album draw inspiration from music as wide-ranging as Beethoven, Sigur Rós, Ryuichi Sakamoto, and Tigran Hamasyan. With a passion for film scores and soundscapes, Eckerson strives to create music that is as accessible and relaxing as it is complex.

This describes his piece “Endeavour” perfectly. Starting with a bittersweet and beautifully simple melody layered over rich, percussive chords, “Endeavour” evolves into a multi-textured piece that juxtaposes mournful moments with flashes of hope. 

We’re thrilled to premiere “Endeavor” right here on Second Inversion. Plus, learn more about the album in our interview with the composer below.

Second Inversion: What was the inspiration behind “Endeavour”?

Tristan Eckerson: It’s hard to say what the inspiration behind this particular piece was, because I really approached this entire album as a succession of pieces that were all strung together in a stream of consciousness type fashion—hence the album title.

I was really inspired by listening to some piano pieces by Ryuichi Sakamoto—how simple, elegant, but harmonically rich they were, and how they were so minimal, but not at all boring or simple musically. I also liked the idea of Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories, and just having a lot of shorter, succinct pieces that kind of flowed into one another and were variations of one another. And so “Endeavour” just ended up being one of those pieces.

SI: Dream Variations works to stretch the boundaries of solo piano composition. What elements have you employed to subvert listeners’ expectations?

TE: I think in the contemporary classical genre right now there seems to be an aversion to using jazz influences of any kind. And since I love a lot of jazz music and jazz harmony, but don’t really have any interest in writing straight ahead “jazz” music, I’ve been very drawn to incorporating jazz harmony and modal harmony into a contemporary classical setting. Again, going back to the influences of Ryuichi Sakamoto, and also Ravel and Debussy—I just want to give listeners something that they aren’t used to in terms of the depth of harmony I’m using and the types of moods that it’s creating.

SI: This July you are releasing Dream Variations independently. What are the challenges and rewards of working within a DIY framework?

TE: The challenges are that you’re doing everything yourself—so if you aren’t putting in 100% in a particular category, then no one else is going to pick up the slack. I’ve had to learn a lot of things that I really would have rather left to someone else—non musical things. But the reward is that because I’m doing everything independently, I retain much more control when it comes to how to do things and of course intellectual property rights, royalties, and everything concerning the business side. And also when you do everything yourself, even if you aren’t an expert in every area, it’s very rewarding when you actually start seeing results, because all those results feel like very personal achievements.


Dream Variations comes out July 6. To pre-order the album, click here.

ALBUM REVIEW: Steve Reich’s ‘Pulse/Quartet’

by Dacia Clay

I just realized that this album was released on my birthday this year. So, first, thank you, Steve Reich for the thoughtful gift. The pieces on the album were written a few years earlier—Pulse, in 2015, and Quartet in 2013, and recorded by the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) and the Colin Currie Group respectively. (Reich wrote both pieces for the ensembles by whom they are performed here.) But they work together beautifully in an unbroken narrative.

The Story

Pulse opens with an almost folk Americana sound a la Aaron Copland. Big wide open prairie, amber waves of grain-variety archetypical hopefulness and promise. Our hero is setting out from home. The instruments—violin, viola, flute, clarinet, piano, and bass—begin to lob notes back and forth between them. But very quickly, a darker bass note joins the mix. Minors and majors mix together. The bass chugs along with nods to a steady rock music beat. There’s a stillness in the background and movement in the fore, and they swap places constantly. The instruments join together, playing in sync, and then fly apart again, creating dissonance. This piece is like a train, passing by in perpetual motion, and the listener is hearing different cars as the train goes by. The players involved are all wrapped up together in call and response—they need each other to create a whole melody. And then the journey slows down and our hero finally comes to a rest.

Quartet has 3 movements: I. Fast, II. Slow, and III. Fast. And if Pulse is the wide open objective spaces of America, Quartet is its crowded solipsistic cityscapes. There’s something about Quartet that makes me think of a late ‘70’s/early ‘80’s gritty cop drama. You know, when TV was more subtle, dialogue-based, and recorded on film; when it relied less on fake blood. In the first movement, there’s one moment of urgency, but the rest seems to be about our main character’s workaday life. The piano and vibes come together. Neither is ever really in charge. I imagine that one is the city and one is the character, but I can’t figure out which is which. “Slow,” is like a rainy night, staring out a window. The hero is a little gloomy and drinks with quiet resolve. And in the third movement, there’s a shift. It’s the same story as the first movement, but a few decades in the future. We’re back in the daylight after a dark, solitary night that ended in passing out on the couch. This new version of the first story is lighter, emphatic and upbeat with the sound of a news dateline in the background creating an urgency, and the story ends, finally, on a high note.

The Facts

According to Reich, Pulse was a sort of reaction to Quartet because it’s “[a]ll in all, a calmer more contemplative piece,” though that is not what this listener hears. (I can’t help wondering what you’ll think.) In Quartet, he employs the Steve Reich version of a quartet, using his trademark grouping of two pianos and two percussion instruments (in this case, two vibes) instead of a traditional string quartet. As Reich notes, the piece is one of his most complex, and it, “frequently changes key and often breaks off continuity to pause or take up new material.”

The Last Paragraph

Steve Reich once said, “All music does come from a time and place. I was born and raised in New York. I moved out of New York, but it’s inside of me and it will be inside of me until they put me in a box in the ground.” This album feels like it’s of several times (which makes sense from an almost 82-year old) and places, but most distinctly of New York. I like the idea that even in music that’s dependent on pattern rather over emotion, you can hear who the composer is, and it endears me to this work.

What do you hear?

ALBUM REVIEW: The Hands Free

by Gabriela Tedeschi

Over the course of the past decade, the four composer-performers who make up the Hands Free have performed together in a variety of contexts. They found that what they loved doing the most was holding informal late-night jam sessions—which is what led to the quartet’s inception.

James Moore, who plays guitar and banjo for the group, became interested in a 1937 book that combines the poetry of  Paul Eluard with Man Ray’s line drawings. It’s called Les Mains Libres (Hands Free), a phrase Eluard and Ray used to describe allowing the imagination to play freely. Inspired to make music based on this concept, Moore thought of his late-night jams and invited Pulitzer Prize-winning Caroline Shaw (violin), Nathan Koci (accordion), and Eleonore Oppenheim (bass) to join him for imaginative musical play, creating The Hands Free and their debut self-titled album, out now on New Amsterdam Records.

The ensemble likes to perform unamplified, sit in a circle, and incorporate improvisation in almost every piece so performance feels like play and the sound is especially organic. For The Hands Free, they’ve also worked to integrate a mix of genres from folk music to jazz while drawing from the contemporary classical scene as well.

By making use of the cultural associations of genres and instrument colors, The Hands Free transports you to different parts of the world. Drawing themes from folk songs, the lively violin melody in “Kellam’s Reel/Rusty Gully” takes you to the Scottish countryside for a jovial dance. The gentle, romantic melody in “Lirr Bleu” conjures up images of Paris. With its bittersweet quality and the bass’s soft, melancholy countermelody, the piece seems to depict a broken heart in the City of Love.

In other pieces, The Hands Free challenges your perception of instruments and genres by combining them in new ways. “Lost Halo” begins with a banjo pattern that evokes the stereotypical twang of rural folk music—but when the violin enters with legato melodic lines, the banjo becomes more versatile than we often imagine it to be, intermixing tender consonant chords with dark, suspenseful dissonance for a surprisingly modern sound.

“Sade” almost sounds as though it could be from a horror movie soundtrack, with unpredictable percussion and blares of sound leading the piece into a creepy folk melody variation. Eerie tone clusters form as accordion slides clash against the rest of the ensemble. Alternately, in “It’s She” the violin transitions from another Scottish jig into a rich, lyrical melody. Beneath the violin quick, quiet bursts of tone and soft melodic humming add depth to the texture, creating something hopeful and grandiose.

With its complexity and variety, The Hands Free takes you on a journey around the world while maintaining the warmth and spontaneity of an impromptu jam session. With their beautifully eclectic mix of sounds that depict an immense variety of places and emotions, the quartet invites you to join in their play and let your imagination run free.