SNEAK PEEK AUDIO LEAK: Symphony Number One

by Maggie Stapleton

Second Inversion presents new and unusual music from all corners of the classical genre… and we mean NEW. Sneak Peek Audio Leak is your chance to stream fresh sounds and brand new music of note with insights from our team and the artists.

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Symphony Number One is Baltimore’s newest chamber orchestra dedicated to performing and promoting substantial works by emerging composers. Led by Music Director Jordan Randall Smith, Symphony Number One brings together great composers of the past, virtuoso performers of the present, and the leading compositional voices of the future.

Their new album, more, is released on December 16 but we’re thrilled to offer a Sneak Peek Audio Leak of one of the selections: The Promised Burning by Andrew Posner.

 

Inspired by the Sabbath poems of writer and activist Wendell Berry, it’s a musical representation of man-made environmental destruction and the profound grief that future generations will feel en masse when the effects of this destruction are painfully obvious. It is a call to awaken from the delusions that we are separate from the Earth and that its resources and ecosystems are expendable tools in our fruitless attempts to satisfy our greed.

The album features music by two other young, talented composers. Timelapse Variations by Natalie Draper and Light Cathedral by Jonathan Russell round out this sophisticated third album from an ensemble with a very bright future ahead.

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L-R bottom: Andrew Posner, Jordan Randall Smith

ALBUM REVIEW: A O R T A from Vicky Chow

by Seth Tompkins

Pianist Vicky Chow’s recent release A O R T A is above all else a triumph of curation. Chow’s performance, the editing, and the mixing are all laudable as well, but the real story of this album is the strength of the playlist and its presentation. A O R T A is a rare instance of an album in which the delivery of the audio itself contributes to the artistic goals of the project in a meaningful way.

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Even before the music begins, curatorial strength shapes the album. A O R T A is packaged with only minimal notes and there is no explanation of the project’s genesis nor discussion of the artists involved or their biographies. While this may initially appear to be a simple stylistic choice in favor of minimalist packaging, after listening it is apparent that this lack of detail is, in actual fact, a bold statement about how well the music on this release hangs together. The lack of notes seen on A O R T A would diminish other albums, but in this instance, the dearth of information makes this release stronger. It is a symbol of how well-designed the album is as a whole, letting the music and its curation stand on their own.

However, if you are curious, a more detailed explanation of the release is available here.

 

Musically, the supreme design of A O R T A takes the shape of remarkable continuity between the first three tracks. These tracks, which encompass Christopher Cerrone’s Hoyt-Schermerhorn, Jacob Coopers Clifton Gates, and the first movement of Jakub Ciupinski’s Morning Tale, all for piano and electronics, flow seamlessly from each into the next. That is not to say that these pieces are continuous or homogenous; upon closer listening these tracks each yield interesting features deserving of investigation and fascination.

These first three pieces make up the programmatic section of the release. All three, while they do have their own individual characters, are touching meditations on real-world human experiences ranging from the concrete to the notional.

The smoothness with which the initial three tracks flow from one to the next is a perfect aperitif for the rest of A O R T A. Only when the second movement of Morning Tale arrives does this CD begin to deliver sequential sounds juxtaposed in a manner that obviously marks the beginning of a new track. This slight shift marks a turning point in this release; this is the point after which more surprising and disparate sounds can be expected.

 

Those disparate sounds take the shape of Molly Joyce’s Rave, and Daniel Wohl’s Limbs and Bones, all three of which explore different facets of the interaction of live piano with electronic sound. While these heady tracks are distinctly different from the first three pieces, they somehow fit together into the larger arc of this album. This continuity of artistic trajectory is further evidence of expert curation. These pieces, in this order, tell a story that is in and of itself a work of art.

Finally, A O R T A ends with Vick(i/y), by Andy Akiho. While the preceding six pieces lean toward the atmospheric, Vick(i/y) has a completely different character that trends toward immediacy. This piece was written for Vicky Chow (as well as for Vicki Ray – hence the title) and is the only piece on this release that is NOT for piano and electronics. Vick(i/y) is for prepared piano. Additionally, while the preceding pieces on A O R T A tend to individually remain within one or two sound areas, Vick(i/y) is a veritable symphony within a prepared piano. The extended range of sounds, combined with Chow’s presumed heightened intimacy with this music (which was written with her in mind), result in a piece that acts an exclamation mark. Vick(i/y) is Chow’s indelible signature at the end of an already markedly individualistic album.

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Even though A O R T A cycles through an expansive of range sounds and expressive modes, this disc never loses sight of the instrument at its center. Every bit of this music is completely focused on the piano, with all sounds either produced by or strongly referring to the instrument. Also always in sight here are the composers who inspired much of this music. Pieces on this album explicitly reference John Adams and John Cage while slightly more covertly recalling the music of Steve Reich, Erik Satie, and Thom Yorke.

A O R T A is packed with smart, fully-conscious music that is quite aware of the giants upon whose shoulders it stands. This awareness of the past, combined with bold steps toward the future and omnipresent consummate curation, results in a well-balanced and highly interesting release that is at once calming, stimulating, and invigorating.

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ALBUM REVIEW: MeiaMeia from Arcomusical

by Maggie Molloy

It doesn’t take a lot to make beautiful music—in fact, sometimes all it takes is one single string.

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The Afro-Brazilian berimbau is, quite literally, a musical bow: it’s comprised of a long, thin wooden branch strung with a single metal wire and a hollow, open-backed gourd resonator. It’s played with a thin stick, a small basket rattle, and a small coin or stone.

Often used as musical accompaniment for the Afro-Brazilian martial art capoeira, the instrument arcs like a bow and arrow but plays like—well, nothing you’ve ever heard before. Which raises the question: why haven’t you ever heard it before?

Arcomusical is a nonprofit organization that advocates for the artistic advancement of the berimbau and related musical bows through composition, performance, publication, research, and community. To date, Arcomusical has created over 30 new works for the berimbau—and counting.

Most recent among them is a 12-work chamber music cycle titled MeiaMeia: New Music for Berimbau. Composed by Artistic Director Gregory Beyer and his former student, Alexis C. Lamb, the album’s title is Portuguese for “HalfHalf,” as in “six of one, a half dozen of the other”—six pieces by each composer.

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MeiaMeia is brought to life by Beyer and Lamb’s world music sextet Projeto Arcomusical, whose hand-painted instruments sport a Piet Mondrian-esque design created by their bandmate Daniel Eastwood. Clocking in at just over an hour, the chamber cycle makes its way through a wide spread of solos, duos, trios, quartets, quintets, and sextets, each exploring the unique timbral colors and textures of this inimitable instrument.

The result is a collection of pieces which draw on influences ranging from the minimalist musings of Steve Reich to the folk tunes of Béla Bartók, traditional capoeira music to palindromes and numerical patterns. Pieces blend patiently into and out of one another, enfolding the listener in a meditative trance.

And yet, that trancelike soundscape that is bursting with color. The musical language is at once playful, rhythmic, buoyant, and beautiful—ostinati bounce energetically from one player to another, pitches bend back and forth, hocketed melodies echo above gentle glissandi, and kaleidoscopic melodies circle and expand in ever-changing patterns.

As a listener, it’s easy to lose yourself in that ever-evolving soundscape—but Projeto Arcomusical doesn’t miss a beat. The sextet is so tuned in to one another that at times it becomes difficult (if not impossible) to tell where one instrument ends and another begins. The players are so precise, so blissfully engaged with their instruments and one another that the individual pieces and the individual players melt away, and you begin to discover the uniquely captivating character of the instrument itself.

Sure, it may only take a single string to make music—but as Projeto Arcomusical demonstrates, it takes also takes a whole lot of patience, passion, and precision.

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ALBUM REVIEW: Words Fail from Yevgeny Kutik

by Maggie Molloy

The 19th century Danish author Hans Christian Andersen famously said, “Where words fail, music speaks.” In today’s world, those words ring truer than ever.

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In the 21st century, we find ourselves constantly bombarded by words. Social media, street signs, mail, messages, magazines, billboards, books, promotional handouts—words are everywhere. And yet, often we find ourselves talking in circles.

Violinist Yevgeny Kutik seeks to break that cycle. His new album Words Fail features a collection of wordless works, past and present, which speak to the indescribable power of music. Featuring Romantic works by Mendelssohn, Mahler, and Tchaikovsky, modern works by Prokofiev and Messiaen, plus brand new works by Michael Gandolfi, Timo Andres, and Lera Auerbach, the album explores the role of music across history as an orator of the deepest and most profound human emotions. With piano accompaniment provided by John Novacek, Kutik’s violin sings and dreams across two centuries of classical music.

The album begins with three selections from Mendelssohn’s “Songs Without Words,” arranged for violin and piano by Friedrich Hermann. Kutik’s violin adds a voicelike timbre to this keyboard classic, singing gracefully through Mendelssohn’s long-breathed melodies above a gentle piano accompaniment.

Later on, Kutik lends his bow to Tchaikovsky’s wistful “Song Without Words” in a violin and piano arrangement by the legendary German violinist Fritz Kreisler. One of Kutik’s mother’s most cherished scores, the three-minute work speaks volumes about his family upbringing and early immigration to the United States from Russia.

The “Adagietto” from Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 showcases Kutik’s rich, dark tone in a rare violin and piano arrangement by Robert Wittinger. One of Mahler’s most famous pieces, the quietly rhapsodic work is said to have been written as a love note to his wife Alma. Instead of sending a letter, he sent her the “Adagietto” in manuscript script form—no words attached.

The two 20th century works on the album are a bit more daring in nature. Kutik travels through a distinct cast of musical characters of Prokofiev’s “Five Melodies,” originally composed as a set of vocalises, but his violin truly soars for Messiaen’s “Theme and Variations,” a kaleidoscope of colors composed as a wedding gift to his first wife, Claire Delbos.

The album also features three brand new works by living composers, and among them is the title track. Commissioned specifically for this album, Michael Gandolfi’s somber, single-movement “Arioso Doloroso/Estatico” takes its inspiration from Bach’s famous solo violin partitas. Composed for unaccompanied violin, the work begins in a restricted vocal range, with vocal-quality contours, but quickly expands into an instrumental virtuosity—a song only a violin could sing.

The title track, Timo Andres’s “Words Fail,” was also commissioned specifically for this album. Performed here with Andres himself as the pianist, the piece capitalizes on the vividly expressive qualities of the violin, singing through a series of aching downward laments which gradually expand in register, complexity, and volume, intensified by overlapping canons in the piano. But halfway through, the violin changes its tune: a quiet, hopeful melody rises high above the piano, gradually climbing higher and higher until it is just a gentle whisper of harmonics.

The album closes with Lera Auerbach’s “T’Filah (Prayer)” for unaccompanied violin. Written as a reaction to the tragedy of the Holocaust, the piece explores the profound mystery of prayer and spirituality—those moments of greatest reflection, meditation, desperation, or despair when we feel the most at a loss for words. The melodic monologue unfolds across the full range of human emotion, Kutik’s somber tone and emotive phrasing capturing the profound intimacy of prayer.

Because when it comes to matters of love, loss, devotion, and devastation, these words don’t mean much—the music says much more.

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ALBUM REVIEW: The Debussy Effect from Kathleen Supové

by Maggie Molloy

Debussy’s music has a certain effect on people—a quiet way of enveloping the listener in its chromatic waves and cloudy washes of color. It’s a captivation that is difficult to put into words exactly; it’s almost as though his music softens the surrounding world and transports its listener into a hazy memory.

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New York-based pianist and performance artist Kathleen Supové explores our collective fascination with Debussy in her newest album, The Debussy Effect. No stranger to new music, Supové has carved out a name for herself in New York and far beyond as an artist who is continuously pushing the boundaries of creation, composition, and even costume in classical music.

Perhaps best known for her performing enterprise the Exploding Piano, Supové’s performances consistently feature cutting-edge new music paired with electronics, video, costumes and theatrical elements, visuals, speaking, and even choreography. The Debussy Effect, though perhaps more introspective and impressionistic in nature, boasts every bit as much personality.

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For this two-disc album Supové enlisted the talents of six composers to create brand new works inspired by Debussy and written for solo piano or piano with electronics. The resulting music spans the gamut from Gamelan to ragtime, bowed piano to ambient atmospheres, musique concrète to sound paintings, a sprinkle of stride piano—and a whole lot of sparkling virtuosity.

 

The album opens with Joan La Barbara’s “Storefront Diva, A Dreamscape,” inspired not only by Debussy but also by journals of artist and sculptor Joseph Cornell. Scored for piano and sonic atmosphere, the piece unfolds like an oceanfront dream, the hazy piano melodies twinkling amidst a tangle of bells, breath, chirping birds, ocean waves, Tibetan cymbals, and surreal storm clouds. Short flurries of bowed and plucked piano string embellishments blend the raw timbres of the piano right into the natural world around it.

It’s followed by a more cinematic (but no less dreamlike) take on Debussy: Matt Marks’ “Dr. Gradus vs. Rev. Powell.” The piece is a duel, of sorts, between Debussy’s virtuosic “Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum” and the 1955 film noir The Night of the Hunter. Lofty piano melodies dance amidst patches of Debussy’s harmonies and time-stretched clips of Robert Mitchum with Lillian Gish singing “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.”

Eric Kenneth Malcolm Clark’s “Layerings 3” evokes the living, breathing nature of Debussy’s works: the piece layers a number of different recordings of Supové performing and interpreting the piece in full—and never the same way twice. When superimposed on one another, these distinctive recordings blend into an entire kaleidoscope of sound, the piano melodies ringing and reverberating in ever-changing harmonies and rhythmic textures.

Randall Woolf’s “What Remains of a Rembrandt” explores the elusiveness of Debussy’s music—the way it floats dreamily from one idea to the next, drawing from sources as wide-ranging as Indonesian Gamelan, early jazz, and in this case, ambient electronica. Supové’s nimble fingers dance up and down the piano keyboard in gorgeous washes of sound which valiantly defy all traditional Western notions of structure and musical form.

An electroacoustic storm gathers in Annie Gosfield’s four-movement “Shattered Apparitions of the Western Wind,” a piece which combines fragments of Debussy’s dramatic piano prelude “What the West Wind Saw” with musique concrète recordings of Hurricane Sandy, which struck New York while Gosfield was composing the work. The two sound sources are intertwined and electronically morphed, creating an eerie soundscape that oscillates between tumultuous winds and ghostly silences.

Daniel Felsenfeld’s “Cakewalking (Sorry Claude)” takes a more lighthearted approach: in three short movements he deconstructs Debussy’s famous Children’s Corner classic, “Golliwog’s Cakewalk,” and turns it into a brand new swirling, twirling jazz tune with cheeky references to the original.

The album draws to a close with Jacob Cooper’s “La plus que plus que lente,” a twinkling dreamscape which incorporates time-stretched fragments of Debussy’s dazzling waltz “La plus que lente.” Supové’s fingers glide effortlessly across the densely textured piano melodies, each note sparkling like a star amidst a glittering night sky.

In fact, the whole album glistens. Supové brings personality, precision, charisma, and boundless creativity to each work, crafting a distinctly 21st century dialogue with the unforgettable work of Debussy. Equally at home in the soothing, calming color washes as she is amidst the stormy, chromatic chaos, Supové pays tribute to Impressionist master while also exploring the furthest reaches of his musical influence.

The effect Debussy has on listeners is difficult to describe—but this pianist just may have put her finger on it.

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