Mark Abel Gains Perspective with ‘Time and Distance’

by Dacia Clay

Composer Mark Abel has been a lot of things in his life: a classical musician, a denizen of the post-punk music scene in New York in the late ’70s and early ’80s, a newspaper journalist, and a classical musician and composer again. All of these things have a home in his creative glossary. As with much of Abel’s music, his latest album, Time and Distance, uses the centuries-old vehicle of art song to engage with contemporary issues—both the global and the personal.

In this interview, I speak with Mark about what art song is, why it’s his musical form of choice, and what he’s doing to bring it into the 21st century. We also talk about the pieces on his new album which deal with everything from Medusa and the #MeToo movement to his own personal “disgruntlements,” and his first go at making a music video.

Plus, check out his music video for “Those Who Loved Medusa” below:

The Politics of Music: Q&A with Max Richter

by Maggie Molloy

Max Richter writes a lot of music.

Music for film, music for ballet, music for rainy days and quiet reflection, music for political protesteven music for sleep. Drifting amid a collection of keyboards and synthesizers, Richter writes pensive melodies that sparkle with elusive subtleties of texture and timbre. His delicate electroacoustic sound worlds have unfolded across eight solo albums to date, and this coming Tuesday, you can hear music from two of them performed live in Seattle at the Moore Theatre.

Joined by the American Contemporary Music Ensemble, Max Richter will perform his album Infra in its entirety, along with selections from his 2004 album The Blue Notebooks, which was reissued earlier this summer with new arrangements, remixes, and a previously unreleased track.

We caught up with Richter by phone to talk about the world of sleep, the power of literature, and the politics of music.

Second Inversion: The Blue Notebooks has just been reissued after 15 years. How have you and your music changed during that time?

Max Richter: Re-encountering an old work is, in a way, meeting a previous version of yourself. Some things are different, some are the same. The central concerns are pretty much constant, but part of creativity is moving beyond what you know. There is a little pool of light that we inhabit, of things that we know, and each project is a step out of that and into the dark, into something different. So it’s interesting to re-engage with these pieces. Seeing them from the perspective of today, they feel fresh.

SI: You have said before that The Blue Notebooks was written as a protest album in the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The music also draws from the writings of Franz Kafka’s The Blue Octavo Notebooks and Czesław Miłosz’s Hymn of the Pearl and Unattainable Earth. How are those literary works connected to the Iraq War in your creative mind?

MR: The catalyst really was my sense that our political processes were moving into the realm of fiction. Kafka struck me as somebody very appropriate to invoke at that time. Kafka is so much the patron saint of doubt, in a way, and his use of the absurd to critique power structures in the society around him felt very relevant. And then Czesław Miłosz, writing about another war at another time, but very beautifully—and also about the redeeming powers of art. That last text, which prefaces The Trees on the record, is really about what can creativity do to make the world in some way better?

SI: Do you consider your music to be political?

MR: Yes, I do. I think if we’re making a creative contribution to society, we’re taking part in the conversation that is society, then we are engaging in political action, just by default. I’m not against the idea that art should have a kind of a social use, a kind of a utility. It’s for something. Music is for dancing, it’s for getting married, it’s for being buried, it’s for all sorts of activities. And it can also be a tool for thinking, and for engaging with the issues of society.

SI: At this concert you’re also performing Infra in its entirety. What is the story behind that album?

MR: Infra comes from a ballet I made for the Royal Opera House in London with Wayne McGregor. The starting point for the ballet was really the 7/7 bombing attacks in London. Wayne was interested also in one of the texts from T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, as a kind of jumping off point.

From a musical standpoint, because these attacks happened during rush hour, the victims were travelers. Of course, there’s a big history of traveling music within classical music. My favorite traveling music is probably the Winterreise of Schubert, so I submerged elements of Schubert’s music in the texture of Infra. You hear echoes of Winterreise and other bits of Schubert floating around in the background.

SI: Storytelling is a big part of your work, especially considering the amount of music you have written for film and dance. Do you always have a narrative in mind when you’re writing music? What about your more ambient compositions, like the 8-hour Sleep?

MR: Well, Sleep is a bit different because all the usual dynamics of music performance are sort of upended, really. In the case of Sleep, the piece is really an accompaniment to something, rather than the thing itself. So when we perform Sleep, the theme is the experience of the sleeping listener. And when we play the piece, we very much have the impression that we’re accompanying what’s happening in the room. It is the polar opposite of the ordinary performance dynamic, where you’re trying to project a story or a text to the audience. So it’s a very, very interesting situation for us. Everything is topsy-turvy in the world of Sleep.

SI: Did you write Sleep at night?

MR: Yes, I write a lot at night anyway. When we had tiny children I became sort of nocturnal, because that was the only time I could get any quiet—and the habit stuck. My writing hours for years and years have been late night hours.

SI: Do you listen differently at night?

MR: Well, at night everything’s quiet. You have a different kind of a mental space. At nighttime, it’s not the fact that the phone doesn’t ring, but it’s the fact that you know it won’t ring. That’s what makes it special.

SI: What is the ideal listening environment for people to experience your music?

MR: The records are conceived as records—they’re not individual tracks. I would love people to experience them as a whole, if possible. But at the same time, I’m very interested in what people bring to it. The pieces themselves are really propositions—they’re “what if?” questions. I have ideas about The Blue Notebooks, I have ideas about everything that I’ve written, but actually it’s the encounter with the listeners that turns that theory into something real.

SI: Many of your fans are not traditional classical music concert-goers. What do you think it is about your music that attracts a broader audience?

MR: It’s partly to do with a deliberate decision of mine which I took way, way back. When I was a student, I was writing in a kind of new complexity style—very, very dense modernist music. Which is what you were supposed to be writing if you were a university composer at that time. I just became dissatisfied with the reach of that material. I felt like I was talking to a tiny, tiny group of specialist listeners, who were either composers or new music professionals. I felt like that was somehow selling the idea of what creativity could be—sort of selling it short.

So I deliberately set out to develop a language which was more direct and plainspoken—something that could convey ideas in a very straightforward way. That meant engaging with different musical cultures, with electronics in the studio, and all these different things. It was a deliberate choice on my part, to rebuild my language from the ground up and remove a lot of the intellectual baggage.

Photo by Wolfgang Borrs.

SI: Do you believe classical music should be made more accessible in general, or do you think there’s a place for more challenging music too?

MR: There are a lot of questions about what makes music accessible—it’s in part to do with the material itself. Schoenberg remarked that if it’s popular it’s not art. And that became a kind of badge of honor—who cares if you listen? That kind of idea, from Milton Babbitt. It’s not that I’ve got anything against that material. There is some amazing music within that tradition. But it is a rather totalitarian kind of a viewpoint, and I find it politically troubling.

I think we kind of have a hangover from that era. Of course things have changed a lot, and it’s a very lively scene now, but we still have a lot of work to do to recover a broader constituency which just went away after the 60s, 70s, and 80s, when these sorts of attitudes were more prevalent. Actually I think most people don’t have a sense of prejudging material, and there’s nothing in itself about atonal music which makes it difficult. After all, people very happily listen to all kinds of stuff while they’re sitting in the movie house and the orchestra is screeching away in a very atonal situation. And people quite happily sit there eating their popcorn and it’s great. It isn’t the sounds per se, but it is the cultural baggage around it which has made things very difficult in terms of just letting people in. I think that’s a great pity, but a more direct, inclusive aesthetic is certainly a good starting point.

SI: What influence did studying with Luciano Berio have on your music?

MR: When I went to Berio I had just finished at the Royal Academy of Music in London, so I was firmly embedded in the modernist project. My music was very, very complicated and kind of impenetrable. He basically just subverted all my expectations and deflated a few of my grander ideas, and tried to lead me back to the origins of what it was I was trying to say. I trusted that he knew what he was doing because I really admired his music, and I think his music has an extraordinary generosity toward music history in it. To an extent unusual amongst the modernists of that time, his work embraced other music. There wasn’t that sense of erasing the past that you find in Boulez or someone like that.

I engaged with his ideas about a coexistence of different musical traditions and these things sort of talking to one another. A piece like Recomposed is very much in the footsteps of Berio. When you think about his Sinfonia, what he does with the Mahler for example in the second movement—it’s “Mahler Recomposed”! So his influence is everywhere in my work, in some ways.


Max Richter and the American Contemporary Music Ensemble perform at the Moore Theatre on Tuesday, Oct. 2 at 7:30pm. Click here for tickets and more information.

All Tomorrow’s Parties: Paying Homage while Looking Ahead with Nadia Shpachenko

Photo by Albert Chang.

by Dacia Clay

Nadia Shpachenko is a multiple Grammy-nominated pianist and Professor of Music at Cal Poly Pomona University who has never stopped playing with her toys.

Shpachenko’s love of playing—both with toys and on her piano, and sometimes, with her toy piano—is part of what makes her new album, Quotations and Homages, so much fun to listen to. She’s got this wide-open sense of adventure that comes across not only in her playing, but in the pieces she commissions and the composers from whom she commissions them. (Shpachenko seems to choose composers by their willingness to be co-conspirators in her exploits as much as for their compositional aptitude.) An album of pieces that pay homage to everyone from Messiaen to the Velvet Underground? Yes! A piece inspired by Stravinsky called “Igor to Please” written for 6 pianists on 2 toy pianos, 2 pianos, and electronics? Yay! Let’s do it!

In this interview, Nadia talks about why she’s such an advocate for new classical music, about the ideas that inspired this new album and the pieces therein, and about breaking piano strings. 

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.

Neal Kosaly-Meyer: Playing the Piano One Note at a Time

by Gabriela Tedeschi

Neal Kosaly-Meyer performing Gradus at NUMUS Northwest. Photo by James Holt.

Neal Kosaly-Meyer plays the piano one note at a time. Or at least, that’s the idea behind his ongoing performance series Gradus: For Fux, Tesla and Milo the Wrestler. He devotes an extended improvisation (20 minutes or longer) to each individual note on the piano, and to as many combinations of notes as possible.

This Saturday at the Chapel Performance Space he will perform one installment of the series: 40 minutes on one note (C sharp to be specific), 20 minutes on five notes in multiple octaves, and 60 minutes on two notes. Extended periods of silence are incorporated into all three sections. Kosaly-Meyer flips a coin to determine the number of notes per movement, how long the movements will be, and how much silence will be interspersed in each movement.

The idea for Gradus presented itself to Kosaly-Meyer over 30 years ago while he was a graduate student in the School of Music at the University of Washington. He had been thinking a lot about John Cage and how composers could follow in his footsteps by challenging preconceived notions of what music could be.

“It’s hard to find the frontier after a composer like Cage, who went right out to the edge of so many frontiers,” Kosaly-Meyer said. “This thought, learn to play the piano one note at a time, was kind of a thread to be able to push to do music that felt like it was on an edge, that felt like there was a risk being taken.”

Still, it wasn’t until he moved to San Diego with his wife and was able to play on a grand piano at a church he attended that he began to really explore the idea. Kosaly-Meyer believes performing on a grand piano is pivotal to Gradus.

“It’s not something you could do on an electronic keyboard or even an upright piano,” Kosaly-Meyer said. “I think to do something where you actually have enough sound, enough reverberation for a project like this to be interesting requires a grand piano.”

He began with 40 minutes improvising on the lowest A on the piano, and then began using combinations of As. Implicit in the idea of learning to play the piano one note at a time was the idea of learning to play differently by finding artistry in each sound. With attack, duration, dynamics, and intricate pedaling techniques, Kosaly-Meyer developed the ability to make a wide assortment of sounds using just one A.

His work temporarily came to a halt when he moved again and no longer had access to a grand piano. But years later, in 2001, his friend Keith Eisenbrey helped solve that problem.

Kosaly-Meyer met Eisenbrey while taking composition courses at the UW. They had done a lot of improvisation work together, and Kosaly-Meyer was able to develop the Gradus project and other works by bouncing ideas off of Eisenbrey. They became family when Eisenbrey married Kosaly-Meyer’s sister Karen, and in 2001 Kosaly-Meyer was able to continue with Gradus by rehearsing on Eisenbrey’s grand piano.

When he began sharing Gradus, it was positive feedback from Eisenbrey and other composers that emboldened Kosaly-Meyer to move forward with this musical venture. He began his annual performance series in 2002 in Seattle.

Kosaly-Meyer determined that Gradus works best with a two-hour, three-part structure that allows him to separate what he sees as three distinct ways of making music.

“I had come to a conclusion after working on this a little bit that playing with one note is a particular kind of making music, playing with two notes is another kind of making music that’s very different than just playing with one, and that playing with 3 or more notes is very different than playing with two,” he said.

Drawing inspiration from Cage, Kosaly-Meyer chose to incorporate silencewhich really means all unintended ambient soundsas an equal partner in the performance. If weather permits, Kosaly-Meyer leaves the windows open at the Chapel, allowing highway noise, barking dogs, and audiences’ creaking benches and coughs to form a chorus that supports his playing.

“I always found in improvising that music happened much more organically with an ensemble. Even if it was just an ensemble of two, it was so much easier for something musical to happen,” Kosaly-Meyer said. “Gradus is really the first kind of solo improvisation project I find that can stay musical and I think the trick is that it’s not really a solo project.”

This particular performance is dedicated to the late jazz pianist Cecil Taylor, who displayed incredible control over each and every note he played, no matter how intricate the performance. Kosaly-Meyer was also interested in exploring the interplay between the ideas of Taylor and Cage, who were at odds during their lifetimes because of Cage’s aversion to jazz and improvisation. Gradus combines Taylor’s spontaneity with Cage’s interest in silence as an equal partner.

“One thing that’s going on in Gradus is an attempt to harmonize a Cage way of thinking with a Cecil Taylor way of thinking,” Kosaly-Meyer said.


Neal Kosaly-Meyer presents Gradus: For Fux, Tesla and Milo the Wrestler this Saturday, July 14 at 8pm at the Chapel Performance Space at the Good Shepherd Center. For more information, click here.

Harold Meltzer on Music and Skyscrapers

by Dacia Clay

Composer Harold Meltzer was in Seattle recently for the Pacifica Quartet’s Pacific Northwest premiere of his piece Aqua. He came by the KING FM studios to see his former classmate Sean MacLean and to check out a Northwest Focus LIVE broadcast. When he got close enough, we nabbed him and pulled him into a studio to do an interview with Second Inversion.

Hear about his creative journey and how his anxiety about form resulted in a series of musical works about architecture—plus, hear what he’s been up to since making friends with form.


Harold Meltzer’s new album Variations on a Summer Day and Piano Quartet is out now on Open G Records. The album features performances by the Boston Chamber Music Society. Abigail Fisher joins the ensemble for Variations on a Summer Day with Jayce Ogren conducting. For more information, click here.

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.