Women in (New) Music: What Better Than Call An Interview?

by Lauren Freman

Quick! Imagine a genius. Don’t think about it, just, whatever comes to mind first. What do they look like? Do they wear glasses? How old are they? What color is their hair?

What color is their skin?

What’s their gender?

I’d wager a guess that most of us have a very specific image of the kind of person who counts as a genius. But there are glimmers of hope that the narrow parameters for the moniker are beginning to loosen: Shuri, the teenage tech-whiz character in the box-office record breaking film Black Panther, for example, or, more recently, Kendrick Lamar’s historic Pulitzer Prize win.

The fact is, we carry around our assumptions until they’re confronted. I was lucky enough to experience such a confrontation, when I sat down with new music chamber ensemble Kin of the Moon (comprised of Heather Bentley, Dr. Kaley Lane Eaton, and Leanna Keith), and dancer-choreographer Karin Stevens (of Karin Stevens Dance) to ask a few questions about their collaborative performance this Friday, What Better Than Call a Dance?

From left: Kaley Lane Eaton, Leanna Keith, Heather Bentley, Karin Stevens, Beth Fleenor.

The performance will feature original pieces by Bentley and Eaton, each inspired by dance forms running the gamut from waltz, tango, the Scottish cèilidh—and even EDM. Kin of the Moon’s more-or-less-through-composed music will be interwoven with improvised movement and music by Karin Stevens and clarinetist Beth Fleenor.

I admit I initially felt a certain skepticism around the name Kin of the Moon. This is a highly educated ensemble that plays intellectually complex, heady musicwhy choose a name that evokes a certain nag-champa-laden mysticism? Was that title truly serious enough to describe serious music that is to be taken seriously? I was surprised to find that the line came straight out of a poem from one of the most established figures in the English literary canon, W.B. Yeats. Strike one, assumptions.

What Better Than Call An Interview? with Kin of the Moon and Karin Stevens

We got exclusive access into the brilliant minds behind Kin of the Moon and Karin Stevens Dance. Join us as we discuss everything from W.B. Yeats, the #metoo movement, and of course, their April 20th performance What Better Than Call a Dance?

Posted by Second Inversion on Tuesday, March 27, 2018

 

Kaley Lane Eaton (KLE): I didn’t start composing until my last year of college, and I had never even thought about it until then. It had not even crossed my mind. I had been a concert pianist, I was winning concerto competitions, I was surrounded by classical music composers my entire life, studying opera, and all that. But I went to Whitman College and I took a course by the incredible Dr. Susan Pickett. She teaches a course called Women As Composers…I really had to reckon with the fact that I had never considered women as composerswhich was odd, given that I’m a woman musician, raised by a raging bra-burning feminist, who made sure that everything I consumed as a young child was feminist. And that says something, that even having a mother like that, who puts everything on the line to make sure that her daughter is aware that she can be anything, STILL I didn’t even know.

Karin Stevens (KS): It’s been essential to me to advocate for local new music, and to build this work that I do together with these amazing composers and artists in music in Seattle. Beth [Fleenor] and I go way back, we’ve done a lot of work together through various groups: the Seattle jazz composers ensemble, the Sam Boshnack quintet, she was a player in a work I did… playing music by Wayne Horvitz, Mike Owcharuk, Nate Omdal (just to give all those lovely people a shoutoutthat’s the advocate in me! We’ve gotta be building audiences for each other). For me, I hope that it’s another layer of the people that have come to support my work, to see music from another direction.

Leanna Keith (LK): I think part of it is that we try to focus on certain types of voices that you may not hear anywhere else. We tend to focus on a lot more female composers if we can. This particular show, it is genreless, going from all these different types of dance from the waltz to EDM, so it’s one of those things where, even if you’ve never heard anything like this before, that’s kind of the point.

Heather Bentley (HB): That EDM piece is really quite unique. This is one that Kaley put together.

KLE: Yeah, this is gonna be the final thing that concludes our pieces, but then [Karin and Beth] will come in on the bass drop. I write electroacoustic music, and I love EDM, I love dance, I love trap musicall of this stuff is really movement-based…We’re going to sing this Hildegard chant into this microphone that picks up our signal and takes little granules…and then turns them into a beat. So you’ll hear this kind of driving, four-on-the-floor beat that’s actually made out of our voices, from the Hildegard chant. So our singing will kind of dissolve into this beat that will emerge, and then [Karin and Beth] will join us

KS: —for the Finale.

KLE: It’s Hildegard and EDM, it’s like

LK: —Trap Hildegard!

Strike two, assumptionsthis time about the limits of what Serious Artists™ are allowed to draw inspiration from. To review: The finale of What Better Than Call A Dance? will be a club-music inspired dance piece, using electronics to manipulatein real-timea chant by an 11th century abbess into an EDM mix.

Incidentally, St. Hildegard von Bingen, said 11th century abbess, was a genius. She was a writer, scientist, composer, philosopher, playwright, medical healer, Doctor of the Church—and currently the only woman listed in the Wikipedia entry for “polymath.”

HB: When I was a kid, I always did many, many, many things…So, this is this idea that I’ve been trying on since #metoo. I should get a t-shirt, I want it to say “I’m a Genius Polymath.” As a woman, my first inclination is to be like “Oh, well isn’t that presumptuous?” I don’t know if I am a genius polymath or not, but why not say it anyway? …So that’s something to try on. I was asked to write a piece for the Thalia Symphony, and it’s going to be about the shape of the universe, which means I need to learn some astrophysics. So I said to myself “I can learn that, because I’m a genius polymath.” What if women—and especially younger girls—just had the sense that it was allowed to them, to say that about themselves, or just to have that self-knowledge? That takes a lot of ceilings away from one’s attitude.

KS: I’m fabulously excited about this side of Kin of the Moon, to be surrounded by all these women…The movements and sounds we make together matter—they have power, and have effect. So I’d like to imagine…that there is something beyond the traditional transaction of art consumption or aesthetic gesture—that we’re doing something that is important. We haven’t had a lot of support for our voices, especially in music…I’m just really excited to be a part of this energy that they’re building with their own music. I kinda don’t care if people like it or not.

LK: To be honest, this is very integral to what we do. The whole gender spectrum, and feminine identity, and these kinds of ideas, across age differences. Kaley, and myself and Heather, we span a rather different amount of time, and so have very different perspectives between the three of us…When we sit down and talk and start to make music together, we’re like, “What do we want to talk about in our music, what do we want to get across?” so a lot of this is what you’ll hear.

KLE: I have to add a little addendum to that article I wrote [“Things I Wish I Had Known When I Thought I Couldn’t Be A Composer”], that you have to just do it. You have to just commit, you have to just be like “I’m not gonna care if anyone tells me I can, I’m not gonna wait for funding, I’m not gonna wait. I’m just gonna do it, and I’m gonna advocate for myself, and I’m not gonna sit around being like ‘nobody wants to hear my music.” Who cares? Just, f***ing do it. So that is my number one advice for people, especially young women, who feel like “I don’t know if I can do this,” well, you can. Just do it.

Which is to say: strike three, assumptions.


What Better Than Call A Dance? is Friday, April 20 at 8pm at the Chapel Performance Space at the Good Shepherd Center. Tickets can be purchased at the door, on a sliding scale of $5-$15 (cash only). Click here for more information.

For a full transcript of the interview, please click here.


 

Lauren Freman is a multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, and composer, hell-bent on blurring the boundaries between high and low art. Follow her at www.freman.band, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

 

Ecco Chamber Ensemble Makes Waves for Earth Day

by Maggie Molloy

Photo by Dan Mastrian, Jr.

Immerse yourself in the music of water this Saturday at the next On Stage with KING FM concert hosted by Second Inversion! We’re thrilled to welcome to the stage the Ecco Chamber Ensemble in a special Earth Day program featuring music about, inspired by, or in some cases, made from water.

Comprised of soprano Stacey Mastrian, flutist Sarah Bassingthwaighte, and guitarist Mark Hilliard Wilson, the Ecco Chamber Ensemble is dedicated to exploring the intersection of art and social change. For this Saturday’s program, titled Water is Life, the group explores the vital role of water in both our survival and our art, provoking listeners to think critically about humanity’s impact on Earth.

The concert juxtaposes adventurous water works by the likes of John Cage and Alvin Lucier with the oceanic art songs of Gabriel Fauré, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Joaquín Rodrigo, José de Azpiazu, and John Corigliano. Also on the program is music of Toru Takemitsu, a composer who seamlessly blended the musical languages of East and West, exploring a “sea of tonality” in many of his works. Plus, the concert features new pieces penned by Ecco members Sarah Bassingthwaighte and guitarist Mark Hilliard Wilson.

Photo by Stacey Mastrian.

Some music on the program is even made from water itself. A world premiere by Stephen Lilly (written specifically for this event) features the ensemble performing alongside a block of melting ice, and audience members are invited to make their own music out of water for a piece composed by Cornelius Cardew.

Not only does the performance inspire audiences to listen to our environment, but it also urges us to take the next step: action. A portion of the proceeds from the concert, as well as audience donations, will go to the People for Puget Sound, a water advocacy group that has worked for the past 20 years on state, county, and municipal levels to create cleaner water for the native species and the humans in this area.

To learn more, we talked with the Ecco Chamber Ensemble about Earth, environmentalism, and the music of water.

Second Inversion: Water exists in many different forms. What are some of the nontraditional instruments or musical elements you are incorporating in this performance in order to capture its essence?

Photo by Britt Olsen-Ecker.

Stacey Mastrian: To quote the character Stefon from Saturday Night Live, “This place has everything”: an egg slicer, a bucket of rocks, bird-warblers, dripping ice, guitar drumming, a plastic bag, an oatmeal container, a photosensitive digital water instrument, and triangles and a pot lid in a bucket of water.

We also have electronic manipulation of the voice and the incorporation of physical theater with related utterances (Cage’s Song Books), recordings of water from all over the region and the use of vases, bowls, etc. (Lucier’s Chambers), and water sounds created digitally via transforming the sound of orating politicians (Lucier’s Gentle Fire, realized by Stephen Lilly, based on an idea of mine). 

Tom DeLio’s work that light for soprano playing percussion incorporates silences that aurally render the visual sparseness of poetry by Cid Corman, an American composer who lived in Japan.  Additionally, the consonants in the work bring to life the onomatopoeic elements of the nature images therein.

Sarah Bassingthwaighte: My piece, H2O, uses primarily unusual sounds, with no traditional notation. Key clicks, tapping on the guitar, rubbing our hands together and slapping our hands against our legs are sounds we’re using to represent rain.  We utilize the unvoiced syllable “p” to represent snow, egg slicer and dissonant harmonics to represent ice, crumpling paper and scraping the edge of a quarter along the string of the guitar to represent frost, bending notes to represent water droplets, and a soup pot with a whisk and spatula to create the sounds of a storm. 


Mark Hilliard Wilson:
My piece Wind and Water features an exploration of stillness and motion and internal drones on the guitar.  In the end it is ultimately an exploration of my testing your patience with having two players play in two different time signatures, or heartbeats if you will. Too often it seems that we hold an opinion that we will not yield on only to find that there can be another perspective that fits equally in the measure, so to speak, but just at a different division.

SI: What makes water compelling to explore through music? 

Stacey Mastrian: The sounds and images.  Water is interwoven throughout every aspect of our life, from our physical makeup, to our tears of joy and sadness, to the multitudinous descriptions of nature that we emphasize in poetry and music.

Mark Hilliard Wilson: Water is so mysterious and yet so normal, so essential to every day. What I find so compelling about water is its mutability.

Photo by Sarah Bassingthwaighte.

SI: What do you hear when you listen to water? Has putting this program together made you hear water differently?

Sarah Bassingthwaighte: Something I’ve noticed since working on this program is the constant presence of water in our lives. I’m listening to the waves of Puget Sound lap against the shore as I type this, I notice the sounds of the creek in the woods as I walk my dog, water as I pour my tea or brush my teeth or wash the dishes. I appreciate the great need for water after I go for a run. I even had the experience this last week, while backcountry skiing for four days, that we were at an elevation higher than any of the rivers or streams and had to melt snow for water for all of our needs. 

Stacey Mastrian: I am more closely aware of water now.  I am paying attention to it in all of its states and “see” the white noise, the distinct variances in dripping, and the changes in pitches and rhythm. This project also likely made people look at me differently, since for a while I was going around recording every single type of water that I encountered!

It definitely has made us all learn more about what is going on with water in our region and around the world, feeling even more strongly about the need for changes on our planet. Since I saw the film Chasing Coral at SIFF last summer (it is on Netflix—watch it!), I started thinking about the water on Earth as an entity that is ill; particularly striking to me was this description:  “A temperature increase of just 2 degrees Celsius may not seem like a lot in the air, but for marine life, this is like living with a constant fever.”  How would we feel going around with a 102.2 degree fever at all times and without having a reprieve for the rest of forever?

Photo by Stacey Mastrian.


SI: This program features a mix of classical works and experimental works. How do these two general styles differ in their interpretations of water?

Sarah Bassingthwaighte: Offhand, it seems to me that the more traditional works refer to water in terms of story—that something happened next to the water’s edge or that the water provided a setting for the story. The more experimental works seem to focus more on the sensory aspects of water (color, sounds, temperature, textures) or on our interpretation of these senses (how water is calming or invigorating).  

Stacey Mastrian: The more traditional works tend to be “about” water, and some of the more experimental works actually use water itself (or objects related to water) as sonic materials or to control some aspect of the work. This concert juxtaposes very new and more adventurous works with gorgeous art songs; with one exception (Fauré’s “Au bord de l’eau”) all of the works are from the 20th and 21st centuries.

Photo by Becca Bassingthwaighte.

SI: Many of the works on this program also feature aleatoric elements—how does this tie in with the concert’s broader themes of water, environmentalism, and social change?

Sarah Bassingthwaighte: A link between what we’re doing and social/environmental issues is that when we play much of this music, we are expected to improvisethat is, the music is affected by the choices we make and is not dictated to us.  Likewise, how we respond to the issues concerning water will require explicit choices and actions that we makeif we want safe drinking water (such as in Haiti), we will have to work to keep the water clean or to decontaminate it. If we’re running out of water (such as in Cape Town) we’ll have to create ways to preserve it. 

In our music, as in these issues surrounding water, we are asked to be resourceful and creative and to take action. 

Stacey Mastrian: Composer Stephen F. Lilly, on his new composition, Melt III:

Humans have spent centuries trying to control water—fixing the paths of some rivers while creating new channels for others, harnessing the power of its currents, and even using it to farm arid land. In this piece that relationship is reversed. The melting block of ice controls the pacing of the instrumentalists, whose dynamic levels and expressive abilities are constrained so as to balance with the delicate sound of dripping. To further bring the role of water to the foreground, the piece begins and ends with the water dripping on an empty stage.

As the crystalline structure of the ice breaks down, drop by drop, so does the ensemble slowly deconstruct the harmonic series of their lowest note–the open E produced by the guitar’s sixth and lowest string. However, this process is viewed as if through a microscope by the slow pacing of the piece, controlled and coordinated by the dripping of ice-melt. Thus, we are much more likely to focus on each individual event as it occurs rather than hear any overall relationship or trend, much in the same way a significant portion of the population cannot see beyond the current weather in their own backyard to the alarming trend threatening their very existence.


Second Inversion presents the Ecco Chamber Ensemble in Water is Life this Saturday, April 21 at 7:30pm at Resonance at SOMA Towers in Bellevue. Click here for tickets.

VIDEO PREMIERE: Pascal Le Boeuf’s ‘Into the Anthropocene: I. Cognitive Awakening’

by Gabriela Tedeschi

The cover of Into the Anthropocene, Grammy-nominated composer Pascal Le Boeuf’s new video EP,  is a photo from the Trinity nuclear test of 1945. That’s because the Manhattan project’s successful test of the atomic bomb is widely considered to be the start of the Anthropocene epoch, an ecological era characterized by significant changes in the earth’s ecology and biodiversity as a result of human activity.

Into the Anthropocene tells the story of humanity’s impact on the earth in three movements: “Cognitive Awakening”, “Requiem for the Extinct”, and “Amid the Apocalypse.” With the use of electronic layering, “Cognitive Awakening” features Gina Izzo on the flute, bass flute, and piccolosometimes all at once.

As a somber, legato melody unfolds over long, sustained chords, the piece is augmented by birdlike twittering from the piccolo, key clattering, electronic sounds, and muffled dialogue that can’t quite be made out. “Cognitive Awakening” is a beautiful evocation of nature, but at the same time, a sobering reminder of what has been lostand what might still be lost.

We’re thrilled to premiere the video for Le Boeuf’s “Cognitive Awakening,” performed by Gina Izzo.


Learn more about Le Boeuf’s new piece in our interview with the composer below:

Second Inversion: Into the Anthropocene features three movements scored for the flute family, viola, and cello, respectively. What was the inspiration behind this form and how do the individual movements relate to one another?

Pascal Le Boeuf: Into the Anthropocene is scored like a lead sheet to be inclusive of any instrument. The score specifies only the most essential elements to dictate structure, basic ideas, and guide improvisation. Beyond the conservation ecology concept, my intention was to create a series of simple pieces to invite classically trained musicians to experiment with improvisation and hardware electronics (guitar pedals). I generally engage with improvisation as a compositional device to provide performers with a platform for self-expression. This allows for a different interpretation with each performance (as opposed to a ridged set of directions to translate the composer’s singular intended expression). 

Commissioned by choreographer Kristin Draucker for the Periapsis Open Series, Into the Anthropocene was written for violinist Todd Reynolds whom I met at the Bang on a Can Summer Music Festival in 2015. I worked with Todd as well as violinist Maya Bennardo while at Bang on a Can, and later completed the piece with the help of violinist Sabina Torosjan while in residence at the I-Park Foundation’s 2015 Composers + Musicians Collaborative Residency Program. In addition to performing with electronics and improvising in his own music, Todd occasionally works as an educator, specializing in improvisation and electronic music. He has always been kind to me, offering advice and artistic input, especially when I was first began working with “contemporary classical” identifying musicians. I wanted to return his kindness with a piece of music, so when choreographer Kristin Draucker commissioned me to compose a piece, I thought of Todd immediately.

Unfortunately, due to unforeseen circumstances, Todd was suddenly unable to attend the recording session, so the same day, Todd and I called the best musicians we knew who were uniquely qualified to perform the music (i.e. musicians with experience in classical, improvisation, and electronic music). I thought it best to split the responsibility between multiple performers, and assigned the movements based upon the musical personalities of the performers: Mvt 1 – flutist Gina Izzo, Mvt 2 – violist Jessica Meyer, and Mvt 3 – cellist Dave Eggar. In retrospect, I see this outcome as a happy accident, which not only benefited the music by introducing a variety of timbres and musical personalities, but led to numerous collaborative projects with these wonderful musicians.

The formal structure of the three movements, and the conservation ecology concept in general, were initially inspired by author Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind and were further developed through conversations with notable conservation biologist Claudio Campagna and ecological/behavioral biologist Bernard Le Boeuf (my father). 

In Sapiens, Harari recounts our history as a species through a lens of evolutionary biology, postulating that biology sets the limits for global human activities, and that culture shapes what happens within those limits. I became particularly interested in prehistoric sapiens, their initial diaspora, the cognitive revolution, and the resulting extinctions of other species as a result of human impact. Following the cognitive revolution, humans developed the skills necessary to expand beyond the Afro-Asian landmass into Australia, the Americas, and various remote islands. Before humans intervened, these hosted an array of unique and flourishing species ranging from two-and-a-half ton wombats in Australia, to giant ground sloths and saber-toothed cats in the Americas. But without exception, within a few thousand years of setting foot on these territories, humans managed to kill off tremendous collections of diverse species. As Harari puts it, “Homo sapiens drove to extinction about half of the planet’s large mammals long before humans invented the wheel, writing, or iron tools,” including other human species with whom we once coexisted and even interbred. 

As a musician, I find it interesting to explore the extensions of patterns in sound, but when we consider the extensions of the destructive behavioral patterns we exhibit as a species, it is difficult to imagine a positive outcome. The three sub-movements (I: Cognitive Awakening / II: Requiem for the Extinct / III: Amid the Apocalypse) outline the past, present, and future of our ecological history. Through Harari’s lens, conversations with Campagna and my father, and subsequent research, I learned about the extent to which our planet is currently experiencing a crisis of mass extinction. We are losing species, whole ecosystems, and genes at an ever-increasingly rapid rate. Today, species disappear each year at a rate hundreds of times faster than when humans arrived on the scene. As a species known for 100,000 years to bury our dead, it is amazing we have such little respect for the deaths of other species, dozens of which are disappearing daily as a result of human activities—activities sufficient to mark a new epoch based upon human impact on the Earth’s geology and ecosystems: the Anthropocene.

SI: How does “Cognitive Awakening” relate to the beginning of the Anthropocene and human impact on the Earth?

PLB:
The cognitive revolution is a precursor to our dominance as a species and thus a precursor to the Anthropocene. According to Harari, humans became a dominant species through our ability to cooperate flexibly in large numbers—an ability derived from our unique capacity to believe in things existing purely in the imagination. The evolution of this ability is referred to as the Cognitive Revolution (c. 70,000 BCE). The first movement represents this cognitive awakening musically through an additive progression of increasingly complex elements. Something like this:

  • Static noise
  • Static droning 
  • Melody
  • Harmony
  • Call and Response
  • Speech
  • Improvisation
  • Electronic Manipulation

I like to imagine that the evolutionary progression that resulted in language, expression, and cognitive awareness has an analog in the development of music. This is how I chose to represent such a progression based upon my personal understanding of music (and perhaps based on the order in which many learn/teach music). 

SI: Into the Anthropocene features a lot of electronic layering and manipulating sounds. How does this compositional choice tie in with the overarching themes of the piece? What were some of the unique challenges or rewards of composing in this way?

My intention was to create a series of simple pieces to invite classically trained musicians to experiment with improvisation and hardware electronics (in this case, guitar pedals). Though I have a background in electronic music and enjoy complex approaches, I made a special effort to keep the electronic elements simple and accessible to performers without prior experience in electronic music.

Guitar pedals can be acquired easily at various prices at nearly any music store and are much easier to use than complex software programs like Max MSP, Protools, Logic, etc. (and are easier to understand). Each pedal represents a sound effect (in order from input to output): loop, reverb, vibrato, and delay. Each sound effect has basic parameters that are uniform across most brands. I hope that more classically trained musicians will be encouraged by this project to experiment in a similar fashion, as a gateway into composition, independent artistic development, and interdisciplinary collaborations with artists from backgrounds that transcend traditional classical environments. Every musician involved in this project is a wonderful role model for unconventional approaches to a career that began in classical music.**

**(Dave Eggar, a founding member of the FLUX Quartet, can also be heard on the opening of Coldplay’s Viva La Vida or Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange; Gina Izzo frequently performs with pedals in various contexts, and co-founded the flute and piano duo RighteousGIRLS; and Jessica Meyer, in addition to performing a one-woman show with loop pedal and viola, is a fantastic composer with recent premieres by A Far Cry, PUBLIQuartet, and Roomful of Teeth.)

The compositional choice to include electronic elements preceded the conceptual development of the piece. I view these electronic elements as raw materials for expression, and worked with them to articulate the conservation ecology concepts I described earlier. Most of the compositional challenges I faced were related to the strict parameters imposed by the loop pedal. Using a basic loop pedal means the form of each movement is additive, and will inevitably look something like this:

1
1+2
1+2+3
1+2+3+4
1+2+3+4+5

…with elements of improvisation and knob turning interspersed between stages. 

More complex loop pedals offer more structural options, but I wanted to keep this simple. Fortunately, placing the loop pedal at the beginning of the signal path allowed the subsequent effects pedals to sculpt/develop the existing looped material. Additional challenges included working with each performer to translate the score for their instrument. Since the composition doesn’t specify a particular instrument, I had the pleasure of working with each performer to find extended techniques that produced the desired effects. For example, Dave imitates a rhythmic shaker at the beginning of Mvt III by swiping his hand back and forth along the body of his cello, but if Gina were to imitate a shaker, she would blast air into her mouth piece with consonant sounds like this: [T k t k, T k t k].

The most rewarding aspect of this process is seeing how different performers interpret the music, and how rewarding the process of interpretation can be. Frequently, especially when performing standards, jazz musicians will prioritize the creative expressions of the performer over the composer. One might say the composition is not what makes the music work, but the way it’s played. When John Coltrane plays “My Favorite Things,” it sounds good because of the way he and the band play it—it’s not about the composition. The composition it just a guide. This freedom allows performers a chance to put themselves in the music, self-expression, a cathartic release. Audiences can feel it when it’s happening. I want to bring this aesthetic to classically-trained musicians. These movements are only a guide to highlight the individuals performing them. The performers and what they think about when they interpret this music… they make it work. I only provide a platform.


Pascal Le Boeuf’s Into the Anthropocene video EP will be released April 20. The album art photo is from the Los Alamos National Laboratory, and was taken 16 milliseconds after the first atomic bomb test.

Click here to pre-order the video EP on Bandcamp.

The Artist and the Antihero: David Lang’s New Symphony Premieres in Seattle

by Maggie Molloy

The notion of the artist as the hero is one of the central tenets of the Romantic era, with composers from Beethoven to Berlioz crafting symphonies of enormous scope and heroic splendor. Composer David Lang turns that notion on its head in his symphony without a hero, which receives its world premiere this week at the Seattle Symphony, conducted by Ludovic Morlot. The program juxtaposes Lang’s new work against the epitome of the heroic symphony archetype: Richard Strauss’s epic tone poem, A Hero’s Life.

The titles are nearly exact opposites. As it turns out, so is the music. Second Inversion’s Maggie Molloy talks with Lang about his new symphony and the relationship between artist and hero in the 21st century.

Audio edited by Dacia Clay.

Music in this interview:

David Lang: child: “short fall” (Cantaloupe Music)
Sentieri Selvaggi; Carlo Boccadoro, conductor

David Lang:
the little matchgirl passion: “from the sixth hour” (Cantaloupe Music)
Los Angeles Master Chorale; Grant Gershon, conductor

Richard Strauss: A Hero’s Life: The Hero’s Battlefield (CSO Resound)
Chicago Symphony Orchestra; Bernard Haitink, conductor


Seattle Symphony performs David Lang’s symphony without a hero Feb. 8 and 10 at Benaroya Hall. For tickets and additional information, please click here.

LIVE VIDEO STREAM: A Far Cry’s “The Blue Hour” on Friday, Nov. 10 at 5pm PT / 8pm ET

by Maggie Molloy

One woman’s story comes to life through the voice of five composers tonight in A Far Cry’s performance of The Blue Hour. Based on Carolyn Forché’s abecedarian poem “On Earth,” the song cycle explores the last hour of one woman’s life, the fleeting memories from A to Z that flash before her eyes—and how her one single story is ultimately many stories: an intimate snapshot of our shared humanity.  

Grammy-winning jazz singer Luciana Souza joins the chamber orchestra in this song cycle written by a collaborative of five leading composers: Rachel Grimes, Sarah Kirkland Snider, Shara Nova, Angélica Negrón, and Caroline Shaw.

And although the concert itself is in Boston, you can still hear every minute of this musical tour de force right here on Second Inversion during our live video stream of the performance this Friday, November 10 at 5pm PT / 8pm ET. Visit the video link below to tune in to tonight’s live stream, or click here to stream directly from Facebook.

In anticipation of tonight’s performance, we asked each of the five composers one question about the poetry, music, and meaning behind The Blue Hour:

Second Inversion: What is this poem about, and how did it inspire the music?

Rachel Grimes: Carolyn Forché’s remarkable poem “On Earth” is a profoundly beautiful and devastating exploration of the last moments before death from the perspective of a woman recollecting her life in shards of crystalline memories. Through the lens of these visceral personal moments are glimpses into different points in time in human history, recalling childhood, the fallout of war, a sense of home, intimacy, loss, nostalgia, the mundane, and the epic. 

In a phone conversation with all of the composers, the poet welcomed us to excerpt the poem in order to better serve the music and the new work as a whole. We were overwhelmed at this generous invitation, and vowed to honor the poem and to be true to the feeling of the whole work. We set about to excerpt it, choosing passages that felt ripe for music-making, while maintaining her original abecedary form. We consulted with Joseph Cermatori to sculpt a unified libretto, and to follow that original intent of the form. The poem was endlessly inspiring: so many images, particular and visual, and so many emotions and opportunities to investigate the human experience on a very intimate scale. Especially inspiring was the chance to explore, through this perspective of this one life coming to an end, the experience of facing death and the treasury of life’s myriad experiences that are in so many ways universal to all.

SI: What makes Luciana Souza the perfect singer for this song cycle’s premiere?

Shara Nova: When we composers first got together, we knew we wanted to find a singer who was able to read what we anticipated to be a challenging score, who had a wide vocal range and also had a sound closer to folk or jazz. Luciana Souza (pronounced like Loo-See-Ah-Nah Soh-za) has a dynamism and a warm, natural voice that really excited us.

Once I knew that she was going to be the singer, I started writing some of the movements on guitar, influenced by the great Brazilian songwriters like Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil, and then once I had that foundation, I expanded the arrangements for A Far Cry and removed the guitar parts. I wanted the music to be very tuneful and song oriented, as well as take the opportunity to really show off and explore the color and vibrancy of this extraordinary ensemble.  

SI: What was the composition process like?

Sarah Kirkland Snider: We got together one weekend and spent a lot of time reading through the text together, talking about it, brainstorming ideas. We each highlighted the bits of text that we felt the strongest connection to and then divided it up along those lines, with the idea that we’d interweave our voices in movements of varying length, texture, style, and emotion.

We decided there would be moments of spoken text, moments in which the ensemble sang and spoke, and a canonic refrain that happened three times, written by Caroline. Shara was the first one to start writing, and she sent us some computer mock-ups of her drafts. Some of my assigned bits of text followed hers, so in those movements I used a motive of hers as an ostinato or jumping-off point, or made harmonic and rhythmic decisions based upon hers, depending on whether I wanted contrast or continuity.

We all worked in this fashion, brick by brick, sharing our drafts with each other and responding to them musically, striving to maximize cohesion between the movements and forward momentum in the overall form. It was great fun getting inside the compositional mind of some of my favorite fellow composers. What I love about this piece is that, to my ear, it hangs together as a single journey, but you can hear our different voices emerge at different moments. This lends the music the same sense of collective consciousness that is innate to the poem itself. 

SI: How does the process of collaborative composition serve to illustrate or enhance the meaning behind this poem?

Angélica Negrón: There’s moments of deep sorrow, empathy, mystery, despair, warmth, confusion, intimacy and so many other layers and nuances in between. By bringing together five different composers each with a unique perspective and a distinctive sound, we’re able to explore more profoundly these layers of meaning and capture the complexity of this person’s life. Each composer opens up a new world of possibilities of the text and by allowing ourselves to being vulnerable and receptive of other’s interpretations, we find new connections and make new discoveries.

I feel this piece weaves together not only each composers’ individual interpretation of the text but also the common ground among us that we found along the way.  I’ve never been a part of such a deeply meaningful and truly collaborative project in which everyone’s voices are highly complementary to each other yet add a unique and essential ingredient to the whole. There’s a shared sensibility and an unusual connection between the composers that’s hard to describe, and this poem is at the center of it all. 

SI: What does this piece sound like?

Caroline Shaw: I’d say it sounds like micro and macro visions of the earth—precious sonic details emerging from and receding into a mysterious whole.


Visit our website on Friday, November 10 at 5pm PT / 8pm ET to watch a LIVE video stream of A Far Cry’s The Blue Hour with Luciana Souza. To learn more about our live-streaming video broadcasts of A Far Cry, click here.

A Single String, An Infinite History: The Art of the Berimbau

by Maggie Molloy

At first glance, the berimbau looks like a pretty simple instrument. A wooden bow strung with a single steel string and a hollow gourd resonator—how complicated could it be?

But despite its simple appearance, the berimbau is actually quite rich with history and musical nuance. The instrument originated in Sub-Saharan Africa before making its way to Brazil via the transatlantic slave trade. It became integral musical accompaniment for the Afro-Brazilian capoeira, which was in itself an art of liberation. Capoeira was a martial art disguised as dance and practiced among the African slaves in Brazil as an inconspicuous means of survival, self-defense, and cultural identity.

Arcomusical is a nonprofit organization that seeks to preserve and expand the history of the berimbau through composition, performance, community, research, and education. This weekend, Projeto Arcomusical is travelling to Washington to share the music and history of the berimbau through performances in Bellingham (Nov. 5) and Seattle (Nov. 6).

The program features a blend of original works from Projeto Arcomusical’s album MeiaMeia, traditional bow music from Brazil and Angola, a new composition by ensemble member Kyle Flens, and a Chamber Music America commission by composer Elliot Cole.

We were thrilled for the opportunity learn more through our conversation with Arcomusical founder and director Gregory Beyer, a composer, percussionist, and educator who embodies the nonprofit’s commitment to both the history and the future of the berimbau:

Second Inversion: Can you tell us about the historical significance of the berimbau? Why is the advancement of this instrument (and musical bows in general) important in the 21st century?

Gregory Beyer: The berimbau is an icon of African musical culture in Brazil and, thanks to its association with the worldwide practice of capoeira, throughout the world. It is precisely this connection to the popular body game which, scholars argue, saved it from an otherwise certain extinction. Other African bows that once existed in Brazil are either near extinction or are totally forgotten. And it should be said that the relationship of the berimbau and capoeira is mutually beneficial. Capoeira, too, faced harsh oppression in Brazil’s history. It is capoeira’s connection to the berimbau that allowed it to disguise itself as a musical pastime, as a dance, and kept it from further persecution and elimination. And through the poetry of the music, capoeira and the berimbau have become powerfully laden with a collective African cultural consciousness in Brazil.

SI: What inspires you most about the instrument?

GB: Its elegant simplicity and the intimacy of its voice. Unlike most other musical instruments that have a “mouth” that points outward to an intended audience, the “mouth” of the cabaça of the berimbau faces the belly of the performer. In fact, the stomach becomes an integral surface to create the instrument’s signature timbral shift, the “open/close” or “wah-wah” of its voice. I met a wonderful Brazilian capoeirista in Belo Horizonte who told me that when she was twice pregnant, in each pregnancy she would hold the instrument particularly close to her belly and play softly so that her yet-to-be born daughters could hear. I like to think that the instrument is capable of some of the most intimate lullabies on the planet.

SI: You first discovered the berimbau through the music of Brazilian percussionist Naná Vasconcelos. How did he inspire you in your training, and how is Arcomusical expanding upon (or contrasting with) his work?

GB: My introduction to the instrument was not through capoeira but through the work of Naná Vasconcelos. Naná was my hero and first big inspiration to play the berimbau at a high level. His virtuosity coupled with the immediacy of the voice of the instrument, and his own signature ability to blend his own voice with the instrument to create a meta-instrument, were powerfully moving to me. I had two opportunities to spend time with him, and each time was sheer joy. I was so thankful to him for his connection to the instrument and to his musical voice. And I know that I am not alone in this. Naná has inspired so many of my friends and colleagues who play or appreciate the musical bow.

Arcomusical sees Naná as a guiding spirit to our mission to spread awareness of the musical bow here in the United States (where it is little known) and to bring majesty to its voice. In doing this work, we aim to create a culture and a community in the United States that will enjoy playing musical bows for years to come. We know that Naná’s spirit will live on in the work that we do. I love the fact that Arcomusical has become a 501(c)(3) organization because it legally belongs to no one. This is a legal underpinning of an idea that has taken hold for us rather intensely this past year. This work we do is not about us. Rather, Arcomusical is a vehicle through which the berimbau and its African cousins will live long and prosper.

SI: In what ways is the music of Projeto Arcomusical similar to and different from the Western classical tradition?

GB: We definitely approach our music making like a classical chamber music group. We discuss form, phrasing, dynamics, intonation, cueing, and so on. Yet we take very distinct cues from the tradition of capoeira that make our shows and our music-making in general very special to us.

Because the berimbau is played in an oral tradition, we memorize everything that we perform to remove the music stand from the stage. Furthermore, capoeira is such an expressive physical activity that we feel compelled to move, to dance, to breathe, to step in time, together, as a single unit, to enhance our connection with our shared music-making. And because the berimbau is, unlike a violin or any member of the Western classical string family for that matter, a very limited instrument in terms of its available pitches at any given moment, our compositions are not unlike those written for a handbell choir. Each member of the group is responsible for only certain notes in a given melodic line, in a given harmonic field, etc. So our melodies and counterpoint lines are literally shared and dispersed throughout the ensemble constantly. And the audience can literally SEE the music being passed around the ensemble. In this sense, we bring a synergy of the Western and non-western traditions to our unique form of chamber music-making.

Beyond this, the music itself takes many cues from the tradition. My most recent sextet for the ensemble, Berimbau Sextet no. 2, “Traíra” takes huge inspiration from the first commercial recording of capoeira released in Brazil. When in 1963 Mestre Traíra and his companions released “Capoeira da Bahia,” that recording became the gold standard for a generation of capoeiristas that now hold the highest positions of mastery and leadership in the capoeira community. On my Fulbright and sabbatical in Belo Horizonte, I generated over 70 pages of transcriptions from this recording and I utilized elements of those transcriptions as inspiration for the work. This kind of music composition, alongside singing traditional songs and engaging the audience in the capoeira roda experience, make for a unique and unforgettable concert experience. [Editor’s note: The roda is a circle (or half-circle) formed by the musicians, inside of which the capoeiristas perform movements.]

SI: Can you tell us about the new grant-funded work on the program, “Roda” by Elliot Cole?

GB: Working together with Elliot Cole over the past year has been richly rewarding. Cole, a deeply sensitive and intelligent artist, sensed the seriousness of purpose that Arcomusical brings to its work. While preparing to write “Roda,” he purchased and learned how to play a berimbau, studied our scores from MeiaMeia, and found a capoeira community in his hometown of Jersey City with whom he trained (and continues to train!) capoeira. In “Roda,” Cole utilizes elements from the capoeira tradition in his own unique way. The result is incredible. “Roda” is the most powerful commission that Arcomusical has received from a composer outside of the organization.

I am thrilled about our current concert program, “Rodar na roda,” and Elliot’s new work is the grand finale. It is an incredible journey for us—a four-movement, 21-minute composition that is easily the most thrilling work we have yet to bring to life.

SI: What are you most looking forward to with this performance, and what can audience members expect?

GB: My research in Brazil in 2015-2016 has completely transformed the content and presentation of Arcomusical’s live performances. In concerts, Projeto Arcomusical now presents capoeira music in between our original chamber music selections and we actually invite the audience to come up on stage and create a “roda” as we play capoeira in the penultimate break immediately prior to our performance of Elliot Cole’s “Roda.” After our shows, we always invite audiences onto the stage to talk and to try playing our instruments. The tactile immediacy of holding a unique musical instrument for the first time always brings joy and smiles. We especially love it when we have children and families in the audience because it makes this audience interaction afterward all the more vibrant and engaging.


Projeto Arcomusical performs at Western Washington University’s Performing Arts Center on Sunday, Nov. 5 at 7:30pm, and at Cornish College of the Arts’ Kerry Hall on Monday, Nov. 6 at 8pm. For tickets and additional information, please click here.

Expanding the Piano Keyboard: Jesse Myers on Experimenting with Electronics

by Maggie Molloy

Pianist Jesse Myers. Photo by Lee Goldman.

When it comes to the piano, Jesse Myers likes to think outside the standard keyboard.

Last year, he created an entire percussion orchestra inside his piano for his performances of John Cage’s prepared piano masterpiece, the Sonatas and Interludes. This year, he’s forgoing the screws and bolts in favor of something a little more electric.

On Wednesday, July 12 at the Royal Room, Myers presents Living in America: a concert of solo piano works by living American composers. Urban, adventurous, and uniquely American, the program highlights the groundbreaking work of iconic minimalist composers, as well as brand new 21st century works for acoustic piano and electronics.

The first half of the program features John Adams’ misty and modal China Gates alongside Philip Glass’ half-hypnotic, half-neurotic Mad Rush and a selection of his virtuosic Piano Etudes. The second half showcases music for piano and electronics, including Christopher Cerrone’s 21st century urban nocturne Hoyt-Schermerhorn, Missy Mazzoli’s ethereal Orizzonte, and her swirling fantasia Isabelle Eberhardt Dreams of Pianos. Steve Reich’s pulsing, palindromic Piano Counterpoint finishes the program.

The evening also features a set of rarely-performed music for solo voice with electronics and piano, performed by soprano Stacey Mastrian. She lends her voice to two generations of American composers, ranging from Earle Brown and Morton Feldman to Kristian Twombly and Steve Wanna.

In anticipation of the concert, we sat down with Myers to talk about urban sounds, electronics, and expanding the sonic possibilities of the piano:

Second Inversion: What inspires you most about exploring the expanded possibilities of the piano?

Jesse Myers: Discovery. It’s not that I’m tired of the piano in the traditional sense—it’s really about the two words you just used: exploring and expanding. The Steinway grand is the benchmark of great American craftsmanship, and it has stopped evolving.

While new music is, of course, still being written for the piano, new music that involves electronics is a way for composers to personally contribute to a new sort of evolution of the piano.  I am not sure composers are thinking of their work in that way, but as a pianist and a curator of the repertoire, I can’t help but see their work in that light. 

The great thing about electronics, prepared piano, and extended piano techniques, is that at the end of the day, the good old acoustic grand piano is still there. Akin to the way Cage first prepared the piano with bolts and weather-stripping, the electronics drastically change the sound and our impression of the piano—but in the end it is easily returned to its original form.  

SI: What are some of the unique challenges and rewards of performing music that uses electronics?

JM: It used to be that I could show up and play a concert without any paraphernalia, and that’s nice and all, but I love my ever-expanding bag of tricks. The tinkering that is necessary in the practice of this repertoire, and the ability to perform a wider range of timbres in a solo performance while making use of the venue’s sound system are big payoffs to me. But, yeah, part of the reason I became a musician was so I didn’t have to get a haircut and wake up early—so if I can plug into a sound system and feel like a rock musician for a brief moment, I can feel closer to achieving my lifestyle.

There are certainly a great deal of challenges, and I’m sure that turns some musicians off to exploring music like this for themselves. Technical setups are unique to each piece, with varying arrays of requirements. This means that creating a program takes even more planning and practice to get it right. On top of that, these technical requirements can also make two pieces completely incompatible with each other in a single program.  Electroacoustic music often requires a couple different software applications, an ear piece for click tracks on some fixed electronics, foot pedals for cueing live electronics on more flexible ones, different settings on both hardware and software depending on the piece or venue, etc. 

SI: This program features all American composers—what are some of the overarching themes that connect the music of these composers?

JM: Urban sound.  All of these composers, with the exception of Adams, are living and working in New York right now.  To me, this imprints an unmistakable urban character into their music. There is a relentless activeness in this urban sound which is illustrated most clearly by the minimalist music of Glass and Reich.  The electroacoustic soundscapes of Mazzoli’s music have this wonderful sort of raw grittiness about them, and Cerrone’s work, Hoyt-Schermerhorn, is named after a New York subway station. Cerrone says “…the piece explores the myriad and contradictory feelings that often come to me late at night in my city of choice—nostalgia, anxiety, joy, panic.” There is a beautiful peacefulness among the urban activity in these works.

The electronics are also a theme that connects most of the works. The first half of the program (the Adams and Glass pieces) will have no amplification or use of electronics, while the last half will use an increasing amount of electronics. But there is an electronic connection between the two halves. The program starts with an acoustic piece that references electronic music.  The gates in the title, China Gates, refer to the gating of electronic music.  Adams uses sudden changing modes to mimic gating effects in electronic music. 

Conversely, the end of the program, Reich’s Piano Counterpoint, is an electronic work that references an acoustic one. Reich originally wrote the music for this as a work called Six Pianos in 1973.  In 2011, pianist Vincent Corver adapted the work for one piano and a pre-recorded soundtrack.  Four of the six piano parts are pre-recorded and the last two are combined into a more virtuosic single part, which I’ll play live and amplified.  In 2014, the Bang On a Can All Stars pianist Vicky Chow worked with the composer to further edit the piece and create a new flexible pre-recorded soundtrack that allows the performer to use a foot pedal to trigger the phasing of the other parts. Reich’s original version of Six Pianos asked for each measure to be repeated within a range of times—not a fixed amount of time. Since Corver’s version was backed by a fixed-length soundtrack, the most recent version is a truer realization of the original work’s flexibility. My performance will be the most recent, flexible version of the work. 

SI: How do the minimalist composers’ works differ from the 21st century works on the program?

JM: These 20th century minimalist works lack an extramusical association.  They are really about rhythmic structures and form. China Gates (which isn’t really about China or gates), for instance, is a famous, short minimalist work that uses recurring patterns that slowly change and shift apart over time, while making up a nearly perfect palindrome in its structure.

The music of Cerrone and Mazzoli in this program, which are 21st century works, tell a story or capture a vivid scene. So, the audience should be listening for entirely different things in the two styles. In the first half of the program, listen for minimalist patterns and structures (like palindromes), that ultimately lead the way for the second half to transport you into another scene altogether.

What is interesting, though, is despite the lack of an extramusical association, the works of Glass and Reich often capture the busy energy of a dense urban environment, which somehow creates a beautiful, weightless sense of calm.  In this sense then, the minimalist works do have the ability to move beyond the academic, form, and rhythmic structure that are the hallmarks of its style.

SI: What are you most looking forward to with this performance and what do you hope audience members gain from it?

JM: Playing in a relaxed bar setting should really gel with this music. I’ve always wanted to take music like this out of the standard classical concert venue. As someone who can’t take their instrument with them when they gig, bars and many other non-classical venues are off-limits.  But The Royal Room has a Steinway B, a great sound system, and a reputation for taking good care of local musicians—so I’m really excited to play in that environment.

I hope the audience gains an appreciation for the things I’ve come to realize as a musician. There is amazing music being created by composers who are alive and working in this country right now—it’s innovative, part of us, and who we are. Embrace technology. Accept that electronics and a reverence to the classical music tradition can coexist.


Living in America is Wednesday, July 12 at 7:30pm at the Royal Room in Columbia City. For details and additional information, click here.