Kinan Azmeh: Meeting Injustice with Creativity and Collaboration

by Dave Beck

Photo by Connie Tsang.

On our Seattle Symphony Spotlight this week: a conversation with one of Yo Yo Ma’s good friends and collaborators in the Silk Road Ensemble.

Kinan Azmeh is a Syrian-born clarinetist last in Seattle two years ago for the Seattle Symphony’s “Music Beyond Borders” concert. That performance—which featured artists from the seven countries that were part of the Muslim travel ban of early 2017—featured Kinan playing two movements of his Suite for Improviser and Orchestra with Ludovic Morlot and the Seattle Symphony.

At that time Kinan Azmeh made plans to come back and present another new work that defies musical boundaries: a full-length clarinet concerto that blends the spontaneity of improvisation with through-composed music. That concert came to fruition earlier this week in Benaroya Hall when he performed the piece’s world premiere with the Seattle Symphony and members of the Silk Road Ensemble, conducted by Ludovic Morlot.

Kinan came by the station to talk about the new concerto, reflect on growing up in Syria, and express what performing in Seattle and at refugee camps around the world has meant to him.

Caroline Shaw and Beethoven: Fanning the Fires of Musical Inspiration

by Dave Beck

On this week’s Seattle Symphony Spotlight, Dave Beck speaks with the youngest composer ever to win a Pulitzer Prize in music: Caroline Shaw.

Caroline is in Seattle this weekend for the world premiere of Watermark, her new orchestral work written in response to Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto. The idea for the piece was suggested to her by pianist Jonathan Biss, who performs both pieces with the Seattle Symphony this weekend, conducted by Ludovic Morlot. The program opens with Shostakovich’s Symphony No.1, a piece that brought the young composer international acclaim at the age of 19.

All of the works on the program represent strikingly original creations by composers in the early years of their careers. In this interview, Caroline talks with us about the inspiration, the writing process, and the meaning behind the title Watermark.


Caroline Shaw’s Watermark premieres at the Seattle Symphony Jan. 31-Feb. 2. Click here for tickets and more information.

Cheating, Lying, Stealing: Breaking the Rules with Erin Jorgensen & Rose Bellini

Photo by Kelly O.

by Maggie Molloy

When it comes to making music, Erin Jorgensen and Rose Bellini like to break the rules. Their upcoming concert collaboration Cheating, Lying, Stealing features a program of bold, boundary-bursting chamber works performed by a cast of Seattle’s top new music movers and shakers. Plus, it takes place amid a glowing neon light show.

The one-night-only event is titled after David Lang’s chamber work of the same name, a pulsing piece of post-minimalism that owes as much to rock music as it does the classical tradition. Its infectious off-kilter groove is heightened by its unusual instrumentation: bass clarinet, cello, piano, marimba, bass drum, and some car parts. The program’s title piece is framed by mixed chamber works from electroacoustic luminary Anna Clyne, sonic maverick Carla Kihlstedt, new music groove-maker Marc Mellits, and Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Caroline Shaw.

The concert, which takes place this Sunday at Washington Hall, is produced by Jorgensen, the musician behind the delightful monthly marimba series Bach and Pancakes and the dreamy electroacoustic podcast undertones. Its program is curated by Bellini: cellist, new music polymath, and founding member of contemporary chamber ensembles REDSHIFT and Hotel Elefant. For this concert, she performs alongside a star-studded cast of local musicians including violinists Kimberly Harrenstein and Rachel Nesvig, violist Aleida Gehrels, clarinetist Rachel Yoder, pianist Brooks Tran, and percussionists Melanie Sehman, Kerry O’Brien, and Storm Benjamin.

We caught up with the concert’s creators to talk about cheating, lying, stealing, and making music in the 21st century.

Second Inversion: Your concerts often feature classical music in nontraditional settings. How does changing the venue or atmosphere enhance the audience experience in a way that traditional concert halls do not?

Erin Jorgensen (left) and Rose Bellini (right).

Erin Jorgensen: For me, using a nontraditional setting allows an audience member to have a different and possibly more direct experience with music. Classical music often comes with pre-attached barriers and conceptions. Ideally when you remove some expectations from what a concert is “supposed” to be, you allow yourself to have a more personal and authentic experience; without worrying if your reactions are “correct” or not. It becomes possible to be more in the moment and experience something in real time. Plus, it is very interesting to be in a different context where people allow their imaginations to individually and collectively create something unexpected. It’s fun!

SI: What is the overarching theme of the concert? Is there a common thread running through all the pieces?

Rose Bellini: Each piece is quite different, but we have created a drama to the program through contrast and an intentional sequence. Each composer’s work has a depth and beauty that comes across through an unapologetic, personal sound. There are moments of quiet intimacy, explosive high energy, and everything in between. Pretty much anyone will find themselves rocking out with us, dreaming with us, and hopefully finding some surprises along the way. 

SI: Can you describe some of the visual elements of the performance?

Erin Jorgensen: I spent a lot of time walking and listening to the music playlist, thinking about the venue, and daydreaming, and the visual that popped into my head was that of a low-key rave—a glow in the dark, neon vibe contrasted with darker and starker elements.

As far as amplifying or relating to the music, I don’t get too literal about that kind of thing. I think it’s best to go with your intuition and find a team that can build upon it, realize it and improve it. Luckily I’ve known the production team [Tania Kupczak, Julian Martlew, and Richard Bresnahan] for nearly a decade; we work together extremely well and they also have wonderful ideas on creating a magical space for the music and audience to exist together.

I also really enjoy a DIY aesthetic, which developed partly out of necessity and partly from personal taste. We’ll be utilizing that aspect in allowing the audience to create some of the visuals themselves, consciously or not. 

SI: What makes this program unique? How are these pieces different from your typical classical repertoire?

Rose Bellini: We selected this program with a broad audience in mind. Classical music, and contemporary music, is often aimed at listeners who are well-versed in the highly intellectual side of art. But there is a lot of contemporary music that doesn’t ask the audience to be an expert. Much of this music is heavily influenced by other genres like rock, improvised songwriting, and folk music, so it’s pure fun to play and fun to listen to.

Many of the performers are also active in non-classical music, so they bring out an energy that you don’t always see and hear in a traditional concert program. On a personal level, each of these composers is a friend and colleague whom I admire as an artist and a human being.

SI: Is there a reason behind calling the concert Cheating, Lying, Stealing?

Rose Bellini: Lang’s title has a mysteriousness to it that is hard to resist (the opening of the score is marked “Ominous Funk”), but one of the ideas behind it is to reject the practice of writing music meant to impress you through complexity and abstractness. I love that sentiment as a performer and as a listener. 

Erin Jorgensen: It’s a nice title because, as you say, it is hella catchy. But it’s also possible to look deeper into the title. I described the concert in the PR as a “witchy sonic experience.” That’s partly hyperbole of course (and a way to sell tickets!), but I also think it’s interesting to flip the script and look at “cheating, lying, stealing” in a playful way. For instance, I’m seeing a lot of witchy feminine energy popping up all over the place on the planet right now and I think it’s fun to look at the concert as an embodiment of that. How could “cheating, lying, stealing” be a positive force?

SI: What is the most exciting part about presenting new music by living composers?

Rose Bellini: The most exciting part is that you can know the composer personally, and find ways to reflect them in the performance for the audience. There’s a sense that while the work is finished, as a performer you have access to an ongoing collaboration or interpretation. Even the choice of venue, the lighting, or how you market the program changes how the music is heard, and I think these variations are exciting for the composer, the performers, and the audience.


Cheating, Lying, Stealing is Sunday, Feb. 3 at 8pm at Washington Hall. For tickets and additional information, please click here.

Healing Modes: Behind the Scenes with Brooklyn Rider

by Dacia Clay

Brooklyn Rider was recently in Seattle touring their new performance project, Healing Modes. The concert program, which is focused on the power of music to heal in many ways, was inspired by Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 15, Op. 132—specifically the third movement. It was a piece that Beethoven wrote during a period of recovery in his own life.

Brooklyn Rider has commissioned five new works for the project—by Reena Esmail, Caroline Shaw, Du Yun, Matana Roberts, and Gabriela Lena Frank—to pair with the Beethoven on the program (and, eventually, on the album). Learn more about Healing Modes in this audio excerpt. To hear the full interview with Brooklyn Rider, listen to the latest episode of the Classical Classroom podcast.

Audio editing for this excerpt by Nikhil Sarma.

Duo Noire: Revolution Classical Style Now

by Dacia Clay

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

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

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

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

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

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.