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.

Scott Johnson: Mind Out of Matter, Music Out of Speech

by Michael Schell

Musicians of every stripe have spent centuries exploring the range of vocal expression from straight speaking to pure singing. The development of recording technology has added a few new possibilities to the mix, and one of them, called speech melody, has become closely associated with the American composer Scott Johnson.

Born in 1952, Johnson grew up and studied in Wisconsin. Like Joni Mitchell, he played guitar, moved to New York in his 20s, and for a time fancied himself more of a visual artist than a musician. Johnson quickly integrated into the Downtown New York music scene, performing with Rhys Chatham and Laurie Anderson (before her pop star days), and exploring the regions where minimalism, jazz, rock, and electronic music all came together.

His breakthrough came in 1982 with the album John Somebody, which inaugurated his speech melody technique. Its workings can be easily discerned from the title track (above). Johnson starts with a snippet of recorded speech, then makes it into a tape loop as Steve Reich had done in his piece Come Out:

Johnson then fashions a guitar melody that aligns with the contour and rhythm of the speech, and plays this melody in sync with the loop. Accompanying chords, extra tracks of looped speech and guitar obbligatos, and an increasingly dense texture soon follow by way of musical development.

Photo by Patricia Nolan.

Johnson compares his speech transcription style to Messiaen’s practice of transcribing bird songs for use in compositions. He also cites the call-and-response patterns common in blues (as in this exchange between Bessie Smith and trombonist Charlie Smith) as an influence alongside Reich and Messiaen (“those three things kind of collided one afternoon”). Other musicians have experimented with speech melody in the years since John Somebody, including Florent Ghys in Petits Artéfacts (2015) and Reich himself, borrowing back from Johnson in Different Trains (1988).Learn 

Now Johnson is out with a new piece conceived for Alarm Will Sound. In place of the humorous tape loops of John Somebody, this work features the digitally sampled and recombined musings of Daniel Dennett, one of America’s leading philosophers and cognitive scientists, and a noted freethinker whose writings and speeches about the evolution of human consciousness are aptly reflected in the work’s title: Mind Out of Matter.

A good demonstration of Johnson’s updated approach for this composition comes at the start of “Winners,” the third of its eight movements. From the following spoken phrase…

“you can’t get ‘em out of your head”

…Johnson constructs a stuttering four-bar phrase using progressively longer excerpts:

Next, drums and percussion come in to reinforce the rhythm. Then, four bars later, the piano starts to melodicize the sampled speech…

…whereupon chords and other instruments are added to complete the texture:

You can hear this passage starting at 2:37 of the following rehearsal video:

With a length of 74 minutes, a gestation period of six years, and a broad timbral pallet befitting the instrumentation and virtuosity of Alarm Will Sound (a 21st century chamber orchestra equipped with wind, string, percussion and electric instruments), Mind Out of Matter is Johnson’s most elaborate composition to date. It has been called an “atheist oratorio,” not altogether ironically, since like Handel’s Messiah, it’s an epic, multi-movement voice and instrumental setting of texts about religion (and there’s even a “choral” movement where several of the musicians sing). In its structure, theme, and dimensions it also strikes me as a rationalist counterpart to Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde.

Johnson says he “tried to imbue this music with the sense of awe and wonder that lie at the heart of Dennett’s scientifically informed philosophy, while still emulating his gift for crafting a disarmingly playful presentation.” Mind Out of Matter succeeds by ritualizing the rational, creating a kind of secular age surrogate for religious music that acknowledges our persistent human attraction to sacralized culture.

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

by Gabriela Tedeschi

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

Photo by Ken Howard.

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Ken Howard.

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

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

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

Photo by Ken Howard.

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

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

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

Why Philip Glass is Not Such A Far Cry from J.S. Bach

by Dacia Clay

Photo by Richard Guérin.

Pianist Simone Dinnerstein recently teamed up with the Grammy-nominated string orchestra A Far Cry for Circles, an album of piano concertos by both J.S. Bach and Philip Glass. Dinnerstein and AFC violist Jason Fisher recently chatted with Second Inversion about the album.

In this audio piece, you’ll hear each of them talk about the album’s inception, breakfast with Philip Glass, the creative partnership between Dinnerstein and AFC, the important connections between the two composers, and the power that this music has over audiences.


Circles by Simone Dinnerstein and A Far Cry is available now on Philip Glass’ record label, Orange Mountain Music. Click here to purchase the album.

ALBUM REVIEW: Invisible Anatomy’s ‘Dissections’

by Gabriela Tedeschi

Invisible Anatomy’s new album Dissections explores the dangers and joys of being vulnerable with other people. The title suggests both emotional and medical implicationswhich is why the album dissects our interpersonal relationships through the musical imagery of an operating room.

Invisible Anatomy is comprised of vocalist Fay Wang, cellist Ian Gottlieb, guitarist Brendon Randall-Myers, percussionist Benjamin Wallace, and keyboardists Paul Kerekes and Daniel Schlosberg. They draw from a variety of genresclassical, rock, jazzand incorporate elements of performance art and theatre to create dramatic, multi-dimensional music. While the ensemble works collaboratively to write the texts and workshop pieces, members start the composing process individually, so each piece approaches the album’s theme of human intimacy in a unique way.

Wang’s “Facial Polygraph XVIA” is a dissection of facial expressions, analyzing what can be learned about someone from their tics and tells. Combining sustained, dissonant chords in the strings with quick, seemingly random melodic lines, the intricate piece highlights the complexity of our emotions and how difficult it can be to decipher the meaning behind each gesture. Fittingly, Wang’s haunting, whispery vocals weave in and out of the foreground, at times blending into the instrumental riffs to emphasize the mystery of expressions.

“Pressing Issues,” Kerekes’s piece, creates composite melodies by allowing each instrument, including Wang’s voice, to contribute a few sounds at a time. This creates a kaleidoscopic listening experience, artfully representing the internal chaos we experience when we’re juggling too many thoughts and conflicting emotions.

Gottlieb’s two-part composition “Threading Light” is a surgical metaphor, with the piano representing a human body and the cello, guitar, and vibraphone representing the knife. In part one, a heartbeat monitor beeps mechanically over suspenseful dissonance in the strings, with short bursts of percussion alluding to the fear and uncertainty of surgery. Part two features a creepy, atonal melody created by weaving instrumental lines togetherthe resulting dissonance hinting at the painful aftermath for the patient, perhaps even death.

Also split into two parts is “A Demonstration,” Schlosburg’s musical representation of Leonardo da Vinci’s fascination with examining human cadavers. In “the cause,” with intense, percussive accompaniment, Wang uses extended techniques to emulate a shortness of breath. She repeats over and over again the words “the cause of,” each time including a new human function: breathing, sneezing, vomiting. Gentle, but eerie, “where the soul is” references da Vinci’s search for physical evidence of the soul in the human body. Pure, otherworldly vocals purposefully clash with the clanging, incoherent instrumentals. The piece becomes both a tribute to the amazing progress we’ve made and a reminder that an obsessive desire to understand can be dangerous.

Randall-Myers’s “Permission” and “Othering” address the discomfort we often feel when we open up to others. With rock and jazz influences, “Permission” asks what is and isn’t okay between two people as they become close. At times the intense, moving lines in the strings and piano yield to a delicate but disturbing vibraphone pattern as Wang sings, “You let me in. You must have wanted this,” allowing the dark implications of this closeness to dominate the piece.

“Othering,” which tells the story of an encounter with someone who exists on the margins of society, is more hopeful. The honest, heart-wrenching lyrics explain how much easier it is for us to see someone in this position as merely “the other,” but that when we get closer, this becomes impossible. A beautifully warm string motif punctuates the darker vocal lines, suggesting that there is hope for compassion and understanding.

With a fusion of styles and compelling texts, Dissections tackles the questions it poses about emotional intimacy in diverse, impactful ways. It’s a hauntingly beautiful, thought-provoking examination of the ways we interact, and the ways in which we harm and help those we care about most.

STAFF PICKS: Friday Faves

Second Inversion hosts share a favorite selection from their weekly playlist. Tune in on Friday, June 15 to hear these pieces and plenty of other new and unusual music from all corners of the classical genre!

Andy Akiho: Vick(i/y) (New Amsterdam)
Vicky Chow, piano

Andy Akiho is rapidly becoming one of the most interesting movers and shakers in the contemporary music world, and his piece for prepared piano Vick(i/y) is one of my favorites. The piece doesn’t limit itself to the usual prepared sounds of clanging and crashing and twanging, but uses normal piano sound as a sort of through-line to tell its story. Andy says that this alternation of prepared sounds and conventional sounds represents a “consistent, yet fading image of a forgotten dream.” Andy is a percussionist, and it’s the percussive sounds of Vick(i/y) that define the piece. There is also a really cool music video that transports the piano into natural locations, and features an Andy Akiho cameo. – Geoffrey Larson

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 11am hour today to hear this piece.


John Cage and Sun Ra: Empty Words and Keyboard (Modern Harmonic)
John Cage, voice; Sun Ra, synthesizer

A near-mythic musical encounter happened on Coney Island in the summer of 1986. Two of the 20th century’s most iconoclastic musical philosophers, John Cage and Sun Ra, came together for a concert. For one night only, two artists from opposite ends of the avant-garde shared the same stage.

That fateful day has been immortalized on a record that is best listened to from front to back, as the two artists tend to trade off soloing. Empty Words and Keyboard offers a rare exception: Cage’s sparse, wordless vocal improvisations are echoed by Sun Ra’s even sparser synth accompaniment, the two intertwining in a delicate meditation on sound, silence, and the music in between. – Maggie Molloy

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 12pm hour today to hear this piece.


Nico Muhly: Comfortable Cruising Altitude (Cantaloupe Music)
Bang on a Can All-Stars

As many people look toward a summer filled with long-distance travel, it’s nice to know that even the experience of riding inside the cabin of a commercial airliner has been used as fuel for new music.  Nico Muhly’s Comfortable Cruising Altitude opens with a field recording taken from inside an airliner cabin.  The piece explores the many layers that make up a typical airline trip, including complex contemplative feelings, the anxiety of waiting, and even a crying child.  This work encapsulates the commercial air travel experience with striking poignancy, especially given its relatively short duration.
– 
Seth Tompkins

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 4pm hour today to hear this piece.


Matt Marks: “I Don’t Have Any Fun” (New Amsterdam)
Matt Marks and Mellissa Hughes

Matt Marks called the album that this song is from (The Little Death: Vol. 1) his “post-Christian nihilist opera.” This almost spastically poppy track is poking fun at a mutually destructive relationship dynamic. In this case, a guy is placing a woman on a ridiculously high pedestal, telling her that he doesn’t have any fun on his own, that he needs her, and in his final appeal, that she is like a god to him. The more he entreats her, the meaner she gets, and the meaner she gets, the more desperate his attempts become.

Marks captures the nuances of this variety of romantic behavior so well, so hilariously, and so succinctly, you might even think he was That Guy at one point in his life—that maybe he was making fun of his own emotional tendencies. Or maybe he was illuminating how in a post-Christian nihilist world, God is sometimes replaced with other gods in the human race’s ongoing quest to annihilate the Self. Matt Marks died this past month, and people close to him describe him as being both really serious and really funny. This song is that exactly. – Dacia Clay

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 6pm hour today to hear this piece.