The “Past” as Musical Prologue

by Dacia Clay

Composer and multi-instrumentalist Caleb Burhans. Photo by Alice Teeple.

Caleb Burhans was just 17 when he saw his father die. Yet even while struggling with immense grief and an eventual alcohol addiction, he racked up two degrees from Eastman, worked with artists from Yoko Ono and Arcade Fire to Steve Reich and Meredith Monk, helped found Alarm Will Sound, played with ACME, had his work performed by ensembles like the JACK Quartet, and released four studio albums (one of which—Evensong­—was named one of NPR’s Top 50 Albums of 2013).

Many of Burhans’ colleagues and friends didn’t make it out of alcohol and substance abuse. And now, after five years of sobriety, Burhans has come out with a very personal new album called Past Lives that reflects on “years lost to addiction and fallen friends.”

In this audio interview, Burhans talks about what creating is like now that he’s sober, the people behind the music on the album, his collaboration with guitarist and composer Grey Mcmurray, and the music itself.

Music in this interview from Caleb Burhans’ Past Lives.
Audio production by Dacia Clay with production assistance from Nikhil Sarma.


Caleb Burhans’ new album Past Lives is out now on Cantaloupe Music. Click here to learn more.

Of Zealotry and Choral Music: Canticles from The Crossing

by Dacia Clay

Conductor Donald Nally. Photo by Becky Oehlers.

Donald Nally and his new music choir The Crossing recently won a Grammy Award for Best Choral Performance for their recording of the Zealot Canticles by composer Lansing McLoskey.

It’s clear that The Crossing has tapped into something: this is their second Grammy win (their first was for The Fifth Century by Gavin Bryars). It might have something to do with the timely message McLoskey’s piece conveys about zealotry in all of its forms and about how we talk to and about each other in a time of political divisiveness.

Zealot Canticles is based on Nigerian Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka’s Twelve Canticles for the Zealot, a set of poems that looks at fanaticism. In this interview, Nally talks about Soyinka’s work, why Lansing McLoskey was uniquely suited to write this piece, and about the music itself.

Audio production by Nikhil Sarma.


The Crossing’s new album Zealot Canticles is out now on Innova Recordings. Click here for more information.

Tragoedia In and Out of Style: Andrew Rudin at 80

by Michael Schell

In the fledgling years of electronic music—the 1950s and 60s—European composers benefitted from the massive support offered by government-owned broadcast studios. Varèse, Stockhausen and Berio created their midcentury masterworks at radio stations equipped with multiple tape recorders and vintage oscillators and filters. American pioneers like John Cage and Pauline Oliveros had to scrape by with homemade instruments and the more modest furnishings of university studios and artist collectives. And their recordings were often drowned out in LP catalogs by their state-sponsored European counterparts.

It was in this environment that Nonesuch Records stepped up, offering the label as a platform for electroacoustic compositions by Cage, Dodge, Wuorinen and Gaburo, as well as Morton Subotnick’s Silver Apples of the Moon (1967), the first tape piece ever commissioned by a record company. Another work commissioned by Nonesuch was an album-length epic called Tragoedia, released in 1969 and created by Andrew Rudin, a Texan who taught for several decades at University of the Arts in Philadelphia and who today is celebrating his 80th birthday.

Switched-On Mahler

Tragoedia was made with an early Moog synthesizer of the sort popularized by Wendy Carlos’ Switched-On Bach. It had a grittier sound then the Buchla synthesizers heard in Subotnick’s music, and its controls made it more suitable for complex, gradually-changing sonorities than the beat-driven patterns facilitated by the Buchla’s sequencer-centric design. Tragoedia‘s sound palette is purely electronic—there are no concrète (prerecorded) sound sources in the piece.

1960s and 21st century Rudin

Rudin (who pronounces his name roo-DEEN) conceived Tragoedia as an exploration of Greek tragedy. But with its familiar four-movement structure, I hear it as more of a synthesized symphony, a modern microtonal organism built from rhythm and timbre but supported by a traditional skeleton.

Viewed this way, the first movement, Kouros, stands in for a sonata-allegro. It begins with a three-chime “alarm clock” that launches a long sinuous paragraph filled with sliding sawtooth waves that culminate abruptly at 1:29 with four “bass drum” stokes. This passage is repeated with some variations, whereupon at 3:29 we hear a new idea, comparable to a sonata form’s second theme, based on short notes that sound like dripping water. At 4:16 an oscillator plays the first real melody of the piece before it too is cut off by bass drum strokes:

The foregoing ideas are now combined and recombined in the manner of a classic development section. The alarm clock gets its solo moment starting at 7:00, and at 8:10 the quoted melody returns a half-step higher. The bass drum tries repeatedly to shut it down, finally succeeding after one last loud stroke.

The second movement, Hybris (“hubris” in modern English), functions as a scherzo. In place of the opening movement’s long contrapuntal lines, Hybris is mainly a succession of brief motives spliced together in a kind of monophony. Headphones will help you hear the fancy stereo effects (e.g. at 1:25). The coda is remarkable: a rising accelerando (created by tape playback with increasing speed) that ends with a dramatic tocsin.

Peitho features fast flurries of randomly-generated tones in counterpoint with slowly shifting sustained sounds. It’s a kind of intermezzo setting up the long final movement, Até, which resembles one of those resigned adagios that often come at the end of Mahler symphonies. A high gated sound that resembles an impulse sprinkler recurs throughout Até as a refrain, usually panning from one ear to the other. The melody from Kouros returns, along with other ideas from the previous movements. The coda features an extended two-voice canon that eventually subsides, leaving the last fleeting words to the impulse sprinkler.

Though Tragoedia’s neoclassicism is not as groundbreaking as the montage structure of Varèse’s Poème électronique or the process-driven form of a minimalist landmark like Come Out, its sound world—still fresh and novel in 1969—impressed Federico Fellini enough to incorporate excerpts from it (without the composer’s permission) in the soundtrack to his Satyricon.

In and out of style

To each era belongs its instruments…and hairstyles (Rudin and a Moog synthesizer in 1972)

As the 1980s ushered in the age of CDs, major disruptions came to the recording industry. Nonesuch was brought under tighter control by its corporate masters at Warner, and the venerable electronic music titles started to drop out of its catalog. Simultaneously, modular synthesizers gave way to digital instruments, and as Gen Xers fawned over the new MIDI synths with their unprecedented portability and programmability, they gradually lost interest in the monuments and artifacts of the old ways.

But things can change over the course of a generation. The emergence of streaming and downloadable media in the 21st century made it easy to reclaim old recordings for digital distribution. And millennials grew tired of the canned timbres produced by their parents’ Korgs and Yamahas. Eager to reintroduce some irregularity into their sound world, they returned to analog technology, now much improved over its first generation, and this in turn rekindled interest in early synthesizer music. Now Tragoedia and its breathren are back, readily accessible online through Spotify, Amazon and YouTube. So grab your headphones, dim your room lights, and (re)connect with this nugget from the golden era of electronic music.

The Old New Traditions of Ken Thomson’s ‘Sextet’

by Dacia Clay

Photo by Naomi White.

Clarinetist, saxophonist, and composer Ken Thomson is probably best known for his work in the Bang on a Can All-Stars, an amplified chamber ensemble known for championing contemporary classical and experimental sounds. But his recent album of original compositions, Sextet, brings the jazzier side of Thomson to the fore.

The album gives a respectful nod and handshake to jazz forebears like Davis, Brubeck, and Mingus and to jazz’s improvisational structures —but Thomson’s ear for experimentation takes those things in a new direction. In this interview, he talks about overcoming the duality of classical and jazz worlds, exploring the lineage of Western music, and finding his own voice.

Audio production by Nikhil Sarma with production assistance by Dacia Clay.


Ken Thomson’s Sextet is out now on New Focus/Panoramic Recordings. Click here to listen to the album.

Sneak Peek Audio Leak: Post-Haste Reed Duo

by Maggie Molloy

Post-Haste Reed Duo. Photo by Jason Quigley.

When you think of quiet music, a saxophone and bassoon duo is probably not what first comes to mind. Yet the Post-Haste Reed Duo manages to explore the full range of silence and sound in their sophomore album, playfully titled Donut Robot!

Comprised of saxophonist Sean Fredenburg and bassoonist Javier Rodriguez, the Portland-based duo is dedicated to commissioning and championing new works for their unique instrumentation, building the repertoire while also expanding audiences’ perceptions of what a saxophone-bassoon duo can do.

From fluttering soundscapes to eerie microtones and epic grooves, Donut Robot! features six new and wide-ranging works by Edward J. Hines, Drew Baker, Andrea L. Reinkemeyer, Takuma Itoh, Michael Johanson, and Ruby Fulton.

We’re excited to premiere one of the tracks right here on Second Inversion. In the Speaking Silence, composed by Andrea L. Reinkemeyer, explores a reverent sound world that hovers just above the brink of silence.


Post-Haste Reed Duo’s sophomore album Donut Robot! is out Friday, Feb. 15 on Aerocade Music. Click here for more information.