For many of us, music is synonymous with community, collaboration, sharing, and play. For the Wet Ink Ensemble, this spirit of collaboration is behind everything they do, from the writing process to performance itself. The composer-performer collective is breaking new ground on their forthcoming album Glossolalia/Lines on Black, which features works by ensemble members Alex Mincek and Sam Pluta that make wildly creative use of electronics, voice, and off-the-wall playing techniques.
Mincek’s contribution to the album, Glossolalia, is named after the phenomenon known as “speaking in tongues,” in which people speak words that are apparently in languages they are entirely unfamiliar with. On first listen, it’s easy to see why: the piece’s third movement, titled “Thread 2,” features a shifting drone over which ensemble members violently interrupt to create a chaotic chatter reminiscent of the piece’s namesake. Aggressive piano lines and a fluttering saxophone mimic ensemble member Kate Soper’s off-kilter and lyric-less vocalizations to create a unique and wonderfully unpredictable musical texture.
We’re excited to share a preview of “Thread 2” ahead of the album’s May 1 release date.
The Wet Ink Ensemble’s new album Glossolalia/Lines on Black is out May 1 on Carrier Records. For more details, click here.
Think about the last time you were in an airplane: the stale, recirculated air, the mediocre food, the seemingly endless wait until you finally arrive at your destination. For those whose day jobs find them crisscrossing the country and the world, it can be easy to take for granted the incredible processes that make a high speed trip through the clouds possible.
For yMusic, though, the thrill of flight hasn’t lost its sheen. In fact, the close-quarters excitement of being on tour and flying together provided the inspiration for the ensemble’s latest record Ecstatic Science. With commissions and collaborations from young and in-demand composers like Caroline Shaw, Missy Mazzoli, Paul Wiancko, and Gabriella Smith, Ecstatic Science sees yMusic and their collaborators getting energized about the fast-paced, almost magical side of modern science.
The theme of flying, which is one of yMusic’s favorite activities, influenced the whole album, including the airplane-themed cover art designed by yMusic’s own flutist, Alex Sopp. For Sopp, “being a person and seeing the tops of clouds is ecstatic science,” and it’s easy to see this sense of wonder and movement at work in the music.
The album begins with a piece titled Tessellations by the San Francisco-based composer Gabriella Smith, kicking things off right away with a grooving drum pattern tapped out on the body of the cello. The rest of the ensemble, including flute, clarinet, trumpet, viola, and violin, join in gradually with exclamations and driving rhythms, and the track even features some lyricless singing by one of the instrumentalists before swirling back around to the percussive rhythms where it began.
Next up is the title track by Missy Mazzoli, a fluttering dance of string chords and woodwind shimmers. Arpeggiated figures and pizzicato gestures in the strings stop and start, the trumpet finds its place here and there, soaring above the texture or providing punctuation marks, and instruments weave in and out with little solo statements of the piece’s twirling main motif.
Following up this flowing exploration of yMusic’s instrumental palette is Caroline Shaw’s Draft of a High-Rise. The first movement, “Inked Frame,” sketches out a scene full of strings that pluck, stop, and start again, woodwinds that cycle and build upwards, and the occasional percussive strike of the bow, like a building being nailed into place. A driving, steadily building finish segues into the second movement, “A Scribbled Veneer,” with a more tense feeling featuring snapped plucks from the strings, chaotic arpeggios, and swirling runs that continually rise and fall. The movement finally builds into a faster groove, growing more agitated as instruments come in to comment in little scribbles of their own before losing steam for a more tranquil fade out into the final movement, “Their Stenciled Breath.”
True to its name, the final movement begins with a calm, plaintive, and breathy clarinet melody, which is joined and imitated by the rest of the ensemble for a texture like the fog over an early morning skyline. Plucky string figures enter, bringing with them enough momentum for a fast-paced, rollicking finish as the city seems to wake up to meet the day.
Thousandths, by cellist and composer Paul Wiancko continues the album with an almost folky cello motif, string tremolos, and an off-kilter, jazzy feel. Warped slides, tremolos, and fast, flighty gestures litter the piece, and the trumpet shines in miniature fanfares above shifting, wobbly harmonies.
On the last track titled Maré, we return to the world of Gabriella Smith, where a static field of fluttering, scratchy harmonics and soft harmonies builds up into a warped groove. Aggressive, relentless string rhythms fade in and out amid syncopated gestures, like ambulance sirens sliding in pitch as they speed into the distance. Gradually the music becomes more frantic and off-balance, emerging into a fast-paced drive to the finish featuring steady string arpeggios and whistling winds and brass for a sound like a train speeding to a halt.
Whether flying through at a break-neck pace or soaring serenely over a bed of chords, the musicians of yMusic seem to be in sync with the energy of their collaborator’s musical styles, so much so that Ecstatic Science makes for an incredibly fun and cohesive listen. The many upbeat and driving pieces on the album show that all that time spent flying and touring together has cultivated not only a tight and precise ensemble, but an inspired one. For these six musicians, nothing inspires the magic of music quite like speeding through the air, high above the clouds.
Whether it be pop, rock, punk, or bossa nova, the guitar is a staple of many of the musical styles we know and love—and it has even carved out a unique niche in contemporary classical music as well. For guitarists, bridging and fitting into the many genres and styles of guitar-playing can be a daunting task, but Mary Halvorson and John Dieterich are well-equipped for the challenge.
On their new collaborative album a tangle of stars, the guitarists draw on the genre-crossing versatility of their instrument, coming forward with a wide-ranging album that is somehow grooving, mellow, sharp, and aggressive all at the same time.
That Dieterich and Halvorson are collaborating at all can seem like something of a miracle. As a member of the popular noise-rock band Deerhoof, Dieterich has become a renowned and influential guitarist, but it wasn’t until 2017 that he met Halvorson, whose work as a composer and bandleader in avant-garde jazz has earned her widespread praise. A completely improvised live set on acoustic guitars led to further collaboration in Dieterich’s home studio, where they co-composed, arranged, and recorded a tangle of stars over the course of three days, resulting in a collaborative album that mines their mutual interest in experimental jazz, pop, rock, noise, and improvisation.
With various types of guitars including acoustic,
electric, 12-string, and baritone, as well as countless effects and occasional
drumming by Dieterich, the album provides a wide range of emotions and styles. “Drum
the Rubber Hate,” for instance, kicks off with a spinning, plucky, and bright
theme supported by a grooving baseline. Quickly, though, a steadily ascending,
almost classically minimalist baseline is introduced, making room for virtuosic
solos that strike a balance between the rhythmic complexity of jazz and the
distorted, edgy sounds of rock music. “Balloon Chord” provides a totally
different mood: warm acoustic arpeggios support a flinty, picked melody that
seems to wash into the droning background of reverb and watery effects. The wall
of reverb sometimes takes on an uneasy edge, making for a song that is
somewhere between atmospheric and unsettling.
The duo take a totally different approach on “Short Knives,” a tense song featuring
sharp, stabbing strums that bend in pitch and explode into winding, dissonant
passages of warped electric guitar. Despite the occasional rough edges, though,
the album also provides plenty of warmth: “Lace Cap,” for instance, is a
reassuringly melodic and lilting track with relaxed arpeggios and bended notes,
making for a watery, off-kilter sense of calm. “Vega’s Array” is another moment
that feels more relaxed and playful: here, an intricate background of contrasting
guitar timbres swings underneath wandering melodic lines and plenty of odd
little slides reminiscent of shooting stars.
On the noisier, more experimental side of things, “The
Handsome” is full of wailing, distorted electric guitars that imitate each
other almost like a canon, phasing in and out of sync before being swallowed up
by distortion. The last third of the track becomes increasingly frantic, as the
guitars get more rapid and static-filled before giving way to stuttering electronic
effects that sound like a record scratching and skipping.
“Better Than the Most Amazing Game” is the album’s
longest track by far, and is another moment on the album that feels close to
the worlds of avant-garde and free jazz. Here, mechanical, almost industrial
effects and drums collide to form an off-kilter and unsettling beat ridden by
freely wandering guitar chords and melodies. These elements never quite seem to
settle into a stable groove, and the whole track stops and starts jerkily,
making for what sounds like an amazingly unhinged piece of music created by a
computer program. “Continuous Whatever” brings us into another world yet again,
ending the album with a short and sweet bit of relaxed guitar counterpoint.
Despite these rapid-fire stylistic shifts, though,
Halvorson and Dieterich manage to craft a cohesive album out of their many
musical influences. With its thrilling sonic detours and stylistic excursions, a tangle of stars reflects the huge and
tangled variety of music being made for guitar, and speaks to the versatility
of not only the instrument, but the composers and performers themselves.
Cheers to another year of new and adventurous music on Second Inversion! As we enter a new decade of musical innovation, we’re taking a look back at some of our favorite albums from 2019. From desert soundscapes to homemade synthesizers, microtonal instruments to music of Haiti, our list celebrates new sounds within and far beyond the classical genre.
After spending two years building his own modular synthesizer, watching its growth, and getting to know its quirks, Qasim Naqvi came forward with Teenages, an album that can’t help but sound like nothing else that came out this year. Played entirely on Naqvi’s synthesizer, the album feels both retro and incredibly forward-thinking—digital and analog. Throughout the album, Naqvi’s compositions build on each other and progressively chart the growth of his machine, making for a one-of-a-kind experience that deserves repeated listens. – Peter Tracy
“Sparkle” and “shimmer” are two words that come to mind when I think of this piece. While the GRAMMY- and Pultizer-winning Become Ocean is Adams’ musical expression of a deep, creepy world with which he’s largely unfamiliar, Become Desert is a love song to a landscape that he’s lived in for ages. Like Ocean, Desert progresses imperceptibly. It’s similarly immersive—you are the environment for the duration of the music. But instead of being ominous and heavy, you’re ancient and light and vast. – Dacia Clay
Learn more in Dacia’s interview with the composer.
In a world where the composer toolkit is constantly expanding, Meara O’Reilly’s new 10-minute album for two voices is refreshingly simple—at least in theory. Drawing on the rich history of hocketing across musical cultures, O’Reilly crafts a focused and entrancing addition to the canon, exploring not only the spatial relationships of sound but the very perception of music itself. Two voices (both sung by the composer) volley back and forth with incredible precision to craft melodies that circle and spin you straight into a sonic hypnosis. – Maggie Molloy
The music of singer, flutist, and composer Nathalie Joachim’s newest album draws on a long history, and not just from the classical tradition: Joachim was inspired by the music of her Haitian heritage on Fanm d’Ayiti, creating a beautiful blend of tuneful melodies sung in Haitian Creole with forward-thinking, colorful accompaniment. With help from the Chicago-based Spektral Quartet, Joachim weaves together flute, string quartet, voice, electronics, spoken passages from her grandmother, and advice from some legendary women of Haitian music to make for an album that celebrates the women of Haiti. – Peter Tracy
146 people—most of them young immigrant women—perished in the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. The same number of vocalists are called for in Julia Wolfe’s harrowing oratorio on the tragedy. Weaving together texts from protest chants, courtroom testimonials, Yiddish and Italian folk songs, and the oral histories of garment workers on the Lower East Side, Wolfe tells a larger story of immigration, labor, and activism in New York City. A heaving, machinelike orchestra rumbles and churns under the voices of young girls and women, painting a scorching image of the workers whose sacrifice changed U.S. history. – Maggie Molloy
There’s a visceral nostalgia seeping through William Brittelle’s Spiritual America, a collection of art songs that reconcile the composer’s conservative Christian upbringing with his adult life as an agnostic Buddhist. But the album is as much about questioning musical traditions as it is about questioning religion. Brittelle’s inimitable blend of chamber pop forms a shape-shifting sonic collage: ripped edges, buzzing synthesizers, melodies that echo, morph, and transform in an instant—like a rush of memories overwhelming the senses. Indie rock duo Wye Oak performs alongside Metropolis Ensemble and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus in this kaleidoscopic exploration of spirituality and sound. – Maggie Molloy
This was my introduction to the world of composer/inventor Harry Partch, and I’m so glad that it was. Sonata Dementia is the ensemble PARTCH’s third volume of Partch’s music (the first volumes won Grammy nominations and awards respectively), and it’s got everything: music Partch wrote for Chet Baker and Gerry Mulligan to play, music from the road and from isolation, movie music, plus one demented, kind of hilarious sonata. I was completely fascinated the minute I hit “play” and feel like I now know a secret handshake. – Dacia Clay
Learn more in Dacia’s interview with the PARTCH Ensemble’s John Schneider.
The line between human and computer begins to blur in Daniel Wohl’s État, a collection of cinematic works blending the nuance of classical composition with immersive electronic production. Texture is paramount: coarse strings, layered synths, delicate creaks and clicks balanced against colors that melt into one another, engulfing the listener in warm washes of sound. Melodies soften and evaporate, harmonies evolve and change shape, and the music ebbs and flows through moments of restless momentum and profound near-silence. – Maggie Molloy
Though small in size, Iceland is home to some of the most celebrated and innovative new music coming out today. In their newest album, conductor Daníel Bjarnason and the Iceland Symphony Orchestra showcase some of what makes contemporary Icelandic classical music so interesting, with pieces by Anna Thorvaldsdottir, Haukur Tómasson, María Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir, and Páll Ragnar Pálsson. Pianist Víkingur Ólafsson and cellist Sæunn Thorsteinsdóttir get their moment in the spotlight with Tómasson’s intricate Second Piano Concerto and Pálsson’s award-winning, hauntingly atmospheric Quake, which ends the album by reflecting on the natural processes of these composers’ native country. – Peter Tracy
All of these pieces paying tribute to dead friends and colleagues and dealing with grief and addiction could add up to something depressive. But instead, composer Caleb Burhans is deeply and beautifully (and thankfully for us) alive on this album with pieces dedicated to artists like Jóhann Jóhannsson, Matt Marks, and Jason Molina. Burhans has said that composing has been incredibly hard since he’s become sober, but here he’s taken a broken heart and turned it into art. – Dacia Clay
Learn more in Dacia’s interview with the composer.
It’s not often that we stop for a while to enjoy the simpler things in life: a juicy orange, for example, or a Haydn String Quartet. For composer, violinist, and vocalist Caroline Shaw, these moments taken to stop and reflect are important sources of inspiration. Even a sparse, elegant image of an orange can turn into “a celebration of the simple, immediate, unadorned beauty of a natural, every day, familiar thing.”
On her collaborative album with the Attacca Quartet, Orange, Shaw invites us to pause for a
bit of thought about the familiar forms of both plants and string quartets, resulting
in an album that is as vibrant and colorful as any garden.
Best known for her Pulitzer Prize-winning composition Partita for 8 Voices, Shaw is something
of a musical polymath: as a vocalist in Roomful of Teeth, violinist with the
American Contemporary Music Ensemble, award-winning composer, and wide-ranging
collaborator, Shaw has proven herself to be an artist and musician who is
wonderfully difficult to pin down.
This is certainly the case in her newest album collaboration, which consists of six works for string quartet written over roughly the past ten years. Here, you can find much of the same deconstruction of classical forms found in her Partita for 8 Voices, but using a musical language tailored to the quirks and traditions of the string quartet.
The album begins with Entr’acte, a warping extension of the traditional minuet and trio
form. After opening with dramatically swelling and pulsing chords, the music
seems to wind its way into some more unfamiliar territory, eventually growing
to include harmonics, unpitched brushing of the bow, and pizzicato. Throughout,
Shaw continues to weave in and deconstruct more traditional sequences,
harmonies, and chord progressions in fresh and sometimes startling ways.
Rather than a classical form, the next piece celebrates
the form of the humble Valencia orange. Bright, arpeggiated harmonics and
pizzicato open Valencia, but the
music quickly loses stability as glissandos and powerful chordal swells are added
to the texture. Shaw describes her use of “somewhat viscous chords and melodies”
in this brief work, which could find parallels in the bold tanginess of an
orange’s taste. At its core, though, it is a celebration of the rounded,
brightly colored curves of this simple and abundant food.
The longest piece on the album, Plan and Elevation (The Grounds of Dumbarton Oaks), is a five-movement meditation on a different natural landscape: the sprawling garden at Dumbarton Oaks, where Shaw spent time as a musician in residence. Here, Shaw draws inspiration from fixtures of the estate, such as a stately beech tree or the sunlit orangery. In the second movement, Shaw quotes passages from classic quartet repertoire, such as Ravel and Mozart, cutting out and reinterpreting this older material alongside segments of her own work much like you might arrange a bouquet of flowers. The final movement begins with strummed chords in the cello and chirping, high-pitched pizzicatos from the violins before growing to include dramatic sustained harmonies. Eventually, the rest of the quartet fades away to leave a violinist quietly strumming the same contemplative chords, like a bird singing at twilight.
In the next three pieces, Shaw continues to find inspiration in classic forms and music of the past. Punctum, which Shaw calls “an exercise in nostalgia,” is a winding, sequence-filled exploration of what happens when classical techniques and harmonic progressions are used in a fragmented, non-classical way. Her 16-minute string quartet Ritornello 2.sq.2.j.a deconstructs the classical ritornello form, in which a musical idea continues to return with little digressions in between. In Shaw’s reimagining, a simple musical idea begins the piece before being warped and spun through passages featuring the Attacca Quartet playing wild, fluttering harmonics and glissandos, striking the string with the wood of the bow, and droning on powerful, open chords.
and Felt finishes off the album by drawing inspiration from
both the warm resonance and cold stone features of a cavernous gothic chapel, making
for a piece that is by turns percussive and plucky or resonant and
Much like the rest of Shaw’s wide-ranging work as a
musician, Orange draws on a variety
of techniques, traditions, and forms. Certain themes, though, continue to
inspire and tie these pieces together, such as the order, simplicity, and
beauty of nature or the forms and ideals of our musical traditions. On Orange, Shaw and the Attacca Quartet find
elegance and charm in both the humble orange and the well-loved music of the
past, inviting us to discover something new amid the familiar.