Staff Picks: Friday Faves

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

William Brittelle: Hieroglyphics Baby (New Amsterdam)

If you’re looking for some Friday night grooves, William Brittelle’s got the tune for you. “Hieroglyphics Baby” is a colorful art-pop-meets-classical mashup from his full-length, lip-synched (when live) concept album Mohair Time Warp. Tongue-in-cheek lyrics spiral through Technicolor melodies in this art music adventure that splashes through at least six musical genres in the span of three minutes. See if you can keep up. – Maggie Molloy

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


Harry Partch: “The Wind” (Second Inversion Live Recording)
Charles Corey, Harmonic Canon II and Melia Watras, bass marimba 

Having the Harry Partch instrument collection in Seattle is a benefit that cannot be overstated.  I’ve attended many of their concerts at this point, and after every single one, I walk away feeling that my ears have been stretched in a pleasant and healthful manner.  I could call the experience “musical yoga” or “aural vegetables,” but no matter how I describe it, it seems clear to me that listening to Partch, in any form, is one of the best things one can do for their listening skills. – Seth Tompkins

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 4pm hour today to hear this piece, and watch our live video below!


Terry Riley: Fandango on the Heaven Ladder
Gloria Cheng, piano 
(Telarc Records) 

Terry Riley says of his Fandango on the Heaven Ladder, “It is no secret that I am wild about the music of Spain and Latin America, and since I heard my first fandango I’ve been wanting to write one. In Fandango on the Heaven Ladder, I am attempting to alternate and somewhat fuse the controlled sensuality of the romantic fandango with a somewhat melancholic chorale.”

The piece weaves in and out of fandango and melancholy, giving the impression of moving from solitude into a dreamlike soirée, only to slip back inward while stepping outside into a glassy night and hearing the sounds of the party flow out through the windows and doors. – Brendan Howe

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 7pm hour today to hear this piece.


Bruce Adolphe: Night Journey (Albany)
Musical Arts Woodwind Quintet

Any composer who sets out to write a really good wind quintet contends with inherent challenges of the instrumentation, chief among them the balance of sound between the high, light sound of the flute and the potentially low and overwhelming sound of the French horn. But they also have a beautiful, diverse palette of colors and textures open to them, and it seems to me that this 1986 work for winds makes use of these with aplomb. It’s a very enjoyable piece that moves in three main sections through bubbly counterpoint and quiet shades of repose.

Though the played-out “train chugging along through the night” concept seems to pop up incessantly in contemporary music for wind ensembles, I’m happy to give Adolphe a pass here since the piece was initially conceived with no specific inspiration in mind. The flickering colors and shifting mosaic of rhythm that characterize the music that opens and closes the piece seem to evoke a darkened nighttime landscape passing outside the window of a train, and thus the composer chose Night Journey for the title.
– Geoffrey Larson

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 9pm hour today to hear this piece.

ALBUM REVIEW: Gaslight by James Maloney

by Maggie Molloy

There’s a striking intimacy to solo piano music—a uniquely calm, quiet sense of introspection that only comes from sitting alone at the keyboard for hours on end.

Composer James Maloney takes you right up to the piano bench in his debut solo album Gaslight, out now on Moderna Records. Conceived as a reaction to the fast pace and noisy streets of city life, the album takes an introspective look inward to the music that emerges on the quietest of nights, alone at the keyboard and surrounded by glowing twilight.

Composed late at night on an old piano with microphones placed impossibly close to the hammers, the effect is that of being right there in the room on a rainy evening, surrounded not just by the quiet melodies but also the creaking wood and antique inner-workings of an old piano. The resulting album is a collection of ten ambient and introspective works for solo piano woven together with delicate details of trumpet, vibraphone, glockenspiel, and electronics.

Gaslight opens with a quiet wash of sound: “Seascape” is a short piano prelude that alternates layers of sparkling melodies with long stretches of serene silence, setting the scene for the minimamlist musings to come. “Blink” takes this image one step further, filling the silent spaces with softly circling piano melodies that flicker and flutter like fireflies above a solemn stepwise bass line.

The album’s title track illuminates more gradually, the melodies unfolding at such a slow pace that they almost seem to halt time itself, each note lingering in the air amid the crackling white noise of the surrounding room. The pace picks up only slightly for pieces like “Intertwine” and “Afterglow,” both fleeting piano nocturnes filled with melodies that sparkle sweetly, climbing ever-upward toward the stars above. The music drifts solemnly back to earth in “Lament,” its harmonies strung together through block chords that echo softly above a twinkling glockenspiel backdrop.

The instrumentation shifts for “Gambetta,” a shimmering metallic soundscape comprised almost entirely of glockenspiel and vibraphone melodies that swirl and twirl around long-breathed trumpet lines. Layers of electronic clicks and clatters are interwoven into delicate piano tremors for “Full Colour,” while “Rise Slowly” explores the soft dissonances and atmospheric silences that echo between pensive chords.

The album closes with “Angel Wings,” its sleepy and slowly meandering melodies drawing the midnight concert to a close, bidding the piano goodnight, and ascending into a beautiful dream.

ALBUM REVIEW: Danny Elfman’s Rabbit & Rogue

by Lauren Freman

If, like me, you thought that Danny Elfman’s Rabbit & Rogue looked like a fashionable reboot of a Bugs Bunny cartoon, you might be tempted to write off this score as self-indulgent and twee. But hear me out—

Rabbit & Rogue was the source material for a collection of short films that premiered at the LA Film Festival just last month. Produced by Indi.com, the Danny Elfman Project: Rabbit and Rogue was a contest inviting filmmakers to create a short film to set to the score, in the same vein as Disney’s Fantasia. Or Baby Driver. Submissions were judged by a star-studded panel, and the winning pieces screened for LAFF’s 36,000-some-odd festival attendees. The Limited Deluxe Edition was just released as an album this past June, brought to life by the Berlin Session Orchestra with conductor Joris Bartsch Buhle.

Rabbit & Rogue actually first premiered in 2008, as the six-movement score to a ballet, commissioned for the American Ballet Theater and choreographed by Twyla Tharp. The production was met with a few curmudgeonly responses (one New York Times critic named it “irksome” and “relentless”) which, okay, slow your roll. It’s a Danny Elfman score. Y’know, Danny Elfman? The guy who wrote the score for The Simpsons, and Batman Returns, and basically every Tim Burton movie ever? If you’re not here for whimsy, then get up out my face. But to be honest, I had a hard time imagining this as a ballet too. It’s just too cinematic (you can take the Danny Elfman outta the film score…), which is likely the motivation behind repurposing this piece for short films.

The “Intro” begins quietly with the percussion bubbling with a nervous heartbeat, which sets into motion the fidgety, pent-up kinesthetic energy that permeates the entire work. It opens gradually into a spacious—though no less fidgety—storybook landscape, letting the saxophone serve some serious Creation du Monde vibes before tumbling abruptly into the second movement, “Frolic.”

At points, the second movement could be mistaken for a Looney Tunes score (that xylophone tho). It evokes the sense that Rabbit is scampering through other symphonic works: there’s a reference to a theme from Rite of Spring’s third movement, a “Flight of the Bumblebee” nod in one piano solo section, and this perfectly cheeky moment about nine minutes in, where we are in full John Williamsy triumphant brass glory, then a pause—just long enough to raise an eyebrow—then BAM we’re doing a wild Charleston. It’s worth a listen just for the sonic scavenger hunt alone.

You know what they say: The way to a new music snob’s heart is through their gamelan. Admittedly, Rabbit & Rogue’s third movement, “Gamelan,” bears dubious resemblance to any traditional gamelan, but still it’s pretty magical. The beginning of this movement reprises the fluttery rabbit-heartbeat from the “Intro” (Are you trying to pass off the Berlin Session Orchestra’s xylophones as gamelan, Danny? Tell the truth…). The movement later leans hard into standard box office film score territory: sweeping, no-surprises-here anthems that remind you of the VHS tapes you watched and re-watched as a kid. If any one movement is dangling precariously close to preciousness, it’s this one. One might rebut, though, that, in a ballet about the adventures of a bunny, a little preciousness might be forgiven.

I won’t spoil the rest, but suffice it to say that Elfman continues this Macaulay Culkin-meets-Milhaud-meets-Mel-Blanc remix all the way through the Finale. Does this mean that Rabbit & Rogue essentially is, in fact, a fashionable reboot of a Bugs Bunny cartoon? Okay, yes. But who cares? The value in this piece is in its marriage of smartypants in-jokes and blockbuster soundtrack accessibility.

If, like me, you spend a fair amount of time wrestling for common ground with friends and family who “just don’t GET classical music,” this is precisely the kind of music that serves our cause. This kind of you-got-new-music-in-my-film-score/you-got-film-score-in-my-new-music mashup allows us to offer “If you liked that, you might enjoy this John Adams; this Charles Ives; this Conlon Nancarrow,” and before you know it, you and Uncle Craig are blasting Pierrot Lunaire from his truck like it’s no big deal.

As classical music people, our biggest image problem is in being perceived as too serious. Rabbit & Rogue helpfully reminds us to lighten up, lol at Elfman’s musical jokes, and for goodness’ sake, watch some cartoons.



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.

ALBUM REVIEW: Cartography by Mariel Roberts

by Brendan Howe

When I asked cellist Mariel Roberts what it means to be labeled as virtuosic (as numerous outlets have done with respect to her abilities) in the context of contemporary music, she replied that contemporary virtuosi wear more and different hats than those in strictly classical music. However, the primary requirement of all virtuosi is the release of ego.

We’ve all heard performers whose technical ability is so acute, and expressive capacity so vast, that we are spellbound by the music, forgetting both ourselves and that a performer is even playing. The music goes beyond subjective labels like good or bad and reaches its ostensible point: to create an entirely unique, transcendental experience. This is what Roberts has achieved with Cartography. The four pieces that comprise the album are beautifully curated for their exceptionally focused approach to expressing powerful musical ideas, executed with boldness and precision.

As the leading track on the album, Eric Wubbels’ “Gretchen am spinnrade” instantly shocks the conscious mind into submission. It creates an auditory deer-in-headlights effect for several moments before the mind recognizes sonic landscape as its own constant white noise in the form of music – loops of compulsive thought and action, repetitive behavior and cycles of history. Having based the piece on Goethe and Schubert’s Gretchen at the spinning wheel, illustrating a tortured relationship between fantasy and reality, Wubbels also sees the piece as representative of karma, the turning of cause and effect. He describes it as a “manic, hounded piece, alternating relentless motoric circuits with plateaus of ‘idling motion.’”

The second track, “Aman,” sneaks in like the shadow of a rat, tinkling through industrial debris along a warehouse wall, bookended by moments of silence. Turkish composer Cenk Ergün wrote the piece for cello and live electronic signal processing using a software instrument of his own design. He uses various techniques to warp the ominous, textural, percussive sounds of Roberts’ cello in real time, creating a compelling and instantaneous distortion of meaning.

Ergün notes that, while the word “aman” in its original Arabic means “security,” in Turkish it is used to alert someone of imminent danger, as in “watch out!” This piece certainly fits that mood, the uneasy calm before – or perhaps during – the storm.

George Lewis’ “Spinner” resurrects the Greek myth of The Three Fates, in which Clotho spins the thread of an individual’s life, Lachesis measures it, and Atropos cuts it off. Lewis recalls that Plato’s account of the Fates positions them indispensably at the moment of a soul’s transmigration, though the responsibility of choices throughout life remain with humans themselves. If the piece is heard as a life in final judgment, or as a life happening contemporaneously, it is worth noting that it does not romanticize or edit out the mundane. It is completely honest, and malleable societal preconceptions of what is valuable or not do not come into play.

“The Cartography of Time,” by one of Iceland’s most noted contemporary composers, Davi∂ Brynjar Franzson, closes the album. A 20-minute feat of immense concentration and willpower, this glacially moving piece meditates on a problem posed by Wittgenstein regarding the measurement of time: “The past cannot be measured, as it is gone by; and the future can’t be measured because it has not yet come. And the present can’t be measured for it has no extension.” Franzson has done away with the need to define what is past, present, or future in this piece. The overall effect is mesmerizing.

ALBUM REVIEW: John Cage’s Music for Speaking Percussionist by Bonnie Whiting

by Michael Schell

One of the more esoteric musical subgenres that emerged in the 1970s is the “talking instrumentalist” piece. Frederic Rzewski composed and performed many piano works where the performer recites a text while playing, and thanks to the contrabass virtuoso Bertram Turetzky, we now have a number of talking double bass pieces in the repertory. Even wind players have gotten into the act, including Seattle’s own Stuart Dempster, who in Robert Erickson’s General Speech recites General Douglas MacArthur’s retirement speech through a trombone.

Now we can add Bonnie Whiting to this distinguished list. Head of Percussion Studies at the University of Washington, she has made a specialty out of commissioning and performing speaking percussionist pieces. In her debut album from Mode Records, she turns her attention to John Cage (1912–1992), famous both for his witty creative writings and for his groundbreaking percussion compositions.

The centerpiece of the album is a 51-minute track titled—appropriately enough—51’15.657” for a Speaking Percussionist. It’s a personal showcase for Whiting, who has been performing it since 2010, including at Seattle’s 2016 John Cage Musicircus. Since Cage did not write any compositions that explicitly call for a talking percussionist, Whiting combines two chance-determined “time length” pieces from the 1950s that Cage suggested could be performed simultaneously.

Whiting performing 51’15.657” for a Speaking Percussionist at the John Cage Musicircus, Town Hall, Seattle, November 2016. Photo by Lee Goldman.

The first, 45’ for a Speaker, was built by Cage out of randomly selected excerpts from several of his contemporaneous lectures. These mostly come across as juxtaposed humorous vignettes, rather like his later Diary: How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse), which Second Inversion profiles here. The pacing of the words varies, so Whiting’s vocal delivery is sometimes rapid, sometimes sparse, and there are many long silences. Cage supplied a fixed script, which is published in his collection Silence.

By contrast, the score of the accompanying piece, 27’10.554” for a Percussionist, is open-ended, specifying only the timing of notes, their relative loudness, and whether their sound source should be wood, metal, drumhead, or “anything else.” It’s up to Whiting to assemble a suitable battery for the task, something that she does with aplomb, using both conventional and “junk” instruments. As with 45’ for a Speaker, the timing of the percussion music ranges from very active to very sparse, but since it’s always in free rhythm it’s mainly up to the text to convey a sense of tempo and beat.

Although Whiting’s playing occasionally drowns out her voice (this is by design!), her diction is clear, and the text is usually intelligible—even if owing to its chance selection it doesn’t always make normal sense. Whiting’s light and agile speaking voice offers a refreshing contrast to all the male voices that have traditionally dominated recordings of this kind of piece, and the feat of covering both vocal and instrumental roles at the same time is an impressive tour de force. Listening to it is like imagining Gertrude Stein deliver a lecture on modern music in a room occupied by a crazy robotic drum corps.

Excerpt from Whiting’s annotated score to 51’15.657” for a Speaking Percussionist.

The following track, Music for Two (By One), lasts a more modest 13 minutes and was similarly fashioned by Whiting from two different Cage pieces, one for voice and one for percussion. Both were written with indeterminate notation, and both come from his late collection Music for _____ (completed in 1987). Here the texts are bare letters and isolated syllables, so the emphasis is on tone color rather than meaning. Though the texture is relatively thin, as in 51’15.657” for a Speaking Percussionist, the result is more compact and integrated. In Whiting’s hands, it makes a nice entry point to this style of Cage piece.

A different side of Cage is revealed in The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs, a tiny classic for voice and piano from 1942. It was this work that launched Cage’s lengthy artistic engagement with Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. Clearly astonished by that unique monument of 20th century literature, Cage seems to have endeavored to stand back and let the text speak for itself as much as possible. After selecting a passage depicting a child’s lullaby, Cage wrote the voice part using just three pitches. For the piano part, Cage doesn’t even open the instrument, instead simply directing the performer to tap and rap on the closed cover and lid. He could hardly have intervened any less while still having set Joyce’s words to music!

Although The Wonderful Widow is fully written out in standard notation, Cage’s humble approach to his source material anticipates the even more ego-effacing attitude evinced in his later, chance-determined works. Whiting tackles the piece as another solo effort, doing both the singing and the piano tapping. The softness and simplicity of her interpretation gives it an unmistakably nurturing tone—a kind of release after the complex tracks preceding it.

Excerpts from Cage’s autograph of The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs.

Two more tracks wrap up the album: Cage’s A Flower (which is a kind of companion work to The Wonderful Widow) and a performance by Whiting’s frequent collaborator Allen Otte, where he plays Cage’s prepared piano piece Music for Marcel Duchamp while reciting a text and adding frame drum embellishments.

For an album with such a focused concept, John Cage: Music for Speaking Percussion offers an admirable range of musical experiences. Mode Records is making it available both in conventional audio formats and as a Blu-ray Disc, with the latter featuring a video interview with Whiting and Otte and HD footage of all the works in performance, thus conveying the theatricality that’s so impressive when you see them live. The release is Volume 52 (!) in Mode’s longstanding project to record Cage’s complete compositions, and it’s essential listening for enthusiasts of Cage or percussion music. Here’s hoping that there’s much more yet to come from both Bonnie Whiting and Mode Records.

 

ALBUM REVIEW: Los Angeles Percussion Quartet’s Beyond

by Seth Tompkins

The Los Angeles Percussion Quartet’s Beyond places intimacy front and center.  The delicate sonic encounters that permeate these two discs (or just one if you’re listening to the Blu-Ray) are not classic fodder for percussion ensembles.  While there are a smattering of grooves and some loud moments, Beyond leans much more strongly toward the ethereal and the delicate.  This forward-thinking curation, paired with LAPQ’s sensitive and thoughtful musicianship, makes this release a delight.

Daníel Bjarnason’s “Qui Tollis” is a microcosm of the whole of Beyond, with beckoning atmospheric figures framing a collection of engaging grooves that are made all the more striking by their juxtaposition with the gentle outer material.  This atmospherics-to-groove ratio and pattern runs through many of the individual pieces on this release, but also throughout the entire album as a whole.

Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s “Aura,” like much of her music, explores the boundaries of perception.  A collection of diverse and austere timbres unfolds throughout this piece as it plays with the edge of silence.  A deeply meditative piece, “Aura” benefits, as do many other pieces on this album, from listening in headphones or on a good surround-sound system.  Fancifully, “Aura” could be the musical version of experiencing an unfamiliar landscape: a place that, while neither particularly hostile nor favorable toward you, is captivating in its natural strangeness.

Christopher Cerrone’s transformational “Memory Palace” was the only piece on this release that was not new to my ears; Second Inversion recently released a video of Ian David Rosenbaum performing the entire work.  However, it was very interesting to experience the piece in an audio-only version.  In the video, the visual depiction of the enormous variety of instruments and performance techniques was a delight, but the audio-only performance on this recording offers a sense of intimacy and mystery that the video does not.  Ultimately, both performances are certainly worth a listen: they provide different ways of experiencing a tremendous piece that seems to have already staked out a lasting place in the percussion repertoire.

“Fear-Release” by Ellen Reid is an exercise in well-defined color palettes.  Most instruments used in this piece are metallic, although there are integral parts for marimba and bass drum.  This is perhaps a more traditional soundscape than some of the other pieces on Beyond, but it certainly matches the others in terms of its sophistication.  All five pieces on this release follow internal guiding principles—”Fear-Release” just happens to use a more traditional instrumentation within that same laudable compositional ethic.

Beyond closes with “I Hold the Lion’s Paw” by Andrew McIntosh.  This piece occupies nine tracks and comes packaged by itself in a separate disc (in the CD version).  This is a slightly puzzling setup until you take into account the listening note that accompanies this piece, which  recommends that this piece is best taken in its entirety.  This instruction makes sense, given “Lion’s Paw”‘s tendency towards percussive recitative. This is a slower burn than the other pieces on Beyond, but it is perhaps the most dramatic work on the album.

At many points during Beyond, it is easy to forget that you are listening to a percussion ensemble.  These moments, when the music itself becomes the primary focus, beyond any considerations of the instrumentation, performers, or extra-musical context, are rare—and the ability to deliver them is a triumph for any ensemble.  The fact that Beyond presents so many opportunities in which to become lost in the music is a credit to the curation of the quartet.  The construction of this collection deserves as much praise as the intelligent performances and thoughtful compositions contained therein.

ALBUM REVIEW: Sophia Subbayya Vastek’s Histories


by Maggie Molloy

In Indian classical music, a raga is like a melodic mode or scale—but with more depth than the scales of Western music. Far from just a simple collection of notes, a raga is a musical framework which holds emotional significance and symbolic associations with season, time, and mood.

Ragas are just one of the overarching musical ideas at work in pianist Sophia Subbayya Vastek’s new album, Histories. Using her Indian heritage as a jumping off point, the album explores the intersections between her own cultural backgrounds, using a traditionally Western instrument to meditate on scales, modes, harmonies, intervals, and ideas inspired by East and South Asian musical traditions.

Composer Michael Harrison’s two contributions to the album most closely embody this blend of European and Indian musical styles. Both are scored for tanpura (a long-necked plucked lute), tabla (small hand drums), and piano in just intonation (as opposed to equal temperament)—and both are performed by the composer (tanpura), Nitin Mitta (tabla), and Vastek (piano).

The first, “Jaunpuri,” is based on a traditional Indian raga, but shaped with Western compositional notation, structures, and harmony. An embellished piano melody twirls and spins through a buzzing tabla and tanpura trance, building in intensity until the circling rhythmic cycles spin out into a breathtaking piano rhapsody. Vastek’s fingers fly through the rapturous piano solo with passion and profound tenderness, almost as though the melodies were born in her bones.

Harrison’s other work, “Hijaz Prelude,” is more somber in tone, showcasing Vastek’s graceful touch and emotive phrasing. Based on the modal harmonies of a raga most often associated with morning, the introspective prelude combines a Western, arpeggiated keyboard figure with the patient, steady pulse of the tabla and the textured vibrations of the tanpura, rich with reverberating overtones.

If Harrison’s compositions speak to the music of Vastek’s Indian heritage, then Donnacha Dennehy’s contribution represents Vastek’s Western background. Dennehy’s 15-minute “Stainless Staining” for piano and soundtrack is based on a fundamental low G# (lower than the lowest note on a piano). The soundtrack is comprised of audio samples from pianos which have been retuned to showcase a massive harmonic spectrum of 100 overtones based on that one single pitch. Performed on an equal temperament piano, the resulting concoction immerses the listener in a thick cloud of harmony—but with a pulsating rhythm that swirls the overtone series into a dizzying trance.

Scattered between the works of Harrison and Dennehy is the music of John Cage, a composer whose work was famously influenced by East and South Asian cultures (and in particular by his studies of Indian philosophy and Zen Buddhism). Vastek moves to a prepared piano for her performances of Cage’s musing and meditative “She is Asleep” (a wordless duet with soprano Megan Schubert), and captures the percussive heartbeat of Cage’s pulsating prepared piano solo “A Room” with equal warmth.

Interspersed throughout the album are three separate performances of Cage’s ethereal “Dream” (for unprepared piano), each played in a different octave across the keyboard. Vastek’s fingers float freely from one translucent note to the next, the pedal blurring all of it into a beautiful and hazy dreamscape. The album closes with the highest-pitched rendition, drifting softly upward until the music evaporates into silence.

It’s a far cry from the impassioned piano rhapsody that started off the album, yet Vastek is equally at home in both worlds. In just under an hour, she travels from Indian ragas on a just-intoned piano to an immersive exploration of the overtone series, and all the way through to Cage’s prepared piano and pedal-laced dreamscapes.

The result is both an homage to Vastek’s own individual histories but also a beautiful mosaic of the larger cultural intersections of our world—and how we weave those histories together through music.