Louis Andriessen: Theater of the World

by Michael Schell

Louis Andriessen is Europe’s leading post-minimalist composer, occupying a niche similar to John Adams in North America. His early process pieces Hoketus and Worker’s Union bear the influence of his friend and contemporary Frederic Rzewski, and established him as a lynchpin in the post-WW2 renaissance of Dutch classical music. He’s also an important father figure to the Bang on a Can cadre, as is evident from the constant rhythmic energy propelling his recently premiered opera (or “grotesque stagework” as he calls it) Theater of the World.

Conceived in collaboration with writer Helmut Krausser and director Pierre Audi, with video and décor from the Quay Brothers, Theater of the World is based on the books of Athanasius Kircher, a curious 17th century Jesuit scholar who endeavored to organize the knowledge of his time into a metaphorical theological framework, visualizing the world as a great play authored by God “with all of us as its actors.” The libretto cobbled from this corpus by Andriessen and Krausser is a jumble of texts in several languages—not the easiest thing to follow without staging. But that needn’t deter us from enjoying the music, which is available on a new double CD release from Nonesuch featuring the Los Angeles Philharmonic and soloists from the Dutch National Opera (the work’s co-commissioners) conducted by Reinbert de Leeuw.

Scene 5 offers a good introduction: it’s mostly set in English, and features “pop” instruments (synth, electric guitar and electric bass) alongside more conventional orchestral timbres. The following scene begins with some sharp chords that hearken back to the ending of Stravinsky’s last masterpiece, the Requiem Canticles. It’s quintessential Andriessen, combining “American” playfulness and “European” historical perspective into an idiom that’s accessible and contemporary but still committed to a humanist striving, however imperfect, toward higher knowledge.

ALBUM REVIEW: The Perfect Nothing Catalog by Conrad Winslow

by Brendan Howe

Photo by Kim Winslow.

Growing up in Homer, Alaska, Conrad Winslow watched his parents build their log cabin in the woods from scratch—little did he know, those building blocks would shape and inspire his future as a composer.

As with building a log cabin that is to become a home, the world Winslow creates in his debut album The Perfect Nothing Catalog is significantly more emotionally involved than rendering walls of sound from various materials. The technical choices made in orchestrating the album are perhaps less relevant than the sensitivity with which the Cadillac Moon Ensemble and producer Aaron Roche execute them. Foot stomps and sawtooth waves interspersed with cello and flute are all well and good, but Winslow and Roche’s attention to detail—along with the ensemble’s agility—give them gravity, fire, adrenaline, and airy bliss.

Winslow originally composed The Perfect Nothing Catalog as an acoustic score in 2014, but says that he “always imagined it like an abstract radio play.” He recorded an acoustic version and asked Roche to “riff on these aural objects, process them in myriad ways.” Roche did just that with distortions and elements of musique concrète, lending the piece a subtle sense of narrative.

The title work is made up of 50 miniatures, each less than a minute long and cataloged by compositional approach: “tunes” are melodic lines, modulating and harmonizing themselves, “materials” are simply musical textures, “devices” are rhythmic vignettes, “controls” explore variations on a single parameter, and “code” layers the movements together in new ways.

Though a piece as meticulously organized as this may be expected to sound clinical, the end result is full of surprises. It is music of simultaneous—rather than reflective or whimsical—experience.

The other pieces on the album, Abiding Shapes, Ellipsis Rules, and Benediction, reveal the composer’s consistency in his craft. The entire album may be enjoyed either while sitting back in an armchair with a glass of wine or while painting a giant canvas on the living room floor.


The Perfect Nothing Catalog is available for pre-order through Innova.mu. It will be released on November 17, 2017.

Second Inversion Spooktacular: 48-hour Spooky Music Marathon

by Maggie Molloy

Nothing sets the scene for your Halloween quite like a marathon of spooky music! Let us provide the soundtrack for your Halloween haunts. On October 30 and 31, tune in to Second Inversion for a 48-hour marathon of new and experimental music inspired by monsters, witches, ghosts, goblins, and things that go bump in the night.

Click here to tune into the scream—er, stream of Halloween music from anywhere in the world, or tune in on the go using our free mobile app. To give you a sneak peek of the spooky music that’s in store, our Second Inversion hosts share a favorite selection from their Halloween playlists:

Harry Partch: Delusion of the Fury (Innova Recordings)

Likely written as an attempt to reconcile his own anger, Harry Partch’s stage play Delusion of the Fury is (superficially, at least) well-suited to Halloween. Containing killing, a ghost, body horror, futility, and absurdism, this piece not only touches on the more classic campy elements of spookiness, but is oriented around some of the darker elements of horror—existentialism, futility, and powerlessness to name a few. Plus, for my money, few musical things conjure the uneasy feelings associated with horror and dread like microtonal scales. – Seth Tompkins


Arnold Schoenberg: Pierrot Lunaire (Hungaroton Records)
Erika Sziklay, soprano; 
András Mihály, conductor; Budapest Chamber Ensemble

It just wouldn’t be a Halloween marathon without a spooky clown—and Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire is nothing if not haunting. A masterpiece of melodrama, the 35-minute work tells the chilling tale of a moonstruck clown and his descent into madness (a powerful metaphor for the modern alienated artist). The spooky story comes alive through three groups of seven poems (a result of Schoenberg’s peculiar obsession with numerology), each one recited using Sprechstimme: an expressionist vocal technique that hovers eerily between song and speech. Combine this with Schoenberg’s free atonality and macabre storytelling, and it’s enough to transport you to into an intoxicating moonlight. – Maggie Molloy


Adrian Lane: “Playing with Ghosts” (Preserved Sound)

The “ghosts” in the title refer to the 100-year-old cylinder recordings that Adrian Lane hacked to bits, reordered, sutured together, and reanimated as “Playing With Ghosts.”  The result is a grainy musical creature accompanied by Lane’s own ethereal piano, which was built around the same time the cylinders were originally produced. The deterioration of the recordings leave a haunting, nostalgic impression. – Rachele Hales

 


Michael Daugherty: Dead Elvis (CCn’C Records)
Martin Kuuskmann, bassoon; Absolute Ensemble

Have you ever wondered why people are obsessed with celebrities?  How some folks can see faces in toast?  Then you must be mystified by the phenomenon of Elvis Presley’s inimitable immortality.

Program notes from the premiere of Michael Daugherty’s Dead Elvis say that “It is more than a coincidence that it is scored for the same instrumentation as Stravinsky’s Histoire du Soldat (1918), in which a soldier sells his violin and his soul to the devil for a magic book. In Dead Elvis, the bassoon is Elvis (or perhaps an Elvis impersonator). Does this rock star sell out his Southern folk authenticity to the sophisticated professionalism of Hollywood movies, Colonel Parker, and Las Vegas in order to attain great wealth and fame?”

Daugherty’s over-the-top tribute to Elvis juxtaposed with Dies Irae (a religious chant which symbolizes Judgment Day) incites questions about the obsessiveness over celebrity and the immortality of image. – Micaela Pearson


Julia Wolfe: Cruel Sister (Cantaloupe Music)
Ensemble Resonanz

Cruel Sister by Julia Wolfe is a musical rendering of an eponymous Old English ballad. The ballad tells the tale of two sisters—one magnificently bright as the sun, the other cold and dark. One day a man comes courting and the dark sister becomes infatuated with him. Jealous and covetous, she pushes her bright sister into the sea. Two minstrels find the dead sister washed up on the shore and shape her breastbone into a macabre harp, strung with her yellow hair. They come to play at the cold dark sister’s wedding.

As the sound of the harp reaches the bride’s ears, the ballad concludes, “and surely now her tears will flow.” Wolfe’s piece follows the dramatic arc of the ballad—the music reflecting an argument that builds, a body floating on the sea, and of course, the mad harp. – Brendan Howe


Robert Honstein: Night Scenes from the Ospedale (Soundspells Productions)
The Sebastians

This work by Robert Honstein may not have been intended to be creepy, but whatever the goal, the result is unmistakable. From the slow scraping and scratching of strings at the very beginning to the long, stretched out melodies and despondent harpsichord, this piece has major spook factor. It’s also just a great piece of music; I love the way tension is slowly increased throughout each interlude, guiding the ear to always expect ever-higher sounds and some new string effect.

Night Scenes from the Ospedale depicts the nighttime stillness of the famous girls’ orphanage in Venice with the orchestra that performed many of Vivaldi’s works. It seems to capture the dusky darkness of that place long after the last note of rehearsal has fallen silent. It’s also great in its original presentation on the album, with works by Vivaldi interspersed between the interludes. – Geoffrey Larson

The Best of Thelonious Monk: The Blue Note Years

by Michael Schell

This month seems like an opportune time for a salute in Thelonious Monk’s direction, honoring both his 100th birthday and the 70th anniversary of the first of the Blue Note recording sessions that Monk aficionados generally consider his most important work. Highlights from these 1947–52 sessions have been gathered into a handy single-CD reissue that showcases the things that make Monk’s music so compelling: his catchy and highly chromatic jazz compositions, and his unique and piquant improv style that combines bebop and stride piano techniques with harmonic innovations from modern composed music.

Included are the first recordings of such Monk standards as Epistrophy, Straight No Chaser, Well You Needn’t, and ‘Round Midnight (the bane of many a piano student overwhelmed by its complicated chord changes). And then there’s Misterioso, a mini-compendium of Monkish eccentricities. It’s ostensibly a 12-bar blues in B♭, but its melody consists of non-swinging broken sixths that sound more like Scarlatti than bebop.

After Monk and vibraphonist Milt Jackson play through the tune, Jackson offers a fairly conventional solo lasting one chorus. Then Monk begins his solo, and things start getting weird. He spends one chorus toying around with the dissonant clash between D♭ and D♮, and a second chorus combining blues licks with whole-tone scales and long rests. When Jackson starts reprising the theme, Monk spends several bars plunking out harsh isolated notes in counterpoint before finally joining Jackson on the melody. The track ends with one last whole-tone flurry from Monk. Throw in the crude 78 Era sound quality, and the whole thing has a kind of primitive mystique to it, teetering more and more on the edge of crazy as it goes on—kind of a metaphor for Monk’s own life and mental health struggles. Have a listen, and (re)acquaint yourself with this unorthodox American musical genius.

ALBUM REVIEW: Orpheus Unsung by Steven Mackey with Jason Treuting

by Rachele Hales

It’s a tale as old as time…  boy meets girl, girl dies of snakebite, boy rescues girl from underworld, boy makes dumb mistake and girl is returned to underworld, boy is ripped to shreds by women after refusing to join their orgy and his decapitated head becomes an oracle.  It’s amazing Disney never adapted this heartwarming tale!

Jayme Halbritter Photography.

Of course the tale is that of Orpheus and Eurydice, an ancient Greek myth told musically and with expertise as a guitar opera by Steven Mackey and Jason Treuting in Orpheus Unsung. The piece originally premiered in 2016 as a multimedia music and dance spectacle directed by Mark DeChiazza—this October, the music was released as an album on New Amsterdam Records.

Mackey brings Orpheus back to life with his electric guitar, which is the musical representation of Orpheus in this “opera without words.”  Of course, in the original story Orpheus is known far and wide for his expertise with the lyre, a harp-like instrument he played so well that flora and fauna alike would follow the faint music and travel closer to hear him play.  It’s refreshing to hear Orpheus played by instruments with a bit more edge.  Mackey uses two guitars, one tuned normally and the second tuned microtonally, to create what he calls an “underworldly” harmonic sound.  The drums and gongs provided by Sō Percussion’s Treuting round out the sound of the opera with interesting texture and crisp, innovative drumming techniques.

Jayme Halbritter Photography.

Mackey and Treuting give us the whole story in about an hour, which is structured as three acts representing the phases of Orpheus’ quest: above ground, the underworld, and his return to the land of the living.  While above ground, Orpheus falls hard for Eurydice and the two marry with haste.  At the wedding the god of marriage offers no smiles or words of encouragement (bad omen alert!) and just after the wedding Eurydice is bitten by a snake and dies.  Orpheus laments her death and embarks on his journey to the underworld to bring her back.  Mackey and Treuting play “The Wedding” with gentle sustained notes that graduate to the all-out anarchy of “Snakebite,” which is followed by a somber, slower “First Lament” that builds as Orpheus lands on the decision to take his lyre with him to the underworld and get Eurydice back with a musical plea to Hades, God of the Underworld.

So down he goes.  In a musical swirl of percussion and guitar loops, Orpheus uses his artful playing to charm the beasts, Furies, and dead souls that block his entrance.  Mackey plays with lovely restraint and calm as Orpheus finds Hades and makes an impassioned speech, reminding the god of his own great love for Persephone.  Convinced that Orpheus and Eurydice are true lovers, Hades agrees to free Eurydice from the underworld but orders that she must walk behind Orpheus on the journey back and that Orpheus is not allowed to turn back to look at her.  Up, up, up they go with Mackey lighting the way with his cautious guitar, until Orpheus blows it all at the last second by turning back to gaze at his wife—his shattered dreams scored by shards of icy guitar riffs as she falls back into the darkness.

Oof.  After mourning and weeping at the edge of the River Styx, Orpheus emerges from the underworld and plays a sorrowful lament punctuated by long, resting pauses.  In “Orpheus Redux,” our protagonist wanders back home literally singing the blues (and here Mackey and Treuting transition to a bluesy sound as well).  Eventually he is met by a mob of drunk, horny women.  When Orpheus spurns their advances they begin to throw sticks at him.  But remember how flora and fauna alike are enchanted by Orpheus?  Of course you do.  So when the thrown sticks refuse to hit him the women rip him apart themselves, tossing his parts into the nearby stream.  The guitar and drums become chaotic to depict this messy and violent scene, but soften greatly as his head (still singing out for Eurydice) and lyre (still playing mournfully) float down the stream, bobbing gently as they continue to drift, perform, and enchant.  Eventually The Muses discover his head and rest it peacefully at the bank of the stream, where it becomes an oracle.

Stories about loss and trying to cheat death will always be relevant—but with help from percussion and a couple guitars, Treuting and Mackey give new life to these themes and allow Orpheus to be reborn.

Staff Picks: Friday Faves

Second Inversion hosts share a favorite selection from their weekly playlist. Tune in on Friday, October 6 to hear these pieces and plenty of other new and unusual music from all corners of the classical genre!

Michael Gordon: Timber (Cantaloupe Music)
Remixed by Ikue Mori

Michael Gordon could make music out of just about anything. His piece Timber, composed for six percussionists playing 2×4 planks of wood, is not just good—it’s so good  it spurred an entire album of remixes by 12 different electronic artists.

This particular remix by Ikue Mori slows down the texture and explores the space between the notes, with the music slowly oscillating up and down, side to side, from one headphone to the other and back again. With an echoing, almost ritualistic pulse, Mori’s version feels ghostlier than the original. It’s almost as though the wooden planks were cut from haunted trees—evoking a spookier interpretation of the title Timber. – Maggie Molloy

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 2pm hour today to hear this piece.


Julia Wolfe: Lick (Cantaloupe Music)
Bang on a Can All-Stars

This is an intense piece in many ways. It’s rhythmically difficult, aggressively pounding, and relentless throughout; it features no sound softer than a determined forte until possibly the very end. Generally I would abhor something like this, but the Bang on a Can All-Stars are able to give it a truly fascinating showcase: raucous and full of indomitable character.

It’s the first piece that Julia Wolfe wrote for the ensemble, hoping they would “go over the top” with the work’s “intense energy” born of the body-slamming rhythms of Motown, funk, and rock music of Julia’s childhood. I think it worked. – Geoffrey Larson

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 3pm hour today to hear this piece.


Florence Price: Dances in the Canebrakes (MSR Classics)
William Chapman Nyaho, piano

William Chapman Nyaho: Asa is the second of five volumes curated by Ghanaian-American composer and pianist William Chapman Nyaho. All five volumes feature a fascinating and impressive collection of music of Africa and the African diaspora.  This second volume is focused on dance music, and Nyaho certainly shines as he dances his hands across the keys of his piano with striking expertise.

In Florence Price’s Dances in the Canebrakes, Nyaho treats the listener to three movements that feel like a courtly cakewalk.  Price, I should note, was the first black woman in the US to be recognized as a symphonic composer and to have her work performed by a major American orchestra. Price was a pioneer and is perfectly at home in this anthology of musical unity. – Rachele Hales

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


Ballaké Sissoko & Vincent Ségal: “N’kapalema” (No Format Records)

I’m currently going through a months-long phase of discovering West African music, which started with Peter Gabriel’s collaborations with Youssou N’Dour and then led me through to Toumani Diabaté and Rokia Traoré. (Give them a listen!)

It looks like Ballaké Sissoko will carry the torch next. In “N’kapalema,” a collaboration with cellist Vincent Ségal for Sissoko’s album Musique de nuit, the composer plucks precise, intricate melodies on the kora while Ségal overlays the cello’s husky voice. For me, it evoked an image of a lot of families in their homes at dusk, all saying prayers before a candlelit dinner. – Brendan Howe

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 9pm hour today to hear this piece. Plus, catch the duo in Seattle when they perform as part of the Earshot Jazz Festival on Oct. 22.

ALBUM REVIEW: Possessed by Robert Black

by Maggie Molloy

Photo by Elliott Fredouelle.

Double bassist Robert Black likes to explore uncharted territory—both literally and musically. In his new solo album Possessed, he takes his bass into the great outdoors to perform an improvised duet with the Moab Desert.

A founding member of the Bang on a Can All-Stars, Black has made a career out of pushing the boundaries of the double bass. In his new album, he uses the instrument to merge the music of man and Mother Nature, performing amid the desert winds and quiet rustlings of Moab’s sprawling landscapes. The surround-sound album also features a DVD showcasing his intimate solo performances amid the stunning grandeur of the Utah desert.

“The idea for me is to go to these different unique acoustical environments with my bass and start to improvise, and make music with the cliffs, the rocks, the canyons, the culverts,” Black said. “And then it becomes less about me improvising but more about me finding a way with the bass to make the environment start to sing.”

The album begins at sunrise with the three-part “Dawn in Hunter Canyon.” The bass grumbles and echoes amid the cavernous canyons and delicately chirping birds, building in speed and intensity until it reaches an urgent fantasia. A percussive interlude turns the bass into a drum, with Black drawing a percussive groove from every corner of the instrument as insects buzz around him. It ends with Black’s bass singing back to the birds, a sweet and tender ballad echoing across the desert air.

Photo by Elliott Fredouelle.

The piece is followed by “Morning in Pritchard Culvert,” a restless bass solo ringing and reverberating against the culvert’s rounded walls. Black saws at his bass amid a cloud of rosin and sand, exploring the instrument’s full sonic rangefrom the lowest, earthiest vibrations to the airiest whispers right at the bridge. As the piece wears on the echo chamber becomes an instrument itself, mimicking the long, velvety melodies of Black’s double bass and volleying back his oscillating waves of sound.

Texture is paramount in “Noon in Day Canyon,” a four-part piece that cycles through bold pizzicato and marcato riffs, soft harmonies, and sparse melodic whispersall vibrating across the quiet hum of the desert.

That near-silence begins to grow in intensity for “Evening in Dragonfly Culvert,” a wild and stormy fantasia that pulls from the cavernous depths of the instrument. With restless energy his bass screams, skitters, grumbles, and growls like a werewolf at the moon, each stroke of his bow feverishly echoing across the empty culvert.

The day in the desert ends back where it began with the four-part “Night in Hunter Canyon.” It’s a new type of nocturne, with Black’s bass improvisations quiet and pensive in the night air, drawing midnight melodies from the gentle sparkle of the stars abovetrading motives with a chorus of frogs and crickets.

The DVD portion of the release simply makes visible all the canyons, cliffs, culverts, and crickets you hear throughout the recordings. Breathtaking shots of Black and his bass amid the morning moonlight, the echoing culverts, the towering orange canyons, and the blazing desert sun highlight the vivid colors and natural grandeur that inspired the improvisations.

“Bass, environment, and Iwe merge,” Black writes in his album notes. “My hands move, the bass sings, the landscape responds and directs the movements, controls the sound. The music comes…from I don’t know where. I close my eyes. I lose myself. I give in. I surrender. I am transported. I am…possessed.”