ALBUM REVIEW: ‘a tangle of stars’ by Mary Halvorson and John Dieterich

by Peter Tracy

John Dieterich and Mary Halvorson.

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.

Second Inversion’s Top 10 Albums of 2019

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.

Qasim Naqvi: Teenages (Erased Tapes)

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

Learn more in Peter’s album review.


John Luther Adams: Become Desert (Cantaloupe Music)
Seattle Symphony; Ludovic Morlot, conductor

“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.


Meara O’Reilly: Hockets for Two Voices (Cantaloupe Music)

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


Nathalie Joachim: Fanm d’Ayiti (New Amsterdam)
Nathalie Joachim, flute and electronics; Spektral Quartet

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

Learn more in Peter’s album review.


Julia Wolfe: Fire in My Mouth (Decca Gold)
New York Philharmonic; The Crossing; Young People’s Chorus of New York City

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


William Brittelle: Spiritual America (New Amsterdam and Nonesuch)
Wye Oak; Metropolis Ensemble; Brooklyn Youth Chorus

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


Harry Partch: Sonata Dementia (Bridge Records)
PARTCH Ensemble

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.


Daniel Wohl: État (New Amsterdam and Nonesuch)

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


Iceland Symphony Orchestra: Concurrence (Sono Luminus)
Iceland Symphony Orchestra; Daníel Bjarnason, conductor

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


Caleb Burhans: Past Lives (Cantaloupe Music)

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.

ALBUM REVIEW: Caroline Shaw’s ‘Orange’

by Peter Tracy

Caroline Shaw. Photo by Kait Moreno.

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.

Attacca Quartet.

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.

Limestone 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 contemplative.

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.

ALBUM REVIEW: ‘Celesta’ by Michael Jon Fink

by Peter Tracy

Even at their most outgoing, instruments like the celesta tend to hide in larger ensembles, coming out of the texture for little moments here and there. Perhaps this is because the celesta tends to be a quiet instrument: its tuned metal bars give off a delicate ring that is subtle and long lasting, but won’t compete with a horn section or timpani.

On his latest album, appropriately titled Celesta, Los Angeles-based composer Michael Jon Fink moves the instrument to center stage. Rather than burying the instrument in a larger ensemble, Fink applies his sparse, tranquil, and quietly mysterious musical language to this often-overlooked instrument, creating what is among the largest ever collections of music for solo celesta.

Comprised of twelve short pieces performed by the composer, this is an album in which less is more. Ranging from under one minute long to just over six, the pieces as a whole form something of an arc, at times melancholic, joyful, nostalgic, or pensive, but always quiet and spacious.

This suite of sorts begins with “Call,” a gently lilting melody over bell-like arpeggiations that is reminiscent of a tune from an ancient music box. “Cold Pastoral” features two lines in sparse counterpoint, with a simple and repetitive, yet slowly varying melodic phrase that brings to mind a lake frozen in the dead of winter. The pensive stillness takes on a nostalgic tone in “Bells,” with pentatonic melodies that twinkle like a wind chime. “From the Singing River” turns things in a more mysterious direction, with little melodic variations that seems to circle around without ever arriving at their final destination.

The following two pieces, “First Star, Last Star” and “Post-Impression” continue this trend, tending toward pensive arpeggiated melodies with plenty of space to let the instrument’s soft tones reverberate. By “Ruins,” things have settled into a meditative trance, with the title helping to inspire a feeling of something that has been lost to the past. Slightly more active pieces follow, with the tenuously hopeful “Sunless” incorporating some of the lower notes of the five-octave celesta and the eerie “Nocturne for the Three Times” drifting through incredibly sparse and atmospheric textures.

“Softly Yellowed Moon” is equally enigmatic, with two lines providing melody and harmony that wind their way down into the longest piece on the album, “Triptych.” Loosely divided into three parts, the piece begins with a quietly wandering melody over a left-hand ostinato before moving into what is the most openly joyful music of the album. Eventually, the music reaches an almost animated conclusion featuring crescendos in tight harmony and the celesta sounding more bell-like than ever. The appropriately named “After the End,” then, seems to question this borderline excitement, leaving us with a somber and unsettlingly harmonized reflection.

Still, the album avoids drawing a clear conclusion. Is there a story here in the space between the notes, or are we just meant to reflect on the round tones of the celesta as they fade into silence? Each piece feels like a small and crystalline world of its own, inviting the listener to discover their own meaning for themselves.

VIDEO PREMIERE: Derek Hunter Wilson’s ‘Catalogue of Trying’

by Maggie Molloy

Derek Hunter Wilson. Photo by Nika States.

Expansive panoramas of Willamette Falls form the basis of a new music video for Derek Hunter Wilson’s “Catalogue of Trying.” Shot by Portland photographer and filmmaker Chloé Jarnac, the images reflect the inherent tension between nature and industry.

It’s a theme echoed throughout Wilson’s new album Steel, Wood, & Air (named after the instruments it features: piano, strings, and bass clarinet). In it, the pianist and composer focuses on the elemental aspects of music, exploring color, texture, and timbre through introspective works that highlight the essence of the instruments themselves. Recorded live in the studio with minimal overdubbing, the resulting works highlight the organic nature of music-making, even amid a technology-driven world.

We’re thrilled to premiere the music video for Wilson’s “Catalogue of Trying.”


Derek Hunter Wilson’s new album Steel, Wood, & Air is out now on Beacon Sound. Click here for more information.