ALBUM REVIEW: Stuart McLeod’s ‘Tetraktys – All Is Number’

by Michael Schell

Back in 1996 Seattle composer/percussionist Stuart McLeod initiated a project called Tetraktys (pronounced “teh-TRAK-tis”) and named after a Pythagorean shape with ten points arranged in a pyramid. Considered by some to hold mystic significance, this shape is also a font of mathematical relationships, which in McLeod’s hands evoke musical structures that are varied but unified. Logic dictates having ten Tetraktys pieces in all, one for each point, and having produced a recording of four of them in 2015, McLeod chose this past December 19 (his 53rd birthday) to release the remaining six.

What makes this new album successful isn’t so much the individual tracks as the unexpected relations created through their juxtaposition and summation. Tetraktys 1 (“the origin of the universe”) uses layers of single-note electric guitar chimes, while Tetraktys 2 is appropriately obsessed with major seconds. Much of McLeod’s music is influenced by minimalism—in particular the kind of process-oriented 1960s minimalism epitomized by Terry Riley’s In C, in which multiple musicians gradually play their way through 53 repeating beat-driven patterns. Tetraktys 2, with its emphasis on vibes and single-reed woodwinds, seems to hearken back to the sound world of In C’s first recording.

Tetraktys 3 is fixated on augmented triads: two stacked major thirds that comprise a symmetrical, tonally ambiguous chord any of whose three pitches can function as the root. McLeod amplifies the vagueness by using a detuned piano and adding a generous dose of reverb and simulated tape hiss that suggests the sound of a 1960s era field recording.

Later pieces are less direct in their numerical correspondences. The gamelan-like Tetraktys 8 isn’t a study in octaves as you might expect, but more of a monophonic version of In C where the melodic snippets subtly transform themselves sequentially rather than overlapping by chance. Tetraktys 9 features synthesized clangs and “MIDI orchestra” sounds that remind me of the late Hardy Fox’s “contraptions” released under his Residents nom de plume Charles Bobuck.

For McLeod, whose other musical interests include brainwaves and loud, aleatoric rock, Tetraktys now stands whole, the fulfillment of countless explorations concluded then reopened, “writing and rewriting these 10 pieces over a period of 22 years.” The drawn-out, revolving birthing process has its analog in the final piece, Tetraktys 10, which is designed as a summary of the previous nine followed by a coda that’s a summary of the summary. This is music that, like its gestation, seems to perpetuate itself in cycles.

Second Inversion’s Top 10 Albums of 2018

Cheers to another year of new and experimental music on Second Inversion! Our hosts celebrate with a list of our Top 10 Favorite Albums of the Year. From a quiet ocean of percussion to the shimmering orchestras of Iceland and the bold harmonies of Beijing, our list celebrates musical innovation within and far beyond the classical genre.

Michael Gordon: The Unchanging Sea
Released Aug. 2018 on Cantaloupe Music

It’s easy to get lost in the haunting majesty of Michael Gordon’s The Unchanging Sea, the sheer force of its rolling waves echoing across the piano in the hands of Tomoko Mukaiyama with the Seattle Symphony. Gordon’s ocean of sound swells to overwhelming proportions, each wave cresting higher and higher, surging and submerging you in its growling depths. Though originally conceived with an accompanying film by Bill Morrison—a gritty collage assembled from deteriorating film reels and historic footage of Puget Sound—the piece’s sonic imagery is equally vivid on its own.

It’s paired on this album with Gordon’s shimmering Beijing Harmony, a work inspired by Echo Wall at the Temple of Heaven in Beijing, where sounds reverberate from one side of the structure to the other. In performance, the wind and brass players are spread out across the stage—and when you listen with headphones, the music echoes from left to right and back again, all around and through you. – Maggie Molloy


Ken Thomson: Sextet
Released Sept. 2018 on New Focus

Clarinetist, saxophonist, and composer Ken Thomson is known primarily for his work with the Bang on a Can All-Stars. But as it turns out, he’s been living a sort of musical double life as a jazz musician for, basically, ever, much like Ron Swanson as Duke Silver. Unlike Swanson, Thomson has decided to let his alter ego run free. I hear strains of Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue in Thomson’s Phantom Vibration Syndrome, Dave Brubeck’s Time Out in the time signatures, maybe even a little Charlie Parker when the improvisation builds to a frenzy. Thomson brings the complex compositional structures—the details of which I will not pretend to understand—of new music and improvisation together on this album in a way that can only be described as fun. – Dacia Clay


Nils Frahm: All Melody
Released Jan. 2018 on Erased Tapes

Nils Frahms’ latest solo album is striking in its simplicity—the compositions distilled down to their most potent melodies. The album features the composer himself on his usual keyboard collection of pianos, synthesizers, and pipe organs—but here expanded to feature an ethereal choir of vocalists along with subtle strings and percussion. The resulting tracks are an ambient mix of minimalism, mid-tempo dance grooves, and broad, synth-laden washes of sound. Though each song is expertly crafted in iridescent detail, the individual pieces also fit together into a larger whole, the album unified in its wistful harmonies and muted colors. Understated but immersive, it reminds us of the simple pleasure and the intimate perfection of a good melody. – Maggie Molloy


The Hands Free: Self-Titled Debut
Released May 2018 on New Amsterdam

Over the course of the past decade, the four composer-performers who make up the Hands Free have performed together in a variety of contexts. They found that what they loved doing the most was holding informal late-night jam sessions—which is what led to the quartet’s inception. Comprised of violin, accordion, bass, and guitar (plus the occasional banjo), the ensemble likes to perform unamplified, sit in a circle, and integrate a mix of genres ranging from folk music to jazz and improvisation. Their resulting debut album features a beautifully eclectic mix of sounds that depict an immense variety of places and emotions—all while maintaining the warmth and spontaneity of an impromptu jam session.  Gabriela Tedeschi


Anna Thorvaldsdottir: AEQUA
Released Nov. 2018 on Sono Luminus

Anna Thorvaldsdottir finds inspiration in nature—her music is its own ecosystem, the nuanced textures shared, traded, and transformed among individual instruments over the course of her works. The delicate balance of nature is at the heart of AEQUA, a collection of chamber works (plus one solo piano piece) performed by musicians of the International Contemporary Ensemble. Like the stunning natural landscapes of her native Iceland, Thorvaldsdottir’s compositions echo with the full subtleties of timbre, the music expanding and contracting, breathing and humming and vibrating like the earth. – Maggie Molloy


Éliane Radigue: Œuvres Électroniques
Released Dec. 2018 on INA GRM

This beautifully-produced 14-CD set documents Radigue’s career as the mother of dark ambient music. Laboring humbly and hermetically with an ARP 2500 synthesizer and some tape recorders, Radigue spent the 70s, 80s, and 90s perfecting her brand of dense, slow-changing drone music. The works from that time are often inspired by descriptions of states of consciousness in Tibetan Buddhism, bearing such titles as Death Trilogy or Elimination of Desires. They’re best confronted in darkness, without distractions, allowing the mind and ear to absorb their long timeframe (from 17 minutes to well over an hour) and complex sonorities. – Michael Schell


Third Coast Percussion: Paddle to the Sea
Released Feb. 2018 on Cedille Records

Paddle to the Sea was a book that was made into a movie that was made into a live show and album by Third Coast Percussion. In Holling C. Holling’s original 1941 children’s book, a First Nation boy in Ontario carves a wooden canoe and on its side, he writes “Please put me back in the water. I am Paddle-to-the-Sea.” He puts the boat into the Great Lakes where it begins its adventure, and the book follows it on its journey. (Spoiler alert: years later, the boat winds up in a newspaper story that ends up in the hands of the boat’s original creator, who is by then a grown man.) The film, which was released in 1969, added a focus on water pollution to the original story.

Third Coast Percussion composed a new score to perform live alongside the film, including existing works by Philip Glass and Jacob Druckman, plus traditional music from Zimbabwe. Third Coast broadens the focus of the story a little more, asking us to think about our relationship to water and waterways on a grander scale. Their addition to the story doesn’t moralize; it instead draws listeners’ attention to the fact that the water is us—we are Paddle to the Sea. – Dacia Clay


Nordic Affect: He(a)r
Released Oct. 2018 on Sono Luminus

“Hér” is the Icelandic word for here. That idea of being present—of listening, of connecting here and now through music is at the heart of Nordic Affect’s newest album. He(a)r is a collection of seven world premiere recordings penned by women composers and performed by women musicians. Wide-ranging sound worlds from Halla Steinunn Stefánsdóttir, Anna Thorvaldsdottir, María Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir, Mirjam Tally, and Hildur Guðnadóttir comprise the album, each offering a distinct perspective on the ways in which we hear and create sound—our individual voices and the ways in which they interact. – Maggie Molloy


Invisible Anatomy: Dissections
Released March 2018 on New Amsterdam

Drawing inspiration from the experiments of Leonardo da Vinci, facial polygraphs, and more, Invisible Anatomy’s Dissections uses medical metaphors to explore the risks and joys of opening yourself up to others. The avant-rock ensemble combines the theatricality of performance art with the drama of jazz and classical music, creating haunting songs of danger, intimacy, and dissection.

Fay Wang’s vocals layer and weave into intricate composite melodies and eerie disonances, asking powerful questions about the ways humans interact. With its thought-provoking text and complex, dramatic texture, Dissections is an impressive, hauntingly beautiful debut. Gabriela Tedeschi


My Brightest Diamond: A Million and One
Released Nov. 2018 on Rhyme & Reason Records

Few artists inhabit both pop and classical worlds so freely and convincingly as Shara Nova, the operatically-trained singer and composer behind the art rock band My Brightest Diamond. A Million and One tilts further into electronic and pop worlds than her previous albums, her lustrous voice dancing above synth-laden backdrops and pulsing drumbeats. While the drama and dynamic range of the songs hint at her operatic background, the vulnerability of the lyrics and the sheer danceability of the tracks bring a pop music immediacy to her work. The resulting album is visceral, unconventional, and free—emblematic of the modern day dissolution of genre. – Maggie Molloy

ALBUM REVIEW: Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s ‘AEQUA’

by Gabriela Tedeschi

Photo by Saga Sigurdardottir.

Anna Thorvaldsdottir treats each of her works as an ecosystem. Musical materials—motifs, harmonies, textures—are passed from performer to performer through her pieces, constantly developing and transforming. Like different species in an ecosystem, these elements sometimes coexist peacefully and sometimes compete or clash.

In her new album AEQUA, Thorvaldsdottir works with performers from the renowned International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) to create a variety of musical ecosystems of different sizes, featuring both large and small chamber ensembles. The album captures the beautiful chaos of the natural world, the individual voices evolving and intertwining across each piece.

AEQUA’s small ensemble works—“Spectra,” “Sequences,” “Reflections,” and “Fields”—are characterized by the integration of slow, lyrical string melodies into dense, unwieldy sound worlds. As the materials are passed around the ecosystem of instruments, the melodies—calm and plaintive—rise to prominence in some moments and at others descend into the eerie whirl of sound created by sustained, clashing harmonies, percussive bursts, and darker permutations of the melody itself.

There is a constant ebb and flow throughout the chamber works as the performers crescendo, then decrescendo, join in energetically all at once to form an intricate texture, then fade away to leave only a gentle melody or quiet sustained tone. This consistent pattern of rising and falling intensity gives a cyclic quality to the pieces, as though the musical ecosystem is transforming across life cycles and seasons.

The circle effect is also used in Thorvaldsdottir’s large ensemble works, “Aequilibria” and “Illumine.” Running chromatic motifs create wild spirals of sound, the cyclic rise and fall unfolding rapidly and with greater intensity. There are moments of calm when the chaotic texture gives way to lyrical melodies and gentle sustained tones, but forceful percussion and chromatic outbursts quickly interrupt the peace.

The album’s only solo piece, “Scrape,” performed by ICE pianist Cory Smythe, manages to capture this complex interplay of different species in an ecosystem with just one instrument. While the piece is largely situated in the lower register of the piano with heavy, thudding rhythms and a rich, dark timbre, there are clear, piercing runs in the higher register that interrupt and play off of the low sounds. Moments of silence are incorporated, building anticipation for the looming rise in intensity and playing into the cyclical nature of AEQUA.

In its own way, each piece on the album feels as though you’re walking through the forest or staring into the depths of the ocean, observing the peaceful and violent ways creatures and plants coexist. The complex interplay of melodies, harmonies, and rhythms as they develop—both working together and clashing—creates a kind of beauty that, like the natural world, is at times unsettling and overwhelming, but endlessly captivating.

Duo Noire: Revolution Classical Style Now

by Dacia Clay

Christopher Mallett (left) and Thomas Flippin (right). Photo by John Rogers.

Duo Noire is made up of two dudes—Thomas Flippin and Christopher Mallett—but their new album is made up entirely of female composers’ music.

As the story goes, way back in 2015, before the #MeToo movement, Thomas’s wife, Rev. Vicki Flippin brought his attention to issues she was having at work. Around that same time, a major classical guitar society came out with their season announcement—and not a single woman on the program.

“I could not believe it,” Flippin said. “I guess you could say that it was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I was just like, I can’t believe it’s 2015, Obama’s been elected, and someone green-lighted them playing this season of all men playing all male music.”

That’s when the idea for Duo Noire’s latest album, Night Triptych, was born. Not only did Flippin and Mallett, the first African-American guitarists to graduate from the Yale School of Music, commission works by exclusively women for their new album—they also made sure to include women from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds. Hear the rest of the album’s story, and the story of how the two former SoCal punk rock guitarists came to do what they do today.

Eye Music Revives a Memento of 1960s Openness

by Michael Schell

Sapporo, excerpt from score page 1.

Seattle’s Eye Music ensemble is a collection of ten-odd musicians specializing in the performance of graphic scores. Their new album on Edition Wandelweiser is a 50-minute traversal of Toshi Ichiyanagi’s Sapporo, a 1963 composition that hails from a unique crossroads in music history where East Asian aesthetics were being combined with Western avant-gardism by artists from both traditions eager for a fresh start.

Excerpt from Ichiyanagi’s Sapporo, performed by Eye Music.

Ichiyanagi, born in Kobe in 1933, belongs to the breakout generation of Japanese composers that includes Tōru Takemitsu, Toshiro Mayuzumi and many others. Like his peers, Ichiyanagi saw parallels between the music of Webern (whose emphasis on sparse, isolated sound events was the springboard for the post-WW2 European avant-garde) and traditional Japanese music and painting (which likewise emphasized empty space and time). Eager to exploit this insight, Ichiyanagi came to New York in 1952, studying at Juilliard and later attending John Cage’s lectures at The New School in the company of his bohemian wife, a budding vocalist and conceptual artist named Yoko Ono. The couple returned to Japan in 1961, brought Cage over for his first Japanese tour, then divorced. Shortly thereafter, Ichiyanagi, deeply influenced by the graphic scores of Cage and his associate Earle Brown, composed Sapporo for “any number of performers up to fifteen.”

Ichiyanagi (left) with Mayuzumi and Ono in 1961.

Sapporo’s score consists of several loose-leaf sheets, assigned one per performer. Each sheet contains symbols denoting sustained sounds (horizontal lines), glissandos (angled lines) and short, accented sounds (dots), to be played over the course of the performance, whose duration and instrumentation (conventional or otherwise) are left to the discretion of the interpreters. Additional symbols mandate occasional points of interaction between the performers, but the majority of their actions are uncoordinated, lining up by chance.

The score excerpt above shows how the aesthetic of sparseness is implicit in the notation itself, guaranteeing that regardless of the musicians’ specific choices, the end result will be a slow-moving landscape marked by long tones (often sliding up or down) sprinkled with short sounds. Since the number of symbols on each page is fixed, the density and pacing of the music depends on the chosen length and ensemble size. A brief performance, such as the 14-minute 1972 recording by Ensemble Musica Negativa, will be dense and compact. A more discursive one, like Eye Music’s 50-minute rendering, will be drony and marked by numerous silences. The prevalence of glissandi is part of the work’s distinct sound environment, affirming a characteristic of the most enduring open-form works: that their core identity comes through in any good performance.

An illustrative passage begins at 2:15 of the Eye Music recording (see the linked audio sample above). A long silence is broken by a multiphonic from trombonist Stuart Dempster who plays a D♭ while singing the A♭ below it. This leads into a complex of sustained bowed string and percussion tones accompanied by a deep synth glissando and anchored by a low F♮ from Jay Hamilton’s cello. Dempster reenters with another multiphonic, this one sliding downward. When it concludes, it leaves behind a strange tremulous electric drone on A♮. More long tones from Dempster and flutist Esther Sugai appear before they’re cut off by a sharp pluck on a prepared electric guitar followed by a soft drum stroke. Another silence ensues before the next complex begins at 4:00.

The juxtaposition of silent sections with passages built on continuously-sounding drones and tremolos helps to avoid the sense of rhythmic regularity that often plagues performances of chance music. It also helps to fulfill the essential timelessness implicit in Ichiyanagi’s instructions. A proper performance of Sapporo has no real beginning or ending—it just starts and stops, emerging gently from its surroundings like a Japanese garden.

Eye Music (photo: Rachael Lanzillotta).

As the 1960s faded out, interest in open-form composition began to wane. Most musicians, it turned out, either wanted to be told exactly what to play, or else felt that through improvisation they could produce comparable results without having to share credit or control with a composer. Ichiyanagi returned to conventional notation, eventually packing an impressive work list with symphonies, operas and concertos for both Western and Japanese instruments. Among the highlights of his later career are Time Sequence (an unusual marriage of minimalist rhythm and atonal harmony reminiscent of Ligeti’s Continuum) and Paganini Personal (one of the more offbeat entries in the seemingly endless line of variations on Paganini’s last violin caprice). Today at 85, this old avant-gardist is regarded as the senior statesman of his craft in Japan.

Ichiyanagi in 2015 (photo: Koh Okabe via Japan Times).

Nevertheless, Sapporo continues to stand as one of the few classics of its genre. And Eye Music’s recording demonstrates why this Pacific Rim-based ensemble is particularly well-suited to its advocacy. With a diverse group of musicians drawn from the local drone, improv and electronic music communities, performing on a combination of conventional and homemade instruments of both acoustic and amplified means, Eye Music delivers an optimal mix of rigor and abandon to Ichiyanagi’s aleatory landmark. In this recording, their first for a major contemporary music label, they offer a snapshot of a zeitgeist best defined by its eager exploration of new freedoms: social, sexual, economic, political…and artistic.