VIDEO PREMIERE: Mark Applebaum’s ‘Aphasia’

by Maggie Molloy

Mark Applebaum’s Aphasia is scored for a singer that doesn’t sing. Instead, the singer performs an elaborately choreographed set of hand gestures synchronized to a pre-recorded tape.

Yet there is still an element of voice: the tape itself is an explosion of warped sounds comprised exclusively of pre-recorded, digitally transformed vocal samples. On stage, the live performer of the piece is completely silent, singing through the inaudible yet piercing music of gesture alone.

This year percussionist Michael Compitello took Applebaum’s Aphasia into his own hands for a new video we are thrilled to premiere right here on Second Inversion. This video was created by Four/Ten Media.

So, how exactly does a percussionist go about playing a silent vocal piece? Learn more in our Q&A with Michael Compitello:

Second Inversion: What are some of the unique challenges of performing a piece without making any sound?

Photo by Matt Fried.

Michael Compitello: What I love about Aphasia is that the performer’s hands are able to represent the character of both attack and sustain in the tape part. Some gestures peter out, while others end sharply. Some sounds require a more resistance in the air, and others float buoyantly. For me, this is a challenge. Percussionists in general tend to think a lot about how our notes begin, and less so about how they end. “Let ring” is a fairly common notation in scores, and without a tremolo, it’s rather difficult to play with the sustain on a marimba or xylophone. 

With this piece there’s also nowhere to hide! Most of the time, I appear on stage with a lot of stuff. Marimbas alone are as large as sofas. One becomes accustomed to the security which a large instrument provides, and learning to sustain an audience’s focus with just a chair is frightening at first.

You’re also playing chamber music with a relatively stubborn partner. I came to Aphasia after playing Mark Applebaum’s Straitjacket, a four-movement work for solo percussionist and quartet. One movement of Straitjacket uses the same gestures as Aphasia, except they are accompanied by Foley sounds from the quartet. While percussion quintets are able to engage in very flexible chamber music, the sonic portion of Aphasia is fixed. Learning to follow the timing in the tape while appearing to create the sounds took a lot of practice, especially in the piece’s opening, where “centurion greeting” and “turn key” pierce long and varied silences.

SI: How does performing this piece relate to your experiences playing percussion music?

MC: As percussionists, much of what we do is theatrical as a matter of course, ranging from the impressive spectacle of drumlines to the graceful ballet of a single performer attending to a gigantic battery of instruments. Striking, scraping, and shaking objects seems to evoke inherent theatrical undertones, and what’s fun about percussion is the way in which great percussionists exist at the intersection of sonic poetry, visual drama, and athletic exertion.

There exists quite a significant strain of “concert” percussion music which concerns itself with the theatrical. These works range from the amplification and foregrounding of the physical gestures required to play percussion instruments to full-blown stage dramas with percussionists as the protagonists. 

The most immediate parallel to learning and performing Mark Applebaum’s works is the “instrumental music theatre” of Mauricio Kagel and his spiritual descendants: the body of work created by the pioneering Trio Le Cercle in France in the 1970s and 1980s, including wonderful pieces by Georges Aperghis and Vinko Globokar.

In particular, Kagel’s works for percussion are similar to the types of execution required in Aphasia. Kagel’s music expresses a what he calls “exaggerated protest against the mechanical reproduction of music” and a move towards “an enjoyment of music with all senses.” (They’re also devastatingly funny—a sly criticism of the overt and sometimes opaque complexity and ritualistic spectacle of his peers at Darmstadt in the 1960s). In Match, the two cellists compete in a musical tennis match, with the percussionist acting as a referee. And in Dressur, three percussionists present a staged drama for wooden instruments. 

As a performer, I love that Kagel’s works mobilize classical musicians’ most innate skills—closely and diligently following instructions, appearing serious, and creating a ritualistic spectacle of aesthetic abstraction. For me, Mark Applebaum’s works demand similar skills from their performers: a rigorous attention to detail without imbuing a personalization of gesture. 

Photo by Matt Fried.

Similarly, the indelible works of Belgian filmmaker, composer, and sound designer Thierry De Mey (b. 1956) are also wonderful preludes to Aphasia. De Mey’s long-term collaborations with choreographers Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker and Wim Vandekeybus have engendered works which foreground the physicality and gestures inherent in performance, what he calls “the music of music.” In Musique de Tables (1987), he invents a vocabulary of gestures that directly mirror dance figures. Three performers sit at amplified tables, tapping, scraping, sweeping, flicking, and plié-ing through a percussive Grand Divertissement where the constituent sections—overture, rondo, fugato, gallop, etc—emphasize a witty unity of visual and sonic gesture.

In Silence Must Be! (2002), the apparatus of sound-making is removed, creating an ethereal, magical plane. Rather than a ballet of the hands, this is a ballet of the air: a single figure creates various gestures, mostly moving in silence but eventually evoking the once-imagined sounds. Moving from gestures of a conductor to balletic figurations in the air, De Mey eventually fuses his visual vocabulary with speech, spelling out the piece’s name (an anagram for long-time collaborators Ictus Ensemble) on a flat plane for the audience to read.

Lastly, I’d say that life as a percussionist imbues one with a particular kind of attitude—a willingness to try new things, an enjoyment of being a beginner, and immunity to looking silly on stage. We really exist at corner of rigor and absurdity. Even though Aphasia does not require the performer to make sound, I feel that a lifetime of ripping paper, breaking glass, hoarding styrofoam, and other pursuits gets one in the mood.

VIDEO PREMIERE: Robert Honstein’s ‘An Economy of Means’

by Gabriela Tedeschi

Robert Honstein. Photo by Elisa Ferrari.

From Bach to Philip Glass, composers have long been fascinated with economical design. Working with simple materials requires innovative approaches from the composer and impressive virtuosity from the performer—which can often lead to intense, intricate works.

Robert Honstein’s new album An Economy of Means is inspired in part by this long-standing tradition. Featuring two large solo works, the title track and Grand Tour, the album seeks to show what incredible variety and complexity one performer on one instrument can develop within a piece.

An Economy of Means is a six-movement piece scored for solo vibraphone. Performed by percussionist Doug Perkins, the piece utilizes a variety of mallets and props to create wildly different colors on the instrument. Though Perkins makes it sound effortless, a performance of this work requires intense concentration and athleticism—which is why one of the piece’s most rigorous movements is titled “Cross Fit.”

It’s dazzling to watch Perkins’ coordination as he develops an intricate polyrhythmic pattern with four mallets. Making use of a metal sheet over the keys as well as tapping the sides and sliding across the resonators, Perkins generates an array of percussive sound and crisp melodic motifs. Without seeing it, you wouldn’t believe only one performer was playing.

Luckily, you can see it right here in our video premiere for “Cross Fit” from Robert Honstein’s new album An Economy of Means, created by Four/Ten Media.


Robert Honstein’s new album An Economy of Means comes out May 18. Click here to purchase the album.

VIDEO PREMIERE: Third Coast Percussion Paddles to the Sea

by Maggie Molloy

Skittering wood blocks, ceramic tiles, finger cymbals, and bowls of water are just a few of the unusual instruments employed in Third Coast Percussion’s new film score for Paddle to the SeaWe’re thrilled to premiere a video of the group performing Act I of their original score, which was co-commissioned by Meany Center for the Performing Arts and performed there earlier this year.

The Oscar-nominated film Paddle to the Sea is based on Holling C. Holling’s 1941 children’s book of the same name, which follows the epic journey of a small wooden boat that is carved and launched by a young Native Canadian boy.

“I am Paddle to the Sea” he inscribes on the bottom of the boat. “Please put me back in the water.”

Over the course of the film, the boat travels for many years from Northern Ontario through the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Seaway out to the Atlantic Ocean and far beyond—and each time it washes ashore, a kind stranger places it back in the water.

Third Coast’s new film score (recently released as an album on Cedille Records) is inspired by and interspersed with music by Philip Glass and Jacob Druckman, along with traditional music of the Shona people of Zimbabwe. All of the music in the score is inspired by water, with Third Coast performing an entire ocean of sounds ranging from pitched desk bells to wine glasses, water bottles, sandpaper, and one particularly special instrument: the mbira.

The mbira is a thumb piano that plays a leading role in the Shona music from Zimbabwe. In fact, one of the pieces on the album, Chigwaya, is a traditional song used to call water spirits in the Shona religion—a song which was taught to Third Coast by their mentor Musekiwa Chingodza. By incorporating elements of their Western classical training with their study of the traditional music of the Shona people, Third Coast weaves together their own epic musical journey.

And in the spirit of Holling’s original story, the music itself becomes the small wooden boat: rather than keep it for themselves, the musicians add what they can and send the story out into the world again for others to discover.


Third Coast Percussion’s Paddle to the Sea is now available on Cedille Records. Click here to purchase the album.

VIDEO PREMIERE: Ashley Bathgate Plays “Parisot” by Martin Bresnick

by Gabriela Tedeschi

Cellist Ashley Bathgate is a one-woman orchestra in Martin Bresnick’s Parisot.

The piece is an adaptation of Parisot for 12 cellos, written as a tribute to Bresnick’s friend and colleague Aldo Parisot and premiered by the Yale Cellos in 2016. In our in-studio video, Bathgate (who you may know from the Bang on a Can All-Stars) forms an ensemble all on her own by playing live over 11 backing tracks she recorded herself. Through three movements played without pause, “Paradox,” “Parallels,” and “Paragon,” Bathgate’s virtuosity is on full display 12 times over.

We’re thrilled to premiere our video of Ashley Bathgate performing Bresnick’s Parisot:

Video Premiere: Oracle Hysterical’s ‘Helen’

by Gabriela Tedeschi

Euripides’ tragedy Hecuba tells the story of the queen of Troy’s descent to vengeful violence after her city is destroyed and her children are killed during the Trojan War. This ancient Greek play is the inspiration for Oracle Hysterical’s new album Hecuba, the latest in a series of projects by the group that seek to breathe new life into classic literature with contemporary music.

Oracle Hysterical is comprised of five composer-performers: twins Doug (double bass, viola de gamba) and Brad Balliett (bassoons), Dylan Greene (percussion), Elliot Cole (keyboards, guitars, vocals), and Majel Connery (keyboards, vocals). Hecuba also features guest percussionist Jason Treuting on drum kit.

The first song on the new album, “Helen” gives the perspective of the woman who is said to have started the Trojan war: Helen, the wife of King Menelaus of Sparta, who eloped with Prince Paris of Troy. Connery’s smooth, sultry vocals flow in long, legato lines over subdued, mournful chords and melancholy ostinatos from the bassoon, guitar, piano, and double bass. The percussion stands out in the gentle, continuous flow of sound, adding texture and intensity.

The result is a work that is quiet and subtle, but dramatic, with a beautifully bittersweet indie-rock sound. “Helen” translates the power and pain of a very old story into something that feels new and universal.

We’re thrilled to premiere the video for Oracle Hysterical’s new single “Helen,” created by Four/Ten Media.

Learn more about the new album in our interview with bassoonist Brad Balliett.

Second Inversion: What drew you and the group to Euripides’ Hecuba as an inspiration for the album?

Brad Balliett: We describe Oracle Hysterical as ‘part band, part book club’ because we are constantly turning to literature for inspiration. One member of the group will read something that they feel would make a great musical project, and the other members take up the suggestion and get to work on some music! In this case, Doug Balliett, who is a major fan of Greek drama, brought a passage from the Euripides play to a summer work session and we developed the song Helen together. We had such fun creating that song, and were so pleased with the results, that we embarked on a journey to set an album’s worth of passages from or inspired by the play. The incredible drama and pathos of the play, along with the beauty of the language, kept us continuously engaged and inspired.

SI: “Helen” and the rest of the album prominently feature talented vocalist Majel Connery. Were the vocal lines tailored to suit her unique sound? How did the source material shape the vocal lines?

BB: Like a large portion of the music Oracle Hysterical creates, all of the songs on Hecuba were written collaboratively. For most of the songs, Majel devised her own vocal lines in working sessions with the rest of the band. A lot of times she would improvise several versions and we would decide together on the most compelling line. Sometimes we all worked together to craft a specific line based on the harmony. The timbre of Majel’s voice is almost impossible to describe—something otherworldly. We are lucky to have her unique sound in our ensemble.

I think that the source material inspired us to attempt to wed an archaic, monumental sound (one that reflects the enormous distance between us and the original text) and a contemporary style (one that shows that the immediacy of the emotions of the play are still as visceral now as they were back then). This is a fine line to walk, but it was a joy to balance these feelings.

SI: Between the unique combination of instruments, the literary source material, and your rock-leaning sound, Oracle Hysterical’s music can be hard to classify. How would you describe your music in general? How would you describe “Helen”?

BB: We draw from an enormous range of influences: Baroque music, Romantic music, various current pop and rock groups, the Beatles, certain kinds of world music, and so on. The result is a kind of music that is difficult to put into a single genre, which suits us just fine. Among the various titles we’ve heard applied to our sound, I’m a fan of ‘Baroque Indie Pop.’ “Helen” occupies a world that variously turns towards rock, minimalism, art song, and hyper-produced pop. Hopefully, for the listener, the genre titles fall away and the song is left as a single musical object.


Hecuba will be released May 11 on the National Sawdust label.

VIDEO PREMIERE: Kevin Clark’s ‘Eleanor & Hildegard’

by Maggie Molloy

In the 12th century one of the Middle Ages’ greatest patrons and politicians, Eleanor of Aquitaine, wrote a letter to one of the the era’s greatest composers, Hildegard of Bingen, asking for advice. Eleanor’s original letter has since been lost, but Hildegard’s reply remains.

That legendary correspondence was precisely the inspiration behind composer Kevin Clark‘s newest chamber work, Eleanor & Hildegard. Commissioned and premiered by Seattle’s own Sound Ensemble with mezzo-soprano Elspeth Davis this past February, the piece celebrates a regular occurrence that is rarely documented in history books: two influential women, talking to each other as autonomous individuals, independent of men.

Watch our in-studio video of Clark’s Eleanor & Hildegard and read the composer’s program note below.

Eleanor & Hildegard

Eleanor of Aquitaine was the most powerful woman in politics in 12th century Europe. Hildegard of Bingen was the most important woman in religion in the same time and place, as well as being a composer.

History doesn’t give us many stories of powerful women, much less of what they had to say to each other. But these two wrote. It was 1170, and Eleanor’s marriage to Henry II was collapsing. She was on the verge of a new life. The queen wrote to Hildegard of Bingen asking for advice. Hildegard’s reply survives.

This piece fills in the missing pieces. Tania Asnes wrote a poem to take the place of Eleanor’s missing letter, which begins the piece. As the composer, I brought in music Eleanor might have heard throughout her marriage by Bernart de Ventadorn. At the end, we hear Hildegard’s reply to Eleanor, telling her to flee, ‘Fuge’, from her troubles.

Within a few years she wasn’t just free from her marriage, but making war on Henry II with the aid of her son, Richard the Lionheart.

– Kevin Clark, composer


This Saturday, the Sound Ensemble turns from the Middle Ages to something a little more modern: an evening of chamber music penned by some of today’s top rock stars. You Didn’t Know They Composed features the Sound Ensemble performing music by the likes of Björk, Beck, Bryce Dessner, and more, plus a new commission by James McAlister.

You Didn’t Know They Composed is Saturday, April 7 at 7pm at the Good Shepherd Center in Wallingford. For tickets and additional information, please click here.

VIDEO PREMIERE: Portland Cello Project Plays Radiohead and Elliott Smith

by Maggie Molloy

Equally at home in rock clubs and concert halls, Portland Cello Project is an ensemble known for pushing the boundaries of the classical cello tradition. The group reimagines classical favorites and contemporary hits alike for their famous choir of cellos, with an expansive repertoire ranging from J.S. Bach to Jay-Z and Kanye West and beyond.

In Seattle last December, the group performed the entirety of Radiohead’s OK Computer in celebration of the album’s 20th anniversary. We caught up with them at the station and filmed a video of one of their favorite Radiohead tracks, “Paranoid Android,” along with their cover of Elliott Smith’s “Tomorrow, Tomorrow.”

Radiohead: Paranoid Android (Portland Cello Project)

Elliott Smith: Tomorrow, Tomorrow (Portland Cello Project)


Catch Portland Cello Project performing LIVE in Seattle on Tuesday, May 15 at 7:30pm at the Triple Door. For tickets and more information, click here.