VIDEO PREMIERE: ‘Substratum’ by Jeff Snyder

by Gabriela Tedeschi

It’s unusual, perhaps unheard of, to pair a pedal steel guitar with a traditional string quartet. But composer Jeff Snyder does just that in his piece “Substratum,” from his upcoming album Concerning the Nature of Things.

Combining seemingly discordant elements is central to Snyder’s style. His new album draws inspiration from a wide array of sources: Brazilian rhythms, medieval polyphony, and contemporary experimental music, to name just a few. It also features electronic instruments that Snyder invented and built himself.

“Substratum” begins with each instrument contributing one sustained note at a time, sometimes leaving pockets of suspenseful silence, and other times overlapping to create unsettling harmonies and unexpected timbral combinations. When the piece gains energy, the instruments unleash eerie melodies that clash and intertwine. The result is a creepy, but rich and captivating flurry of sound.

“Substratum” was written for Susan Alcorn and the Mivos Quartet, who perform it here in a brand new video directed by Caroline Key.


Jeff Snyder’s new album Concerning the Nature of Things comes out Nov. 9. Click here to learn more.

VIDEO PREMIERE: Ethan Boxley’s ‘Fugitive’ ft. Wick Simmons

by Maggie Molloy

Classical music and EDM have more in common than you might think: repetitive structures, contrasting sections, dramatic climaxes—a sense of pulse.

Composer Ethan Boxley explores the shared elements of these two seemingly opposite genres in his new piece Fugitive. Scored for multi-track cello and electronics, the piece is structured like a fugue but breaks free of classical confines to incorporate the visceral energy of electronic music.

We are thrilled to premiere a brand new video of cellist Wick Simmons performing Fugitive, with a special appearance by the Boomshaka drum crew.

Learn more about Fugitive in our interview with Simmons below.

Second Inversion: This piece merges elements of electronic dance music with classical performance. What are some of the unexpected similarities between these two seemingly opposite genres?

Wick Simmons: I would say that both genres are motivic in their melody, rhythm, and groove. They are also both fixed on tension and release. I think that is a super real similarity. After all, what is the logic of functional harmony if there’s no delayed gratification of resolution? Classical music cycles through sections with cadences, and EDM exhibits that same pattern through what is commonly referred to as “the drop.”

SI: Fugitive was originally composed for electronics—what were some of the unique challenges of bringing it to life on cello?

WS: Yes and I should note that the piece was actually written with only an app on Ethan’s mobile phone! This made figuring out what was physically possible on the cello pretty interesting—in combinations of various double stops, interval leaps, or repetitive runs. Of course these are not always the most conventional in practice. 

SI: What is the meaning behind the title and how does it shape your performance?

WS: Ethan describes the piece as “an attempt to combine the musical material of a relatively obscure 17th century ricercar with the formal elements of electronic dance music.” Naming it Fugitive was a play on the word “fugue,” and stands as a nod to the style of a piece that exists between these two worlds. The visual contrasts of the video depict a clash between the old and new. A person playing multi-track cello trying to break out of a cage against a masked army of trash can drummers pumping a dynamic, continually changing electronic beat. The fugitive.

VIDEO PREMIERE: Joshua Roman’s ‘Tornado’ ft. the JACK Quartet

by Gabriela Tedeschi

Photo by Hayley Young.

Joshua Roman is a native of Oklahoma, where the gentle beauty of spring is routinely dismantled by the awesome and destructive power of tornadoes.

His newest composition is inspired by just that. Composed for cello quintet, Tornado paints a musical portrait of his childhood storm experiences, using chaotic string textures to conjure up the stunning and terrifying natural imagery of tornado season. The piece was commissioned by Town Hall and Music Academy of the West and premiered this past spring by Roman and the JACK Quartet.

With its complex and vivid musical storytelling, Tornado depicts the fear and destruction that tornadoes bring while also capturing their wild beauty. Tender and playful pastoral melodies repeatedly give way to sinister, driving motifs and unsettling dissonances. Over time, the thrilling sonic storm builds as the quintet begins plucking, scratching, and striking the strings. Some parts of the performance are even left up to chance, with aleatoric writing and microtone smears gesturing toward the unpredictability of nature.

We’re thrilled to premiere our video of Joshua Roman and the JACK Quartet performing Roman’s Tornado.

VIDEO PREMIERE: Third Coast Percussion’s Paddle to the Sea (Act II)

by Maggie Molloy

Third Coast Percussion performs an entire ocean of sounds in their new film score for the 1966 classic Paddle to the Sea. From skittering wood blocks to water-filled wine glasses, each instrument adds its own unique shimmer to the sound of the sea.

We’re thrilled to premiere a video of the group performing Act II of their original score, which was co-commissioned by Meany Center for the Performing Arts and performed there earlier this year.

(Click here to watch our video for Act I, which we premiered in May 2018.)

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 array of sounds ranging from pitched desk bells to bowls of water, glass 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: 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.