Musical Chairs: Kerry O’Brien on Classical KING FM

by Maggie Molloy

Kerry O’Brien is a new music expert. Not only is she a percussionist specializing in experimental works—she’s also a musicologist, journalist, and educator.

She’s written about everything from the sonic meditations of Pauline Oliveros to the swinging pendulum of Philip Glass, and her writings have appeared in publications ranging from The New Yorker to The New York Times, NewMusicBox, and The Chicago Reader. She also serves as the Research Director of the Nief-Norf Summer Festival in Knoxville, Tennessee, and has presented her work at music conferences around the country.

Kerry has played a big role in shaping the local Seattle new music scene as well. She currently serves on the music faculty at Cornish College of the Arts, and you may know her as one of the masterminds behind NUMUS Northwest (named after the 1970s new music periodical Numus West).

This Friday, Nov. 16 at 7pm PT, she’s the special guest on Classical KING FM’s Musical Chairs with Mike Brooks. Tune in to hear her share a handful of her favorite recordings and musical memories from across her career.

Tune in at 98.1 FM, listen through our free mobile app, or click here to stream the interview online from anywhere in the world!

Theory of Mashup: Remembering The Residents’ Hardy Fox (1945–2018)

by Michael Schell

The Residents in 1979.

Aim the searchlight of American Maverickism at the regions where prog rock, synthesizer music and multimedia intersect, and you’ll soon discover The Residents, the quirky San Francisco band known for eyeball masks, offbeat albums like Eskimo and The Third Reich ‘n Roll, and audio-visual projects such as the touring Mole Show and the interactive CD-ROM Freak Show. Active since 1971, the group labors anonymously, shrouding its members’ identities in layers of obfuscation and misdirection erected as a safeguard against vanity and commercialism—a concept they call theory of obscurity.

Hardy Fox in 2015 film Theory of Obscurity.

Anonymity can be hard to maintain in an era of Internet searches, fan forums and digital voice/image analysis. And for several years the suspicions of Residents fans have been focused on two former Louisiana Tech roommates listed as employees of the band’s management company. One is Homer Flynn, ostensibly the group’s art director, but despite repeated repudiations widely considered to also be its vocalist and lyricist. The other is Hardy Fox, who died of brain cancer on October 30, not long after admitting that despite his own decades of denial, he was indeed The Residents’ longtime keyboard player and principal composer.

Tributes to Fox have been flowing in print publications, social media and the web, most of them concentrating on The Residents’ most popular works—impious songs such as “Santa Dog” and “Hello Skinny”, or the more poignant recessional from the Mole Show. But in deference to the spirit behind theory of obscurity, now seems a good time to single out a lesser-known item lurking in the periphery of The Residents’ canon that might better represent pure, undiluted Fox.

The Thumb of Christ

Pollex Christi, supposedly written by a German composer named N. Senada (one of The Residents’ many sarcastic pseudonyms, this one punning a city in Baja California), appeared in 1997 on a limited edition CD. It’s a 20-minute synthesizer piece with occasional bits of drums and other conventional instruments mixed in—essentially a solo studio composition by Fox. It’s uncharacteristic of most Residents projects in being entirely instrumental and untexted, but it is characteristic in a different respect: it’s made up entirely of quoted material, mostly works by famous dead Germans.

The piece begins with the iconic four-note motto that launches Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Ives used the same motif throughout his Concord Sonata, calling it “an oracle—the Soul of humanity knocking at the door of the Divine mysteries.” But Fox’s hipster oracle would rather hit the weed than a hymnal, and Ives’ prudish transcendentalism has been exchanged for a more materialist kind of channel surfing. We quickly slide into a paraphrase of the opening of Orff’s Carmina Burana, followed by a short Valkyrie ride on synth and baritone sax. After a whiff of Bach’s Third Brandenburg Concerto, we return to Carmina Burana, which goes on to contribute several extended passages to the proceedings.

Since this is The Residents, and not Switched-On Bach, high German is obliged to share the stage with low American. Three times the masters’ descended wisdom pauses to allow the theme songs from Peter Gunn, Star Trek and Popeye the Sailor to pass. Wagner returns in the form of a passage from the Tristan prelude that’s presented basically intact, but his overture to Tannhäuser is bowdlerized into a four-beat disco groove. When Orff has the floor, the music is often shifted to the minor mode, giving it an oddly dark tone (the normally celebratory Meadow Dance, for example, assumes a particularly sinister character in Pollex Christi). And throughout the piece, the selection of intentionally cheesy synthesizer patches, often with exaggerated vibrato, keeps the tribute an impertinent one. Fox said “I love all the music I mess up. It is my amusement park.”

The Residents on Night Music (NBC, 1989).

Onward and Outward

Fox’s style of synth mashup reached its apogee in an even more obscure album called Codgers on the Moon (2012), where, using a new alias (“Charles Bobuck”), he appropriates Stravinsky as source material in an especially arcane way that owes something to Igor’s own appropriation of Tchaikovsky in The Fairy’s Kiss. Along with Pollex Christi, Codgers offers an insight back into the more familiar world of the Residents’ famous American Composers Series albums of the mid-1980s, which featured covers of Gershwin, Sousa, James Brown and Hank Williams. The latter’s “Kaw-Liga”, reinterpreted with a pop beat and a bass line cribbed from Michael Jacksons’s “Billie Jean”, is a particular favorite of Residents cognoscenti. The band’s newest release, I Am a Resident! (2018), may be the ultimate mashup, wherein the band remixes covers of its songs submitted by its own fans.

Homer Flynn and Hardy Fox at Johansson Projects, Oakland, in 2011. Behind them is Flynn’s artwork for The Third Reich ‘n Roll.

With Fox’s passing, The Ghost of Hope (2017) now enters the books as his final Residents album. It’s a collection of songs about train wrecks whose closing number, “Killed at a Crossing”, describes the death of a woman who had worked as an able typist, realtor and detective while living under several false identities. Committing suicide on the tracks, her body and effects are scattered by the impact of a locomotive, dispersing the artifacts of a life marked by an odd mix of integrity and duplicity:

Leaving random relics
Like leaves after the wind
She called herself Mrs. Orwell
And Mrs. Burton Bain
And Arabella Campbell
And Mrs. Arthur Payne

It seems an apt epitaph for Fox and the band he co-founded half a century ago, whose diffuse influence can be found among ambient musicians like Brian Eno, New Wave groups like Devo and Talking Heads, video artists like John Sanborn, and even celebrity acts like Penn & Teller. The surviving members of The Residents continue to record and perform, attuned like Fox to the fulfillment of their own expectancies. It’s a loop that never quite closes, unsure whether it is on familiar ground or venturing somewhere quite new.

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 control or credit with a composer. Ichiyanagi returned to writing conventionally notated works, 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.

Feast Your Ears on New Music: Our November Concert Guide

by Maggie Molloy

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Second Inversion and the Live Music Project create a monthly calendar featuring contemporary classical, cross-genre, and experimental performances in Seattle, the Eastside, Tacoma, and places in between! 

thvLYmNB

Keep an eye out for our flyer in concert programs and coffee shops around town. Feel free to download, print, and distribute it yourself! If you’d like to be included on this list, submit your event to the Live Music Project at least 6 weeks prior to the event and tag it with “new music.”

November 2018 New Music Flyer

 

Wayward Music Series
Concerts of contemporary composition, free improvisation, electroacoustic music, and sonic experiments. This month: spatial explorations, dramatic incantations, sonic meditations, and a whole lot of drummers.
Various days, 7:30/8pm, Good Shepherd Chapel | $5-$15

Creativity in Hard Times: The Federal Music Project of the 1930s
Pianist Leslie Amper presents a multimedia lecture-recital telling the story of President Roosevelt’s Arts Initiative. The performance includes images, historic recordings, and piano performances of music by William Grant Still, Ernest Bloch, Henry Cowell, Roger Sessions, Ruth Crawford, and Aaron Copland.
Thurs, 11/1, 7:30pm, UW Brechemin Auditorium | FREE

Seattle Modern Orchestra: The Invisible
The depths of the unknown are explored in this program of sobering works ranging from George Crumb’s Eleven Echoes of Autumn to Chinary Ung’s Still Life After Death. Music by Yigit Kolat and Rebecca Saunders complete the program.
Thurs, 11/1, 8pm, Good Shepherd Chapel | $10-$25

Pacific Northwest Ballet: All Premiere
Haunting sounds from Dustin Hamman, King Creosote & Jon Hopkins, Ólafur Arnalds, and Nils Frahm form the basis of Silent Ghost, a new PNB premiere with choreography by Alejandro Cerrudo. It’s presented alongside performances featuring the music of Michael Giacchino, Haydn, Beethoven, and Schubert.
11/2-11/11, Various times, McCaw Hall | $37-$189

Hanna Benn. Photo by Mallory Talty.

Seattle Collaborative Orchestra: Sankofa
In the Twi language of Ghana, ‘Sankofa’ translates to “Go back and get it.” It’s also the title of Hanna Benn’s musical meditation on the ways in which our heritage shapes our future. Seattle Collaborative Orchestra performs the piece alongside world premieres by Northwest composers Julian Garvue and Makenna Carrico.
Fri, 11/2, 7:30pm, Roosevelt High School Theatre | $10-$20

Sæunn Thorsteinsdóttir with the UW Symphony
Schelomo (Hebraic Rhapsody) was the final work in Ernest Bloch’s “Jewish Cycle,” a series of compositions exploring his musical and religious identity. The fiercely lyrical cello solo, performed here by Sæunn Thorsteinsdóttir, was envisioned as the incarnation of King Solomon, with the orchestra representing the world around him. Music of Hindemith and Brahms complete the program.
Fri, 11/2, 7:30pm, Meany Theater | $10-$15

Cellist Sæunn Thorsteinsdóttir.

Music of Remembrance: 20th Birthday Celebration
For the past two decades, Music of Remembrance has honored victims of the Holocaust through music. In this special anniversary performance, they are joined by guests from Spectrum Dance Theater and the Northwest Boy Choir for an evening of opera, dance, choral, and chamber works.
Sun, 11/4, 4pm, Nordstrom Recital Hall | $55

Cornish Presents: Gamelan Pacifica
The sacred echoes of gongs, chimes, and wide-ranging percussion make up the traditional gamelan ensembles of Indonesia. Gamelan Pacifica honors and expands upon that history with a unique blend of traditional and contemporary musical forms.
Sun, 11/4, 7pm, PONCHO Concert Hall | FREE

Bremerton Symphony Orchestra: From the Silver Screen
Sci-fi fans rejoice! This concert of classical music from the movies features a triad of pieces  from 2001: A Space Odyssey, including György Ligeti’s haunting Lux Aeterna, Johann Strauss’s The Blue Danube, and the opening of Richard Strauss’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Plus, music from The Godfather, ET, and more!
Sat, 11/10, 7:30pm, Bremerton Performing Arts Center | $10-$28

Meany Center Presents: Brooklyn Rider
A string quartet for the 21st century, Brooklyn Rider explores the healing properties of music in this concert of brand commissions from four of today’s top composers (all of whom happen to be women): Reena Esmail, Gabriela Lena Frank, Matana Roberts, and Caroline Shaw.
Tues, 11/13, 7:30pm, Meany Hall | $40-$48

Brooklyn Rider.

Black Violin.

STG Presents: Black Violin
It’s not everyday you see a hip-hop duo playing classical instrumentsbut violinist Kev Marcus and violist Wil B. are redefining both genres. They bring their unique brand of “classical boom” to the Paramount Theatre.
Thurs, 11/15, 7:30pm, Paramount Theatre | $31-$61

Philharmonia Northwest: Seattle Sounds
The sounds of the Pacific Northwest take center stage in this concert of music by contemporary Seattle composers. Hear William Bolcom’s jazzy Seattle Slew Suite, Ken Benshoof’s lyrical Concerto for Cello and String Orchestra, and the world premiere of Sarah Bassingthwaighte’s enchanting Sleeping in the Forest.
Sun, 11/18, 2:30pm, St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church (Seattle) | $15-$20

UW Percussion Ensemble: Percussion Music as Revolution
The visceral energy and powerful sounds of percussion ensemble are on full display in the U.S. premiere of Yiheng Yvonne Wu’s Violent Tender, performed alongside Edgard Varèse’s groundbreaking Ionisation and Philip Schuessler’s The Glass Abattoir for speaking percussion ensemble, among other works.
Fri, 11/30, 7:30pm, Meany Theater | $10

Emerald City Music: The Daedalus Quartet
Beethoven’s infamous Kreutzer Sonata (and the dramatic tale behind it) form the basis of this concert exploring how the Kreutzer theme inspired future composers. String quartets by Leoš Janáček, Sergei Taneyev, and Tchaikovsky are performed alongside a quartet arrangement of Beethoven’s original Kreutzer Sonata.
Fri, 11/30, 8pm, 415 Westlake | $45

October Concerts You Can’t Miss

by Maggie Molloy

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Second Inversion and the Live Music Project create a monthly calendar featuring contemporary classical, cross-genre, and experimental performances in Seattle, the Eastside, Tacoma, and places in between! 

thvLYmNB

Keep an eye out for our flyer in concert programs and coffee shops around town. Feel free to download, print, and distribute it yourself! If you’d like to be included on this list, submit your event to the Live Music Project at least 6 weeks prior to the event and tag it with “new music.”

October 2018 New Music Flyer

 

Wayward Music Series
Concerts of contemporary composition, free improvisation, electroacoustic music, and sonic experiments. This month: atmospheric soundscapes, improvised noise, music inspired by historic women of Mexico, and more.
Various days, 7:30/8pm, Good Shepherd Chapel | $5-$15

Max Richter and ACME
There are few places more appropriate for the rainy day soundscapes of Max Richter than Seattle. Hear the prolific composer with the American Contemporary Music Ensemble as they perform Infra in its entirety, plus selections from The Blue Notebooks. Check out our interview with the composer for more details on what’s in store.
Tues, 10/2, 7:30pm, Moore Theatre | $35-$45

Photo by Wolfgang Borrs.

Leslie Odom, Jr. with the Seattle Symphony
Leslie Odom, Jr. launched into stardom when he originated the role of Aaron Burr in a little musical called Hamilton. Now he joins our own Seattle Symphony for an evening of jazz standards and Broadway hits.
Tues-Wed, 10/2-10/3, 7:30pm, Benaroya Hall | $46-$103

SMCO: American Experiences
It’s rare to see the concertmaster of PNB on the same program as the rapper from Macklemore’s “Thrift Shop”but then again, Seattle Metropolitan Chamber Orchestra’s 10th anniversary is cause for boundary-bursting celebration. Michael Jinsoo Lim joins the orchestra for Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto, Wanz performs Randall Woolf’s Blues for Black Hoodies, and masterworks by Leonard Bernstein and Jennifer Higdon complete the program.
Thurs, 10/4, 7:30pm, Nordstrom Recital Hall | $15-25

Wanz guest stars in SMCO’s Tenth Anniversary concert.

The Esoterics: CŌNSŌLŌ
Requiems are reimagined in this concert exploring the sense of comfort found in the musical act of remembrance. Included in the program are new works from the three winners of last year’s POLYPHONOS competition: Anna-Karin Klockar, Sarah Rimkus, and Ily Matthew Maniano.
Fri, 10/5, 8pm, St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church | $15-$25
Sat, 10/6, 8pm, Holy Rosary Catholic Church | $15-$25

OSSCS: The Bounty of the Earth
Orchestra Seattle and Seattle Chamber Singers launch a season-long celebration of the music of Lili Boulanger, performing her extraordinary setting of Psalm 24 (“The Earth Belongs to the Eternal One”). Also on the program is Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring, Haydn’s The Seasons, and a composition by the OSSCS’s new conductor, William White.
Sat, 10/6, 7:30pm, First Free Methodist Church | $10-$25

Earshot Jazz Festival: Amy Denio
Vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Amy Denio brings her inimitable brand of politically-charged avant-jazz to Earshot, performing compositions and improvisations that color her four-octave vocal range with electronics.
Wed, 10/10, 8pm, Good Shepherd Chapel | $10-$18

Kin of the Moon & Karin Stevens Dance: lily/LUNG
Kaley Lane Eaton’s 30-minute electroacoustic composition LUNG receives its world premiere by musicians from Kin of the Moon and Strange Interlude, with choreographed dance by Karin Stevens and Amelia Love Clearheart. Also on the program is Eaton’s chamber opera lily [bloom in my darkness], which tells the story of Eaton’s great-grandmother, an orphan who fled England at the start of WWI.
Thurs-Sat, 10/11-10/13, 8pm, Erickson Theatre | $20-$50
Sun, 10/14, 11am, Erickson Theatre | $20-$50

Photo by Michelle Smith-Lewis.

Samantha Boshnack: Seismic Belt
Seattle-based trumpeter and bandleader Samantha Boshnack takes listeners on a sonic adventure into the Ring of Fire in Seismic Belt, her latest large-scale work scored for seven-piece band.
Fri, 10/12, 7:30pm, The Royal Room | $10-$20

Seattle Symphony: [untitled] 1
Enter the sparse and haunting sound world of Danish composer Hans Abrahamsen’s Schnee (“Snow”), an immersive, hour-long chamber work filled with ghostly canons and crystalline frost. Fellow Dane Thomas Dausgaard conducts.
Fri, 10/12, 10pm, Benaroya Hall | $16

ROCCA: Enescu, Bartók, Prokofiev
Romanian American Chamber Concerts and Arts presents an afternoon of scintillating masterpieces by George Enescu, Béla Bartók, Gabriela Lena Frank, and Sergei Prokofiev.
Sat, 10/13, 3pm, Nordstrom Recital Hall | $26

Music of Today: Mivos Quartet
The New York-based Mivos Quartet travels to Seattle for a performance of music by University of Washington School of Music faculty composers Huck Hodge, Joël-François Durand, and more.
Tues, 10/23, 7:30pm, Meany Theater | $10-$15

Jesse Myers & Leanna Keith: Lizée’s Hitchcock & Tarantino Etudes
Cult classic fans rejoice: pianist Jesse Myers and flutist Leanna Keith present two of Nicole Lizée’s etudes for glitch film. In her Hitchcock Etudes, the composer glitches and stitches together live piano music with scenes from Psycho, The Birds, Rope, and The Man Who Knew Too Much. For her Tarantino Etudes, a virtuosic bass flute solo flutters between scenes from Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, and Kill Bill.
Fri, 10/26, 8pm, Good Shepherd Chapel | $5-$15

Earshot Jazz Festival: Allos Musica
Classical, jazz, and Middle Eastern musical strands are woven together in this improvising ensemble of clarinet, launeddas, accordion, oud, harmonium, and percussion.
Thurs, 10/25, 7pm & 9:30pm, The Royal Room | $10-$22

Emerging Artist: Joep Beving
Lose yourself in the delicate, melancholic melodies of Dutch advertising-executive-turned-composer Joep Beving in this solo concert of intimate piano music.
Fri, 10/26, 8pm, Nordstrom Recital Hall | $25-$30

Emerald City Music: Café Music
Be whisked away to the warmth of a quiet café in this program of 20th-century French Impressionist and American composers, including music by Jean Françaix, Francis Poulenc, Darius Milhaud, Camille Saint-Saëns, and Paul Schoenfield.
Fri, 10/26, 8pm, 415 Westlake | $45
Sat, 10/27, 7:30pm, The Minnaert Center (Olympia) | $25-$45

The Politics of Music: Q&A with Max Richter

by Maggie Molloy

Max Richter writes a lot of music.

Music for film, music for ballet, music for rainy days and quiet reflection, music for political protesteven music for sleep. Drifting amid a collection of keyboards and synthesizers, Richter writes pensive melodies that sparkle with elusive subtleties of texture and timbre. His delicate electroacoustic sound worlds have unfolded across eight solo albums to date, and this coming Tuesday, you can hear music from two of them performed live in Seattle at the Moore Theatre.

Joined by the American Contemporary Music Ensemble, Max Richter will perform his album Infra in its entirety, along with selections from his 2004 album The Blue Notebooks, which was reissued earlier this summer with new arrangements, remixes, and a previously unreleased track.

We caught up with Richter by phone to talk about the world of sleep, the power of literature, and the politics of music.

Second Inversion: The Blue Notebooks has just been reissued after 15 years. How have you and your music changed during that time?

Max Richter: Re-encountering an old work is, in a way, meeting a previous version of yourself. Some things are different, some are the same. The central concerns are pretty much constant, but part of creativity is moving beyond what you know. There is a little pool of light that we inhabit, of things that we know, and each project is a step out of that and into the dark, into something different. So it’s interesting to re-engage with these pieces. Seeing them from the perspective of today, they feel fresh.

SI: You have said before that The Blue Notebooks was written as a protest album in the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The music also draws from the writings of Franz Kafka’s The Blue Octavo Notebooks and Czesław Miłosz’s Hymn of the Pearl and Unattainable Earth. How are those literary works connected to the Iraq War in your creative mind?

MR: The catalyst really was my sense that our political processes were moving into the realm of fiction. Kafka struck me as somebody very appropriate to invoke at that time. Kafka is so much the patron saint of doubt, in a way, and his use of the absurd to critique power structures in the society around him felt very relevant. And then Czesław Miłosz, writing about another war at another time, but very beautifully—and also about the redeeming powers of art. That last text, which prefaces The Trees on the record, is really about what can creativity do to make the world in some way better?

SI: Do you consider your music to be political?

MR: Yes, I do. I think if we’re making a creative contribution to society, we’re taking part in the conversation that is society, then we are engaging in political action, just by default. I’m not against the idea that art should have a kind of a social use, a kind of a utility. It’s for something. Music is for dancing, it’s for getting married, it’s for being buried, it’s for all sorts of activities. And it can also be a tool for thinking, and for engaging with the issues of society.

SI: At this concert you’re also performing Infra in its entirety. What is the story behind that album?

MR: Infra comes from a ballet I made for the Royal Opera House in London with Wayne McGregor. The starting point for the ballet was really the 7/7 bombing attacks in London. Wayne was interested also in one of the texts from T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, as a kind of jumping off point.

From a musical standpoint, because these attacks happened during rush hour, the victims were travelers. Of course, there’s a big history of traveling music within classical music. My favorite traveling music is probably the Winterreise of Schubert, so I submerged elements of Schubert’s music in the texture of Infra. You hear echoes of Winterreise and other bits of Schubert floating around in the background.

SI: Storytelling is a big part of your work, especially considering the amount of music you have written for film and dance. Do you always have a narrative in mind when you’re writing music? What about your more ambient compositions, like the 8-hour Sleep?

MR: Well, Sleep is a bit different because all the usual dynamics of music performance are sort of upended, really. In the case of Sleep, the piece is really an accompaniment to something, rather than the thing itself. So when we perform Sleep, the theme is the experience of the sleeping listener. And when we play the piece, we very much have the impression that we’re accompanying what’s happening in the room. It is the polar opposite of the ordinary performance dynamic, where you’re trying to project a story or a text to the audience. So it’s a very, very interesting situation for us. Everything is topsy-turvy in the world of Sleep.

SI: Did you write Sleep at night?

MR: Yes, I write a lot at night anyway. When we had tiny children I became sort of nocturnal, because that was the only time I could get any quiet—and the habit stuck. My writing hours for years and years have been late night hours.

SI: Do you listen differently at night?

MR: Well, at night everything’s quiet. You have a different kind of a mental space. At nighttime, it’s not the fact that the phone doesn’t ring, but it’s the fact that you know it won’t ring. That’s what makes it special.

SI: What is the ideal listening environment for people to experience your music?

MR: The records are conceived as records—they’re not individual tracks. I would love people to experience them as a whole, if possible. But at the same time, I’m very interested in what people bring to it. The pieces themselves are really propositions—they’re “what if?” questions. I have ideas about The Blue Notebooks, I have ideas about everything that I’ve written, but actually it’s the encounter with the listeners that turns that theory into something real.

SI: Many of your fans are not traditional classical music concert-goers. What do you think it is about your music that attracts a broader audience?

MR: It’s partly to do with a deliberate decision of mine which I took way, way back. When I was a student, I was writing in a kind of new complexity style—very, very dense modernist music. Which is what you were supposed to be writing if you were a university composer at that time. I just became dissatisfied with the reach of that material. I felt like I was talking to a tiny, tiny group of specialist listeners, who were either composers or new music professionals. I felt like that was somehow selling the idea of what creativity could be—sort of selling it short.

So I deliberately set out to develop a language which was more direct and plainspoken—something that could convey ideas in a very straightforward way. That meant engaging with different musical cultures, with electronics in the studio, and all these different things. It was a deliberate choice on my part, to rebuild my language from the ground up and remove a lot of the intellectual baggage.

Photo by Wolfgang Borrs.

SI: Do you believe classical music should be made more accessible in general, or do you think there’s a place for more challenging music too?

MR: There are a lot of questions about what makes music accessible—it’s in part to do with the material itself. Schoenberg remarked that if it’s popular it’s not art. And that became a kind of badge of honor—who cares if you listen? That kind of idea, from Milton Babbitt. It’s not that I’ve got anything against that material. There is some amazing music within that tradition. But it is a rather totalitarian kind of a viewpoint, and I find it politically troubling.

I think we kind of have a hangover from that era. Of course things have changed a lot, and it’s a very lively scene now, but we still have a lot of work to do to recover a broader constituency which just went away after the 60s, 70s, and 80s, when these sorts of attitudes were more prevalent. Actually I think most people don’t have a sense of prejudging material, and there’s nothing in itself about atonal music which makes it difficult. After all, people very happily listen to all kinds of stuff while they’re sitting in the movie house and the orchestra is screeching away in a very atonal situation. And people quite happily sit there eating their popcorn and it’s great. It isn’t the sounds per se, but it is the cultural baggage around it which has made things very difficult in terms of just letting people in. I think that’s a great pity, but a more direct, inclusive aesthetic is certainly a good starting point.

SI: What influence did studying with Luciano Berio have on your music?

MR: When I went to Berio I had just finished at the Royal Academy of Music in London, so I was firmly embedded in the modernist project. My music was very, very complicated and kind of impenetrable. He basically just subverted all my expectations and deflated a few of my grander ideas, and tried to lead me back to the origins of what it was I was trying to say. I trusted that he knew what he was doing because I really admired his music, and I think his music has an extraordinary generosity toward music history in it. To an extent unusual amongst the modernists of that time, his work embraced other music. There wasn’t that sense of erasing the past that you find in Boulez or someone like that.

I engaged with his ideas about a coexistence of different musical traditions and these things sort of talking to one another. A piece like Recomposed is very much in the footsteps of Berio. When you think about his Sinfonia, what he does with the Mahler for example in the second movement—it’s “Mahler Recomposed”! So his influence is everywhere in my work, in some ways.


Max Richter and the American Contemporary Music Ensemble perform at the Moore Theatre on Tuesday, Oct. 2 at 7:30pm. Click here for tickets and more information.

Neal Kosaly-Meyer: Playing the Piano One Note at a Time

by Gabriela Tedeschi

Neal Kosaly-Meyer performing Gradus at NUMUS Northwest. Photo by James Holt.

Neal Kosaly-Meyer plays the piano one note at a time. Or at least, that’s the idea behind his ongoing performance series Gradus: For Fux, Tesla and Milo the Wrestler. He devotes an extended improvisation (20 minutes or longer) to each individual note on the piano, and to as many combinations of notes as possible.

This Saturday at the Chapel Performance Space he will perform one installment of the series: 40 minutes on one note (C sharp to be specific), 20 minutes on five notes in multiple octaves, and 60 minutes on two notes. Extended periods of silence are incorporated into all three sections. Kosaly-Meyer flips a coin to determine the number of notes per movement, how long the movements will be, and how much silence will be interspersed in each movement.

The idea for Gradus presented itself to Kosaly-Meyer over 30 years ago while he was a graduate student in the School of Music at the University of Washington. He had been thinking a lot about John Cage and how composers could follow in his footsteps by challenging preconceived notions of what music could be.

“It’s hard to find the frontier after a composer like Cage, who went right out to the edge of so many frontiers,” Kosaly-Meyer said. “This thought, learn to play the piano one note at a time, was kind of a thread to be able to push to do music that felt like it was on an edge, that felt like there was a risk being taken.”

Still, it wasn’t until he moved to San Diego with his wife and was able to play on a grand piano at a church he attended that he began to really explore the idea. Kosaly-Meyer believes performing on a grand piano is pivotal to Gradus.

“It’s not something you could do on an electronic keyboard or even an upright piano,” Kosaly-Meyer said. “I think to do something where you actually have enough sound, enough reverberation for a project like this to be interesting requires a grand piano.”

He began with 40 minutes improvising on the lowest A on the piano, and then began using combinations of As. Implicit in the idea of learning to play the piano one note at a time was the idea of learning to play differently by finding artistry in each sound. With attack, duration, dynamics, and intricate pedaling techniques, Kosaly-Meyer developed the ability to make a wide assortment of sounds using just one A.

His work temporarily came to a halt when he moved again and no longer had access to a grand piano. But years later, in 2001, his friend Keith Eisenbrey helped solve that problem.

Kosaly-Meyer met Eisenbrey while taking composition courses at the UW. They had done a lot of improvisation work together, and Kosaly-Meyer was able to develop the Gradus project and other works by bouncing ideas off of Eisenbrey. They became family when Eisenbrey married Kosaly-Meyer’s sister Karen, and in 2001 Kosaly-Meyer was able to continue with Gradus by rehearsing on Eisenbrey’s grand piano.

When he began sharing Gradus, it was positive feedback from Eisenbrey and other composers that emboldened Kosaly-Meyer to move forward with this musical venture. He began his annual performance series in 2002 in Seattle.

Kosaly-Meyer determined that Gradus works best with a two-hour, three-part structure that allows him to separate what he sees as three distinct ways of making music.

“I had come to a conclusion after working on this a little bit that playing with one note is a particular kind of making music, playing with two notes is another kind of making music that’s very different than just playing with one, and that playing with 3 or more notes is very different than playing with two,” he said.

Drawing inspiration from Cage, Kosaly-Meyer chose to incorporate silencewhich really means all unintended ambient soundsas an equal partner in the performance. If weather permits, Kosaly-Meyer leaves the windows open at the Chapel, allowing highway noise, barking dogs, and audiences’ creaking benches and coughs to form a chorus that supports his playing.

“I always found in improvising that music happened much more organically with an ensemble. Even if it was just an ensemble of two, it was so much easier for something musical to happen,” Kosaly-Meyer said. “Gradus is really the first kind of solo improvisation project I find that can stay musical and I think the trick is that it’s not really a solo project.”

This particular performance is dedicated to the late jazz pianist Cecil Taylor, who displayed incredible control over each and every note he played, no matter how intricate the performance. Kosaly-Meyer was also interested in exploring the interplay between the ideas of Taylor and Cage, who were at odds during their lifetimes because of Cage’s aversion to jazz and improvisation. Gradus combines Taylor’s spontaneity with Cage’s interest in silence as an equal partner.

“One thing that’s going on in Gradus is an attempt to harmonize a Cage way of thinking with a Cecil Taylor way of thinking,” Kosaly-Meyer said.


Neal Kosaly-Meyer presents Gradus: For Fux, Tesla and Milo the Wrestler this Saturday, July 14 at 8pm at the Chapel Performance Space at the Good Shepherd Center. For more information, click here.