Caroline Shaw and Beethoven: Fanning the Fires of Musical Inspiration

by Dave Beck

On this week’s Seattle Symphony Spotlight, Dave Beck speaks with the youngest composer ever to win a Pulitzer Prize in music: Caroline Shaw.

Caroline is in Seattle this weekend for the world premiere of Watermark, her new orchestral work written in response to Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto. The idea for the piece was suggested to her by pianist Jonathan Biss, who performs both pieces with the Seattle Symphony this weekend, conducted by Ludovic Morlot. The program opens with Shostakovich’s Symphony No.1, a piece that brought the young composer international acclaim at the age of 19.

All of the works on the program represent strikingly original creations by composers in the early years of their careers. In this interview, Caroline talks with us about the inspiration, the writing process, and the meaning behind the title Watermark.


Caroline Shaw’s Watermark premieres at the Seattle Symphony Jan. 31-Feb. 2. Click here for tickets and more information.

Cheating, Lying, Stealing: Breaking the Rules with Erin Jorgensen & Rose Bellini

Photo by Kelly O.

by Maggie Molloy

When it comes to making music, Erin Jorgensen and Rose Bellini like to break the rules. Their upcoming concert collaboration Cheating, Lying, Stealing features a program of bold, boundary-bursting chamber works performed by a cast of Seattle’s top new music movers and shakers. Plus, it takes place amid a glowing neon light show.

The one-night-only event is titled after David Lang’s chamber work of the same name, a pulsing piece of post-minimalism that owes as much to rock music as it does the classical tradition. Its infectious off-kilter groove is heightened by its unusual instrumentation: bass clarinet, cello, piano, marimba, bass drum, and some car parts. The program’s title piece is framed by mixed chamber works from electroacoustic luminary Anna Clyne, sonic maverick Carla Kihlstedt, new music groove-maker Marc Mellits, and Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Caroline Shaw.

The concert, which takes place this Sunday at Washington Hall, is produced by Jorgensen, the musician behind the delightful monthly marimba series Bach and Pancakes and the dreamy electroacoustic podcast undertones. Its program is curated by Bellini: cellist, new music polymath, and founding member of contemporary chamber ensembles REDSHIFT and Hotel Elefant. For this concert, she performs alongside a star-studded cast of local musicians including violinists Kimberly Harrenstein and Rachel Nesvig, violist Aleida Gehrels, clarinetist Rachel Yoder, pianist Brooks Tran, and percussionists Melanie Sehman, Kerry O’Brien, and Storm Benjamin.

We caught up with the concert’s creators to talk about cheating, lying, stealing, and making music in the 21st century.

Second Inversion: Your concerts often feature classical music in nontraditional settings. How does changing the venue or atmosphere enhance the audience experience in a way that traditional concert halls do not?

Erin Jorgensen (left) and Rose Bellini (right).

Erin Jorgensen: For me, using a nontraditional setting allows an audience member to have a different and possibly more direct experience with music. Classical music often comes with pre-attached barriers and conceptions. Ideally when you remove some expectations from what a concert is “supposed” to be, you allow yourself to have a more personal and authentic experience; without worrying if your reactions are “correct” or not. It becomes possible to be more in the moment and experience something in real time. Plus, it is very interesting to be in a different context where people allow their imaginations to individually and collectively create something unexpected. It’s fun!

SI: What is the overarching theme of the concert? Is there a common thread running through all the pieces?

Rose Bellini: Each piece is quite different, but we have created a drama to the program through contrast and an intentional sequence. Each composer’s work has a depth and beauty that comes across through an unapologetic, personal sound. There are moments of quiet intimacy, explosive high energy, and everything in between. Pretty much anyone will find themselves rocking out with us, dreaming with us, and hopefully finding some surprises along the way. 

SI: Can you describe some of the visual elements of the performance?

Erin Jorgensen: I spent a lot of time walking and listening to the music playlist, thinking about the venue, and daydreaming, and the visual that popped into my head was that of a low-key rave—a glow in the dark, neon vibe contrasted with darker and starker elements.

As far as amplifying or relating to the music, I don’t get too literal about that kind of thing. I think it’s best to go with your intuition and find a team that can build upon it, realize it and improve it. Luckily I’ve known the production team [Tania Kupczak, Julian Martlew, and Richard Bresnahan] for nearly a decade; we work together extremely well and they also have wonderful ideas on creating a magical space for the music and audience to exist together.

I also really enjoy a DIY aesthetic, which developed partly out of necessity and partly from personal taste. We’ll be utilizing that aspect in allowing the audience to create some of the visuals themselves, consciously or not. 

SI: What makes this program unique? How are these pieces different from your typical classical repertoire?

Rose Bellini: We selected this program with a broad audience in mind. Classical music, and contemporary music, is often aimed at listeners who are well-versed in the highly intellectual side of art. But there is a lot of contemporary music that doesn’t ask the audience to be an expert. Much of this music is heavily influenced by other genres like rock, improvised songwriting, and folk music, so it’s pure fun to play and fun to listen to.

Many of the performers are also active in non-classical music, so they bring out an energy that you don’t always see and hear in a traditional concert program. On a personal level, each of these composers is a friend and colleague whom I admire as an artist and a human being.

SI: Is there a reason behind calling the concert Cheating, Lying, Stealing?

Rose Bellini: Lang’s title has a mysteriousness to it that is hard to resist (the opening of the score is marked “Ominous Funk”), but one of the ideas behind it is to reject the practice of writing music meant to impress you through complexity and abstractness. I love that sentiment as a performer and as a listener. 

Erin Jorgensen: It’s a nice title because, as you say, it is hella catchy. But it’s also possible to look deeper into the title. I described the concert in the PR as a “witchy sonic experience.” That’s partly hyperbole of course (and a way to sell tickets!), but I also think it’s interesting to flip the script and look at “cheating, lying, stealing” in a playful way. For instance, I’m seeing a lot of witchy feminine energy popping up all over the place on the planet right now and I think it’s fun to look at the concert as an embodiment of that. How could “cheating, lying, stealing” be a positive force?

SI: What is the most exciting part about presenting new music by living composers?

Rose Bellini: The most exciting part is that you can know the composer personally, and find ways to reflect them in the performance for the audience. There’s a sense that while the work is finished, as a performer you have access to an ongoing collaboration or interpretation. Even the choice of venue, the lighting, or how you market the program changes how the music is heard, and I think these variations are exciting for the composer, the performers, and the audience.


Cheating, Lying, Stealing is Sunday, Feb. 3 at 8pm at Washington Hall. For tickets and additional information, please click here.

VIDEO PREMIERE: Melia Watras’s ‘Berceuse’

by Maggie Molloy

Photo by Michelle Smith-Lewis.

Fairy tales and folk songs are just a couple of the major influences behind violist Melia Watras’s new album, Schumann Resonances. More specifically, the album grew out of her love for Schumann’s Märchenbilder (Pictures from Fairyland), one of the great pieces of the viola repertoire.

The album features Watras performing six world premieres of new works inspired by Märchenbilder, fairy tales, and other folklore. Among them are enchanting new pieces by Cuong Vu, Richard Karpen, and Watras herself.

We’re thrilled to premiere the video for one of Watras’s original compositions from the album, “Berceuse with a Singer in London.” Scored for voice and viola, Watras dedicated the piece to folk singer Galia Arad (the daughter of violist and composer Atar Arad, with whom Watras studied). The piece is equal parts art song and folk lullaby, its intertwining melodies made more potent by its sparse texture and poetic text, which was written by Watras’s frequent collaborator, violinist Michael Jinsoo Lim.

Schumann Resonances also marks the launch of Planet M Records, a brand new record label founded this year by Watras and Lim. The Seattle-based, artist-led label specializes in music at the intersection of classical and contemporary.


Melia Watras’s Schumann Resonances is out Friday, Feb. 8 on Planet M Records. Click here to learn more and pre-order the album.

VIDEO PREMIERE: ‘Spirals’ by Maria Huld Markan Sigfusdottir

Nordic Affect (Left to right: Hanna Loftsdóttir, Guðrún Hrund Harðardóttir, Halla Steinunn Stefánsdóttir, and Guðrún Óskarsdóttir.)  Photo by David Oldfield.

by Maggie Molloy

“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 new album He(a)r. Out now on Sono Luminus, the album is a collection of seven world premiere recordings penned by women composers and performed by women musicians.

He(a)r is an ode to hear, here, hér, and her,” writes Halla Steinunn Stefánsdóttir, the ensemble’s artistic director and violinist. Wide-ranging sound worlds from 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.

“Spirals,” one of two works contributed by María Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir, circles around these themes and expands outward: dense chords, hazy melodies, and fragmented sounds from an old music box echo and grow into an immersive meditation on time itself.

We are thrilled to premiere a brand new video for Sigfúsdóttir’s composition “Spirals,” performed by Nordic Affect.


Nordic Affect’s He(a)r is out now on Sono Luminus. Click here to listen to the full album.

Women in (New) Music: Wikipedia Edit-a-Thon

by Gabriela Tedeschi

Clara Schumann, one of the greatest pianists of the 19th century, wrote a piano concerto at the age of fourteen. But by the time she was in her thirties, she had largely given up the idea of composing.

I once believed that I possessed creative talent, but I have given up this idea,” she said. “A woman must not desire to compose—there has never yet been one able to do it.”

Why did Schumann believe this when many talented and prolific women composers—like Hildegard von Bingen, Barbara Strozzi, Fanny Mendelssohn—had come before her? Because music by women was too often ignored and trivialized.

While women composers have made significant gains in the music world in recent years, there is still a disparity between how often and the way in which we talk about male and female musicians. Many writers and audiences still use deeply gendered language to discuss music by women, often subconsciously. Ideas that women’s talents are limited to shorter, simpler forms and emotional, but technically unimpressive works still lingers. The percentage of music by women taught in music classrooms is still staggeringly low. To many young musicians, it still can look as though women don’t really compose.

That’s why changing how we talk about women in music is so important, and why the website Music Theory Examples by Women is organizing an Edit-a-Thon to change the way women in music are representedstarting with Wikipedia.

The national Wikipedia Edit-a-Thon is scheduled for Saturday, Sept. 29. The goal is to edit existing entries and create new entries to radically update the way women in music are represented across Wikipedia—and eventually, the broader musical discourse.

Anyone anywhere can participate, but if you’d like to edit with a group, in-person workshops are being offered throughout the country. The first half of the event will focus on discussing biased writing on women in music and learning how to edit Wikipedia. Attendees will have the time to work on editing and adding to Wikipedia entries during the second half. No prior musical knowledge or experience with Wikipedia is needed.

Seattle’s event is hosted by Live Music Project Executive Director Shaya Lyon, and will begin this Saturday, Sept. 29 at 10am. Click here for additional details.

Additional workshops are being held in Boston, MA, East Lansing, MI, Houston, TX, Fredonia, NY, and Rochester, NY. Click here to learn more or register for a workshop.