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.

VIDEO PREMIERE: Bearthoven’s ‘American Dream’

by Maggie Molloy

Bearthoven. Photo by Colin Beattie.

There’s a certain dissonance inherent in the notion of the American Dream—it promotes a unified ideal for a nation that feels increasingly divided. Yet there remains a fundamental hopefulness in the face of this discord; a belief that we really are all working toward the same promise of freedom and prosperity.

The paradoxical nature of this national ethos in our current socio-economic era inspired Bearthoven’s new album American Dream. The trio—comprised of pianist Karl Larson, bassist Pat Swoboda, and percussionist Matt Evans—performs three works by Scott Wollschleger that explore different aspects of the American experience: moments of true beauty and lofty idealism balanced against moments of impending crisis and despair.

We’re thrilled to premiere this brand new video for an excerpt from the album’s title track, a trio scored for piano, double bass, pitch pipes, and percussion instruments ranging from vibraphone to water crotales and vibrators. Weaving together broken melodies, competing grooves, and the pervasive white noise of everyday life, Wollschleger reflects on the modern day role of the American Dream—in all its beautiful dissonance.


Bearthoven’s American Dream is out Feb. 8 on Cantaloupe Music. Click here to learn more.

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.

All Strings Attached: Ólafur Arnalds in Seattle

by Maggie Molloy

In a world so full of noise, the quiet music of Ólafur Arnalds speaks volumes.

His ephemeral melodies have a nostalgic quality—a way of immersing the listener in muted whispers of sound. Drifting amid his chorus of amplified keyboards and synthesizers, the passage of time becomes quietly punctuated by gentle drum beats and sighing strings. His music plays with perception—if you listen long enough, it blurs the lines of time.

The fluidity of time is one of the major themes behind Arnalds’ world tour All Strings Attached, which comes through Seattle this Saturday at the Moore Theatre. Featuring music from his past, present, and future records, the concert examines the unity and interconnectedness of humanity through an immersive musical performance.

The concert features Arnalds at the keyboard backed by a new generative piano device that he created in collaboration with audio developer Halldór Eldjárn. When Arnalds performs live, each note he plays triggers (in real time) unique musical sequences on two different Disklavier player pianos, creating a sort of duet between human and computer. Adding texture to Arnalds’ collection of keyboards is a uniquely wired ensemble of string quintet and drums—each sound delicately intertwined, all strings attached.

Ólafur Arnalds performs at the Moore Theatre on Saturday, Jan. 26 at 8pm. Click here for tickets and more information.

Healing Modes: Behind the Scenes with Brooklyn Rider

by Dacia Clay

Brooklyn Rider was recently in Seattle touring their new performance project, Healing Modes. The concert program, which is focused on the power of music to heal in many ways, was inspired by Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 15, Op. 132—specifically the third movement. It was a piece that Beethoven wrote during a period of recovery in his own life.

Brooklyn Rider has commissioned five new works for the project—by Reena Esmail, Caroline Shaw, Du Yun, Matana Roberts, and Gabriela Lena Frank—to pair with the Beethoven on the program (and, eventually, on the album). Learn more about Healing Modes in this audio excerpt. To hear the full interview with Brooklyn Rider, listen to the latest episode of the Classical Classroom podcast.

Audio editing for this excerpt by Nikhil Sarma.

Musical Chairs: Bobby Collins on KING FM

by Maggie Molloy

Bobby Collins is interested in discovering new sounds, new voices, and new ways of creating community through music. As the conductor (and one of the founders) of the Seattle-based new music collective the Sound Ensemble, he works to amplify the voices of local composers and underrepresented artists.

The Sound Ensemble’s upcoming concert embodies both of those objectives. On Saturday, Jan. 19, he leads the ensemble in Local Wonders, an evening of music by women composers living in the Pacific Northwest. The wide-ranging program showcases the unique creative output of our own community, featuring works by Kaley Lane Eaton, Sarah Bassingthwaighte, Angelique Poteat, and Carly Ann Worden.

Learn more about the concert, the conductor, and the Sound Ensemble on this week’s episode of Classical KING FM’s Musical Chairs, where Collins will share some of his favorite recordings and musical memories from throughout his career. The episode airs tonight, Friday, Jan. 11 at 7pm PT. Click here to tune in from anywhere in the world!