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.

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.

VIDEO PREMIERE: ‘Lightness of Being’ by R.D. King

by Maggie Molloy

R.D. King is interested in exploring big questions through music. Questions of psychology, philosophy—even questions of our own existence.

These are just a few of the themes explored in the guitarist’s debut album vs. Self, a collection of introspective acoustic guitar works. Inspired by art, literature, and cinema, King’s compositions typically begin with narrative and expand outward into abstraction.

The album’s first track explores the philosophical underpinnings of Milan Kundera’s 1984 novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being: a rumination on the ephemeral nature of life, with both the freedoms and limitations it brings. Just as the novel explores the paradox of lightness and weight, King’s composition merges elements of classical technique with steel-string guitar, balancing buoyant melodies against driving rhythms and shifting textures.

We’re thrilled to premiere a brand new video of R.D. King performing his original composition “Lightness of Being.”


This video was produced by Lightning Bulb Productions and Nico Rivers and shot at the Gallery at Villageworks with artwork by Linda Hoffman.

Click here to listen to R.D.’s debut album, vs. Self. His second self-titled album is set for release in January 2019.

Musical Chairs: Megan Ihnen on Classical KING FM

by Maggie Molloy

When Megan Ihnen sings, she soars.

From opera stages to intimate chamber music halls, the mezzo-soprano is on a mission to expand the world of new and experimental vocal music. With clarity, charisma, and incredible vocal control, she breathes new life into music ranging from the modern sounds of Cage and Crumb to up-to-the-minute works of today’s top composers. Megan has performed with new music moguls such as the International Contemporary Ensemble and Fifth House Ensemble, and her own Seen/Heart Trio is devoted to performing works by rarely-recorded composers. 

But aside from championing new works from contemporary composers, she’s also watching out for her fellow singers. Megan is the creator and main content producer of the Sybaritic Singer, a web publication with workshops, courses, and consultations to help vocalists take control of their careers in the 21st century. She’s also the Communications Lead behind Seattle’s beloved Live Music Project.

This Friday, Nov. 2 at 7pm PT, Megan’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 from across her musical career, plus details about her role with the Live Music Project.

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!

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.

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.