ALBUM REVIEW: ‘Teenages’ by Qasim Naqvi

by Peter Tracy

Photo by Smriti Keshari.

The mellow buzzing of synthesizers and electric organs has been used in popular music for decades now, but some of the first people to experiment with these instruments were classical and avant-garde composers. The mid-20th century saw a wide range of composers creating new works that mined the expressive potential of electronic instruments—a trend that is continually unfolding today.

On his new album Teenages, composer Qasim Naqvi shows us that a synthesizer can change and respond to its player just like any other more traditional instrument, creating a surprising and one-of-a-kind journey of an album in the process.

Teenages is played entirely on an analog modular synthesizer, which is a synthesizer made up of multiple synth units connected together without a playable interface like a keyboard. Essentially, the machine generates tones while the player guides it, turning knobs to change frequency, create rhythms, or add timbre filters. What makes Naqvi’s machine so special is that he built it himself over the course of two years, and the process of the instrument’s evolution is catalogued on the album. Reflecting on the process of learning his machine’s quirks, Naqvi found that it seemed to react to his impulses in surprising ways and to mature over time, which inspired the album’s title.

The first five tracks of the album were created in the year leading up to the title track. They give us a sense of the machine’s evolution, beginning with “Intermission,” an atmospheric and ambient track that starts from almost a single tone, expanding slowly to include pulsing sounds of different timbres and pitches.

“Mrs 2E” brings in some more recognizable material, with stuttering beeps and blips fluttering around the steadier rhythms of something resembling a melody and bassline. “Palace Workers” continues this progression, with a quirky but danceable percussion section keeping a steady beat. This is joined by a bouncy, repetitive synth line that starts to give a sense of harmony. By “No Tongue,” Naqvi and his machine have learned to work together to form what sounds like an ensemble of electronics featuring a bright, melodic hook, lively textured rhythms, and scattered beeps and clicks.

While “No Tongue” is animated and restless, “Artilect” takes us into deeper waters with a low, pulsing drone that makes you wonder what could be around the corner. This leads us finally into the main event, “Teenages,” an almost 20-minute track which brings together everything that came before. Multiple synth lines build steadily upward into rich harmonies to form what sounds like an electronic orchestra playing an oddly off-kilter sort of anthem. These chords are then warped and spun through different filters, with fluttering synths imitating and reacting to each other over time to create what feels like a journey through the mind of Naqvi’s machine.

For Naqvi, modular synthesizers feel almost alive in a way that he wanted to capture by treating Teenages like a live album: the title track, for instance, was recorded in a single take, with no edits or overdubs. Showcasing the sometimes-unpredictable behavior of the machine was a priority for the composer, and this makes for an album that is always evolving and transforming into something new.

In the end, it is both Naqvi turning the knobs and the machine interpreting his actions that come together to create something of a collaborative album between a man and his machine.

From Max Richter to Roomful of Teeth: Early Access to New Music at STG

by Maggie Molloy

From the pulsing minimalism of Max Richter to the visceral bite of Roomful of Teeth, the theatricality of modern music comes alive onstage during Seattle Theatre Group’s 2019-2020 season. We’re thrilled to partner with STG to offer Second Inversion listeners early access and a 15% discount on tickets to three of our favorite STG shows this season.

Click here to grab your tickets before they go on sale to the general public, and use the code SECONDINVERSION at checkout for 15% off and reduced service fees.

Bryce Dessner’s Triptych (Eyes of One on Another)
ft. Roomful of Teeth and photography of Robert Mapplethorpe

Wednesday, Oct. 9, 8pm | The Moore Theatre

Thirty years after Robert Mapplethorpe’s death, his controversial photographs remain radical and subversive. Working in New York City in the 70s and 80s, his portraiture was provocative in its classical, even statuesque portrayals of nudity, eroticism, queer identity, and BDSM. In this multimedia tribute featuring music by Bryce Dessner, poetry by Essex Hemphill and Patti Smith, and performances by the inimitable Roomful of Teeth, Mapplethorpe’s visceral images are displayed in unprecedented drama and scale.


Max Richter ft. ACME and Grace Davidson
Wednesday, Oct. 16, 7:30pm | The Moore Theatre

Max Richter is one of those very few classical composers whose fan base is comprised largely of non-classical concertgoers. Equal parts composer, performer, and producer, his music combines the sensitivity and nuance of classical music with the shimmering serenity of ambient and electronic. Hovering above a collection of keyboards and synthesizers, he builds electroacoustic sound worlds that are as introspective as they are immersive. For this concert, he performs them with soprano Grace Davidson and musicians of the American Contemporary Music Ensemble.


Kronos Quartet: A Thousand Thoughts
Live Documentary by Sam Green and Joe Bini

Thursday, April 23, 7:30pm | The Moore Theatre

Over the past five decades the Kronos Quartet has explored just about every corner of contemporary music—from minimalism to microtonality, film scores to folk songs, and musical traditions from around the globe. They’ve also played a major role in championing new music, commissioning over 1,000 new works and arrangements to date. Their new live documentary A Thousand Thoughts, created by filmmaker Sam Green and writer Joe Bini, tells the story of the quartet’s groundbreaking career, featuring archival footage and interviews with collaborators like Philip Glass, Terry Riley, and Laurie Anderson—all while the Kronos Quartet performs the live score.

Amanda Gookin Boldly Goes Forward (2.0)

by Dacia Clay

Amanda Gookin. Photo by Ryan Scherb.

In 2015, Amanda Gookin started a commissioning project called Forward Music Project. It premiered in 2017 at National Sawdust with seven pieces focused on issues that affect women and girls. Two years later, Gookin has returned with Forward Music Project 2.0.

True to its name, the project has taken big leaps forward. It now encompasses five new commissioned works that focus on more specific, personal issues for the composers, from body image to political oppression, sex positivity, and gender nonconformity. The performance includes electronics, video art by S Katy Tucker, and physically visceral cello playing from Gookin; the featured composers include Paola Prestini, Niloufar Nourbakhsh, Shelley Washington, Alex Temple, and Kamala Sankaram.

Forward Music Project 2.0 has an educational arm as well (Gookin is also a professor at Mannes and SUNY Purchase). Take a listen to find out more about the cellist’s latest step forward. To learn more about Forward Music Project 1.0, check out this episode of KING FM’s Classical Classroom podcast.

Second Inversion Launches a New Show on Classical KING FM!

Big news for Second Inversion! Beginning in February 2020, we will be launching a brand new weekly show on our parent station, Classical KING FM 98.1.

This show, titled Second Inversion, will air every Saturday night from 10-11pm PT and showcase musical selections from the 20th and 21st centuries. We will also highlight artists and upcoming performances in the Pacific Northwest new music community. Local listeners can tune in on the radio at 98.1, and the show will also be streaming worldwide online.

As part of this transition, Second Inversion’s 24/7 online stream will end, so that the resources needed to produce the new show on KING FM are available. The final day of the online stream will be Monday, August 19.

The decision to discontinue the 24/7 online stream was reached through conversations with many audience members, arts and community partners, internal staff, and station leadership. We ultimately found that a 24/7 streaming format is not the most impactful way to serve listeners or to serve the music itself. With a weekly show on KING FM, we will be able to provide the greater context and curation contemporary music deserves while also introducing it to many more ears: KING FM reaches over a quarter million listeners per week!

The current web publication and video production will continue as normal, providing users with album reviews, interviews, on-demand videos, concert recommendations, and behind-the-scenes access to the world of new and experimental music.

In all of our endeavors, Second Inversion remains committed to showcasing the breadth, diversity, and cultural relevance of contemporary music. We will continue to serve as a portal for new and experimental music in and out of the Pacific Northwest, and we look forward to the opportunities provided by our new format.

If you have any questions about these changes, please do not hesitate to contact us.

Thank you for your continued support of Second Inversion, and stay tuned for more updates in the months to come!

ALBUM REVIEW: ‘And All the Days Were Purple’ by Alex Weiser

by Peter Tracy

Most of the great song cycles of classical music history are sung in languages like English, German, French, and Italian. In the best examples of art song, the poetry being set and the language it is written in are equally as important as the music itself. It’s significant, then that on And All the Days Were Purple, Alex Weiser gives us something a little less familiar: a song cycle mostly sung in Yiddish, and an attempt to help rehabilitate Yiddish as an artistic language in the process.

Yiddish, the native language of over half a million Jews worldwide, has a long artistic history, one that is largely defined today by the recent decline in native Yiddish speakers. The early 20th century saw a surge in composers who were interested in bringing their Jewish backgrounds into their compositions, often drawing from Jewish folk music or setting Yiddish and Hebrew texts to music. This artistic movement was cut short by the Holocaust, and it never fully recovered. Part of what Weiser is trying to do here, then, is to move Yiddish back into the spotlight, and to show us some of the struggles and triumphs of modern Jewish life in the process.

Alex Weiser. Photo by Jennifer Rodewald.

Much like traditional song cycles, Weiser’s music features a clear distinction between melody and accompaniment, and often depicts the images of its text musically. Most of the songs feature soprano Eliza Bagg singing winding, modal melodies that follow the contours of the poetry, accompanied by a small ensemble of piano, percussion, violin, viola, and cello. The song texts feature Yiddish-language poets from around Europe, the United States, and Israel such as Anna Margolin, Avrom Sutzkever, and Rokhl Korn, as well as Jewish poets writing in English such as Mark Strand and Edward Hirsch.

The song cycle’s opening track, “My Joy,” is an excellent introduction to Weiser’s musical language: the piano forms the backbone of the harmony and keeps the pulse, strings oscillate back and forth on the same harmonies, sometimes breaking off into solos, while Bagg sings Anna Margolin’s poetry about love and death with expressive clarity. The harmonies are seemingly simple as the ensemble rocks back and forth on just two basic chords, but dissonance tends to creep into the plodding of the piano, suggesting the highly tenuous happiness of the poem.

In “Longing,” the whole ensemble seems to be spinning and striving forward, echoing the anxious description of waiting and yearning in Rachel Korn’s poem. The final song in the cycle, “We Went Through the Days,” sets a Margolin poem full of natural imagery atop static string harmonies, pulsing piano chords, and punctuation from the vibraphone and glockenspiel, ending the cycle on a nostalgic and bittersweet note.

Photo by Steven Pisano.

Two instrumental interludes provide moments of reflection that lead into new musical ideas, giving the cycle a sense of flow. In both interludes, the swells, trills, and glissandos of the strings are marked by interjections from the piano and percussion, and the instrumentalists take on a more active and animated role.

Also featured on the album is Weiser’s Three Epitaphs, with English language poetry from William Carlos Williams, Emily Dickinson, and the Seikilos Epitaph, the oldest complete musical composition in the world. An epitaph is usually thought of as a memorial inscription on a tombstone, but in the case of these three poems it might be more fitting to think of it as a poem written in memory of something that’s been lost.

The poetry is separated by instrumental interludes, but the piece is performed in one continuous movement, resulting in slightly more lively instrumentation and greater sense of unity from one segment to the next. In one particularly beautiful moment in Williams’ poem, as Bagg reaches the words “Love is a young green willow, / Shimmering at the bare wood’s edge,” the piano suddenly breaks into a romantic waltz-like accompaniment, only to recede back into the flow of the piece soon after.

It seems appropriate that Weiser has referred to the poems he sets to music as “secular prayers”—these are pieces that express not only the obstacles and lived experiences of the modern Jewish community, but, in certain sense, of modern society as a whole. More than just a meditation on modern Jewish identity and art, And All the Days Were Purple deals with universal questions of love, death, struggle, and perseverance through the lens of one culture and its language.