Second Inversion’s 24-Hour Marathon of Women Composers

by Maggie Molloy

In celebration of International Women’s Day on March 8, we’re featuring a 24-hour marathon of women composers on Second Inversion. Tune in all day long to hear works by over 100 women who have helped shape, inspire, and expand the world of classical music.

Click here to stream the marathon from anywhere in the world, and click on the icons below for more resources on women composers.

Second Inversion hosts share a favorite selection from their Women Composers Marathon playlist. Tune in on March 8 to hear these pieces and plenty of other new and experimental music from women composers in the 20th and 21st centuries.

Meredith Monk: Dolmen Music (ECM Records)
Meredith Monk, Julius Eastman, Andrea Goodman, Robert Een, Monica Solem, & Paul Langland, voices

Meredith Monk has secured a place in history as one of the most singular and significant voices of the 20th and 21st centuries. For nearly six decades, she has redefined and revolutionized contemporary vocal music and performance, seamlessly weaving in elements of theatre and dance to create visceral musical experiences that transcend the confines of the classical tradition.

Her 20-minute masterwork Dolmen Music is an iconic example of her uncanny ability to merge ancient and modern musical ideas. In this piece, abstract vocalizations, primal rhythms, hypnotic dances, and ritualistic soundscapes come together in an intimate embrace of the human experience. – Maggie Molloy

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 8am hour today to hear this piece.


Maria Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir: Aequora (Sono Luminus)
Iceland Symphony Orchestra; Daníel Bjarnason, conductor

Mallets and string scrapes lend a creaky shanty boat sound to the opening of Maria Huld Markan Sigfusdottir’s Aequora, which seems appropriate given that her piece is about the moods of the sea throughout the day. The calm sea at sunrise feels like a warm, melodic blessing before the swelling strings and brass undertones breeze forward in a sheen of joy that sails through midday and retreats again at nightfall until a lullaby of soft mallets and harp details fade out to end the work with serenity. For its luminous and congenial atmosphere, Aequora is a musical wave that stands taller than the rest.
 Rachele Hales

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 10am hour today to hear this piece.


Amy Brandon: Scavenger (Self-Released)
Amy Brandon, nylon-string guitar

The boldly cross-genre music of Canadian guitarist-composer Amy Brandon fuses elements of jazz, classical, electroacoustic, and improvised music. Scavenger, the title track from her 2016 release, blends the meditative pacing of traditional classical guitar slow movements with repetitive structures and non-traditional harmonies from the 20th and 21st centuries. Fittingly, Brandon is currently pursuing an interdisciplinary PhD at Dalhousie University. – Seth Tompkins

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 12pm hour today to hear this piece.


Shih-Hui Chen: Fantasia on the Theme of Guanglingsan (Albany)
Little Giant Chinese Chamber Orchestra

Crossings presents a mix of Chinese and American composers writing for a mix of Chinese and Western instruments. It features a Taiwan-based chamber orchestra brought to the U.S. by Shih-Hui Chen, a composer from Taiwan who teaches at Rice University and specializes in the cultural intersections between traditional Chinese music and modern Western art music. Her own contribution to the album is a concerto for zheng (forerunner to the Japanese koto) that’s loosely based on a classic Chinese piece depicting the assassination of a cruel king by a musician whose father had been one of his victims. Compare her martial passage starting at 5:03 to a corresponding section in the original for a taste of the relationship between new and old. – Michael Schell

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 1pm hour today to hear this piece.


Veronique Vaka: “Gaetni (Care)” (Moderna Records)
Veronique Vaka, violin & cello

Before I learned anything about this piece, I knew that I loved it. It grabbed me because it reminds me of so much of pieces of other music that I love: It’s got the warm embrace of early Sigur Ros, the hint of tragedy of some of Angelo Badalamenti’s music for Twin Peaks, a little bit of the watery mystery of Missy Mazzoli’s “Song from the Uproar,” and a shimmering depth that I can only assume is Vaka’s. It’s like a mermaid singing to you. I can’t wait to hear more of this album.
– 
Dacia Clay

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 2pm hour today to hear this piece.


Julia Wolfe: Big Beautiful Dark and Scary (Cantaloupe Music)
Bang on a Can All-Stars

The raw emotion that defines this work by Pulitzer Prize-winner Julia Wolfe really taps in to a characteristic of new music that is so important to me: the idea that this is what real life feels like. Julia’s music always makes powerfully personal connections, but this one really seems as personal as it gets, chronicling her feelings after the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center, which she witnessed from two blocks away with her young children. An unrelenting wall of sound and steady rhythmic energy drives the piece’s ever-increasing intensity, and though it feels inevitable, the ending leaves the listener more shell-shocked than anything else. – Geoffrey Larson

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 6pm hour today to hear this piece.

 

The Late Works of György Ligeti (1923–2006)

by Michael Schell

The Pacific Northwest seems in the midst of a Ligeti boom. Last year the Seattle Symphony presented the regional premiere of his Requiem, along with a live-music presentation of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, which features music from the Requiem and three other Ligeti scores from the 1960s. Second Inversion marked the occasion with a profile of the Hungarian composer (see György Ligeti’s Musical Odyssey) and the groundbreaking works from that era that made him one of the 20th century’s most influential musical figures. This Thursday and Saturday, the Seattle Symphony is back with Augustin Hadelich to offer the local premiere of Ligeti’s Violin Concerto, a late and quite different piece that offers an opportunity to examine the composer’s post-Odyssey music.

Opera in Breughelland

Ligeti’s output, like Beethoven’s, divides rather neatly into three style periods. The early works, written while he was still in Hungary, are Bartókian and often folkloric. The middle period works, coming after his escape to the West in 1956, include sonorist compositions such as Atmospheres, Lux Aeterna, and the first two movements of the Requiem—pieces that aren’t based on conventional melody and harmony but are pure explorations of timbre and texture. It’s this music that was made famous by the monolith and stargate sequences in Kubrick’s film. Others works from this time, like the little pseudo-operas Aventures and Nouvelles Aventures, and the third movement of the Requiem, express Ligeti’s idiosyncratic take on the Darmstadt pointillist style. (Each of these works are surveyed in our previous article.)

Ligeti’s middle period is considered to culminate with the 1978 premiere of Le Grand Macabre, his only full-length opera, and by far his longest work. Much of it resembles Aventures and Nouvelles Aventures, but at other times it points in several new directions, including that quintessential postmodern technique, pastiche. There are many musical references to the past: a Can Can quoting Offenbach, a bourée that’s modeled after the Baroque dance, a midnight clock scene that parodies the cemetery chimes in Verdi’s Falstaff, and a Don Giovanni-style moralizing finale where the singers address the audience directly.

The opera’s most famous passage is a passacaglia based on a crazy distortion of the theme from the finale of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony. It accompanies the entrance of Nekrotzar, the opera’s villain and namesake, one of the most debauched processional scenes in opera history.

Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony through a distorting mirror in Le Grand Macabre.

Beethoven isn’t the only reference here. Look closely and you’ll see that Ligeti’s tune uses a Schoenbergian 12-tone row. But since the tune has 13 notes in it, each iteration begins on a different pitch (the first two passes are shown above). After 12 times through, the cycles line up again, a technique perfected centuries ago in the isorhythmic motets of Machaut and Dufay.

The libretto, adapted from a play by the Belgian dramatist Michel de Ghelderode, is a farcical sendup of operatic clichés, influenced by carnival and commedia dell’arte traditions, and by the allegorical imagery of Breughel, one of Ligeti’s favorite visual artists (indeed, the work’s setting is the imaginary country of Breugelland). Besides Nekrotzar and his Sancho Panza-like sidekick, the characters include a court astrologer (kind of a cross between Klingsor and Dr. Frankenstein) and his dominatrix wife, an incompetent secret police chief, and a couple whose male half is a trouser role sung by a mezzo-soprano in the manner of Cherubino or Octavian. The plot, such as it is, concerns Nekrotzar’s attempt to destroy the world, an effort eventually foiled by ineptitude and drunkenness.

Although Ligeti was attracted to Ghelderode’s drama for its unconventionality, the resulting libretto has not proven terribly popular, striking many people as more daft than profound. And younger composers like Louis Andriessen have had better success liberating new music theater from conventional narrative by jettisoning full-throated bel canto singing and other accoutrements of traditional opera-making. Nevertheless, Ligeti’s mastery at eliciting an almost unbroken succession of unexpected colors from voices and instruments has earned Le Grand Macabre a foothold in the repertory of international opera companies—one of the very few post-Britten operas to accomplish this.

An arrangement of the opera’s music for coloratura soprano, called Mysteries of the Macabre, has become a favorite showpiece for Barbara Hannigan, who has performed it in various concert stagings, including the above version where she both sings and conducts the ensemble.

At a Crossroads

Le Grand Macabre ends with a second passacaglia that manages to be triadic but practically atonal. Although each of the chords are themselves consonant, they clash sufficiently with each other that no clear key or chord progression can coalesce. Ligeti called this consonant atonality, and it was the first time since escaping from Hungary that he had used traditional harmonies. Having reached a point in his career where he felt he had little more to say in the vein of his most experimental works, he was interested in reclaiming music based on pitch and rhythm. But as a survivor of both Nazism and Communism, he deplored both the dogmatism of the avant-garde and the insouciance of the neoromantic and post-minimalist styles that were then coming into vogue. So how to use melody, consonant intervals and well-defined rhythms outside the permissive context of operatic pastiche and without reverting to hackneyed tonal chords and melodies?

The solution took a while to develop (like Beethoven, Ligeti endured a few years of artistic quiescence before his late works started to emerge), but eventually a compelling new line of musical thought synthesized in his imagination, spurred in large part through contact with several composers from America.

American Ingenuity

Ligeti had a formative experience in 1972 when he traveled to the US for a half-year residency at Stanford University. Among other things, he encountered the West Coast fascination with alternative tunings, a perspective associated with Henry Cowell and Lou Harrison, but above all with Harry Partch, then largely unknown in Europe. Ligeti visited Partch in his Encinitas home, chatted about the latter’s unique tuning system and self-built instruments, and jammed a bit on the diamond marimba. But whereas Partch strove to create pure consonance, the complexity-craving Ligeti wondered how clashes between different tuning systems could create new dissonances—what he called a “dirty sound,” but one under the control of the composer. Ligeti had previously used quarter tones (intervals halfway between the adjacent keys of a conventionally-tuned piano), but Partch’s system suggested a different and more systematic approach.

One of the first manifestations of this approach is the Hungarian Passacaglia, a little harpsichord piece that Ligeti dashed off in 1978. Ligeti asks for the instrument to be tuned in meantone temperament, an adaptation that causes the thirds and sixths in the repeating ground to be pure, but makes them sound strangely out of tune with each other. The effect in this otherwise straightforwardly polytonal piece is akin to adding exotic spices to an otherwise bland dish.

Hungarian Passacaglia.

In his 1982 Horn Trio, Ligeti plays off natural harmonics in the horn with the conventional tuning of the piano and violin. The clashes are quite audible in the third and fourth movements.

It was also at Stanford that Ligeti first encountered American minimalism, specifically its rhythmically lively strain (which originated in the Bay Area) to which he paid explicit homage in his Self-Portrait with Reich and Riley. This 1976 piece for two pianos also looks back at the finale of Chopin’s Second Piano Sonata, one of the 19th century’s most important precursors to minimalism.

Once back in Europe, Ligeti conveyed his excitement over these discoveries in an article titled “Tendenzen der Neuen Musik in den USA: Steve Reich, Terry Riley, Harry Partch.”

American Rhythm

Ligeti’s North American explorations of 1972 also took him to Mexico City, where he met several local composers, but ironically not the one that would later become a crucial influence: Conlon Nancarrow. It wasn’t until 1980 that Ligeti finally heard the music of this most obstinate and isolated of American Mavericks, a reticent expatriate who labored patiently for four and a half decades with two player pianos and a machine for hand-punching pianola rolls to create music of unprecedented rhythmic density and complexity.

Nancarrow and Ligeti.

Nancarrow’s Study 40b is a straightforward example. Two player pianos play the same music, but the second one enters 28 seconds after the first, playing its roll at 9/8 the first piano’s tempo, so that it gradually catches up as the piece goes on. Both pianos finish together in a loud cadential flurry.

Nancarrow’s influence is heard in the third movement of Ligeti’s Piano Concerto, which is notated in three simultaneous time signatures and often gives the impression of different cascades of notes tumbling along at different tempos. Ligeti was so impressed by Nancarrow’s work (“the greatest discovery since Webern and Ives“) that he authorized player piano versions of some of his own compositions, such as the piano etude Vertige.

Another key American was Ligeti’s composition student, Roberto Sierra, who from 1979 onward made available his extensive LP library of non-Western music. Ligeti was especially interested in the polyphonic music of Central Africa, such as this example from the Banda people which became a model for his piano etude Fém. Ligeti’s infatuation with complex African music passed on to his son, Lukas, a drummer and composer who often collaborates with African musicians.

Violin Concerto

All of these new interests from the 1970s and 1980s—pastiche, intonation, polyrhythms, concepts from non-Western music—find a voice in the Violin Concerto, a kind of résumé of Ligeti’s late period music. Completed in 1993 and scored for soloist and a chamber orchestra of two dozen musicians, its seeds go back to the Stanford residency, which had been arranged by John Chowning, a pioneer of computer music and inventor of the technology later used in the popular Yamaha DX7 synthesizer. Through his friendship with Chowning, Ligeti obtained a DX7ii with a custom enhancement that allowed him to experiment with complex alternative tunings.

The results are on display in the Concerto. One of the orchestral violins is tuned about a quartertone sharp, and one of the violas is tuned flat so that both are “out of tune” with the rest of the ensemble. Brass players are often directed to use natural harmonics (produced through overblowing without changing fingering), and woodwind instruments are given the occasional quarter tone inflection. Curiously, the solo violin plays in conventional equal temperament throughout.

The Concerto starts out sounding a bit like John Adams, with consonant bowed tremolos in the solo violin, soon joined by the (detuned) first viola. But the texture quickly dissolves into a dense chromatic web as the remaining string instruments enter, each going its own way with arpeggios and harmonic glissandos. The soloist, doubled by a marimba, shoots out a sequence of accented notes that go up and down a custom scale like a roller coaster. At 1:38 , the woodwinds enter in a Nancarrowish commotion with the soloist, accompanied by a vibraphone and a couple of orchestral strings, going at a different tempo from the rest of the ensemble (see score excerpt). A little brass fanfare at 2:45 provides some punctuation as the mood of the opening returns.

The second movement is a pastiche of those Romantic violin concertos whose slow movement starts with a lyric melody that’s repeated with elaborate ornaments and filigrees added in the solo part. In Ligeti’s case, the melody is a nostalgic one, cribbed from a movement of his Musica Ricercata (an album of keyboard music written during his Hungary years that he arranged as the third of his Six Bagatelles for Wind Quintet). Listen to the horns’ entrance at 2:18 as they play natural harmonics, intentionally clashing with the standard tuning of the other instruments.

At 2:38 Ligeti’s sense of humor comes out as the melody is reprised by a quartet of ocarinas, later joined by two slide whistles (all notorious for their wobbly intonation). Ligeti, like Berio, could be counted on to inject the occasional dose of playfulness into the otherwise stern proceedings of the European avant-garde. Here he was also inspired by music from the Iatmul people of Papua New Guinea who play on some of the world’s longest transverse flutes and, in lieu of finger holes, build their music exclusively from natural harmonics.

The brief third movement is like a mid-lesson review, combining the string webs and polyrhythms of the first movement with the melodic lyricism and natural brass harmonics of the second.

First two cycles of the Movement IV passacaglia.

The fourth movement is yet another passacaglia, this time over a two-voice chromatic ground played by wind instruments. It’s a bit tricky to follow because the starting notes change with each cycle (the first two cycles are shown above), and other variations creep in as the movement proceeds. But any fixed form in Ligeti’s hand is a license to do crazy things on top of it—like bringing in a Romanian village dance at 3:21, or directing the xylophone (with its limited dynamic range) to crescendo from p to ffffffff over the course of three bars at the movement’s end.

The finale returns to the sound world of the first movement, starting with the Adams-like tremolos. Woodwinds enter with a descending figure in whole tones (a kind of inversion of the passacaglia theme), then the soloist enters with accented notes, quickly leading us into another Nancarrowish brouhaha, which sounds chaotic but is strictly notated by Ligeti. At 1:53 the soloist and woodwinds seem to be playing two different dance tunes in two different tempos, with hints of a waltz rhythm in the bass. After a couple more minutes in the stylistic blender we arrive at the violin cadenza, which the soloist can either devise herself (in the tradition of Classical concertos) or reproduce from music supplied by Ligeti and Saschko Gawriloff (the work’s dedicatee). Eventually the cadenza is rudely interrupted by the orchestra in a bravura flourish—inspiring a few performers to ham up the ending a bit.

Despite being challenging to perform, the Violin Concerto has become one of Ligeti’s most frequently played and recorded large ensemble pieces. Its influence on younger composers is evinced in the eclecticism, layering and unpredictable rhythms of a piece such as Unsuk Chin’s Violin Concerto. And the emphasis on tuning clashes and derivation of musical ideas from overtone patterns creates results not far from the world of spectralist composers such as Grisey, Murail, and Avram.

Ligeti went on composing for another decade, bringing forth a viola sonata, songs, more piano etudes and the Hamburg Concerto (which puts the idea of clashing natural horn harmonics on steroids). But it’s the Violin Concerto that seems the best summation of the musical ideas that intrigued him in his later years—a quarter century of work capping off a lifetime of innovation.


Augustin Hadelich performs the Ligeti Violin Concerto with the Seattle Symphony on Thursday, Jan. 4 at 7:30pm and Saturday, Jan. 6 at 8pm. Click here for tickets and more information.

Click here for a list of recommended recordings of Ligeti’s music.

Eric Salzman Remembered (1933–2017)

by Michael Schell

Eric Salzman’s death on November 12, 2017 closed out one of American music’s most multifaceted careers. An accomplished composer, producer, and critic, Salzman was a prominent advocate of new music theater and the author of several important texts on contemporary music.

It was in his capacity as a writer that Salzman probably reached the most people. His textbook Twentieth-Century Music: An Introduction spanned four editions from 1974 to 2001, during which time it was the most highly respected single-volume survey of modern music in the English language. Concise and levelheaded, it’s also one of the few such books written by a composer. It provided thousands of music students and enthusiasts with their first coherent tour through the sprawling expanse of 20th century musical innovation.

Salzman also edited The Musical Quarterly, and wrote several articles for Stereo Review, including a 1971 feature on Edgard Varèse (with an accompanying two-page tribute from Frank Zappa) that helped stir up interest in the Franco-American master’s music among young and non-specialist listeners.

Salzman’s last book, from 2008, is The New Music Theater: Seeing the Voice, Hearing the Body. Co-authored with Thomas Desi, it’s a fascinating and opinionated exploration of work outside the realms of conventional opera and Broadway-style musicals. Its subjects include John Cage’s happenings, Harry Partch’s corporeality, Philip Glass’s operas with Robert Wilson and JoAnne Akalaitis, the work of post-opera composers from Europe (Louis Andriessen) and Asia (Tan Dun), and newfangled interactive/intermedia creations like Tod Machover’s Brain Opera. An ongoing concern is the relationship between vocal technique and the musical genres based on it, whether the vibrato-heavy bel canto style used in opera houses, or the more “natural” (and often amplified) style of folk and commercial singers. Special attention goes to musicians such as Meredith Monk who have created a corpus of stage works based on extended vocal techniques. Also discussed are the trade-offs between voice projection and clarity of diction, a topic critical for any genre of sung music but one that is neglected in most books on music.

Salzman’s own stage works often inhabit the space between traditional operas and musicals. His one-act Civilization and its Discontents, written with Michael Sahl in the late 1970s, is sung-through like an opera but employs Broadway-style voices backed up by a small combo in the manner of today’s touring musicals. Its debt to Weill and Sondheim is obvious, both in the tonal, syncopated melodies, as well as the contemporary, adult-oriented subject matter. It centers on a love triangle between Jill Goodheart, a frustrated young New York thespian, Jeremy, her singles bar pickup, and Derek, her live-in boyfriend. When the latter unexpectedly barges in on the other two, the men recognize themselves as business partners and rather than fight, start negotiating a deal in front of the chagrined bachelorette. An alto-voiced emcee named Carlos Arachnid intervenes periodically to offer easy paths to fulfillment—kind of a Mephistopheles character for the self-help guru era. Back at the bar, the chorus intones the moral: “If it feels good do it”.

By contrast, The Nude Paper Sermon from 1969 is closer to the postmodern tradition of pastiche and collage. This 45-minute gallimaufry combines synthesizer blurts, poetry by John Ashbury, and mixed vocal/instrumental passages modeled after English madrigals. The latter are performed by a Renaissance consort led by Joshua Rifkin, an early case of archaic instruments being appropriated for avant-garde purposes (the viola da gamba player, incidentally, is none other than Richard Taruskin prior to his emergence as America’s most provocative musicologist). After six minutes, a spoken stream of consciousness joins the right channel, delivered by a young Stacy Keach. The whole mix was released by Nonesuch on an LP that was well distributed in North American record stores, allowing the piece to ride Keach’s subsequent Hollywood fame to “hit” status as a kind of American counterpart to Berio’s contemporaneous Sinfonia.

Another Berio piece, Laborintus II, got its American premier along alongside Salzman’s Foxes and Hedgehogs, the latter eliciting a disapproving boo from Morton Feldman’s seat in the audience. Apparently this indiscretion was forgiven, since Salzman went on to produce the premier of Feldman and Samuel Beckett’s opera Neither. Salzman’s other credits as a producer include the revival and first modern recording of Partch’s Revelation in the Courthouse Park, and several recordings for Nonesuch and Koch International, including the popular Tango Project albums, which combine traditional and contemporary renditions of this popular dance.

Salzman co-founded the American Music Theater Festival in Philadelphia and was composer in residence for the Center for Contemporary Opera in New York. He also taught music periodically, and had two stints as music director of the outré WBAI radio in New York. Among Salzman’s last projects is a string quartet arrangement of five classic John Cage piano and prepared piano pieces, and the lovely a cappella “madrigal comedy” Jukebox in the Tavern of Love that was recently recorded by The Western Wind alongside Meredith Monk’s Basket Rondo. A lifelong New Yorker, he was married for over 60 years to Lorna Salzman, a noted environmentalist who was the Green Party’s 2004 presidential candidate. Their children include the poet Eva Salzman.

In an influential 1972 New York Times article, Salzman wrote “It is not necessary to call the new music theater into being; it is taking place under our eyes and ears; it is only the simple, encompassing definition that is elusive.”

What is likewise elusive is a tidy summation of a career as varied as Salzman’s. Perhaps his most impactful legacy is embodying a 20th century composer’s commitment to tackling the most challenging and universal artistic problems anew, over and over.

Louis Andriessen: Theater of the World

by Michael Schell

Louis Andriessen is Europe’s leading post-minimalist composer, occupying a niche similar to John Adams in North America. His early process pieces Hoketus and Worker’s Union bear the influence of his friend and contemporary Frederic Rzewski, and established him as a lynchpin in the post-WW2 renaissance of Dutch classical music. He’s also an important father figure to the Bang on a Can cadre, as is evident from the constant rhythmic energy propelling his recently premiered opera (or “grotesque stagework” as he calls it) Theater of the World.

Conceived in collaboration with writer Helmut Krausser and director Pierre Audi, with video and décor from the Quay Brothers, Theater of the World is based on the books of Athanasius Kircher, a curious 17th century Jesuit scholar who endeavored to organize the knowledge of his time into a metaphorical theological framework, visualizing the world as a great play authored by God “with all of us as its actors.” The libretto cobbled from this corpus by Andriessen and Krausser is a jumble of texts in several languages—not the easiest thing to follow without staging. But that needn’t deter us from enjoying the music, which is available on a new double CD release from Nonesuch featuring the Los Angeles Philharmonic and soloists from the Dutch National Opera (the work’s co-commissioners) conducted by Reinbert de Leeuw.

Scene 5 offers a good introduction: it’s mostly set in English, and features “pop” instruments (synth, electric guitar and electric bass) alongside more conventional orchestral timbres. The following scene begins with some sharp chords that hearken back to the ending of Stravinsky’s last masterpiece, the Requiem Canticles. It’s quintessential Andriessen, combining “American” playfulness and “European” historical perspective into an idiom that’s accessible and contemporary but still committed to a humanist striving, however imperfect, toward higher knowledge.

The Best of Thelonious Monk: The Blue Note Years

by Michael Schell

This month seems like an opportune time for a salute in Thelonious Monk’s direction, honoring both his 100th birthday and the 70th anniversary of the first of the Blue Note recording sessions that Monk aficionados generally consider his most important work. Highlights from these 1947–52 sessions have been gathered into a handy single-CD reissue that showcases the things that make Monk’s music so compelling: his catchy and highly chromatic jazz compositions, and his unique and piquant improv style that combines bebop and stride piano techniques with harmonic innovations from modern composed music.

Included are the first recordings of such Monk standards as Epistrophy, Straight No Chaser, Well You Needn’t, and ‘Round Midnight (the bane of many a piano student overwhelmed by its complicated chord changes). And then there’s Misterioso, a mini-compendium of Monkish eccentricities. It’s ostensibly a 12-bar blues in B♭, but its melody consists of non-swinging broken sixths that sound more like Scarlatti than bebop.

After Monk and vibraphonist Milt Jackson play through the tune, Jackson offers a fairly conventional solo lasting one chorus. Then Monk begins his solo, and things start getting weird. He spends one chorus toying around with the dissonant clash between D♭ and D♮, and a second chorus combining blues licks with whole-tone scales and long rests. When Jackson starts reprising the theme, Monk spends several bars plunking out harsh isolated notes in counterpoint before finally joining Jackson on the melody. The track ends with one last whole-tone flurry from Monk. Throw in the crude 78 Era sound quality, and the whole thing has a kind of primitive mystique to it, teetering more and more on the edge of crazy as it goes on—kind of a metaphor for Monk’s own life and mental health struggles. Have a listen, and (re)acquaint yourself with this unorthodox American musical genius.

Mutable Depths: Remembering Matt Shoemaker

by Michael Schell

Second Inversion bids a reluctant farewell to Matt Shoemaker (1974–2017), an admired member of Seattle’s vibrant electronic music scene. A native of the Pacific Northwest whose sensibilities were also formed by extended stays in the Bay Area and Indonesia, Shoemaker plied his craft here for many years, performing with Gamelan Pacifica, presenting “electroacoustic soundscapes” using a laptop and amplified objects, and releasing several solo albums in various formats. His most characteristic music falls under the dark ambient genre: extended pieces built from natural and synthetic sounds woven into a complex and slowly-changing timbral environment.

 

Mutable Depths, available from Bandcamp or as an EP from Ferns Recordings, is my favorite Shoemaker concoction. It begins with the sounds of water and wind, joined by a diverse poltergeist of thumps and creaks. There’s an odd premonition to this combination, as though we’re watching the opening scene of a horror movie. At 3:45 the texture (plot?) thickens to include a continuous crackle that’s soon joined by a squeaky “melody” that seems to be narrating a saga in some sort of extraterrestrial pseudo-avian language. (Shoemaker, like Messiaen, liked to use musical lines that imitate bird calls, and he once spent several weeks in the Amazon recording the songs of tropical birds.)

At 6:00 we start to hear an irregular pounding sound, but it and the squeaky obbligato soon give way to a rich composite texture that’s so typical of dark ambient: static overall, but constantly changing and evolving at the micro level. Whatever strange world has been dialed up is now fully upon us. Feedback sounds begin to come in from various directions, and the crackling sound returns more animated than before. But what might have seemed ominous at first passes over us peacefully. After a while, the feedback drifts away, and by 19:00 most of the bottom has dropped out of the soundscape, leaving the crackle to dissipate alone into the distance.

I enjoy listening to this music at bedtime—beautiful, relaxing, with no distracting drumbeat or isolated loud sounds, it’s a thinking person’s modern lullaby. What sets it apart from most ambient and drone music is the skill and complexity of the sonic layering, and the sense that a narrative is unfolding that’s open-ended enough to accommodate the projections of our own imagination.

You can read more about Shoemaker in memoirs published by The Stranger and Tiny Mix Tapes. And in the deal of the century, one of his record labels, Helen Scarsdale Agency, is offering two of his CDs (Spots in the Sun and Erosion of the Analogous Eye) for only the cost of shipping. Take advantage of this while their stock lasts, and listen to his music with both regret for a career prematurely silenced and gratitude for its highlights that remain available for us to enjoy.


On Saturday, May 5, 2018 at 7pm, a memorial concert will be presented at the Good Shepherd Chapel. For more information, click here.

From April 13 through May 18, 2018, Jack Straw New Media Gallery will present Brain Goreng, an installation of paintings and audio by Shoemaker. For more information, click here.

Women in (New) Music: Remembering Ana-Maria Avram (1961–2017)

by Michael Schell

The new music community was stunned to hear of Ana-Maria Avram’s sudden passing on August 1. Born in Bucharest in 1961, she studied in both Romania and France, acquiring from the latter an admiration for spectralism, a way of composing that focuses on tone color as a primary musical parameter and places an emphasis on forms built from continuous processes rather than delineated sections. Throughout a prolific career she remained aligned with this philosophy, becoming one of her country’s best known living composers and a leader in what has become known as Romanian spectralism.

Together with her husband and collaborator Iancu Dumitrescu, Avram co-directed the Hyperion Ensemble, performing extensively in Romania, France, and the UK, and releasing dozens of recordings on the Edition Modern label. In the above video, you can see her conducting Hyperion in her piece Orbit of Eternal Grace (II). Scored for chamber orchestra, computer sounds and two “dueling” clarinet soloists (one on bass clarinet the other on basset horn), it shows the influence not only of spectralists like the Frenchman Grisey and Avram’s compatriot Rădulescu, but also sonorist composers like Xenakis, Ligeti and Penderecki.

Also evident is the influence of American free jazz, and indeed Avram’s most recognizable trait may be the way she dances along the border between formal, composed music and free improv. Her frequent collaborators included the veteran English improvisers Chris Cutler and Ian Hodgkinson (both alumni of the avant-rock band Henry Cow), and in the video Hodgkinson is the soloist to Avram’s right. Orbit of Eternal Grace reminds me of some of the ensemble works of Anthony Braxton, himself a musician readily at home in both improvised and composed music worlds.

Avram grew up under the Ceaușescu dictatorship, where embracing the musical avant-garde was itself a kind of tacet challenge to the prevailing authoritarianism. Her music always seems to convey a certain transgressive thrill—as though reveling in the liberty to work directly with the raw materials of sound, to play instruments the “wrong” way, to build a personal musical language without any hummable melodies or government-approved chord progressions.

But not all of her music is as aggressive as Orbit of Eternal Grace. Her Zodiaque (III) is slow and soothing, built from a synthesized drone on low E-flat and its natural harmonics. Peeking through the texture are various sharp gestures on two prepared pianos, often played directly on the strings. It sounds like Éliane Radigue jamming with George Crumb. In the video (which misidentifies the title) she is heard performing the piece with Dumitrescu.

Zodiaque reveals Avram as an accomplished electronic musician, and she could often be seen in performance conducting an ensemble while coaxing computer-generated sounds from her laptop. That’s on display in her Four Orphic Sketches for female voice, ensemble and live electronics. Its sound world, including the eschewal of a text in favor of nonsense syllables, is close to that of Ligeti’s Aventures. The video below includes some shots of the score, which uses graphic notation, reflecting Avram’s view of a musical text as “a base from which to fly away.”

All told, Avram wrote over 100 compositions, ranging from fixed media works and solo instrumental pieces to works for full orchestra. She also co-organized music festivals in Romania, and volunteered for several new music advocacy organizations. As if that weren’t enough, she was also a capable pianist, as evinced in her performance of some arrangements of Romanian folksongs collected by Bartók. There’s much more from her available on YouTube and SoundCloud.

It’s tough to lose someone as talented as Avram, especially at the premature age of 55. But we can at least be grateful that she left as much behind as she did—a testament to her passion for sound and her devotion to musical freedom.