Second Inversion’s Top 10 Albums of 2017

From Icelandic sound sculptures to pan-global jazz, found sounds and field recordings to sprawling, city-wide operas, 2017 was filled with some pretty incredible new music. As this year draws to a close, our Second Inversion hosts take a look back at our Top 10 Albums of 2017:

The Industry and wild Up: Hopscotch (The Industry Records)
Release Date: January 13, 2017

Hopscotch is by far the most inventive, labor-intensive, and meticulously designed work of the year. Live performances of the opera take place in 24 cars on three distinct routes, stopping at various locations-turned-performance spaces throughout Los Angeles. It involves everything from animated sequences exploring themes of identity and community to hearing star musicians perform in the car with you as you ride to your next unknown destination. The album recording is just as expansive, inviting the listener to experience the musical narrative in a non-chronological order, with multiple singers forming a composite of each character’s identity.

Intentionally disorienting, surprising, and overwhelming, artistic director Yuval Sharon and his team at the Industry have created an absolutely immersive experience—and audiences have been blown away. – Brendan Howe


yMusic and Son Lux: First (Communal Table Records)
Release Date: February 17, 2017

Something I hear frequently said about new classical music, from detractors and fans alike, is that it’s hard to listen to. First is a decidedly “new classical” album that does not fit into that framework at all. It’s—and I say this without irony—a freaking delight to listen to. It’s full of stories; for example, in the titular track, the instruments seem to be vying for first place until this looming bass note kicks in, threatening to take them all down. The titles themselves kickstart the imagination: “Trust in Clocks,” “Memory Wound,” and “I Woke Up in the Forest” are some of my favorites. Composer Ryan “Son Lux” Lott and producer Thomas Bartlett took yMusic’s edict to make a chamber music record structured like a rock album to heart and, with the addition of amazing performances by the group, turned it into art. – Dacia Clay


American Contemporary Music Ensemble: Thrive on Routine (Sono Luminus)
Release Date: February 24, 2017

Thrive on Routine was an interesting choice of title for ACME’s 2017 release. Timo Andres’ programmatic string quartet that follows the potato-tending and Bach-playing morning routine of Charles Ives thus becomes the album’s centerpiece, and by relation the rest of the selections are colored by the idea of beauty arising from the mundane. Minimalist textures in Caleb Burhans’ “Jahrzeit” and John Luther Adams’ “In a Treeless Place, Only Snow” provide a sense of calm and even pacing, while a deliberate, almost “learned” style extends from Andres’ title track to Caroline Shaw’s “in manus tuas” and “Gustave Le Gray” for solo cello. – Geoffrey Larson


Iceland Symphony Orchestra: Recurrence (Sono Luminus)
Release Date: April 7, 2017

The massive, slow-moving sound sculptures of Iceland shimmer and sparkle in Recurrence, an album of ethereal orchestral works by five emerging and established Icelandic artists. Daníel Bjarnason leads the Iceland Symphony Orchestra through a luminous program ranging from Thurídur Jónsdóttir’s kaleidoscopic “Flow & Fusion,” to María Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir’s oceanic “Aequora,” Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s icy and iridescent “Dreaming,” and more. Each piece on the album is a gorgeously abstracted soundscape in itself, showcasing the small Nordic island’s all but unparalleled explorations of texture, timbre, and immersive, atmospheric colors in music. – Maggie Molloy


PRISM Quartet with So Percussion and Partch: Color Theory (Naxos)
Release Date: April 14, 2017

Mixing colors takes on new meaning in Color Theory, an album blending the hues of four saxophones with an experimental percussion quartet and the microtonal musical instruments of Harry Partch. The PRISM Quartet teams up with So Percussion and the Partch ensemble to explore the full spectrum of color in music, from the deepest blues to the boldest reds, oranges, and yellows. Steven Mackey’s “Blue Notes & Other Clashes” mixes colors ranging from muted to magnificent through eight short movements culminating in a prismatic fantasy, while Ken Ueno’s “Future Lilacs” explores the shifting shades of the overtone series and Stratis Minakakis’s “Skiagrafies” paints a sonic canvas with color-changing harmonies. – Maggie Molloy


Amir ElSaffar: Not Two (New Amsterdam Records)
Release Date: June 16, 2017

In a year choked with disunity in nearly every part of our lives, trumpeter Amir ElSaffar’s jazzy pan-global album Not Two offers a welcome musical melting of borders. ElSaffar draws inspiration from different cultures and their instruments, primarily Western Asia and America, and declares that they “do not exist as separate entities ‘belonging’ to any people or place.” His humanism coupled with the skill of his collaborators results in an album that pulses with mystical jazz spells, thrills with august horns, and reminds us that music is egalitarian. Knowing that Not Two was recorded in one marathon 16-hour session is just the cherry on top of ElSaffar’s accomplishment.
Rachele Hales


Los Angeles Percussion Quartet: Beyond (Sono Luminus)
Release Date: June 16, 2017

LAPQ’s Beyond pushes the boundaries of what a percussion ensemble can do, with a healthy dose of ambient-leaning music combined with a smaller measure of perhaps slightly more familiar groove-based music that might seem more typical of percussion repertoire. With works by heavy-hitting composers Daníel Bjarnason, Christopher Cerrone, Anna Thorvalsdottir, Ellen Reid, and Andrew McIntosh paired with thoughtful and delicate execution, Beyond is a tour-de-force that stands at the leading edge of music for percussion. – Seth Tompkins


Third Coast Percussion: Book of Keyboards (New Focus Recordings)
Release Date: August 4, 2017

If classical music is a volcanic island, percussion ensembles are the lava and magma that makes the new land. They’re always on the edge, pushing out, making new sounds with new instruments. And that’s exactly what Third Coast Percussion is doing on Book of Keyboards. They’ve recorded two works by modernist composer Philippe Manoury—sometimes sounding like an elaborate wooden wind chime orchestra, and at other times leaving long, worshipful tensions between notes.

Some of the instruments used on this album are familiar enough—like marimbas and vibraphones—but I’m gonna bet you’ve never heard the sixxen, because they were invented by a guy named Iannis Xenakis (also an avant-garde composer) and homemade by Third Coast. I wonder if performing on instruments that you’ve made by hand is as exciting/terrifying as flying a kit plane that you’ve built in your garage? Third Coast never lets on, moving through these two works, “Le Livre des Clavier,” and “Metal,” like seasoned pilots flying in formation. – Dacia Clay


Qasim Naqvi: FILM (Published by Erased Tapes)
Release Date: September 29, 2017

Perhaps best known as the drummer from the group of acoustic virtuosos Dawn of Midi, Qasim Naqvi also plays other instruments and composes both art music and music for television and film. The album FILM, as you might guess, falls into the latter category. Released in September of 2017, FILM contains music written for the film Tripoli Cancelled and the video installation Two Meetings and a Funeral, both by Naeem Mohaiemen. This release, like other projects by Naqvi, celebrates the legacy of Moog synthesizers. The atmospheric sounds on this album were inspired by disused architecture, and sometimes recall the music of John Carpenter. – Seth Tompkins


Bang on a Can All-Stars: More Field Recordings (Cantaloupe Music)
Release Date: October 27, 2017

Some composers can make music out of just about anything—and that’s precisely the idea behind the Bang on a Can All-Stars’ More Field Recordings. A star-studded cast of composers are each asked to find a recording of something that already exists (a voice, a sound, a faded scrap of melody) and then write a new piece around it.

A follow-up to their original 2015 release Field Recordings, this year’s rendition is a colorful patchwork of found sounds and sonic squares from the likes of Caroline Shaw, Ben Frost, Nico Muhly, Richard Reed Parry, and Glenn Kotche (to name just a few), with the All-Stars playing along to field recordings ranging from quilting interviews to Chilean birdsongs, lava fields, and snoring sleepers.
Maggie Molloy

Classical Christmas Carols for the 21st Century

by Maggie Molloy

After years of the same old Christmas carols every December, the holiday hymns start to run together. But whether you’re the world’s biggest Santa-fan or a grouchy Ebenezer Scrooge, there’s still a little sparkle of holiday magic to be found in every classical Christmas tune—buried though it may be beneath the corny sing-alongs and ugly sweaters of the winter season.

This year, we’re highlighting composers who break out from the cookie cutter Christmas carols and reimagine holiday classics for 21st century audiences. From time-stretched hymnal melodies to bluegrass banjo solos and synthy washes of sound, today’s composers are getting creative with their Yuletide carols.

Here are our top picks for contemporary Christmas albums that will add some holiday spice to your winter soundtrack:

Jherek Bischoff: Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire Walk with Me (Self-Produced)

Jherek Bischoff’s new EP reimagines your favorite Christmas carols as timeless trios for electric bass, sleigh bells, and synthesizers. Composed in the style of Angelo Badalamenti’s moody Twin Peaks score, Bischoff offers eerie renditions of holiday classics old and new, ranging from John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s “Happy Xmas (War is Over)” to Charlie Brown’s “Christmas Time is Here” and even a synth-laden “Silent Night.”


Imagine Christmas (Sono Luminus)

They’re classic Christmas carols like you’ve never heard them before: reimagined and rearranged by the likes of the American Contemporary Music Ensemble, the Jasper String Quartet, the Skylark Vocal Ensemble, Cuarteto Latinamericano, and more. The result is a kaleidoscope of musical styles ranging from lute lullabies to Latin percussion, twinkling piano solos to swinging strings and ambient drones.


Phil Kline: Unsilent Night (Cantaloupe Music)

Phil Kline’s contemporary twist on Christmas caroling captures the sparkle and whimsy of the holidays without any of the corny sing-alongs. Unsilent Night blends shimmering bells, time-stretched hymnal melodies, holiday nostalgia, and ambient noise into an ethereal electroacoustic soundscape. Though originally composed as an aleatoric sound sculpture for outdoor performance, you can listen to the  album from the comfort of indoors.


DePue Brothers Band: When It’s Christmas Time (Beat The Drum Entertainment)

Christmas caroling meets bluegrass jam session in this “grassical” family album featuring a twangy twist on holiday classics. The DePue brothers dance through their own festive arrangements of Christmas hits brimming with sweet strings, infectious grooves, and a whole lot of banjo.

STAFF PICKS: Friday Faves

Second Inversion hosts share a favorite selection from their weekly playlist. Tune in on Friday, May 26 to hear these pieces and plenty of other new and unusual music from all corners of the classical genre!

David Lang: the national anthems III. fame and glory (Cantaloupe Music)
Calder Quartet and Los Angeles Master Chorale

A survey of national anthems from nations all over the world confronted composer David Lang with a startling reality: the texts of these songs are generally quite violent. It seems that in the course of expressing national pride through song, we tend to reflect on the bloody struggle of war that gave us the freedoms we now enjoy.

Lang put together a sort of “meta-anthem” text from the anthems of a few nations, and observed that “hiding in every national anthem is the recognition that we are insecure about our freedoms, that freedom is fragile, and delicate, and easy to lose.” His music for string quartet and chorus, titled the national anthems in purposeful lower-case, exudes this unsettled feeling of insecurity.

“Fame and glory” has a lot of counterpoint and imitation, seemingly creating a dialogue within the chorus that is mindful of the past and its relationship with the present. It’s not overtly political music, but it is incredibly sensitive, contemplative, and hopeful. Lang has successfully achieved a sort of extra-mindfulness in his setting of this pieced-together text, a fascinating reflection on and transformation of the one-sided militarism of national anthems. – Geoffrey Larson

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 11am hour today to hear this piece.


Toru Takemitsu: Toward the Sea
Michael Partington, guitar and Paul Taub, alto flute

Celebrated Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu breathes a meditative second life into the tale of Moby Dick with his three-section work, Toward the Sea. In the final section, entitled “Cape Cod,” Michael Partington’s guitar gently chops and forms the New England seascape while Paul Taub’s airy alto flute responds as Captain Ahab’s ship, the Pequod.

It is a beautifully haunting meditation paired with images of Cape Cod inspired by Melville’s novel. With these pieces, Takemitsu emphasizes the spiritual dimension of the book, quoting the passage, “meditation and water are wedded together.” He also said that “the music is an homage to the sea which creates all things, and a sketch for the sea of tonality.”

The composer wrote no bar lines and took a Cagian, aleatory approach to the work, in which performers are given more interpretive license. The flute’s primary melodic line derives from the spelling of “sea” in German musical notation – E♭-E-A – a motif which later became a favorite of Takemitsu’s. – Brendan Howe

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


Carolina Eyck: “Metsa Happa (Jumping River)” (Butterscotch Records)
Carolina Eyck and ACME

If you thought the theremin was only for corny sci-fi film soundtracks and intergalactic sound effects, think again. Carolina Eyck, one of the world’s foremost theremin virtuosi, has spent the past decade exploring and expanding the musical possibilities of this eerie electronic instrument.

Her album Fantasias for Theremin and String Quartet, recorded with members of ACME, takes the instrument out of the galaxies and into the woods of Northern Germany, with each piece inspired by her childhood memories of growing up there.

In keeping with the whimsical, free-spirited explorations of childhood, Eyck composed her Fantasias in full takes with zero editing. In “Metsa Happa (Jumping River),” theremin melodies playfully hop in and out of a rolling river of strings, soaring high above the waves and diving deep beneath their iridescent surface. – Maggie Molloy

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 3pm hour today to hear this piece.


Stevie Wonder: “Superstition” (arr. Kathy Halvorson)
Threeds Oboe Trio

Turns out you can replace a synthesizer and a clavinet with a few reed instruments and you still have a song that’s funky as hell. Threeds Oboe Trio’s cover of Stevie Wonder’s classic “Superstition” shows off impressive technical ability and a rebellious sense of humor. “Superstition” has a driving bassline provided by clarinet and, since it swings just as hard as the original, it will have you smiling and grooving and bebopping before the oboes even kick in. – Rachele Hales

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 7pm hour today to hear this piece.

STAFF PICKS: Friday Faves

Second Inversion hosts share a favorite selection from their playlist. Tune in on Friday, February 17 to hear these pieces and lots of other great new and unusual music from all corners of the classical genre!

Daníel Bjarnason and Ben Frost: SÓLARIS with Sinfonietta Cracovia (Bedroom Community)

Iceland is the most sparsely populated country in all of Europe—yet somehow, it has one of the biggest, boldest, and most iconic new music scenes. Daníel Bjarnason and Ben Frost are just two Iceland-based composers in a long laundry list of artists shaped by the arid winds and ocean currents of this breathtaking northern island.

The duo’s ambient and ethereal symphonic suite SÓLARIS is a sparkling addition to Iceland’s massive library of new and innovative sound art. Composed for orchestra with live programming and performed with Sinfonietta Cracovia, the elusive melodies and expansive soundscapes ebb and flow across icy strings and haunting distortion.

Inspired by Stanisław Lem’s 1961 sci-fi novel of the same name, the quiet and consuming suite explores the utter vastness of outer space, the paralyzing fear of the unknown, and—perhaps most importantly—the extraordinary beauty of being so very, very small. – Maggie Molloy


Timo Andres: Thrive on Routine; American Contemporary Music Ensemble (Sono Luminus Records)

I am not much of a morning person, so it’s hard for me to imagine Charles Ives’ supposed morning routine of waking up at 4 AM, digging in a potato patch, and playing through Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. Timo Andres, however, imagines doing just that in his string quartet Thrive on Routine, composed in 2010. It offers some interesting ideas in direct imitation of these activities, from an alarm-tone-like introduction to the pastoral drone of the potato patch and a somewhat jerky fugue. The sounds have a sunny quaintness, somewhat comforting, even – which is, I guess, one purpose of routine. – Geoffrey Larson


Olga Bell: Perm Krai (New Amsterdam Records)

I have selected a track from this album as my staff pick before… but I it’s so good that I have absolutely no regrets about choosing another one.  In the midst of an extremely busy time, I have been seeking out energetic music that helps me overcome the paralysis that often accompanies an increased workload. Olga Bell’s Perm Krai, and much of the album from which it comes, fits that prescription. – Seth Tompkins

STAFF PICKS: Friday Faves

Second Inversion hosts share a favorite selection from their playlist. Tune in during the indicated hours below on Friday, January 20 to hear these pieces. In the meantime, you’ll hear other great new and unusual music from all corners of the classical genre 24/7!

David P. Jones: Music for South Africa (Caballito Negro)

For many living in the United States, this past week has felt like a lit fuse. Today, protests & rallies will explode all over the country as marginalized groups and their allies rebuke violence, advocate for social justice, and work together from every corner of the nation to make a statement of unity. Seems like a good time for some “music of hope,” which is how David P. Jones describes Music for South Africa. In this piece, Jones took inspiration from the struggle against apartheid and drew from traditional South African music to create a percussion-heavy composition akin to the sounds of Johannesburg night-club jazz. Whether or not you participate in a mass movement, let Music for South Africa encourage thoughts of hope and expressions of your limitless potential. – Rachele Hales

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


Joseph Byrd: Prelude to “The Mystery Cheese Ball” American Contemporary Music Ensemble (New World)

ACME’s album exploring Joseph Byrd’s work in NYC from 1960-1963 has some interesting sounds, not least of which is the final track. This experimental work for balloon ensemble serves as the prelude to a chamber opera that was performed at Yoko Ono’s loft in the spring of 1961 (with Ono as one of the performers). There is no score, rather only a sort of oral history of the event to follow: each performer is instructed to allow air to escape their balloon, creating different pitches by stretching the neck in different ways. It results in an improvised crowd of squeaks and whines, and it goes for some time – maybe the balloons are pretty big in this recording. Some combine together to almost form a melody, but not quite. It’s a good bit nose-thumbing anti-music, with a hilariously abrupt ending as the last bit of air escapes. – Geoffrey Larson

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


Madeleine Cocolas: If Wisdom Fails (Futuresequence) 

A distillation of her “track-a-week-for-52-weeks” composition project, Cocolas’s album Cascadia was written after the composer relocated from Australia to Seattle.  Lately, my ever-deepening connections to the Seattle area have been an indispensable source of solace, and those feeling were brought back to the surface by If Wisdom Fails.  Seattle’s The Stranger newspaper called this album “cathartic;” I wholeheartedly agree. – Seth Tompkins

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 5pm hour today to hear this piece.


Matt Marks: The Little Death, Vol. 1 (New Amsterdam Records)

Matt Marks’ The Little Death, Vol. 1 is a classic tale of boy meets girl—except for instead of the familiar happily-ever-after ending, the boy and girl take a romantic ride through the world of Fundamentalist Evangelism, struggling to cope with their religion-prescribed repressed sexuality in the 21st century.

Performed by Marks and Mellissa Hughes, the post-Christian nihilist pop opera features 11 provocatively-titled chapters which detail the extraordinarily convoluted relationship between religion and sexuality using surprisingly modest means: Marks self-produced the album using only a couple microphones and a laptop running Ableton Live.

The ambitious two-character theatrical work draws on sampled material from Marks’ own collection of 1970s gospel, hip-hop, and soul albums, crafting surprisingly catchy tunes that fuse hypnotic pop hooks with satirical lyrics and apocalyptic Christian imagery. It’s definitely not your traditional church service—but it’s a surprisingly spiritual experience.
Maggie Molloy

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 7pm hour today to hear an excerpt from this recording.

STAFF PICKS: Friday Faves

Second Inversion hosts Rachele, Geoffrey, and Maggie S. each share a favorite selection from their Friday playlist! Tune in at the indicated times below to hear these pieces. In the meantime, you’ll hear other great new and unusual music from all corners of the classical genre 24/7!

1196413Rudolf Escher’s chamber work Le tombeau de Ravel is a fascinating piece, one that looks gazes into the past and future at the same time. Escher utilizes the same antique dance forms that were Ravel’s vehicle of tribute in his Le tombeau de Couperin, and adds two airs and an enchanting hymn to round out the work. The inspiration for the work was a visit by Escher to Ravel’s former home, and the complex emotions of this visit are most directly portrayed in the first and longest movement, Pavane. There’s something about standing in an empty house, especially one that was once occupied by a great composer; it feels deserted and empty, and yet the air is somehow impossibly thick with the memories of the groundbreaking events that transpired there. The use of harpsichord and small chamber ensemble adds a nod to Ravel’s love of early music and an additional sense of intimacy to the work. – Geoffrey Larson

Tune in to Second Inversion around 1:30pm to hear this recording.


Jefferson Friedman: Glacier (on New Amsterdam records)
a1389738764_10The album On In Love features 9 songs composed by Jefferson Friedman with lyrics and vocals by Craig Wedren accompanied by The American Contemporary Ensemble. I love this whole album because it pushes musical and textural extremes to their upper and lower limits, all the while fusing classical chamber music with singer-songerwritery pop. In the 9 minutes of “Glacier,” we embark on a slow journey beginning with a trance-like, ethereal, soulful ballad that slowly builds into a full-throttle, rock-n-roll  breakdown on the final word, “go.” – Maggie Stapleton

“…And if by chance
you still don’t know

It’s time for me to go”

Tune in to Second Inversion around 5:50pm to hear this recording.


David Balakrishnan: Alex in A Major (recorded live at SI HQ)

Turtle Island Quartet 04-18-15 Did someone give Earl Scruggs a violin? Nope! That’s the sound of the Turtle Island Quartet mastering the art of the hoe-down. This version was recorded live right here at Second Inversion HQ, but you can also find it on their Grammy-nominated album “Confetti Man.” – Rachele Hales

Tune in to Second Inversion around 8:30pm to hear this recording.

ALBUM REVIEW: Max Richter’s “From Sleep”

by Rachele Hales

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From Sleep is an offshoot of Richter’s durational album Sleep, which clocks in at 8 hours – about the amount of sleeping time scientists recommend for adults.  While Sleep is intended as “a personal lullaby for a frenetic world” and meant to be listened while one is counting sheep and through the duration of the sleep cycle, From Sleep is a more modest 60-minute ambient daydream.  It’s a warm blanket of hazy, cozy sound.  Richter calls it his “manifesto for a slower pace of existence.”  The two albums share a common landscape, but with a much shorter run-time From Sleep is less of a political statement.

The album contains seven selections that sound different enough to be their own pieces but flow seamlessly together, enough so that it’s difficult to tell when one piece has ended and the next begins.  Richter has composed a delicate musical cocoon with no sharp edges.   From Sleep opens with “Dream 3 (In the Midst of My Life).”  The gentle, pulsing piano feels like a lone boat bobbing up and down in a vast ocean.  The vaguely aqueous feel continues into the next selection, “Path 5 (Delta),” which offers up synthesized vocals from soprano Grace Davidson that sound like they could have been recorded underwater.  As the song goes on her voice even begins to sound less human and more like a beautiful, sorrowful, looping whale song.

“Space 11 (Invisible Pages Over)” is a simple drone that serves as a bridge to “Dream 13 (Minus Even),” where we are again treated to Richter’s tranquil piano.  This time the piano is less pulsing and more like a lullaby with the cello taking its time to join in like a tranquil foghorn.  The fog begins to lift at about the halfway mark and you can almost feel the warm sun dappling the aural scenery.

The looping structure of the album mirrors the looping within the songs as we move from “Dream 13 (Minus Even)” to another bridging drone (“Space 21 (Petrichor)”), to more slow, precious, circular piano in “Path 19 (Yet Frailest)”, and finally return in “Dream 8 (Late & Soon)” to silky strings, moody organ, and Davidson’s lamenting vocals floating in and out like a zephyr.

Given its graceful serenity, From Sleep could be used as ambient background music for students, a meditative companion for yogis, or the soundtrack to a relaxing evening walk.  And yes, you can also use it as a sleep aid.  Hit play on this dulcet album in any situation where the end goal is to relax, open up the mind, and disengage from the busy whirring of everyday life.