Second Inversion’s Top 10 Albums of 2018

Cheers to another year of new and experimental music on Second Inversion! Our hosts celebrate with a list of our Top 10 Favorite Albums of the Year. From a quiet ocean of percussion to the shimmering orchestras of Iceland and the bold harmonies of Beijing, our list celebrates musical innovation within and far beyond the classical genre.

Michael Gordon: The Unchanging Sea
Released Aug. 2018 on Cantaloupe Music

It’s easy to get lost in the haunting majesty of Michael Gordon’s The Unchanging Sea, the sheer force of its rolling waves echoing across the piano in the hands of Tomoko Mukaiyama with the Seattle Symphony. Gordon’s ocean of sound swells to overwhelming proportions, each wave cresting higher and higher, surging and submerging you in its growling depths. Though originally conceived with an accompanying film by Bill Morrison—a gritty collage assembled from deteriorating film reels and historic footage of Puget Sound—the piece’s sonic imagery is equally vivid on its own.

It’s paired on this album with Gordon’s shimmering Beijing Harmony, a work inspired by Echo Wall at the Temple of Heaven in Beijing, where sounds reverberate from one side of the structure to the other. In performance, the wind and brass players are spread out across the stage—and when you listen with headphones, the music echoes from left to right and back again, all around and through you. – Maggie Molloy


Ken Thomson: Sextet
Released Sept. 2018 on New Focus

Clarinetist, saxophonist, and composer Ken Thomson is known primarily for his work with the Bang on a Can All-Stars. But as it turns out, he’s been living a sort of musical double life as a jazz musician for, basically, ever, much like Ron Swanson as Duke Silver. Unlike Swanson, Thomson has decided to let his alter ego run free. I hear strains of Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue in Thomson’s Phantom Vibration Syndrome, Dave Brubeck’s Time Out in the time signatures, maybe even a little Charlie Parker when the improvisation builds to a frenzy. Thomson brings the complex compositional structures—the details of which I will not pretend to understand—of new music and improvisation together on this album in a way that can only be described as fun. – Dacia Clay


Nils Frahm: All Melody
Released Jan. 2018 on Erased Tapes

Nils Frahms’ latest solo album is striking in its simplicity—the compositions distilled down to their most potent melodies. The album features the composer himself on his usual keyboard collection of pianos, synthesizers, and pipe organs—but here expanded to feature an ethereal choir of vocalists along with subtle strings and percussion. The resulting tracks are an ambient mix of minimalism, mid-tempo dance grooves, and broad, synth-laden washes of sound. Though each song is expertly crafted in iridescent detail, the individual pieces also fit together into a larger whole, the album unified in its wistful harmonies and muted colors. Understated but immersive, it reminds us of the simple pleasure and the intimate perfection of a good melody. – Maggie Molloy


The Hands Free: Self-Titled Debut
Released May 2018 on New Amsterdam

Over the course of the past decade, the four composer-performers who make up the Hands Free have performed together in a variety of contexts. They found that what they loved doing the most was holding informal late-night jam sessions—which is what led to the quartet’s inception. Comprised of violin, accordion, bass, and guitar (plus the occasional banjo), the ensemble likes to perform unamplified, sit in a circle, and integrate a mix of genres ranging from folk music to jazz and improvisation. Their resulting debut album features a beautifully eclectic mix of sounds that depict an immense variety of places and emotions—all while maintaining the warmth and spontaneity of an impromptu jam session.  Gabriela Tedeschi


Anna Thorvaldsdottir: AEQUA
Released Nov. 2018 on Sono Luminus

Anna Thorvaldsdottir finds inspiration in nature—her music is its own ecosystem, the nuanced textures shared, traded, and transformed among individual instruments over the course of her works. The delicate balance of nature is at the heart of AEQUA, a collection of chamber works (plus one solo piano piece) performed by musicians of the International Contemporary Ensemble. Like the stunning natural landscapes of her native Iceland, Thorvaldsdottir’s compositions echo with the full subtleties of timbre, the music expanding and contracting, breathing and humming and vibrating like the earth. – Maggie Molloy


Éliane Radigue: Œuvres Électroniques
Released Dec. 2018 on INA GRM

This beautifully-produced 14-CD set documents Radigue’s career as the mother of dark ambient music. Laboring humbly and hermetically with an ARP 2500 synthesizer and some tape recorders, Radigue spent the 70s, 80s, and 90s perfecting her brand of dense, slow-changing drone music. The works from that time are often inspired by descriptions of states of consciousness in Tibetan Buddhism, bearing such titles as Death Trilogy or Elimination of Desires. They’re best confronted in darkness, without distractions, allowing the mind and ear to absorb their long timeframe (from 17 minutes to well over an hour) and complex sonorities. – Michael Schell


Third Coast Percussion: Paddle to the Sea
Released Feb. 2018 on Cedille Records

Paddle to the Sea was a book that was made into a movie that was made into a live show and album by Third Coast Percussion. In Holling C. Holling’s original 1941 children’s book, a First Nation boy in Ontario carves a wooden canoe and on its side, he writes “Please put me back in the water. I am Paddle-to-the-Sea.” He puts the boat into the Great Lakes where it begins its adventure, and the book follows it on its journey. (Spoiler alert: years later, the boat winds up in a newspaper story that ends up in the hands of the boat’s original creator, who is by then a grown man.) The film, which was released in 1969, added a focus on water pollution to the original story.

Third Coast Percussion composed a new score to perform live alongside the film, including existing works by Philip Glass and Jacob Druckman, plus traditional music from Zimbabwe. Third Coast broadens the focus of the story a little more, asking us to think about our relationship to water and waterways on a grander scale. Their addition to the story doesn’t moralize; it instead draws listeners’ attention to the fact that the water is us—we are Paddle to the Sea. – Dacia Clay


Nordic Affect: He(a)r
Released Oct. 2018 on Sono Luminus

“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 newest album. He(a)r is a collection of seven world premiere recordings penned by women composers and performed by women musicians. Wide-ranging sound worlds from Halla Steinunn 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. – Maggie Molloy


Invisible Anatomy: Dissections
Released March 2018 on New Amsterdam

Drawing inspiration from the experiments of Leonardo da Vinci, facial polygraphs, and more, Invisible Anatomy’s Dissections uses medical metaphors to explore the risks and joys of opening yourself up to others. The avant-rock ensemble combines the theatricality of performance art with the drama of jazz and classical music, creating haunting songs of danger, intimacy, and dissection.

Fay Wang’s vocals layer and weave into intricate composite melodies and eerie disonances, asking powerful questions about the ways humans interact. With its thought-provoking text and complex, dramatic texture, Dissections is an impressive, hauntingly beautiful debut. Gabriela Tedeschi


My Brightest Diamond: A Million and One
Released Nov. 2018 on Rhyme & Reason Records

Few artists inhabit both pop and classical worlds so freely and convincingly as Shara Nova, the operatically-trained singer and composer behind the art rock band My Brightest Diamond. A Million and One tilts further into electronic and pop worlds than her previous albums, her lustrous voice dancing above synth-laden backdrops and pulsing drumbeats. While the drama and dynamic range of the songs hint at her operatic background, the vulnerability of the lyrics and the sheer danceability of the tracks bring a pop music immediacy to her work. The resulting album is visceral, unconventional, and free—emblematic of the modern day dissolution of genre. – Maggie Molloy

ALBUM REVIEW: Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s ‘AEQUA’

by Gabriela Tedeschi

Photo by Saga Sigurdardottir.

Anna Thorvaldsdottir treats each of her works as an ecosystem. Musical materials—motifs, harmonies, textures—are passed from performer to performer through her pieces, constantly developing and transforming. Like different species in an ecosystem, these elements sometimes coexist peacefully and sometimes compete or clash.

In her new album AEQUA, Thorvaldsdottir works with performers from the renowned International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) to create a variety of musical ecosystems of different sizes, featuring both large and small chamber ensembles. The album captures the beautiful chaos of the natural world, the individual voices evolving and intertwining across each piece.

AEQUA’s small ensemble works—“Spectra,” “Sequences,” “Reflections,” and “Fields”—are characterized by the integration of slow, lyrical string melodies into dense, unwieldy sound worlds. As the materials are passed around the ecosystem of instruments, the melodies—calm and plaintive—rise to prominence in some moments and at others descend into the eerie whirl of sound created by sustained, clashing harmonies, percussive bursts, and darker permutations of the melody itself.

There is a constant ebb and flow throughout the chamber works as the performers crescendo, then decrescendo, join in energetically all at once to form an intricate texture, then fade away to leave only a gentle melody or quiet sustained tone. This consistent pattern of rising and falling intensity gives a cyclic quality to the pieces, as though the musical ecosystem is transforming across life cycles and seasons.

The circle effect is also used in Thorvaldsdottir’s large ensemble works, “Aequilibria” and “Illumine.” Running chromatic motifs create wild spirals of sound, the cyclic rise and fall unfolding rapidly and with greater intensity. There are moments of calm when the chaotic texture gives way to lyrical melodies and gentle sustained tones, but forceful percussion and chromatic outbursts quickly interrupt the peace.

The album’s only solo piece, “Scrape,” performed by ICE pianist Cory Smythe, manages to capture this complex interplay of different species in an ecosystem with just one instrument. While the piece is largely situated in the lower register of the piano with heavy, thudding rhythms and a rich, dark timbre, there are clear, piercing runs in the higher register that interrupt and play off of the low sounds. Moments of silence are incorporated, building anticipation for the looming rise in intensity and playing into the cyclical nature of AEQUA.

In its own way, each piece on the album feels as though you’re walking through the forest or staring into the depths of the ocean, observing the peaceful and violent ways creatures and plants coexist. The complex interplay of melodies, harmonies, and rhythms as they develop—both working together and clashing—creates a kind of beauty that, like the natural world, is at times unsettling and overwhelming, but endlessly captivating.

STAFF PICKS: Friday Faves

Second Inversion hosts share a favorite selection from their weekly playlist.  Tune in on Friday, February 16 to hear these pieces and plenty of other new and unusual music from all corners of the classical genre!

Anna Thorvaldsdottir: In the Light of Air (Sono Luminus)
ICE (International Contemporary Ensemble)

If I had to describe this piece in one word, it would be ice. Not only is it an icy, ethereal soundscape sculpted by an Icelandic composer, but it’s even performed by ICE (the International Contemporary Ensemble). Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s In the Light of Air is an iridescent sound world scored for viola, cello, harp, piano, percussion, and electronics. Infinitely varied in its timbres and textures, the piece evokes the translucent calm and quiet sparkle of an icy landscape, with gorgeous harp details, gentle piano echoes, and whispering melodies glittering above the rumbling earth below.
 Maggie Molloy

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


Florent Ghys: “An Open Cage” (Cantaloupe Music)
Bang on a Can All-Stars

If you don’t have five hours to listen to John Cage’s sprawling, narrated sound art piece Diary: How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse), Florent Ghys’s “An Open Cage” offers a compelling (and surprisingly catchy) four-minute summary. In Ghys’s version, a solo pizzicato bass line dances within the rhythms of Cage’s calm and serene narration, painting his deadpan delivery with a funky groove and a distinctly contemporary color. The unconventional duet expands as the piece grows in musical force, gradually adding more and more instruments until finally a small chorus of voices appears, echoing Cage’s words:

“The avant-garde is flexibility of mind and it follows like day the night from not falling prey to government and education. Without avant-garde, nothing would get invented.”
 – Maggie Molloy

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


John Adams: Lollapalooza (Nonesuch Records)
Hallé Orchestra; Kent Nagano, conductor

I first encountered this piece over 10 years ago in my college wind ensemble. Although this version is for orchestra, the band version is an excellent example of quality writing for winds. And beyond that, this piece is one of the best examples of onomatopoeic music anywhere; once you hear it, you can never un-hear it.  Loll-a-pa-loo-za!
– Seth Tompkins

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 4pm hour today to hear this piece.


Missy Mazzoli: “Tooth and Nail” (Bedroom Community)
Nadia Sirota, viola

Admittedly, I’m a little bit of a fangirl when it comes to Missy Mazzoli and Nadia Sirota, so I may be somewhat biased in my review of this piece. I love how much is going on in it—there are things going on near and far and in between. And Mazzoli brings the electronic textures I’ve heard in some of the music from her band Victoire into this. I hear echoes of Radiohead’s “Pyramid Song” in the chord progressions, and the same kind of desperation in the viola as I heard in Abigail Fischer’s voice in Mazzoli’s Song from the Uproar. This was my introduction to Sirota’s album Baroque, and I can’t wait to dig in to the rest of it! – Dacia Clay

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

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

ALBUM REVIEW: ‘More Field Recordings’ by the Bang on a Can All-Stars

by Maggie Molloy

Photo by Lisa Bauso.

Some composers can make music out of just about anything—and that’s precisely the idea behind the Bang on a Can All-Stars’ newest release.

A follow-up to their 2015 album Field Recordings, the recently released More Field Recordings features the same basic premise as the original: 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. This year’s release is a two-disc album featuring new works by 13 of today’s top composers: Caroline Shaw, Anna Thorvaldsdottir, Ben Frost, Nico Muhly, Richard Reed Parry, Glenn Kotche, Dan Deacon, Jace Clayton, Gabriella Smith, Paula Matthusen, Zhang Shouwang, Juan Felipe Waller, and René Lussier.

The album begins with a sonic quilt composed by Caroline Shaw. “Really Craft When You” is a chamber piece that stitches together vibrantly textured patches of chamber music with recorded interviews of quilters from North Carolina and Virginia in the 1970s. Its equal parts humorous and heartfelt, and it also serves as a beautiful metaphor for the rest of the album: a colorful patchwork of found sounds and sonic squares from over a dozen different composers.

It’s followed by the dawn chorus of Southern Chile, with Gabriella Smith’s “Panitao” weaving together field recordings of birdsongs from a small Chilean town with her own imaginary birdsongs chirped by the All-Stars. A very different type of song is at the heart of Jace Clayton’s piece “Lethe’s Children,” which explores the music of memory. He asked each of the All-Stars what the first song was that they memorized as young children—then he reimagined fragments from each in an expansive stream of sound named after the mythical river of forgetfulness.

Paula Matthusen’s “ontology of an echo” finds its music in the resonant frequencies of an Old Croton Aqueduct, while Glenn Kotche’s “Time Spirals” swirls together live music with field recordings ranging from parades and festivals to protests and dying electronic toys—all of which he collected while touring and traveling the world.

Zhang Shouwang’s “Courtyards in Central Beijing” entwines the All-Stars in a gentle musical blossom; the piece was composed in a courtyard house south of Gulou where Shouwang says “the feng shui is so strong that a flower seed can bloom in just three days.” And the first disc closes with and a transatlantic lullaby: Nico Muhly’s “Comfortable Cruising Altitude” weaves together audio from overnight airplane rides with the soothing accompaniment of the All-Stars to craft a softly shimmering serenade.

Disc two begins with quite a different type of flight: Ben Frost’s ominous and immersive “Negative Ghostrider II” is an electroacoustic translation of field recordings from an unmanned semi-autonomous drone aircraft. It’s followed by the quiet heartbeat of Richard Reed Parry’s “The Brief and Neverending Blur,” a nostalgic and nuanced chamber work based on a recording of a piano improvisation played at the speed of the composer’s own breath.

Photo by Peter Serling.

Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s “Fields” is similarly introspective, though more atmospheric in nature. Inspired by a twilight stroll among the lava fields of her native Iceland, the piece builds from the quiet music of her footsteps to gradually encompass the exquisite timbre and texture of the natural world around her.

Dan Deacon explores a more intergalactic soundscape in his dark-ambient drone “Sago An Ya Rev,” a transcription of a NASA Voyager recording that evolves slowly through dissonant harmonies and rumbling metallic noise. Juan Felipe Waller’s “Hybrid Ambiguities” is a bit sprightlier in nature, with the All-Stars bouncing along to the echoing flurries of a microtonal harp.

The final square of the patchwork quilt comes from René Lussier, his “Nocturnal” mirroring the humor and sincerity of the album’s opening track—but here embodied through the clever and vividly colored music he writes to accompany his sleeping sweetheart’s snores.

But whether playing along to quilting interviews or Chilean birdsongs, lava fields or snoring sleepers, the All-Stars bring personality, precision, and a pioneering creativity to every musical interpretation on the album. In the end, that’s what the series is really all about: hearing music amid the found sounds and field recordings and clamors of everyday life.

ALBUM REVIEW: Los Angeles Percussion Quartet’s Beyond

by Seth Tompkins

The Los Angeles Percussion Quartet’s Beyond places intimacy front and center.  The delicate sonic encounters that permeate these two discs (or just one if you’re listening to the Blu-Ray) are not classic fodder for percussion ensembles.  While there are a smattering of grooves and some loud moments, Beyond leans much more strongly toward the ethereal and the delicate.  This forward-thinking curation, paired with LAPQ’s sensitive and thoughtful musicianship, makes this release a delight.

Daníel Bjarnason’s “Qui Tollis” is a microcosm of the whole of Beyond, with beckoning atmospheric figures framing a collection of engaging grooves that are made all the more striking by their juxtaposition with the gentle outer material.  This atmospherics-to-groove ratio and pattern runs through many of the individual pieces on this release, but also throughout the entire album as a whole.

Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s “Aura,” like much of her music, explores the boundaries of perception.  A collection of diverse and austere timbres unfolds throughout this piece as it plays with the edge of silence.  A deeply meditative piece, “Aura” benefits, as do many other pieces on this album, from listening in headphones or on a good surround-sound system.  Fancifully, “Aura” could be the musical version of experiencing an unfamiliar landscape: a place that, while neither particularly hostile nor favorable toward you, is captivating in its natural strangeness.

Christopher Cerrone’s transformational “Memory Palace” was the only piece on this release that was not new to my ears; Second Inversion recently released a video of Ian David Rosenbaum performing the entire work.  However, it was very interesting to experience the piece in an audio-only version.  In the video, the visual depiction of the enormous variety of instruments and performance techniques was a delight, but the audio-only performance on this recording offers a sense of intimacy and mystery that the video does not.  Ultimately, both performances are certainly worth a listen: they provide different ways of experiencing a tremendous piece that seems to have already staked out a lasting place in the percussion repertoire.

“Fear-Release” by Ellen Reid is an exercise in well-defined color palettes.  Most instruments used in this piece are metallic, although there are integral parts for marimba and bass drum.  This is perhaps a more traditional soundscape than some of the other pieces on Beyond, but it certainly matches the others in terms of its sophistication.  All five pieces on this release follow internal guiding principles—”Fear-Release” just happens to use a more traditional instrumentation within that same laudable compositional ethic.

Beyond closes with “I Hold the Lion’s Paw” by Andrew McIntosh.  This piece occupies nine tracks and comes packaged by itself in a separate disc (in the CD version).  This is a slightly puzzling setup until you take into account the listening note that accompanies this piece, which  recommends that this piece is best taken in its entirety.  This instruction makes sense, given “Lion’s Paw”‘s tendency towards percussive recitative. This is a slower burn than the other pieces on Beyond, but it is perhaps the most dramatic work on the album.

At many points during Beyond, it is easy to forget that you are listening to a percussion ensemble.  These moments, when the music itself becomes the primary focus, beyond any considerations of the instrumentation, performers, or extra-musical context, are rare—and the ability to deliver them is a triumph for any ensemble.  The fact that Beyond presents so many opportunities in which to become lost in the music is a credit to the curation of the quartet.  The construction of this collection deserves as much praise as the intelligent performances and thoughtful compositions contained therein.

ALBUM REVIEW: Recurrence by Iceland Symphony Orchestra with Daníel Bjarnason

by Maggie Molloy

Iceland is the most sparsely populated country in all of Europe—with a population just half the size of Seattle’s—and yet somehow, it has cultivated one of the biggest, boldest, and most iconic new music scenes of the 21st century.

Exhibit A: the Iceland Symphony Orchestra’s newest album.

Recurrence is a collection of five utterly ethereal works written by a handful of emerging and established Icelandic artists: Anna Thorvaldsdottir, Thurídur Jónsdóttir, Hlynur A. Vilmarsson, María Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir, and Daníel Bjarnason, who also serves as the orchestra’s conductor and Artist-in-Residence on the album.

It’s a lineup that is emblematic of Iceland’s radiant new music scene, known for its massive, slow-moving sound sculptures illuminated with delicate instrumental details. 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.

The album begins with Thurídur Jónsdóttir’s surging “Flow & Fusion,” a sparkling sound mass for orchestra and electronics—but here’s the twist: the electronics are all derived from recordings of the actual instruments of the orchestra, creating a kaleidoscopic aural effect that plays off the concert hall’s acoustics. The sonic seascape ebbs and flows across the entire orchestra, swelling in glorious waves of sound and evaporating back into near-silence.

It’s followed by Hlynur A. Vilmarsson’s sprawling “BD,” which gradually transforms from an amorphous blur of low-pitched vibrations into a rhythmic, tightly-constructed sound off of nearly every distinctive timbre and extended playing technique in the orchestra. Muliphonics, glissandos, prepared piano, vertical bowing, harmonic overtones, and nontraditional percussion instruments all make an appearance in this playfully orchestrated exploration of the symphonic outer limits.

An entire ocean of sound comes alive in María Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir’s “Aequora,” which takes its name from the Latin word for the calm surface of the sea. Sigfúsdóttir takes the image a step further, emulating the majestic beauty of the sea both under softly glistening sunlight but also under the exquisite lightning of an ominous storm: soft strings and whispering winds evoke the sustained surface of the sea amidst swelling percussion motives and brilliantly colored washes of deep brass.

The theatrical climax of the album comes with Daníel Bjarnason’s cinematic three-movement “Emergence,” an aurally arresting exploration of darkness and light. The piece traces the arc of existence from the vast expanse of total darkness to the life-giving warmth of breath, touch, and worldly textures—and all the way out into the luminous, incandescent light of outer space.

The album closes with Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s “Dreaming,” an icy and ethereal illumination of the beauty of utter stillness. Enormous sound masses sparkle with delicate orchestrational nuance in a sound world so stunning that it almost seems to halt time itself.

It’s a reminder, like so many of the works on this album, to be still, to listen—and to dream in shimmering detail.