Staff Picks: Friday Faves

Second Inversion hosts share a favorite selection from their weekly playlist. Tune in on Friday, October 6 to hear these pieces and plenty of other new and unusual music from all corners of the classical genre!

Michael Gordon: Timber (Cantaloupe Music)
Remixed by Ikue Mori

Michael Gordon could make music out of just about anything. His piece Timber, composed for six percussionists playing 2×4 planks of wood, is not just good—it’s so good  it spurred an entire album of remixes by 12 different electronic artists.

This particular remix by Ikue Mori slows down the texture and explores the space between the notes, with the music slowly oscillating up and down, side to side, from one headphone to the other and back again. With an echoing, almost ritualistic pulse, Mori’s version feels ghostlier than the original. It’s almost as though the wooden planks were cut from haunted trees—evoking a spookier interpretation of the title Timber. – Maggie Molloy

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


Julia Wolfe: Lick (Cantaloupe Music)
Bang on a Can All-Stars

This is an intense piece in many ways. It’s rhythmically difficult, aggressively pounding, and relentless throughout; it features no sound softer than a determined forte until possibly the very end. Generally I would abhor something like this, but the Bang on a Can All-Stars are able to give it a truly fascinating showcase: raucous and full of indomitable character.

It’s the first piece that Julia Wolfe wrote for the ensemble, hoping they would “go over the top” with the work’s “intense energy” born of the body-slamming rhythms of Motown, funk, and rock music of Julia’s childhood. I think it worked. – Geoffrey Larson

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


Florence Price: Dances in the Canebrakes (MSR Classics)
William Chapman Nyaho, piano

William Chapman Nyaho: Asa is the second of five volumes curated by Ghanaian-American composer and pianist William Chapman Nyaho. All five volumes feature a fascinating and impressive collection of music of Africa and the African diaspora.  This second volume is focused on dance music, and Nyaho certainly shines as he dances his hands across the keys of his piano with striking expertise.

In Florence Price’s Dances in the Canebrakes, Nyaho treats the listener to three movements that feel like a courtly cakewalk.  Price, I should note, was the first black woman in the US to be recognized as a symphonic composer and to have her work performed by a major American orchestra. Price was a pioneer and is perfectly at home in this anthology of musical unity. – Rachele Hales

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


Ballaké Sissoko & Vincent Ségal: “N’kapalema” (No Format Records)

I’m currently going through a months-long phase of discovering West African music, which started with Peter Gabriel’s collaborations with Youssou N’Dour and then led me through to Toumani Diabaté and Rokia Traoré. (Give them a listen!)

It looks like Ballaké Sissoko will carry the torch next. In “N’kapalema,” a collaboration with cellist Vincent Ségal for Sissoko’s album Musique de nuit, the composer plucks precise, intricate melodies on the kora while Ségal overlays the cello’s husky voice. For me, it evoked an image of a lot of families in their homes at dusk, all saying prayers before a candlelit dinner. – Brendan Howe

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 9pm hour today to hear this piece. Plus, catch the duo in Seattle when they perform as part of the Earshot Jazz Festival on Oct. 22.

ALBUM REVIEW: Possessed by Robert Black

by Maggie Molloy

Photo by Elliott Fredouelle.

Double bassist Robert Black likes to explore uncharted territory—both literally and musically. In his new solo album Possessed, he takes his bass into the great outdoors to perform an improvised duet with the Moab Desert.

A founding member of the Bang on a Can All-Stars, Black has made a career out of pushing the boundaries of the double bass. In his new album, he uses the instrument to merge the music of man and Mother Nature, performing amid the desert winds and quiet rustlings of Moab’s sprawling landscapes. The surround-sound album also features a DVD showcasing his intimate solo performances amid the stunning grandeur of the Utah desert.

“The idea for me is to go to these different unique acoustical environments with my bass and start to improvise, and make music with the cliffs, the rocks, the canyons, the culverts,” Black said. “And then it becomes less about me improvising but more about me finding a way with the bass to make the environment start to sing.”

The album begins at sunrise with the three-part “Dawn in Hunter Canyon.” The bass grumbles and echoes amid the cavernous canyons and delicately chirping birds, building in speed and intensity until it reaches an urgent fantasia. A percussive interlude turns the bass into a drum, with Black drawing a percussive groove from every corner of the instrument as insects buzz around him. It ends with Black’s bass singing back to the birds, a sweet and tender ballad echoing across the desert air.

Photo by Elliott Fredouelle.

The piece is followed by “Morning in Pritchard Culvert,” a restless bass solo ringing and reverberating against the culvert’s rounded walls. Black saws at his bass amid a cloud of rosin and sand, exploring the instrument’s full sonic rangefrom the lowest, earthiest vibrations to the airiest whispers right at the bridge. As the piece wears on the echo chamber becomes an instrument itself, mimicking the long, velvety melodies of Black’s double bass and volleying back his oscillating waves of sound.

Texture is paramount in “Noon in Day Canyon,” a four-part piece that cycles through bold pizzicato and marcato riffs, soft harmonies, and sparse melodic whispersall vibrating across the quiet hum of the desert.

That near-silence begins to grow in intensity for “Evening in Dragonfly Culvert,” a wild and stormy fantasia that pulls from the cavernous depths of the instrument. With restless energy his bass screams, skitters, grumbles, and growls like a werewolf at the moon, each stroke of his bow feverishly echoing across the empty culvert.

The day in the desert ends back where it began with the four-part “Night in Hunter Canyon.” It’s a new type of nocturne, with Black’s bass improvisations quiet and pensive in the night air, drawing midnight melodies from the gentle sparkle of the stars abovetrading motives with a chorus of frogs and crickets.

The DVD portion of the release simply makes visible all the canyons, cliffs, culverts, and crickets you hear throughout the recordings. Breathtaking shots of Black and his bass amid the morning moonlight, the echoing culverts, the towering orange canyons, and the blazing desert sun highlight the vivid colors and natural grandeur that inspired the improvisations.

“Bass, environment, and Iwe merge,” Black writes in his album notes. “My hands move, the bass sings, the landscape responds and directs the movements, controls the sound. The music comes…from I don’t know where. I close my eyes. I lose myself. I give in. I surrender. I am transported. I am…possessed.”

Staff Picks: Friday Faves

Second Inversion hosts share a favorite selection from their weekly playlist. Tune in on Friday, June 30 to hear these pieces and plenty of other new and unusual music from all corners of the classical genre!

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 12pm hour today to hear this piece.


Anthony Barfield: Soliloquy (Albany Records)
Joseph Alessi, trombone; Stentorian Consort Quartet

Here at Second Inversion, I hear new music every single day. But sometimes, no matter how far you’ve traveled, you need to go home. So…I picked trombone music this week.  Anthony Barfield’s Soliloquy is a delightful and thoughtful piece. There is a lightness here that belies the seriousness of this piece’s genesis. Beyond the composition, the quality of the performance on this recording is exceptional. In case you’re wondering what good trombone playing sound like, this is it. – Seth Tompkins

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


Augusta Read Thomas: “Incantation” (MSR Classics)
Stephanie Sant’Ambrogio, viola

In 1995, Augusta Read Thomas wrote three iterations of “Incantation” for solo strings—violin, viola, and cello—as a tribute to her friend Cathryn Tait. Tait, battling cancer at the time, premiered the piece a few weeks before her death—a piece which celebrates her generosity of spirit with grace, richness, and elegance.

Stephanie Sant’Ambrogio’s solo viola performance of “Incantation” speaks with a distinctly eloquent, present, and meditative atmosphere. She moves through the short, five-minute work’s loose ABA form and concludes on a major seventh, unresolved, as though ending with a question. – Brendan Howe

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


Bright Sheng: Silent Temple II (Telarc Records)
Ying Quartet

I’ve always been a big fan of the pizzicato obbligato movement, which, in limiting all performing instruments to one motion (the plucking of strings), immediately achieves a unique character. Bright Sheng creates mystery with his pizzicato in Silent Temple II, evoking droplets of water, the creaking and cracking of old wood planks, or the rustling and knocking of bamboo. Or is it the plucked Chinese zither instrument, the guzheng, that we hear? In any case, he succeeds at evoking the stunning environment of his inspiration for the work, an abandoned Buddhist temple he visited in the 1970s in northwest China. Left empty and unattended at the height of Mao’s Cultural Revolution and falling into disrepair, it retained its quiet grandeur. In the case of the pizzicato here, only the smallest gestures of the quartet are necessary to paint a vivid picture. 
– Geoffrey Larson

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

STAFF PICKS: Friday Faves

Second Inversion hosts share a favorite selection from their playlist. Tune in during the indicated hours below on Friday, January 6 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!

Sarah Kirkland Snider: Unremembered: VIII. The Witch (New Amsterdam)

unremembered_cover-300x300“The Witch” is the 8th vignette in a 13-piece song cycle titled Unremembered from fabulous composer Sarah Kirkland Snider. Aggressive strings and a militant orchestration set the scene for a spooky narrative that takes us into shadowy woods full of subtle horrors. Shara Nova’s growling vocals capture both the beauty and foreboding of this imagistic and vivid score. Snider’s “The Witch” is layered, grisly and intense from start to finish. Highly recommended for listeners of all ages, just maybe not before bedtime. – Rachele Hales

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


Aphex Twin: Mt. Saint Michel performed by Alarm Will Sound (Cantaloupe Music)

acoustica_300dpi_cmykStarting the new year swamped with work and already behind from the previous year is not ideal, but it is the situation many of us find ourselves in this January. Alarm Will Sound’s version of Aphex Twin’s Mt. Saint Michael is the perfect music for this situation. Perhaps embracing the chaos along with pursuit of self-care

is the way forward. – Seth Tompkins

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


Conlon Nancarrow (arr. Evan Ziporyn): Four Player Piano Studies performed by the Bang on a Can All-Stars (Cantaloupe Music)

55805527bd9c35da77388ee16ee84cb456d8fd53You could say the 20th century experimental composer and expatriate Conlon Nancarrow was a bit of an introvert. He lived most of his life in isolation, and for decades composed only for player pianos—working alone, by hand, to produce and perfect a massive library of swingin’ blues and boogie-woogie piano rolls, his famous 49 Studies for Player Piano among them.

Well, composer Evan Ziporyn decided to take a few of those piano roll etudes and put them into human hands—the hands of the Bang on a Can All-Stars. Ziporyn created a mixed ensemble arrangement that retains the visceral intensity and mechanical energy of Nancarrow’s original rolls, but reimagines them through the Technicolor timbral palette of Bang on a Can. It’s snazzy, jazzy, and full of color—proof that although player pianos have become largely obsolete, Nancarrow’s music is still very much alive. – Maggie Molloy

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


Lisa Bielawa: Synopsis No. 12 “What I Did Over Summer Vacation” Michael Norsworthy, clarinet (BMOP/Sound)

bmop1017sI have to confess that I was super biased to love this piece even before I heard it; as a clarinetist, I am a huge fan of the unaccompanied clarinet repertoire, and as a musician, I am huge fan of Lisa Bielawa. Incredible, bizarre, enigmatic works have been written for clarinet alone by composers like Igor Stravinsky, William Bolcom, and Shulamit Ran. As they require one single voice to command the listener’s attention, they are tremendously difficult to compose and perform. Luckily, the clarinet’s huge range provides ample opportunity to create a wide variety of colors and characters, and a bit of extended techniques can help as well. Bielawa’s work presents the performer with a number of different fragments and gives them free reign to decide the order in which they are played, and how many times they are used. The idea behind “What I Did Over Summer Vacation” and the other 14 Synopses (all with six-word titles) is tied to Hemingway’s six-word short story “For sale, baby shoes: never used.” Apparently, Bielawa’s musical fragments each represent a different vacation activity. BMOP’s clarinetist Michael Norsworthy does a lot of trilling and running around the register of the instrument – sounds like he had a busy summer vacation.

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 9pm hour today to hear this piece.

ALBUM REVIEW: A O R T A from Vicky Chow

by Seth Tompkins

Pianist Vicky Chow’s recent release A O R T A is above all else a triumph of curation. Chow’s performance, the editing, and the mixing are all laudable as well, but the real story of this album is the strength of the playlist and its presentation. A O R T A is a rare instance of an album in which the delivery of the audio itself contributes to the artistic goals of the project in a meaningful way.

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Even before the music begins, curatorial strength shapes the album. A O R T A is packaged with only minimal notes and there is no explanation of the project’s genesis nor discussion of the artists involved or their biographies. While this may initially appear to be a simple stylistic choice in favor of minimalist packaging, after listening it is apparent that this lack of detail is, in actual fact, a bold statement about how well the music on this release hangs together. The lack of notes seen on A O R T A would diminish other albums, but in this instance, the dearth of information makes this release stronger. It is a symbol of how well-designed the album is as a whole, letting the music and its curation stand on their own.

However, if you are curious, a more detailed explanation of the release is available here.

 

Musically, the supreme design of A O R T A takes the shape of remarkable continuity between the first three tracks. These tracks, which encompass Christopher Cerrone’s Hoyt-Schermerhorn, Jacob Coopers Clifton Gates, and the first movement of Jakub Ciupinski’s Morning Tale, all for piano and electronics, flow seamlessly from each into the next. That is not to say that these pieces are continuous or homogenous; upon closer listening these tracks each yield interesting features deserving of investigation and fascination.

These first three pieces make up the programmatic section of the release. All three, while they do have their own individual characters, are touching meditations on real-world human experiences ranging from the concrete to the notional.

The smoothness with which the initial three tracks flow from one to the next is a perfect aperitif for the rest of A O R T A. Only when the second movement of Morning Tale arrives does this CD begin to deliver sequential sounds juxtaposed in a manner that obviously marks the beginning of a new track. This slight shift marks a turning point in this release; this is the point after which more surprising and disparate sounds can be expected.

 

Those disparate sounds take the shape of Molly Joyce’s Rave, and Daniel Wohl’s Limbs and Bones, all three of which explore different facets of the interaction of live piano with electronic sound. While these heady tracks are distinctly different from the first three pieces, they somehow fit together into the larger arc of this album. This continuity of artistic trajectory is further evidence of expert curation. These pieces, in this order, tell a story that is in and of itself a work of art.

Finally, A O R T A ends with Vick(i/y), by Andy Akiho. While the preceding six pieces lean toward the atmospheric, Vick(i/y) has a completely different character that trends toward immediacy. This piece was written for Vicky Chow (as well as for Vicki Ray – hence the title) and is the only piece on this release that is NOT for piano and electronics. Vick(i/y) is for prepared piano. Additionally, while the preceding pieces on A O R T A tend to individually remain within one or two sound areas, Vick(i/y) is a veritable symphony within a prepared piano. The extended range of sounds, combined with Chow’s presumed heightened intimacy with this music (which was written with her in mind), result in a piece that acts an exclamation mark. Vick(i/y) is Chow’s indelible signature at the end of an already markedly individualistic album.

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Even though A O R T A cycles through an expansive of range sounds and expressive modes, this disc never loses sight of the instrument at its center. Every bit of this music is completely focused on the piano, with all sounds either produced by or strongly referring to the instrument. Also always in sight here are the composers who inspired much of this music. Pieces on this album explicitly reference John Adams and John Cage while slightly more covertly recalling the music of Steve Reich, Erik Satie, and Thom Yorke.

A O R T A is packed with smart, fully-conscious music that is quite aware of the giants upon whose shoulders it stands. This awareness of the past, combined with bold steps toward the future and omnipresent consummate curation, results in a well-balanced and highly interesting release that is at once calming, stimulating, and invigorating.

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VIDEO PREMIERE: Ken Thomson’s “Restless” featuring Ashley Bathgate and Karl Larson

On Friday, October 28 on Cantaloupe Music/Naxos releases Composer/Bang on a Can All-Star Ken Thomson’s new album, Restlessfeaturing cellist Ashley Bathgate and pianist Karl Larson performing two “vinyl-side-length pieces,” Restless for cello and piano and Me Vs  for solo piano.

We’re thrilled to premiere this video, by created Ken, Ashley, and Karl, giving you not only an earshot of the music, but great insight into the inspiration behind the music.

This primarily vinyl release harkens back to the classic approach of listening to art music, encouraging one “to sit down and listen to something for 20 minutes at a time,” explains Ken, though the album will also be available digitally.

We highly recommend throwing a listening party for this album which portrays Ken’s notorious difficulty (“It’s the kind of thing that pianists have looked at me and said, OMG you have to be kidding me!” – Ken on Me Vs.) and showcases “a major addition to the repertoire,” the unanimous comment they’ve received about Restless. Enjoy, and pre-order your copy today!

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ALBUM REVIEW: “Holographic” by Daniel Wohl

by Maggie Molloy

In the realm of contemporary classical, the line between acoustic and electronic is sometimes blurred. In the realm of L.A.-based composer Daniel Wohl, that line simply does not exist.

download photo by Nathan Lee Bush

Photo by Nathan Lee Bush

Wohl’s newest release, titled “Holographic,” bends the rules of light and sound altogether, creating a new dimension in art and music. Released on New Amsterdam Records, the album blends electronic elements with the musical talents of the Mivos Quartet, Mantra Percussion, the Bang on a Can All Stars, Iktus Percussion, Olga Bell (of Dirty Projectors), and Pulitzer Prize-winner Caroline Shaw (of Roomful of Teeth). Not a bad roster for an electro-classical experiment.

The album begins with “Replicate,” a dense two-movement tapestry of sound featuring Iktus Percussion and a whole lot of electronics. Pitched percussion figures circle above a two-note drone, creating a warm, tranquil sound world that slowly builds in density as the piece progresses. The first movement is liquid, like echoes rippling across an ocean of sound—but the second movement picks up the pace, transforming into a chaotic wind tunnel of machines clinking, glass breaking, foghorns blasting, and electronics oscillating.

Mivos Quartet and Mantra Percussion team up with Wohl to perform “Formless,” a five-minute musical soundscape which oscillates from ear to ear. The string players slither and slide through cyclical harmonies amidst a web of muted electronics and softly pulsing percussion, blurring the boundaries between acoustic and electric, man and machine.

The album’s title track is more kaleidoscopic in nature. Performed with the Bang on a Can All-Stars, the two part “Holographic” is a something of an aural illusion—it is filled with small clusters of musical material which distort and transform to create ever-changing colors, timbres, and musical textures. It’s no wonder the work was originally conceived as a multimedia piece (which, by the way, featured a synchronized visual component designed by artist Daniel Schwarz). And though the album doesn’t include any visuals, the piece is just as vivid without them.

In keeping with vibrant musical imagery, Wohl’s next piece on the album is perfectly titled “Pixelated.” Performed with Mantra Percussion, the piece sounds sort of like a cross between a winning slot machine and a bag full of brightly-colored bouncy balls flying off the walls. It is light, bright, colorful chaos, like spilling rainbow sprinkles all over the kitchen floor.

“Source” is slightly less frenzied, though every bit as striking. The wordless vocals of Olga Bell and Caroline Shaw flow in and out of focus in this eight-minute rumination on computer music and sampled sounds, as if ghosts in an eerie electronic landscape. 

The album climaxes with the hyperactive “Progression,” a maverick mashup of unusual sonorities and even more unusual rhythms. The frantic strings of Mivos Quartet intertwine with the frenetic percussion of Mantra to create this fast-paced and fretful sound world.

The album ends with Wohl’s atmospheric “Shapes,” co-written with the L.A.-based experimental music outfit Lucky Dragons. Mivos Quartet’s transparent strings mingle with humming electronics in this ethereal meditation, immersing the listener in warm waves of sound.

And in these liquid musical moments, it’s difficult to tell exactly where one instrument ends and another begins. The beauty of this album is that with each piece, Wohl artfully erases the line between acoustic and electronic, creating three-dimensional, holographic sound worlds which engulf the listener in their textures, timbres, shapes, sounds, and of course, their shimmering colors.

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