In times of chaos and uncertainty, music can help us find solace, comfort, and clarity.
On this week’s episode of Second Inversion, we’re exploring quiet and introspective sounds from our own backyard and around the globe. From gong vibrations to moonlit meditations, we’ll hear music that invites us to slow down, center ourselves, and just listen deeply.
“I wish I could live in India and America at the same time,” says Reena Esmail, the daughter of Indian immigrants who has become one of the most respected young composers in the United States; “I wish they shared a border, and I could build a little home right in between them. I know I can’t do that in the physical world, but this is where I live every day in my music.”
Esmail’s compositions straddle two of the world’s most sophisticated musical traditions. On one side is the art music of Europe and its system of tonal harmony that developed over the last 400-plus years, and on the other, Hindustani classical music from North India, organized around collections of tones known as raags that go back many centuries further. Studies at the Juilliard School and the Yale School of Music grounded Esmail in the practices of the West’s classical music, including its precise system of notation that allows performers of any background to interpret unfamiliar nuances. As a Fulbright-Nehru Scholar, she was able to spend a year in India studying the classical music of her ancestors, absorbing the oral tradition built on complex patterns and pitches that often can’t be categorized within Western norms.
Writing a Piano Trio has fulfilled one of Esmail’s oldest ambitions as a musician. Growing up as a talented pianist, trios with violin and cello were her favorite form of chamber music, and she won a life-changing competition that resulted in her performing Mendelssohn’s Second Piano Trio with members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. She also counts Ravel’s Piano Trio as an all-time favorite work, noting, “So much of what I’ve learned about color and texture in my writing comes from Ravel.” After three years of work and a pile of sketches that is up to 300 pages and counting (with less that three weeks to go before the premiere), Esmail is still polishing off this substantial score that reckons with the rigorous tradition of the four-movement piano trio.
Authentic raags appear
in each movement of the trio, including the monsoon season raag known
as Megh that informs a chorale from the strings and other
gestures in the first movement. In a tempo marked “Ephemeral,” the smooth modal
phrases and long slurs highlight Esmail’s affinity with Ravel, who also looked
outside the Western canon to expand his shimmering soundscapes. Flutters,
slides and harmonics continue in the slow movement, creating a sense of
improvisatory freedom while the music slips in and out of time.
casting the quivering third movement as a scherzo, Esmail acknowledges her debt
to Mendelssohn (the king of those elfin, lighter-than-air diversions), but
moments of manic hilarity and sheer muscle recall a more subversive master of
the piano trio, Shostakovich. In the finale, a singing string melody supported
by “luminous” piano filigree surges to a droning climax marked “powerful,
broad, intense.” When the unhurried ending arrives with glimmering harmonics
and crystalline chords, this work completes an arc that places it squarely
within the storied lineage of the “classical” piano trio—while making it clear
just how irrelevant such boundaries truly are.
The string quartet is basically the pinnacle of chamber music. It’s an ensemble that just about every composer writes for at some point in their career. Two violins, one viola, one cello—and an entire world of possibilities.
Robert Schumann described the string quartet as a conversation among four people. Like any good conversation, a good string quartet is one where each voice contributes—where the players listen to one another, exchange ideas, and share a bit of their own personalities.
As we’ll hear on this Saturday’s episode of Second Inversion, the string quartet can also serve as a conversation between different musical cultures. This weekend, we’ll explore string quartets from four different corners of the globe. Tune in for music inspired by the mountains of Peru, the shamanic rituals of Mongolia, the musical modes of Azerbaijan, and the folk songs of Sweden.
Second Inversion and the Live Music Project create a monthly calendar featuring contemporary classical, cross-genre, and experimental performances in Seattle, the Eastside, Tacoma, and places in between!
If you’d like to be included on this list, please submit your event to the Live Music Project at least six weeks prior to the event and tag it with “new music.”
Wayward Music Series Concerts of contemporary composition, free improvisation, electroacoustic music, and sonic experiments. Coming up: acoustic portraits, immersive winds, sonic geometry, and “unofficial music.” Various days, 7:30/8pm, Good Shepherd Chapel | $5-$15
Emerald City Music: ‘In the Dark’ Get lost in the dark as Emerald City Music performs the spine-tingling music of Georg Friedrich Haas in total pitch-black darkness. The hour-long string quartet, titled “In iij Noct,” features the four musicians stationed in the four corners of the venue, surrounding the audience and immersing them in Haas’s haunting aleatoric score. Fri, 11/1, 8pm & 10:30pm, 415 Westlake | $45 Sat, 11/2, 7:30pm, Washington Center for the Performing Arts (Olympia) | $28-$43
Seattle Modern Orchestra: Norwegian Odyssé The mystic sounds of Norway come alive in this concert featuring five U.S. premieres by Norwegian composers, including Rebecka Sofia Ahvenniemi’s chilling The child who became invisible for soprano, percussion, and electronics and Knut Vaage’s epic Odyssé for sinfonietta. Sun, 11/3, 1:30pm, National Nordic Museum | $10-$30
Music of Remembrance: Passage While a political prisoner at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp in the 1940s, Aleksander Kulisiewicz dared to write poetry and music right under the noses of his Nazi captors. Hear composer Paul Schoenfield’s Pulitzer-nominated setting of Kulisiewicz’s biting poetry, plus world premieres by Ryuichi Sakamoto and Shinji Eshima. Sun, 11/3, 4pm, Nordstrom Recital Hall | $30-$55
Seattle Symphony: Kate Soper in Recital The line between live and pre-recorded sound begins to blur in Kate Soper’s immersive recital of original works for voice and electronics. Joined by sound artist Sam Pluta, Soper mines the expressive potential of the human voice. Sun, 11/3, 6pm, Octave 9 | $25
Gamelan Pacifica: Vocal Music of Central Java Drums, metallophones, and a wide array of tuned gongs are among the instruments you’ll see onstage during a traditional Javanese gamelan performance. Since 1980, Gamelan Pacifica has been performing traditional and contemporary gamelan music with dance, theater, and puppetry. For this performance, they’re joined by Javanese artists Ki Midiyanto and Heni Savitri. Sun, 11/3, 7pm, PONCHO Concert Hall | $5-$20
Seattle Symphony: Chick Corea Plays ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ Twenty-two-time Grammy-winning jazz pianist Chick Corea teams up with the Seattle Symphony for Gershwin’s iconic Rhapsody in Blue, plus a performance of his own original Piano Concerto No. 1. Wed, 11/6, 7:30pm, Benaroya Hall | $62-$82
Meany Center: Danish String Quartet Completed in the year before his death, Shostakovich’s final string quartet is an introspective meditation on mortality. The Danish String Quartet performs this moving work alongside music of Bach and Beethoven. Thurs, 11/7, 7:30pm, Meany Theater | $41-$49
Cappella Romana: Kastalsky Requiem As Europe descended into the chaos of World War I, Alexander Kastalsky began composing his haunting Requiem to commemorate the allied soldiers who had fallen. Epic in scale and scope, the work receives its Northwest premiere under the baton of guest conductor Steven Fox. Fri, 11/8, 7:30pm, St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church | $32-$52
Seattle Symphony: Angelique Poteat Cello Concerto Seattle-based clarinetist and composer Angelique Poteat turns her attention to the cello in a new concerto which receives its premiere by Efe Baltacıgil and the Seattle Symphony. 11/14-11/16, Various times, Benaroya Hall | $24-$134
Seattle Opera: The Falling & The Rising Interviews with active-duty soldiers and veterans formed the basis of this new chamber opera by composer Zach Redler and librettist Jerre Dye. Tracing a soldier’s journey through a battle explosion and a medically-induced coma, the opera seeks to shine a light on often untold stories of service and sacrifice. 11/15-11/24, Various times, Seattle Opera Center | $35-$45
Harry Partch Ensemble: Final UW Concerts Two chances remain to hear the inimitable handmade instruments of Harry Partch before the collection’s residency at UW concludes. On Thursday, director Charles Corey and his cast of local musicians perform Partch’s sprawling And On The Seventh Day Petals Fell In Petaluma, selections from his haunting Eleven Intrusions, and more. On Friday, the Partch Ensemble teams up with UW Percussion for another program of ear-expanding works. Thurs, 11/21, 7:30pm, Meany Hall Studio Theater | $10 Fri, 11/22, 7:30pm, Meany Studio Theatre | $10
Seattle Symphony: ‘The Rite of Spring’ It’s a piece that needs no introduction: Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring has been the stuff of classical music legend ever since its riot-inducing premiere in 1913. This earthshaking ballet about the pagan sacrifice of a virgin dancing herself to death is expertly paired with Scriabin’s The Poem of Ecstasy. Thurs, 11/21, 7:30pm, Benaroya Hall | $24-$134 Sat, 11/23, 8pm, Benaroya Hall | $24-$134
Gabriel Kahane: ‘Book of Travelers’ A train ride across the country provided ample time and inspiration for composer and multi-instrumentalist Gabriel Kahane to craft a musical diary of America. He performs selections from his Book of Travelers alongside wide-ranging songs from his other albums. Sat, 11/23, 8pm, Meany Theater | $31-$39
Paco Díez: Music from Northern Spain Born into a family of farm workers in the heart of Castille, singer and multi-instrumentalist Paco Díez grew up steeped in the folk music, traditions, and histories of his homeland. Widely considered one of the most important champions of Judeo-Spanish music today, Díez is joined by his students in a performance of Sephardic and Castilian folk music. Tues, 11/26, 7:30pm, UW Brechemin Auditorium | Free
The Bach Cello Suites are unavoidable: cellists from around the world grow up playing them, audiences revere them, and they keep finding their way into movies, TV shows, and pop culture. Even for cellists like new music superstar and Bang on A Can All-Star Ashley Bathgate, the Bach suites remain a staple of the repertoire, and after over 200 years they continue to inspire not just performers, but composers as well.
In fact, Bathgate recently commissioned the composers
of the New York-based collective Sleeping Giant to write a Bach-inspired six
movement suite for her newest album ASH, continuing the long-standing
tradition of bringing Bach’s influence into the present day.
Bathgate gave Sleeping Giant composers Timo Andres, Christopher Cerrone, Jacob Cooper, Ted Hearne, Robert Honstein, and Andrew Norman rather simple instructions: take any inspiration you find from Bach’s music and write one movement each to form a collaborative suite. With movements from some of today’s most innovative and stylistically diverse composers, these simple instructions have resulted in a bold and imaginative new work.
The album begins with a contribution from Andrew Norman titled “For Ashley”: a fast-paced, upbeat introduction inspired by the repetitive arpeggiation of the Fourth Suite Prelude. Repeated staccato patterns morph and transform to include rhythmic variation, chords, and harmonics, resulting in a piece that is always in motion. Christopher Cerrone’s “On Being Wrong” takes us in a totally different direction: reverb and pre-recorded cello merge together with Bathgate’s live performance to create a layered and resonant piece including both driving rhythms and meditative, open harmonic passages.
Described by the composer as a “madcap gigue,” Timo Andres’ “Small Wonder” continues the suite with some more chaotic energy. Small, eclectic musical cells build on each other, Baroque dance rhythms continually surfacing along with cheeky quotes from Bach’s gigues. The fourth piece in the suite, Jacob Cooper’s “Ley Line,” takes similarly direct inspiration: a moment from the end of the Fifth Suite Prelude featuring an open string drone is stretched out and reimagined to be over ten minutes long. Bathgate’s playing becomes frantic and raspy as the harmonies grow more and more dissonant over the drone, making for a continuous sense of tension that rises and falls throughout.
Perhaps the most unique moment on the album comes in the form of Ted Hearne’s “DaVZ23BzMHo,” whose title references a Youtube video the piece samples. Hearne manipulates music from a 90s-era commercial into a wash of reverb and atmosphere, placing Bathgate’s resonant chords and harmonics on top. The hazy and slowed down music seems to have a mind of its own, stopping and starting to leave Bathgate alone in meditative silence or sliding unpredictably in and out of tune. The cello vies for attention over the chaotic backdrop, playing increasingly dissonant harmonies until the two come together again and Bathgate is left droning off into silence.
Robert Honstein’s “Orison” takes things in an even more atmospheric direction. Inspired by the resonance of the cello in huge cathedral spaces, Honstein’s piece is built around reverb, with each successive note playing a duet of sorts with the continued ringing of the previous ones. “Orison” is a Middle English word for prayer, and if Hearne’s piece was tenuously meditative, Honstein’s is calm and reflective: single tones and chords ring out in regular succession, leaving plenty of space in between to end the suite with the equivalent of a contemplative Sarabande.
While ASH is something of a showcase for Sleeping Giant, it’s Bathgate’s vibrant energy as a performer that unites the album and amplifies the composers’ voices. From Norman’s sharp rhythms to Hearne’s slow-motion dreamscapes and Honstein’s reverb-soaked sense of calm, Bathgate showcases an ability to adapt to any stylistic challenge and bring her own voice to the mix.
On ASH, the composers of Sleeping Giant draw wildly different inspiration from Bach’s music and filter these inspirations through their own distinctive styles, which is a testament to the diversity and lasting impact of Bach’s music. While each piece grew out of Bach’s Cello Suites, the pieces that make up this collaboration present a wide range of musical ideas and techniques that continue to explore, much as Bach did, the possibilities of the cello as a solo instrument.