CONCERT BROADCAST: Gabriel Kahane with Northwest Sinfonietta

by Maggie Molloy

The immortal melodies of Mozart share the stage with the modern musical musings of Gabriel Kahane in tonight’s concert broadcast on Classical KING FM.

Tune in to KING FM online or at 98.1 tonight at 9pm to hear Northwest Sinfonietta perform Mozart’s ethereal Requiem in D Minor alongside Gabriel Kahane’s sprawling Crane Palimpsest, with the singer-songwriter himself center stage. Both performances are conducted by Eric Jacobsen.

Kahane’s eclectic musical language merges with the modernist poetry of Hart Crane in this grooving, musing, pop-meets-classical meditation on New York City.

In the composer’s own words:

Crane Palimpsest is a love letter to New York, in the form of a meditation on the Brooklyn Bridge, juxtaposing settings of stanzas from Hart Crane’s Proem: To Brooklyn Bridge with songs set to my own lyrics in response to Crane’s poem. I’ve literalized the idea of “the bridge” in the sense that two distinct musical vocabularies are in play and cross paths; the first being the more formal language heard in the introduction and first several stanzas of the Crane, the second being the vernacular or pop-based harmonic language in the songs with my own words.

As the piece reaches a kind of peripeteia around the line “O Harp and Altar”, it is as if the two languages, crudely speaking, meet on the bridge and are exchanged: the final song with my own lyrics begins in a dense and dissonant setting before giving way to the final stanzas of the Crane poem which are set in an unapologetically open harmonic atmosphere. 

Want a sneak preview? Check out our in-studio video of Gabriel Kahane performing his Los Angeles-inspired piece “Bradbury (304 Broadway)” with Brooklyn Rider:

 

ALBUM REVIEW: Gaslight by James Maloney

by Maggie Molloy

There’s a striking intimacy to solo piano music—a uniquely calm, quiet sense of introspection that only comes from sitting alone at the keyboard for hours on end.

Composer James Maloney takes you right up to the piano bench in his debut solo album Gaslight, out now on Moderna Records. Conceived as a reaction to the fast pace and noisy streets of city life, the album takes an introspective look inward to the music that emerges on the quietest of nights, alone at the keyboard and surrounded by glowing twilight.

Composed late at night on an old piano with microphones placed impossibly close to the hammers, the effect is that of being right there in the room on a rainy evening, surrounded not just by the quiet melodies but also the creaking wood and antique inner-workings of an old piano. The resulting album is a collection of ten ambient and introspective works for solo piano woven together with delicate details of trumpet, vibraphone, glockenspiel, and electronics.

Gaslight opens with a quiet wash of sound: “Seascape” is a short piano prelude that alternates layers of sparkling melodies with long stretches of serene silence, setting the scene for the minimamlist musings to come. “Blink” takes this image one step further, filling the silent spaces with softly circling piano melodies that flicker and flutter like fireflies above a solemn stepwise bass line.

The album’s title track illuminates more gradually, the melodies unfolding at such a slow pace that they almost seem to halt time itself, each note lingering in the air amid the crackling white noise of the surrounding room. The pace picks up only slightly for pieces like “Intertwine” and “Afterglow,” both fleeting piano nocturnes filled with melodies that sparkle sweetly, climbing ever-upward toward the stars above. The music drifts solemnly back to earth in “Lament,” its harmonies strung together through block chords that echo softly above a twinkling glockenspiel backdrop.

The instrumentation shifts for “Gambetta,” a shimmering metallic soundscape comprised almost entirely of glockenspiel and vibraphone melodies that swirl and twirl around long-breathed trumpet lines. Layers of electronic clicks and clatters are interwoven into delicate piano tremors for “Full Colour,” while “Rise Slowly” explores the soft dissonances and atmospheric silences that echo between pensive chords.

The album closes with “Angel Wings,” its sleepy and slowly meandering melodies drawing the midnight concert to a close, bidding the piano goodnight, and ascending into a beautiful dream.

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

by Michael Schell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seattle New Music Happy Hour: Tuesday, August 15 at 5:30pm

by Maggie Molloy

There’s nothing like a cold beer and a crowd of new music enthusiasts to keep you company while you wait out the rush hour traffic.

Join us Tuesday, August 15 at 5:30pm at Queen Anne Beerhall for our favorite after-work pick-me-up: New Music Happy Hour, co-hosted by Second Inversion and the Live Music Project. Bring a friend, make a friend, have a drink, and discover connections with fellow new music lovers from all over Seattle!

Click here to RSVP and invite your friends. Plus, sign up for alerts for future happy hour dates and day-before reminders so you’ll never miss a beer—er, beat.

ALBUM REVIEW: Danny Elfman’s Rabbit & Rogue

by Lauren Freman

If, like me, you thought that Danny Elfman’s Rabbit & Rogue looked like a fashionable reboot of a Bugs Bunny cartoon, you might be tempted to write off this score as self-indulgent and twee. But hear me out—

Rabbit & Rogue was the source material for a collection of short films that premiered at the LA Film Festival just last month. Produced by Indi.com, the Danny Elfman Project: Rabbit and Rogue was a contest inviting filmmakers to create a short film to set to the score, in the same vein as Disney’s Fantasia. Or Baby Driver. Submissions were judged by a star-studded panel, and the winning pieces screened for LAFF’s 36,000-some-odd festival attendees. The Limited Deluxe Edition was just released as an album this past June, brought to life by the Berlin Session Orchestra with conductor Joris Bartsch Buhle.

Rabbit & Rogue actually first premiered in 2008, as the six-movement score to a ballet, commissioned for the American Ballet Theater and choreographed by Twyla Tharp. The production was met with a few curmudgeonly responses (one New York Times critic named it “irksome” and “relentless”) which, okay, slow your roll. It’s a Danny Elfman score. Y’know, Danny Elfman? The guy who wrote the score for The Simpsons, and Batman Returns, and basically every Tim Burton movie ever? If you’re not here for whimsy, then get up out my face. But to be honest, I had a hard time imagining this as a ballet too. It’s just too cinematic (you can take the Danny Elfman outta the film score…), which is likely the motivation behind repurposing this piece for short films.

The “Intro” begins quietly with the percussion bubbling with a nervous heartbeat, which sets into motion the fidgety, pent-up kinesthetic energy that permeates the entire work. It opens gradually into a spacious—though no less fidgety—storybook landscape, letting the saxophone serve some serious Creation du Monde vibes before tumbling abruptly into the second movement, “Frolic.”

At points, the second movement could be mistaken for a Looney Tunes score (that xylophone tho). It evokes the sense that Rabbit is scampering through other symphonic works: there’s a reference to a theme from Rite of Spring’s third movement, a “Flight of the Bumblebee” nod in one piano solo section, and this perfectly cheeky moment about nine minutes in, where we are in full John Williamsy triumphant brass glory, then a pause—just long enough to raise an eyebrow—then BAM we’re doing a wild Charleston. It’s worth a listen just for the sonic scavenger hunt alone.

You know what they say: The way to a new music snob’s heart is through their gamelan. Admittedly, Rabbit & Rogue’s third movement, “Gamelan,” bears dubious resemblance to any traditional gamelan, but still it’s pretty magical. The beginning of this movement reprises the fluttery rabbit-heartbeat from the “Intro” (Are you trying to pass off the Berlin Session Orchestra’s xylophones as gamelan, Danny? Tell the truth…). The movement later leans hard into standard box office film score territory: sweeping, no-surprises-here anthems that remind you of the VHS tapes you watched and re-watched as a kid. If any one movement is dangling precariously close to preciousness, it’s this one. One might rebut, though, that, in a ballet about the adventures of a bunny, a little preciousness might be forgiven.

I won’t spoil the rest, but suffice it to say that Elfman continues this Macaulay Culkin-meets-Milhaud-meets-Mel-Blanc remix all the way through the Finale. Does this mean that Rabbit & Rogue essentially is, in fact, a fashionable reboot of a Bugs Bunny cartoon? Okay, yes. But who cares? The value in this piece is in its marriage of smartypants in-jokes and blockbuster soundtrack accessibility.

If, like me, you spend a fair amount of time wrestling for common ground with friends and family who “just don’t GET classical music,” this is precisely the kind of music that serves our cause. This kind of you-got-new-music-in-my-film-score/you-got-film-score-in-my-new-music mashup allows us to offer “If you liked that, you might enjoy this John Adams; this Charles Ives; this Conlon Nancarrow,” and before you know it, you and Uncle Craig are blasting Pierrot Lunaire from his truck like it’s no big deal.

As classical music people, our biggest image problem is in being perceived as too serious. Rabbit & Rogue helpfully reminds us to lighten up, lol at Elfman’s musical jokes, and for goodness’ sake, watch some cartoons.



Lauren Freman is a multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, and composer, hell-bent on blurring the boundaries between high and low art. Follow her at
www.freman.band, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

Thinking Outside the Voice Box: Stacey Mastrian on Contemporary Vocal Music

by Maggie Molloy

In order to be a contemporary classical vocalist, you’ve got to be prepared to do a lot more than just sing. Sometimes, you have to be able to act, speak, compose, or play the piano. Sometimes, you have to be able to interpret graphic scores, or trigger live electronics—and sometimes, when the situation calls for it, you have to be able to bark.

Those are just a few of the extramusical activities that are featured in Seattle-based soprano Stacey Mastrian’s Binary Solo+ performance this Wednesday, July 12 at the Royal Room, joined by pianist Josh Archibald-Seiffer. The program features rarely-performed works for voice with electronics and piano by two generations of American composers: the venerable Earle Brown, Morton Feldman, and Alvin Lucier, and the current generation—Mike Boyd, Stephen Lilly, Kristian Twombly, and Steve Wanna.

The pieces range from meditative and intimate to humorous and theatrical—but all are distinctly contemporary. Morton Feldman’s unpublished Lost Love for voice and piano is based on a poem by a Victorian realist, while Stephen Lilly’s Portrait in Song pokes fun at the clichés of the art song tradition, substituting lyrical melodies for a zoo of animal utterances.

The musical scores employed are similarly wide-ranging: the score for Steve Wanna’s Smriti forgoes traditional Western notation for a new musical language comprised entirely of dots and arrows. The score for Earle Brown’s “For Ann, 1 May ’94,” forgoes the concept of a “page” altogether—it is comprised of rectangular patterns scribbled on a bar coaster.

Mastrian’s performance is part of a double bill with pianist Jesse Myers, who will perform a program of works by iconic minimalist composers like Philip Glass and Steve Reich, as well as brand new 21st century works for acoustic piano and electronics by the likes of Missy Mazzoli and Christopher Cerrone. (Click here to learn more about that program.)

In anticipation of the concert, we sat down with Mastrian to talk about electronics, animal sounds, graphic scores, and the thinking outside the voice box:

Second Inversion: As a singer, you specialize in 20th and 21st century vocal works. What inspires you most about new music? What draws you to new and unusual sounds?

Stacey Mastrian: With new music, I am frequently challenged to step outside of my comfort zone.  It demands or permits me to do things that I otherwise would never consider doing, forcing me to continue learning and driving creativity.

I love the chance to contribute to works that have never been done before, works that have not been done often, or works that have not been performed in a way that has done them justice.  I enjoy collaborating with composers to create something new, as well as learning from those who worked with the composers (in the case of those who are no longer with us).  From a musical standpoint, it is an opportunity to participate in shaping history and in linking with the recent past so that we do not lose those connections.  It also has tinges of the revolutionary, in the political-social-musical disruptions that many of the pieces imply or overtly convey—sometimes seriously and at other times with humor.  Sharing this repertoire with new audiences is particularly thrilling.

As far as “new and unusual” sounds, in some cases it is the exploration of the sounds themselves that fascinates me, or the different ways of conceiving of music, of hearing, or of space.  In other cases, the plurality of options helps express the piece in a way that traditional singing might not:  there are times when bel canto singing in the harmonic language of the Romantic period can express grief beautifully, but sometimes that is not enough—sometimes atonality or shouting or noise can be the only response—from the gut, in a raw, theatrical way.  This is not to say that I do not care about solid vocal technique, but there is less concern about only the beauty of sound and more about what the sound conveys.

SI: How does your Royal Room program differ from more standard classical vocal repertoire?

SM: With standard classical vocal recital rep, one typically stands near the piano and sings beautifully for an hour.  In this program I sing, speak, play the piano, trigger live electronics on the computer, compose with water sounds I recorded, make noises with objects ranging from vases to bowls to teapots to an airplane nose cone, vocalize with ridiculous animal and battle sounds, and mime.

SI: What are some of the unique challenges and rewards of performing music that uses graphic scores? What about music that uses electronics?

SM: With graphic scores, the challenge for me is “Where do I start?  I am not a composer!  Give me parameters!”  There is usually a framework with very specific rules, but the actual content is quite open.  The rewarding part of this work is that every time it teaches me to think outside of the box (haha).  It also is exciting to engage with a score that is so visually compelling and with a result that could be different each time.

With electronics the challenge is “WILL THEY WORK??”  There are so many variables between the hardware hookups and functionality and the software—sometimes the programs just crash, or due to randomness built into certain live electronics processes, they do not cooperate.  This is way more stressful than just singing.  The rewards of working with electronics, however, are many:  I love the way that they sound and the endless possibilities for combinations of options that are not possible otherwise.  The unexpectedness of live processing can be fun when it is not frustrating.  Also working with electronics means that I do not need an accompanist, which is useful for situations that require portability.

SI: What goes through your head when you’re looking at a graphic score for the first time? How do you make sense of it? Are there certain things you look for to orient yourself?

SM: My process looks something like this:

Look at it.  For a long time.  Decide it is impossible to perform because I will never have enough ideas. …or I have too many ideas and do not know where to start. Look at it again.  Think.  Jot down notes.  Repeat. Ask the composers (or performers who worked with them) a lot of questions. Be prepared for them to tell me to read the instructions again. Think some more. Throw away some ideas. Start over.

SI: What are you most looking forward to with this performance? What do you hope audience members gain from it?

SM: With this performance, I look forward to giving several world premieres of works by longtime friends and colleagues and performing some works I have wanted to do for a while, as well as a few entertaining favorites. Performing with pianist Josh Archibald-Seiffer is always a pleasure, and I am honored that Jesse invited me to be a part of his program.

I hope that the audience will enjoy a new sonic and theatrical world—one filled with humor and humanity as well as links with art, everyday items, meditation, poetry and prose, theater, and technology. Mostly I just hope that people will come.  It is difficult to take a chance on a composer or a performer you may not know; it might be terrible and you waste an evening—but it might be amazing! And you either have that opportunity to experience it, or you miss it.

Also—come hear me bark.


Stacey Mastrian and Jesse Myers perform this Wednesday, July 12 at 7:30pm at the Royal Room in Columbia City. For details and additional information, click here.

ALBUM REVIEW: John Cage’s Music for Speaking Percussionist by Bonnie Whiting

by Michael Schell

One of the more esoteric musical subgenres that emerged in the 1970s is the “talking instrumentalist” piece. Frederic Rzewski composed and performed many piano works where the performer recites a text while playing, and thanks to the contrabass virtuoso Bertram Turetzky, we now have a number of talking double bass pieces in the repertory. Even wind players have gotten into the act, including Seattle’s own Stuart Dempster, who in Robert Erickson’s General Speech recites General Douglas MacArthur’s retirement speech through a trombone.

Now we can add Bonnie Whiting to this distinguished list. Head of Percussion Studies at the University of Washington, she has made a specialty out of commissioning and performing speaking percussionist pieces. In her debut album from Mode Records, she turns her attention to John Cage (1912–1992), famous both for his witty creative writings and for his groundbreaking percussion compositions.

The centerpiece of the album is a 51-minute track titled—appropriately enough—51’15.657” for a Speaking Percussionist. It’s a personal showcase for Whiting, who has been performing it since 2010, including at Seattle’s 2016 John Cage Musicircus. Since Cage did not write any compositions that explicitly call for a talking percussionist, Whiting combines two chance-determined “time length” pieces from the 1950s that Cage suggested could be performed simultaneously.

Whiting performing 51’15.657” for a Speaking Percussionist at the John Cage Musicircus, Town Hall, Seattle, November 2016. Photo by Lee Goldman.

The first, 45’ for a Speaker, was built by Cage out of randomly selected excerpts from several of his contemporaneous lectures. These mostly come across as juxtaposed humorous vignettes, rather like his later Diary: How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse), which Second Inversion profiles here. The pacing of the words varies, so Whiting’s vocal delivery is sometimes rapid, sometimes sparse, and there are many long silences. Cage supplied a fixed script, which is published in his collection Silence.

By contrast, the score of the accompanying piece, 27’10.554” for a Percussionist, is open-ended, specifying only the timing of notes, their relative loudness, and whether their sound source should be wood, metal, drumhead, or “anything else.” It’s up to Whiting to assemble a suitable battery for the task, something that she does with aplomb, using both conventional and “junk” instruments. As with 45’ for a Speaker, the timing of the percussion music ranges from very active to very sparse, but since it’s always in free rhythm it’s mainly up to the text to convey a sense of tempo and beat.

Although Whiting’s playing occasionally drowns out her voice (this is by design!), her diction is clear, and the text is usually intelligible—even if owing to its chance selection it doesn’t always make normal sense. Whiting’s light and agile speaking voice offers a refreshing contrast to all the male voices that have traditionally dominated recordings of this kind of piece, and the feat of covering both vocal and instrumental roles at the same time is an impressive tour de force. Listening to it is like imagining Gertrude Stein deliver a lecture on modern music in a room occupied by a crazy robotic drum corps.

Excerpt from Whiting’s annotated score to 51’15.657” for a Speaking Percussionist.

The following track, Music for Two (By One), lasts a more modest 13 minutes and was similarly fashioned by Whiting from two different Cage pieces, one for voice and one for percussion. Both were written with indeterminate notation, and both come from his late collection Music for _____ (completed in 1987). Here the texts are bare letters and isolated syllables, so the emphasis is on tone color rather than meaning. Though the texture is relatively thin, as in 51’15.657” for a Speaking Percussionist, the result is more compact and integrated. In Whiting’s hands, it makes a nice entry point to this style of Cage piece.

A different side of Cage is revealed in The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs, a tiny classic for voice and piano from 1942. It was this work that launched Cage’s lengthy artistic engagement with Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. Clearly astonished by that unique monument of 20th century literature, Cage seems to have endeavored to stand back and let the text speak for itself as much as possible. After selecting a passage depicting a child’s lullaby, Cage wrote the voice part using just three pitches. For the piano part, Cage doesn’t even open the instrument, instead simply directing the performer to tap and rap on the closed cover and lid. He could hardly have intervened any less while still having set Joyce’s words to music!

Although The Wonderful Widow is fully written out in standard notation, Cage’s humble approach to his source material anticipates the even more ego-effacing attitude evinced in his later, chance-determined works. Whiting tackles the piece as another solo effort, doing both the singing and the piano tapping. The softness and simplicity of her interpretation gives it an unmistakably nurturing tone—a kind of release after the complex tracks preceding it.

Excerpts from Cage’s autograph of The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs.

Two more tracks wrap up the album: Cage’s A Flower (which is a kind of companion work to The Wonderful Widow) and a performance by Whiting’s frequent collaborator Allen Otte, where he plays Cage’s prepared piano piece Music for Marcel Duchamp while reciting a text and adding frame drum embellishments.

For an album with such a focused concept, John Cage: Music for Speaking Percussion offers an admirable range of musical experiences. Mode Records is making it available both in conventional audio formats and as a Blu-ray Disc, with the latter featuring a video interview with Whiting and Otte and HD footage of all the works in performance, thus conveying the theatricality that’s so impressive when you see them live. The release is Volume 52 (!) in Mode’s longstanding project to record Cage’s complete compositions, and it’s essential listening for enthusiasts of Cage or percussion music. Here’s hoping that there’s much more yet to come from both Bonnie Whiting and Mode Records.