Women in (New) Music: Happy 75th Birthday, Meredith Monk!

by Maggie Molloy

Meredith Monk has secured a place in history as one of the most singular and significant voices of the 20th and 21st centuries. For nearly six decades, she has redefined and revolutionized contemporary vocal music and performance, seamlessly weaving in elements of theatre and dance to create visceral musical experiences that transcend the confines of the classical tradition.

Monk’s compositional range is as wide as her vocal one—but her inimitable creations are united in their merging of ancient and modern musical ideas. In her music, abstract vocalizations, primal rhythms, hypnotic dances, and ritualistic soundscapes come together in an intimate embrace of the human experience.

In honor of Monk’s 75th birthday today, we take a look back at three of our favorite Monk masterpieces:

Education of the Girlchild (1972):

Benjamin Button meets feminist deconstruction in this interdisciplinary (and unapologetically avant-garde) one-woman opera which traces the life of a woman in reverse from old age to childhood.


Turtle Dreams (1983):  

Sprawling vocal textures, hypnotic organ loops, and unconventional choreography are spliced together with black and white turtle footage in this surreal 30-minute film exploring themes of time and space.


On Behalf of Nature (2016):

Extended vocal techniques pirouette above a whimsical instrumental accompaniment in this wordless exploration of the space where humans coexist with the natural and spiritual world.

Seattle New Music Happy Hour: Tuesday, June 13 at 5:30pm

by Maggie Molloy

You like new music. We like new music. Let’s get together and talk about new music, drink a couple beers, and make some new friends along the way.

Join us TONIGHT, Tuesday, June 13 at 5:30pm at Queen Anne Beerhall for 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: Tower Music by Joseph Bertolozzi

by Maggie Molloy

Though it was originally constructed as an entrance to the 1889 World’s Fair, the Eiffel Tower quickly became a cultural icon. To this day, it is an architectural marvel, a historical monument, a work of art, and—a musical instrument? According to composer and organist Joseph Bertolozzi, yes. Yes it is.

THUNDER-ROLL-MALLETS-02-1024x873
photo credit: Blue Wings Press

Bertolozzi recently released Tower Music, a new album entirely composed and performed using only the sounds of the Eiffel Tower itself. That’s right: melodies, harmonies, foreground, background, contrast, color, counterpoint—and all using only the Eiffel Tower as an instrument. No effects, no amplification, and no electronic processing.

How did Bertolozzi do it? Well, first he raised $40,000 from private donors and convinced the Eiffel Tower administration that he was a legitimate musician. Lucky for him, Paris has a long history of investing in contemporary music—the city is actually home to Pierre Boulez’s Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique, a one-of-a-kind research institute devoted to the study of avant-garde music and sound exploration.

But back to the Eiffel Tower: Bertolozzi and his team recorded over 10,000 samples from the Tower’s various surfaces. They then catalogued the samples by tone and location, whittled the collection down to a mere 2,800 sound samples, and assembled them into a virtual instrument from which Bertolozzi’s vision could be turned into sound. Sound ambitious? It was.

But of course, Bertolozzi is no newbie to public sound-art installations. In 2007 he released an album titled Bridge Music, comprised entirely of sounds created from New York’s Mid-Hudson Bridge. The album quickly entered the Billboard Classical Crossover Music Chart—so for Bertolozzi, playing the Eiffel Tower was just the logical next step.

The album begins with “A Thousand Feet of Sound,” a five-minute overture exploring the Tower’s entire aural array—layering earthy, thumping basslines with the lightning-fast, tinny clinking of the Tower’s fences and panels. “The Harp That Pierced the Sky” employs quite a different sonic palette, enveloping the listener in an intimate sound world of sparse musical textures, metallic echoes, soft percussive melodies, and plenty of silence.

The next piece on the album draws not just from the Tower’s aural fabric, but also from its historical influence. At the 1889 World’s Fair, Indonesian musicians introduced the Javanese gamelan to Europe, profoundly influencing Western music (and in particular, Parisian composers like Debussy and Ravel). Bertolozzi’s “Continuum” pays tribute to this profound moment in music history, combining exotic gamelan motifs with contemporary post-minimalist gestures to meld the ancient music of Indonesia with the music of the modern age.

Bertolozzi’s “Prelude” and “Ironworks” weave together Afro-Carribbean musical influences with circling melodies and industrial-strength rhythmic cadences, while “The Elephant on the Tower” features a gentle, lilting waltz inspired by the oldest elephant in the world, who ascended to the first level of the Tower in 1948 with the Bouglione Circus.

But the album is not just about the history of the Tower, it’s also about the present and the future. “Glass Floor Rhythms” takes its inspiration from the varying rhythms and patterns of visitors to the Eiffel Tower’s glass floor, which was installed in just 2014, and “Evening Harmonies” takes an avant-garde, introspective look at Tower’s sounds themselves, unshackled by any of Western music’s melodic, harmonic, or rhythmic expectations.

The title track brings Bertolozzi’s magnum opus to a close with a (literal) bang, featuring a bold and bass-heavy eruption of industrial melodies and fearlessly dynamic, muscular rhythmic themes. And to top it all off, at the end of the album Bertolozzi includes an audio tour of the Tower to help you locate the different tones, timbres, and musical textures used throughout.

Because after all, everyone knows what the Eiffel Tower looks like—but for the first time in over a century, now we are able to hear it.

CONCERT PREVIEW: (re)MOVE: (re)TURN: Q&A with Karin Stevens

by Maggie Molloy

Throughout history, we have used the term “Mother Earth” to draw connections between the life-giving power of woman and the world, recognizing both as a source of life, love, and nourishment, both literally and figuratively.

And yet, throughout history we have also abused, neglected, and exploited both woman and the earth. We have inflicted countless physical, political, social, and symbolic injustices upon them, stripping them of their strength, power, and personal value again and again.

That is the premise behind Seattle-based dancer and choreographer Karin Stevens’ newest work, titled (re)MOVE: Back Toward Again the (re)TURN Facing. It is a 70-minute dance featuring music by three Seattle composers: Wayne Horvitz, Michael Owcharuk, and Nate Omdal. The work premieres this weekend with three performances at Velocity Dance Center on Capitol Hill.

All photos: Karen Mason Blair

Full of turbulent exchanges, (re)MOVE: (re)TURN pulls from thousands of years of scientific, philosophical, and spiritual writings on connections between women and the earth. Five female dancers from the Karin Stevens Dance company (KSD) weave patterns of separation and alliance, drawing connections between our bodies and the lands we inhabit.

We sat down with Stevens to talk about music, dance, women, and the rest of the world.

Second Inversion: How did (re)MOVE come about, and what was your inspiration for making contemporary composition such a prominent part of this project?

Karin Stevens Dance 2Karin Stevens: The choice to support live playing of the music with the dancing is more than a very cool experience for the viewer; it is a practice of listening, being open and in the now as a dancer, like no other time. And, there is nothing like the relationships that are built with the musicians and composers in these live music and dance projects.  

I can’t say that I was strategic in planning this evening-length dance weaved together with the three composers works, but that each part came at me and grabbed me to come into existence. I create my work through massive amounts of improvisation that I video tape. The movement guides me into form and meaning. The music by each composer came to me in different ways and spoke to me through kinetic images/ideas that emerged as I listened, about what this work was meant to be. It delight me that this work that came forward with such feminist and feminine voice reclamation is danced with the sounds by these three lovely male composers! 

SI: Can you tell me a bit more about the musical compositions in (re)MOVE?

KS: Composers Michael Owcharuk (thank you to 4 Culture for the grant for this new composition!) and Nate Omdal have written two gorgeous and unique works for KSD, that I have weaved together with a work by Wayne Horvitz to create re(MOVE). I am especially honored to work with Wayne Horvitz’s music. He is a hero to all of us. The music, These Hills of Glory (NEA American Masterpiece), is EVERYTHING I love about contemporary classical music: unique and imaginative compositional voice; disparate pairing of composed and improvised scoring (in this work); spaciousness and density of sound; daring rhythmic complexity; a diverse and unpredictable aural journey that connects with all of my senses.

SI: What inspires you most about classical music, and contemporary classical music specifically?

KS: I am a daughter of KING FM. For as far back as I can remember my Dad had it playing in the car, out in the garden, on our boat and in various rooms throughout our house. In fact, my parents live in Montana now and my dad still plays KING FM 24/7 from his home office computer! The soundtrack of my life was classical music.

I also had marvelous music experiences in graduate school at Mills College where I was introduced to even more music, especially contemporary classical music. I am extremely grateful to Second Inversion—a service of KING FM—and their effort to bring my work in dance with contemporary classical music to the public! I have long felt dance should be appreciated like great music. The abstraction, complexity, beauty, and texture should be as meaningful through movement as we have allowed it to be through sound.  

SI: In your writings, you discuss some of the specific injustices women face throughout the world, including sexual violence, female infanticide, female genital mutilation, removal from any possibilities of social and financial advancement, sexual exploitation and slavery, and much more. Can you tell me a bit about the broader feminist threads present in (re)MOVE?

KS:
This work is personal and it is feminist. It is a work for this eleventh hour time for the earth and for humanity. It is an art and practice of movement in contemplation of transcendent injustices, specifically in this work as it concerns women and the earth. 

Releasing myself from the tyranny of false beliefs, from the forces that denigrate the voice of the feminine, from the hegemony of my current cultural place, I (re)MOVE again in each (re)TURN to truly (re)BIND bones and tissues like a spiritual ligament to the essence of what really matters. As Pierre Teilhard de Chardin once said, “Driven by the forces of love, the fragments of the world seek each other so that the world may come into being.” These fragments of imagination here seek out what is being (re)FORMed and (re)TURNed. This movement flows toward hope through this turbulent exchange with our time and awakening. It is a movement of love.

Karin Stevens Dance 3

SI: (re)MOVE is also extremely spiritual. What were some of the spiritual and philosophical inspirations in creating this work?

KS: My readings in quantum entanglement, physics, general systems theory, and evolutionary biology have taken me into areas where the spiritual, philosophic, and the scientific interchange strengthen, rather than oppose each other. At the heart of this interchange is our movement that reconnects us with the natural world, with our self, with each other and with our evolution in this cultural time.

My personal religious experience has led me to deep questions about the absence of the feminine in the Abrahamic religions, and the egregious effect this has had on the evolution of our collective body and the earth, particularly in the West. Studies in Taoism, the Tao Te Ching, Five Elements/Movements and yin/yang theory of Chinese philosophy have given me a lovely place to explore ideas that heal the cracks in my Judeo-Christian experience.

In these spiritual philosophies I sought new movements I could repurpose toward my own becoming. I found connection: between human, heaven and earth; to the root of all the universe for which we belong; and to the “primal mother” that enthralls my curiosity and imagination.

Karin Stevens Dance FlyerSI: What are you most looking forward to with this premiere?

KS: It is a great honor to be able to raise enough money to work with live, local, and NEW music as a choreographic/movement artist. There are so many talented composers in Seattle plugging away, as I am, to make the music they are compelled to make. I feel a propulsion to get their work heard as much as I want to get my dances seen.

For more information about the project, please visit Karin Stevens’ blog series using the following links: Part I, Part II, and Part III.

Performances of “(re)MOVE: (re)TURN” are this Friday, April 22 at 7:30 p.m., Saturday, April 23 at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday, April 24 at 6:30 p.m. All performances are at Velocity Dance Center on Capitol Hill in Seattle. For tickets and information, please visit this link.

ALBUM REVIEW: Eighth Blackbird’s “Filament”

by Jill Kimball

Forget J. S. Bach: Philip Glass is the new granddaddy of music…or so sayeth eighth blackbird in its latest album, Filament.

This new release from the Chicago-based contemporary music supergroup cleverly connects the groundbreaking repetitive structures in Glass’s music with American folk tunes, contemporary compositions, and poppy vocals. The album’s name is meant to conjure a mental image of musical threads linking all its performances, new and old.

In this case, “old” is a relative term. The nexus of Filament is “Two Pages,” written by Philip Glass in 1968. It’s a classic illustration of Glass’s signature repetition, a mind-bending 16 minutes of subtly changing patterns. The piece famously sounds meditative and nightmarish at the same time. It’s notoriously difficult for performers–the liner notes compare it to walking a tightrope “with no net below”–but the expert musicians here meet the challenge admirably, almost making it sound easy. Performing this piece alongside the sextet are organist Nico Muhly and guitarist Bryce Dessner (of The National), and it’s no coincidence that both of them are also featured composers on Filament.

In fact, the album opens with Dessner’s multi-movement piece Murder Ballades, inspired by folk songs about real and imagined killings that were passed down through many generations. The murder ballad tradition began in Europe, but Dessner’s piece focuses on the maudlin stories that originally come from early settlers in New England and Appalachia. Dessner chose to arrange three real ballads, “Omie Wise,” “Young Emily,” and “Pretty Polly,” all of which tell stories of love affairs turned violent. Imagine if someone took the music from a Ken Burns documentary and gave it a little edge, and you’ll have an idea of what these movements sound like. The other four ballads in the piece are Dessner’s original compositions, still clearly inspired by early Americana but more deconstructed and intense. In these four movements, Philip Glass’s repetitive, meditative influence is clearly felt.

FilamentComposers

Composers featured on Filament. Clockwise from top left: Nico Muhly, Philip Glass, Bryce Dessner, and Son Lux.

Nico Muhly’s piece, Doublespeak, is so closely linked with Two Pages that it’s as if Muhly managed to burrow directly into Philip Glass’s midcentury brain. Muhly wrote this piece for the composer’s 75th birthday celebration, so it’s fitting that he chose to salute a decade when “classical music perfected obsessive repetition,” as he puts it. You’ll hear snippets of 1970s staples like In C and Violin Phase flit in and out as the piece alternates between a fast-tempo frenzy and a slow, dreamy state.

As if there weren’t already enough threads connecting these three pieces, eighth blackbird rounds out Filament with a pair of works by Son Lux. The legendary pop-classical electronic composer took sound bites from the album and mixed in Glass-inspired vocals by Shara Worden, aka My Brightest Diamond. The result is a half-ambient, half-catchy five minutes that nicely break up the album’s studied repetition, which can be a little mentally taxing.

It goes without saying that the performance quality on this disc is top-notch, no less fine than any of eighth blackbird’s past albums. You’re luxuriously free to focus solely on the compositions themselves, all of which are worth contemplating at length. In an age when most albums’ connecting filaments are somewhere between ultrathin and nonexistent, it’s a pleasure to listen to a set of pieces with such close ties.

ALBUM OF THE WEEK: Anthracite Fields

by Jill Kimball

anthracite_fields

When it comes to contemporary music, the biggest cause for celebration is its determination to find inspiration in unusual places. Increasingly, composers have tossed aside those old standbys–rich royals, first-world travel, God–and have instead embraced the unpredictable.

In the past, composer Julia Wolfe has found inspiration in a Vermeer painting, an Aretha Franklin song, and the idea of a slow-motion scream. Last year, she even released a musical hommage to the American folktale hero John Henry, a steel driver who died trying to compete with a machine.

But this time, Wolfe found her muse unexpectedly close to home.

For Wolfe, writing Anthracite Fields began with a rumination on her childhood home of Montgomeryville, Pennsylvania. The dirt-road town straddled polar opposite worlds: on one side of it lay the big city, Philadelphia; on the other lay an expanse of coal mining fields, where men and boys once toiled long hours in dangerous conditions for a pittance. She’d almost never ventured in the latter direction before. Curiously, she set off to explore the mines and soon found herself consumed by the history of the coal fields. By April 2014, she’d written an hour-long piece dedicated to the hundreds of thousands of people who literally powered upper- and middle-class American lives for more than a century.

It’s no mystery why Wolfe has already won a Pulitzer Prize for this work, which features performances by Bang on a Can All-Stars and the Choir of Trinity Wall Street. The sound is intense, evocative, and completely original. The carefully chosen words, taken from historical documents, interviews, and speeches, are heart-wrenching. Perhaps most importantly, the piece explores themes that are just as relevant to American lives today as they were 150 years ago: class inequality, unfair working conditions, and the social cost of using coal to generate electricity.

“The politics are very fascinating—the issues about safety, and the consideration for the people who are working and what’s involved in it,” Wolfe said in a recent NPR interview. “But I didn’t want to say, ‘Listen to this. This is a big political issue.’ It really was, ‘Here’s what happened. Here’s this life, and who are we in relationship to that?’ We’re them. They’re us. And basically, these people, working underground, under very dangerous conditions, fueled the nation. That’s very important to understand.”

The five-movement piece begins below ground, in the midst of a typical coal miner’s long, dark, and dangerous workday. An uneasy collection of sustained notes is interrupted by a loud, jarring noise every minute or so. The choir names off a series of men named John, found on a list of more than 50,000 Pennsylvania mining casualties between 1869 and 1916. In a genius compositional move, Wolfe chose to pair this heartbreakingly endless list of names with sung text, at turns mournful and fiery, explaining how coal is formed.

Sadly, children in Pennsylvania’s anthracite region started working in the mines as early as age 6 to help put food on the family table. The second movement of Anthracite Fields remembers those working children, called breaker boys. The children sat bent over on planks all day, cutting their fingers up to pick debris out of freshly mined coal. The text Wolfe set in this movement comes from a perversely catchy regional folk song (“Mickey Pick-Slate, early and late, that was the poor little breaker boy’s fate”) and from a heart-rending interview with a one-time breaker boy (“You didn’t dare say anything, you didn’t dare quit, you didn’t wear gloves”). I admit it: this movement made me cry.

In the second half of the piece, Wolfe moves above ground to examine the social implications of underground coal mining. Her third movement, “Speech,” mixes sparse choral writing with rock opera-style solo vocals, using text from a union president’s speech advocating for fair working conditions and compensation.

The last two movements come from two very different non-miners’ perspectives. Wolfe says “Flowers” was inspired by an interview with Barbara Powell, the daughter of a miner who says she never felt poor, thanks to her town’s generous community and the cheerful little things in life, like growing her beautiful garden. The last movement, “Appliances,” is an uncomfortable reminder that coal miners put their lives on the line for next to no pay so that the upper classes could live in comfort, whether they were traveling by train or heating their homes. At the very end, the singers whistle, conjuring the sound of a train grinding against the rails.

Composer Julia Wolfe.

Composer Julia Wolfe.

Anthracite Fields is not an easy listen, but I don’t think Julia Wolfe wanted it to be. We Americans tend to gloss over unpleasant parts of our history when, in order to make peace with our past, we’d do better to confront it. In telling these miners’ stories through vivid music, Wolfe has brought an important but often ignored chapter of our country’s story to the forefront. I encourage people of all backgrounds to listen to this award-winning work, daunting though it may seem. You’ll learn a little about life in late-1800s Pennsylvania, you’ll contemplate energy usage and workers’ rights, and if you’re like me, you’ll have a good cry.

ALBUM OF THE WEEK: Richard Reed Parry’s “Music for Heart and Breath”

by Maggie Stapleton

rrp-a6dc2a644165c5b3d10aa8fd780cc55ff2eba732-s4-c85

As a gigantic Arcade Fire fan, my heart grew 10 sizes when I found out about Richard Reed Parry’s Music for Heart and Breath, an album of original compositions.  When I actually heard the music and learned about the inspiration for the pieces, I was knocked over like I haven’t been in the longest time.

The musical conceptualization of this album comes from the heart – literally.  Each of the six pieces requires involuntarily moving organs of the body to dictate the tempi and rhythms.   How, you may wonder, does one determine those speeds?

Paging Doctor Beat.  We’ll need your stethoscopes.

Each musician is instructed to play with a stethoscope (and consequently, at a soft dynamic level) in order to be exactly in sync with his or her own heartbeat.  The variety in ebb and flow between the players’ pulses creates a pointillistic effect – in many instances on the album is like that of a relaxing rainfall – that will undoubtedly never sound exactly the same in two different instances.

In fact, the nature of the performance situation can impart serious variation on the length of the piece.  Rehearsals take significantly more time than performances.  “Interruptions,” took 25 minutes to rehearse the first time, and only 19 minutes to perform.  Thanks, adrenaline!

The album journeys between instrumentation varieties and sizes and features an all-star cast of musicians: yMusic, Kronos Quartet, Nico Muhly, Nadia Sirota, and Bryce & Aaron Dessner.  The smallest group is a duet; the largest a 14-member chamber orchestra, with sizes in between to keep depth of sound and dynamic range at varying levels.

(music streaming for this album is no longer available)

While Parry doesn’t have formal training in classical music, he comes from a family of musicians and  enjoys music from Machaut to Debussy to Ligety to Reich.  Influences from all of those composers are hinted at here and there throughout the disc.  Parry presents himself as an extremely well-rounded musician and a revolutionary way of conceiving time and imparting creative innovation into the realm of music performed on orchestral instruments.

I think Parry sums it up best with this lovely phrase, “I think there’s something quite beautiful about the idea of trying to literally play your heart out.”

You can purchase this album at Deutsche GrammaphonAmazon, or iTunes.