ALBUM OF THE WEEK: Anthracite Fields

by Jill Kimball

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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 The carefully chosen words, taken from historical documents, interviews, and speeches, are heart-wrenching.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

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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.

 

CONCERT PREVIEW: Parnassus Project’s “Six Melodies”

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Seattle’s innovative chamber music collective Parnassus Project has been busy this summer performing on the Mostly Nordic Concert series, Occidental Park’s ArtSparks series, Kirkland Summer Fest, KING FM’s NW Focus Live and this Friday, August 15 at 8pm they’re performing a special program of American music on the Wayward Concert Series at the Good Shepherd Center in Wallingford.  The repertoire spans 66 years of the late 20th and early 21st centuries and highlights both American composition masters and up-and-coming composers Cole Bratcher, based here in Seattle, and George Gianopoulos, based in Los Angeles.

A handful of the performers stopped by the KING FM studios last Friday night to preview the concert.  Here are their recordings of some Elliott Carter (Haeyoon Shin, cello; Brooks Tran piano):

 

and Philip Glass (Luke Fitzpatrick, Sol Im, violins; Clifton Antoine, viola; Emily Hu, cello):

The full program for Friday includes:

John CAGE: Six Melodies for violin and keyboard (1950)
Elliott CARTER: Sonata for cello and piano (1948)
Cole BRATCHER: “Child of a Broken Home” for solo flute (2014)
George N. GIANOPOULOS: Three Conversations for violin & cello Op. 16b (2008-2009/2012) // 24 Chorale Preludes for string quartet Op. 6b [selections] (2011)
Philip GLASS: String Quartet No. 5 (1991)

…performed by some top-notch local musicians – all of the aforementioned as well as flutist Daria Binkowski.  Invite your friends and go check it out!

AARON GRAD RETHINKS THEORBO

by Maggie Stapleton

Here at Second Inversion, our catchphrase is “Rethink Classical.”  The multi-talented Aaron Grad (Composer, Guitarist, Artistic Consultant, Program Note Author, Lecturer, the list goes on) has done some serious rethinking of his own.  Let’s go a step or two back in time and call it “Rethink Renaissance.”

In 2012, Aaron built a one-of-a-kind electric theorbo.  You read that correctly.  Here’s a sample of the instrument’s sound in an excerpt from Aaron’s composition, Old-Fashioned Love Songs.theorbo_body

 

I had the pleasure of chatting with Aaron about the concept and design of the instrument as well as his upcoming performance featuring Aaron on electric theorbo and Gus Mercante, countertenor on Saturday, June 21, 8pm at the Chapel Performance Space at the Good Shepherd Center.  Aaron recently returned to Seattle after an East Coast tour with performances in NYC, Delaware, and Maryland (which got a great review in the Washington Post).

Listen if you’d like, or keep reading if that’s your preference!

Q. Could you tell us a little bit about this instrument you’ve created, the electric theorbo?

A. It’s based on an old instrument, the theorbo, which is a 16th century Italian lute with long bass strings plus a fretted fret board like a lute would have.  I fell in love with this instrument – it’s audacious, bold, has a deep bass sound, is beautiful for accompanying vocal music.  I had the idea to create a version that would work for me, because I’m not a period practiced lute player, like there are so many wonderful people who do that, especially here in Seattle, so I had to find my version.   I had this idea to hybridize the theorbo, with its many strings and deep bass notes and combine that with an electric guitar, with is my instrument.   So I came up with a design that brought those two worlds together and it uses some old ideas and old stringing and tuning but also very modern techniques of carbon fibers and other new materials.

Q. Did you actually build the instrument yourself?

I did.  It took me many months to design it and probably 8 months in a wood shop putting it together.  I had to try a bunch of things, engineer new techniques and bits and pieces that just don’t exist.  There aren’t a lot of precedents for this so I had to come up with a way to make a new bridge and find the right kind of tuners and even the pickups – every single component I had to rethink, source from somewhere, and ultimately assemble and put it all together.

Q.  What did you have in mind as far as the music to be performed on this instrument ?  Old?  New?

A. The overall message I had in mind was “the timelessness of love songs,” so it ended up being a new-old hybrid, but in a way my goal was not to show not how different those worlds are, but how similar they are.  Any time I’m involved in that new-old territory (which I find I’m doing a lot of), it’s usually to find common threads and connections back to something that I think is immortal in a musical statement or even a human, personal statement.  I ended up using love songs as far back as the 16th century and up to the 21st century and then I wrote a bunch of my own new songs.   The idea was just to show a common thread, that music has always been used to express love.  The simplest version is one person singing and the sound of something being strummed or plucked (and that goes back even farther than the theorbo) and as long as people have been singing or plucking strings, they’ve been expressing love.

Q. Is that the impetus for the concert you have coming up on June 21st?

A.  The two sides of it came together – one was building the instrument and just having the idea for that as a sound that I was drawn to.  The other was this idea about love and its timelessness and universality.  And so those came together in Old-Fashioned Love Songs – an evening length song cycle and the whole thing is one big love letter to my wife.  It’s my way of putting out in a very public, exposed, and somewhat vulnerable way- very true and personal feelings.  That’s what I’m interested in doing as a composer – I’m trying to push myself to be as “out there” as I can be with what I feel deeply.  I used to allow musical activities to just be on the surface… write a piece that sounded nice.  I’m sure I’ll do that again, but right now I’m interested in going really deep into what is most true and personal for me at that point in my life and figuring a way to put it to music.

Q.  Can you give us a sense of the range of songs we can expect to hear?

A.  The first thing on the program is a Toccata by an Italian theorbo composer written in a 1604.  The earliest song on the program is by John Dowland, great master of English love songs – beautiful, heartsick love songs (the agony of love!).  I also touch some Henry Purcell, which is also from that era when the theorbo was an active instrument.  Then I move somewhat chronologically… some Stephen Foster, George Gershwin, Kurt Weill.  Then we get into some later 20th century pop music by Cyndi Lauper and Norah Jones.  Interspersed between all of those are some of my own songs which were written in the last year or two.

Q. Tell us a little bit about the collaboration with the vocalist.

A. The singer is a countertenor, a wonderful singer from Delaware named Gus Mercante who I worked with for the first time over a decade ago.  It’s been so nice to work with that voice type which also has these old resonances.  It’s a voice associated with centuries past.  There’s something so pure and angelic about a countertenor voice that helps to deliver that message that floats just beyond one moment.  He’s just been a wonderful musician and partner to work with.  We’ve been working very closely together and touring together and it really helps that I think our friendship shows up on stage and from the last performances we just did on the east coast, I saw how important that was as a part of what we’re doing because it is such personal music and especially because I’m not the one singing it, he’s really a mouthpiece for my ideas and I just felt like we were really close and connected and able to move together and phrase together in ways that spoke to our friendship and connection just as two people.

Old-Fashioned Love Songs will be a great way to cozy up with a loved one and take a journey through time, all the while experiencing the electric theorbo in the intimate setting of the Chapel Performance Space at the Good Shepherd Center.

Visit our Streaming Albums On-Demand page to hear more of Aaron Grad’s compositions and recordings!

TOM BAKER ON THE SEATTLE MUSIC SCENE

by Maggie Stapleton

Seattle composer Tom Baker (not to be confused with any other reputable Tom Bakers out there) is a crucial contributor to the new music scene in Seattle.  He is the artistic director of the Seattle Composers’ Salon, the co-founder of the Seattle EXperimental Opera (SEXO), an instructor of Composition and Electronic Music at Cornish College of the Arts, and a performer alongside with many bands and ensembles, including the Tom Baker Quartet, Triptet, and Jesse Canterbury’s Vertigo.

Tom Baker

He is also the founder of Present Sounds, a record label which celebrates new music by primarily Seattle-based composers and performers.  You’ll certainly hear some of these tracks on our stream!

Tom stopped by the KING FM/Second Inversion studios recently to talk about some of his favorite tracks from a couple of these discs.

Stay tuned for more music and insights on our SoundCloud page from Tom!  You can catch him live on May 2 at the Seattle Composers’ Salon, along with Seattle Composers William O. Smith, John Teske, and Keith Eisenbrey at 8pm at the Good Shepherd Center Chapel!