ALBUM REVIEW: ‘writing on water’ by David Lang

by Gabriela Tedeschi

In Grammy and Pulitzer Prize-winning composer David Lang’s new album writing on water, the quality of Lang’s music is as wide-ranging as water itself. Exploring new forms and different combinations of instruments through four ensemble pieces, Lang stretches the limits of what a large ensemble can be, uncovering wildly different textures, colors, and emotions.

The album’s title track, scored for choir and chamber orchestra, was created in 2005 in honor of the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar, a naval battle during the Napoleonic Wars that resulted in a decisive victory for the British and the loss of 22 ships for the Franco-Spanish forces. For this piece, Lang partnered with film director Peter Greenaway, who wove together a libretto with descriptions of drowning and shipwrecks from Moby Dick, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and The Tempest.

“writing on water” dramatically captures the anguish and fear of catastrophe at sea. Synergy Vocals imbue the choral parts with a broad, grandiose color. The individual vocal lines are largely stagnant throughout the piece, creating an almost demonic sound and empowering slight pitch changes to have an intense emotional impact. The instrumental accompaniment, with its dense texture and dark tone, evokes images of turbulent waves, stormy weather, and the destruction of ships.

The drama overflows into tracks “forced march” and “pierced,” which explore the possibilities that emerge when groups within the ensemble work against each other.

“forced march,” performed by the Crash Ensemble, aligns a boisterous, unwieldy rock melody with steady, militaristic percussion. As the piece unfolds, the restrictive beat changes the melody. The original motif bursts free at times as if rebelling against the structure, but is always absorbed back into the more regulated version of the theme, leaving listeners with the disturbing feeling of being repressed.

“pierced” layers a rhythmically unpredictable melody over a variety of supporting textures, allowing the ensemble—comprised of Logan Paul and FLUX quartet on strings and the electroacoustic group Real Quiet—to color and at times overshadow the melody to inhabit different moods. The result is that sections of the same work with the same melody sound like wildly different pieces, outlining the impact that each instrument has on the overall aesthetic.

Lang wrote “increase,” the third track on the album, in 2002 as a wedding present for friends and a gift for the ensemble Alarm Will Sound’s inaugural performance. While considering old Puritan baby names with his wife, the name Increase struck him as the kind of blessing you’d want for both a marriage and for a new ensemble.

“increase” starts with a mystical, galloping feel. It’s both hopeful and mysterious, as though you don’t know what’s about to come, but believe it may be something good. The mystical motif runs throughout the piece as the suspense builds and the texture intensifies. “increase” develops into a beautifully tempered blessing, one that takes into account both the hope and the uncertainty that comes with a new endeavor.

writing on water is a dramatic and innovative exploration of the possibilities large ensembles present. Lang masterfully layers melodies, harmonies, and textures—allowing them sometimes to work together and other times to clash—to unearth every opportunity for beautiful sound within the ensemble.

The Artist and the Antihero: David Lang’s New Symphony Premieres in Seattle

by Maggie Molloy

The notion of the artist as the hero is one of the central tenets of the Romantic era, with composers from Beethoven to Berlioz crafting symphonies of enormous scope and heroic splendor. Composer David Lang turns that notion on its head in his symphony without a hero, which receives its world premiere this week at the Seattle Symphony, conducted by Ludovic Morlot. The program juxtaposes Lang’s new work against the epitome of the heroic symphony archetype: Richard Strauss’s epic tone poem, A Hero’s Life.

The titles are nearly exact opposites. As it turns out, so is the music. Second Inversion’s Maggie Molloy talks with Lang about his new symphony and the relationship between artist and hero in the 21st century.

Audio edited by Dacia Clay.

Music in this interview:

David Lang: child: “short fall” (Cantaloupe Music)
Sentieri Selvaggi; Carlo Boccadoro, conductor

David Lang:
the little matchgirl passion: “from the sixth hour” (Cantaloupe Music)
Los Angeles Master Chorale; Grant Gershon, conductor

Richard Strauss: A Hero’s Life: The Hero’s Battlefield (CSO Resound)
Chicago Symphony Orchestra; Bernard Haitink, conductor


Seattle Symphony performs David Lang’s symphony without a hero Feb. 8 and 10 at Benaroya Hall. For tickets and additional information, please click here.

From Symphonic Premieres to Improvised Festivals: New Music for February

by Maggie Molloy

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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! 

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Keep an eye out for our this flyer in concert programs and coffee shops around town. Feel free to download, print, and distribute it yourself! If you’d like to be included on this list, submit your event to the Live Music Project at least 6 weeks prior to the event and tag it with “new music.”

Program Insert - February 2018

 

Wayward Music Series
Concerts of contemporary composition, free improvisation, electroacoustic music, and sonic experiments. This month: improvised musical games, digital synthesis, site-specific sounds works, and piano pieces with alliterative pretensions.
Various days, 7:30/8pm, Good Shepherd Chapel | $5-$15

Spontaneous Combustion New Music Festival: Ashley Bathgate
Cellist Ashley Bathgate is constantly pushing the boundaries of traditional cello repertoire with her performances of contemporary, avant-garde, and experimental works. For this performance she plays music with and without electronics by Steve Reich, Martin Bresnick, Fjola Evans, Emily Cooley, and Alex Weiser.

Thurs, 2/1, 8pm, Rainier Arts Center | $20

Karen Bentley Pollick: New York Women Composers
Violinist Karen Bentley Pollick premieres a new original solo violin piece in a program of music by New York women composers. Plus, Seattle violist Heather Bentley joins for the Washington premiere of Victoria Bond’s Woven for violin and viola.
Thurs, 2/1, 8pm, Good Shepherd Chapel | $5-$15

Matrio & Resonant Bodies
Taking its name from the Japanese word for “the space between two structural parts,” Matrio is an improvising collective that creates set-long experiences which explore the space between sound, noise, music, and silence. They’re joined by the jazz trumpet and percussion duo Resonant Bodies.
Thurs, 2/1, 8pm, The Royal Room | $8-$12

Byrd Ensemble: Paradise
There is no shortage ​of masterpieces about death and the afterlife. ​From Renaissance works to the early 20th century and the contemporary era, the Byrd Ensemble performs a program of the most hauntingly beautiful motets across the ages.
Sat, 2/3, 8pm, St. James Cathedral | $20-$30

200 Years of Music by Black Composers
Internationally acclaimed countertenor Reginald L. Mobley joins pianist Henry Lebedinsky for a program of music by Black composers from the Classical era to the present, including art songs, spirituals, and gospel. Featured composers include José Mauricio Nuñes Garcia, Florence B. Price, William Grant Still, and Harry Burleigh.
Wed, 2/7, 12pm, Christ Our Hope at the Josephinum | FREE

Seattle Symphony: David Lang World Premiere
David Lang is a pretty big deal in new music world. He’s a Pulitzer Prize and Grammy-winning composer, one of the founders of the Bang on a Can collective, the list goes on and on. This month the Seattle Symphony performs the world premiere of Lang’s symphony without a hero, playfully juxtaposed with a performance of Richard Strauss’s epic tone poem, A Hero’s Life.
Thurs, 2/8, 7:30pm, Benaroya Hall | $22-$74
Sat, 2/10, 8pm, Benaroya Hall | $22-$74

The Sound Ensemble: A Life Transformed
Seattle’s Sound Ensemble performs an evening of monumental works inspired by transformative experiences in either the life of the composer or the character of the piece. Featured works include Arnold Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht, John Adams’ Chamber Symphony, and a new work by composer Kevin Clark.
Sat, 2/10, 7pm, Good Shepherd Chapel | $5-$15

Seattle Improvised Music Festival
No scores, no plans, no safety net: just a whole bunch of artists from all different musical backgrounds collaborating in an atmosphere of spontaneity, intuition, and discovery. Featured performers include Tomeka Reid, Tom Baker, Evan Flory-Barnes, and many, many more.
Feb. 10-17, Various times and locations | $5-$15

Seattle Symphony: Celebrate Asia
Erhu and sitar soloists perform with the Seattle Symphony in their 10th annual Celebrate Asia concert featuring contemporary (and traditional) music by Japanese, Chinese, Korean, and Indian composers. Arrive early and stay late for pre- and post-concert entertainment in the lobby.
Sun, 2/11, 4pm, Benaroya Hall | $29-$67

Opera on Tap
Local singers let their hair down and sing their hearts out, performing famous operatic masterpieces and hidden musical gems alike in a friendly, relaxed atmosphere.
Tues, 2/13, 7:30pm, Solo Bar | $10

Meany Center: Danish String Quartet
The internationally acclaimed Danish String Quartet performs traditional classical music alongside their own contemporary arrangements of Scandinavian folk music. Catch their intimate performance at Cafe Solstice or see them on the Meany Theater mainstage.
Tues, 2/13, 7pm, Cafe Solstice | FREE
Wed, 2/14, 7:30pm, Meany Theater | $40-$48

Emerald City Music: Spiritual Journey
Emerald City Music explores the power of the voice in chamber music through a program of 20th century songs and spirituals by Charles Ives, Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, and more.
Fri, 2/16, 8pm, 415 Westlake Ave, Seattle | $10-$45
Sat, 2/17, 7:30pm, Minnaert Center, Olympia | $10-$43

NOCCO: Vibrant Hearts – A Romanian Celebration
The North Corner Chamber Orchestra performs 20th century works inspired by Romanian folk music traditions, including compositions by George Enescu and Béla Bartók.
Sat, 2/17, 2pm, University Christian Church | $15-$25
Sun, 2/18, 7:30pm, The Royal Room | $15-$25

Philharmonia Northwest: Viva Americas!
The exhilarating colors and rhythms of Latin American music come alive in this concert featuring music by Astor Piazzolla, Silvestre Revueltas, Arturo Márquez, and a new commission by young Mexican composer Osvaldo Mendoza.
Sun, 2/25, 2:30pm, St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church (Seattle) | $15-$20

Staff Picks: Friday Faves

Second Inversion hosts share a favorite selection from their weekly playlist. Tune in on Friday, September 1 to hear these pieces and plenty of other new and unusual music from all corners of the classical genre!

Philip Glass: Mad Rush (Sony Classical)
Philip Glass, piano

Half hypnotic, half neurotic, Philip Glass’s Mad Rush for solo piano is a minimalist masterpiece. He first premiered the piece in 1979 for the Dalai Lama’s first public address in North America—because his actual arrival time was so vague, they needed music that could be stretched for an indefinite period of time. Thus was born one of the most iconic piano pieces of the late 20th century.

Performed here by the composer himself, the densely layered arpeggios circle and surround you, lifting you into a trance that almost seems to suspend time itself.  Maggie Molloy

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


David Lang: cage (in memory of john cage) (Warner Classics)
Conrad Tao, piano

It’s been becoming increasingly clear to me lately that John Cage’s music can be an extremely powerful gateway into a different universe of listening.  So, pieces like this one make more sense to me now than they used to.  This piece, like Cage’s music, is an inducement to listen with open ears – a reminder to hear music for what it is. – Seth Tompkins

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 6pm hour today to hear this piece.

 


George Shearing: “Sigh No More Ladies, Sigh No More” (Grouse Records)
Vancouver Chamber Choir; Jon Washburn, conductor

Don Pedro: By my troth, a good song.
Balthasar: And an ill singer, my lord.

No ill singers here!  This fun, jazzy version of “Sigh No More Ladies, Sigh No More” from Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing is sung gloriously by the Vancouver Chamber Choir.  The lyrics are…  less glorious.  In the play, Balthasar croons that women should accept men for their cheating and bad behavior rather than hassling them about it.  He sings:

“Sigh no more ladies, sigh no more,
Men were deceivers ever,
One foot in sea and one on shore,
To one thing constant never
Then sigh not so, but let them go
And be you blithe and bonny,
Converting all your sounds of woe
Into hey, nonny nonny.”

Is it wrong that lyrics so backwards are so much fun to sing?
– Rachele Hales

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 11pm hour today to hear this piece.

STAFF PICKS: Friday Faves

Second Inversion hosts share a favorite selection from their weekly playlist. Tune in on Friday, May 26 to hear these pieces and plenty of other new and unusual music from all corners of the classical genre!

David Lang: the national anthems III. fame and glory (Cantaloupe Music)
Calder Quartet and Los Angeles Master Chorale

A survey of national anthems from nations all over the world confronted composer David Lang with a startling reality: the texts of these songs are generally quite violent. It seems that in the course of expressing national pride through song, we tend to reflect on the bloody struggle of war that gave us the freedoms we now enjoy.

Lang put together a sort of “meta-anthem” text from the anthems of a few nations, and observed that “hiding in every national anthem is the recognition that we are insecure about our freedoms, that freedom is fragile, and delicate, and easy to lose.” His music for string quartet and chorus, titled the national anthems in purposeful lower-case, exudes this unsettled feeling of insecurity.

“Fame and glory” has a lot of counterpoint and imitation, seemingly creating a dialogue within the chorus that is mindful of the past and its relationship with the present. It’s not overtly political music, but it is incredibly sensitive, contemplative, and hopeful. Lang has successfully achieved a sort of extra-mindfulness in his setting of this pieced-together text, a fascinating reflection on and transformation of the one-sided militarism of national anthems. – Geoffrey Larson

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 11am hour today to hear this piece.


Toru Takemitsu: Toward the Sea
Michael Partington, guitar and Paul Taub, alto flute

Celebrated Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu breathes a meditative second life into the tale of Moby Dick with his three-section work, Toward the Sea. In the final section, entitled “Cape Cod,” Michael Partington’s guitar gently chops and forms the New England seascape while Paul Taub’s airy alto flute responds as Captain Ahab’s ship, the Pequod.

It is a beautifully haunting meditation paired with images of Cape Cod inspired by Melville’s novel. With these pieces, Takemitsu emphasizes the spiritual dimension of the book, quoting the passage, “meditation and water are wedded together.” He also said that “the music is an homage to the sea which creates all things, and a sketch for the sea of tonality.”

The composer wrote no bar lines and took a Cagian, aleatory approach to the work, in which performers are given more interpretive license. The flute’s primary melodic line derives from the spelling of “sea” in German musical notation – E♭-E-A – a motif which later became a favorite of Takemitsu’s. – Brendan Howe

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


Carolina Eyck: “Metsa Happa (Jumping River)” (Butterscotch Records)
Carolina Eyck and ACME

If you thought the theremin was only for corny sci-fi film soundtracks and intergalactic sound effects, think again. Carolina Eyck, one of the world’s foremost theremin virtuosi, has spent the past decade exploring and expanding the musical possibilities of this eerie electronic instrument.

Her album Fantasias for Theremin and String Quartet, recorded with members of ACME, takes the instrument out of the galaxies and into the woods of Northern Germany, with each piece inspired by her childhood memories of growing up there.

In keeping with the whimsical, free-spirited explorations of childhood, Eyck composed her Fantasias in full takes with zero editing. In “Metsa Happa (Jumping River),” theremin melodies playfully hop in and out of a rolling river of strings, soaring high above the waves and diving deep beneath their iridescent surface. – Maggie Molloy

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


Stevie Wonder: “Superstition” (arr. Kathy Halvorson)
Threeds Oboe Trio

Turns out you can replace a synthesizer and a clavinet with a few reed instruments and you still have a song that’s funky as hell. Threeds Oboe Trio’s cover of Stevie Wonder’s classic “Superstition” shows off impressive technical ability and a rebellious sense of humor. “Superstition” has a driving bassline provided by clarinet and, since it swings just as hard as the original, it will have you smiling and grooving and bebopping before the oboes even kick in. – Rachele Hales

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

ALBUM REVIEW: Unbound by the Jasper String Quartet

by Maggie Molloy

Photo by Dario Acosta.

Over the course of their decade-long career, the Jasper String Quartet has become pretty familiar with the famous quartets of historic masters like Haydn, Beethoven, and even Bartók—so when it came time to record a new album, they decided to look for new musical inspiration a little closer to home.

Unbound is a collection of 21st century works that burst through the boundaries of traditional Western musical styles and forms. The Jaspers—comprised of violinists J Freivogel and Sae Chonabayashi, violist Sam Quintal, and cellist Rachel Henderson Freivogel—explore the furthest reaches of the string quartet repertoire with new works by seven of today’s most dynamic composers.

Featuring compositions by Caroline Shaw, Missy Mazzoli, Annie Gosfield, Judd Greenstein, David Lang, Donnacha Dennehy, and Ted Hearne, the album unfolds as a survey of today’s spectacularly diverse and dynamic string music landscape, each piece stretching the string quartet tradition in new and inventive ways.

The album begins with Caroline Shaw’s tangy and succulent “Valencia,” the video for which we premiered just last week on Second Inversion. The Jaspers bring precision and playfulness to Shaw’s billowing harmonics and bold bow strokes, evoking the brilliant colors and juicy texture of the fresh, flavorful fruit.

Missy Mazzoli’s contribution to the album, by contrast, is a bit more narrative-driven. “Death Valley Junction” is inspired by a small American town of the same name, where a woman named Marta Becket resurrected a crumbling opera house in the late 1960s and went on to perform weekly one-woman shows there for over 40 years. An airy, sparse, desert-inspired soundscape gradually gives way to a wild and exuberant dance, evoking Becket’s colorful imagination and unshakable optimism.

It’s followed by Annie Gosfield’s “The Blue Horse Walks on the Horizon,” a piece she wrote specifically for the Jaspers. Inspired by the surreal radio broadcasts and codes used by European resistance groups during World War II, the piece unfolds through shifting, repetitive figures that evoke the abstract coded messages.

Group dynamics are the key theme behind Judd Greenstein’s contribution to the album. “Four on the Floor” is an energetic, fast-paced work which explores different instrument pairings working with and against one another in constantly changing teams.

Photo by Dario Acosta.

David Lang’s “almost all the time” explores a different type of evolution. The piece begins with a simple cell of a musical idea—what he calls “a little 10 note strand of musical DNA”—but across 18 minutes expands and evolves into a beautiful genetic mutation, each detail carefully crafted under the Jaspers’ fingers.

Donnacha Dennehy’s “Pushpulling” is more elastic in its movements. Frenetic bow strokes speed ever-forward, but are slowly and patiently pulled back to silence each time—pushing and pulling the listener along for the ride.

The album closes with Ted Hearne’s circular “Excerpts from the middle of something,” the first movement of his Law of Mosaics. Unusual in its form, the piece consists of a climactic build-up that, instead of resolving, is simply repeated and revised several times. And yet, each time it is convincing: the Jaspers play each rendition with the explosive energy and enthusiasm of a grand finale.

It’s an exclamation point at the end of the album but also a metaphor, perhaps, for the album’s overarching theme: the string quartet repertoire did not die with Haydn or Beethoven, but is still alive and still evolving to this day.

ALBUM REVIEW: David Lang’s the national anthems

by Maggie Molloy

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As we near another anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks, we’re reminded of just how terrifyingly destructive and divisive those events were, both within our country and beyond it. Nearly 3,000 innocent civilians died that day—along with another 6,000 who were injured—and that was only the beginning of what was to come.

The attacks led our nation’s troops into what has become the longest-running war in U.S. history. Since 9/11, nearly 2 million U.S. soldiers have been deployed to Afghanistan or Iraq. Over 6,000 American troops have been killed, another 44,000 wounded, and the rest of our nation’s lives forever changed in the legislation that has followed.

Nineteen hijackers changed our nation, our world, and the entire course of history.

It begs the question: Why?

Why are the nations of the world so divided? Why do we keep terrorizing one another? Why do we keep fighting these wars? Are we really all that different?

These are some of the questions composer David Lang asks with his composition “the national anthems” (note the lowercase, implying equality), a choral work released earlier this summer on Cantaloupe Music. Performed by the Los Angeles Master Chorale (under the baton of Grant Gershon) with the Calder String Quartet, the album takes a critical look at the way we as individual nations define ourselves.

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Los Angeles Master Chorale under the baton of Grant Gershon. Photo credit: David Johnston

“I had the idea that if I looked carefully at every national anthem I might be able to identify something that everyone in the world could agree on,” Lang said. “If I could take just one hopeful sentence from the national anthem of every nation in the world I might be able to make a kind of meta-anthem of the things that we all share. “

He combed through the anthems of all 193 countries in the United Nation, pulling one line from each to use in his libretto.

“What I found, to my shock and surprise,” Lang said, “Was that within almost every anthem is a bloody, war-like, tragic core, in which we cover up our deep fears of losing our freedoms with waves of aggression and bravado.”

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David Lang. Photo Credit: Peter Serling

That underlying sense of fear haunts the entire work, with the choir’s prayerful voices rising above a stained glass string accompaniment. The piece is organized into five movements exploring themes of peace, courage, glory, freedom, and community, ever so slowly sprawling outward from the first movement’s unified, tight-knit harmonies toward contrapuntal chaos.

The piece builds in quiet urgency through the war-stained patriotic glory of the middle movements, the once-unified voices separating as the wounded strings weep softly in the distance. And yet, the final movement returns to a churchlike hymn, the voices once again finding unity in their hopes, their prayers, and their music.

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Calder Quartet. Photo Credit: Autumn de Wilde

The anthem is paired with another largescale choral work: Lang’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “the little match girl passion,” based on the children’s story of The Little Match Girl by Hans Christian Andersen. It’s a classic parable given new depth through Lang’s masterful part-writing: a poor young girl, beaten by her father, fails to sell matches on the street and freezes from the bitter cold of the cruel world around her. Yet in wake of “the national anthems,” her story serves a dual purpose, reminding us of the personal wars and private tragedies we all face—and how truly delicate and cherished is our freedom.

“Hiding in every national anthem is the recognition that we are insecure about our freedoms, that freedom is fragile, and delicate, and easy to lose,” Lang said. “Maybe an anthem is a memory informing a kind of prayer, a heartfelt plea: There was a time when we were forced to live in chains. Please don’t make us live in chains again.