Ecco Chamber Ensemble Makes Waves for Earth Day

by Maggie Molloy

Photo by Dan Mastrian, Jr.

Immerse yourself in the music of water this Saturday at the next On Stage with KING FM concert hosted by Second Inversion! We’re thrilled to welcome to the stage the Ecco Chamber Ensemble in a special Earth Day program featuring music about, inspired by, or in some cases, made from water.

Comprised of soprano Stacey Mastrian, flutist Sarah Bassingthwaighte, and guitarist Mark Hilliard Wilson, the Ecco Chamber Ensemble is dedicated to exploring the intersection of art and social change. For this Saturday’s program, titled Water is Life, the group explores the vital role of water in both our survival and our art, provoking listeners to think critically about humanity’s impact on Earth.

The concert juxtaposes adventurous water works by the likes of John Cage and Alvin Lucier with the oceanic art songs of Gabriel Fauré, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Joaquín Rodrigo, José de Azpiazu, and John Corigliano. Also on the program is music of Toru Takemitsu, a composer who seamlessly blended the musical languages of East and West, exploring a “sea of tonality” in many of his works. Plus, the concert features new pieces penned by Ecco members Sarah Bassingthwaighte and guitarist Mark Hilliard Wilson.

Photo by Stacey Mastrian.

Some music on the program is even made from water itself. A world premiere by Stephen Lilly (written specifically for this event) features the ensemble performing alongside a block of melting ice, and audience members are invited to make their own music out of water for a piece composed by Cornelius Cardew.

Not only does the performance inspire audiences to listen to our environment, but it also urges us to take the next step: action. A portion of the proceeds from the concert, as well as audience donations, will go to the People for Puget Sound, a water advocacy group that has worked for the past 20 years on state, county, and municipal levels to create cleaner water for the native species and the humans in this area.

To learn more, we talked with the Ecco Chamber Ensemble about Earth, environmentalism, and the music of water.

Second Inversion: Water exists in many different forms. What are some of the nontraditional instruments or musical elements you are incorporating in this performance in order to capture its essence?

Photo by Britt Olsen-Ecker.

Stacey Mastrian: To quote the character Stefon from Saturday Night Live, “This place has everything”: an egg slicer, a bucket of rocks, bird-warblers, dripping ice, guitar drumming, a plastic bag, an oatmeal container, a photosensitive digital water instrument, and triangles and a pot lid in a bucket of water.

We also have electronic manipulation of the voice and the incorporation of physical theater with related utterances (Cage’s Song Books), recordings of water from all over the region and the use of vases, bowls, etc. (Lucier’s Chambers), and water sounds created digitally via transforming the sound of orating politicians (Lucier’s Gentle Fire, realized by Stephen Lilly, based on an idea of mine). 

Tom DeLio’s work that light for soprano playing percussion incorporates silences that aurally render the visual sparseness of poetry by Cid Corman, an American composer who lived in Japan.  Additionally, the consonants in the work bring to life the onomatopoeic elements of the nature images therein.

Sarah Bassingthwaighte: My piece, H2O, uses primarily unusual sounds, with no traditional notation. Key clicks, tapping on the guitar, rubbing our hands together and slapping our hands against our legs are sounds we’re using to represent rain.  We utilize the unvoiced syllable “p” to represent snow, egg slicer and dissonant harmonics to represent ice, crumpling paper and scraping the edge of a quarter along the string of the guitar to represent frost, bending notes to represent water droplets, and a soup pot with a whisk and spatula to create the sounds of a storm. 


Mark Hilliard Wilson:
My piece Wind and Water features an exploration of stillness and motion and internal drones on the guitar.  In the end it is ultimately an exploration of my testing your patience with having two players play in two different time signatures, or heartbeats if you will. Too often it seems that we hold an opinion that we will not yield on only to find that there can be another perspective that fits equally in the measure, so to speak, but just at a different division.

SI: What makes water compelling to explore through music? 

Stacey Mastrian: The sounds and images.  Water is interwoven throughout every aspect of our life, from our physical makeup, to our tears of joy and sadness, to the multitudinous descriptions of nature that we emphasize in poetry and music.

Mark Hilliard Wilson: Water is so mysterious and yet so normal, so essential to every day. What I find so compelling about water is its mutability.

Photo by Sarah Bassingthwaighte.

SI: What do you hear when you listen to water? Has putting this program together made you hear water differently?

Sarah Bassingthwaighte: Something I’ve noticed since working on this program is the constant presence of water in our lives. I’m listening to the waves of Puget Sound lap against the shore as I type this, I notice the sounds of the creek in the woods as I walk my dog, water as I pour my tea or brush my teeth or wash the dishes. I appreciate the great need for water after I go for a run. I even had the experience this last week, while backcountry skiing for four days, that we were at an elevation higher than any of the rivers or streams and had to melt snow for water for all of our needs. 

Stacey Mastrian: I am more closely aware of water now.  I am paying attention to it in all of its states and “see” the white noise, the distinct variances in dripping, and the changes in pitches and rhythm. This project also likely made people look at me differently, since for a while I was going around recording every single type of water that I encountered!

It definitely has made us all learn more about what is going on with water in our region and around the world, feeling even more strongly about the need for changes on our planet. Since I saw the film Chasing Coral at SIFF last summer (it is on Netflix—watch it!), I started thinking about the water on Earth as an entity that is ill; particularly striking to me was this description:  “A temperature increase of just 2 degrees Celsius may not seem like a lot in the air, but for marine life, this is like living with a constant fever.”  How would we feel going around with a 102.2 degree fever at all times and without having a reprieve for the rest of forever?

Photo by Stacey Mastrian.


SI: This program features a mix of classical works and experimental works. How do these two general styles differ in their interpretations of water?

Sarah Bassingthwaighte: Offhand, it seems to me that the more traditional works refer to water in terms of story—that something happened next to the water’s edge or that the water provided a setting for the story. The more experimental works seem to focus more on the sensory aspects of water (color, sounds, temperature, textures) or on our interpretation of these senses (how water is calming or invigorating).  

Stacey Mastrian: The more traditional works tend to be “about” water, and some of the more experimental works actually use water itself (or objects related to water) as sonic materials or to control some aspect of the work. This concert juxtaposes very new and more adventurous works with gorgeous art songs; with one exception (Fauré’s “Au bord de l’eau”) all of the works are from the 20th and 21st centuries.

Photo by Becca Bassingthwaighte.

SI: Many of the works on this program also feature aleatoric elements—how does this tie in with the concert’s broader themes of water, environmentalism, and social change?

Sarah Bassingthwaighte: A link between what we’re doing and social/environmental issues is that when we play much of this music, we are expected to improvisethat is, the music is affected by the choices we make and is not dictated to us.  Likewise, how we respond to the issues concerning water will require explicit choices and actions that we makeif we want safe drinking water (such as in Haiti), we will have to work to keep the water clean or to decontaminate it. If we’re running out of water (such as in Cape Town) we’ll have to create ways to preserve it. 

In our music, as in these issues surrounding water, we are asked to be resourceful and creative and to take action. 

Stacey Mastrian: Composer Stephen F. Lilly, on his new composition, Melt III:

Humans have spent centuries trying to control water—fixing the paths of some rivers while creating new channels for others, harnessing the power of its currents, and even using it to farm arid land. In this piece that relationship is reversed. The melting block of ice controls the pacing of the instrumentalists, whose dynamic levels and expressive abilities are constrained so as to balance with the delicate sound of dripping. To further bring the role of water to the foreground, the piece begins and ends with the water dripping on an empty stage.

As the crystalline structure of the ice breaks down, drop by drop, so does the ensemble slowly deconstruct the harmonic series of their lowest note–the open E produced by the guitar’s sixth and lowest string. However, this process is viewed as if through a microscope by the slow pacing of the piece, controlled and coordinated by the dripping of ice-melt. Thus, we are much more likely to focus on each individual event as it occurs rather than hear any overall relationship or trend, much in the same way a significant portion of the population cannot see beyond the current weather in their own backyard to the alarming trend threatening their very existence.


Second Inversion presents the Ecco Chamber Ensemble in Water is Life this Saturday, April 21 at 7:30pm at Resonance at SOMA Towers in Bellevue. Click here for tickets.

New Music for April: Music of Earth, Moon, and More

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.”

New Music Flyer - April 2018

 

Wayward Music Series
Concerts of contemporary composition, free improvisation, electroacoustic music, and sonic experiments. This month: drone cinema, phonetic etudes, murder ballades, and the muted colors of Morton Feldman.
Various days, 7:30/8pm, Good Shepherd Chapel | $5-$15

Things That Break
New music merges with stop-motion animation, visual art, and theatre in this multidisciplinary concert centered around the theme of “breaking.” Four Seattle-based female artists come together for a unique presentation of world premieres.
Fri, 4/6, 8pm, Good Shepherd Chapel | $5-$15

The Sound Ensemble: You Didn’t Know They Composed
Did you know some of today’s top rock stars and pop stars have tried their hands at classical composition too? The Sound Ensemble presents an evening of chamber music by the likes of Björk, Beck, Bryce Dessner, and more, plus a new commission by James McAlister.
Sat, 4/7, 7pm, Good Shepherd Chapel | $10-$15

The Esoterics: CŌNFIDŌ
The ancient rite of the Christian liturgy, the Mass, is reimagined for modern times in this program of works by Gregory Brown, Giles Swayne, and Kirke Mechem. The Esoterics sing four settings of Mass texts that express crises of faith, criticize organized religion, and prioritize the health of our planet over any individual belief.
Fri, 4/13, 8pm, St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, Seattle | $15-$22
Sat, 4/14, 8pm, Holy Rosary Catholic Church, West Seattle | $15-$22
Sun, 4/15, 7pm, Christ Episcopal Church, Tacoma | $15-$22

Seattle Modern Orchestra: The Clouds Receding
Immerse yourself in the dense sonic clouds of composers like György Ligeti and Beat Furrer, plus a new world premiere by Orlando Jacinto Garcia featuring violist Melia Watras as the soloist.
Sat, 4/14, 8pm, Good Shepherd Chapel | $10-$25

Sound of Late: 48-Hour Composition Competition
A group of composers each gets 48 hours to compose a new piece for their assigned instrumentation, and a group of performers gets six days to prepare before they perform the works live in concert.
Sat, 4/14, 8pm, Gallery 1412 | FREE

SMCO: Songs and Dances of Peace
The Seattle Metropolitan Chamber Orchestra performs a powerful program exploring Leonard Bernstein’s now-ubiquitous quote, “This shall be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.” Featured composers include Bernstein, Barber, Golijov, and Tchaikovsky.
Sat, 4/14, 8pm, First Free Methodist Church | $15-$25
Sun, 4/15, 2pm, Rainier Arts Center | $15-$25

What Better Than Call a Dance?
Experimental chamber troupe Kin of the Moon joins forces with dancer/choreographer Karin Stevens and clarinetist/improvisor Beth Fleenor for a program that wildly reimagines dance music from Renaissance to waltz to tango and even EDM.
Fri, 4/20, 8pm, Good Shepherd Chapel | $5-$15

On Stage with KING FM: Earth Day Celebration
The Ecco Chamber Ensemble celebrates Earth Day with a program of music exploring the vital role of water in both our basic survival as well as our art.
Sat, 4/21, 7:30pm, Resonance at SOMA Towers | $20-$25

Symphony Tacoma: Earth Songs from the Harp
Grammy-nominated electric harpist Deborah Henson-Conant joins Symphony Tacoma for a boundary-bursting program ranging from blues and jazz to flamenco, folk, and beyond.
Sun, 4/22, 2:30pm, Pantages Theater | $19-$82

Seattle Art Song Society: Elemental
In honor of Earth Day, the Seattle Art Song Society performs songs inspired by the elements of fire, earth, water, and air. The program features music by Ruth Crawford Seeger, Aaron Copland, Juliana Hall, Ernst Bacon, Björk, and more, plus brand new works by Steven Luksan and Brian Armbrust.
Sun, 4/22, 3:30pm, Queen Anne Christian Church | $20-$40

Seattle Symphony: Stravinsky Persephone
A stunning cast of star soloists, dancers, and puppeteers (plus three choirs and four grand pianos!) join the symphony for an entire evening of Stravinsky rarities, including his Persephone, Les noces, “Song of the Volga Boatmen,” and Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments.
Thurs, 4/26, 7:30pm, Benaroya Hall | $42-$79
Sat, 4/28, 8pm, Benaroya Hall | $42-$79

Seattle Symphony: [untitled] 2
Symphony musicians dive into the mind of Stravinsky with a performance of his elegant Octet, a piece which first came to him in a dream. Plus, the Dmitry Pokrovsky Ensemble brings a scintillating blend of folk traditions and extended techniques to two wild works by Russian composers Vladimir Nikolaev and Alexander Raskatov.
Fri, 4/27, 10pm, Benaroya Hall | $16

NOCCO: Lost Sisterhood; Found Landscapes
The North Corner Chamber Orchestra presents a newly commissioned Cello Concerto by Philip Lasser alongside Louise Farrenc’s stunning Symphony No. 3 and Aaron Copland’s unforgettable Appalachian Spring.
Sat, 4/28, 2pm, University Christian Church | $15-$25
Sun, 4/29, 7:30pm, The Royal Room | $15-$25

Music of Mother Nature: 5 Works Inspired by the Great Outdoors

Photo by Erin Anderson.

by Maggie Molloy

The Emerald City is famously green—and not just in terms of plant life. Last year Seattle was rated among the top 15 most environmentally sustainable cities in the U.S., and by 2050 we aim to be completely carbon neutral.

Last Saturday was Earth Day: a worldwide event dedicated to education and awareness around issues of environmental protection and sustainability. But here in Seattle, every day is Earth Day; every day, we strive to take care of our planet and work toward a sustainable future.

Photo by Erin Anderson.

So in celebration of our beautiful planet—both last weekend and every day—we’re sharing some of our favorite pieces inspired by plants, animals, and the overwhelming magnificence of Mother Nature:

Mamoru Fujieda: Patterns of Plants

We experience plant life through a variety of senses: sight, taste, touch, smell. But have you ever wondered what plants sound like? Japanese post-minimalist composer Mamoru Fujieda decided to find out.

He spent 15 years of his career creating music based on the electrical activity in living plants. Using a device called a “Plantron,” he measured electrical fluctuations on the surface of plant leaves and converted that data into sound. Fujieda then foraged through the resulting sonic forest for pleasing musical patterns, which he used as the basis for his magnum opus: a bouquet of piano miniatures blooming with ornamented melodies and delicate details.


Meredith Monk: On Behalf of Nature

Meredith Monk likes to think outside the box—the voice box, that is. Famous for her groundbreaking exploration of the voice as an instrument and a language in and of itself, her music speaks volumes without ever using words.

Monk’s multidisciplinary performance piece On Behalf of Nature is a wordless poetic meditation on the environment; an exploration of the delicate space where humans coexist with the natural and spiritual world. The result is an almost ritualistic soundscape of extended vocal techniques dancing above a hypnotic and at times eerie instrumental accompaniment.


John Luther Adams: Become Ocean

Just about everything in John Luther Adams’ musical oeuvre qualifies as organic Earth Day ear candy, but we Seattleites are partial to his Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece Become Ocean, commissioned and premiered by our own Seattle Symphony in 2013.

Inspired by the spectacular waters of the Pacific Northwest and composed in reaction to the imminent threats of global warming, Become Ocean is a literal ocean of sound—a sparkling seascape that immerses the listener in beautiful washes of color. Harmonies ebb and flow with the fluidity of the tide, cresting into bold, climactic waves amid misty and melodic winds.

“As a composer, it’s my belief that music can contribute to the awakening of our ecological understanding,” Adams said. “By deepening our awareness of our connections to the earth, music can provide a sounding model for the renewal of human consciousness and culture.”


Nat Evans: Coyoteways

Seattle composer Nat Evans spent many a night listening to the lonely howl of the coyote as he hiked the 2,600-mile Pacific Crest Trail. So many, in fact, that the animal became the inspiration (along with the writings of Beat poet Gary Snyder) for an album that explores the mythological role of the coyote as a cunning trickster and schemer.

Coyoteways evokes the vast and expansive landscapes of the American West by layering field recordings from Evans’ travels brushed with long, sweeping guitar lines and occasional whispers of saxophone and percussion. The result is an ambient soundscape that echoes with the simple splendor of the great outdoors and the stealthy gaze of the coyotes that watch over it.


Whitney George: Extinction Series

Our planet is currently in the midst of its sixth mass extinction of plants and animals—the worst wave of species die-offs since the loss of the dinosaurs over 65 million years ago. Composer Whitney George is fighting to change those numbers.

George’s Extinction Series is an ongoing collection of somber and introspective miniatures for various solo instruments, each one composed as a musical obituary to an extinct animal on the rapidly-growing list. The sheer volume of this indeterminate series serves as commentary on mankind’s careless destruction of our planet—and it also poses a direct challenge to Earth’s inhabitants: in order for the series to ever be completed, we must first fundamentally change how we interact with our environment.