ALBUM REVIEW: The Hands Free

by Gabriela Tedeschi

Over the course of the past decade, the four composer-performers who make up the Hands Free have performed together in a variety of contexts. They found that what they loved doing the most was holding informal late-night jam sessions—which is what led to the quartet’s inception.

James Moore, who plays guitar and banjo for the group, became interested in a 1937 book that combines the poetry of  Paul Eluard with Man Ray’s line drawings. It’s called Les Mains Libres (Hands Free), a phrase Eluard and Ray used to describe allowing the imagination to play freely. Inspired to make music based on this concept, Moore thought of his late-night jams and invited Pulitzer Prize-winning Caroline Shaw (violin), Nathan Koci (accordion), and Eleonore Oppenheim (bass) to join him for imaginative musical play, creating The Hands Free and their debut self-titled album, out now on New Amsterdam Records.

The ensemble likes to perform unamplified, sit in a circle, and incorporate improvisation in almost every piece so performance feels like play and the sound is especially organic. For The Hands Free, they’ve also worked to integrate a mix of genres from folk music to jazz while drawing from the contemporary classical scene as well.

By making use of the cultural associations of genres and instrument colors, The Hands Free transports you to different parts of the world. Drawing themes from folk songs, the lively violin melody in “Kellam’s Reel/Rusty Gully” takes you to the Scottish countryside for a jovial dance. The gentle, romantic melody in “Lirr Bleu” conjures up images of Paris. With its bittersweet quality and the bass’s soft, melancholy countermelody, the piece seems to depict a broken heart in the City of Love.

In other pieces, The Hands Free challenges your perception of instruments and genres by combining them in new ways. “Lost Halo” begins with a banjo pattern that evokes the stereotypical twang of rural folk music—but when the violin enters with legato melodic lines, the banjo becomes more versatile than we often imagine it to be, intermixing tender consonant chords with dark, suspenseful dissonance for a surprisingly modern sound.

“Sade” almost sounds as though it could be from a horror movie soundtrack, with unpredictable percussion and blares of sound leading the piece into a creepy folk melody variation. Eerie tone clusters form as accordion slides clash against the rest of the ensemble. Alternately, in “It’s She” the violin transitions from another Scottish jig into a rich, lyrical melody. Beneath the violin quick, quiet bursts of tone and soft melodic humming add depth to the texture, creating something hopeful and grandiose.

With its complexity and variety, The Hands Free takes you on a journey around the world while maintaining the warmth and spontaneity of an impromptu jam session. With their beautifully eclectic mix of sounds that depict an immense variety of places and emotions, the quartet invites you to join in their play and let your imagination run free.

STAFF PICKS: Friday Faves

Second Inversion hosts share a favorite selection from their weekly playlist. Tune in on Friday, January 12 to hear these pieces and plenty of other new and unusual music from all corners of the classical genre!

Angélica Negrón: La Isla Mágica (Innova Recordings)
Eleonore Oppenheim, double bass

Brimming with whimsy and wistful nostalgia, Angélica Negrón’s La Isla Mágica combines punchy, video game-worthy electronics with double bass, percussion, and ambient vocals. Performed here by Eleonore Oppenheim on her debut solo album Home, her bass swings, sways, and dances amid a swirl of technicolor electronics. At times it sounds almost as though she’s in the middle of a theme park, playing among the neon signs, the colorful carnival games, and the translucent stars above. – Maggie Molloy

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 1pm hour today to hear this piece.


Gabriela Lena Frank: Danza de los Saqsampillos (Naxos Records)
Alias Chamber Ensemble

I seriously can’t get enough of these works by Gabriela Lena Frank, with all their vibrant colors and stunning rhythmic character. Gabriela was born in the US to parents of Peruvian/Chinese and Lithuanian/Jewish ancestry, and much of her music is influenced by her heritage. Danza de los Saqsampillos is inspired by the Peruvian “saqsampillo,” a rambunctious jungle-dweller with a characteristic jumping two-person dance. This performance from the Alias Chamber Ensemble album Hilos is the version for two marimbas.
– Geoffrey Larson

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


David Bowie: “Ashes to Ashes” (arr. Bischoff)
Amanda Palmer and Jherek Bischoff

David Bowie once said that “Ashes to Ashes” represented his own feelings of inadequacy about his work not having much importance.  Until “Ashes to Ashes” was released in 1980, much of Bowie’s music was cloaked in concept and personas so the vulnerability and maturity of this song was, among other things, his way of closing that chapter and moving on. In this version, from an album recorded just two weeks following Bowie’s death in 2016, the harsh textures, edginess, and synthesized guitars of the original are replaced with softer melancholy strings and sultry nightclub vocals.  Bowie is celebrated here, not emulated, and that’s what makes this tribute shine.
 Rachele Hales

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


David Crowell: “Waiting in the Rain for Snow” (New Amsterdam Records)
NOW Ensemble

This is exactly what waiting in the rain for snow sounds like.

NOW Ensemble’s flute, clarinet, double bass, oboe, piano, and electric guitar combine the excitement and anticipation of dramatic, beautiful flakes drifting from the sky, with the anxious desire to stay dry while the undesirable in-between phase of sleet insistently pounds the pavement in front of you. – Brendan Howe

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 9pm hour today to hear this piece.

ALBUM REVIEW: Florent Ghys’ Bonjour

by Maggie Molloy

What does your Monday morning sound like?

For composer and videographer Florent Ghys, Monday morning sounds like a blur of metallic strings, syncopated melodies, bland newscasting, tasteful glockenspiel ornamentation, and lots and lots of double bass. Double the double bass, to be exact.

bonjour-album-cover

Ghys’ new ensemble Bonjour is a low string quartet with percussion featuring some of New York’s finest new music-makers. Comprised of Ghys and Eleonore Oppenheim on the two double basses, Ashley Bathgate on cello, James Moore on electric guitar, and Owen Weaver on percussion, the group is taking the classical string quartet model and giving it a 21st century edge.

“I’ve always loved rock bands with a lot of bass, and I’ve always dreamt of a string quartet that would be lower in register than the usual classical string quartet,” Ghys said. “So I decided to incorporate two double basses and one cello in Bonjour. I’m also trained as a classical guitarist myself, so I knew I wanted to add a guitar (acoustic and electric) that could blend with the bowed strings and bring other string timbres to Bonjour’s palette.”

That palette comes alive in Bonjour’s debut self-titled album: a series of musical snapshots capturing the moods of various days and times throughout the week. Performed in no particular order, each piece offers a refined glimpse into the sounds and sentiments of everyday living, from the jumbled, hazy newscasts of Monday morning to the chaotic afternoon distractions of Friday at 3pm.

Ghys was loosely inspired by the tradition of the Indian raga, in which different scales or modes are associated with different times of day. Fascinated by the idea that a pitch set could have its own mood, color, and specific timeframe, Ghys began applying these principles to his daily music practice.

He also, of course, combined them with his trademark jazz grooves, classical composition background, idiosyncratic bass hooks, and inimitable pop music sensibilities. Mix it all together and voilà! You have Bonjour.

florent-ghys

The album begins with “Friday 3pm,” an upbeat, danceable tune comprised of wordless vocals sighing above a bed of jagged strings—with some electric guitar embellishments thrown in for an extra punch. It sounds like the blissful anticipation of the weekend ahead: the looming promise of less work, more play.

“Wednesday” sounds a bit more like that mid-week grind: a little darker color scheme and a lot more drama. For Ghys, Wednesday brings a split mood: one moment the voices double the bassline above evergreen acoustic guitar strumming—the next moment, the strings take center stage for an angular canon above a steady rock drum beat.

bonjour-ensemble

“Thursday Afternoon” starts fresh with some jazzy bass comping, the two double bassists playing off one another as the other instruments gradually join in, feeling happy, optimistic, creative. Extraordinarily low strings fill out their indie-band sound, eventually dropping into a low, buzzing drone, like a car zooming off into the sunset for a long weekend.

That car zooms right into the track “Sunday,” a reminder of how quickly the weekend passes by. Sunday sounds calmer, nostalgic even, with strings hocketing back and forth above warbling electric guitar chords. Twinkling glockenspiel adds another layer of whimsy above the softly fluttering strings, and before you know it, it’s already “Monday Morning.”

Monday is a bit of a daze: stormy strings, circling melodies, a smattering of indecipherable voices spewing nonsensical quotes from literary and news sources. Monday goes through a lot of moods: first dark then dreamy, anxious then sleepy, focused, excited—and finally, inspired.

“Thursday Morning” is much more buoyant, with pizzicato cello and bass lines weaving in and out of one another, their vibrations echoing across the sparse musical texture. Sighing vocals start in about halfway through the piece, supported by broad bow strokes and the subtle, metallic sparkle of the glockenspiel.

The album comes to a close on “Tuesday Noon Around 12:21,” with electric guitar harmonics gradually creeping through a sparse soundscape of wispy strings, slowly growing in depth and drama as the day wears on.

But whether it’s a Tuesday afternoon or the tail end of the work week, the different days and times ultimately all blend together, and as weeks pass by those individual moments become less and less individual. Certain hours share a similar character, certain feelings or moods last across several days—certain sounds and certain moments bleed into the larger fabric of our lives.

And it’s that sense of wholeness—of complex intersection between those distinctly individual moments across the album—that makes Bonjour the perfect soundtrack for any day of the week.

ALBUM REVIEW: Eleonore Oppenheim’s Home

by Maggie Molloy

In classical music, the double bass is one of those instruments you never really hear much about. In fact, you rarely even hear it very much at all—usually the bass is pushed to the back corner of the stage, largely reduced to providing rhythmic support, textural depth, and a lower pitch range for the rest of a larger ensemble.

But not anymore.

Eleonore Oppenheim

Bassist Eleonore Oppenheim recently released her debut solo album Home: a collection of five contemporary works which explore the vast and varied possibilities of the double bass as a modern solo instrument. To bring the vision to life, she enlisted the talents of five fearlessly innovative and experimental composers.

“We as bassists have a conundrum,” Oppenheim said. “As our technique evolves, and as we explore the ever-expanding possibilities of our instrument as a voice that can stand on its own, we need music to play that will grow and evolve with us. I am fortunate enough to have a number of talented and adventurous composer friends who all have an interest in pushing the limits not just of the instrument, but of preconceived ideas of genre and form.”

Among those friends are the likes of Angélica Negrón, Florent Ghys, Wil Smith, Jenny Olivia Johnson, and Lorna Dune—each of whom contributed a composition for the album.

Home

The album begins with composer Angélica Negrón’s contribution, “La Isla Mágica.” Brimming with whimsy and wistful nostalgia, the piece combines punchy, video game-worthy electronics with bowed bass, percussion, and even some ambient vocals. At times it almost sounds as though Oppenheim and her bass are in the middle of a theme park, playing among the neon signs, the colorful carnival games, and the translucent
stars above.

Florent Ghys’ “Crocodile” takes a decidedly more avant-garde turn: double the double basses. Composed for live bass, prerecorded bass, and audio samples, the piece layers two independent bass lines above excerpts from the 1996 French documentary La fabrique de l’homme occidental (The Fashioning of Western Man) by filmmaker Gérard Caillat and psychoanalyst Pierre Legendre. Broad bow strokes set the scene before shifting to funky pizzicato syncopations which showcase both Oppenheim’s technical skill as well as her musical finesse.

Percussion takes on a new meaning, though, in Wil Smith’s “Heavy Beating.” The piece features Oppenheim literally beating her bass in a series of dramatically percussive blows both on the wood and the strings. Glitchy electronics trickle in as she begins to bow, digging deep into the strings as her bass howls and growls in response.

The album’s title track, composed by Jenny Olivia Johnson, is a bit more patient in its intensity. Oppenheim slowly saws away at her lowest strings, each note buzzing, ringing, and echoing in the surrounding silence as the piece builds toward the shrill reaches of the instrument’s higher range, climaxing in a swirl of agitated bowings and electronics.

The album comes to a close with electropop remix of “Home” by composer Lorna Dune. Synthesized melodies and hypnotic drum machines dance above a slow and solemn bass line as the album slowly fades into silence.

And at just under 40 minutes, the album is over too soon—yet the musical terrain traversed over the course of just five pieces is astounding. Oppenheim drifts seemingly effortlessly from classical to noise rock, jazz to synth pop, and even toward the outer reaches of the avant-garde. In doing so, Oppenheim and her team of composers prove that 21st century bass is in very good hands indeed—and when it comes to center stage, the bass is right at Home.

Eleonore Oppenheim Photo

 

ALBUM OF THE WEEK: Octet Ensemble’s “Scatter My Ashes”

by Maggie Molloy

OctetCompositeNulogo2

I have always considered poetry to be the distant cousin of music. After all, both combine elements of rhythm, sound, lyricism, and storytelling. However, after listening through the OCTET Ensemble’s performance of “Scatter My Ashes,” I thought perhaps these two artistic mediums may be even closer than cousins; perhaps they could even be brother and sister.

“Scatter My Ashes” is a series of five poems written by Sue Susman about life, death, and darkness. Her brother, composer and keyboardist William Susman, then transformed the poems into a five-movement composition for OCTET, his New York-based contemporary music ensemble.

OCTET is essentially a jazzy big-band-turned-a-little-smaller: their sound features one of each instrument in the brass section plus rhythm. The ensemble is composed of soprano vocalist Mellissa Hughes, saxophonist Demetrius Spaneas, trumpeter Mike Gurfield, trombonist Alan Ferber, composer and keyboardist William Susman, pianist Elaine Kwon, double bassist Eleonore Oppenheim, and drummer and percussionist Greg Zuber.

 

“Scatter My Ashes” is the title track on OCTET’s debut album, where it is brilliantly framed by three other works which combine a neoclassical sound with jazz and pop elements. Hughes’ dazzling vocals soar above each piece, transitioning flawlessly from singing lyrical poetry to percussive wordless vocals depending on the composition.

The title track lays Hughes’ crystal clear voice over a relatively sparse, brass-dominated musical texture. The result is a harmonious mixture of minimalism and jazz, filled with swirling brass melodies and tender, lyrical vocals. Hughes’ voice amplifies the sorrow, hope, and drama of the poetry, making each word glow with very minimal vibrato.

The album’s opening track, the three-movement “Camille,” plays on the intermingling of vocal and instrumental timbres, using wordless vocals as a melodic and, at times, percussive element. The circling, minimalist melodies and vocal rhythms of the first movement give way to the piece’s somber, slower, jazzier middle movement before picking up the pace for the triumphant final section, a repetitive, rhythmic return to the minimal music aesthetic.

Another highlight is the ensemble’s “Piano Concerto” which, of course, is no ordinary piano concerto. Rather than showcasing a flashy soloistic piano part, the piece carefully blends subdued piano melodies with wordless vocals and brassy highlights to create a dreamlike atmosphere. The result is a beautiful and texturally fascinating sonic landscape which fully encompasses the listener in its sinuous melodies and jazz-infused rhythms.

The album finishes with “Moving in to an Empty Space,” a series of three more poems written by Sue Susman which her brother set to music for OCTET. The poignant poems explore themes of loneliness and isolation in the everyday human experience, the expressive lyrics further complimented by the softly sparkling background melodies. The pieces showcase Hughes’ impressive vocal range over a brass-dominated backdrop.

Though the entire album runs just under 45 minutes, each note is perfectly crafted and expertly executed. The precision and accuracy of each instrument’s part is a true testament to the musicianship OCTET’s members.

Without a single moment wasted, the album stands as a timeless combination of contemporary classical music, minimalism, and jazz into a profound and dynamic multidisciplinary work.