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.

VIDEO PREMIERE: Third Coast Percussion Paddles to the Sea

by Maggie Molloy

Skittering wood blocks, ceramic tiles, finger cymbals, and bowls of water are just a few of the unusual instruments employed in Third Coast Percussion’s new film score for Paddle to the SeaWe’re thrilled to premiere a video of the group performing Act I of their original score, which was co-commissioned by Meany Center for the Performing Arts and performed there earlier this year.

The Oscar-nominated film Paddle to the Sea is based on Holling C. Holling’s 1941 children’s book of the same name, which follows the epic journey of a small wooden boat that is carved and launched by a young Native Canadian boy.

“I am Paddle to the Sea” he inscribes on the bottom of the boat. “Please put me back in the water.”

Over the course of the film, the boat travels for many years from Northern Ontario through the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Seaway out to the Atlantic Ocean and far beyond—and each time it washes ashore, a kind stranger places it back in the water.

Third Coast’s new film score (recently released as an album on Cedille Records) is inspired by and interspersed with music by Philip Glass and Jacob Druckman, along with traditional music of the Shona people of Zimbabwe. All of the music in the score is inspired by water, with Third Coast performing an entire ocean of sounds ranging from pitched desk bells to wine glasses, water bottles, sandpaper, and one particularly special instrument: the mbira.

The mbira is a thumb piano that plays a leading role in the Shona music from Zimbabwe. In fact, one of the pieces on the album, Chigwaya, is a traditional song used to call water spirits in the Shona religion—a song which was taught to Third Coast by their mentor Musekiwa Chingodza. By incorporating elements of their Western classical training with their study of the traditional music of the Shona people, Third Coast weaves together their own epic musical journey.

And in the spirit of Holling’s original story, the music itself becomes the small wooden boat: rather than keep it for themselves, the musicians add what they can and send the story out into the world again for others to discover.


Third Coast Percussion’s Paddle to the Sea is now available on Cedille Records. Click here to purchase the album.

NUMUS Celebrates New Music in the Northwest

by Maggie Molloy

Photo by Jim Holt.

You like new music? Then you’re going to love NUMUS Northwest.

Now in its second year, NUMUS Northwest is a day-long event dedicated to the creation, performance, and experience of new music in Seattle and beyond. Join us Saturday, January 20 from 8:30am-9:30pm at Cornish College of the Arts’ Kerry Hall for a full day of new and experimental music. Click here to RSVP.

NUMUS is created and curated under the direction of six new music luminaries: Kevin Clark (New Music USA), James Falzone (Cornish College of the Arts), Jim Holt, Shaya Lyon (Live Music Project), Kerry O’Brien (Cornish), and Maggie Stapleton (Jensen Artists). This year’s event features everything from workshops on audience cultivation to live performances of music for electric kitchen appliances. Plus, Second Inversion’s own Maggie Molloy and Seth Tompkins will lead a panel on new music in the media.

Check out the full schedule below:

8:30-9:00am: Registration, coffee, & bagels

9:00-9:15am: Welcome

9:30-10:30am: New Music Speed Dating

It’s the fastest way to meet everyone in the room! All NUMUS attendees are paired up in groups of two, switching partners every 60 seconds until everyone is acquainted.


11:00-11:50am: The Other Side of the Inbox: Media Perspectives on New Music

Leah Baltus, City Arts Magazine Editor-in-Chief
Maggie Molloy, Second Inversion Editor
Sarah Zwinklis, Relevant Tones Producer (WFMT Radio)
Seth Tompkins, 98.1 Classical KING FM Program Director

Radio and print media professionals in Seattle and Chicago discuss the media’s perspective on new music and offer tips, tricks, and strategies for how to pitch new music to local and national media organizations.


12:00-12:50pm: Where the Wild Things Are: The New Age of Organizations and Audiences

Andrew Goldstein, Emerald City Music Executive Director

Emerald City Music Executive Director Andrew Goldstein explores methods for building an organization, attracting an audience, and elevating engagement in classical and new music, providing real-world examples from his experience co-founding Emerald City Music.


1:00-2:30: Lunch Break | Ask a Fundraiser | Piano in Perpetual Progress

A leisurely lunch break allows time to set up an appointment with professional fundraiser and musician Rose Bellini, or drop by Neal Kosaly-Meyer’s long-form piano improvisation which studies the very slow evolution from one note to two to three or more.


2:30-3:30pm: Afternoon Concert: Younge, Arias, Molk, Akiho

An afternoon of experimental percussion music featuring electric junk, spoken text, field recordings, digital playback, and more.

Program:
                                                               

Bethany Younge – Electric Speak! Junk for Me! (10′)
Melanie Sehman, voice and percussion

Spencer Arias – Other Cities (20’)
Chris Sies, percussion

David Molk – hope (6.5′)
Melanie Voytovich, glockenspiel

Andy Akiho – Stop Speaking (6’)
Storm Benjamin, percussion


4:00-4:50pm: Why Are Women Composers Stuck Talking About Being Women Composers?

Lily Shababi, Cornish music student

In this homage to Pauline Oliveros, third-year Cornish student Lily Shababi takes a look back on the historical lack of women composers on concert programs and a look forward toward how we can dismantle the patriarchal systems at play in classical music.


5:00-5:50pm: Funders on Funding

Irene Gómez, Office of Arts & Culture Project Manager
Charlie Rathbun, 4Culture Arts Program Manager
Kevin Clark, Moderator
Additional panelist(s) TBA

Leadership from 4Culture and the Seattle Office of Arts and Culture discuss the arts funding process in a session moderated by philanthropy consultant and composer Kevin Clark.


6:00-7:30pm: Dinner Break


8:00-9:30pm: Evening Concert: Eaton, Soper, Furrer, Lang, Mazzoli, Triptet

NUMUS Northwest ends with an evening concert of solo and chamber music that combines acoustic instruments and live electronics.

Program:

Kaley Lane Eaton – karma repair kit (6′)
Kate Soper – Only the words themselves mean what they say (12′)
Stack Effect Duo

Beat Furrer – Voicelessness, The Snow Has No Voice (11′)
David Lang – Cage (6′)
Missy Mazzoli – Orizzonte (5′)
Missy Mazzoli – Isabelle Eberhardt Dreams of Pianos
Jesse Myers, piano

Triptet – Slowly, Away (20′)
Triptet


NUMUS Northwest is Saturday, Jan. 20 from 8:30am-9:30pm at Cornish College of the Arts’ Kerry Hall. Click here for tickets and more information.

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.

STAFF PICKS: Friday Faves

Second Inversion hosts share a favorite selection from their weekly playlist. Tune in on Friday, April 28 to hear these pieces and plenty of other new and unusual music from all corners of the classical genre!

Shara Nova: You Us We All (Zosima)
Performed with Baroque Orchestration X

In recent years there’s been a notable resurgence of Baroque forms and instruments in contemporary classical music—but nowhere so convincingly as in Shara Nova’s Baroque chamber pop opera You Us We All.

This colorful court masque tells the story of five allegorical characters searching for meaning in the modern age, traversing through corny fan letters and cornetto solos, broken hearts and Baroque instruments all along the way.

Nova’s lustrous vocals sparkle in the leading role of Hope, alongside a small but mighty cast of singers who play Virtue, Love, Time, and of course, Death. Baroque Orchestration X provides a clean and courtly backdrop on period instruments, with some more modern percussion (typewriter, anyone?) thrown in for a 21st-century spin. All in all, it’s the perfect marriage of old and new: antique instruments, modern music, timeless themes—and just a dash of existentialism. – Maggie Molloy

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


Béla Fleck and Mike Marshall: “The Big Cheese” (Sony Classical)

Here in Seattle, it FINALLY feels like spring has arrived… after a record-breaking-ly soggy winter (look it up).  Still, I’ve been feeling some hesitation to go outside and reconnect with the glowing orb in the sky.  If you, like me, could use a kick in the pants to “get out there,” this track could just do the trick.  The lithe Appalachian flavors here are mixed with some decidedly more square music by English Renaissance composer William Byrd.  Perfect!
Seth Tompkins

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


Patrick Laird: “Che” 
Performed by Break of Reality

Break of Reality is the ultimate “don’t usually like classical but I love this” band.  They brand themselves as “cello rock” and it’s a fitting description as even my punk-rock-playing drummer dad would feel at home in this music.  With fierce cellos and intense percussion, “Che” is a passionate, almost violent, exploration of anger and fear.  If you’re looking for a unique classical experience, this is your stop.
Rachele Hales

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


Julia Wolfe: Early that summer (Innova Records)
Performed by ETHEL

Boy, this is a crunchy piece. Wolfe uses dissonance throughout this ostinato-filled string quartet to propel the energy along, creating an unfolding sense of conflict. It makes sense: she composed the work while reading a book on American political history, where seemingly small incidents (often introduced in the book with the phrase “early that summer”) would snowball into major political crises. This piece was composed in 1992, but it still represents some music that instead of shying away from the dissonance of our current political climate, dives fully in and revels in it.  – Geoffrey Larson

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

Seattle New Music Happy Hour: Monday, April 24 at 5:30pm

by Maggie Molloy

Got the Monday blues? Get happy with us tonight at the next Seattle New Music Happy Hour, co-hosted by Second Inversion and the Live Music Project.

Join us TONIGHT, Monday, April 24 at 5:30pm at the cozy Fireside Room at Hotel Sorrento in Seattle. (Note the new location!) 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.

Seattle Sounds and Musical Utterances: Q&A with James Falzone and Bonnie Whiting

“There is a ‘sound’ here, no doubt,” says James Falzone of Seattle’s distinctive new music scene. “It is one I would describe as patient and less influenced by the frenetic energy that you might find in a city with less vistas.”

Photo on left by Patrick Monaghan.

Those famous Northwest vistas are relatively new to clarinetist/composer James Falzone and percussionist Bonnie Whiting, each of whom recently moved here from the Midwest to serve as educators at two major academic institutions: Falzone as the new Chair of Music at Cornish College of the Arts and Bonnie Whiting as the Chair of Percussion Studies and Artist in Residence at the University of Washington.

Both powerful players in contemporary and experimental music circles, Falzone and Whiting first met at one of our New Music Happy Hours (co-presented with the Live Music Project)—and their conversation led to a musical collaboration which premieres this Thursday, March 2 at the Wayward Music Series.

Utterances is the name of the performance, which combines original, composed, and improvised music based on text, spoken word, and translation. The program merges the distinct sounds and styles of each musician: Falzone known for his matchless musical fusion of jazz, classical, and world music traditions, and Whiting for her interdisciplinary performances which often venture into nontraditional notation and instrumentation.

The concert program opens and closes with duo improvisations that expand, challenge, and subvert the traditional roles of clarinet and percussion. In between are solo sets featuring original works by Falzone, Whiting, and other composers, along with a performance by Falzone’s jazz-infused clarinet and saxophone sextet the Renga Ensemble.

We sat down with both artists to talk about Seattle sound experiments, unusual instruments, and musical utterances:

Second Inversion: You are both relatively new to Seattle, each serving as educators at two major academic institutions in the Northwest.  What do you find most inspiring about your respective new roles, and what do you hope to accomplish?

Photo by William Frederking.

James Falzone: Cornish has a legacy unlike any other institution, connected to the very heart of American experimentalism. Being the steward of that legacy is something I find very exciting but also humbling, and I intend to take good care of it. This means learning from that legacy and continuing the sense of openness, experimentation, and disruption that Cornish has always represented.

Bonnie Whiting: There are already so many fabulous opportunities that exist for percussionists at UW: the Harry Partch instrument collection on campus, a partnership with the Seattle Symphony, opportunities to perform with groups like the steel band and gamelan ensembles through the ethnomusicology department, and an ever-expanding jazz program.

I’m excited to teach, create, and perform new music by living composers alongside historical works from the 20th century. I also plan more touring and outreach for the percussion ensemble. In March, we’ll perform and lead a hands-on workshop for Tent City 3 (currently hosted on the UW campus.) I’ve been giving workshops in local high schools and middle schools, and we are going to be featured at the Northwest Percussion Festival in April.

In addition to my work with the students, it’s thrilling to have such great faculty colleagues. It’s an incredible scene for new music and improvised music, and I’ve met so many dream collaborators. Right now, I’m working on a project with another new faculty member in the DX Arts program: Afroditi Psarra. She has these incredible embroidered synthesizers and works with sensors, and so integrating these into a percussive soundscape has been fascinating.


SI: What do you find most unique or inspiring about the Northwest’s new music scene?

JF: There is a “sound” here, no doubt. It is one I would describe as patient and less influenced by the frenetic energy that you might find in a city with less vistas. I’m hearing this in composed music, in improvised music, in the soundscape around me; even in the way people speak.

Artists seem hard at work here, presenting their ensembles and music and building a sense of community, attributes of a healthy, vibrant scene. I’m delighted to be a part of it as an artist, and hope to use my role at Cornish to be of service. The wonderful NUMUS Northwest event—which, though not sponsored by Cornish, was held there as a means of service to the community—is an example of what I want to see Cornish doing more of in the future.

Solo improvisation by James Falzone, inspired by the writing of Christian Wiman:


SI: How did this collaboration come about, and how would you describe the music you’re creating together in this performance?

BW: James happened to sit across from me at a New Music Happy Hour last fall, and we had a great conversation. I had heard of him and was familiar with his music; we both moved from the Midwest and moved in similar experimental music circles but hadn’t yet had the pleasure of collaborating.

Earlier this month, we opened the Seattle Improvised Music Festival with a duo set and it was a real joy. One of the elements that has developed (that I love) is the way we subvert the traditional roles played by a percussionist and a wind player. Often, he’ll play rhythmic, groove figures while I make distorted long tones. He’s also happy to move while playing and explore the space. It’s been fun to find percussion instruments that can travel too.

Transcription of an electronic audio score by Richard Logan-Greene. Original realization and performance by Bonnie Whiting:


SI: The Renga Ensemble features six clarinets/saxophones—what is it about this instrument combination that grabs you and pulls you in?

JF: I love homogenous sounding ensembles, though I know many composers do not. The sound of six single reeds resonating together offers far more color than one might imagine. But Renga Ensemble, both in its original state and now with this Seattle mix of players, has always been about personality coming through the texture by way of improvisation.

All of the music I’ll be presenting incorporates improvisation, mixed with through-composed elements, and this back and forth—this teetering between the “already” and the “not yet”—is what my work focuses on. For me, improvisation brings forth a musician’s personality like nothing else can and the challenge I set for myself in the Renga music is to find the balance point so that you hear the voice of each player as much as you hear the voice of the composer.


SI: Many of your percussion performances feature unusual instruments, sounds, or spoken elements—has your career as a percussionist changed the way you listen to your surroundings in your everyday life? (Or vice versa—was it your interest in sounds that originally led you to percussion?)

BW: Even as a kid I had a long attention span, and I have always loved sounds. My mother says some of my first toys were pots and pans on the kitchen floor. Just the other night I was listening to the radio on a long drive across upstate New York, and I stumbled upon the last movement of Mahler 9.  It’s quite long and I was on the Thruway, so gradually the piece became punctuated by static as I moved out of range. This intensified the listening experience for me: my memory filled in some of the music, my imagination more, and I actually enjoy the sound of static.

I’ve spent more time than I’d like to admit trying to replicate the sound of static and white noise on my snare drum and sandpaper blocks, and my collection of found tuned pot lids are more valuable to me than my five-octave marimba. I’m naturally drawn to pieces that use speech patterns to generate rhythmic material: Globokar’s Toucher and Parenti’s Exercise No. 4 on our program feature this technique. These days, I have a very young son and I enjoy “performing” our bedtime stories, adding sound effects and rhythm each night.


SI:What were some of the written sources that inspired the music of Utterances?

JF: In addition to improvised duets with Bonnie, I’ll be presenting two works that connect to text. The first is an ongoing solo project I call “Sighs Too Deep for Words,” which is an improvised, long-form work that is inspired by language from the New Testament that speaks of “utterances,” which is sometimes translated as “sighs,” that communicate the prayers we do not have words for.

The other pieces come from music I’ve created for my Renga Ensemble, which takes its name from a form of Japanese collective poetry. Most of the music for Renga was created around a haiku by American poet Anita Virgil:

not seeing
the room is white
until that red apple

“The Room Is,” composed by James Falzone and performed with the Renga Ensemble:


SI: What are you most looking forward to with this performance, and what do you hope audience members will gain from attending?

BW: John Cage often said that his goal as a composer was to “make an art that, while coming from ideas, is not about those ideas, but rather produces others.” I echo this desire when I honestly answer that I don’t wish for our audience members to gain any one insight or worse, “message.” I hope our program might inspire others to improvise, or to make work of their own, or to seek out the fantastic spirit that is within each mundane utterance or environmental sound in their daily lives.

Photo on right by Marc Perlish.

Utterances is Thursday, March 2 at 8pm at the Chapel Performance Space at the Good Shepherd Center in Wallingford. For more information, click here.