Musical Chairs: Leanna Keith on Classical KING FM

by Maggie Molloy

Leanna Keith is not your average flutist.

Sure, she can breathe beautiful, delicate melodies through her instrument—but she can also speak into it, sing, hum, or beatbox through it, clatter its keys, bend its pitches, make its melodies vibrate, flutter, shimmer, and soar.

Keith is a flutist and composer specializing in contemporary classical and experimental sounds. She explores the furthest reaches of her instrument’s range, both in music and in performance. On any given evening in Seattle you might catch her performing in new music ensembles ranging from the experimental chamber troupe Kin of the Moon to the Japanese drumming collective Dekoboko Taiko. Next Friday, she’s performing Nicole Lizée’s etudes for glitch film on a concert with pianist Jesse Myers.

And this Friday, Oct. 19 at 7pm PT, she’s in the Classical KING FM studios as the special guest on Musical Chairs with Mike Brooks, where she will share a handful of her favorite recordings from across her musical career, plus details about her upcoming performances.

Tune in at 98.1 FM, listen through our free mobile app, or click here to stream the interview online from anywhere in the world!

VIDEO PREMIERE: Pascal Le Boeuf’s ‘Into the Anthropocene: I. Cognitive Awakening’

by Gabriela Tedeschi

The cover of Into the Anthropocene, Grammy-nominated composer Pascal Le Boeuf’s new video EP,  is a photo from the Trinity nuclear test of 1945. That’s because the Manhattan project’s successful test of the atomic bomb is widely considered to be the start of the Anthropocene epoch, an ecological era characterized by significant changes in the earth’s ecology and biodiversity as a result of human activity.

Into the Anthropocene tells the story of humanity’s impact on the earth in three movements: “Cognitive Awakening”, “Requiem for the Extinct”, and “Amid the Apocalypse.” With the use of electronic layering, “Cognitive Awakening” features Gina Izzo on the flute, bass flute, and piccolosometimes all at once.

As a somber, legato melody unfolds over long, sustained chords, the piece is augmented by birdlike twittering from the piccolo, key clattering, electronic sounds, and muffled dialogue that can’t quite be made out. “Cognitive Awakening” is a beautiful evocation of nature, but at the same time, a sobering reminder of what has been lostand what might still be lost.

We’re thrilled to premiere the video for Le Boeuf’s “Cognitive Awakening,” performed by Gina Izzo.


Learn more about Le Boeuf’s new piece in our interview with the composer below:

Second Inversion: Into the Anthropocene features three movements scored for the flute family, viola, and cello, respectively. What was the inspiration behind this form and how do the individual movements relate to one another?

Pascal Le Boeuf: Into the Anthropocene is scored like a lead sheet to be inclusive of any instrument. The score specifies only the most essential elements to dictate structure, basic ideas, and guide improvisation. Beyond the conservation ecology concept, my intention was to create a series of simple pieces to invite classically trained musicians to experiment with improvisation and hardware electronics (guitar pedals). I generally engage with improvisation as a compositional device to provide performers with a platform for self-expression. This allows for a different interpretation with each performance (as opposed to a ridged set of directions to translate the composer’s singular intended expression). 

Commissioned by choreographer Kristin Draucker for the Periapsis Open Series, Into the Anthropocene was written for violinist Todd Reynolds whom I met at the Bang on a Can Summer Music Festival in 2015. I worked with Todd as well as violinist Maya Bennardo while at Bang on a Can, and later completed the piece with the help of violinist Sabina Torosjan while in residence at the I-Park Foundation’s 2015 Composers + Musicians Collaborative Residency Program. In addition to performing with electronics and improvising in his own music, Todd occasionally works as an educator, specializing in improvisation and electronic music. He has always been kind to me, offering advice and artistic input, especially when I was first began working with “contemporary classical” identifying musicians. I wanted to return his kindness with a piece of music, so when choreographer Kristin Draucker commissioned me to compose a piece, I thought of Todd immediately.

Unfortunately, due to unforeseen circumstances, Todd was suddenly unable to attend the recording session, so the same day, Todd and I called the best musicians we knew who were uniquely qualified to perform the music (i.e. musicians with experience in classical, improvisation, and electronic music). I thought it best to split the responsibility between multiple performers, and assigned the movements based upon the musical personalities of the performers: Mvt 1 – flutist Gina Izzo, Mvt 2 – violist Jessica Meyer, and Mvt 3 – cellist Dave Eggar. In retrospect, I see this outcome as a happy accident, which not only benefited the music by introducing a variety of timbres and musical personalities, but led to numerous collaborative projects with these wonderful musicians.

The formal structure of the three movements, and the conservation ecology concept in general, were initially inspired by author Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind and were further developed through conversations with notable conservation biologist Claudio Campagna and ecological/behavioral biologist Bernard Le Boeuf (my father). 

In Sapiens, Harari recounts our history as a species through a lens of evolutionary biology, postulating that biology sets the limits for global human activities, and that culture shapes what happens within those limits. I became particularly interested in prehistoric sapiens, their initial diaspora, the cognitive revolution, and the resulting extinctions of other species as a result of human impact. Following the cognitive revolution, humans developed the skills necessary to expand beyond the Afro-Asian landmass into Australia, the Americas, and various remote islands. Before humans intervened, these hosted an array of unique and flourishing species ranging from two-and-a-half ton wombats in Australia, to giant ground sloths and saber-toothed cats in the Americas. But without exception, within a few thousand years of setting foot on these territories, humans managed to kill off tremendous collections of diverse species. As Harari puts it, “Homo sapiens drove to extinction about half of the planet’s large mammals long before humans invented the wheel, writing, or iron tools,” including other human species with whom we once coexisted and even interbred. 

As a musician, I find it interesting to explore the extensions of patterns in sound, but when we consider the extensions of the destructive behavioral patterns we exhibit as a species, it is difficult to imagine a positive outcome. The three sub-movements (I: Cognitive Awakening / II: Requiem for the Extinct / III: Amid the Apocalypse) outline the past, present, and future of our ecological history. Through Harari’s lens, conversations with Campagna and my father, and subsequent research, I learned about the extent to which our planet is currently experiencing a crisis of mass extinction. We are losing species, whole ecosystems, and genes at an ever-increasingly rapid rate. Today, species disappear each year at a rate hundreds of times faster than when humans arrived on the scene. As a species known for 100,000 years to bury our dead, it is amazing we have such little respect for the deaths of other species, dozens of which are disappearing daily as a result of human activities—activities sufficient to mark a new epoch based upon human impact on the Earth’s geology and ecosystems: the Anthropocene.

SI: How does “Cognitive Awakening” relate to the beginning of the Anthropocene and human impact on the Earth?

PLB:
The cognitive revolution is a precursor to our dominance as a species and thus a precursor to the Anthropocene. According to Harari, humans became a dominant species through our ability to cooperate flexibly in large numbers—an ability derived from our unique capacity to believe in things existing purely in the imagination. The evolution of this ability is referred to as the Cognitive Revolution (c. 70,000 BCE). The first movement represents this cognitive awakening musically through an additive progression of increasingly complex elements. Something like this:

  • Static noise
  • Static droning 
  • Melody
  • Harmony
  • Call and Response
  • Speech
  • Improvisation
  • Electronic Manipulation

I like to imagine that the evolutionary progression that resulted in language, expression, and cognitive awareness has an analog in the development of music. This is how I chose to represent such a progression based upon my personal understanding of music (and perhaps based on the order in which many learn/teach music). 

SI: Into the Anthropocene features a lot of electronic layering and manipulating sounds. How does this compositional choice tie in with the overarching themes of the piece? What were some of the unique challenges or rewards of composing in this way?

My intention was to create a series of simple pieces to invite classically trained musicians to experiment with improvisation and hardware electronics (in this case, guitar pedals). Though I have a background in electronic music and enjoy complex approaches, I made a special effort to keep the electronic elements simple and accessible to performers without prior experience in electronic music.

Guitar pedals can be acquired easily at various prices at nearly any music store and are much easier to use than complex software programs like Max MSP, Protools, Logic, etc. (and are easier to understand). Each pedal represents a sound effect (in order from input to output): loop, reverb, vibrato, and delay. Each sound effect has basic parameters that are uniform across most brands. I hope that more classically trained musicians will be encouraged by this project to experiment in a similar fashion, as a gateway into composition, independent artistic development, and interdisciplinary collaborations with artists from backgrounds that transcend traditional classical environments. Every musician involved in this project is a wonderful role model for unconventional approaches to a career that began in classical music.**

**(Dave Eggar, a founding member of the FLUX Quartet, can also be heard on the opening of Coldplay’s Viva La Vida or Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange; Gina Izzo frequently performs with pedals in various contexts, and co-founded the flute and piano duo RighteousGIRLS; and Jessica Meyer, in addition to performing a one-woman show with loop pedal and viola, is a fantastic composer with recent premieres by A Far Cry, PUBLIQuartet, and Roomful of Teeth.)

The compositional choice to include electronic elements preceded the conceptual development of the piece. I view these electronic elements as raw materials for expression, and worked with them to articulate the conservation ecology concepts I described earlier. Most of the compositional challenges I faced were related to the strict parameters imposed by the loop pedal. Using a basic loop pedal means the form of each movement is additive, and will inevitably look something like this:

1
1+2
1+2+3
1+2+3+4
1+2+3+4+5

…with elements of improvisation and knob turning interspersed between stages. 

More complex loop pedals offer more structural options, but I wanted to keep this simple. Fortunately, placing the loop pedal at the beginning of the signal path allowed the subsequent effects pedals to sculpt/develop the existing looped material. Additional challenges included working with each performer to translate the score for their instrument. Since the composition doesn’t specify a particular instrument, I had the pleasure of working with each performer to find extended techniques that produced the desired effects. For example, Dave imitates a rhythmic shaker at the beginning of Mvt III by swiping his hand back and forth along the body of his cello, but if Gina were to imitate a shaker, she would blast air into her mouth piece with consonant sounds like this: [T k t k, T k t k].

The most rewarding aspect of this process is seeing how different performers interpret the music, and how rewarding the process of interpretation can be. Frequently, especially when performing standards, jazz musicians will prioritize the creative expressions of the performer over the composer. One might say the composition is not what makes the music work, but the way it’s played. When John Coltrane plays “My Favorite Things,” it sounds good because of the way he and the band play it—it’s not about the composition. The composition it just a guide. This freedom allows performers a chance to put themselves in the music, self-expression, a cathartic release. Audiences can feel it when it’s happening. I want to bring this aesthetic to classically-trained musicians. These movements are only a guide to highlight the individuals performing them. The performers and what they think about when they interpret this music… they make it work. I only provide a platform.


Pascal Le Boeuf’s Into the Anthropocene video EP will be released April 20. The album art photo is from the Los Alamos National Laboratory, and was taken 16 milliseconds after the first atomic bomb test.

Click here to pre-order the video EP on Bandcamp.

NEW VIDEO: PROJECT Trio’s “Sloeberry Jam”

by Maggie Molloy

Comprised of three classically-trained musicians with an ear for eclecticism, PROJECT Trio​ brings humor, charisma, technical prowess, and clever arrangements to classical repertoire and pop music alike.

Check out our brand new video of the trio performing their sweet and syrupy “Sloeberry Jam” at Town Hall Seattle:

Like what you hear? Check out our video library for more contemporary and cross-genre works from some of the biggest names in new music!

Women in (New) Music: Emissary Quartet Video Premiere and Q&A

by Maggie Molloy

For the Emissary Quartet, new music knows no bounds—geographical or otherwise. Comprised of four flutists living in four different cities around the U.S., the group is dedicated to expanding the flute quartet repertoire by commissioning and performing innovative new works.

Though scattered across the country, flutists Weronika Balewski, Meghan Bennett, Colleen McElroy, and Sarah Shin meet for performances and teaching residencies throughout the year, building a diverse catalogue of new works which explore the dynamic and expressive capabilities of their instrument.

We’re thrilled to premiere their latest project on Second Inversion: a brand new music video for composer Annika Socolofsky’s airy and ethereal “One wish, your honey lips,” shot and edited by Kevin Eikenberg for Four/Ten Media.

The video premiere serves as an exciting preview for the quartet’s upcoming Seattle residency, which takes place April 18-22. Centered around the goal of inspiring young artists to get creative with classical music, the five-day residency features performances and workshops throughout the greater Seattle area.

To find out more, we sat down with Socolofsky and the Emissary Quartet to talk about flutes, feminism, and future projects:

Second Inversion: What was the inspiration behind “One wish, your honey lips”?

Annika Socolofsky: As a vocalist, I have long been obsessed with the nuanced resonance of the human voice, and in particular the timbral variation and inflection inherent to many folk vocal traditions. These highly expressive micro-variations deliver intense pangs of emotion that can be sung in the subtlest of ways. They are distilled, fleeting moments of suffering and joy that fall between the cracks of melody and harmony. This piece is about the music that exists in those cracks between the notes.

SI: What were some of the unique challenges and rewards of writing for this unique instrumentation?

AS: For me, writing for Emissary Quartet was less about the instrumentation, and more about working with four amazing and truly sensitive musicians. I knew I could trust their artistry, so I called for some very demanding and expressive nuance, as well as incessantly delicate shifts in their sound color. That said, the flute quartet repertoire is so heavily based on transcriptions that I wanted to write something that was really, truly for the flute and that explored the instrument’s unique resonance in the same way a singer resides in their own unique voice.

Kristin Kuster, one of my teachers from my days at the University of Michigan, is a huge proponent of the concept of “restrained virtuosity,” a variety of virtuosity that is about detailed and sophisticated artistry, rather than dazzling showmanship. EQ truly understands this sort of musicianship, which made working with them one of the most rewarding experiences of my career thus far.

SI: In what ways (if any) do you feel that being a woman has shaped your experiences as an artist? What advice do you have for other female-identifying artists who are aspiring to creative leadership roles?

AS: I’ve grappled with this question for some time, in large part because I’ve spent my entire life battling with gender norms and expectations. However, that exact fight with gender and sexuality has undeniably shaped my art more than anything else. There are infinite components to an artist’s identity and voice, and every one of them is essential to the process of creation. This is why it’s so important to advocate for oppressed voices in the arts—the more perspectives and stories and voices we can hear from, the better we can understand one another and grow together.

My advice to female-identifying artists who aspire to have a career in the arts is quite simply: you do you. There’s no “right way” to do this stuff, whatever your teachers might say, whoever your textbooks might celebrate. There is only one thing you can do better than anyone else in this world, and that is to be beautifully, unapologetically you.

SI: What do you find most inspiring about this particular piece, and what do you think makes the flute quartet such a compelling genre to explore?

Colleen McElroy (Seattle, WA): This piece feels so natural in many ways, that playing it evokes breathing for me. The beginning comes from nothing, and the combination of multiphonics and soft high notes allow the four of us to blend seamlessly into a single sound. Annika uses so many different flute sounds—traditional tone, harmonics, multiphonics, air sounds— in such an organic way that the flute quartet becomes more like a group of voices expressing a wordless melody rather than four independent instruments.

The flute as a solo instrument has been exploited by countless composers throughout music history. There is substantial literature for the flute in nearly every genre. Solo flute offers vast possibilities in timbre, articulation, dynamics, and many other parameters—and flute quartet offers the same times four! I’d love to see more composers exploring this uncharted territory. There is so much left to discover.

Weronika Balewski (Boston, MA): The complexity of this music manifests itself in subtle tone colors, micro-gestures, and tiny melodic shifts, all in imitation of the human voice. It’s challenging from a technical standpoint, but not in a flashy way. Rather, every note and gesture has nuance and dimension. I also love the simple unison melody, the way we each play it with our own nuances, and how beautiful harmonies and counterpoint emerge as the melody gets repeated and extended.

For most of the flute quartet’s history, people have thought of it as four melodic instruments, or as an ensemble with a very high bass voice. We have a standing invitation to composers to send us radically new ideas about how four flutes could sound together. We have not even begun to exhaust the possibilities. Annika’s piece is a stunning example of one composer’s reimagination of the ensemble—she took a look at the possible sounds we know how to make and put them together in a way that pushed us to the extremes of our playing, creating a new type of sound for the flute quartet.

Meghan Bennett (Austin, TX): I find the intricacy between the parts most unique about this piece. The voices interact in such a way that sometimes it’s hard to pick one voice from another—just when you think one voice is the “melody,” another emerges. 

There is such great diversity in solo flute music, but this diverse range is not often seen in flute quartet repertoire. I think what makes the flute so appealing is that there are so many colors, articulations and extended techniques that serve to really capture audiences’ imaginations. These characteristics haven’t been explored fully in flute quartet music and I think that is what makes it such a compelling genre—there is still so much to discover.

Sarah Shin (New Brunswick, NJ): What I found unique about this piece is how Annika was able to create a homogeneous timbre with the group with the extended techniques. Usually when composers write with extended techniques, it’s for a special effect, but Annika really wrote these techniques in a way that treated them as if they’re normal notes played on the flute. This inspired me to open my mind and think outside of the box with the colors I produce on my instrument.

I think what makes flute quartet so compelling is the textures of sound four flutes can create. Yes, each flutist has their own tone, and flutes can create big and small sounds, but what makes flutes so different is the range of extended techniques they can do. Along with that, when one combines four flute sounds together and they blend well together, it’s a beautiful sound! There’s a richness and shimmer to the flute tone that I believe other woodwinds cannot create, and there is a lush sound to four flutes that is very beautiful.


The Emissary Quartet’s Seattle residency takes place April 18-22 and features collaborations with Seattle Music Partners, the University of Washington Chamber Music Lab and Flute Studios, and more. Click here for a full list of Seattle performances, workshops, and events.

STAFF PICKS: Friday Faves

Second Inversion hosts share a favorite selection from their playlist. Tune in during the indicated hours below on Friday, January 20 to hear these pieces. In the meantime, you’ll hear other great new and unusual music from all corners of the classical genre 24/7!

David P. Jones: Music for South Africa (Caballito Negro)

For many living in the United States, this past week has felt like a lit fuse. Today, protests & rallies will explode all over the country as marginalized groups and their allies rebuke violence, advocate for social justice, and work together from every corner of the nation to make a statement of unity. Seems like a good time for some “music of hope,” which is how David P. Jones describes Music for South Africa. In this piece, Jones took inspiration from the struggle against apartheid and drew from traditional South African music to create a percussion-heavy composition akin to the sounds of Johannesburg night-club jazz. Whether or not you participate in a mass movement, let Music for South Africa encourage thoughts of hope and expressions of your limitless potential. – Rachele Hales

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


Joseph Byrd: Prelude to “The Mystery Cheese Ball” American Contemporary Music Ensemble (New World)

ACME’s album exploring Joseph Byrd’s work in NYC from 1960-1963 has some interesting sounds, not least of which is the final track. This experimental work for balloon ensemble serves as the prelude to a chamber opera that was performed at Yoko Ono’s loft in the spring of 1961 (with Ono as one of the performers). There is no score, rather only a sort of oral history of the event to follow: each performer is instructed to allow air to escape their balloon, creating different pitches by stretching the neck in different ways. It results in an improvised crowd of squeaks and whines, and it goes for some time – maybe the balloons are pretty big in this recording. Some combine together to almost form a melody, but not quite. It’s a good bit nose-thumbing anti-music, with a hilariously abrupt ending as the last bit of air escapes. – Geoffrey Larson

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


Madeleine Cocolas: If Wisdom Fails (Futuresequence) 

A distillation of her “track-a-week-for-52-weeks” composition project, Cocolas’s album Cascadia was written after the composer relocated from Australia to Seattle.  Lately, my ever-deepening connections to the Seattle area have been an indispensable source of solace, and those feeling were brought back to the surface by If Wisdom Fails.  Seattle’s The Stranger newspaper called this album “cathartic;” I wholeheartedly agree. – Seth Tompkins

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 5pm hour today to hear this piece.


Matt Marks: The Little Death, Vol. 1 (New Amsterdam Records)

Matt Marks’ The Little Death, Vol. 1 is a classic tale of boy meets girl—except for instead of the familiar happily-ever-after ending, the boy and girl take a romantic ride through the world of Fundamentalist Evangelism, struggling to cope with their religion-prescribed repressed sexuality in the 21st century.

Performed by Marks and Mellissa Hughes, the post-Christian nihilist pop opera features 11 provocatively-titled chapters which detail the extraordinarily convoluted relationship between religion and sexuality using surprisingly modest means: Marks self-produced the album using only a couple microphones and a laptop running Ableton Live.

The ambitious two-character theatrical work draws on sampled material from Marks’ own collection of 1970s gospel, hip-hop, and soul albums, crafting surprisingly catchy tunes that fuse hypnotic pop hooks with satirical lyrics and apocalyptic Christian imagery. It’s definitely not your traditional church service—but it’s a surprisingly spiritual experience.
Maggie Molloy

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 7pm hour today to hear an excerpt from this recording.

CONCERT PREVIEW: Northwest Symphony Orchestra Premieres Flute Concerto by Sarah Bassingthwaighte

by Maggie Stapleton

“Music has always been the constant in my life,” teenage Sarah Bassingthwaighte realized when it came time to make those big life decisions about college majors.

bassingthwaighte-sarah

Sarah started piano lessons at age 4, composing when she was 5 (she still has these early works, notated in very large script), and flute at age 9. A lingering interest in composition led to formal study at Indiana University (while pursuing a flute degree) with composers like Harvey Sollberger. Hearing some of the new ideas and new sounds that these composers came up with was eye-opening for Sarah – “There’s all this other stuff you can do!” – and she felt like a door had been opened. Little did she know, there would eventually be an entire house of doors.

0702 Siegel-Laufer 5-28-09House of Doors is a concerto for flute and orchestra which will be premiered by Merrie Siegel and the Northwest Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Anthony Spain on Saturday, April 30 at 8pm.
It was composed in the last 6 months, and it’s the first piece she’s written for flute that she is not premiering, which presented some challenges. “I had to see if my notation, my ability to communicate my ideas, worked. When I premiere my own piece, I just play what was in my head in the first place and I’m not even looking at the page. But now I have to see if it works!”

photo credit: Mark Manning

The inspiration for this concerto came from a Buddhist meditation exercise created by Anna Wise of the same name, House of Doors, and it was simultaneously “the most fun” and a “profound experience” for Sarah. Here’s how it works, in a nutshell: You’re in a house that you’ve invented and there’s a hallway with many doors. All the doors look different and you get to go and open any door you want, walk inside the room, look at it in as much detail as you can, walk around, see what’s there, change what you want. Then you leave, close the door, and you can go in another one. The idea is not just to hone your observation and imagination but also to get in touch with your ability to change things in your life.

To hear a sneak peek of House of Doors (the flute and piano reduction) click here!

seoul-door-consruction-screen

In Sarah’s first experience, she visited three rooms.

First, she walked into a room that initially looked like a normal bedroom, but on deeper examination she saw little plants and tendrils and deeper in, a dark jungle that went for miles and miles full of orchids and vines.

The next door was a dark, hot, uncomfortable red cave with an empty chair under a spotlight. It was a very scary place.

Through the last door, there was no floor, no ceiling, just sky. She stepped into the room and moved about how she wished. Flying, free, and fun.

Those images were powerful to Sarah and became the launching points for the piece. It was first notated graphically with just textures and a few descriptive words – it wasn’t until months after she started composing that notes and rhythms came about. “One thing I’ve loved about composing is connecting with the other arts. In this case, a feeling of motion, maybe dance, of visual arts and finding the place where they all meet and eventually ending up in my field, music, and creating the piece. Even within the field of music, Sarah’s had some variety and departures.

After her time at IU, Sarah took a break from classical music to play bass in punk rock bands. That seemingly “left turn” wasn’t totally unrelated to her classical training and she’s been able to find a link between all types of music. The directness and even some of the experimentalism in classical music transferred to the bands she was playing with and she found that a sense of attitude and sense of humor is present in both.

“I went into music and never looked back. I love it and I’ll never get bored of it.”

hdr_home

 

The House of Doors Concerto for Flute and Orchestra will be performed on Saturday, April 30 at 8 p.m. at the Highline Performing Arts Center in Burien. For tickets and additional information, please visit this link.

ALBUM REVIEW: Traffic Quintet Plays Alexandre Desplat

by Maggie Molloy
desplat_alexandre_v2_c_brigitte_lacombe_hi_res
Most music and film fans are familiar with the music of Alexandre Desplat. After all, eight Oscar nominations (including one win), two BAFTA awards, a Golden Globe, and two Grammys tend to put you on the map.

But even if you’ve never heard of Alexandre Desplat, you’ve almost certainly heard his music. Do movies like The Queen, The Golden Compass, and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button ring a bell? How about The Danish Girl, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Godzilla, and The Grand Budapest Hotel? Desplat composed the music for all of them, and for many more.

But you don’t have to be a movie buff to appreciate the music of Desplat—in fact, you don’t even have to watch the movies.
TrafficQuintet-Desplat-Planes
The Traffic Quintet recently released an album titled “Traffic Quintet Plays Alexandre Desplat,” which reimagines 13 of Desplat’s famous film scores for piano quintet, with occasional interventions from the composer himself on flute, glockenspiel, and celesta.

Led by director and violinist Dominique Lemonnier (better known as Solrey), the Traffic Quintet is committed to revisiting iconic soundtracks which have entered into the musical canon. The ensemble, which features violinists Solrey and Constantin Bobesco, violist Estelle Villotte, cellist Raphaël Perraud, and bassist Philippe Noharet, made their debut in cinema in 1997 when they performed Desplat’s music for Jacques Audiard’s film Un héros très discret. After their first encounter with the silver screen, they kept their film-inspired name, a tribute to filmmaker Jacques Tati, and began to explore the world of film music. For this latest project, the quintet is joined by the pianist Alain Planes.

Traffic Quintet Alexandre DesplatAfter working on Un héros très discret,
Solrey became Desplat’s favorite soloist, concertmaster, artistic director, and eventually, his wife.

“Solrey’s influence on my music is crucial,” Desplat said. “When I heard her sound for the first time, the rich palette of her bow technique, the energy or tenderness she could convey with her instrument, I was under her charm, I was hooked: I had to inject this special and modern conception of violin playing into my compositions.”

Solrey supervised all the transcriptions on “Traffic Quintet Plays Alexandre Desplat,” and was also the one who persuaded Desplat to perform on the album. But with such a vast library of musical scores to choose from, how could they possibly pick which to perform?

“Closely,” Desplat said, “Solrey and I would spend hours listening to my collection of soundtracks to decide which piece had the potential required: a strong musicality and an original orchestration, which offered many transcription options, a technical challenge for the five musicians.”

Solrey also came up with the musical program for the album. Given the ensemble’s strong ties to cinema, the Traffic Quintet’s performances feature original video projections which tie into the colors and themes of the music in order to create an immersive experience for the audience. For this album, Solrey uses Desplat’s native city Paris as the storyline, musically portraying a leisurely stroll along the banks of the River Seine, capturing the changing light and the mysterious secrets of the river.

“Alexandre’s music invites you on a walk, wraps you up and lulls you gently into contemplation,” Solrey said. “The beauty of the banks and the ever-flowing streams of the Seine become a source of inspiration. I have been steeped in his music for so many years that when I came to go through the many scores I had recorded as a solo violinist, creating a sequence that would trace Alexandre’s musical evolution came quite naturally to me.”

The stroll begins with a twinkling piano theme from The King’s Speech. Soft strings accent the sweetly circling piano melody in this charming rendition of the movie’s warm, minimalist soundtrack.

Then, as if walking past the open window of a riverside apartment, the listener is suddenly transported into a daydream. A gorgeous, haunting flute and violin theme takes the listener into the mid-17th century world of Girl with a Pearl Earring. The two instruments intertwine over a bed of strings, balancing passionate lyricism with restraint, evoking musical images of the the young maid and her painter.

Yearning strings then travel through tales of love, death, and heartbreak in the music from Love Etc. and Le plus bel âge. The Traffic Quintet amps up the drama for the syncopated melodies and the textured pizzicato and col legno harmonies of Un héro très discret, a movie about a French man who sets out to Paris to find adventure and make himself a hero.

But like any slow stroll along the water, the listener soon encounters the shadows and hidden secrets of the flowing river. Aggressive, bold bowings and relentless rhythmic drive build suspense in the music of the political thriller, The Ghost Writer, before the listener returns to the calm, contemplative piano melodies of the existential, experimental drama film The Tree of Life.

Cello and double bass ground the foreboding music of Un prophète, a film about an imprisoned Algerian criminal who rises in the inmate hierarchy. Subtle glockenspiel flourishes and persistent col legno bowings create texture beneath the dramatic violin melodies. Tragedy, mystery, and discovery shine through in the pensive melodies and arresting climaxes of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, with introspective melodies shifting through flute, violin, piano, and cello.

The walk along the river eventually takes the listener through tales of forbidden love, transitioning through the ominous and slow-moving crescendos of the espionage erotic thriller Lust, Caution followed by the soaring, palpably passionate (and sometimes mischievous) violin and cello melodies of Chéri.

Layered strings shift slowly through colorful harmonies in the music of Sur mes lèvres, and the Parisian stroll comes to a close with the whimsical lyricism and silvery shimmer of Coco avant Chanel, a tribute to French film, fashion, and music.

And although Desplat and the Traffic Quintet traverse the music of 13 wildly different films in just over an hour, all the individual stories blend together in the beautiful wash of the River Seine.