ALBUM REVIEW: Orpheus Unsung by Steven Mackey with Jason Treuting

by Rachele Hales

It’s a tale as old as time…  boy meets girl, girl dies of snakebite, boy rescues girl from underworld, boy makes dumb mistake and girl is returned to underworld, boy is ripped to shreds by women after refusing to join their orgy and his decapitated head becomes an oracle.  It’s amazing Disney never adapted this heartwarming tale!

Jayme Halbritter Photography.

Of course the tale is that of Orpheus and Eurydice, an ancient Greek myth told musically and with expertise as a guitar opera by Steven Mackey and Jason Treuting in Orpheus Unsung. The piece originally premiered in 2016 as a multimedia music and dance spectacle directed by Mark DeChiazza—this October, the music was released as an album on New Amsterdam Records.

Mackey brings Orpheus back to life with his electric guitar, which is the musical representation of Orpheus in this “opera without words.”  Of course, in the original story Orpheus is known far and wide for his expertise with the lyre, a harp-like instrument he played so well that flora and fauna alike would follow the faint music and travel closer to hear him play.  It’s refreshing to hear Orpheus played by instruments with a bit more edge.  Mackey uses two guitars, one tuned normally and the second tuned microtonally, to create what he calls an “underworldly” harmonic sound.  The drums and gongs provided by Sō Percussion’s Treuting round out the sound of the opera with interesting texture and crisp, innovative drumming techniques.

Jayme Halbritter Photography.

Mackey and Treuting give us the whole story in about an hour, which is structured as three acts representing the phases of Orpheus’ quest: above ground, the underworld, and his return to the land of the living.  While above ground, Orpheus falls hard for Eurydice and the two marry with haste.  At the wedding the god of marriage offers no smiles or words of encouragement (bad omen alert!) and just after the wedding Eurydice is bitten by a snake and dies.  Orpheus laments her death and embarks on his journey to the underworld to bring her back.  Mackey and Treuting play “The Wedding” with gentle sustained notes that graduate to the all-out anarchy of “Snakebite,” which is followed by a somber, slower “First Lament” that builds as Orpheus lands on the decision to take his lyre with him to the underworld and get Eurydice back with a musical plea to Hades, God of the Underworld.

So down he goes.  In a musical swirl of percussion and guitar loops, Orpheus uses his artful playing to charm the beasts, Furies, and dead souls that block his entrance.  Mackey plays with lovely restraint and calm as Orpheus finds Hades and makes an impassioned speech, reminding the god of his own great love for Persephone.  Convinced that Orpheus and Eurydice are true lovers, Hades agrees to free Eurydice from the underworld but orders that she must walk behind Orpheus on the journey back and that Orpheus is not allowed to turn back to look at her.  Up, up, up they go with Mackey lighting the way with his cautious guitar, until Orpheus blows it all at the last second by turning back to gaze at his wife—his shattered dreams scored by shards of icy guitar riffs as she falls back into the darkness.

Oof.  After mourning and weeping at the edge of the River Styx, Orpheus emerges from the underworld and plays a sorrowful lament punctuated by long, resting pauses.  In “Orpheus Redux,” our protagonist wanders back home literally singing the blues (and here Mackey and Treuting transition to a bluesy sound as well).  Eventually he is met by a mob of drunk, horny women.  When Orpheus spurns their advances they begin to throw sticks at him.  But remember how flora and fauna alike are enchanted by Orpheus?  Of course you do.  So when the thrown sticks refuse to hit him the women rip him apart themselves, tossing his parts into the nearby stream.  The guitar and drums become chaotic to depict this messy and violent scene, but soften greatly as his head (still singing out for Eurydice) and lyre (still playing mournfully) float down the stream, bobbing gently as they continue to drift, perform, and enchant.  Eventually The Muses discover his head and rest it peacefully at the bank of the stream, where it becomes an oracle.

Stories about loss and trying to cheat death will always be relevant—but with help from percussion and a couple guitars, Treuting and Mackey give new life to these themes and allow Orpheus to be reborn.

STAFF PICKS: Friday Faves

Second Inversion hosts share a favorite selection from this Friday’s playlist. Tune in during the indicated hours below on Friday, July 22 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!

Leah Kardos: Core feat. Leah Kardos, electronics (bigo & twigetti)

a2980782583_10Leah Kardos’ debut album, Feather Hammer, is an expression in 12 tracks of her love for her very first instrument: the piano.  She’s added some sparse electronica and a selection of hand-picked effects to “Core” that create a marriage of lyrical piano & melancholia.  Should I call it ambient piano?  Euphonic dreamscape classical?  Austere electronica?  Whatever I’m not into labels, I’ll just close my eyes and let her music kiss the quiet spaces in my mind. – Rachele Hales


Roberto Sierra: Triptico feat. David Tanenbaum, guitar; Shanghai String Quartet (New Albion)
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I must confess that I have never been a huge fan of classical guitar works, and I’m not a huge fan of the combination of guitar and strings, either. However, maybe I’m starting to see the light, because I really enjoy the sounds of this chamber music work of Roberto Sierra that evokes his native Puerto Rico. The first movement is lush and bewitching, with a musical nod to the tree frog known colloquially as “coqui.” Many great composers recognized the value of a playful pizzicato obbligato intermezzo as a middle movement, and it works wonders here in the guitar and string combination. The rhythmic flourishes of the third and final movement are even more fun and surprising. Music like this serves as an important reminder: always listen with an open mind! –
Geoffrey Larson

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 12pm hour today to hear this recording.


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Olivier Messiaen: “Oiseaux Exotiques” (Yvonne Loriod, piano; Ensemble InterContemporain; Pierre Boulez, conductor) (Naïve Records)

There are an estimated 10,000 species of birds on Earth, each with its own unique song—and Olivier Messiaen wanted to learn them all.

No other composer (or ornithologist, for that matter) was ever so completely committed to the painstaking transcription, study, and musical application of birdsong as Messiaen. Together with his second wife, pianist Yvonne Loriod, he traveled far and wide to discover the distinctive melodies of exotic birds from around the world.

Messiaen’s 15-minute masterwork “Oiseaux Exotiques” brings together the idiosyncratic songs of 18 different bird species from India, China, Malaysia, and the Americas, creating a brilliantly colored orchestra of feathered friends which would otherwise never cross paths in nature. Composed for piano and a strident ensemble of woodwinds, brass, and percussion, the work’s twinkling timbral palette and spontaneous melodies combine elements of both Eastern and Western musical traditions.

Because East or West, near or far, loud or soft, and big or small, every bird has a song—if we just slow down and listen. – Maggie Molloy

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

ALBUM REVIEW: David Kechley’s A Sea of Stones

by Brendan Howe

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David Kechley, indisputably the most technically challenging composer of music for guitar and saxophone, has released his latest three works for the unlikely combination – Points of Departure, Bounce, and the eponymous Sea of Stones. Granted, although Kechley was the first to specifically pair the guitar and saxophone together in 1992 with his album, In the Dragon’s Garden and has composed virtually all of the genre’s canon, Sea of Stones stands on its own as a magnificently complex, engaging, inventive work that also effortlessly achieves accessibility – no small feat in contemporary instrumental music.

It is important to note that Kechley’s compositions are heavily influenced by time spent in Kyoto, Japan, and that during his initial collaborations with saxophonist Frank Bongiorno and baroque guitarist Robert Nathanson for Dragon’s Garden they paid particular and meditative attention to the famed Zen garden at Ryoanji Temple – an experience that so inspired Bongiorno and Nathanson that they began calling themselves the Ryoanji Duo.

In both title and concept, Kechley derives Sea of Stones from the “controlled randomness” of the rock garden – fifteen boulders arranged in groups of two, three, and five, such that the maximum number of boulders visible from any angle is fourteen, the fifteenth revealed upon enlightenment. As Kechley asserts, his album is filled with motifs “that repeat, but don’t” – they maintain a familiar atmosphere while adding new perspectives for a sense of enriched understanding.

Points of Departure differs from other Kechley works for guitar and saxophone in that it consists of five discreet movements, as opposed to movements that flow directly into one another. Saxophonist Laurent Estoppey, who recorded Departure with Nathanson, opens the work in Prologue and Dramatic Exposition and closes the work in Epilogue and Lyric Recapitulation with two temple bells struck over Nathanson’s urgent, augmented, arpeggiated seventh and ninth chords, as the opening and closing of ceremonies.

Each movement of Points of Departure is titled to match its character. Kechley’s signature sharp contrasts are readily apparent in the tempo and dynamic shifts of Dramatic Exposition. Estoppey’s soprano sax at one moment frantically trills over Nathanson’s rapid attacks of nylon strings, and the next moment both release and slow to a pill-induced slumber.

The second movement, Quirky, makes heavy use of large and unusual staccato intervals intermixed with short, halting soprano sax phrases. It draws to mind images of ground squirrels doing what ground squirrels do – an impressively unique aesthetic that demonstrates Kechley’s versatility in writing for the two instruments.

Departure’s remaining movements – Chorale, Cadenza and Slow Dance, Relentless, and finally Epilogue and Lyric Recapitulation – each offer wonderfully varied shifts in tone and style, and create a brilliant narrative arc that returns to its starting point, but carrying a profoundly changed perspective.

The second of the three pieces included on Sea of Stones is Bounce: Inventions, Interludes, and Interjections, and was recorded by the Ryoanji Duo as a single 14-minute track. Kechley explains that the instruments build upon a single opening motif, inventing new forms as they go, with strategic interruptions that cause us to “stop and take a breath” at certain points throughout the piece. Lyric interludes also serve to build the structure of the piece. It becomes more continuous, intense, and organic as it evolves, before reaching the end of the cycle exactly where it began.

The latest of Kechley’s works, for which this album is named, brings in a unique orchestral element behind the Ryoanji Duo, here performed by the Polish Sudecka Filharmonia. The first movement, Awakening, opens with a steadily increasing, reverberant drumroll as a call to ceremony, similar to what would have been heard at Ryoanji Temple in the 15th-19th centuries. Diverse percussive instruments, evoking a theatricality akin to Kabuki, punctuate the melodic alto sax and guitar lines. This awakening is precise, crisp, and energized.

Kechley begins Dances and Reflections with the flute, then guitar, then horns, and finally oboe echoing the main sax motif, showing in brilliant resolution the stark perspective shifts that come from reflecting one event in different instrumental voices. The result is heartbreaking and mesmerizing. As the instruments join forces to flow into Arrival, they bring their divergent points of view into a single dramatic narrative.

So as to not give too much away, suffice it to say that the remaining four movements of Stones will not disappoint listeners who are eager to hear the rest of this beautifully crafted experience. Dialogs and Meditations initially breaks cleanly from the perpetual motion of instruments sharing with one another, the sax diving deeply into its own thoughts while the guitar drifts from whimsy to action. Return and Last Light come full circle with familiar motifs and percussion. Though the album concludes almost subconsciously, it leaves the listener with a sense of awakening.

Staff & Community Picks: August 13

A weekly rundown of the music our staff and listeners are loving lately! Are you interested in contributing some thoughts on your favorite new music albums? Drop us a line!


Joshua Roman on Golijov’s Ayre:

71kEKXXvAAL._SX522_This is an amazing piece that I first stumbled upon several years ago and basically put on repeat.  It’s a unique set-up where you have things like a hyper-accordion, which is an invention by the player himself, Michael Ward-Bergeman.  He basically takes two inputs and puts them on either side of the accordion and creates this stereo effect with a machine that mixes them together to create the “hyper effect.” It’s kind of like an accordion on steroids and produces a lot of intense sounds. Golijov uses this to great effect to take you through different modes of musical communication.  It’s not stuck in style; it really goes all over the place, but all fits together very well and flows very naturally.  There are moments that are very touching and movements where you’ll think, “What the hell is going on?” but in a really great way.  It’s extremely exciting! Dawn Upshaw gives an incredible performance and allows herself to go to places that are just primal in nature.



Jill Kimball on David Leisner’s Facts of Life

911XPzhwHeL._SL1417_Addiction. Heartbreak.  Disappointment. We’d like to brush all these things under a rug, but sometimes they’re the facts of life. Composer David del Tredici chose to place his negative life experiences at the forefront of his four-movement solo guitar work, “Facts of Life.” It’s just one of three pieces on an album featuring the virtuosic guitarist David Leisner. The piece transitions effortlessly from tango to fugue to some fantastically frenetic strumming. Another beautifully chaotic piece on the album is Osvaldo Golijov’s “Fish Tale,” a chamber piece about a sea creature who takes a trippy, Alice in Wonderland-like journey through the water. 



Geoffrey Larson on Ravi Shankar’s Symphony

854990001604This piece is something totally different: an orchestral work that is part symphony, part sitar concerto. Both a sitar master and long-time classical composer and collaborator, the late Ravi Shankar fashioned a four-movement work that brings Hindustani music to the Western orchestral ensemble. Pounding raga-like rhythms and dance figures can be found throughout, augmented by actual vocalizations by the LPO players in the final movement. The composer’s daughter, sitar virtuoso Anoushka Shankar shines in this live performance recording. Common practice period not spicy enough? These unique symphonic flavors might do the trick.

ALBUM OF THE WEEK: The 442s (Self-Titled)

by Maggie Molloy

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The 442s are not your average string quartet. Though the group gets its name from the standard orchestral tuning of 442 Hz, they certainly do not confine themselves to the classical music tradition.

The band was formed in 2012 by two classically-trained musicians from the St. Louis Symphony and two talented jazz musicians from the Erin Bode Group. Together, the musicians have cultivated an acoustic instrumental quartet which offers its listeners an eclectic mix of classical, jazz, rock, world, and folk music genres.

The quartet is composed of violinist Shawn Weil, cellist Bjorn Ranheim, double bassist Sydney Rodway, and composer, keyboardist, and guitarist Adam Maness. This past May, the group released their self-titled debut album.

Aside from the extraordinary musicianship of each member, the most striking element of The 442s debut album is its musical diversity. The group transitions flawlessly from rhythmic, percussive soundscapes to gentle, flowing melodies to lively jazz piano solos and everything in between.  The group also experiments with improvisation, whistle solos, group vocals, and much more.

The composer behind The 442s unique sound is their pianist and guitarist Adam Maness, who can also be heard playing accordion, melodica, and glockenspiel on various tracks. Though Maness is responsible for writing most of the music, all of the musicians in the group collaborate and improvise to create a cohesive group sound.

“I’ve tried to write music without any restraints of specific genres or forms. Whether that involves the symphonic members of the group singing and improvising on the spot, or crafting through-composed passages for the jazz members of the group, I try to compose this music not simply for the notes on the page, but for the particular strengths of each member of the ensemble,” Maness said.

The diversity of sounds cultivated throughout the album allows the listener to travel through a variety of musical landscapes. In fact, the album even comes with a fold-out map and compass created by James Walker of the St. Louis design studio Husbandmen.

“The map is the imaginary world of our album,” Maness said. “Each location is a song, and each has a corresponding image.”

The album’s opening track, “Shibuya,” takes the listener through the hustle and bustle of a Tokyo neighborhood. The track begins with a rhythm-driven texture which later gives way to a flowing violin melody. Each string player weaves in and out of the musical forefront like people weaving across the busy Shibuya city streets.

The album then travels through a variety of musical ideas. “The Caves and the Cold,” for instance, experiments with a percussive sound and group vocals, giving it a folk feel.

“Our love of folk and pop certainly comes out more in the vocal songs,” Maness noted.

“Heston’s” harnesses a soft, gentle sound with rich, flowing melodies, and “The One” pairs a sparser musical texture with beautiful vocals by jazz singer Erin Bode.

“Irish is Reel” opens with a lively Irish folk melody on piano, which is then taken over by the strings and transformed throughout the tune. “Chime” showcases Rodway’s jazz bass chops, while “Hondo’s” features a groovy jazz piano solo by Maness.

“We’re a band made of two classical musicians and two jazz musicians, and we’ve tried to write songs that feature the skills of both of those disciplines,” Maness said.

“Multitude,” the album’s final track, begins with a rhythm-driven, percussive texture which is later layered with soaring violin and cello melodies. The piece transitions back and forth between rhythmic textures and more nebulous, flowing resonances before ending together in perfect unison.

It is a true testament to the musicianship of The 442s that they are able to travel through so many different genres and musical ideas in just under one hour. Check out their new album and join them on their musical journey!

ALBUM OF THE WEEK: Dublin Guitar Quartet Performs Philip Glass

by Rachele Hales

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Riddle me this: how is it possible that a woman who doesn’t enjoy minimalist music can fall so hard for Philip Glass?  You’ll find the answer in the forty nimble fingers of the Dublin Guitar Quartet.  They’ve taken the music of Glass, transcribed it for guitar (a feat in and of itself – even Glass has never dared to try), and from minimalist compositions created such richness of sound that at times I forgot I was listening to only four instruments.  What pours out of their guitars sounds near-orchestral.  This depth is due in no small part to masterful audio engineering that offers each plucking string a crispness that allows you to really appreciate how flawlessly in unison these artists are.

The album is replete with technical perfection, but my favorite moments are the pockets of sweet, gentle, understated pieces like “String Quartet #5 – Mvt. 1” that make you feel young again.  Like, really young.  Like you are a sleepy child being lulled to slumber by the sweetness of your mother whisper-singing in your ear except her voice is like a quiet harp.  The piece practically glows!  It’s beautiful.

Even the moments of wild strumming, like in “String Quartet #2 – Company Mvt II,” have a distinct delicate and lyrical quality.  It’s easy to forget you’re listening to four guitars and not one.

Each selection on this disc was transcribed with care, played tightly, and packed with emotion.  It’s a true celebration of the composer and perfectly highlights the immense skill of the performers.  How does a chamber group manage to make four guitars sound simultaneously orchestral and singular?  Clearly there is magic in the hills of Ireland.

Want this album to be yours?  Hop on over to iTunes.