Women in (New) Music: The Pure Cold Light in the Sky

Kin of the Moon is an improvisation-centric chamber series featuring three cutting-edge and iconoclastic women performers. Violist and composer Heather Bentley reflects on the music and meaning behind their debut concert, The Pure Cold Light in the Sky this Saturday, Nov. 18 at 8pm at the Good Shepherd Chapel.


by Heather Bentley

Kin of the Moon violist, improviser, and composer Heather Bentley.

It’s Armistice Day today, also known as Veteran’s Day, also acknowledged in astrology to be a particularly high vibrational day for the planetary deity Venus, who supports us to think with our hearts, and not just with our heads. It’s a good moment for reflection on this past year of seismic cultural upheaval that is continuing without abatement as I write.

The existential importance of music in my life has been magnified through the lens of all the enormous societal challenges we face. Creating Kin of the Moon is the outgrowth of a powerful desire to combine my private discipline of improvisation with my lifelong experience of presenting and performing concert music. Becoming an improviser in my late 20s was an attempt to liberate my own voice through my instrument. While I have always held composers like Brahms, Bach, and Shostakovich deeply in my heart as my best friends, there are aspects of professional classical music life that challenge my sense of creative agency.

I met Kaley Eaton on stage at the Royal Room, doing an improvised show with Steve Treseler’s Game Symphony. We’ve been close collaborators ever since, working together on her electroacoustic opera Lily, and co-creating our piece Atmokinesis for improvisers and SuperCollider processing. Leanna Keith is simply a spectacular flutist/improviser—we have been playing shows together since this summer and I couldn’t be happier with our Kin of the Moon team!

Here is our statement:

Kin of the Moon is an improvisation-centric chamber music series incubated in Seattle’s rich musical scene. Headed by violist/improviser/composer Heather Bentley, vocalist/composer Kaley Eaton, and flutist/improviser Leanna Keith, the group explores sonic rituals, promotes cross-pollination of genres, emphasizes the communicative power of specific performance locales and celebrates the creativity that multiplies itself through the collaboration of performers and composers. The artists of Kin of the Moon devote their lives to reaching higher vibrational levels through sound creation.

Kin of the Moon flutist and improviser Leanna Keith.

I was asked about the fact that our first concert features all women performers and composers. Actually, we were aiming to create the most compelling program to go with our new piece Atmokinesis and Kaley’s new sound installation wilderness, and it happens that we were very excited by Jessi Harvey’s quantum physics-inspired work The Multiverse and Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Kate Soper’s Only the Words Themselves Mean What They Say for voice and various flutes.

Kin of the Moon vocalist and composer Kaley Lane Eaton.

I am inspired to work with artists who exhibit a spirit of creative inquiry and practice a discipline of collaborative generosity. That many people who hold these qualities dear are women is not surprising. There are also countless men I have worked with who are equally inspiring in this way. And there are non-binary people I have worked with who are inspiring, generous, and boundlessly creative. Our choices about who we present and who we work with have everything to do with these considerations.

Back to Armistice Day. Last Nov. 11, 2016 was very difficult for so many of us. I am fortunate to co-own and operate ELF House, a music space/artist retreat on Whidbey Island, with the magnificent composer, saxophonist, and flutist Jessica Lurie. I went up by myself after the horrific election and had the opportunity to regroup. This is what I wrote, and it feels very much like a statement of purpose about my music:

“I’ve had a moment to recoup from the dreadful election result up at my sanctuary by the water on Whidbey. Here there’s no internet yet and the sunrise pinks up the sky and water birds carry on like nothing has changed—and in this world that is true. I needed space and time to reflect on how to carry on. First of all, I want to acknowledge
my sons Miles, 19, and Aaron, 29, for their response to the debacle of this election.
Representing the two halves of the millennial generation, Aaron reminded me to stay
levelheaded and through his lead, I greatly increased my contribution (now monthly) to
the ACLU, an organization that has stood at the frontline of defending the marginalized
in the US for decades. And Miles took to the streets to protest on Nov 9. Feet on the
ground. I know my sons are aware of their privilege as white, cis, straight men of
comfortable economic status. I am beyond proud that they immediately took steps to
exert what influence they can on behalf of those who stand to lose the most under the
new administration.

For myself, I needed time for darkness. I felt like it wasn’t time for kumbaya or sentiments that we can just unify now that the election is over. Or pretend that a nice concert can heal our divisions. This is what I think today, on Veterans Day: as artists, we are aware of our ability to conjure heaven on earth. The moments come seldom, and they are hard won through the assiduous honing of our craft, but the allure of creating deep, unassailable beauty and terrible and ferocious gorgeousness from a deep vein, is what compels us in the face of economic absurdity to continue. Relentlessly. This is the truth and depth and gift that artists hold and offer. Let our vein flow for the world. Let the truth of our witness and offering stand as a real testament to the fragile and tenacious beauty of existence in this sphere. Let us always, always encourage the outpouring of our colleagues and treasure our audiences and followers.

Let us actively conspire to collaborate. Let our vision extend to radical inclusiveness of those in our midst as well as those out of sight.”

Kin of the Moon takes its name from a W.B. Yeats poem, “The Cat and the Moon.”

THE CAT AND THE MOON
by W. B. Yeats (1865-1939)

The cat went here and there
And the moon spun round like a top,
And the nearest kin of the moon,
The creeping cat, looked up.
Black Minnaloushe stared at the moon,
For, wander and wail as he would,
The pure cold light in the sky
Troubled his animal blood.
Minnaloushe runs in the grass
Lifting his delicate feet.
Do you dance, Minnaloushe, do you dance?
When two close kindred meet,
What better than call a dance?
Maybe the moon may learn,
Tired of that courtly fashion,
A new dance turn.
Minnaloushe creeps through the grass
From moonlit place to place,
The sacred moon overhead
Has taken a new phase.
Does Minnaloushe know that his pupils
Will pass from change to change,
And that from round to crescent,
From crescent to round they range?
Minnaloushe creeps through the grass
Alone, important and wise,
And lifts to the changing moon
His changing eyes.


Kin of the Moon’s debut concert is this Saturday, Nov. 18 at 8pm at the Good Shepherd Chapel. For more information, click here.

Women in (New) Music: Celebrating the Treemonishas in Classical Music

by Maggie Molloy


Education as salvation is the major theme of Scott Joplin’s 1912 opera Treemonisha, the powerful tale of a young African-American woman who protects her community against those who seek to take advantage of their systemic lack of education.

It’s a theme that continues to influence art and music of today, as over a century later we find ourselves still grappling with the far-reaching effects of slavery and the oppression of the African-American race.

This Saturday and Sunday, the North Corner Chamber Orchestra (NOCCO) presents RESONANCE: a concert celebrating the voices of African-American composers who have, across history, given a musical voice to the strength, power, and perseverance of their communities.

The concert program features the overture from Joplin’s Treemonisha alongside brand new works by two local artists: composer Hanna Benn and conceptual artist C. Davida Ingram.

Benn’s new work for chamber orchestra, titled Sankofa, is a spiritual reflection on the music and influence of African-American women composers across history. Ingram’s piece is an illuminating lyrical/visual essay about modern day Treemonishas: women of color who are powerful leaders of their communities. Also featured on the program are evocative works by Alvin Singleton and George Walker.


To find out more about what’s in store, we spoke with Hanna Benn and C. Davida Ingram about music, race, today’s Treemonishas, and the importance of education:

Second Inversion: What was the inspiration behind Sankofa, and what does it sound like?

Hanna Benn: “Sankofa” is a word in the Twi language of Ghana that translates to “Go back and get it,” as in we must go back and understand our heritage in order to go forward.

This piece is very meditative and reflective. I imagine it sounds like the meditation I’ve been in for the past several months of musing, reflecting, and doing research on black American composers—really finding inspiration from them. It was like subconsciously asking for guidance from my ancestors.

SI: What story does your piece tell? What are the major themes and ideas at work behind the music?

HB: Sometimes for me, it feels like speaking is not my first language, and so when composing music or writing a piece, once I’m finished, I have a hard time articulating what it’s about. It’s almost like being in a trance—I have no memory of it anymore; it’s gone. But this piece came from somewhere—it came from the inspiration, history, and music of these women.

The reason why I actually titled the piece “Sankofa” was that sentiment of asking my ancestors for help so that I might understand more about myself, looking inward. The piece sounds somewhat reflective and introverted in nature. I have six different movements, and there isn’t a narrative to the piece but they are these six poems, almost—six states of being:

Mvt. I: Inward Gazes the Spirit
Mvt. II: May I Come Back to Me
Mvt. III: Divide
Mvt. IV: Walks with an Offering
Mvt. V: Joy Submits and It Repeats
Mvt. VI: My Beloved Speaks

“My beloved” we usually say when we’re speaking of God or a higher being, but with this piece I’m speaking to my higher being. When I say “my beloved,” it’s like a love poem to myself. So Sankofa, you must go back and get it—it’s this love, this loving of the self and truly understanding oneself.

In one of his poems, Rumi says, “You must be as wide as the air to learn a secret,” and it’s this gesture of knowledge and understanding in order to move forward.

SI: How did writing this piece stretch you as an artist and musician?

HB: I have written for orchestra before, however this ensemble is completely different because they do not have a conductor, and so they have this beautiful process of hyper-listening. If there’s no conductor, they have to have more faith in each other, and it asks for more communication all around.

On a larger scale, it is such a crucial time for us to listen and to be present and open. I believe this concert is very special because of that—not only the material we will be performing, but the balance and the lack of hierarchy in this ensemble and the example it sets for others.

SI: In what ways (if any) do you feel that being a woman of color has shaped your experiences as an artist? What advice do you have for other female-identifying artists who face similar prejudices?

HB: One hundred percent, it shapes me. It is important, as a woman, to never forget that beautiful part of you. I am very proud and in love with the vessel that I carry and I think one hundred percent it shapes my experience and my outlook and what I write.

Me being a woman and me being a woman of color is my music, because that is who I am. I would encourage other women to not let go of that, because it is very precious.

SI: What do you find most inspiring about this NOCCO program?

C. Davida Ingram: The artists who I found most inspirational in RESONANCE were Hanna Benn and Scott Joplin. Their music speaks to me in different ways: Hanna because of her virtuosity and polyrhythmic cadence—she sort of feels like if you could listen to all of the those ways Our Lady of Theresa was having jouissance because of her ecstatic love affair with the divine—and Joplin because he gave me the gift of an intersectional feminist story that is set in the first Redemption as we go through the second Redemption that is delight to the ear. 

I wrote that his overture in Treemonisha “explains why black joy matters. This opening melody sounds like rushing in of something that has the feel of dancing in sunshine with a blazingly open heart.”

SI: Can you tell us a bit about the lyrical/visual essay you are sharing? What was the inspiration behind it?

CDI: I fell in love with Treemonisha after I learned about Joplin’s piece for the NOCCO show. Heather Bentley sent me a book with discs of the music and I sort of went into the Matrix—complete with a very vivid dream of an ancestor who looks a lot like Scott Joplin walking me down a pink stair.

Because of the spiritual way that Joplin’s piece moved me, the central figure of Treemonisha became in a way a muse for me, and also a way of giving a meditation on the black song book. James Baldwin’s fictional gospel singer Arthur Montana cries: Look what you done to my song. I follow that directive.

Personally I took this project as an opportunity to reflect on how indebted I feel to black educators on one hand—that particular subject is close to my heart. My mother is an incredible teacher and finished her PhD on how black students and their families think about the opportunity gap they face.

And on the other I am considering what white people do not know about whiteness. I feel very historical, at this moment, when I think about race in America—not as something that must always define the present but as something that is simply good to know about human behavior, and as an aftereffect.

For example, did you know in Antebellum Virginia there was a law that white human traffickers could give 20 lashes of the whip to kidnapped Africans that they enslaved if the latter were found reading or writing? Think about that. It’s the sort of thing that gives Treemonisha a resplendent repose and riposte. Black master teachers make maps to freedom—always have, always will.

So my mind’s eye went looking for the “Treemonishas” in my life—the community-building educators, those who believe in restorative justice, the feminists who believe women of color can lead (these are all part of the story of Joplin’s Treemonisha).

I was lucky to have a gifted educator as a mom. Sometimes I cringe when people call me ‘articulate’ after I speak. However, I also know a portion of what they are seeing is a partial blueprint of survival in white America—mastery of words and ideas that white people can recognize as their own. My mother loved me and the rest of my four siblings, so she taught as though our lives (and hers) depended on it; because in many respects it did. Both of my parents gave me that.

In terms of music, I think of blackness as an essential primer for understanding the American song book because all of our original American music comes directly from black culture—e.g. blues, jazz, hip hop, house music. America is very African, in that way. At the same time, I engage whiteness when I do my work here because it gets a bit tiresome if the expectation is that I am supposed to always be explaining blackness to assuage white curiosity. Our world has gotten mighty peculiar of late, and I think it is in large part due to not talking about whiteness.

SI: In what ways (if any) do you feel that being a woman of color has shaped your experiences as an artist? What advice do you have for other female-identifying artists who face similar prejudices?

CDI: In my lyrical essay for the piece (which still needs a title), I write:

Because of the constant context of white supremacy in all American art forms, I see this program as a meditation on black brilliance—underscore brilliance.

When I soften the emphasis on blackness it is not because I want to avoid footnoting the brutishness of white supremacy and institutional racism. If we did, it would still remain the elephant in the room. However, when we see that a group of predominantly white musicians can acknowledge how racism seeks to impoverish them, how it cuts off the air in the room in terms of what versions of excellence take space in the canon, then the light that shines brightest here is black brilliance and what also extrudes are the ways that whiteness is benighted, at times, because of the construction of racism and white supremacy.

And if I take things a step beyond that—it is not blackness that we are looking at but rather brilliance, which is to say that kaleidoscopic light that humans cast out and its incredible, inexorable beauty.


Performances of RESONANCE are this Saturday, Feb. 18 at 2pm at New Holly Gathering Hall and Sunday, Feb. 19 at 7:30pm at Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute. For tickets and information, click here.

Women in (New) Music: Remembering Pauline Oliveros

Tribute event added: Deep Listening: Stuart Dempster on Sunday, December 11 at Henry Art Gallery, 12:30pm-1:3pm

Introduction by Maggie Molloy with subsequent contributions from staff and community members

“Listen to everything all the time and remind yourself when you are not listening,” Pauline Oliveros said in her 1998 keynote address at the ArtSci98 symposium.

pauline-oliveros

Nearly 20 years later, those words have come to encapsulate the astonishing legacy left behind by the late composer, who died on November 24 at the age of 84. An artist, accordionist, and pioneer of experimental and electronic art music, Oliveros is remembered for her revolutionary tape experiments, her poetic and aleatoric musical scores, her groundbreaking musical philosophies, and above all, her unwavering devotion to the exploration of sound.

Oliveros investigated new ways of listening to music, most notably through her philosophies of “deep listening” and “sonic awareness,” ideas which explored the difference between the involuntary nature of hearing and the voluntary, selective nature of listening.

Throughout her career, her music and her teachings promoted experimentation, improvisation, collaboration, and discovery—and her work inspired not only musicians, but also artists, scientists, philosophers, and everyday people to think critically about the way we listen.

pauline-oliveros-tape


To celebrate her lasting legacy, we asked Second Inversion staff and community members to share some of their favorite memories and musical works by the extraordinary Oliveros.


I first met Pauline through my teacher, mentor, and friend: Stuart Dempster. She was visiting Seattle when I was in graduate school at UW, and I had the honor of talking with her about music. That led me down a decades-long rabbit-hole of deep listening and sound awareness.

I think that much of the experimental music in Seattle and the Pacific Northwest is deeply influenced by her work and teachings. So many of the artists I work with and play with in Seattle have a connection to her musical thinking. I know that her influence and reach is national and global. But there is something about the work in this part of the country that owes a great debt to her long and dedicated explorations. She will be missed, and we are all fortunate for her body of work. Listen.

Tom Baker, Professor of Composition at Cornish College of the Arts


I never formally studied with Pauline, but I learned a lot from her and consider her a mentor as well as a colleague and friend. She was always supportive and encouraging, always so present. Her generosity and boundless curiosity were inspiring, she never stopped being open to and learning new things.

I love that her main instrument was the accordion, which some consider an anachronism, yet she was consistently on the cutting edge of new technological developments. I would be a very different composer (perhaps not one at all) and possibly even a very different person without her influence and example.

Steve Peters, Seattle-based composer, sound artist, producer, curator, and writer


Dear Pauline

thank you for your guidance
as we struggle
to hear beyond
what we see
and even what we think
as we try to
silence our busy
minds
and find instead
that silence is not
stillness
but sound moving
us and each other

between us
and within us
we are
busy seeking order
and you taught us
that sound moving from one
to the other
is merely truth
and all else flows
just from that
sound
that moves

Heather Bentley, violist and co-founder of North Corner Chamber Orchestra (NOCCO)


My first exposure to Pauline’s music was with the tape pieces she made in the 1960s. These often originated as improvisations using simple oscillators processed through filters and elaborate tape delay systems that she designed herself. Pauline was intrigued by the sustained sounds of modern life, things like motors, ventilation systems and electric hum. So rather than simply tune oscillators to static pitches, she created complex electronic drones that simulated the “myriad shifting of a constant tone or noise” in real-life drones.

I love the quivering, trembling sonorities in “Once again / Buchla piece” and the intense crackling sounds in “Big Mother Is Watching You,” which dates from 1966 but resembles a lot of today’s dark ambient music. Pauline was one of the true godparents of ambient, and was also an enormous trailblazer for women in electronic music.

I first met Pauline at a 1984 conference in Ohio where the evening concert billed her, Jerry Hunt, Urban 15 and myself (all Texas natives!). Frank Zappa had just delivered a funny but acerbic keynote speech railing against both the music industry and university composers. Since the latter comprised the bulk of the audience, there was a bit of tension in the hall, but it soon dissipated when Pauline opened with one of her soothing solo accordion and electronics sets. Nevertheless, my heart still belongs to those gritty early tape pieces!

Michael Schell, Seattle-based composer and intermedia artist


I’ve just recently come to Seattle. I remember the feeling that came over me the moment the plane’s wheels left the ground the second time I traveled to this city: I’m going home. When I realized the place where John Cage’s prepared piano was born was a few minutes away by public transit, it was startling and wondrous. Now, when I discover that the immensely echoic cistern that gave name to Pauline Oliveros’s “Deep Listening” is just on the other side of the Sound at Fort Warden in Port Townsend, I am unsurprised.

This place calls for it. It calls for transformative listening, for progressing the world by observing it, getting it. Maybe it’s something in the air that wanted to be filled with 45-second reverberations.

 

Maybe it’s something in the water. Maybe it’s what we call the water:

 

Sound.

 

Jacob Mashak, Seattle-based composer, conductor and variable instrumentalist


In the most basic sense, the heart of every great composer’s talent is a heightened ability to communicate. The psychology of Pauline Oliveros’ creations is one of communication and the bringing-together of souls, and many of her works use a Cage-like aleatoric element to achieve this in a way that is very physical and immediate. I am particularly awed by the power of To Valerie Solanas and Marilyn Monroe in Recognition of Their Desperation, which harnesses collective improvisation to reconcile the community and the individual, and to present a sonic memorial to the experiences of Solanas and Monroe. Bringing together a sex symbol and a feminist thinker as the work’s subject matter helps highlight the similarities in their vastly different lives. Solanas wrote SCUM Manifesto, which has been translated into over a dozen languages and is excerpted in several feminist anthologies, and was first read by Oliveros in 1968. Both women suffered at the hands of men, and both lives were marked by violence, as Monroe killed herself and Solanas attempted to kill Andy Warhol. As Oliveros said, “Both women seemed to be desperate and caught in the traps of inequality.” Her composition asks the performers to choose five pitches each and to play very long tones, modulated or unmodulated. In the middle section of the piece the performers are invited to imitate each other‘s pitches and modulations. If any one player becomes dominant, the rest of the group should rise up and absorb that dominance back into the texture, “expressing at the deep structure what the SCUM Manifesto meant.” It’s a fascinating work in its conception, powerful in its execution.

Geoffrey Larson, KING FM and Second Inversion host/contributor and Music Director of Seattle Metropolitan Chamber Orchestra


Pauline Oliveros does not allow listeners to cut corners; whenever you sit down for one of her pieces, you’re in for the long haul temporally, intellectually, and emotionally. Although she was not a “minimalist,” her music does have a similar effect (at least on me). By wrenching listeners out of their normal experience of time, she creates experiences that are nearly automatically profound. Sound Geometries for chamber orchestra, expanded instrument system (EIS), and 5.1 surround sound is an excellent way to experience her special use of time. This piece puts familiar instruments through a compositional filter that yields a soundscape only reminiscent of the idiomatic uses of those instruments in the faintest of ways; these sounds do not represent those of a traditionally-structured ensemble. That is one of the reasons why Pauline Oliveros’s music is good for us; it stretches us in a way that we desperately need and reminds us to seek the expressive limits of the tools we already have.

Seth Tompkins, Second Inversion host/contributor


I first encountered the work of Pauline Oliveros through her witty feminist deconstruction of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. Her 1965 piece, titled “Bye Bye Butterfly,” is a real-time tape-delay collage work which utilizes a recording of Puccini’s opera—along with two oscillators, two amplifiers in cascade, one turntable with record, and two recorders in a delay setup.

But the cool thing is, you don’t have to be a 1960s electronic music gearhead to understand and appreciate it. Amplified sounds oscillate through sky-high frequencies amidst haunting excerpts of the Puccini classic, transforming the operatic arias into an eerie, intergalactic sound experiment.

Composed at the San Francisco Tape Music Center (which Oliveros co-founded in 1962 along with a number of other musical giants of the avant-garde), the significance of “Bye Bye Butterfly” is twofold: not only was it a bold departure from the classical traditions of the past, but it was also a pointed commentary on centuries of socially-prescribed gender roles.

Ultimately, Oliveros’ Puccini deconstruction was a critique of Butterfly’s tragic fate—her life defined and ultimately destroyed by a society that insists on male dominance. The piece ushered in a new generation of classical music, bidding farewell, as Oliveros wrote, “not only to the music of the 19th century but also to the system of polite morality of that age and its attendant institutionalized oppression of the female sex.”

Maggie Molloy, Second Inversion host/contributor


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Photo courtesy Steve Peters

 

CONCERT PREVIEW: Q&A with Joan Tower

by Maggie Molloy

joan_tower

When you’re a chamber musician, you have to know how to dance.

You have to be able to communicate directly with the other players through music and movement. You have to move together and apart, support each other’s parts, and make each other shine; you have to work together to tell a cohesive story without stepping on each other’s feet.

This notion of musicians as dancers was the inspiration behind Grammy Award-winning composer Joan Tower’s Chamber Dance, a piece which is being performed in Seattle this weekend by the North Corner Chamber Orchestra (NOCCO) in their 2015-2016 season finale.

The piece maximizes the chamber orchestra’s textural and timbral palette by weaving through a rich and colorful tapestry of solos, duets, small ensembles, and full ensemble—each instrument serving as just one small part of the larger dance.

NOCCO will also perform Haydn’s Violin Concerto in C Major, featuring violinist Elisa Barston as the soloist, and the NOCCO Winds will join forces with cellist Eli Weinberger and bassist Ross Gilliland to perform Dvořák’s Serenade for Winds, Cello, and Double Bass in D Minor.

Dance on over to Seattle this weekend to get in on the action! In the meantime, we sat down with the woman of the hour, Joan Tower, to find out more about what we can expect at this concert:

Second Inversion: What was the inspiration behind Chamber Dance?

Joan Tower: Having been a chamber music pianist for a long time with the Da Capo Chamber Players, a group I founded in 1972, I was immediately impressed with how Orpheus (the conductorless group for which I wrote Chamber Dance) was actually a large chamber group that interacted the way a smaller chamber group would: through an elaborate setup of sectional leaders who were responsible for the score. An amazing feat accomplished over years of trials and errors—and an amazing ensemble indeed.

SI: How is this piece similar to and/or different from your other compositions? 

JT: It’s similar in structure to many of my chamber pieces, but different in that the solos get surrounded by larger forces within a bigger “palette.”

SI: What composers, artists, or styles of music most influence your work? 

JT: Many different styles of music have influenced my work: I grew up in South America surrounded by all the Latin music of that culture; was trained as a pianist in the European Bach, Haydn, Beethoven, Chopin, etc. model; married a jazz pianist who introduced me to all the greats at that time in NYC; and I formed my own group the Da Capo Players who performed the music of many living composers of that time (1972-1987). My biggest influences were Beethoven, Stravinsky, Messiaen, Pärt, Adams, Monk, Evans and lots of popular Latin music.

SI: Three out of the four NOCCO programs this season feature American women composers’ works. Why do you think this is a significant programming decision?

JT: Because it is rarely done, and women make up less than 5 percent of all classical programing—which still is a statistical problem. I am happy to see some visionary conductors find the right music and go for it.

SI: What do you hope audiences will take away from listening to your Chamber Dance?

JT: A memory of some kind, I hope. 

Performances are Saturday, June 4 at 2 p.m. at University Unitarian Church in Seattle and Sunday, June 5 at 8 p.m. at the Royal Room in Columbia City. For additional information and tickets, visit NOCCO.org.

CONCERT PREVIEW: Q&A with Jamie Jordan

by Maggie Molloy

We hear it all the time in the classical music world: the “Three B’s”—Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms. But this season the North Corner Chamber Orchestra (NOCCO) is putting a little twist on this old adage.

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Their concert this weekend features three bold “B’s” with a little more bite: Bartók, Barber, and Beethoven. And while the program is grounded in the traditional classical canon (ahem, Beethoven), the lineup bends the “B’s” into the 20th century.

NOCCO will be performing Beethoven’s classic First Symphony and Bartók’s neoclassic crowd-favorite, Divertimento for String Orchestra—but the centerpiece of the show is Barber’s 1947 masterwork Knoxville: Summer of 1915, a lush, richly textured work for soprano and orchestra.

The 15-minute lyric rhapsody takes its text from a 1938 short prose piece by author James Agee. Barber’s interpretation of the text paints an idyllic and poignant picture of Agee’s native Knoxville, Tennessee, blurring the lines between dreamy reminiscence and reality.

And to bring the nostalgic dreamland to life, NOCCO has enlisted the talents of New York-based soprano Jamie Jordan, a specialist in contemporary classical music with a strong background in jazz, classical, opera, improvisation, and more.

Second Inversion sat down with Jamie to ask her five questions about Knoxville, contemporary classical, and NOCCO’s upcoming concert.

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Second Inversion: What do you think is most unique or inspiring about Samuel Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915?

Jamie Jordan: Knoxville is so tremendously moving for me because Barber chose a wonderfully touching, poignant text (by James Agee), and set it to music with utmost sensitivity and great imagination. Barber paints the text through his orchestration, and creates very vivid imagery.

SI: You specialize in contemporary classical music but also have lots of experience with jazz, opera, improvisation, and more. What do you find to be some of the unique challenges and rewards of performing contemporary classical works?

JJ: For me, repertoire written since 1905 is usually most fulfilling. Every piece is an adventure. Understanding the structure, intent and also the great fun of learning pitches and rhythms brings me joy. Collaborating with a composer and bringing their work to life is also extremely meaningful; I have premiered dozens of works so far.

SI: Who are some of your biggest musical inspirations? What composers, artists, or styles of music most influence you?

JJ: My late mentor, Judith Kellock, was a truly great inspiration, beautiful artist and consummate pedagogue. Judy was a student of Jan DeGaetani, who is also someone who I deeply admire, along with her contemporary Cathy Berberian.

There isn’t enough ink or space on the web for me to list all the artists I respect and love. The 1960s were to me one of the greatest decades in music. George Crumb, Berio, Boulez, Copland, Druckman, Feldman, Messiaen, Pousseur, Shostakovich, Stockhausen, Stravinsky, and Xennakis are just a few of the incredible composers that were creating their art. In jazz many of my favorite artists—Miles Davis, Wayne Shorter, John Coltrane, Elvin Jones, Sarah Vaughan…plus Led Zeppelin, Cream, Jimi Hendrix, the Doors, and many other great bands…It was an unbelievable era. I’ll stop myself.

SI: What are you most looking forward to with this NOCCO performance?

JJ: The opportunity to work with exquisite musicians on this masterwork. Most of the music I perform is chamber music for only a handful of instruments. This piece is very ‘classical’ for me, and it has resonated with me for many years. It is thrilling to sing with a fine chamber orchestra- not something I do very often at this point.

SI: What do you hope audiences will take away from your performance of Samuel Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915?

JJ: I hope the audience loves Knoxville: Summer of 1915, and that listeners are transported and touched by this stunning piece.

Performances of NOCCO’s “Three B’s with a Twist” are this Saturday, Feb. 20 at 2 p.m. at University Christian Church in the University District and Sunday, Feb. 21 at 7:30 p.m. at the Royal Room in Columbia City. For additional information and tickets, visit NOCCO.org.

CONCERT PREVIEW: Q&A with Laura Schwendinger

by Maggie Molloy

It’s been raining to beat the band this week—but not even the wildest thunderstorms could drown out the beautiful music of Seattle’s North Corner Chamber Orchestra (NOCCO). This Sunday, NOCCO invites you to get out of the cold and into the warmth of the concert hall for a very special “Heart of Winter” performance.

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Known for their dynamic performances and adventurous programming, NOCCO’s 2015-2016 season features works by three different American women composers. The star of this weekend’s performance is composer Laura Schwendinger’s gorgeously luminescent Chiaro di Luna, a piece filled with icy strings and glimmering melodies inspired by the mysterious beauty of Lake Como in Italy.

Second Inversion sat down with Laura to ask her five questions about Chiaro di Luna, female composers, and NOCCO’s upcoming season.

Second Inversion: What is the story or emotion behind Chiaro di Luna, and how would you describe this piece?

Laura Schwendinger: It was written after my residency at the beautiful Rockefeller Bellagio Center on Lake Como in Italy. We would walk out on the veranda at night, and look out at the beautiful lake, and when there was a moon we could see the outline of the lake and the Dolomite Mountains beyond. Chiaro Di Luna celebrates the dark beauty of that experience.

SI: How is this piece similar to and/or different from your other compositions?

LS: Chiaro di Luna was written for the Franz Liszt Chamber Orchestra of Hungary, so I wanted to tap into the Romantic side of my expression a little more. It was one of the first works where I ventured into those waters (no pun intended), after having moved away from Romanticism for a time. I think of my work as being lyrical but passionate, and intense at times. I’m a “maximalist” and at times a romantic.

SI: What composers, artists, or styles of music most influence your work?

LS: French composers have had a huge influence on me. Debussy, Ravel, and very substantially Dutilleux, and at the same time many American composers such as my teacher Andrew Imbrie, with his lyrical voice, and even composers like Elliot Carter and Aaron Copland have influenced me and my way of thinking and hearing.

SI: Three out of the four NOCCO programs this season feature American women composers’ works. Why do you think this is a significant programming decision?

LS: It’s funny, I get asked about that a lot, and being a female I understand it. I think though, there are so many fine female composers  now that it’s almost hard for me to think of my favorite living composers without including at least 50-60% women.

I think it’s wonderful NOCCO is programming women and I think that other ensembles should get to know the music of women and if they do, they’ll realize how many great women are out there writing amazing music. That might not have been true 30 years ago, but it is certainly true now.

I run a contemporary music ensemble at UW Madison, where I am a professor, and last year I programmed an entire concert of music by women without even thinking about it. In other words, I programmed music that was great and after I had, I realized all of the works were by women!

SI: What do you hope audiences will take away from listening to Chiaro di Luna?

LS: I hope they will see the dark and beautiful, brooding Lake Como—under the moonlight with the Italian night sky and a full moon above.

 

NOCCO’s “Heart of Winter” concert is this Sunday, Dec. 13 at 7:30 p.m. at the Magnolia Church of Christ in Seattle. In addition to Laura Schwendinger’s Chiaro di Luna, NOCCO musicians will also perform Arcangelo Corelli’s Christmas Concerto, Darius Milhaud’s Chamber Symphony No. 5 for 10 Winds, and Igor Stravinsky’s Pulcinella Suite. For additional information and tickets, visit NOCCO.org.

concert preview: Q&A with Dorothy Chang

by Maggie Molloy

In the world of classical composition, women who write music are far outnumbered by their male peers—and this imbalance is a sensitive issue for composers, musicians, and concert programmers alike.

Fortunately many music organizations are taking steps forward to break down assumptions and stereotypes within the music industry by highlighting the works of contemporary female composers. One such organization is Seattle’s own North Corner Chamber Orchestra (NOCCO).

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Known for their dynamic performances and adventurous programming, NOCCO’s 2015-2016 season features works by three different American women composers. The first concert, taking place this weekend, features a performance of Dorothy Chang’s eclectic and expressive Virtuosities.

Second Inversion sat down with Dorothy to ask her five questions about Virtuosities, female composers, and NOCCO’s upcoming season.

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Second Inversion: What is the story or emotion behind Virtuosities, and how would you describe this piece?

Dorothy Chang: Virtuosities for string orchestra was commissioned by the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra in 2012 in honour of its 40th anniversary season.  Given the occasion, I was inspired to write a work that celebrates music history and tradition while also embracing the new and innovative.  Virtuosities seeks to draw connections between the music of the past and present, either through points of intersection or through sharply contrasting juxtaposition.

In the first movement, “To dream, perchance to fly,” a lightning-fast tempo and continuous, overlapping rising figures are meant to create a breathless, whirlwind energy, referencing elements of Baroque virtuosity within a contemporary context.   Beginning in B minor, the movement quickly becomes tinged with chromaticism, with juxtaposed layers of contrasting material, as if creating one big swirl of musical activity combining the old and the new.

The second movement, “Souvenir,” is intimate and lyrical, inspired by the slow movement of Vivaldi’s Violin Concerto in A minor.  In Vivaldi’s movement, I’m struck by how a simple texture achieves such poignancy and expressivity.  Similarly, in my own second movement, I tried to feature the beauty of a simple melody-and-chordal texture, enriched with an expanded sound palette of distinct colours and timbres.

In the final movement, “Mechanica,” an energetic walking bass serves a constant driving pulse over which a hodgepodge of various short musical quotes and other musical references are spliced, layered and woven together.

 

SI: How is this piece similar to and/or different from your other compositions?

DC: This piece is different from my other compositions in that it uses quotation, and it references Baroque and Classical music in a way that I haven’t done before in my other works.   The mixing of tonality and atonality is something I do explore often in my music, though in this work the two languages are presented more as a dichotomy rather than the blended mixture that I might use more typically.

Also, this piece is in three movements; the multi-movement form is typical of most of my compositions.  When starting a piece, I usually find I have a number of ideas I’d like to explore, and I’ve found the multi-movement form a good way to incorporate contrasting characters and materials within a single work.   I’m also drawn to exploring larger structures that can be built through the succession of multiple movements, and to shape the dramatic arc they form, as if creating a musical or emotional journey.

 

SI: What composers, artists, or styles of music most influence your work?

DC: I am inspired by and influenced by different types of music that I’ve heard, performed or studied from my childhood to the present.  My first exposure to classical music was from learning piano, so the influence of Romantic music, particularly piano repertoire, is strong.  Although my music might not sound very much like Brahms, Rachmaninoff or Schumann, there is a strong emphasis on melodic lyricism, sweeping Romantic gestures and rich harmonies.

The influence of popular music and, in certain works, Chinese music is also present.  Once I became aware of contemporary music, the composers whose music influenced me most included Debussy, Stravinsky, Lutoslawski, Takemitsu and Ligeti.  More recently, the music that inspires me is wide-ranging, and could include anything that happens to catch my ear, be it contemporary, popular, world music, etc.  The influences may not be immediately apparent in my music, but I am always consciously aware of their presence in my work.

 

SI: Three out of the four NOCCO programs this season feature American women composers’ works. Why do you think this is a significant programming decision?

DC: It looks like a great season, and I’m delighted to be in such good company!  The issue of women composers and programming continues to be a rather sensitive one (I remember becoming acutely aware of the issue as the only female in my graduate composition program years ago), and I have to say that I look forward to the day when the programming of music by female composers is something that happens spontaneously through the programming of good music, period.

I do think this is happening more and more, though one still comes across contemporary music concerts that include no music at all by women composers.  In this day and age, with so many talented women composers writing exciting, engaging, and unique music, it does perplex me how this is even possible.

As for NOCCO’s season: I’m thrilled to see such diverse and innovative programming.   I honestly don’t know if the programming was done specifically with the intention of featuring women composers, though I’m certainly excited that important and influential voices such as Laura Schwendinger and Joan Tower are included.  If the listener hasn’t had the opportunity to hear the music of these composers, it’s wonderful for NOCCO to bring it to a new audience.

 

SI: What do you hope audiences will take away from listening to Virtuosities?

DC: Virtuosities was written as a work that would bring together various old and new elements, and each movement reflects on this theme in its own way.  My hope is that the audience will connect with the music and the emotion and intention behind it:  the breathless energy and excitement of the opening movement, intimate lyricism broadening into lush gestures in the second movement, and the rhythmic drive and quirky turns of phrase in the closing movement.   This is a celebratory piece that I hope will engage the audience, and perhaps inspire them to hear both traditional and contemporary elements in a new context.

 

Performances are Saturday, Oct. 31 at 2 p.m. at University Christian Church in the University District and Sunday, Nov. 1 at 7:30 p.m. at the Royal Room in Columbia City. In addition to Dorothy Chang’s Virtuosities, NOCCO musicians will also be performing Alfred Schnittke’s Concerto for Piano and Strings (featuring pianist Cristina Valdés), Jacques Ibert’s Three Short Pieces for Wind Quintet, and Mozart’s Symphony No. 29. For additional information and tickets, visit NOCCO.org.