Second Inversion hosts share a favorite selection from their weekly playlist. Tune inon Friday, February 16 to hear these pieces and plenty of other new and unusual music from all corners of the classical genre!
Anna Thorvaldsdottir: In the Light of Air (Sono Luminus) ICE (International Contemporary Ensemble)
If I had to describe this piece in one word, it would be ice. Not only is it an icy, ethereal soundscape sculpted by an Icelandic composer, but it’s even performed by ICE (the International Contemporary Ensemble). Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s In the Light of Air is an iridescent sound world scored for viola, cello, harp, piano, percussion, and electronics. Infinitely varied in its timbres and textures, the piece evokes the translucent calm and quiet sparkle of an icy landscape, with gorgeous harp details, gentle piano echoes, and whispering melodies glittering above the rumbling earth below.
Tune in to Second Inversionin the 1pm hour today to hear a movement from this piece.
Florent Ghys: “An Open Cage” (Cantaloupe Music) Bang on a Can All-Stars
If you don’t have five hours to listen to John Cage’s sprawling, narrated sound art piece Diary: How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse), Florent Ghys’s “An Open Cage” offers a compelling (and surprisingly catchy) four-minute summary. In Ghys’s version, a solo pizzicato bass line dances within the rhythms of Cage’s calm and serene narration, painting his deadpan delivery with a funky groove and a distinctly contemporary color. The unconventional duet expands as the piece grows in musical force, gradually adding more and more instruments until finally a small chorus of voices appears, echoing Cage’s words:
“The avant-garde is flexibility of mind and it follows like day the night from not falling prey to government and education. Without avant-garde, nothing would get invented.” –Maggie Molloy
John Adams: Lollapalooza (Nonesuch Records)
Hallé Orchestra; Kent Nagano, conductor
I first encountered this piece over 10 years ago in my college wind ensemble. Although this version is for orchestra, the band version is an excellent example of quality writing for winds. And beyond that, this piece is one of the best examples of onomatopoeic music anywhere; once you hear it, you can never un-hear it. Loll-a-pa-loo-za! – Seth Tompkins
Missy Mazzoli: “Tooth and Nail” (Bedroom Community) Nadia Sirota, viola
Admittedly, I’m a little bit of a fangirl when it comes to Missy Mazzoli and Nadia Sirota, so I may be somewhat biased in my review of this piece. I love how much is going on in it—there are things going on near and far and in between. And Mazzoli brings the electronic textures I’ve heard in some of the music from her band Victoire into this. I hear echoes of Radiohead’s “Pyramid Song” in the chord progressions, and the same kind of desperation in the viola as I heard in Abigail Fischer’s voice in Mazzoli’s Song from the Uproar. This was my introduction to Sirota’s album Baroque, and I can’t wait to dig in to the rest of it! – Dacia Clay
When it comes to the piano, Jesse Myers likes to think outside the standard keyboard.
Last year, he created an entire percussion orchestra inside his piano for his performances of John Cage’s prepared piano masterpiece, the Sonatas and Interludes. This year, he’s forgoing the screws and bolts in favor of something a little more electric.
On Wednesday, July 12 at the Royal Room, Myers presents Living in America: a concert of solo piano works by living American composers. Urban, adventurous, and uniquely American, the program highlights the groundbreaking work of iconic minimalist composers, as well as brand new 21st century works for acoustic piano and electronics.
The first half of the program features John Adams’ misty and modal China Gates alongside Philip Glass’ half-hypnotic, half-neurotic Mad Rush and a selection of his virtuosic Piano Etudes. The second half showcases music for piano and electronics, including Christopher Cerrone’s 21st century urban nocturne Hoyt-Schermerhorn, Missy Mazzoli’s ethereal Orizzonte, and her swirling fantasia Isabelle Eberhardt Dreams of Pianos. Steve Reich’s pulsing, palindromic Piano Counterpoint finishes the program.
The evening also features a set of rarely-performed music for solo voice with electronics and piano, performed by soprano Stacey Mastrian. She lends her voice to two generations of American composers, ranging from Earle Brown and Morton Feldman to Kristian Twombly and Steve Wanna.
In anticipation of the concert, we sat down with Myers to talk about urban sounds, electronics, and expanding the sonic possibilities of the piano:
Second Inversion: What inspires you most about exploring the expanded possibilities of the piano?
Jesse Myers: Discovery. It’s not that I’m tired of the piano in the traditional sense—it’s really about the two words you just used: exploring and expanding. The Steinway grand is the benchmark of great American craftsmanship, and it has stopped evolving.
While new music is, of course, still being written for the piano, new music that involves electronics is a way for composers to personally contribute to a new sort of evolution of the piano. I am not sure composers are thinking of their work in that way, but as a pianist and a curator of the repertoire, I can’t help but see their work in that light.
The great thing about electronics, prepared piano, and extended piano techniques, is that at the end of the day, the good old acoustic grand piano is still there. Akin to the way Cage first prepared the piano with bolts and weather-stripping, the electronics drastically change the sound and our impression of the piano—but in the end it is easily returned to its original form.
SI: What are some of the unique challenges and rewards of performing music that uses electronics?
JM:It used to be that I could show up and play a concert without any paraphernalia, and that’s nice and all, but I love my ever-expanding bag of tricks. The tinkering that is necessary in the practice of this repertoire, and the ability to perform a wider range of timbres in a solo performance while making use of the venue’s sound system are big payoffs to me. But, yeah, part of the reason I became a musician was so I didn’t have to get a haircut and wake up early—so if I can plug into a sound system and feel like a rock musician for a brief moment, I can feel closer to achieving my lifestyle.
There are certainly a great deal of challenges, and I’m sure that turns some musicians off to exploring music like this for themselves. Technical setups are unique to each piece, with varying arrays of requirements. This means that creating a program takes even more planning and practice to get it right. On top of that, these technical requirements can also make two pieces completely incompatible with each other in a single program. Electroacoustic music often requires a couple different software applications, an ear piece for click tracks on some fixed electronics, foot pedals for cueing live electronics on more flexible ones, different settings on both hardware and software depending on the piece or venue, etc.
SI: This program features all American composers—what are some of the overarching themes that connect the music of these composers?
JM: Urban sound. All of these composers, with the exception of Adams, are living and working in New York right now. To me, this imprints an unmistakable urban character into their music. There is a relentless activeness in this urban sound which is illustrated most clearly by the minimalist music of Glass and Reich. The electroacoustic soundscapes of Mazzoli’s music have this wonderful sort of raw grittiness about them, and Cerrone’s work, Hoyt-Schermerhorn, is named after a New York subway station. Cerrone says “…the piece explores the myriad and contradictory feelings that often come to me late at night in my city of choice—nostalgia, anxiety, joy, panic.” There is a beautiful peacefulness among the urban activity in these works.
The electronics are also a theme that connects most of the works. The first half of the program (the Adams and Glass pieces) will have no amplification or use of electronics, while the last half will use an increasing amount of electronics. But there is an electronic connection between the two halves. The program starts with an acoustic piece that references electronic music. The gates in the title, China Gates, refer to the gating of electronic music. Adams uses sudden changing modes to mimic gating effects in electronic music.
Conversely, the end of the program, Reich’s Piano Counterpoint, is an electronic work that references an acoustic one. Reich originally wrote the music for this as a work called Six Pianos in 1973. In 2011, pianist Vincent Corver adapted the work for one piano and a pre-recorded soundtrack. Four of the six piano parts are pre-recorded and the last two are combined into a more virtuosic single part, which I’ll play live and amplified. In 2014, the Bang On a Can All Stars pianist Vicky Chow worked with the composer to further edit the piece and create a new flexible pre-recorded soundtrack that allows the performer to use a foot pedal to trigger the phasing of the other parts. Reich’s original version of Six Pianos asked for each measure to be repeated within a range of times—not a fixed amount of time. Since Corver’s version was backed by a fixed-length soundtrack, the most recent version is a truer realization of the original work’s flexibility. My performance will be the most recent, flexible version of the work.
SI: How do the minimalist composers’ works differ from the 21st century works on the program?
JM:These 20th century minimalist works lack an extramusical association. They are really about rhythmic structures and form. China Gates (which isn’t really about China or gates), for instance, is a famous, short minimalist work that uses recurring patterns that slowly change and shift apart over time, while making up a nearly perfect palindrome in its structure.
The music of Cerrone and Mazzoli in this program, which are 21st century works, tell a story or capture a vivid scene. So, the audience should be listening for entirely different things in the two styles. In the first half of the program, listen for minimalist patterns and structures (like palindromes), that ultimately lead the way for the second half to transport you into another scene altogether.
What is interesting, though, is despite the lack of an extramusical association, the works of Glass and Reich often capture the busy energy of a dense urban environment, which somehow creates a beautiful, weightless sense of calm. In this sense then, the minimalist works do have the ability to move beyond the academic, form, and rhythmic structure that are the hallmarks of its style.
SI: What are you most looking forward to with this performance and what do you hope audience members gain from it?
JM:Playing in a relaxed bar setting should really gel with this music. I’ve always wanted to take music like this out of the standard classical concert venue. As someone who can’t take their instrument with them when they gig, bars and many other non-classical venues are off-limits. But The Royal Room has a Steinway B, a great sound system, and a reputation for taking good care of local musicians—so I’m really excited to play in that environment.
I hope the audience gains an appreciation for the things I’ve come to realize as a musician. There is amazing music being created by composers who are alive and working in this country right now—it’s innovative, part of us, and who we are. Embrace technology. Accept that electronics and a reverence to the classical music tradition can coexist.
Living in America is Wednesday, July 12 at 7:30pm at the Royal Room in Columbia City. For details and additional information,click here.
Today we are celebrating John Adams’ 70th birthday in great style with a24-hour streaming marathonof his music. Tune in all day and night for his chamber, choral, piano, orchestral, and vocal works along with insights from the Second Inversion staff and community! Listen here.
And enjoy this throwback to 2015 in our studios with San Francisco-based Friction Quartet, performing an excerpt from his first String Quartet.
The release of the recording of the chamber opera The Edge of Forever by Los Angeles-based experimental opera company The Industry and modern music collective wild Up is a triumph. However, it is difficult to succinctly encapsulate exactly why this complex release is so tremendously special; some (ok, maybe a lot of) background information is needed first.
The Edge of Forever is a piece that is intentionally bound to a specific time and a specific place. This recording documents a performance that occurred on December 21, 2012. You may remember that date as a moment when various sources predicted an apocalypse of one sort or another because of that date’s association with the ending of the ancient Mayan Long Count calendar. The Edge of Forever is associated with that moment as well; this piece was inspired by the end of the Mayan calendar. Its association with this specific moment in time led its creators to perform it in public only once. This piece will never be performed again; luckily, we have a recording! To be fair, however, the released recording of the piece does contain some post-performance studio addition, but they serve only to recreate the experience of the live performance.
In addition to being tightly bound to a specific moment in time, this piece was designed to be performed specifically in its chosen venue. That venue was Los Angeles’s Philosophical Research Society. This institution is dedicated to the study and preservation of wisdom traditions from around the globe and throughout time, operating without evangelical doctrine. The Edge of Forever was designed to be staged specifically in this space, using various spaces at the Society as the narrative unfolded.
It is also important to note the mission of the Philosophical Research Society, as its devotion to cross-cultural learning and the wisdom of disparate cultures hints at the themes of transcendence and unity that emerge from every element of this piece as it unfolds. All of the major elements of this piece, both obvious and obfuscated, serve these themes. The composer (Lewis Pesacov) and the librettist (Elizabeth Cline) deserve high praise for their success in fusing the elements of The Edge of Forever into a deep and unified whole.
Elizabeth Cline. Photo Credit: Suzy Poling.
Lewis Pesacov. Photo Credit: Michael Leviton
Before exploring this recording, it might be helpful for listeners to brush up on their ancient Mesoamerican theology. However, if that idea is not appealing, the liner notes explain things adequately. Basically, according to the mythological explanation given in the liner notes, a chosen sacrificial individual was prophesized to transcend the previous era of time (pre-December 21, 2012) and act as a bridge into the next era of time through the fulfillment of a great love. That individual is the main character of this opera, La’akan.
Interestingly, and very much in line with the temporal focus of this work, the performance begins in what the creators call the “third act” of the opera. The first two acts are written to have already happened, so the audience joins the action in progress as the third act begins. The liner notes provide a somewhat-detailed account of the story up to the start of the third act. The music of this piece in divided into the five scenes (five tracks) of Act III.
As the recording begins (joining the story in scene 1 of Act III), La’akan is in seclusion, waiting for his beloved, Etznab, to appear. When the lovers are united, the prophecy states that this era of time will end and the new one will begin. Scene 1 is a “procession of the scribes.” The scribes here are four sopranos singing wordless tones that have a distinct “early-music” flavor. Overall, though, it would be difficult to confuse this music with its antique counterpart, given the striking quavering of the voices. This ancient-sounding music gradually transforms into quite modern sounds that remind me of a hypothetical chamber version of Ligeti’s Requiem (1965). The scribes are on a pilgrimage to the caves where La’akan is in seclusion so that they may witness the transformation of one era of time into another. The music of scene 1 is completely a cappella.
Scene 2 is an entr’acte. Temple bowls, I believe, augmented by electronic drones begin this movement. Later, strings and winds enter as this instrumental movement builds to a stirring climax that is at once uplifting and foreboding. The music then fades to a light electronic drone and strings enter. A mournful cello solo continues this movement, supported chiefly by percussion and light backup strings. The movement finishes with meditative drumming that should put even the most resistant or confused listener in the right frame of mind to accept the cosmic and transcendent musical scenes to come.
Scene 3 is quite brief. In this recitative, La’akan sings for the first time, singing the first English words in the piece. As scene 3 blends into scene 4 (an aria), La’akan describes his seclusion. He has focused solely on love, and abandoned all other desires. The instrumental music that accompanies La’akan during scene 4 features the soprano sax and English horn prominently, along with percussion. The sounds made by these two woodwind instruments here strongly resemble the sounds of the Tibetan gyaling. As Scene 4 ends, string imitate these sounds and carry us into Scene 5.
Scene 5 closes the piece with a second aria. As the piece enters this new sonic space that will eventually leave the audience in a warm bath of cosmic joy, a lovely English horn and soprano sax duet sets the tone. The woodwind playing could scarcely be more different that the bristly sounds of Scene 4; this dichotomy highlights both the versatility of the players and the skill of Pesacov, who has managed to compose with admirable economy, using the full expressive range of the instruments.
As Scene 5 progresses, La’akan reveals that the time has come for him to unite with the beloved and usher in a new age. His beloved is neither seen nor heard, but through the music, her presence is clear. The vocals here are accompanied by the full ensemble, but the drum and bells feature prominently. As the piece ends, the music coalesces around a single pitch, fading out in a gesture that suggests an ultimate unity. This might not seem an obvious way to end a piece about a topic that was popularly associated with an apocalypse, but after taking in the narrative of this version of the story, it makes perfect sense.
Much of the music in Scene 5 is reminiscent of John Adams’s The Dharma at Big Sur. Both pieces are deeply spiritual, but approach spirituality from apparently opposite directions (mythology vs spiritual commune with nature). One particularly tantalizing possibility about the source of this similarity might be fact that Adams’s Dharma is also about an “edge,” although a much more concrete edge; the John Adams piece is about standing on the western edge of the American continent. Whatever the true source of their similarity, it is fascinating and pleasing that they end up in similar sonic spaces, but ultimately not surprising, given the orientation of The Edge of Forever toward multifaceted transcendence of apparently unrelated realms.
This overarching themes of unity and transcendence are everywhere in The Edge of Forever. First, it is inside the narrative: it is present in the element of the bridging of two eras of time, the more simple union of a lover with their beloved (who may or may not be supernatural), and the union of humanity with the cosmic through the timeless power of love. This last element of the narrative focuses on the power of love and unity to transcend the human time scale. In the words of the librettist, “one can find forever in each moment.”
These themes are also written into this piece through the composer’s use of the ratio at the heart of the Mayan calendar. The Mayan calendar in question here is built upon the ratio 13:20, and the complex interactions of those two numbers. The Maya were able to use this simple method of counting to understand time scales of cosmic proportions which otherwise would be outside the realm of human comprehension.
Pesacov uses these numbers and this ratio to generate most of the musical structures (both large and small) in the piece. Excitingly, however, the overall effect is not that of a piece created by the cold application of numerals, but rather a lovingly conceived narrative supported by tasteful and interesting instrumental writing. The successful coexistence of these two seemingly opposing motivations is evidence of the composer’s skill.
Here, too, then, is transcendence woven into this piece in two ways: the Mayan calendar itself suggesting the extension of the human mind into otherwise unreachable territory while the construction of musical structures using its elements unifies numbers and musical expression into a beautifully multifaceted whole.
Pesacov also manages to work a third iteration of unity and transcendence into this score with his ingenious orchestration. The ensemble here is relatively small, but it is packed with instruments that have association with religions from around the world, thus deepening this piece’s commitment to transcendence. From Tibet, there are singing bowls (I think), the replication of the sound of the gyaling by the soprano saxophone and the English horn, and the conch shell. The conch is also found in the religious traditions of Pacific island nations, India, East Asia, the Caribbean, and (poignantly, in the case of this piece) Mesoamerica. Other instruments in this piece are common to religious traditions too numerous to name; drumming, bells, and a cappella singing are firmly in this category. So, even the instrumentation itself contributes to the themes of unity and transcendence in The Edge of Forever.
When I encountered this piece initially, the interesting story and beautiful performances of the players and cast drew me in. Then, the more deeply I explored this piece and its backstory, the more layers of connection (transcendence) I found. This tells me that Pesacov and Cline really knew what they were doing. The result of their multifaceted success is that any listener can enjoy this release; you can listen for the intricate construction and efficient writing or you can just sit back and enjoy the beauty of the thing, or both! Whatever your motivation, I think it would be difficult for any listener to experience The Edge of Forever without feeling the love.
The Fourth of July is almost upon us, and you know what that means: parades, picnics, and barbeques abound! And while hot dogs, fireworks, and flag-covered clothing are a (somewhat) relevant expression of American independence, our county has a whole lot more than just cured meats and corny t-shirts to be proud of.
Which is why this summer, the Seattle Symphony is turning off the barbeque and turning up the music with Tuning Up!: a two-week festival celebrating American musical creativity in the 20th and 21st century. This star-spangled celebration features nine concerts which traverse America’s vast musical landscape, from jazz to Broadway, avant-garde to minimalism, classics to Hollywood, and much more.
So whether you crave the jazzy grooves of George Gershwin or the swinging blues of Duke Ellington, you can hear it all during the Tuning Up! Festival. Maybe you prefer the massive soundscapes of John Luther Adams, the hypnotic minimalism of Philip Glass, or the movie magic of John Williams—the festival has all that too!
Suffice it to say, Second Inversion is all over this festival. Come visit us at the KING FM table in the lobby at the following events for music, magnets, and other free swag!
Stage & Screen: From Appalachian Spring to the Red Violin Thursday, June 23 at 7:30 p.m.
From stage to screen to concert hall, these giants of American music transcended borders and paved the way for generations to come. Among them is Florence Beatrice Price: the first African-American woman to be recognized as a symphonic composer. The Seattle Symphony pays tribute with a rousing orchestral rendition of her ragtime classic, Dances in the Canebrakes. Plus, dancers take to the stage alongside the Symphony for a performance of Aaron Copland’s famous folk-inspired and Pulitzer Prize-winning Appalachian Spring.
The program also features Leonard Bernstein’s elegant Divertimento for Orchestra, poignant movie music from Schindler’s List and The Red Violin, and a heartwarming tribute to the late Marvin Hamlisch who,among his many accomplishments in music, served as the Principal Pops Conductor at the Seattle Symphony from 2008 until his death in 2012.
The Light that Fills the World: A Meditation in Sound & Light Thursday, June 30 at 7:30 p.m.
In the face of trauma and political turmoil around the world, Seattle Symphony offers an intimate meditation in sound and silence, light and dark. Julia Wolfe’s My Beautiful Scream, written after the events of 9/11, opens the program with a slow-building and softly illuminating agony. What follows is utter silence:John Cage’s famous 4’33”.
The program also features Pulitzer Prize-winner John Luther Adams’ immersive, Arctic-inspired soundscape The Light That Fills the World, the delicate breath of Morton Feldman’s Piano and Orchestra, and Philip Glass’ scientific salute, The Light.
Plus, the Symphony invites you to submit your ownGlass-inspired photographsto be featured during the performance. Deadline for submissions is this Friday, June 24.
In the White Silence: John Luther Adams’ Alaskan Landscapes Friday, July 1 at 10 p.m.
To say that composer and environmentalist John Luther Adams is inspired by nature would be a bit of an understatement. He spent much of his life composing from a 16×20 ft. one-room cabin in the Alaskan woods, creating large-scale soundscapes which blur the line between nature and man-made instruments.
In 2013, the Seattle Symphony commissioned and premiered John Luther Adams’ Become Ocean, a 42-minute meditation for large orchestra which went on to win a Pulitzer Prize and a Grammy Award.
And now, during this special late-night concert, the Symphony revisits one of Adams’ earlier explorations into sonic geography: the 75-minute soundscape In the White Silence. The piece unfolds slowly and patiently, translating the vast horizons of the frozen far north into a musical landscape of clean, radiant harmony and subtle transformation.