Second Inversion’s Top 10 Albums of 2018

Cheers to another year of new and experimental music on Second Inversion! Our hosts celebrate with a list of our Top 10 Favorite Albums of the Year. From a quiet ocean of percussion to the shimmering orchestras of Iceland and the bold harmonies of Beijing, our list celebrates musical innovation within and far beyond the classical genre.

Michael Gordon: The Unchanging Sea
Released Aug. 2018 on Cantaloupe Music

It’s easy to get lost in the haunting majesty of Michael Gordon’s The Unchanging Sea, the sheer force of its rolling waves echoing across the piano in the hands of Tomoko Mukaiyama with the Seattle Symphony. Gordon’s ocean of sound swells to overwhelming proportions, each wave cresting higher and higher, surging and submerging you in its growling depths. Though originally conceived with an accompanying film by Bill Morrison—a gritty collage assembled from deteriorating film reels and historic footage of Puget Sound—the piece’s sonic imagery is equally vivid on its own.

It’s paired on this album with Gordon’s shimmering Beijing Harmony, a work inspired by Echo Wall at the Temple of Heaven in Beijing, where sounds reverberate from one side of the structure to the other. In performance, the wind and brass players are spread out across the stage—and when you listen with headphones, the music echoes from left to right and back again, all around and through you. – Maggie Molloy


Ken Thomson: Sextet
Released Sept. 2018 on New Focus

Clarinetist, saxophonist, and composer Ken Thomson is known primarily for his work with the Bang on a Can All-Stars. But as it turns out, he’s been living a sort of musical double life as a jazz musician for, basically, ever, much like Ron Swanson as Duke Silver. Unlike Swanson, Thomson has decided to let his alter ego run free. I hear strains of Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue in Thomson’s Phantom Vibration Syndrome, Dave Brubeck’s Time Out in the time signatures, maybe even a little Charlie Parker when the improvisation builds to a frenzy. Thomson brings the complex compositional structures—the details of which I will not pretend to understand—of new music and improvisation together on this album in a way that can only be described as fun. – Dacia Clay


Nils Frahm: All Melody
Released Jan. 2018 on Erased Tapes

Nils Frahms’ latest solo album is striking in its simplicity—the compositions distilled down to their most potent melodies. The album features the composer himself on his usual keyboard collection of pianos, synthesizers, and pipe organs—but here expanded to feature an ethereal choir of vocalists along with subtle strings and percussion. The resulting tracks are an ambient mix of minimalism, mid-tempo dance grooves, and broad, synth-laden washes of sound. Though each song is expertly crafted in iridescent detail, the individual pieces also fit together into a larger whole, the album unified in its wistful harmonies and muted colors. Understated but immersive, it reminds us of the simple pleasure and the intimate perfection of a good melody. – Maggie Molloy


The Hands Free: Self-Titled Debut
Released May 2018 on New Amsterdam

Over the course of the past decade, the four composer-performers who make up the Hands Free have performed together in a variety of contexts. They found that what they loved doing the most was holding informal late-night jam sessions—which is what led to the quartet’s inception. Comprised of violin, accordion, bass, and guitar (plus the occasional banjo), the ensemble likes to perform unamplified, sit in a circle, and integrate a mix of genres ranging from folk music to jazz and improvisation. Their resulting debut album features a beautifully eclectic mix of sounds that depict an immense variety of places and emotions—all while maintaining the warmth and spontaneity of an impromptu jam session.  Gabriela Tedeschi


Anna Thorvaldsdottir: AEQUA
Released Nov. 2018 on Sono Luminus

Anna Thorvaldsdottir finds inspiration in nature—her music is its own ecosystem, the nuanced textures shared, traded, and transformed among individual instruments over the course of her works. The delicate balance of nature is at the heart of AEQUA, a collection of chamber works (plus one solo piano piece) performed by musicians of the International Contemporary Ensemble. Like the stunning natural landscapes of her native Iceland, Thorvaldsdottir’s compositions echo with the full subtleties of timbre, the music expanding and contracting, breathing and humming and vibrating like the earth. – Maggie Molloy


Éliane Radigue: Œuvres Électroniques
Released Dec. 2018 on INA GRM

This beautifully-produced 14-CD set documents Radigue’s career as the mother of dark ambient music. Laboring humbly and hermetically with an ARP 2500 synthesizer and some tape recorders, Radigue spent the 70s, 80s, and 90s perfecting her brand of dense, slow-changing drone music. The works from that time are often inspired by descriptions of states of consciousness in Tibetan Buddhism, bearing such titles as Death Trilogy or Elimination of Desires. They’re best confronted in darkness, without distractions, allowing the mind and ear to absorb their long timeframe (from 17 minutes to well over an hour) and complex sonorities. – Michael Schell


Third Coast Percussion: Paddle to the Sea
Released Feb. 2018 on Cedille Records

Paddle to the Sea was a book that was made into a movie that was made into a live show and album by Third Coast Percussion. In Holling C. Holling’s original 1941 children’s book, a First Nation boy in Ontario carves a wooden canoe and on its side, he writes “Please put me back in the water. I am Paddle-to-the-Sea.” He puts the boat into the Great Lakes where it begins its adventure, and the book follows it on its journey. (Spoiler alert: years later, the boat winds up in a newspaper story that ends up in the hands of the boat’s original creator, who is by then a grown man.) The film, which was released in 1969, added a focus on water pollution to the original story.

Third Coast Percussion composed a new score to perform live alongside the film, including existing works by Philip Glass and Jacob Druckman, plus traditional music from Zimbabwe. Third Coast broadens the focus of the story a little more, asking us to think about our relationship to water and waterways on a grander scale. Their addition to the story doesn’t moralize; it instead draws listeners’ attention to the fact that the water is us—we are Paddle to the Sea. – Dacia Clay


Nordic Affect: He(a)r
Released Oct. 2018 on Sono Luminus

“Hér” is the Icelandic word for here. That idea of being present—of listening, of connecting here and now through music is at the heart of Nordic Affect’s newest album. He(a)r is a collection of seven world premiere recordings penned by women composers and performed by women musicians. Wide-ranging sound worlds from Halla Steinunn Stefánsdóttir, Anna Thorvaldsdottir, María Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir, Mirjam Tally, and Hildur Guðnadóttir comprise the album, each offering a distinct perspective on the ways in which we hear and create sound—our individual voices and the ways in which they interact. – Maggie Molloy


Invisible Anatomy: Dissections
Released March 2018 on New Amsterdam

Drawing inspiration from the experiments of Leonardo da Vinci, facial polygraphs, and more, Invisible Anatomy’s Dissections uses medical metaphors to explore the risks and joys of opening yourself up to others. The avant-rock ensemble combines the theatricality of performance art with the drama of jazz and classical music, creating haunting songs of danger, intimacy, and dissection.

Fay Wang’s vocals layer and weave into intricate composite melodies and eerie disonances, asking powerful questions about the ways humans interact. With its thought-provoking text and complex, dramatic texture, Dissections is an impressive, hauntingly beautiful debut. Gabriela Tedeschi


My Brightest Diamond: A Million and One
Released Nov. 2018 on Rhyme & Reason Records

Few artists inhabit both pop and classical worlds so freely and convincingly as Shara Nova, the operatically-trained singer and composer behind the art rock band My Brightest Diamond. A Million and One tilts further into electronic and pop worlds than her previous albums, her lustrous voice dancing above synth-laden backdrops and pulsing drumbeats. While the drama and dynamic range of the songs hint at her operatic background, the vulnerability of the lyrics and the sheer danceability of the tracks bring a pop music immediacy to her work. The resulting album is visceral, unconventional, and free—emblematic of the modern day dissolution of genre. – Maggie Molloy

STAFF PICKS: Friday Faves

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

Richard Reed Parry: For Heart, Breath and Orchestra (Deutsche Grammophon)
Christopher Cerrone: How to Breathe Underwater

I have to admit: this Staff Pick was a tough choice for me. It was a toss-up between Richard Reed Parry’s For Heart, Breath and Orchestra, and Christopher Cerrone’s How to Breathe Underwater. In one corner, a piece by a guy from one of my favorite bands, wherein he had musicians and the conductor listen to their own heartbeats through stethoscopes and asked them to play along as closely as possible to their own heartbeats—a beautiful existential notion and a beautiful thing to listen to.

In the other corner, a piece that’s kind of about depression, which is based on a Jonathan Franzen character from the book Freedom, of whom Franzen said, “[she] was all depth and no breadth. When she was coloring, she got lost in saturating one or two areas with a felt-tip pen.” If you are not weeping by the end of that sentence and by the end of this heartbreakingly hopeful piece, check your pulse, man. Ultimately, I loved them both so much that I had to just close my eyes and pick one. But…oops! I wrote about both of them. Now you’ll never know which one I picked! – Dacia Clay

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 11am hour today to hear these pieces.


Michael Gordon: Beijing Harmony (Cantaloupe Music)
Seattle Symphony; Pablo Rus Broseta, conductor

“Every city produces its own set of harmonies,” Michael Gordon writes in his program note for this piece. In Beijing Harmony, those chords are dazzling and majestic, shimmering magnificently across the orchestra. The piece was inspired in part by Echo Wall, a part of the Temple of Heaven in Beijing where sounds echo from one side of the structure to the other. In performance, the wind and brass players are spread out across the stage—and when you listen with headphones, the music echoes from left to right and back again, all around and through you. – Maggie Molloy

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


Pauline Oliveros: Lear (New Albion)
Deep Listening Band

Way out on the northeastern tip of the Olympic Peninsula, nestled amid the sprawling and historic Fort Worden State Park, is a massive cistern, nearly 200 feet in diameter and over 14 feet deep. There’s nothing that quite compares to the immersive 45-second reverberation that echoes across this cistern—which is what made it the perfect location for Pauline Oliveros and her Deep Listening Band to record their self-titled album. Accordion, trombone, didjeridu, keyboards, and electronics somehow merge into one cohesive, meditative soundscape that lulls you straight into sonic hypnosis.
– Maggie Molloy

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 7pm hour today to hear this piece.

ALBUM REVIEW: Michael Gordon’s ‘Clouded Yellow’

by Gabriela Tedeschi

Michael Gordon. Photo by Peter Serling.

After throwing out a piece he’d been working on seriously for months, Michael Gordon sat down for just nine days to create something new, something uninhibited where “all the colors are flying.” That piece became “Clouded Yellow,” titled after the smudged, colorful wing patterns of the clouded yellow butterfly. It also became the title track for his new album, a collection of string quartets where blurred, distorted, and layered sounds coalesce into a vibrant, fluttering haze.

Gordon, one of the three co-founders of Bang on a Can, has a passion for exploring ways in which classical chamber works can be warped with electronic effects and guitar pedals. His latest album is the product of a decades-long collaboration with the Kronos Quartet, an ensemble comprised of violinists David Harrington and John Sherba, violist Hank Dutt, and cellist Sunny Yang that is committed to stretching the limits of string quartet music. Clouded Yellow features four works that revel in blurred harmonies and melodies, shedding light on the beauty of opaqueness.

Kronos Quartet. Photo by Jay Blakesburg.

The title piece, “Clouded Yellow” creates this blurred effect with driving melodic lines and overlapping rhythms that obscure the beat. Chromatic movement with slides and trills encompasses much of the violin lines, developing dark, intricate harmonies that flutter restlessly around the listener.

Similarly, “Potassium” layers different sliding lines of sustained notes and uses a fuzz box to distort the strings, creating a mysterious cloud of sound. The piece alternates between slower, melancholic sliding sections, dramatic periods where the violins slide rapidly above driving viola and cello accompaniment, and conventionally beautiful sections with tender, lyrical melodies. As these contradictory elements are woven together, “Potassium” becomes an ornate musical web that is impossible to untangle.

The album’s blurred aesthetic brilliantly suits the thematic content in “Sad Park,” a four-part piece that layers the quartet’s music under sentences from toddlers who were asked to explain the events of 9/11. Following the pattern laid out by the previous tracks, the piece features electronic sounds, slides, and complex, interlocking patterns that intentionally disorient the listener. As the young children’s words are replayed over and over, they are electronically warped, becoming eerie non-verbal sounds—almost like wails of pain at some moments. The children’s confused words and the distortion of both their voices and the instruments reflects the confusion, pain, and helplessness felt in the wake of 9/11.

“Exalted,” the final track, serves as a response to the mourning of “Sad Park.” Featuring the Young People’s Chorus of New York City, the piece sets the opening of the Kaddish, a prayer sequence recited for the dead in the Jewish faith. The voices layer chromatic, descending lines over a rhythmic violin pattern and the slides of the cello and viola. While the dark intensity of the piece never diminishes, it begins to move over time toward a quiet finality that offers a sense of peace. “Exalted” both captures the complexity of mourning and artfully juxtaposes something ancient and religious with the immediacy of modern sounds.

Clouded Yellow documents Gordon and the Kronos Quartet’s innovative experimentation with electronics, clashing layers, and disorienting rhythmic patterns. The resulting music is intricate, dramatic, and thought-provoking: it speaks powerfully to the confusion we all experience when so much of the world around us is blurred.

Staff Picks: Friday Faves

Second Inversion hosts share a favorite selection from their weekly playlist. Tune in on Friday, October 6 to hear these pieces and plenty of other new and unusual music from all corners of the classical genre!

Michael Gordon: Timber (Cantaloupe Music)
Remixed by Ikue Mori

Michael Gordon could make music out of just about anything. His piece Timber, composed for six percussionists playing 2×4 planks of wood, is not just good—it’s so good  it spurred an entire album of remixes by 12 different electronic artists.

This particular remix by Ikue Mori slows down the texture and explores the space between the notes, with the music slowly oscillating up and down, side to side, from one headphone to the other and back again. With an echoing, almost ritualistic pulse, Mori’s version feels ghostlier than the original. It’s almost as though the wooden planks were cut from haunted trees—evoking a spookier interpretation of the title Timber. – Maggie Molloy

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


Julia Wolfe: Lick (Cantaloupe Music)
Bang on a Can All-Stars

This is an intense piece in many ways. It’s rhythmically difficult, aggressively pounding, and relentless throughout; it features no sound softer than a determined forte until possibly the very end. Generally I would abhor something like this, but the Bang on a Can All-Stars are able to give it a truly fascinating showcase: raucous and full of indomitable character.

It’s the first piece that Julia Wolfe wrote for the ensemble, hoping they would “go over the top” with the work’s “intense energy” born of the body-slamming rhythms of Motown, funk, and rock music of Julia’s childhood. I think it worked. – Geoffrey Larson

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


Florence Price: Dances in the Canebrakes (MSR Classics)
William Chapman Nyaho, piano

William Chapman Nyaho: Asa is the second of five volumes curated by Ghanaian-American composer and pianist William Chapman Nyaho. All five volumes feature a fascinating and impressive collection of music of Africa and the African diaspora.  This second volume is focused on dance music, and Nyaho certainly shines as he dances his hands across the keys of his piano with striking expertise.

In Florence Price’s Dances in the Canebrakes, Nyaho treats the listener to three movements that feel like a courtly cakewalk.  Price, I should note, was the first black woman in the US to be recognized as a symphonic composer and to have her work performed by a major American orchestra. Price was a pioneer and is perfectly at home in this anthology of musical unity. – Rachele Hales

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 7pm hour today to hear this piece.


Ballaké Sissoko & Vincent Ségal: “N’kapalema” (No Format Records)

I’m currently going through a months-long phase of discovering West African music, which started with Peter Gabriel’s collaborations with Youssou N’Dour and then led me through to Toumani Diabaté and Rokia Traoré. (Give them a listen!)

It looks like Ballaké Sissoko will carry the torch next. In “N’kapalema,” a collaboration with cellist Vincent Ségal for Sissoko’s album Musique de nuit, the composer plucks precise, intricate melodies on the kora while Ségal overlays the cello’s husky voice. For me, it evoked an image of a lot of families in their homes at dusk, all saying prayers before a candlelit dinner. – Brendan Howe

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 9pm hour today to hear this piece. Plus, catch the duo in Seattle when they perform as part of the Earshot Jazz Festival on Oct. 22.

STAFF PICKS: Friday Faves

Second Inversion hosts share a favorite selection from their playlist. Tune in during the indicated hours below on Friday, November 18 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!

Jacob Cooper: Silver Threads (Nonesuch)

st-front_finalThis piece is the opening song of a six-part cycle of the same title.  With text by 17th-century Japanese poet Bashō, this track is a good choice if you’re looking for a uplifting contemplative experience. Make sure your headphones or speakers can produce decent bass for this one; the sliding low tones make this piece come alive. – Seth Tompkins

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 11am hour today to hear this piece.


Robert Honstein: “Why are you not answering? I don’t wish to play games”
From RE: You (New Focus Recordings)

fcr146_cover-750x0Here’s a little 21st century love story for you:

Once upon a time, Boston-based composer Robert Honstein’s email address was erroneously paired with the online profile of one Midwestern, middle-aged Jeffrey K. Miller. As such, Robert was mistakenly cc’d on hundreds of private emails and unwittingly given a ringside seat at the romantic travails of a complete stranger.

Inspired, Robert decided to make an album of lyricless love songs titled RE: You using the email exchanges as its basis. The pieces, titled after unusual (and sometimes alarming) email subject lines, explore not so much love itself as the longing for love—those most intimate, most vulnerable, most profound moments of our humanity.

Performed with a mixed chamber ensemble of strings, winds, percussion, and piano, this album’s got all the ups, downs, butterflies, and backlashes of looking for love on the internet. We may be living in a digital age, but the universal yearning for love is just as palpable as ever. – Maggie Molloy

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 12pm hour today to hear a piece from this album.


Zubin Hensler: The Beach (Songlines Recordings) 

songlines-1617-2-440x440Oh, The Westerlies.  How do I love thee?  Let me count the ways: Willem, Andy, Zubin, Riley…  All four have a knack for taking common brass instruments and crafting uncommon brass music. In Zubin Hensler’s “The Beach,” trumpets and trombones create a sound more tender and poetic than the typical military/fanfare we’re used to hearing from brass. Here, the notes float in the air like seagulls and the warmth the performers exude makes the heart feel all good and mushy. Total sigh…

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


Michael Gordon: Timber (Hauschka Remix) (Cantaloupe Music)

ca21121_timber_remixed_frontComing off a long period of orchestral composition, Michael Gordon welcomed an opportunity to throw orchestration and pitch out the window when he composed Timber in 2009. Scored for six wooden simantras (a fancy word for 2x4s) cut at gradual lengths, the 60-minute original work has a simple beauty that can easily turn a hardware store into a performance venue.

Timber has been remixed into twelve vignettes by producers and DJs who incorporate some electronica, drones, and beats into Mantra Percussion’s studio recording. I’m excited to present Hauschka’s iteration, which goes so far as to incorporate prepared piano in the mix. If you like Timber but want a smaller dose, join Hauschka and the good company of Mira Calix, Greg Sanier, Johann Johannson and many more, on this beautifully re-imagined collection. – Maggie Stapleton

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 7pm hour today to hear this piece.