Second Inversion’s 24-Hour Star-Spangled Marathon

by  Maggie Molloy

This Fourth of July, Second Inversion is celebrating the history of American musical innovation. Tune in all day long on July 4 for our 24-hour Star-Spangled Marathon, featuring American composers across history.

Throughout the day we’ll take you from the spiritual fantasias of Florence Beatrice Price to the jazzy rhapsodies of George Gershwin, from the musical nuts and bolts of John Cage to the tape experiments of Pauline Oliveros—from the minimalist musings of Philip Glass to the spacious landscapes of John Luther Adams, the avant-jazz stylings of Don Byron, the musical tapestries of Gabriela Lena Frank, and far beyond.

This Fourth of July, we’re celebrating the history of American music in all of its sparkling diversity, from sea to shining sea. Click here to tune in.

Plus, discover our hosts’ favorite musical selections from the marathon below.

Florence Beatrice Price: Fantasie Negre (Sono Luminus)
Lara Downes, piano

Fantasie Negre is such a cool piece, a fascinating mix of romantic era Western European influence and African American spiritual—it’s almost as if Liszt visited the American South and immediately rushed to a piano to interpret the melodies he heard. Fantastic gospel-like moments seep through dazzling displays of technique. It’s even more impressive when you think about all the things Price had to overcome just to compose: a black woman born in Little Rock, Arkansas, she attended New England Conservatory in 1906 but had to pass as Mexican in order to avoid abuse. Though she returned to Arkansas and married, she moved her family to Chicago to flee lynchings; her husband eventually became abusive and she filed for divorce, a rare step for a woman of her time. Despite these difficulties, her prodigious talent produced 300 works in her lifetime.
 Geoffrey Larson

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 12pm hour on July 4 to hear this piece.


Steve Reich: Come Out (Nonesuch)
Daniel Hamm, voice

In 1966, Steve Reich took a four-second audio clip and spun it into one of the most harrowing musical works of the 20th century. Come Out takes as its basis a mere scrap from an analog tape interview of Daniel Hamm, a black teenager who was wrongfully arrested for murder in 1964 (one of what would come to be known as the Harlem Six). In the clip, Hamm describes the horrific police brutality he faced behind bars. But the police would not take him to the hospital unless he was bleeding—so he ripped open one of his bruises and “let some of the bruise blood come out to show them.”

Come out to show them. Reich gradually loops, phases, and transforms these words beyond recognition over the course of 13 minutes, transporting the listener beyond language and into the dizzying and devastating reality of the situation at hand. Over 50 years later, we find ourselves still spinning in the same tape loop, Hamm’s words still echoing in the race relations of today. – Maggie Molloy

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 3pm hour on July 4 to hear this piece.


John Luther Adams: Dream in White on White (New Albion)
Barbara Chapman, harp; Apollo Quartet and Strings

Many artists have long recognized that one of the United States’ most powerful attributes is its natural landscape and the massive scale thereof. However, this essential characteristic of the country has been something that many American composers have neglected (or at least struggled) to incorporate effectively into their music, focusing instead on human-centric cultural or traditional elements.

John Luther Adams breaks that mold, using the beauty, power, complexity, and scale of the American landscape itself as the inspiration for much of his work. Going further, Adams lived in Alaska, that state that perhaps best encapsulates the awesome power of the American landscape, for many years. He has managed to forge a unique and engrossing musical language that transports listeners to mountaintops, ocean shores, and glacial snowfields. – Seth Tompkins

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 6pm hour on July 4 to hear this piece.


Nico Muhly: Mothertongue (Bedroom Community)

Nico Muhly is an American contemporary composer whose mission is to gnaw at the edges of classical & rock/pop. Mothertongue is a fun example of how he melds genres, combining the intimacy and beauty of chamber music with a conceptual pastiche that adds fidgety energy to the mix. In the first movement, “Archive,” Muhly accomplishes this by incorporating the beauty of Abby Fischer’s voice speak-singing a jumble of numbers and places which, turns out, are all addresses where Muhly & Fischer have lived.

In “Hress,” the frenetic third movement, found sounds (pouring coffee, crunching cereal, etc.) create a morning routine. Don’t expect “Hress” to evoke a lazy Sunday sunrise, though. As the music picks up it’s clear these are the sounds of someone either hungover or extremely jet-legged going through the motions to get out the door and on with the day. Mothertongue proves Muhly has a knack for finding the sweet spot between concept and emotional connection; he’s corroding classical boundaries and inviting the next generation to explore his musical Pangaea. – Rachele Hales

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 9pm hour on July 4 to hear this piece.


Amir ElSaffar: Shards of Memory/B Half Flat Fantasy

I love this music! I’ve never heard anything like it. ElSaffar has fused together a lot of different musical traditions in this, but what stands out to me most are the jazz and the Middle Eastern sounds. ElSaffar is the child of an Iraqi immigrant and an American. He was born outside of Chicago, and grew up listening to his dad’s jazz collection. His first musical training was in a Lutheran church choir. Iraqi music came later for him—in 2001 he used the money he got from winning a jazz trumpet competition in to go to Iraq and study something called maqam music, and he spent the next five years studying with Iraqi masters in the Middle East and Europe. Anyway, I love how these traditions come together in his music so effortlessly to make something new. – Dacia Clay

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 11pm hour on July 4 to hear this piece.

Why Philip Glass is Not Such A Far Cry from J.S. Bach

by Dacia Clay

Photo by Richard Guérin.

Pianist Simone Dinnerstein recently teamed up with the Grammy-nominated string orchestra A Far Cry for Circles, an album of piano concertos by both J.S. Bach and Philip Glass. Dinnerstein and AFC violist Jason Fisher recently chatted with Second Inversion about the album.

In this audio piece, you’ll hear each of them talk about the album’s inception, breakfast with Philip Glass, the creative partnership between Dinnerstein and AFC, the important connections between the two composers, and the power that this music has over audiences.


Circles by Simone Dinnerstein and A Far Cry is available now on Philip Glass’ record label, Orange Mountain Music. Click here to purchase the album.

ALBUM REVIEW: Steve Reich’s ‘Pulse/Quartet’

by Dacia Clay

I just realized that this album was released on my birthday this year. So, first, thank you, Steve Reich for the thoughtful gift. The pieces on the album were written a few years earlier—Pulse, in 2015, and Quartet in 2013, and recorded by the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) and the Colin Currie Group respectively. (Reich wrote both pieces for the ensembles by whom they are performed here.) But they work together beautifully in an unbroken narrative.

The Story

Pulse opens with an almost folk Americana sound a la Aaron Copland. Big wide open prairie, amber waves of grain-variety archetypical hopefulness and promise. Our hero is setting out from home. The instruments—violin, viola, flute, clarinet, piano, and bass—begin to lob notes back and forth between them. But very quickly, a darker bass note joins the mix. Minors and majors mix together. The bass chugs along with nods to a steady rock music beat. There’s a stillness in the background and movement in the fore, and they swap places constantly. The instruments join together, playing in sync, and then fly apart again, creating dissonance. This piece is like a train, passing by in perpetual motion, and the listener is hearing different cars as the train goes by. The players involved are all wrapped up together in call and response—they need each other to create a whole melody. And then the journey slows down and our hero finally comes to a rest.

Quartet has 3 movements: I. Fast, II. Slow, and III. Fast. And if Pulse is the wide open objective spaces of America, Quartet is its crowded solipsistic cityscapes. There’s something about Quartet that makes me think of a late ‘70’s/early ‘80’s gritty cop drama. You know, when TV was more subtle, dialogue-based, and recorded on film; when it relied less on fake blood. In the first movement, there’s one moment of urgency, but the rest seems to be about our main character’s workaday life. The piano and vibes come together. Neither is ever really in charge. I imagine that one is the city and one is the character, but I can’t figure out which is which. “Slow,” is like a rainy night, staring out a window. The hero is a little gloomy and drinks with quiet resolve. And in the third movement, there’s a shift. It’s the same story as the first movement, but a few decades in the future. We’re back in the daylight after a dark, solitary night that ended in passing out on the couch. This new version of the first story is lighter, emphatic and upbeat with the sound of a news dateline in the background creating an urgency, and the story ends, finally, on a high note.

The Facts

According to Reich, Pulse was a sort of reaction to Quartet because it’s “[a]ll in all, a calmer more contemplative piece,” though that is not what this listener hears. (I can’t help wondering what you’ll think.) In Quartet, he employs the Steve Reich version of a quartet, using his trademark grouping of two pianos and two percussion instruments (in this case, two vibes) instead of a traditional string quartet. As Reich notes, the piece is one of his most complex, and it, “frequently changes key and often breaks off continuity to pause or take up new material.”

The Last Paragraph

Steve Reich once said, “All music does come from a time and place. I was born and raised in New York. I moved out of New York, but it’s inside of me and it will be inside of me until they put me in a box in the ground.” This album feels like it’s of several times (which makes sense from an almost 82-year old) and places, but most distinctly of New York. I like the idea that even in music that’s dependent on pattern rather over emotion, you can hear who the composer is, and it endears me to this work.

What do you hear?

ALBUM REVIEW: Max Richter’s Three Worlds: Music from Woolf Works

by Geoffrey Larson

Three novels by Virginia Woolf, the British modernist writer living 1882-1941, shaped a choreographic work by Wayne McGregor created for The Royal Ballet in 2015—a triptych that Max Richter was given the risky task of scoring. These three works show the great variety in Woolf’s writing, each contrasting dramatically in subject matter and purpose. In his score, Richter has drawn on his own varying talents as a pianist, film composer, and electro-acoustic producer. But is this music worthy of its inspiration?

It’s worth mentioning that Richter is not the only living composer who has undertaken the task of creating a musical companion to Virginia Woolf’s writing. Philip Glass’ challenge of scoring the 2002 film The Hours was both different and similar: the story of Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway was the key subject of the film, but the action took place in three different time periods. Glass’ aesthetic was successful at weaving together the different storylines, using the bare materials of pulsing, repetitive rhythmic patterns and simple harmonic changes to help the listener connect the dots. Perhaps minimalist music, the genre that both Glass and Richter subscribe to in different ways, is that which serves Woolf’s narrative style and subject matter the best. Apart from the most obvious fact that both phrases of minimalist music and sentences of Woolf’s stream-of-consciousness writing seem to go for pages, both artistic forms create magic out of seemingly basic, ordinary materials.

“Minimalist” music makes use of repeating simplicity (say, continuous groups of eighth notes) and fairly straightforward harmony, while Woolf looks to the realistic lives of everyday people for her subject matter. The first few pages of Mrs. Dalloway are a complete tour-de-force of narrative storytelling, creating something stunningly engrossing out of the doldrums of daily routine: Woolf takes an ordinary London street scene, and with great care delves into the thoughts and dreams of one random passerby after the next, looking past the mundane to essentially create something fascinating from nothing.

It seems perfect then that the Mrs. Dalloway section that begins Richter’s album starts with a sample of London street sounds: Big Ben, church bells, etc. Slipped in at the very beginning is the only surviving recording of Virginia Woolf herself, a BBC archive of her reading the essay “Craftsmanship” in 1937. As this gives way to a gentle piano line played by the composer himself, we immediately understand that this project is something deeply personal for Richter, who spent much of his early 20s with his nose in Woolf novels. The sound of Richter’s piano anchors the music of this part, and although it has clear emotional depth and a richness of sound flowing from the Deutsches Filmorchestrer Babelsberg under the baton of Robert Ziegler, there are a couple moments that sound so similar to Philip Glass that they could be mistaken for the other composer’s heavily piano-based score of the same Mrs. Dalloway subject matter. However, what follows next in Orlando is stunningly different.

Richter always seems at his best when he brings his skill as an electronic musician and producer to bear on the world of the orchestra, and when he is confronted with Woolf’s more unusual story of a fictional 16th-century male poet who transforms into a woman and lives to the present day, things get interesting. In “Modular Astronomy” he patches together a beat using a mosaic-like conglomeration of orchestral sounds, each of them bizarrely clipped. If you are a classical musician, you are either awed and fascinated by this effect or it gives you a conniption. Richter uses analogue modular synth, sequencing, digital signal processing, and computer-generated synth as he explores Orlando, sometimes eschewing the orchestra for exclusively electronic sounds. These tracks may be the most beautiful surprise on this album, although it’s hard to beat the breathtaking reference in “Love Song” to a famous theme that composers such as Rachmaninoff also couldn’t resist modernizing.

The final track is by far the longest, and is the sole selection dedicated to The Waves, a 1931 novel consisting of the soliloquies of six characters. The sound of waves at the outset seems to have a sort of triple-significance: beyond the allusion to this most experimental of Woolf novels and the current of the river that would ultimately take the author’s life in her suicide, we can feel the relentless weight of depression washing over her. A reading of her suicide note would have seemed cheap here if they had gotten a less-than-fantastic actor to record it; we’re lucky Gillian Anderson was given the chance to do such a poignant reading. High strains of violin in wide-open intervals begin to accompany the words in a heart-breaking progression, and when the orchestra and soloists are left alone at the conclusion of the letter, the music continues on with ever-deepening orchestration and intensity. We’ve been without a true emotional climax of great orchestral scale so far in this album, but the final track does not disappoint.

There’s something else to address here. Many a graduate thesis has been written on the subject of Virginia Woolf’s great subtlety: she masterfully leads us deeper into the lives of seemingly unimportant characters and pulls us in unexpected narrative directions without our knowledge, all while crafting language that makes use of colorful, existential references and imagery. Does the music of Richter’s score to Woolf Works possess a similar subtlety? The answer is a complicated yes and no.

Richter’s music is often disarmingly and purposefully simple, which for many makes it instantly accessible. Most listeners’ ears will easily absorb the trademark “cinematic” harmony and orchestration that create drama and emotion in a straightforward way, and in a sense, what you hear is what you get. Certainly, opening the album with a recording of the voice of Virginia Woolf herself is anything but subtle. However, poetic details in this music’s construction are hidden beneath the surface. Richter claims “asymmetries and trapdoors” in the rhythm and harmony of the music for Mrs. Dalloway, with the intention that this music is meant to feel “misremembered after a long absence.” The electronic creations of Orlando draw heavily on variations on a fragment known as La Folia, popular with a huge variety of composers starting in the 17th century. A ground bass is the backbone of this sort of music, and music to The Waves is also structured this way. A “suicide” theme in the final track connects to musical allusions to the shell-shocked character Septimus in “War Anthem” from the Mrs. Dalloway music. The subtlety of these details makes Woolf Works a richer musical offering, and is probably Richter’s greatest gift to the world of art influenced by the writing of Virginia Woolf.

STAFF PICKS: Friday Faves

Second Inversion hosts share a favorite selection from their weekly playlist. Tune in on Friday, April 14 to hear these pieces and plenty of other new and unusual music from all corners of the classical genre!

Valgeir Sigurðsson: “Architecture of Loss: The Crumbling” (Bedroom Community)

Valgeir Sigurðsson’s “Architecture of Loss: The Crumbling” is five minutes of bold, emotive, string-heavy resonance sweetened with silvery piano and sharpened by nearly subliminal scratches and creaks. The music is drawn from the concept of “formation and disintegration,” so the sparse notes and lingering strings serve the theme well. It’s a piece evocative of splintering glaciers: beautiful yet uneasy.
Rachele Hales

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


Danny Clay: “Two and Six” (Ignition Duo)

Unlike some stuff we play on Second Inversion, Danny Clay’s “Two and Six” is an example of music best experienced in headphones. The interplay of harmonics between the two guitars is more engrossing and intimate in stereo, especially if the audio is piped straight to your brain. So, I advise you to put your cans on and chill out to this introspective conversation between twin electric guitars. Whether you need to focus or relax, this track is an excellent choice. – Seth Tompkins

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


Terry Riley: “Venus in ’94″
Performed by Gloria Cheng (Telarc Records)

He’s one of the world’s foremost boundary-bursting minimalists; she’s a Grammy-winning pianist known for championing new music—it’s a match made in musical heaven. The world premiere recording of Terry Riley’s “Venus in ’94” sparkles under Gloria Cheng’s free-spirited fingers, which gracefully soar up, down, and around an utter obstacle course of intricate voicings and rhythms.

Half waltz, half scherzo, the piece is a delicate but deftly virtuosic lesson in extravagant romanticism—or as Riley himself describes it: “A tip of the hat to early Schoenberg, Chopin, and Brazil.”
Maggie Molloy

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

ALBUM REVIEW: The Glass Effect from Lavinia Meijer

by Maggie Molloy

When most people hear the harp, they think of Baroque suites or Celtic folk ballads, angels strumming heavenly melodies—or perhaps that sideline string instrument sandwiched between the violin and percussion sections of the orchestra.lavinia-meijer

But harpist Lavinia Meijer is interested in expanding those possibilities. In fact, she’s made an entire musical career out of it.

Meijer has cultivated a name for herself as one of the most diverse harpists of the 21st century, consistently seeking out little-known classical solo and orchestral repertoire, collaborating with contemporary cross-genre artists, and recording brand new music that bursts through classical music boundaries. And when the music’s not written for her instrument—she simply arranges it for harp herself.

Her latest project is The Glass Effect: a two-disc release featuring works composed and inspired by minimalist mastermind Philip Glass. The first disc is classic Glass: 10 of the composer’s famous 20 Piano Etudes, each delicately arranged and deftly performed on harp by Meijer. The second disc highlights Glass’s influence on the next generation of composers, featuring Glass-inspired compositions by Bryce Dessner, Nico Muhly, Nils Frahm, Ólafur Arnalds, and Ellis Ludwig-Leone.

Recorded as a tribute album for Glass’s 80th birthday this coming January, the two-disc set begins with a retrospective glance backward through Glass’s extraordinary compositional discography. Meijer lends her fingers to 10 of Glass’s 20 Etudes which, composed over the course of 1991-2012, offer a glimpse into the development and ongoing transformation of his harmonic language and compositional style.

Etudes are, of course, exercises: short musical compositions designed to develop (and, once learned, demonstrate) the skill and technique of the player. And trust me, Glass’s Etudes are no easy feat.

Yet Meijer dances with grace and charm through the entire obstacle course of changing tempi, textures, and techniques, crafting each phrase and every delicate detail with the utmost care and attention. From the soft and sweet lullabies of Glass’s early Etudes to the motoric rhythms and virtuosic variations of the later ones, Meijer’s arrangements maintain the music’s trademark clarity and unshakable sense of forward motion while also offering compelling insight into her instrument.

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The second disc is bookended by Glass’s haunting theme from the 1982 apocalyptic film Koyaanisqatsi, beginning first with Meijer’s solo harp arrangement. She craftily transforms the original synth-laden ostinato into a poignant and introspective solo piece which speaks to the sheer power and timelessness of Glass’s melody. But she doesn’t forgo the electronics entirely: the theme comes back again at the end of the album in a remixed version with electronics titled “Lift Off,” which Meijer created with sound designer Arthur Antoine in 2014.

The effects of Glass echo clearly throughout the second disc, which showcases how ambient and minimalist music has evolved (and continues to evolve) in the hands of young composers.

Among the first composers featured is Bryce Dessner (who you may recognize from the band The National) with his three-movement Suite for Harp. Dessner’s piece utilizes the full pitch range and performance idiosyncrasies of the harp, painting a hazy soundscape of softly cascading melodies, harmonics, and arpeggios.

laviniaNico Muhly’s two contributions to the album, each originally composed for piano, are more introspective in nature. Meijer’s fingers drift patiently through the simple, chant-like melodies and soft bass drones of Muhly’s “Quiet Music,” and her playing brings a quiet warmth and aching resonance to “A Hudson Cycle.”

Muhly’s pieces dissolve into the soft ambience of two of Ólafur Arnalds’ most music box-worthy compositions. Meijer twirls through the twinkling melodies of “Erla’s Waltz” and drifts sweetly through the circular harmonies of “Tomorrow’s Song.”

Arnalds’ friend and frequent collaborator Nils Frahm follows with two compositions originally composed for piano but expertly arranged for harp by Meijer. Breathy melodies float above soft (but busy) bass arpeggios in “Ambre,” while block chords echo against a serenely silent backdrop in “In the Sky and on the Ground.”

However, it’s perhaps composer Ellis Ludwig-Leone’s contribution which stretches the harp the furthest from its traditional musical stereotype. His composition “Night Loops” for harp, looping pedal, and electronics sparkles with fluttering melodies and crackling electronics, creating an entire glistening garden of timbres and musical textures.

And thus, the album ends with a glance toward the future—a look at how Philip Glass’s musical influence continues onward in all its ever-expanding variations and transformations.

Because although Glass may be a minimalist, his influence is far from minimal.

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STAFF PICKS: Friday Faves

Second Inversion hosts share a favorite selection from this Friday’s playlist. Tune in during the indicated hours below on Friday, October 14 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!

1045-bates-cover-1600Mason Bates: Mothership (BMOP/sound)

Some combinations are wonderful despite the unintuitive relationship of their component parts.  Mason Bates’s Mothership contains such a combination.  You wouldn’t think that live electronics, a full orchestra, and NASA spaceship sound samples would go well together with the sound of the guzheng, but they do.  So sit back, grab some cream cheese for that hot-dog, and enjoy Mothership. – Seth Tompkins

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 10am hour today to hear this piece.


Philip Glass: Etude No.12; Bruce Levingston, piano (Sono Luminus)

dsl-92205-dreaming-awake-coverI‘m a total nut for minimalism and usually turn to it when working, running, cooking, commuting, exploring, just about anything. So, I was thrilled to discover Dreaming Awake, a recently released 2-disc journey of Philip Glass’ piano music guided by Bruce Levingston. Ten of his etudes are tucked in between and around The Illusionist Suite, Wichita Vortex Suite (with guest vocals from Ethan Hawke), Dreaming Awake, and Metamorphosis No.2, for an asymmetric but balanced collection.

I hope you catch Etude No.12 on Second Inversion today. Whereas his first 10 etudes were written primarily as exercises for improving technique, his later etudes are more expressive and emotional. No.12 to me is characteristically “Glass” in many ways – repetitive, steady, with rhythmic, driving arpeggios, and also a somber depth. The musical colors are incredibly poignant in this tribute to American painter Chuck Close, who temporary lost (but later regained) the ability to paint due to a spinal aneurysm. Glass depicts this emotional battle in the music, Levingston communicates it with is playing, and the producers at Sono Luminus record it with such mastery, yielding a stand-out new release in the contemporary classical realm. – Maggie Stapleton

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


Stephen Suber: Soleil; Ars Brunensis Chorus (Centaur)

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The best music is music that convinces you there is no other music in the world.  This week Stephen Suber’s “Soleil” did that for me.  He describes the composition as “an orchestral piece without the orchestra,” using only the dynamic human voice to create rhythms and harmonies that grow more complex as the piece continues.  Baritones sub as the double bass, tenors become cellos, and percussion is provided by plosives, sibilants, and fricatives.  This composition is from his album Starlit and, when asked about it in an interview, Suber refers specifically to “Soleil” when he states that the singers “came so close to reading my mind.  They nailed it.”  With a review like that it’s no wonder he cites this as his favorite work from the album! – Rachele Hales

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


Richard Reed Parry: Heart and Breath Sextet;  yMusic and Nico Muhly
(Deutsche Grammophon)

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Richard Reed Parry is one of those musicians who really writes from the heart—in this case, literally. His “Heart and Breath Sextet” throws all time signatures out the window and instead instructs the performers to play, well, to the beat of their hearts.

The piece comes from his introspective opus, Music for Heart and Breath: a series of compositions which uses the performers’ hearts and lungs as the performance parameters. Each musician is instructed to play with a stethoscope (and very quietly) in order to stay in sync with their own heartbeat, thus resulting in a beautifully irregular ebb and flow—a soft and serene watercolor come to life.

And as you can imagine, no two hearts beat exactly in time. For this sextet, performed by yMusic with Nico Muhly on piano, the result is a pointillistic effect: starts and stops are staggered, melodies fall out of sync with one another, harmonies bend delicately up and down.

And every once in a while, one of those softly sighing melodies falls in sync with your own heart and breath—a gentle reminder of just how musical it is to be alive. – Maggie Molloy

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