Second Inversion’s Top 5 Blog Features of 2016

2016 was a great year for new blog series and features here at Second Inversion dot org. From unusual instruments to concerts in national parks, our music journalists covered the region far and wide!

#5: New Music Concert Flyers


Each month in 2016, Second Inversion and the Live Music Project created a monthly calendar featuring contemporary classical, cross-genre, and experimental performances in Seattle, the Eastside, Tacoma, and places in between. We gave copies to all of the listed groups to distribute to their audiences to help spread the word about similar concerts. It’s been incredibly rewarding to bring unity and support to our vibrant community!

#4: Music in the American Wild


In August 2016, we took an in-depth look at an exciting project that came to Washington’s national parks in honor of the National Parks Service’s centennial: Music in the American Wild. The touring ensemble performed works commissioned by eleven composers, all Eastman graduates and affiliates. Second Inversion’s Seth Tompkins covered the Washington leg of the tour in three blog posts.

#3: Anatomy of a Prepared Piano for John Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano

The avant-garde and always-iconoclastic composer John Cage liked to think outside the box—the toolbox, that is. In 1940, he invented the prepared piano: a piano that has had its sound altered by placing objects such as screws and bolts in between the strings. His magnum opus for the instrument was the Sonatas and Interludes, a collection of 20 pieces clocking in at over an hour in length. This spring, Seattle-based pianist Jesse Myers performed the work in its entirety and Maggie Molloy went behind the scenes to see what (literally) goes into the piano!

All photos by Maggie Molloy.

#2: Women in (New) Music 


This year Second Inversion launched Women in (New) Musican ongoing exploration into the past, present, and future of feminism in classical music. This multimedia series will highlight feminist issues within and beyond the classical music sphere, inviting female-identifying musicians, artists, and writers from all areas of the field to share their own experiences. Our posts so far have included a timeline of female composers, Q&As with composers and performers, studies on females in the classroom, and more!

#1: Virtual Tour of the Harry Partch Instrumentarium

Harry Partch was a pioneer of new music. He was one of the first 20th century composers to work extensively with microtonal scales, creating dozens of incredible instruments specifically for the performance of his musical texts and corporeal theatre works. Over 50 of his handmade instruments are housed in The Harry Partch Instrumentarium, currently in residence at the University of Washington and we presented a virtual tour of the instruments by Second Inversion’s own Maggie Molloy!

All photos by Maggie Molloy.

Music in the American Wild: Looking to the Future

by Seth Tompkins

This is the final installment in a series covering Music in the American Wild. Our earlier posts include a series preview and concert review.


Music in the American Wild at Hurricane Ridge Visitors Center. Photo Credit: Geoff Sheil

Following the completion of the Music in the American Wild tour in celebration of the centennial of the National Park Service, I took some time to consider the state of the interaction between music, the parks, and wild places in general. Inspiringly, there are many projects happening now that explore this terrain. The interaction of wild spaces and music is a topic which many people both in the United States and around the world are eager to explore.

In addition to Music in the American Wild, another group recently completed an entirely separate tour that brought new music to the national parks in celebration of the centennial. The Grand Valley State University New Music Ensemble‘s tour visited Badlands, Wind Cave, Grand Teton, and Yellowstone National Parks. This tour concluded on July 9, 2016. They also commissioned new music for the centennial, presenting eight new works alongside three previously commissioned works from a 2014 tour of national parks of the Southwest.

David Biedenbender‘s Red Vesper, a commission from the 2014 tour

Also like Music in the American Wild, the GVSU tour was supported by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. The fact that there were at least two separate new music ensembles touring the national parks and celebrating the centennial with newly commissioned works is outstanding! However, beyond recognizing projects like these, we must address the deeper meaning of what they are trying to accomplish. The effect of music in wild places is defined by two axes: the interaction of music and venue, and the content of the music itself.

When we consider music in the context of wild places, there is a spectrum of ways in which music and location interact. At the most basic, some projects are little more than outdoor concerts, with music (usually) written for indoor spaces presented outdoors. Moving further along the spectrum, some outdoor concerts include music that was written with the outdoors in mind, inspired by the outdoors, or even specifically written to be performed outdoors. Some projects go a bit further and curate music for the specific space in which it will be performed, whether written with outdoor performance in mind or not. Further along are projects that include music written specifically for the outdoors, sometimes combined with aforementioned curation of music for specific venues. Finally, there are other projects written for exactly the specific outdoor venue (and sometimes, time) at which they are performed.


Heart o’ the Hills Campground. Photo Credit: Geoff Sheil

Music in the American Wild falls squarely in the middle of this spectrum, with a robust, if not completely essential, connection to their specific performance locations. The music that they presented was certainly written with the outdoors in mind and was designed to be performed outdoors (indoors, too, I suspect). However, not all of their pieces were designed for or inspired by specific places, and not all of their pieces took an apparent interest in interacting with the location in which they were to be performed. The group did, however, take the care to specially curate the programs of each of their performances so that the music they offered complemented each different performance space. The project was successful, to be sure, but the interaction of music with wild spaces shouldn’t be limited to the form it took in Music in the American Wild.


Music in the American Wild in the Hoh Rain Forest. Photo Credit: Geoff Sheil

Consider a piece like John Luther Adams’ Inuksuit, in which the music intentionally acts like an assistive device, helping the audience experience the performance location in a new way. The music is not written for any specific outdoor space, but is intended to be performed outdoors and to deepen the experience of the space. This overtly intentional interaction between music and outdoor performance spaces illustrates one way concepts from Music in the American Wild and similar projects could be extended.


Inuksuit was performed in Seattle in September, 2015. Photo Credit: Melanie Voytovich

Another piece that illustrates how music and location can be even more deeply connected is Michael Gordon’s collaborative piece Natural History, which was premiered on July 29, 2016 at Crater Lake in Oregon and commissioned by the Britt Music and Arts Festival. This piece was written specifically to be performed at Crater Lake, making both location and music essential to the project. Further, Natural History’s collaborative nature extends its connection to the performance location; the piece involved local musicians, especially focusing on performers from the Klamath Tribes, for whom Crater Lake has always been a special spiritual place.


Crater Lake. Photo Credit: Britt Festivals

The totality of connections to place in Natural History invites consideration of the role of content in projects that include the interaction of music and wild spaces. Natural History was conceived with a keen awareness of Native American issues and culture. Other pieces, like many of John Luther Adams’ works, are centered on the issues of climate change and ecology. Pieces like these, which openly confront and explore the serious issues facing our wild spaces, are leading the way as musicians become more interested in and adept at exploring the intersection of music and nature.

On this front, one piece from Music in the American Wild’s set list deserves special recognition. Aaron Travers’ piece Sanctuary, inspired by the armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge earlier this year,  takes a clear-eyed look at a difficult issue that is relevant to modern audiences.

Perhaps, as time moves on, more projects like Music in the American Wild will delve even deeper in search of connections to place. Maybe they will attempt to explore some of the modern challenges surrounding our national parks and wild spaces. The issues of conservation, Native American history, and land use are as relevant now as they have ever been. Exploring these sometimes-unpleasant facets of our National Parks and wild places is good for everyone involved; musicians get to participate in relevant modern conversation on topics that truly matter, and the public gets a new set of tools with which to connect with wilderness and consider the issues.


American Camp at San Juan National Historical Park. Photo Credit: Geoff Sheil

I have immensely enjoyed covering the Music in the American Wild ensemble this year. I would like to thank them for all of their hard work and their openness in presenting these enjoyable concerts, and for visiting the beautiful (and sometimes overlooked) National Parks of Washington. They deserve praise for contributing to the movement to connect music with our national parks and wild places. Projects like this not only bring music to new and exciting places, they deepen the public’s awareness of wild places and can foster much-needed conversations on the issues surrounding them. I sincerely hope that the project continues into the future and grows even broader in scope. Until next time, I suggest we all go “take a hike!”


Seth Tompkins, mid-hike.

CONCERT REVIEW: Music in the American Wild

by Seth Tompkins

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On Sunday, August 14, I had the pleasure of attending a concert presented by Music in the American Wild at the Sunrise Visitor Center in Mount Rainier National Park. Here at Second Inversion, we have been following this project closely, especially since the group arrived in Washington for the western leg of their tour. After learning about this group and their project months ago, I finally had the chance to attend one of their concerts in its “natural habitat.” This occasion was made even more special by the fact that I had attended their concert in Seattle at the Good Shepherd Center on August 6; the opportunity to compare the group’s performances in these two disparate settings was a rare treat.

The concert at Sunrise on Mt. Rainier was the group’s third in that park; they played concerts at Ohanapecosh Campground and Paradise Visitor Center on Friday the 12th and Saturday the 13th, respectively. The rangers had the ensemble set up in the picnic area just north of the Sunrise Visitor Center. The concert began at 2pm, in perfect weather.


It doesn’t get much better than this.

The concert began with an introduction by Mt. Rainier National Park’s Education Director, Fawn Bauer. Bauer assisted the group as they arranged their visit to the park, helping them organize everything from where to stay to where and when to set up for their concerts. As she began the introduction, it was clear that Fawn was a natural; she put the crowd at ease and warmed them up for the music to come.

One interesting fact came to light during Fawns introduction: Over half of the 50-60 people attending this performance had come to the site specifically for this event; the rest had drifted in by chance. The proportion of people that had come specifically for the concert seemed high to me, but it was an inspiring statistic; people will, in fact, visit unusual venues for new music! That said, given how many people were at Sunrise that day, I thought the crowd should have been larger.


Note the crowded parking lot.

Just like their concert at the Good Shepherd Center, Music in the American Wild’s director and flutist Emlyn Johnson began the performance by welcoming the audience and explaining the genesis of the project. For more on that, see our earlier post. This bit of discussion was the first of many; Emlyn and the other musicians took questions from the audience between each of the pieces.


Music in the American Wild’s Emlyn Johnson speaks with the audience at Sunrise.

Over the course of the 75-minute concert, some audience members drifted away, but they were largely replaced by new listeners that drifted in and out of the grove of trees in which the concert was set. The audience remained engaged throughout the show, asking many thoughtful questions.


The audience was spread between off-limits areas set aside for native wildflower recovery

The concerts that I attended included five (at Mt. Rainier) six (in Seattle) pieces (of the 11 they commissioned), four of which were the performed on both programs. This overlap presented a special opportunity to compare these nature-inspired works in different settings. The sharp contrasts created by the disparate settings of the two concerts highlight interesting aspects of how location and setting interact with music.

One of the pieces that was shared between the two programs was Tonio Ko’s Covers and Uncovers. This piece begins and ends with very soft percussion parts played by all members of the ensemble on desk (or “concierge”) bells. These difference in how this element sounded in the two settings was striking. At the indoor concert at the chapel, the desk bells had the flavor of a “challenging” sound: the kind of sound that might make traditional concertgoers squirm a bit as they get used to the novelty. However, in the outdoor setting at Mt. Rainier, the bells had the opposite effect! Because these sounds exist on the fringes of traditional classical music, they served to blend the opening and closing of Ko’s piece into the natural ambience of the mountainside venue, gently introducing the more traditional sounds to come. The end result was that Covers and Uncovers was one of the more effective pieces on the program at Sunrise.

The other remarkable contrast between the two versions of a particular piece that the ensemble performed in both locations was Chris Chandler‘s the view from here. This piece is a musical triptych depicting Shenandoah National Park. The first movement, “drones and swells of the not-far road” was notably different in tone at the two concerts that I attended. This movement features a musical re-creation of the sounds that visitors to Shenandoah National park hear coming from Skyline Drive, which winds through the entire length of the park. At the Good Shepherd concert, in the middle of the city, the imitation road noise blended pleasantly with the city sounds drifting through the open windows of the Chapel Performance Space; it was easy to accept the sounds of a busy roadway integrated into a natural setting while listening at the Good Shepherd Center. The effect at the Mt. Rainier performance was entirely different. Unlike at the Good Shepherd Center, where the hum of the city is ubiquitous, Mt. Rainier has almost no urban sounds. In this peaceful setting, the simulated road noise of Skyline Drive took on an intrusive and obscene cast. The somewhat dissonant and harmonically unsettled moments in this section of music that sounded perfectly natural in the city sounded grotesque and inappropriate in the near-pristine acoustic of Mt. Rainier. Despite my negative reaction to this element of the piece at the Mt. Rainier concert, the overall effect was positive; the different reactions I had to the piece were a beautiful consequence of experiencing it in two dramatically different locales.

These contrasts that arose solely from the different venues of the two concerts can teach us about the musical value of setting. Sure, one would expect some dramatic differences when these concerts are compared; the familiar sound of a rich, warm, wood-heavy concert hall near sea level and the dry acoustic encountered outdoors on the side of a volcano at 6400 feet could not be much more different! Still, the specific ways in which the music seemed to change are worth exploring, especially given that this music was written with wild outdoor spaces in mind.

You can catch the final concerts by Music in the American Wild this week in Olympic National Park. Stay tuned to the Second Inversion blog for the final installment of our series on Music in the American Wild, coming next week!


All photos by Seth Tompkins

CONCERT PREVIEW: Music in the American Wild

by Seth Tompkins

Photo Credit: Geoff Sheil

You may be aware that this year is the centennial anniversary of “America’s best idea,” the national park system. Created in 1916, the National Park Service (NPS) currently manages 411 sites in the United States and its territories. The national parks themselves, however, predate the NPS, with Yellowstone (the world’s first national park) being founded in 1872, and the land that would become Yosemite National Park being set aside for protection even earlier, in 1864. But, this August, we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service itself, which not only protects and manages the parks, monuments, shorelines, historical areas, and myriad other sites in its care, but also serves to makes these sites accessible to the public.

If you are in need to a way to celebrate, check out the NPS’s centennial page. Or better yet, attend one of the upcoming concerts in Washington state by Music in the American Wild! And yes, it is exactly what it sounds like.

Music in the American Wild is the brainchild of Emlyn Johnson and 17 of her colleagues, all of whom have a connection to the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, NY. This project started with a group of musicians hiking. While hiking at Letchworth State Park in upstate New York (which is awesome, BTW), this group of musicians found themselves with a desire to play music, but they were tragically devoid of instruments. Regretting the oversight, the group began thinking of a way to connect their passion for the outdoors with their love for (and vocation of) classical music. The end result of that thought process is Music in the American Wild.


Photo Credit: Geoff Sheil

This year, Music in the American Wild has been touring the country, playing fresh new music in national parks.  The music they are performing is all new, and has been written specifically for this celebratory tour. Some of the pieces, in fact, have been performed in the very locations that inspired them, such as Chris Chandler’s The View From Here. This piece was inspired by the Big Meadows location inside Shenandoah National Park, and was recorded there in June of this yearClick here to learn more about the composers featured on the tour.

So far, Music in the American Wild has performed on tour in several of the high-profile national parks in the Eastern U.S., including Great Smoky Mountains, Mammoth Cave, and Shenandoah, with additional performances at the Smithsonian, The Theatre in Washington, Virginia, and at the Locust Grove Historical Landmark in Louisville, Kentucky. Some of these concerts have occurred in unique venues, including underground in “The Rotunda” at Mammoth cave National Park!

Video highlights from the eastern portion of the tour

Now that their eastern tour is complete, Music in the American Wild is coming to the Northwest!  This month, the ensemble will perform at North Cascades National Park, Olympic National Park, Mt. Rainier, National Park, and San Juan Island Historical Park. If you’re in the Northwest, attending one of these concerts in the national park setting for which it was intended is highly recommended. Check out their tour dates for dates and details.  However, if you cannot make it out of town, the ensemble will be playing a preview concert at the Chapel Performance Space at the Good Shepherd Center in Wallingford, Seattle on Saturday, August 6 at 8pm (tickets $5-$15).

Second Inversion will be in the house at one or more of the Mt. Rainier shows (August 12-14), experiencing this music in its “natural” environment. Stay tuned for a review of that performance, and then for a wrap up of the project. In the meantime, check out the Music in the American Wild website to learn more about the project, or go further and support their Northwest tour on Kickstarter!  In any case, with this fresh new music happening in the parks, attending one these upcoming shows is a perfect excuse to get out there and soak in the majesty of “America’s best idea.”


Photo Credit: Geoff Sheil

Stay tuned for two more blog installments by Seth Tompkins related to Music in the American Wild, including a review of their performances in Mt. Rainier National Park and an overall reflection on the omnipresent relationship between music and nature.