Second Inversion’s Top 10 Albums of 2017

From Icelandic sound sculptures to pan-global jazz, found sounds and field recordings to sprawling, city-wide operas, 2017 was filled with some pretty incredible new music. As this year draws to a close, our Second Inversion hosts take a look back at our Top 10 Albums of 2017:

The Industry and wild Up: Hopscotch (The Industry Records)
Release Date: January 13, 2017

Hopscotch is by far the most inventive, labor-intensive, and meticulously designed work of the year. Live performances of the opera take place in 24 cars on three distinct routes, stopping at various locations-turned-performance spaces throughout Los Angeles. It involves everything from animated sequences exploring themes of identity and community to hearing star musicians perform in the car with you as you ride to your next unknown destination. The album recording is just as expansive, inviting the listener to experience the musical narrative in a non-chronological order, with multiple singers forming a composite of each character’s identity.

Intentionally disorienting, surprising, and overwhelming, artistic director Yuval Sharon and his team at the Industry have created an absolutely immersive experience—and audiences have been blown away. – Brendan Howe

yMusic and Son Lux: First (Communal Table Records)
Release Date: February 17, 2017

Something I hear frequently said about new classical music, from detractors and fans alike, is that it’s hard to listen to. First is a decidedly “new classical” album that does not fit into that framework at all. It’s—and I say this without irony—a freaking delight to listen to. It’s full of stories; for example, in the titular track, the instruments seem to be vying for first place until this looming bass note kicks in, threatening to take them all down. The titles themselves kickstart the imagination: “Trust in Clocks,” “Memory Wound,” and “I Woke Up in the Forest” are some of my favorites. Composer Ryan “Son Lux” Lott and producer Thomas Bartlett took yMusic’s edict to make a chamber music record structured like a rock album to heart and, with the addition of amazing performances by the group, turned it into art. – Dacia Clay

American Contemporary Music Ensemble: Thrive on Routine (Sono Luminus)
Release Date: February 24, 2017

Thrive on Routine was an interesting choice of title for ACME’s 2017 release. Timo Andres’ programmatic string quartet that follows the potato-tending and Bach-playing morning routine of Charles Ives thus becomes the album’s centerpiece, and by relation the rest of the selections are colored by the idea of beauty arising from the mundane. Minimalist textures in Caleb Burhans’ “Jahrzeit” and John Luther Adams’ “In a Treeless Place, Only Snow” provide a sense of calm and even pacing, while a deliberate, almost “learned” style extends from Andres’ title track to Caroline Shaw’s “in manus tuas” and “Gustave Le Gray” for solo cello. – Geoffrey Larson

Iceland Symphony Orchestra: Recurrence (Sono Luminus)
Release Date: April 7, 2017

The massive, slow-moving sound sculptures of Iceland shimmer and sparkle in Recurrence, an album of ethereal orchestral works by five emerging and established Icelandic artists. Daníel Bjarnason leads the Iceland Symphony Orchestra through a luminous program ranging from Thurídur Jónsdóttir’s kaleidoscopic “Flow & Fusion,” to María Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir’s oceanic “Aequora,” Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s icy and iridescent “Dreaming,” and more. Each piece on the album is a gorgeously abstracted soundscape in itself, showcasing the small Nordic island’s all but unparalleled explorations of texture, timbre, and immersive, atmospheric colors in music. – Maggie Molloy

PRISM Quartet with So Percussion and Partch: Color Theory (Naxos)
Release Date: April 14, 2017

Mixing colors takes on new meaning in Color Theory, an album blending the hues of four saxophones with an experimental percussion quartet and the microtonal musical instruments of Harry Partch. The PRISM Quartet teams up with So Percussion and the Partch ensemble to explore the full spectrum of color in music, from the deepest blues to the boldest reds, oranges, and yellows. Steven Mackey’s “Blue Notes & Other Clashes” mixes colors ranging from muted to magnificent through eight short movements culminating in a prismatic fantasy, while Ken Ueno’s “Future Lilacs” explores the shifting shades of the overtone series and Stratis Minakakis’s “Skiagrafies” paints a sonic canvas with color-changing harmonies. – Maggie Molloy

Amir ElSaffar: Not Two (New Amsterdam Records)
Release Date: June 16, 2017

In a year choked with disunity in nearly every part of our lives, trumpeter Amir ElSaffar’s jazzy pan-global album Not Two offers a welcome musical melting of borders. ElSaffar draws inspiration from different cultures and their instruments, primarily Western Asia and America, and declares that they “do not exist as separate entities ‘belonging’ to any people or place.” His humanism coupled with the skill of his collaborators results in an album that pulses with mystical jazz spells, thrills with august horns, and reminds us that music is egalitarian. Knowing that Not Two was recorded in one marathon 16-hour session is just the cherry on top of ElSaffar’s accomplishment.
Rachele Hales

Los Angeles Percussion Quartet: Beyond (Sono Luminus)
Release Date: June 16, 2017

LAPQ’s Beyond pushes the boundaries of what a percussion ensemble can do, with a healthy dose of ambient-leaning music combined with a smaller measure of perhaps slightly more familiar groove-based music that might seem more typical of percussion repertoire. With works by heavy-hitting composers Daníel Bjarnason, Christopher Cerrone, Anna Thorvalsdottir, Ellen Reid, and Andrew McIntosh paired with thoughtful and delicate execution, Beyond is a tour-de-force that stands at the leading edge of music for percussion. – Seth Tompkins

Third Coast Percussion: Book of Keyboards (New Focus Recordings)
Release Date: August 4, 2017

If classical music is a volcanic island, percussion ensembles are the lava and magma that makes the new land. They’re always on the edge, pushing out, making new sounds with new instruments. And that’s exactly what Third Coast Percussion is doing on Book of Keyboards. They’ve recorded two works by modernist composer Philippe Manoury—sometimes sounding like an elaborate wooden wind chime orchestra, and at other times leaving long, worshipful tensions between notes.

Some of the instruments used on this album are familiar enough—like marimbas and vibraphones—but I’m gonna bet you’ve never heard the sixxen, because they were invented by a guy named Iannis Xenakis (also an avant-garde composer) and homemade by Third Coast. I wonder if performing on instruments that you’ve made by hand is as exciting/terrifying as flying a kit plane that you’ve built in your garage? Third Coast never lets on, moving through these two works, “Le Livre des Clavier,” and “Metal,” like seasoned pilots flying in formation. – Dacia Clay

Qasim Naqvi: FILM (Published by Erased Tapes)
Release Date: September 29, 2017

Perhaps best known as the drummer from the group of acoustic virtuosos Dawn of Midi, Qasim Naqvi also plays other instruments and composes both art music and music for television and film. The album FILM, as you might guess, falls into the latter category. Released in September of 2017, FILM contains music written for the film Tripoli Cancelled and the video installation Two Meetings and a Funeral, both by Naeem Mohaiemen. This release, like other projects by Naqvi, celebrates the legacy of Moog synthesizers. The atmospheric sounds on this album were inspired by disused architecture, and sometimes recall the music of John Carpenter. – Seth Tompkins

Bang on a Can All-Stars: More Field Recordings (Cantaloupe Music)
Release Date: October 27, 2017

Some composers can make music out of just about anything—and that’s precisely the idea behind the Bang on a Can All-Stars’ More Field Recordings. A star-studded cast of composers are each asked to find a recording of something that already exists (a voice, a sound, a faded scrap of melody) and then write a new piece around it.

A follow-up to their original 2015 release Field Recordings, this year’s rendition is a colorful patchwork of found sounds and sonic squares from the likes of Caroline Shaw, Ben Frost, Nico Muhly, Richard Reed Parry, and Glenn Kotche (to name just a few), with the All-Stars playing along to field recordings ranging from quilting interviews to Chilean birdsongs, lava fields, and snoring sleepers.
Maggie Molloy

ALBUM OF THE WEEK: Martin Scherzinger’s African Math

by Martin Scherzinger (guest post)

302706The ground rule for this music was toadapt sounds located at the heart of the classic western instrumentarium to the performance techniques of instruments found in Africa. I have long taken an interest in the interface design of technical devices and their relation to the human body — the way they choreograph tactility and action, and thereby, in the case of musical instruments, comport sound patterning in specific ways. The mbira dza vadzimu from Zimbabwe, for example, a kind of digital musical device with iron keys protruding from a sound board, differs strikingly from the modern industrial piano in various respects. Like the piano, the mbira construes music on the model of a keyboard, but its template inverts the left-to-right arrangement of low-to-high notes found on the piano. With the mbira, the low notes are clustered toward the center of the template, with the higher notes fanning off to the edges. This reflects the biological symmetry of the two hands, a very different conception to that found on the left-right orientation of the piano keyboard.

Arguably, the piano was designed to integrate the qualitative differences between the five fingers – from the binary phalanges of the pollex (thumb) to the ternary ones of the digitus mi’nimus ma’nus, etc. – with the quantitative equality of the keyboard’s parallel components. A number of assumptions informed this design. Facility, for example, was associated with the upper notes of the right hand, where the faster-moving passages of music were generally to be found. Also, the thumb was construed as clumsier than the other four fingers, and in early keyboard performance, eliminated from fingering patterns altogether. The same marginalization of the thumb can be seen in the interface design of the QWERTY typewriter. The mbira dza vadzimu reverses the psychology of the assymetry found in piano design in two respects. First, it paradoxically favores left-handedness (the left-hand side of the mbira has two manuals, while the right-hand side has only one), and, second, it deploys the thumb alone to strike all the keys. (Of course, it is now clear that recent western industrial technologies, such as the iPhone, and so on, have since discovered that we can all adapt our typing hands to the mbira-style with equal facility, but this was not always the case!).

In the battle for path dependency of industrial standards, we often find one kind of technical arrangement dominating another, which creates a kind of technological lock-in. Despite the many updates during the past three hundred years, it is surprising to observe how similar Bartolomeo Cristofori’s 1709 invention is to the modern piano of today. More surprising still is the capacious stability of its interface design in technologies no longer controlled by criteria oriented to the task of integrating equidistant mechanical components with the tactility range of digiti extending from human hands. No longer situated at the crossroads of technics and flesh – a once productive mélange of key, code, signal, hammer, hand, finger, and ear – musical time today is nonetheless still held in the arms of its code.

From the pitch lattices grounding current popular music to the sound designs of commercial ambience; from the programs underwriting MIDI audio beeps, alarms, recorded voices and ringtones to software applications for iPhones and iPads that enable users to create sound compositions, auditory experience today is increasingly marked by a subset of discrete tones that fit on a standardized modular grid. The piano’s coded key template has become immortalized as the archetypal digital representation scheme for musical form in our times – a Platonic object.

In contrast, the mbira-type instrument is fast losing ground as an organizational principle for making music today. Traditionally played in pairs, with four hands, one mbira player interlocks (within the spaces of) the other. The woven arrangement produces a particular kind of ratchet-wheel aleatorics, which issues figures of asynchronous sound. Not only is the motor image of the striking fingers radically delinked from the acoustic image that comes to ear, but musical lines issue forth as ventriloquism. The mbira writes sound by throwing lines of unplayed material; a parallel polyphony that escapes the supervision of its makers. I point this out because, along the way, for all the incredible affordances of the piano, we are losing these techniques for making sounds and patterns as certain systems of coded relationships become technologically locked-in.

So, African Math is an attempt to bring some of these techniques to the piano, as well as to the stringed instruments. In the first movement, for example, the cello is made to imitate a technique of plucking and stopping found in single-string bow music from the Kalahari region; in the second movement we inhabit the world of the Basotho accordion, and so on. As I mention in the notes on the disc, with the arrival of pianos, guitars and accordions in the colonies, Africans have long adapted industrial western instruments to great effect. The accordion music of the Basotho, for example, tends to take advantage of the complementary pitch sets inherent to the instrument in ways that reflect African interlocking techniques. It is, in this sense, Africanized.

When I was growing up in South Africa, I remember how African pianists at the local music school approached works of the great European masters, with a rich and strange inflection. It is not easy to define the approach they took, but perhaps one can speak here of a change in focus from figure/ground relations to all-over-pattern. Instead of bringing long range structural lines and harmonic schemata to the fore, the African approach finds inspiration in the texture of the figures, their manner of weaving, the surface as cloth. The music is also often a little faster or slower than the median tempi found in the west. Perhaps one may even say the African approach hears music, not as developmental or goal-directed, but as continuous and cyclic. Perhaps it becomes a kind of present tense music. But it becomes other things too, bearing resemblances across time and space, like speaking German Biedermeier with a Tswana or Zulu accent.

ALBUM OF THE WEEK: Ryan Streber’s “Concentric”

By Maggie Molloy

Ryan Streber

Math and music have always been intertwined. In fact, numbers pervade nearly every aspect of music—form, rhythm, meter, even intervals. But while mathematical studies such as arithmetic and algebra have often been linked with music, few composers have explored the relationship of music to geometry.

New York-based composer and audio engineer Ryan Streber is changing that.

In Streber’s new album, he experiments with a unique geometrical concept as it relates to music: concentricity. The album, titled “Concentric,” explores ideas of shape and symmetry through sound.

“The intimation through musical time of such a non-temporal idea as concentricity is something that fascinates me, as is the way in which a piece can simultaneously tell a linear narrative while still invoking a cyclical or center-oriented continuity,” Streber said. “In their own ways, all of the works on this album engage in this interplay.”

[Buy the album here!]

Each piece is inspired in some way by notions of concentricity, whether through symmetrical musical forms, experimentation with visual and spatial orientation (both in performance and in the stereo field), or the permutational patterns of pitch and rhythm structures used.

Streber studied composition with Milton Babbitt at Julliard, as evidenced in the modernist and experimental aspects of his work. However, he avoids characterizing his music as belonging to any particular aesthetic school, instead focusing on exploring his own musical voice by creating compositions which engage the listener in multiple ways.

Streber’s commitment to new and innovative music is further exemplified in his recording studio, Oktaven Audio. He is the engineer and owner of the studio, which specializes in classical, jazz, and acoustic music recording. In fact, Streber recorded, edited, mixed, and mastered “Concentric” himself at Oktaven.

He also enlisted the help of a few local friends in order to bring his musical vision to life. These include his close colleagues and collaborators, the New York-based ensembles counter)induction, Line C3 Percussion Quartet, and musicians of ACME and ICE, all of whom are featured as performers on the album.

The album begins with Streber’s single-movement String Quartet performed by counter)induction. The piece begins with snarling string melodies creating a dramatic and restless musical atmosphere. This tension eventually gives way to a slow and intimate middle section, which features a delicate violin melody flowing sweetly over a variety of quasi-improvised string backdrops. The music then returns to the drama and tension of the beginning, thus framing the middle section and creating a concentric musical form.

Concentricity takes on both a physical and visual form in “Cold Pastoral,” a much more ambient and translucent piece performed by Line C3 Percussion Quartet.  The piece is performed with all four musicians oriented symmetrically around a small collection of shared instruments. Each note lingers in the air long after it is played, expanding outward from the concentric circle in a series of widening sound waves.

Streber switches gears in “Compassinges,” where he explores the unique instrumentation of electric guitar, violin, viola, cello, percussion, and voice. The piece features a short song setting of A. R. Ammons’ poem, “Love Song (I).” The vocal part is an ethereal melody drifting in and out of the musical forefront, often hiding just behind the electroacoustic accompaniment. Short melodic motifs from each instrument encircle the delicate vocal part, creating a constantly shifting musical texture.

Streber’s three-movement “Dust Shelter” explores the rich timbral and textural possibilities of flute, viola, and cello. The first and third movements are an enchanting ebb and flow of different musical textures, with angular and aggressive motifs building in intensity and then flowing back to soft and peaceful melodies. The second movement features a gorgeously expressive viola cadenza, thus creating a delicate, intimate central movement framed by two bold and dynamic movements.

Streber’s “Concentric” succeeds in exploring a wide circumference of musical ideas and forms, but at its center, the album showcases his true commitment to following his own creative voice and expanding the boundaries of his musical language.