Classical Christmas Carols for the 21st Century

by Maggie Molloy

After years of the same old Christmas carols every December, the holiday hymns start to run together. But whether you’re the world’s biggest Santa-fan or a grouchy Ebenezer Scrooge, there’s still a little sparkle of holiday magic to be found in every classical Christmas tune—buried though it may be beneath the corny sing-alongs and ugly sweaters of the winter season.

This year, we’re highlighting composers who break out from the cookie cutter Christmas carols and reimagine holiday classics for 21st century audiences. From time-stretched hymnal melodies to bluegrass banjo solos and synthy washes of sound, today’s composers are getting creative with their Yuletide carols.

Here are our top picks for contemporary Christmas albums that will add some holiday spice to your winter soundtrack:

Jherek Bischoff: Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire Walk with Me (Self-Produced)

Jherek Bischoff’s new EP reimagines your favorite Christmas carols as timeless trios for electric bass, sleigh bells, and synthesizers. Composed in the style of Angelo Badalamenti’s moody Twin Peaks score, Bischoff offers eerie renditions of holiday classics old and new, ranging from John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s “Happy Xmas (War is Over)” to Charlie Brown’s “Christmas Time is Here” and even a synth-laden “Silent Night.”


Imagine Christmas (Sono Luminus)

They’re classic Christmas carols like you’ve never heard them before: reimagined and rearranged by the likes of the American Contemporary Music Ensemble, the Jasper String Quartet, the Skylark Vocal Ensemble, Cuarteto Latinamericano, and more. The result is a kaleidoscope of musical styles ranging from lute lullabies to Latin percussion, twinkling piano solos to swinging strings and ambient drones.


Phil Kline: Unsilent Night (Cantaloupe Music)

Phil Kline’s contemporary twist on Christmas caroling captures the sparkle and whimsy of the holidays without any of the corny sing-alongs. Unsilent Night blends shimmering bells, time-stretched hymnal melodies, holiday nostalgia, and ambient noise into an ethereal electroacoustic soundscape. Though originally composed as an aleatoric sound sculpture for outdoor performance, you can listen to the  album from the comfort of indoors.


DePue Brothers Band: When It’s Christmas Time (Beat The Drum Entertainment)

Christmas caroling meets bluegrass jam session in this “grassical” family album featuring a twangy twist on holiday classics. The DePue brothers dance through their own festive arrangements of Christmas hits brimming with sweet strings, infectious grooves, and a whole lot of banjo.

ALBUM REVIEW: More Field Recordings by the Bang on a Can All-Stars

by Maggie Molloy

Photo by Lisa Bauso.

Some composers can make music out of just about anything—and that’s precisely the idea behind the Bang on a Can All-Stars’ newest release.

A follow-up to their 2015 album Field Recordings, the recently released More Field Recordings features the same basic premise as the original: 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. This year’s release is a two-disc album featuring new works by 13 of today’s top composers: Caroline Shaw, Anna Thorvaldsdottir, Ben Frost, Nico Muhly, Richard Reed Parry, Glenn Kotche, Dan Deacon, Jace Clayton, Gabriella Smith, Paula Matthusen, Zhang Shouwang, Juan Felipe Waller, and René Lussier.

The album begins with a sonic quilt composed by Caroline Shaw. “Really Craft When You” is a chamber piece that stitches together vibrantly textured patches of chamber music with recorded interviews of quilters from North Carolina and Virginia in the 1970s. Its equal parts humorous and heartfelt, and it also serves as a beautiful metaphor for the rest of the album: a colorful patchwork of found sounds and sonic squares from over a dozen different composers.

It’s followed by the dawn chorus of Southern Chile, with Gabriella Smith’s “Panitao” weaving together field recordings of birdsongs from a small Chilean town with her own imaginary birdsongs chirped by the All-Stars. A very different type of song is at the heart of Jace Clayton’s piece “Lethe’s Children,” which explores the music of memory. He asked each of the All-Stars what the first song was that they memorized as young children—then he reimagined fragments from each in an expansive stream of sound named after the mythical river of forgetfulness.

Paula Matthusen’s “ontology of an echo” finds its music in the resonant frequencies of an Old Croton Aqueduct, while Glenn Kotche’s “Time Spirals” swirls together live music with field recordings ranging from parades and festivals to protests and dying electronic toys—all of which he collected while touring and traveling the world.

Zhang Shouwang’s “Courtyards in Central Beijing” entwines the All-Stars in a gentle musical blossom; the piece was composed in a courtyard house south of Gulou where Shouwang says “the feng shui is so strong that a flower seed can bloom in just three days.” And the first disc closes with and a transatlantic lullaby: Nico Muhly’s “Comfortable Cruising Altitude” weaves together audio from overnight airplane rides with the soothing accompaniment of the All-Stars to craft a softly shimmering serenade.

Disc two begins with quite a different type of flight: Ben Frost’s ominous and immersive “Negative Ghostrider II” is an electroacoustic translation of field recordings from an unmanned semi-autonomous drone aircraft. It’s followed by the quiet heartbeat of Richard Reed Parry’s “The Brief and Neverending Blur,” a nostalgic and nuanced chamber work based on a recording of a piano improvisation played at the speed of the composer’s own breath.

Photo by Peter Serling.

Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s “Fields” is similarly introspective, though more atmospheric in nature. Inspired by a twilight stroll among the lava fields of her native Iceland, the piece builds from the quiet music of her footsteps to gradually encompass the exquisite timbre and texture of the natural world around her.

Dan Deacon explores a more intergalactic soundscape in his dark-ambient drone “Sago An Ya Rev,” a transcription of a NASA Voyager recording that evolves slowly through dissonant harmonies and rumbling metallic noise. Juan Felipe Waller’s “Hybrid Ambiguities” is a bit sprightlier in nature, with the All-Stars bouncing along to the echoing flurries of a microtonal harp.

The final square of the patchwork quilt comes from René Lussier, his “Nocturnal” mirroring the humor and sincerity of the album’s opening track—but here embodied through the clever and vividly colored music he writes to accompany his sleeping sweetheart’s snores.

But whether playing along to quilting interviews or Chilean birdsongs, lava fields or snoring sleepers, the All-Stars bring personality, precision, and a pioneering creativity to every musical interpretation on the album. In the end, that’s what the series is really all about: hearing music amid the found sounds and field recordings and clamors of everyday life.

STAFF PICKS: Friday Faves

Second Inversion hosts share a favorite selection from their weekly playlist. Tune in on Friday, December 8 to hear these pieces and plenty of other new and unusual music from all corners of the classical genre!

John Luther Adams: Among Red Mountains (Cantaloupe Music)
Lisa Moore, piano

I love Christmas music. I really do. However, that is not to say that I can make it through the whole holiday season without some sort of respite from the unrelenting positivity parade that is Christmas music. That’s where music like John Luther Adams’s Among Red Mountains comes in. This blocky, atmospheric piece reminds me of the amorality and complexity of outdoor spaces that exist a million miles from the sometimes-suffocating saccharine sparkles of the holiday season.
– Seth Tompkins

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 1pm hour today to hear this piece.


Mohammed Fairouz: Jebel Lebnan (Naxos Records)
Imani Winds

Jebel Lebnan is one of my favorite woodwind quintets written in the last 50 years. Few works for wind quintet approach it in seriousness of tone, making it a very welcome addition to a chamber music genre that is full of a lot of bright and cheerful music.

Mohammed Fairouz was born in the United States in 1985, and his music reflects an informed view of the cultures and political forces of his Arabic heritage. The quintet’s title means “Mount Lebanon,” and the piece chronicles events in the 1975-1990 Lebanese Civil War, starting with the stark Bashir’s March, marked “intense and relentless with no compassion or tenderness.” An interlude features the solo flute in a plaintive, far-off Arabic melody, and then we experience the funereal Ariel’s Song followed by a sort of spring-like reawakening and a finale invoking the Lebanese patron saint Mar Charbel. Powerful emotions abound throughout, making it a must-listen for those looking to discover new perspectives in the unique woodwind quintet genre. – Geoffrey Larson

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


Bora Yoon: Semaphore Conductus (Cantaloupe Music)
Young People’s Chorus of New York City; Francisco Núñez, conductor

If ever there was a piece meant for radio, this is it!  Sound-artist/composer Bora Yoon’s alluring and avant-garde “Semaphore Conductus” is an exploration of communication, sound, and the language of audio signals.  Surrounding the rise and fall of harmonious vocals is a rich blend of audio transmissions plucked from time: Morse code, radio signals, heartbeats, and cellphone noises.  Because this piece was recorded in surround-sound it is highly recommended that you listen via headphones if possible to ensure maximum delight. – Rachele Hales

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 8pm hour today to hear this piece.


Olga Bell: “Primorsky Krai” (New Amsterdam Records)

“God’s too high for us/Moscow far too distant,” Olga Bell laments in Russian in her piece “Primorsky Krai.”

Bell pays homage to her impressions of her native Russia’s Primorsky Krai, or Maritime Frontier, the far southeastern finger of the country bordering China, North Korea, and the Sea of Japan. It’s one of nine territories in which Bell explores dizzy, confusing questions of identity in her 2014 album, Krai. She combines polyrhythmic percussion with melodic vocal lines, blistering in their diction and timbre, and brings all the wild, raw drama of the home region of most of the world’s Siberian tigers.
– Brendan Howe

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 9pm hour today to hear this piece.

Seattle New Music Happy Hour: Monday, Dec. 4 at 5:30pm

by Maggie Molloy

There’s nothing like a cold beer and a crowd of new music enthusiasts to keep you company while you wait out the rush hour traffic.

Join us Monday, Dec. 4 at 5:30pm at T.S. McHugh’s for our favorite after-work pick-me-up: New Music Happy Hour, co-hosted by Second Inversion and the Live Music Project. Bring a friend, make a friend, have a drink, and discover connections with fellow new music lovers from all over Seattle!

Click here to RSVP and invite your friends. Plus, sign up for alerts for future happy hour dates and day-before reminders so you’ll never miss a beer—er, beat.

An Unsilent Seattle Night

by Maggie Molloy

I love Christmas carols as much as the next girl—but I have to admit, after years of attending and performing in Christmas concerts every December, the holiday hymns do tend to run together. But whether you’re the world’s biggest Santa-fan, a grouchy Ebenezer Scrooge, or even just an avant-garde enthusiast looking to expand your holiday music horizons, composer Phil Kline’s got just the carol for you—and it’s coming to Seattle this Saturday night.

Kline’s “Unsilent Night” is a contemporary twist on holiday caroling that is celebrated annually around the globe. But don’t worry, there’s no singing involved. In true 21st century fashion, all you have to do is download an app.

This nontraditional holiday carol is an electronic composition written specifically for outdoor performance in December. Audience members each download one of four tracks of music which, when played together, comprise the ethereal “Unsilent Night.”

Countless participants meet up with boomboxes, speakers, or any other type of portable amplifiers and each hit “play” at the same time. Then they walk through the city streets creating an ambient, aleatoric sound sculpture that is unlike any Christmas carol you have ever heard.


Seattle’s rendition of Phil Kline’s “Unsilent Night” is this Saturday, Dec. 1. The procession begins at 6pm at On the Boards’ Merrill Wright Mainstage Theater Lobby in Lower Queen Anne. For more information, click here.

Musical Chairs: Jesse Myers on Classical KING FM

by Maggie Molloy

Photo by Jim Holt, NUMUS Northwest 2017.

When it comes to the piano, Jesse Myers likes to think beyond the standard keyboard.

Last year, he created a percussion orchestra inside his piano for his performances of John Cage’s prepared piano masterpiece, the Sonatas and Interludes. Earlier this year, he performed a program that paired minimalist masterworks of the 20th century with brand new works for piano and electronics. And in January of next year, he’s presenting a program of meditative solo piano works by the likes of Arvo Pärt, Morton Feldman, and more—with audience members invited to listen from the comfort of pillows instead of chairs.

This Friday, Dec. 1 at 7pm PST, Myers joins us on Classical KING FM’s Musical Chairs to share some of his favorite recordings and talk about his upcoming projects. Tune in tonight at 7pm on 98.1, or click here to tune in online from anywhere in the world!

December New Music: Cello Conspiracies, Mandolin Messiahs, and an Unsilent Night

by Maggie Molloy

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Second Inversion and the Live Music Project create a monthly calendar featuring contemporary classical, cross-genre, and experimental performances in Seattle, the Eastside, Tacoma, and places in between! 

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Keep an eye out for our this flyer in concert programs and coffee shops around town. Feel free to download, print, and distribute it yourself! If you’d like to be included on this list, submit your event to the Live Music Project at least 6 weeks prior to the event and tag it with “new music.”

Program Insert - December 2017

 

Wayward Music Series
Concerts of contemporary composition, free improvisation, electroacoustic music, and sonic experiments. This month: American gamelan, ambient drones, homemade instruments, and experimental chamber ensembles.
Various days, 7:30/8pm, Good Shepherd Chapel | $5-$15

UW Percussion Ensemble: John Cage’s ‘The City Wears a Slouch Hat’
Under the direction of Bonnie Whiting, the University of Washington Percussion Ensemble presents a theatrical rendition of John Cage’s recently-discovered radio play The City Wears a Slouch Hat, pairing Cage’s vintage music with brand new works by UW composition students.
Fri, 12/1, 7:30pm, Meany Studio Theater | $10

‘The Saci’ & ‘The Greater Trumps’
New music and modern dance collide in this brand new partnership between Karin Stevens Dance and the Universal Language Project. Their debut collaboration features performances of Jovino Santos-Neto’s Saci – A Brazilian Folktale alongside a new rendition of Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale, reimagined here for the 21st century with a libretto by Doug Thorpe.
Fri, 12/1, 8pm, Cornish Playhouse | $15-$50
Sat, 12/2, 2:30pm, Cornish Playhouse | $15-$50

The Esoterics: EXCELSIS – Contemplating Extremity
The Esoterics cast their choral gaze upward in this program featuring works inspired by spirits, galaxies, comets, and the cosmos. The centerpiece of the program is Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Kevin Puts’ To touch the sky: a nine-movement compendium of celestial feminine poetry.
Fri, 12/1, 8pm, St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church (Seattle) | $15-$22
Sat, 12/2, 8pm, Holy Rosary Catholic Church (West Seattle) | $15-$22
Sun, 12/3, 7pm, Christ Episcopal Church (Tacoma) | $15-$22

On the Boards: Phil Kline’s ‘Unsilent Night’
In this contemporary twist on holiday caroling, audience members each download one of four tracks of music which, when played together, comprise Phil Kline’s ethereal Unsilent Night. Participants meet up with boomboxes and speakers and each hit “play” at the same timethen walk through the streets of Lower Queen Anne creating an ambient, aleatoric sound sculpture.
Sat, 12/2, 6pm, On the Boards | FREE

On Stage with Classical KING FM: Holiday Concert with KING FM Personalities
KING FM personalities step out of the radio booth and onto center stage to perform old and new Christmas carols and festive classical arrangements—including music for dueling cellos, tubas, and even a theremin.
Sat, 12/2, 7:30pm, Resonance at SOMA Towers | $20-$25

Ladies Musical Club: Expressions of Winter
Seattle’s longest-running musical organization celebrates the season with a concert of original winter-inspired works composed by Ladies Musical Club members.
Sun, 12/3, 2pm, Music Center of the Northwest | FREE

Town Music: A Cello Conspiracy
Joshua Roman performs in an all-cello show alongside four of the Seattle Symphony’s superstar cellists: Efe Baltacıgil, Nathan Chan, Meeka Quan DiLorenzo, and Eric Han. Featuring works ranging from Rossini and Paganini to Reena Esmail and Christopher Cerrone, this is one cello showdown you do not want to miss.
Mon, 12/4, 7:30pm, Fremont Abbey Arts Center | $15-$20

UW Modern Ensemble: Messiaen, Stockhausen, Glass
Under the direction of Cristina Valdes, the University of Washington Modern Music Ensemble tackles three iconic masterworks of the 20th century: Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Tierkreis, and Philip Glass’s Music in Similar Motion.
Tues, 12/5, 7:30pm, University of Washington, Brechemin Auditorium | FREE

Emerald City Music: The Miró Quartet
The world-renowned Miró Quartet performs Kevin Puts’ stunning Credo for string quartet in a vogue, open bar setting alongside classic quartets by Haydn and Schumann.
Fri, 12/8, 8pm, 415 Westlake Ave (Seattle) | $45
Sat, 12/9, 7:30pm, Evergreen State College (Olympia) | $10-$43

Seattle Art Song Society: Together
Seattle Art Song Society celebrates the centennial of Finland’s independence with an evening of art songs and Christmas music penned by Finnish composers ranging from Sibelius to Kilpinen, Merikanto, Nummi, and Kuula.
Sat, 12/9, 7:30pm, Queen Anne Christian Church | $20-$40

Cornish Presents: Quince Contemporary Vocal Ensemble
The four-voice, all-woman Quince Contemporary Vocal Ensemble performs a program of genre-bending new repertoire from the 20th and 21st centuries.
Sat, 12/9, 8pm, Cornish College of the Arts, PONCHO Hall | $5-$20

Seattle Mandolin Orchestra: Mandolin Messiah
Handel’s immortal oratorio comes to life on the plucked strings of the Seattle Mandolin Orchestra in this abridged Messiah performance featuring a cast of four vocal soloists and a whole lot of pizzicato.
Sun, 12/10, 7pm, Green Lake United Methodist Church (Seattle) | $15-$20

Portland Cello Project: Celebrating 20 Years of OK Computer
Portland Cello Project’s massive 800-piece repertoire ranges from Bach to Kanye and beyond. The group celebrates 20 years of Radiohead’s OK Computer with a performance at Benaroya Hall featuring special guests Kyleen King and Adam Shearer.
Sun, 12/10, 7:30pm, Benaroya Hall | $35-$40

NOCCO: Mystics, Servants, & Devils
A week before Winter Solstice, the North Corner Chamber Orchestra presents a program contrasting the old and the new, the magical and the devotional. A world premiere of Jim Knapp’s Noverture is paired with works by Bach, Pärt, and Stravinsky.
Sat, 12/16, 2pm, Magnolia United Church of Christ (Seattle) | $15-$20
Sun, 12/17, 7:30pm, The Royal Room | $15-$20