by Seth Tompkins

Robert Sirota and Victoria Sirota_by Michael Falco for New York Times

Robert Sirota’s music seems ultimately conscious.  The variety of sounds he manages to draw from the organ is staggering.  On Celestial Wind, a new album from Albany Records, this crazily expansive palette is combined with clear musical polyglottism; the overall effect leaves the listener with a sense of limitless possibility.  The music on this release stretches from the playful, mischievous, and profane to the somber, introspective, and sacred.

One instance of the composer’s understanding of the organ is his clear awareness of the qualities of traditional organ music.  He resurrects and references harmonies of the past at several points on this disc.  However, these moments of time travel occur without any derision toward their traditional sounds in the service of a rigid modernism.  On the contrary, these moments are deftly woven into the arcs of their pieces, stitched together with the rest Sirota’s omniscient musical lexicon.  A standout example of this is the final two movements of Letters Abroad, which begins with a glorious homage to Fanny Mendelssohn.  This track alone includes a satisfyingly multifaceted set of sounds that wryly flows from the congenial, charming, and victorious to the anxious and haunting before finally moving to a delicate, peaceful intimacy.

Robert Sirota’s mastery of the possibilities allowed by the organ would not be possible without his 45-year “collaboration” with his wife, who is the performer on this release.  Organist Victoria Sirota, who is also an author and an Episcopal priest, among other things, deftly executes Robert’s music.  She plays with an evident mastery and flexibility that obviously both inspired this music’s composition and made its realization possible.  This is especially evident in the opening piece, Toccata, which Robert Sirota himself notes is his “most difficult organ piece.”

Easter Canticles, Two Lenten Chorale Preludes, and Celestial Wind are the three sacred pieces on this release.  Musically, however, these three pieces differ dramatically.  Two of the pieces have concrete sacred sources; the chorale preludes are based on pre-1800 sacred music, and Celestial Wind is inspired by a passage from the Book of Acts.  Despite this similarity in source material, these two pieces differ dramatically; Celestial Wind is the more progressive of the two.  The other sacred piece, Easter Canticles, which also includes a solo cello part (touchingly performed by Norman Fischer), is not based on a specific musical or textual source, but rather, inspired by the story of the Passion of Christ.  Interestingly, Victoria Sirota cites this as “the most religious piece” on the album.

Lest this release seem to be all gravity and reverence, do not overlook the Four Pieces for Organ.  They are just plain fun!  Written as a show piece, these short romps explore Klangfarbenmelodie in the tradition of Schoenberg and Webern, splitting lines across the vast array of voices available on the organ.  Although that idea may seem esoteric, any concerns will quickly dissipate in the face of the Sirotas’ playfulness.  These pieces show that Robert Sirota’s global understanding of the organ is certainly not limited to the serious.


by Seth Tompkins


Photo by Christian Steiner

The May 27 Naxos release, Shattered (Physical CD and iTunes download), features music by American composer Margaret Brouwer that traces her individual response to the global events of the first decade of the 21st century.  Reflecting the tone of the world in the 2000s as seen through the eyes of a globally-conscious American, this disc is complete with the sounds of shock, disillusionment, sadness, uncertainty, introspection, realignment, and self-healing that were experienced by so many in recent years.  In addition to the adroit performances found here, the liner notes lend additional emotional traction to this intense music.

Musically, the contemporary instrumental works on this release tend toward an effective fusion of traditional and extended techniques.  Unlike many such attempts, the music heard here blends the two without the extended materials becoming gimmicky or distracting.  In fact, the nuanced and appropriate inclusion of these elements enhances the music, achieving in an arena where musical success is often elusive.

Shattered Glass (for flute, cello, percussion, and piano) is a distinctly painful piece, a fact which becomes quite clear after a reading of this release’s liner notes.  The ensemble playing here is tight and thoughtful, with each player coming to the fore and fading into the background at just the right moments.  This is 13-minutes of engaging introspection, which, in some ways, is a crystallized expression of the ideas contained in the piece that follows, the quintet for clarinet and strings.

Brouwer’s clarinet quintet is quite complex, using 12-tone techniques and incorporating holy music from both the Christian and Islamic faiths.  Also written as a response to recent world events involving the United States and the Middle East, the quintet musically breaks out and explores many of the individual issues that make up the chaotic and seemingly grim world in which it was written.

The song Whom do you call angel now? is a more personal reflection on the world events that inspired the prior pieces, specifically the events of September 11, 2001.  The text by David Adams is set simply, but with a healthy measure of Romantic-era touches that place this piece squarely in the art-song tradition.

Lonely Lake, for the Blue Streak Ensemble, is a depiction of a single day at the remote cabin where the composer sensed hope for the future in the face of the troubling events that dominate the tone of much of this release.  The imitation loon calls that conclude this piece are particularly engrossing, inviting meditation with the aloof realness of the woods.

Certainly, there is music from the past that bears repeating and reinterpreting.  The two arrangements at the end of this collection are examples of such music.  Written for the Blue Streak Ensemble while at the cabin on Lonely Lake, Brouwer’s arrangements of Debussy’s Claire de Lune and Bach’s Two-Part Invention in F are fresh reworkings of these two lovely classics.  In addition to giving listeners new things for which to listen in the context of familiar favorites, they provide the simple pleasure that is sometimes critical in times that strain individuals’ understanding of the world around them.


by Maggie Stapleton

Hello, world.  Do you know The Westerlies?  Here’s a warm introduction, if not.  They’re a brass quartet based in New York, but all four musicians are Seattle natives and longtime friends, anddedicated to the cultivation of a new brass quartet repertoire that exists in the ever-narrowing gap between American folk music, jazz, classical, and indie rock.”

We are thrilled here at Second Inversion to present the video premiere of The Westerlies’ “Sweeter than the Day” from their album Wish The Children Would Come On Home: The Music of Wayne Horvitz.  The album, which Horvitz produced, was recorded in August 2013 and was recently released by Songlines Recordings.  In between takes, they shot this video outside the studio on Lopez Island, one of the most peaceful and relaxing places in the Northwest, especially on these clear, summer evenings (yes, we have them and yes, I’m giving away one of our best Northwest secrets).

The Westerlies will be all over the west this summer in CA, OR, WA, and Vancouver BC.  Upcoming Seattle performances to note:

Friday, June 27, 8pm @ Seattle Art Museum (Opening for HUMAN FEEL)
Sunday, August 3, 8pm @ Café Racer (Curating the Racer Sessions)
Friday, August 8, 8pm @ Royal Room (Official CD release party!)
Monday, August 25, 8pm @ Good Shepherd Center (Album Release Tour)

Stay tuned for more Second Inversion coverage of this talented, innovative ensemble!

The Westerlies

Photo: Adam Guy


by Jill Kimball

The whole early music world sighed in sadness earlier this month when Anonymous 4 announced 2015-16 would be the group’s last season together. (No, really–they’re serious this time.)

Anonymous 4

Luckily, the group cushioned the blow with an astounding record just released this week on the Cantaloupe label: love fail.

The piece for two sopranos, two altos and percussion was composed exclusively for Anonymous 4 by David Lang, who is perhaps best known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning the little match girl passion. Lang’s vocal music is haunting and sparse, much like the medieval music Anonymous 4 is known for.

We asked Anonymous 4 member Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek a few questions about love fail, working with David Lang, and what the future holds for these famed singers:

Anonymous 4 usually concentrates on centuries-old music. Why did you feel compelled to record love fail, an entirely new piece?

Well, actually, Anonymous [4] has commissioned several composers in the past, including Steve Reich, Richard Einhorn and Sir John Tavener. We love the idea of collaboration with composers who have an interest in early music and the sonorities of our  voices–and it’s fun to create something new.

What is love fail all about?

It’s about the challenges and rewards of developing a relationship with another human being. David picked and arranged texts ranging from medieval sources, such as Marie de France, to the poems of Lydia Davis. The pieces are in turn heart-wrenching and funny–just like love and life.

What was your favorite part about performing this piece?

Some of the individual movements, such as “head heart,” are so moving and beautiful that they are almost hard to sing…in a good way! We enjoyed the contrasts between the profound and the comical, but ultimately the sheer beauty of David’s music makes it a very special piece to perform. And we get to play percussion instruments, which is great fun!

Love fail is a piece whose composer is alive and able to provide you with feedback—an unusual thing in the Anonymous 4 universe. What was it like working with David Lang?

David is a wonderful collaborator who really wrote this piece with our voices and individual strengths in mind. Always willing to listen and change things if necessary, this piece grew and developed out of our mutual contributions.

Millions of people will mourn the loss of Anonymous 4 come 2016, but as musicians ourselves, we know how exciting it can be to move on to a new project. Tell us about your future musical plans.

The members of the group have actually been doing individual projects for several years now and we are all looking forward to developing those further…here, in our own words:

Jacqui will continue her work both as a mezzo-soprano soloist specializing in early and new music and as a voice teacher with a studio in NYC. She also gives masterclasses and ensemble technique workshops at Colleges throughout the US.This Fall she will be starting a Doctoral Program- a D.M.A in Voice- at The Juilliard School.

Marsha will be doing more research and performance of American music; she also plans to seek a new role in the Bay Area, supporting and funding performing artists and ensembles.

Susan will be developing a new podcast radio program — called “ChantVillage” — about chant from all spiritual traditions, both historically and in the world today. She will also continue leading Chant Camps, and teaching college courses on medieval and American popular music.

Ruth will continue singing early music in both concert and liturgical settings as well as expanding her work in improvisatory performance with a variety of other instrumentalists and singers. She also teaches workshops and offers individual sessions in sound healing and improvisation.