For Lenny: Lara Downes Plays Leonard Bernstein

by Dacia Clay

This year, Leonard Bernstein would have been 100 years old. To celebrate, pianist Lara Downes took on a massive project called For Lenny that involves arrangements of Bernstein’s songs, new works dedicated to him, collaborations with artists from diverse genres, and an online component that includes extensive videos, podcasts and more.

As an artist whose work also moves between genres, traditions, and other boundaries, Downes feels a kinship with Bernstein. For example, of her time in the studio with beatboxer Kevin “K.O.” Olusola of Pentatonix she said, “You know, when I was in the studio with him and we were working on this beatbox version of ‘Something’s Coming,’ I just felt this freedom to try different things—both of us working together coming from vastly different ends of the American music spectrum and just having fun with it, and I thought, you know, we wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for Leonard Bernstein.”

In this interview, Downes talks more about who Bernstein was, about her love of American music, and about the experience of working with artists from such different corners of the musical world on one project.

ALBUM REVIEW: Florent Ghys’ Bonjour

by Maggie Molloy

What does your Monday morning sound like?

For composer and videographer Florent Ghys, Monday morning sounds like a blur of metallic strings, syncopated melodies, bland newscasting, tasteful glockenspiel ornamentation, and lots and lots of double bass. Double the double bass, to be exact.

bonjour-album-cover

Ghys’ new ensemble Bonjour is a low string quartet with percussion featuring some of New York’s finest new music-makers. Comprised of Ghys and Eleonore Oppenheim on the two double basses, Ashley Bathgate on cello, James Moore on electric guitar, and Owen Weaver on percussion, the group is taking the classical string quartet model and giving it a 21st century edge.

“I’ve always loved rock bands with a lot of bass, and I’ve always dreamt of a string quartet that would be lower in register than the usual classical string quartet,” Ghys said. “So I decided to incorporate two double basses and one cello in Bonjour. I’m also trained as a classical guitarist myself, so I knew I wanted to add a guitar (acoustic and electric) that could blend with the bowed strings and bring other string timbres to Bonjour’s palette.”

That palette comes alive in Bonjour’s debut self-titled album: a series of musical snapshots capturing the moods of various days and times throughout the week. Performed in no particular order, each piece offers a refined glimpse into the sounds and sentiments of everyday living, from the jumbled, hazy newscasts of Monday morning to the chaotic afternoon distractions of Friday at 3pm.

Ghys was loosely inspired by the tradition of the Indian raga, in which different scales or modes are associated with different times of day. Fascinated by the idea that a pitch set could have its own mood, color, and specific timeframe, Ghys began applying these principles to his daily music practice.

He also, of course, combined them with his trademark jazz grooves, classical composition background, idiosyncratic bass hooks, and inimitable pop music sensibilities. Mix it all together and voilà! You have Bonjour.

florent-ghys

The album begins with “Friday 3pm,” an upbeat, danceable tune comprised of wordless vocals sighing above a bed of jagged strings—with some electric guitar embellishments thrown in for an extra punch. It sounds like the blissful anticipation of the weekend ahead: the looming promise of less work, more play.

“Wednesday” sounds a bit more like that mid-week grind: a little darker color scheme and a lot more drama. For Ghys, Wednesday brings a split mood: one moment the voices double the bassline above evergreen acoustic guitar strumming—the next moment, the strings take center stage for an angular canon above a steady rock drum beat.

bonjour-ensemble

“Thursday Afternoon” starts fresh with some jazzy bass comping, the two double bassists playing off one another as the other instruments gradually join in, feeling happy, optimistic, creative. Extraordinarily low strings fill out their indie-band sound, eventually dropping into a low, buzzing drone, like a car zooming off into the sunset for a long weekend.

That car zooms right into the track “Sunday,” a reminder of how quickly the weekend passes by. Sunday sounds calmer, nostalgic even, with strings hocketing back and forth above warbling electric guitar chords. Twinkling glockenspiel adds another layer of whimsy above the softly fluttering strings, and before you know it, it’s already “Monday Morning.”

Monday is a bit of a daze: stormy strings, circling melodies, a smattering of indecipherable voices spewing nonsensical quotes from literary and news sources. Monday goes through a lot of moods: first dark then dreamy, anxious then sleepy, focused, excited—and finally, inspired.

“Thursday Morning” is much more buoyant, with pizzicato cello and bass lines weaving in and out of one another, their vibrations echoing across the sparse musical texture. Sighing vocals start in about halfway through the piece, supported by broad bow strokes and the subtle, metallic sparkle of the glockenspiel.

The album comes to a close on “Tuesday Noon Around 12:21,” with electric guitar harmonics gradually creeping through a sparse soundscape of wispy strings, slowly growing in depth and drama as the day wears on.

But whether it’s a Tuesday afternoon or the tail end of the work week, the different days and times ultimately all blend together, and as weeks pass by those individual moments become less and less individual. Certain hours share a similar character, certain feelings or moods last across several days—certain sounds and certain moments bleed into the larger fabric of our lives.

And it’s that sense of wholeness—of complex intersection between those distinctly individual moments across the album—that makes Bonjour the perfect soundtrack for any day of the week.

2016 FOLKLIFE PREVIEW: Meet the Westerlies

by Maggie Molloy

The Westerlies are a Seattle-born, New York-based brass quartet named after the prevailing winds that blow from West to East—but this month they are reversing those winds and travelling from East to West. Their destination? The Second Inversion Showcase at Northwest Folklife.

We are thrilled to present the Westerlies, along with Sound of Late and the Skyros Quartet, at our Second Inversion Showcase at Folklife on Friday, May 27 at 8 p.m.

The Westerlies All photos credit Sasha Arutyunova, except the final

While the Westerlies may be charming, dapper, and impeccably dressed, let it be known that these guys are not your typical boy band. Comprised of Riley Mulherkar and Zubin Hensler on trumpet with Andy Clausen and Willem de Koch on trombone, the guys are known for their bold artistry, skilled technical finesse, eclectic musical interpretations, and remarkable versatility.

The guys grew up together playing music in Seattle under the mentorship of Wayne Horvitz, and after relocating to New York City to attend school, they formed a quartet in late 2011. Since then, they have cultivated a new brass quartet repertoire featuring over 50 original compositions as well as adaptations of composers as diverse and wide-ranging as Ives, Ellington, Bartók, Ligeti, and many more.

But no matter what they play, the one element that remains constant across all of their music is the warmth, camaraderie, and good-humored personalities of four longtime friends. We sat down with the guys to see what we can expect at the Second Inversion Showcase:

Second Inversion: How would you describe or characterize your ensemble’s sound?

Andy ClausenAndy Clausen: When The Westerlies first came together as an ensemble in 2011, it felt much more like a rock band in spirit. We were four childhood friends from Seattle who had just moved to New York and found a little slice of home when we were hanging out. At the same time, we were all seeking some sort of escape from the musical confines of jazz and classical conservatories. 

As we started composing and arranging for the group, we realized rather quickly that it wasn’t going to be a traditional classical chamber ensemble, or a “brass band”—that what we were seeking was something entirely other. 

Whenever we approach a new piece with the ensemble, whether it’s an original composition, a folk song, a Ligeti piano piece, an Ellington piece, a Bulgarian choral piece, or a Wayne Horvitz composition, we are trying to find the most personally expressive means of interpretation. Sometimes that involves dramatically reimagining the structure and whittling a piece down to its simplest essence, sometimes it involves a more literal reading of the score.

Having the freedom to radically personalize every piece we play through a democratic arranging process, and allowing each piece to grow and evolve over years of touring is something we have not experienced in any other type of ensemble.

We each come to the ensemble with variety of musical interests: folk, jazz, contemporary classical, gospel, Hindustani, indie rock, metal, Romantic, minimalist, maximalist, country, and blues.

Whatever “sound” The Westerlies have stumbled upon is the result of four friends channeling these diverse interests through warm air, buzzing lips and conical brass tubes—with a lot of love and saliva in there too.

SI: The Pacific Northwest is really blossoming in the contemporary classical music sphere—what do you think makes our music scene here so unique?

Willem de KochWillem de Koch: I think the Pacific Northwest in general, and Seattle in particular, has always been viewed as a distant outpost by the rest of the country. The geographic isolation and dramatic natural beauty of the region allow for a spirit of experimentation and entrepreneurship in every field, but that spirit is definitely imbued in the music of the Pacific Northwest of every genre.

Seattle has an immense and robust arts infrastructure, thanks in big part to the unique culture of philanthropy that has been cultivated here over the years. The nonprofit sector in Seattle is thriving, and that includes the numerous arts organizations and music presenters in the city. The musicians here would not have the freedom and ability to create exceptional work if it were not for the platform provided by organizations like KING FM and Second Inversion, Earshot Jazz, Town Hall Seattle, and of course Northwest Folklife. The list goes on. 

It should also be acknowledged that Seattle has a long history of exceptional music education. All four of us are products of the music programs at our Seattle public schools, and our time spent in those programs was a formative experience for all of us. Organizations like Seattle Youth Symphony Orchestra and Seattle JazzEd continue to ensure that every student has access to excellent music education, and that Seattle’s music education legacy will be upheld for many years to come. I really believe that music education scene in Seattle is completely unparalleled. 

SI: Northwest Folklife strengthens local communities through art and music, celebrating diverse cultural heritages and working to ensure their continued growth and development. What types of communities or music traditions are represented in your music?

Riley MulherkarRiley Mulherkar: The four of us come from differing musical backgrounds so there’s definitely a wide variety of traditions and communities represented in our music. One of the most direct influences we share comes from our mentor Wayne Horvitz, whose music we recorded for our debut album. Wayne has worn a number of hats in his career, from being a leading figure in New York’s downtown scene in the late 80s to film scoring and writing chamber music, jazz, and electronic music. His ability to seamlessly weave it all together is something we’ve admired since before we even existed as an ensemble.

Growing up in Seattle, the jam sessions around the city played a huge role in our development—whether at Cafe Racer or the Faire Cafe, these long nights of music opened up our ears and our minds. When we moved to New York, we were all introduced to a thriving contemporary classical community as well as a creative landscape in Brooklyn that has played a huge role in our development both individually and as an ensemble. More than anything, these communities have instilled values in us which shape the way we think, compose, and play.

SI: As Seattle natives, what does the Northwest Folklife Festival mean to you?

Zubin HenslerZubin Hensler: Folklife was the first music festival I ever went to. My parents brought me along when I was 7 months old and I’m pretty sure I didn’t miss a year from then until I was 18 and moved to NYC. So, it means a huge amount! What a privilege to grow up in a city where diverse music is celebrated and presented regularly. I owe so much of my musical (and life) education to the performances that I was exposed to at Folklife and the other festivals in the region. So, it’s a great honor to be able to come back and hopefully pass on some of that inspiration.

 

 

SI: What are you most looking forward to with this performance, and what do you hope audiences will gain from it?

Willem de Koch: It’s always a treat to return home and perform for our hometown crowd. We grew up performing at Folklife in our high school jazz bands, so we’re excited to have the opportunity to perform at the festival with our own band. We’re also really looking forward to being a part of the Second Inversion Showcase. Maggie Stapleton and everybody else at KING FM and Second Inversion have been doing a tremendous service for Seattle in highlighting both local and national artists who are creating unique new sounds.

We’re honored to be a part of the Second Inversion community and are really looking forward to hearing the other artists at the Showcase. All we hope for the audience is that they’re each able to make their own personal connection with our music, in whatever form that may be. The Westerlies on Lopez Island

Photo credit: Andrew Swanson

The Westerlies will be featured along with Sound of Late and the Skyros Quartet at our 2nd Annual Second Inversion Showcase at Folklife on Friday, May 27 at 8 p.m. For more information, please click here or RSVP to our Facebook event.