VIDEO PREMIERE: Third Coast Percussion’s Paddle to the Sea (Act II)

by Maggie Molloy

Third Coast Percussion performs an entire ocean of sounds in their new film score for the 1966 classic Paddle to the Sea. From skittering wood blocks to water-filled wine glasses, each instrument adds its own unique shimmer to the sound of the sea.

We’re thrilled to premiere a video of the group performing Act II of their original score, which was co-commissioned by Meany Center for the Performing Arts and performed there earlier this year.

(Click here to watch our video for Act I, which we premiered in May 2018.)

The Oscar-nominated film Paddle to the Sea is based on Holling C. Holling’s 1941 children’s book of the same name, which follows the epic journey of a small wooden boat that is carved and launched by a young Native Canadian boy.

“I am Paddle to the Sea” he inscribes on the bottom of the boat. “Please put me back in the water.”

Over the course of the film, the boat travels for many years from Northern Ontario through the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Seaway out to the Atlantic Ocean and far beyond—and each time it washes ashore, a kind stranger places it back in the water.

Third Coast’s new film score (recently released as an album on Cedille Records) is inspired by and interspersed with music by Philip Glass and Jacob Druckman, along with traditional music of the Shona people of Zimbabwe. All of the music in the score is inspired by water, with Third Coast performing an array of sounds ranging from pitched desk bells to bowls of water, glass bottles, sandpaper, and one particularly special instrument: the mbira.

The mbira is a thumb piano that plays a leading role in the Shona music from Zimbabwe. In fact, one of the pieces on the album, Chigwaya, is a traditional song used to call water spirits in the Shona religion—a song which was taught to Third Coast by their mentor Musekiwa Chingodza. By incorporating elements of their Western classical training with their study of the traditional music of the Shona people, Third Coast weaves together their own epic musical journey.

And in the spirit of Holling’s original story, the music itself becomes the small wooden boat: rather than keep it for themselves, the musicians add what they can and send the story out into the world again for others to discover.


Third Coast Percussion’s Paddle to the Sea is now available on Cedille Records. Click here to purchase the album.

VIDEO PREMIERE: Mark Applebaum’s ‘Aphasia’

by Maggie Molloy

Mark Applebaum’s Aphasia is scored for a singer that doesn’t sing. Instead, the singer performs an elaborately choreographed set of hand gestures synchronized to a pre-recorded tape.

Yet there is still an element of voice: the tape itself is an explosion of warped sounds comprised exclusively of pre-recorded, digitally transformed vocal samples. On stage, the live performer of the piece is completely silent, singing through the inaudible yet piercing music of gesture alone.

This year percussionist Michael Compitello took Applebaum’s Aphasia into his own hands for a new video we are thrilled to premiere right here on Second Inversion. This video was created by Four/Ten Media.

So, how exactly does a percussionist go about playing a silent vocal piece? Learn more in our Q&A with Michael Compitello:

Second Inversion: What are some of the unique challenges of performing a piece without making any sound?

Photo by Matt Fried.

Michael Compitello: What I love about Aphasia is that the performer’s hands are able to represent the character of both attack and sustain in the tape part. Some gestures peter out, while others end sharply. Some sounds require a more resistance in the air, and others float buoyantly. For me, this is a challenge. Percussionists in general tend to think a lot about how our notes begin, and less so about how they end. “Let ring” is a fairly common notation in scores, and without a tremolo, it’s rather difficult to play with the sustain on a marimba or xylophone. 

With this piece there’s also nowhere to hide! Most of the time, I appear on stage with a lot of stuff. Marimbas alone are as large as sofas. One becomes accustomed to the security which a large instrument provides, and learning to sustain an audience’s focus with just a chair is frightening at first.

You’re also playing chamber music with a relatively stubborn partner. I came to Aphasia after playing Mark Applebaum’s Straitjacket, a four-movement work for solo percussionist and quartet. One movement of Straitjacket uses the same gestures as Aphasia, except they are accompanied by Foley sounds from the quartet. While percussion quintets are able to engage in very flexible chamber music, the sonic portion of Aphasia is fixed. Learning to follow the timing in the tape while appearing to create the sounds took a lot of practice, especially in the piece’s opening, where “centurion greeting” and “turn key” pierce long and varied silences.

SI: How does performing this piece relate to your experiences playing percussion music?

MC: As percussionists, much of what we do is theatrical as a matter of course, ranging from the impressive spectacle of drumlines to the graceful ballet of a single performer attending to a gigantic battery of instruments. Striking, scraping, and shaking objects seems to evoke inherent theatrical undertones, and what’s fun about percussion is the way in which great percussionists exist at the intersection of sonic poetry, visual drama, and athletic exertion.

There exists quite a significant strain of “concert” percussion music which concerns itself with the theatrical. These works range from the amplification and foregrounding of the physical gestures required to play percussion instruments to full-blown stage dramas with percussionists as the protagonists. 

The most immediate parallel to learning and performing Mark Applebaum’s works is the “instrumental music theatre” of Mauricio Kagel and his spiritual descendants: the body of work created by the pioneering Trio Le Cercle in France in the 1970s and 1980s, including wonderful pieces by Georges Aperghis and Vinko Globokar.

In particular, Kagel’s works for percussion are similar to the types of execution required in Aphasia. Kagel’s music expresses a what he calls “exaggerated protest against the mechanical reproduction of music” and a move towards “an enjoyment of music with all senses.” (They’re also devastatingly funny—a sly criticism of the overt and sometimes opaque complexity and ritualistic spectacle of his peers at Darmstadt in the 1960s). In Match, the two cellists compete in a musical tennis match, with the percussionist acting as a referee. And in Dressur, three percussionists present a staged drama for wooden instruments. 

As a performer, I love that Kagel’s works mobilize classical musicians’ most innate skills—closely and diligently following instructions, appearing serious, and creating a ritualistic spectacle of aesthetic abstraction. For me, Mark Applebaum’s works demand similar skills from their performers: a rigorous attention to detail without imbuing a personalization of gesture. 

Photo by Matt Fried.

Similarly, the indelible works of Belgian filmmaker, composer, and sound designer Thierry De Mey (b. 1956) are also wonderful preludes to Aphasia. De Mey’s long-term collaborations with choreographers Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker and Wim Vandekeybus have engendered works which foreground the physicality and gestures inherent in performance, what he calls “the music of music.” In Musique de Tables (1987), he invents a vocabulary of gestures that directly mirror dance figures. Three performers sit at amplified tables, tapping, scraping, sweeping, flicking, and plié-ing through a percussive Grand Divertissement where the constituent sections—overture, rondo, fugato, gallop, etc—emphasize a witty unity of visual and sonic gesture.

In Silence Must Be! (2002), the apparatus of sound-making is removed, creating an ethereal, magical plane. Rather than a ballet of the hands, this is a ballet of the air: a single figure creates various gestures, mostly moving in silence but eventually evoking the once-imagined sounds. Moving from gestures of a conductor to balletic figurations in the air, De Mey eventually fuses his visual vocabulary with speech, spelling out the piece’s name (an anagram for long-time collaborators Ictus Ensemble) on a flat plane for the audience to read.

Lastly, I’d say that life as a percussionist imbues one with a particular kind of attitude—a willingness to try new things, an enjoyment of being a beginner, and immunity to looking silly on stage. We really exist at corner of rigor and absurdity. Even though Aphasia does not require the performer to make sound, I feel that a lifetime of ripping paper, breaking glass, hoarding styrofoam, and other pursuits gets one in the mood.

VIDEO PREMIERE: Robert Honstein’s ‘An Economy of Means’

by Gabriela Tedeschi

Robert Honstein. Photo by Elisa Ferrari.

From Bach to Philip Glass, composers have long been fascinated with economical design. Working with simple materials requires innovative approaches from the composer and impressive virtuosity from the performer—which can often lead to intense, intricate works.

Robert Honstein’s new album An Economy of Means is inspired in part by this long-standing tradition. Featuring two large solo works, the title track and Grand Tour, the album seeks to show what incredible variety and complexity one performer on one instrument can develop within a piece.

An Economy of Means is a six-movement piece scored for solo vibraphone. Performed by percussionist Doug Perkins, the piece utilizes a variety of mallets and props to create wildly different colors on the instrument. Though Perkins makes it sound effortless, a performance of this work requires intense concentration and athleticism—which is why one of the piece’s most rigorous movements is titled “Cross Fit.”

It’s dazzling to watch Perkins’ coordination as he develops an intricate polyrhythmic pattern with four mallets. Making use of a metal sheet over the keys as well as tapping the sides and sliding across the resonators, Perkins generates an array of percussive sound and crisp melodic motifs. Without seeing it, you wouldn’t believe only one performer was playing.

Luckily, you can see it right here in our video premiere for “Cross Fit” from Robert Honstein’s new album An Economy of Means, created by Four/Ten Media.


Robert Honstein’s new album An Economy of Means comes out May 18. Click here to purchase the album.

ALBUM REVIEW: ‘The War Below’ by Andy Akiho

by Gabriela Tedeschi

Photo by Da Ping Luo.

Despite its dark implications, the title of Andy Akiho’s new album The War Below is actually a pun that pays tribute to one of the recording artists. Each of the five parts of the first piece on the album, Prospects of a Misplaced Year, are sneakily named after the performers who premiere themand the first part, which gives the album its title, is an homage to violist Taija Warbelow.

It’s fitting that Warbelow is recognized in this way, because she launches the piece as a soloist with a melodic motif. Prospects of a Misplaced Year, recorded in a cathedral, first makes an impression because of Warbelow’s rich tone, luminous against the vast silences that punctuate her phrases.

The piece becomes a tense back-and-forth conversation when the percussion enters. As the other instruments emerge with running lines, trading off and sometimes sounding all at once, the tension builds into a dense whirlwind of sound. It’s almost as though the instruments are fighting, talking, and even yelling at one another without listeningfitting for the piece’s association with war.

There are gentler moments in the piece, too, but everything is rooted in darkness. The quiet sections are eerie and melancholy. As the sound builds, dissonant chords evoke the sense of something sinister, and heavy percussion creates wild, dangerous sensations. The result is a dramatic, hauntingly beautiful work that showcases both Akiho’s trademark percussion writing as well as a deep sensitivity to intricate ensemble writing.

Jenny Q Chai, who plays a piano prepared with a coin and poster tack in the harp of the instrument, is at many times the key to developing the piece’s different moods. Masterfully taking advantage of the unique timbres that emerge in different registers of the piano, Chai creates some of most mesmerizing lines in Prospects.

The other piece on the album, Septet is characterized by variety, ambiguity, and surprise. From the start, the strings provide a static landscape of sustained, dissonant chords, leaving listeners without a clear sense of the piece’s direction. Slowly, piano and percussion join in. The volume and tension rise and then fall, sometimes gradually, sometimes suddenly.

Without warning, quiet serene moments morph into grandiose, hopeful melodic lines and then transform again, becoming creepy and suspenseful. In certain sections, the instruments are at odds with one another. The strings have a murky, mysterious melody over tender, consonant chords, or a gentle motif is abruptly disrupted by a burst of jarring dissonance, creating a complex mood that defies classification.

Because of this, even after multiple listens, Septet remains an exhilarating experience. You can never anticipate what’s coming next and when it comes, sometimes it’s impossible to describe.

Akiho shines on steel pan in Septet, repeating a mystical, chameleon-like motif throughout the piece. The rest of the septet, made up of pianist Vicky Chow, percussionist Ian David Rosenbaum, and members of the orchestral group the Knights rise magnificently to the challenge of coloring the motif with their rhythmic and harmonic support. Working with and against the steel pan and one another, they create a variety of coherent moods at some moments and a clash of divergent ideas at others.

The complex interplay of instruments in Prospects and Septet, designed by Akiho and executed by the works’ talented ensembles, makes each track of The War Below captivating. As tension builds and moods shift, listeners are desperate to discover where the music is taking them and excited to find that it was in a direction they never would have expected.

ALBUM REVIEW: John Cage’s Music for Speaking Percussionist by Bonnie Whiting

by Michael Schell

One of the more esoteric musical subgenres that emerged in the 1970s is the “talking instrumentalist” piece. Frederic Rzewski composed and performed many piano works where the performer recites a text while playing, and thanks to the contrabass virtuoso Bertram Turetzky, we now have a number of talking double bass pieces in the repertory. Even wind players have gotten into the act, including Seattle’s own Stuart Dempster, who in Robert Erickson’s General Speech recites General Douglas MacArthur’s retirement speech through a trombone.

Now we can add Bonnie Whiting to this distinguished list. Head of Percussion Studies at the University of Washington, she has made a specialty out of commissioning and performing speaking percussionist pieces. In her debut album from Mode Records, she turns her attention to John Cage (1912–1992), famous both for his witty creative writings and for his groundbreaking percussion compositions.

The centerpiece of the album is a 51-minute track titled—appropriately enough—51’15.657” for a Speaking Percussionist. It’s a personal showcase for Whiting, who has been performing it since 2010, including at Seattle’s 2016 John Cage Musicircus. Since Cage did not write any compositions that explicitly call for a talking percussionist, Whiting combines two chance-determined “time length” pieces from the 1950s that Cage suggested could be performed simultaneously.

Whiting performing 51’15.657” for a Speaking Percussionist at the John Cage Musicircus, Town Hall, Seattle, November 2016. Photo by Lee Goldman.

The first, 45’ for a Speaker, was built by Cage out of randomly selected excerpts from several of his contemporaneous lectures. These mostly come across as juxtaposed humorous vignettes, rather like his later Diary: How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse), which Second Inversion profiles here. The pacing of the words varies, so Whiting’s vocal delivery is sometimes rapid, sometimes sparse, and there are many long silences. Cage supplied a fixed script, which is published in his collection Silence.

By contrast, the score of the accompanying piece, 27’10.554” for a Percussionist, is open-ended, specifying only the timing of notes, their relative loudness, and whether their sound source should be wood, metal, drumhead, or “anything else.” It’s up to Whiting to assemble a suitable battery for the task, something that she does with aplomb, using both conventional and “junk” instruments. As with 45’ for a Speaker, the timing of the percussion music ranges from very active to very sparse, but since it’s always in free rhythm it’s mainly up to the text to convey a sense of tempo and beat.

Although Whiting’s playing occasionally drowns out her voice (this is by design!), her diction is clear, and the text is usually intelligible—even if owing to its chance selection it doesn’t always make normal sense. Whiting’s light and agile speaking voice offers a refreshing contrast to all the male voices that have traditionally dominated recordings of this kind of piece, and the feat of covering both vocal and instrumental roles at the same time is an impressive tour de force. Listening to it is like imagining Gertrude Stein deliver a lecture on modern music in a room occupied by a crazy robotic drum corps.

Excerpt from Whiting’s annotated score to 51’15.657” for a Speaking Percussionist.

The following track, Music for Two (By One), lasts a more modest 13 minutes and was similarly fashioned by Whiting from two different Cage pieces, one for voice and one for percussion. Both were written with indeterminate notation, and both come from his late collection Music for _____ (completed in 1987). Here the texts are bare letters and isolated syllables, so the emphasis is on tone color rather than meaning. Though the texture is relatively thin, as in 51’15.657” for a Speaking Percussionist, the result is more compact and integrated. In Whiting’s hands, it makes a nice entry point to this style of Cage piece.

A different side of Cage is revealed in The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs, a tiny classic for voice and piano from 1942. It was this work that launched Cage’s lengthy artistic engagement with Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. Clearly astonished by that unique monument of 20th century literature, Cage seems to have endeavored to stand back and let the text speak for itself as much as possible. After selecting a passage depicting a child’s lullaby, Cage wrote the voice part using just three pitches. For the piano part, Cage doesn’t even open the instrument, instead simply directing the performer to tap and rap on the closed cover and lid. He could hardly have intervened any less while still having set Joyce’s words to music!

Although The Wonderful Widow is fully written out in standard notation, Cage’s humble approach to his source material anticipates the even more ego-effacing attitude evinced in his later, chance-determined works. Whiting tackles the piece as another solo effort, doing both the singing and the piano tapping. The softness and simplicity of her interpretation gives it an unmistakably nurturing tone—a kind of release after the complex tracks preceding it.

Excerpts from Cage’s autograph of The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs.

Two more tracks wrap up the album: Cage’s A Flower (which is a kind of companion work to The Wonderful Widow) and a performance by Whiting’s frequent collaborator Allen Otte, where he plays Cage’s prepared piano piece Music for Marcel Duchamp while reciting a text and adding frame drum embellishments.

For an album with such a focused concept, John Cage: Music for Speaking Percussion offers an admirable range of musical experiences. Mode Records is making it available both in conventional audio formats and as a Blu-ray Disc, with the latter featuring a video interview with Whiting and Otte and HD footage of all the works in performance, thus conveying the theatricality that’s so impressive when you see them live. The release is Volume 52 (!) in Mode’s longstanding project to record Cage’s complete compositions, and it’s essential listening for enthusiasts of Cage or percussion music. Here’s hoping that there’s much more yet to come from both Bonnie Whiting and Mode Records.

 

ALBUM REVIEW: Los Angeles Percussion Quartet’s Beyond

by Seth Tompkins

The Los Angeles Percussion Quartet’s Beyond places intimacy front and center.  The delicate sonic encounters that permeate these two discs (or just one if you’re listening to the Blu-Ray) are not classic fodder for percussion ensembles.  While there are a smattering of grooves and some loud moments, Beyond leans much more strongly toward the ethereal and the delicate.  This forward-thinking curation, paired with LAPQ’s sensitive and thoughtful musicianship, makes this release a delight.

Daníel Bjarnason’s “Qui Tollis” is a microcosm of the whole of Beyond, with beckoning atmospheric figures framing a collection of engaging grooves that are made all the more striking by their juxtaposition with the gentle outer material.  This atmospherics-to-groove ratio and pattern runs through many of the individual pieces on this release, but also throughout the entire album as a whole.

Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s “Aura,” like much of her music, explores the boundaries of perception.  A collection of diverse and austere timbres unfolds throughout this piece as it plays with the edge of silence.  A deeply meditative piece, “Aura” benefits, as do many other pieces on this album, from listening in headphones or on a good surround-sound system.  Fancifully, “Aura” could be the musical version of experiencing an unfamiliar landscape: a place that, while neither particularly hostile nor favorable toward you, is captivating in its natural strangeness.

Christopher Cerrone’s transformational “Memory Palace” was the only piece on this release that was not new to my ears; Second Inversion recently released a video of Ian David Rosenbaum performing the entire work.  However, it was very interesting to experience the piece in an audio-only version.  In the video, the visual depiction of the enormous variety of instruments and performance techniques was a delight, but the audio-only performance on this recording offers a sense of intimacy and mystery that the video does not.  Ultimately, both performances are certainly worth a listen: they provide different ways of experiencing a tremendous piece that seems to have already staked out a lasting place in the percussion repertoire.

“Fear-Release” by Ellen Reid is an exercise in well-defined color palettes.  Most instruments used in this piece are metallic, although there are integral parts for marimba and bass drum.  This is perhaps a more traditional soundscape than some of the other pieces on Beyond, but it certainly matches the others in terms of its sophistication.  All five pieces on this release follow internal guiding principles—”Fear-Release” just happens to use a more traditional instrumentation within that same laudable compositional ethic.

Beyond closes with “I Hold the Lion’s Paw” by Andrew McIntosh.  This piece occupies nine tracks and comes packaged by itself in a separate disc (in the CD version).  This is a slightly puzzling setup until you take into account the listening note that accompanies this piece, which  recommends that this piece is best taken in its entirety.  This instruction makes sense, given “Lion’s Paw”‘s tendency towards percussive recitative. This is a slower burn than the other pieces on Beyond, but it is perhaps the most dramatic work on the album.

At many points during Beyond, it is easy to forget that you are listening to a percussion ensemble.  These moments, when the music itself becomes the primary focus, beyond any considerations of the instrumentation, performers, or extra-musical context, are rare—and the ability to deliver them is a triumph for any ensemble.  The fact that Beyond presents so many opportunities in which to become lost in the music is a credit to the curation of the quartet.  The construction of this collection deserves as much praise as the intelligent performances and thoughtful compositions contained therein.

VIDEO PREMIERE: Memory Palace by Christopher Cerrone

by Maggie Molloy

Still frame from Mark DeChiazza’s video for Christopher Cerrone’s Memory Palace.

The method of loci is a mnemonic strategy dating all the way back to the ancient Greeks and Romans. The idea is this: you memorize the layout of a building or geographic space, then assign memories to any number of discrete locations within itand to recall the information, you imagine yourself walking back through the space.

In composer Christopher Cerrone’s Memory Palace, he takes that method one step further: instead of imagining a geographic space, he creates a sonic one. Composed for solo percussion and electronics, the piece is performed on a collection of homemade instruments and field recordings. In Cerrone’s memory, the palace is built of crickets and cheap guitars, wind chimes and wooden planks, beer bottles and quiet breath. The result is a vivid mosaic of music and memory—an intimate retrospective of a life lived in sound.

Memory Palace is a kind of paean to places and people that have deeply affected me,” Cerrone said. “The sounds in the piece are signposts; they help me remember—and more important, understand, who I am.”

Percussionist Ian David Rosenbaum premieres Cerrone’s Memory Palace in this brand new video by Mark DeChiazza: