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.

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!

The Best of Thelonious Monk: The Blue Note Years

by Michael Schell

This month seems like an opportune time for a salute in Thelonious Monk’s direction, honoring both his 100th birthday and the 70th anniversary of the first of the Blue Note recording sessions that Monk aficionados generally consider his most important work. Highlights from these 1947–52 sessions have been gathered into a handy single-CD reissue that showcases the things that make Monk’s music so compelling: his catchy and highly chromatic jazz compositions, and his unique and piquant improv style that combines bebop and stride piano techniques with harmonic innovations from modern composed music.

Included are the first recordings of such Monk standards as Epistrophy, Straight No Chaser, Well You Needn’t, and ‘Round Midnight (the bane of many a piano student overwhelmed by its complicated chord changes). And then there’s Misterioso, a mini-compendium of Monkish eccentricities. It’s ostensibly a 12-bar blues in B♭, but its melody consists of non-swinging broken sixths that sound more like Scarlatti than bebop.

After Monk and vibraphonist Milt Jackson play through the tune, Jackson offers a fairly conventional solo lasting one chorus. Then Monk begins his solo, and things start getting weird. He spends one chorus toying around with the dissonant clash between D♭ and D♮, and a second chorus combining blues licks with whole-tone scales and long rests. When Jackson starts reprising the theme, Monk spends several bars plunking out harsh isolated notes in counterpoint before finally joining Jackson on the melody. The track ends with one last whole-tone flurry from Monk. Throw in the crude 78 Era sound quality, and the whole thing has a kind of primitive mystique to it, teetering more and more on the edge of crazy as it goes on—kind of a metaphor for Monk’s own life and mental health struggles. Have a listen, and (re)acquaint yourself with this unorthodox American musical genius.

ALBUM REVIEW: Gaslight by James Maloney

by Maggie Molloy

There’s a striking intimacy to solo piano music—a uniquely calm, quiet sense of introspection that only comes from sitting alone at the keyboard for hours on end.

Composer James Maloney takes you right up to the piano bench in his debut solo album Gaslight, out now on Moderna Records. Conceived as a reaction to the fast pace and noisy streets of city life, the album takes an introspective look inward to the music that emerges on the quietest of nights, alone at the keyboard and surrounded by glowing twilight.

Composed late at night on an old piano with microphones placed impossibly close to the hammers, the effect is that of being right there in the room on a rainy evening, surrounded not just by the quiet melodies but also the creaking wood and antique inner-workings of an old piano. The resulting album is a collection of ten ambient and introspective works for solo piano woven together with delicate details of trumpet, vibraphone, glockenspiel, and electronics.

Gaslight opens with a quiet wash of sound: “Seascape” is a short piano prelude that alternates layers of sparkling melodies with long stretches of serene silence, setting the scene for the minimamlist musings to come. “Blink” takes this image one step further, filling the silent spaces with softly circling piano melodies that flicker and flutter like fireflies above a solemn stepwise bass line.

The album’s title track illuminates more gradually, the melodies unfolding at such a slow pace that they almost seem to halt time itself, each note lingering in the air amid the crackling white noise of the surrounding room. The pace picks up only slightly for pieces like “Intertwine” and “Afterglow,” both fleeting piano nocturnes filled with melodies that sparkle sweetly, climbing ever-upward toward the stars above. The music drifts solemnly back to earth in “Lament,” its harmonies strung together through block chords that echo softly above a twinkling glockenspiel backdrop.

The instrumentation shifts for “Gambetta,” a shimmering metallic soundscape comprised almost entirely of glockenspiel and vibraphone melodies that swirl and twirl around long-breathed trumpet lines. Layers of electronic clicks and clatters are interwoven into delicate piano tremors for “Full Colour,” while “Rise Slowly” explores the soft dissonances and atmospheric silences that echo between pensive chords.

The album closes with “Angel Wings,” its sleepy and slowly meandering melodies drawing the midnight concert to a close, bidding the piano goodnight, and ascending into a beautiful dream.

Expanding the Piano Keyboard: Jesse Myers on Experimenting with Electronics

by Maggie Molloy

Pianist Jesse Myers. Photo by Lee Goldman.

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

Last year, he created an entire percussion orchestra inside his piano for his performances of John Cage’s prepared piano masterpiece, the Sonatas and Interludes. This year, he’s forgoing the screws and bolts in favor of something a little more electric.

On Wednesday, July 12 at the Royal Room, Myers presents Living in America: a concert of solo piano works by living American composers. Urban, adventurous, and uniquely American, the program highlights the groundbreaking work of iconic minimalist composers, as well as brand new 21st century works for acoustic piano and electronics.

The first half of the program features John Adams’ misty and modal China Gates alongside Philip Glass’ half-hypnotic, half-neurotic Mad Rush and a selection of his virtuosic Piano Etudes. The second half showcases music for piano and electronics, including Christopher Cerrone’s 21st century urban nocturne Hoyt-Schermerhorn, Missy Mazzoli’s ethereal Orizzonte, and her swirling fantasia Isabelle Eberhardt Dreams of Pianos. Steve Reich’s pulsing, palindromic Piano Counterpoint finishes the program.

The evening also features a set of rarely-performed music for solo voice with electronics and piano, performed by soprano Stacey Mastrian. She lends her voice to two generations of American composers, ranging from Earle Brown and Morton Feldman to Kristian Twombly and Steve Wanna.

In anticipation of the concert, we sat down with Myers to talk about urban sounds, electronics, and expanding the sonic possibilities of the piano:

Second Inversion: What inspires you most about exploring the expanded possibilities of the piano?

Jesse Myers: Discovery. It’s not that I’m tired of the piano in the traditional sense—it’s really about the two words you just used: exploring and expanding. The Steinway grand is the benchmark of great American craftsmanship, and it has stopped evolving.

While new music is, of course, still being written for the piano, new music that involves electronics is a way for composers to personally contribute to a new sort of evolution of the piano.  I am not sure composers are thinking of their work in that way, but as a pianist and a curator of the repertoire, I can’t help but see their work in that light. 

The great thing about electronics, prepared piano, and extended piano techniques, is that at the end of the day, the good old acoustic grand piano is still there. Akin to the way Cage first prepared the piano with bolts and weather-stripping, the electronics drastically change the sound and our impression of the piano—but in the end it is easily returned to its original form.  

SI: What are some of the unique challenges and rewards of performing music that uses electronics?

JM: It used to be that I could show up and play a concert without any paraphernalia, and that’s nice and all, but I love my ever-expanding bag of tricks. The tinkering that is necessary in the practice of this repertoire, and the ability to perform a wider range of timbres in a solo performance while making use of the venue’s sound system are big payoffs to me. But, yeah, part of the reason I became a musician was so I didn’t have to get a haircut and wake up early—so if I can plug into a sound system and feel like a rock musician for a brief moment, I can feel closer to achieving my lifestyle.

There are certainly a great deal of challenges, and I’m sure that turns some musicians off to exploring music like this for themselves. Technical setups are unique to each piece, with varying arrays of requirements. This means that creating a program takes even more planning and practice to get it right. On top of that, these technical requirements can also make two pieces completely incompatible with each other in a single program.  Electroacoustic music often requires a couple different software applications, an ear piece for click tracks on some fixed electronics, foot pedals for cueing live electronics on more flexible ones, different settings on both hardware and software depending on the piece or venue, etc. 

SI: This program features all American composers—what are some of the overarching themes that connect the music of these composers?

JM: Urban sound.  All of these composers, with the exception of Adams, are living and working in New York right now.  To me, this imprints an unmistakable urban character into their music. There is a relentless activeness in this urban sound which is illustrated most clearly by the minimalist music of Glass and Reich.  The electroacoustic soundscapes of Mazzoli’s music have this wonderful sort of raw grittiness about them, and Cerrone’s work, Hoyt-Schermerhorn, is named after a New York subway station. Cerrone says “…the piece explores the myriad and contradictory feelings that often come to me late at night in my city of choice—nostalgia, anxiety, joy, panic.” There is a beautiful peacefulness among the urban activity in these works.

The electronics are also a theme that connects most of the works. The first half of the program (the Adams and Glass pieces) will have no amplification or use of electronics, while the last half will use an increasing amount of electronics. But there is an electronic connection between the two halves. The program starts with an acoustic piece that references electronic music.  The gates in the title, China Gates, refer to the gating of electronic music.  Adams uses sudden changing modes to mimic gating effects in electronic music. 

Conversely, the end of the program, Reich’s Piano Counterpoint, is an electronic work that references an acoustic one. Reich originally wrote the music for this as a work called Six Pianos in 1973.  In 2011, pianist Vincent Corver adapted the work for one piano and a pre-recorded soundtrack.  Four of the six piano parts are pre-recorded and the last two are combined into a more virtuosic single part, which I’ll play live and amplified.  In 2014, the Bang On a Can All Stars pianist Vicky Chow worked with the composer to further edit the piece and create a new flexible pre-recorded soundtrack that allows the performer to use a foot pedal to trigger the phasing of the other parts. Reich’s original version of Six Pianos asked for each measure to be repeated within a range of times—not a fixed amount of time. Since Corver’s version was backed by a fixed-length soundtrack, the most recent version is a truer realization of the original work’s flexibility. My performance will be the most recent, flexible version of the work. 

SI: How do the minimalist composers’ works differ from the 21st century works on the program?

JM: These 20th century minimalist works lack an extramusical association.  They are really about rhythmic structures and form. China Gates (which isn’t really about China or gates), for instance, is a famous, short minimalist work that uses recurring patterns that slowly change and shift apart over time, while making up a nearly perfect palindrome in its structure.

The music of Cerrone and Mazzoli in this program, which are 21st century works, tell a story or capture a vivid scene. So, the audience should be listening for entirely different things in the two styles. In the first half of the program, listen for minimalist patterns and structures (like palindromes), that ultimately lead the way for the second half to transport you into another scene altogether.

What is interesting, though, is despite the lack of an extramusical association, the works of Glass and Reich often capture the busy energy of a dense urban environment, which somehow creates a beautiful, weightless sense of calm.  In this sense then, the minimalist works do have the ability to move beyond the academic, form, and rhythmic structure that are the hallmarks of its style.

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

JM: Playing in a relaxed bar setting should really gel with this music. I’ve always wanted to take music like this out of the standard classical concert venue. As someone who can’t take their instrument with them when they gig, bars and many other non-classical venues are off-limits.  But The Royal Room has a Steinway B, a great sound system, and a reputation for taking good care of local musicians—so I’m really excited to play in that environment.

I hope the audience gains an appreciation for the things I’ve come to realize as a musician. There is amazing music being created by composers who are alive and working in this country right now—it’s innovative, part of us, and who we are. Embrace technology. Accept that electronics and a reverence to the classical music tradition can coexist.


Living in America is Wednesday, July 12 at 7:30pm at the Royal Room in Columbia City. For details and additional information, click here.

ALBUM REVIEW: A O R T A from Vicky Chow

by Seth Tompkins

Pianist Vicky Chow’s recent release A O R T A is above all else a triumph of curation. Chow’s performance, the editing, and the mixing are all laudable as well, but the real story of this album is the strength of the playlist and its presentation. A O R T A is a rare instance of an album in which the delivery of the audio itself contributes to the artistic goals of the project in a meaningful way.

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Even before the music begins, curatorial strength shapes the album. A O R T A is packaged with only minimal notes and there is no explanation of the project’s genesis nor discussion of the artists involved or their biographies. While this may initially appear to be a simple stylistic choice in favor of minimalist packaging, after listening it is apparent that this lack of detail is, in actual fact, a bold statement about how well the music on this release hangs together. The lack of notes seen on A O R T A would diminish other albums, but in this instance, the dearth of information makes this release stronger. It is a symbol of how well-designed the album is as a whole, letting the music and its curation stand on their own.

However, if you are curious, a more detailed explanation of the release is available here.

 

Musically, the supreme design of A O R T A takes the shape of remarkable continuity between the first three tracks. These tracks, which encompass Christopher Cerrone’s Hoyt-Schermerhorn, Jacob Coopers Clifton Gates, and the first movement of Jakub Ciupinski’s Morning Tale, all for piano and electronics, flow seamlessly from each into the next. That is not to say that these pieces are continuous or homogenous; upon closer listening these tracks each yield interesting features deserving of investigation and fascination.

These first three pieces make up the programmatic section of the release. All three, while they do have their own individual characters, are touching meditations on real-world human experiences ranging from the concrete to the notional.

The smoothness with which the initial three tracks flow from one to the next is a perfect aperitif for the rest of A O R T A. Only when the second movement of Morning Tale arrives does this CD begin to deliver sequential sounds juxtaposed in a manner that obviously marks the beginning of a new track. This slight shift marks a turning point in this release; this is the point after which more surprising and disparate sounds can be expected.

 

Those disparate sounds take the shape of Molly Joyce’s Rave, and Daniel Wohl’s Limbs and Bones, all three of which explore different facets of the interaction of live piano with electronic sound. While these heady tracks are distinctly different from the first three pieces, they somehow fit together into the larger arc of this album. This continuity of artistic trajectory is further evidence of expert curation. These pieces, in this order, tell a story that is in and of itself a work of art.

Finally, A O R T A ends with Vick(i/y), by Andy Akiho. While the preceding six pieces lean toward the atmospheric, Vick(i/y) has a completely different character that trends toward immediacy. This piece was written for Vicky Chow (as well as for Vicki Ray – hence the title) and is the only piece on this release that is NOT for piano and electronics. Vick(i/y) is for prepared piano. Additionally, while the preceding pieces on A O R T A tend to individually remain within one or two sound areas, Vick(i/y) is a veritable symphony within a prepared piano. The extended range of sounds, combined with Chow’s presumed heightened intimacy with this music (which was written with her in mind), result in a piece that acts an exclamation mark. Vick(i/y) is Chow’s indelible signature at the end of an already markedly individualistic album.

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Even though A O R T A cycles through an expansive of range sounds and expressive modes, this disc never loses sight of the instrument at its center. Every bit of this music is completely focused on the piano, with all sounds either produced by or strongly referring to the instrument. Also always in sight here are the composers who inspired much of this music. Pieces on this album explicitly reference John Adams and John Cage while slightly more covertly recalling the music of Steve Reich, Erik Satie, and Thom Yorke.

A O R T A is packed with smart, fully-conscious music that is quite aware of the giants upon whose shoulders it stands. This awareness of the past, combined with bold steps toward the future and omnipresent consummate curation, results in a well-balanced and highly interesting release that is at once calming, stimulating, and invigorating.

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STAFF PICKS: Friday Faves

Second Inversion hosts share a favorite selection from this Friday’s playlist. Tune in during the indicated hours below on Friday, October 14 to hear these pieces. In the meantime, you’ll hear other great new and unusual music from all corners of the classical genre 24/7!

1045-bates-cover-1600Mason Bates: Mothership (BMOP/sound)

Some combinations are wonderful despite the unintuitive relationship of their component parts.  Mason Bates’s Mothership contains such a combination.  You wouldn’t think that live electronics, a full orchestra, and NASA spaceship sound samples would go well together with the sound of the guzheng, but they do.  So sit back, grab some cream cheese for that hot-dog, and enjoy Mothership. – Seth Tompkins

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 10am hour today to hear this piece.


Philip Glass: Etude No.12; Bruce Levingston, piano (Sono Luminus)

dsl-92205-dreaming-awake-coverI‘m a total nut for minimalism and usually turn to it when working, running, cooking, commuting, exploring, just about anything. So, I was thrilled to discover Dreaming Awake, a recently released 2-disc journey of Philip Glass’ piano music guided by Bruce Levingston. Ten of his etudes are tucked in between and around The Illusionist Suite, Wichita Vortex Suite (with guest vocals from Ethan Hawke), Dreaming Awake, and Metamorphosis No.2, for an asymmetric but balanced collection.

I hope you catch Etude No.12 on Second Inversion today. Whereas his first 10 etudes were written primarily as exercises for improving technique, his later etudes are more expressive and emotional. No.12 to me is characteristically “Glass” in many ways – repetitive, steady, with rhythmic, driving arpeggios, and also a somber depth. The musical colors are incredibly poignant in this tribute to American painter Chuck Close, who temporary lost (but later regained) the ability to paint due to a spinal aneurysm. Glass depicts this emotional battle in the music, Levingston communicates it with is playing, and the producers at Sono Luminus record it with such mastery, yielding a stand-out new release in the contemporary classical realm. – Maggie Stapleton

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 2pm hour today to hear this piece.


Stephen Suber: Soleil; Ars Brunensis Chorus (Centaur)

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The best music is music that convinces you there is no other music in the world.  This week Stephen Suber’s “Soleil” did that for me.  He describes the composition as “an orchestral piece without the orchestra,” using only the dynamic human voice to create rhythms and harmonies that grow more complex as the piece continues.  Baritones sub as the double bass, tenors become cellos, and percussion is provided by plosives, sibilants, and fricatives.  This composition is from his album Starlit and, when asked about it in an interview, Suber refers specifically to “Soleil” when he states that the singers “came so close to reading my mind.  They nailed it.”  With a review like that it’s no wonder he cites this as his favorite work from the album! – Rachele Hales

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


Richard Reed Parry: Heart and Breath Sextet;  yMusic and Nico Muhly
(Deutsche Grammophon)

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Richard Reed Parry is one of those musicians who really writes from the heart—in this case, literally. His “Heart and Breath Sextet” throws all time signatures out the window and instead instructs the performers to play, well, to the beat of their hearts.

The piece comes from his introspective opus, Music for Heart and Breath: a series of compositions which uses the performers’ hearts and lungs as the performance parameters. Each musician is instructed to play with a stethoscope (and very quietly) in order to stay in sync with their own heartbeat, thus resulting in a beautifully irregular ebb and flow—a soft and serene watercolor come to life.

And as you can imagine, no two hearts beat exactly in time. For this sextet, performed by yMusic with Nico Muhly on piano, the result is a pointillistic effect: starts and stops are staggered, melodies fall out of sync with one another, harmonies bend delicately up and down.

And every once in a while, one of those softly sighing melodies falls in sync with your own heart and breath—a gentle reminder of just how musical it is to be alive. – Maggie Molloy

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 6pm hour today to hear this piece.