ALBUM REVIEW: ‘Teenages’ by Qasim Naqvi

by Peter Tracy

Photo by Smriti Keshari.

The mellow buzzing of synthesizers and electric organs has been used in popular music for decades now, but some of the first people to experiment with these instruments were classical and avant-garde composers. The mid-20th century saw a wide range of composers creating new works that mined the expressive potential of electronic instruments—a trend that is continually unfolding today.

On his new album Teenages, composer Qasim Naqvi shows us that a synthesizer can change and respond to its player just like any other more traditional instrument, creating a surprising and one-of-a-kind journey of an album in the process.

Teenages is played entirely on an analog modular synthesizer, which is a synthesizer made up of multiple synth units connected together without a playable interface like a keyboard. Essentially, the machine generates tones while the player guides it, turning knobs to change frequency, create rhythms, or add timbre filters. What makes Naqvi’s machine so special is that he built it himself over the course of two years, and the process of the instrument’s evolution is catalogued on the album. Reflecting on the process of learning his machine’s quirks, Naqvi found that it seemed to react to his impulses in surprising ways and to mature over time, which inspired the album’s title.

The first five tracks of the album were created in the year leading up to the title track. They give us a sense of the machine’s evolution, beginning with “Intermission,” an atmospheric and ambient track that starts from almost a single tone, expanding slowly to include pulsing sounds of different timbres and pitches.

“Mrs 2E” brings in some more recognizable material, with stuttering beeps and blips fluttering around the steadier rhythms of something resembling a melody and bassline. “Palace Workers” continues this progression, with a quirky but danceable percussion section keeping a steady beat. This is joined by a bouncy, repetitive synth line that starts to give a sense of harmony. By “No Tongue,” Naqvi and his machine have learned to work together to form what sounds like an ensemble of electronics featuring a bright, melodic hook, lively textured rhythms, and scattered beeps and clicks.

While “No Tongue” is animated and restless, “Artilect” takes us into deeper waters with a low, pulsing drone that makes you wonder what could be around the corner. This leads us finally into the main event, “Teenages,” an almost 20-minute track which brings together everything that came before. Multiple synth lines build steadily upward into rich harmonies to form what sounds like an electronic orchestra playing an oddly off-kilter sort of anthem. These chords are then warped and spun through different filters, with fluttering synths imitating and reacting to each other over time to create what feels like a journey through the mind of Naqvi’s machine.

For Naqvi, modular synthesizers feel almost alive in a way that he wanted to capture by treating Teenages like a live album: the title track, for instance, was recorded in a single take, with no edits or overdubs. Showcasing the sometimes-unpredictable behavior of the machine was a priority for the composer, and this makes for an album that is always evolving and transforming into something new.

In the end, it is both Naqvi turning the knobs and the machine interpreting his actions that come together to create something of a collaborative album between a man and his machine.

Second Inversion’s Top 10 Albums of 2017

From Icelandic sound sculptures to pan-global jazz, found sounds and field recordings to sprawling, city-wide operas, 2017 was filled with some pretty incredible new music. As this year draws to a close, our Second Inversion hosts take a look back at our Top 10 Albums of 2017:

The Industry and wild Up: Hopscotch (The Industry Records)
Release Date: January 13, 2017

Hopscotch is by far the most inventive, labor-intensive, and meticulously designed work of the year. Live performances of the opera take place in 24 cars on three distinct routes, stopping at various locations-turned-performance spaces throughout Los Angeles. It involves everything from animated sequences exploring themes of identity and community to hearing star musicians perform in the car with you as you ride to your next unknown destination. The album recording is just as expansive, inviting the listener to experience the musical narrative in a non-chronological order, with multiple singers forming a composite of each character’s identity.

Intentionally disorienting, surprising, and overwhelming, artistic director Yuval Sharon and his team at the Industry have created an absolutely immersive experience—and audiences have been blown away. – Brendan Howe


yMusic and Son Lux: First (Communal Table Records)
Release Date: February 17, 2017

Something I hear frequently said about new classical music, from detractors and fans alike, is that it’s hard to listen to. First is a decidedly “new classical” album that does not fit into that framework at all. It’s—and I say this without irony—a freaking delight to listen to. It’s full of stories; for example, in the titular track, the instruments seem to be vying for first place until this looming bass note kicks in, threatening to take them all down. The titles themselves kickstart the imagination: “Trust in Clocks,” “Memory Wound,” and “I Woke Up in the Forest” are some of my favorites. Composer Ryan “Son Lux” Lott and producer Thomas Bartlett took yMusic’s edict to make a chamber music record structured like a rock album to heart and, with the addition of amazing performances by the group, turned it into art. – Dacia Clay


American Contemporary Music Ensemble: Thrive on Routine (Sono Luminus)
Release Date: February 24, 2017

Thrive on Routine was an interesting choice of title for ACME’s 2017 release. Timo Andres’ programmatic string quartet that follows the potato-tending and Bach-playing morning routine of Charles Ives thus becomes the album’s centerpiece, and by relation the rest of the selections are colored by the idea of beauty arising from the mundane. Minimalist textures in Caleb Burhans’ “Jahrzeit” and John Luther Adams’ “In a Treeless Place, Only Snow” provide a sense of calm and even pacing, while a deliberate, almost “learned” style extends from Andres’ title track to Caroline Shaw’s “in manus tuas” and “Gustave Le Gray” for solo cello. – Geoffrey Larson


Iceland Symphony Orchestra: Recurrence (Sono Luminus)
Release Date: April 7, 2017

The massive, slow-moving sound sculptures of Iceland shimmer and sparkle in Recurrence, an album of ethereal orchestral works by five emerging and established Icelandic artists. Daníel Bjarnason leads the Iceland Symphony Orchestra through a luminous program ranging from Thurídur Jónsdóttir’s kaleidoscopic “Flow & Fusion,” to María Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir’s oceanic “Aequora,” Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s icy and iridescent “Dreaming,” and more. Each piece on the album is a gorgeously abstracted soundscape in itself, showcasing the small Nordic island’s all but unparalleled explorations of texture, timbre, and immersive, atmospheric colors in music. – Maggie Molloy


PRISM Quartet with So Percussion and Partch: Color Theory (Naxos)
Release Date: April 14, 2017

Mixing colors takes on new meaning in Color Theory, an album blending the hues of four saxophones with an experimental percussion quartet and the microtonal musical instruments of Harry Partch. The PRISM Quartet teams up with So Percussion and the Partch ensemble to explore the full spectrum of color in music, from the deepest blues to the boldest reds, oranges, and yellows. Steven Mackey’s “Blue Notes & Other Clashes” mixes colors ranging from muted to magnificent through eight short movements culminating in a prismatic fantasy, while Ken Ueno’s “Future Lilacs” explores the shifting shades of the overtone series and Stratis Minakakis’s “Skiagrafies” paints a sonic canvas with color-changing harmonies. – Maggie Molloy


Amir ElSaffar: Not Two (New Amsterdam Records)
Release Date: June 16, 2017

In a year choked with disunity in nearly every part of our lives, trumpeter Amir ElSaffar’s jazzy pan-global album Not Two offers a welcome musical melting of borders. ElSaffar draws inspiration from different cultures and their instruments, primarily Western Asia and America, and declares that they “do not exist as separate entities ‘belonging’ to any people or place.” His humanism coupled with the skill of his collaborators results in an album that pulses with mystical jazz spells, thrills with august horns, and reminds us that music is egalitarian. Knowing that Not Two was recorded in one marathon 16-hour session is just the cherry on top of ElSaffar’s accomplishment.
Rachele Hales


Los Angeles Percussion Quartet: Beyond (Sono Luminus)
Release Date: June 16, 2017

LAPQ’s Beyond pushes the boundaries of what a percussion ensemble can do, with a healthy dose of ambient-leaning music combined with a smaller measure of perhaps slightly more familiar groove-based music that might seem more typical of percussion repertoire. With works by heavy-hitting composers Daníel Bjarnason, Christopher Cerrone, Anna Thorvalsdottir, Ellen Reid, and Andrew McIntosh paired with thoughtful and delicate execution, Beyond is a tour-de-force that stands at the leading edge of music for percussion. – Seth Tompkins


Third Coast Percussion: Book of Keyboards (New Focus Recordings)
Release Date: August 4, 2017

If classical music is a volcanic island, percussion ensembles are the lava and magma that makes the new land. They’re always on the edge, pushing out, making new sounds with new instruments. And that’s exactly what Third Coast Percussion is doing on Book of Keyboards. They’ve recorded two works by modernist composer Philippe Manoury—sometimes sounding like an elaborate wooden wind chime orchestra, and at other times leaving long, worshipful tensions between notes.

Some of the instruments used on this album are familiar enough—like marimbas and vibraphones—but I’m gonna bet you’ve never heard the sixxen, because they were invented by a guy named Iannis Xenakis (also an avant-garde composer) and homemade by Third Coast. I wonder if performing on instruments that you’ve made by hand is as exciting/terrifying as flying a kit plane that you’ve built in your garage? Third Coast never lets on, moving through these two works, “Le Livre des Clavier,” and “Metal,” like seasoned pilots flying in formation. – Dacia Clay


Qasim Naqvi: FILM (Published by Erased Tapes)
Release Date: September 29, 2017

Perhaps best known as the drummer from the group of acoustic virtuosos Dawn of Midi, Qasim Naqvi also plays other instruments and composes both art music and music for television and film. The album FILM, as you might guess, falls into the latter category. Released in September of 2017, FILM contains music written for the film Tripoli Cancelled and the video installation Two Meetings and a Funeral, both by Naeem Mohaiemen. This release, like other projects by Naqvi, celebrates the legacy of Moog synthesizers. The atmospheric sounds on this album were inspired by disused architecture, and sometimes recall the music of John Carpenter. – Seth Tompkins


Bang on a Can All-Stars: More Field Recordings (Cantaloupe Music)
Release Date: October 27, 2017

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

A follow-up to their original 2015 release Field Recordings, this year’s rendition is a colorful patchwork of found sounds and sonic squares from the likes of Caroline Shaw, Ben Frost, Nico Muhly, Richard Reed Parry, and Glenn Kotche (to name just a few), with the All-Stars playing along to field recordings ranging from quilting interviews to Chilean birdsongs, lava fields, and snoring sleepers.
Maggie Molloy

ALBUM REVIEW: Preamble by Qasim Naqvi

by Maggie Molloy

Standard Western music notation is made up of five lines, four spaces, and a whole lot of dots and symbols. But contemporary composer and drummer Qasim Naqvi was looking to make classical music that was a little less traditional.

Qasim Naqvi PicPerhaps best known as the drummer for the Brooklyn-based modern acoustic trio Dawn of Midi, Naqvi is also an accomplished composer in his own right. In his new album, titled “Preamble,” he combines graphic notation and traditional notational forms to inject a little aleatory into his compositions. Expanding upon the musical innovations of composers like Ligeti and Xenakis, these aleatoric components allow for the musicians to make spontaneous choices within a structured framework.

“Some of the graphic components deal with dynamics and expression, while others deal with duration and rhythm or ranges that are unique to the particular instruments in the ensemble,” Naqvi said. “This symbolic language is fused into a more conventional style of notation.”

“Preamble” is comprised of a series of short works for mixed acoustic instruments. Released this fall on NNA Tapes, the album features the Contemporary Music Ensemble of NYU and Naqvi himself as the conductor. The work was originally commissioned by the media artist Mariam Ghani, the choreographer Erin Ellen Kelly, and the St. Louis Art Museum as a score to a film installation loosely based on China Miéville’s sci-fi noir novel “The City & the City.”

“One aspect of the book involves two cities that essentially inhabit the same space, but because of the mindset of the citizenry and the threat of a Big Brother-type power known as the Breach, they are perceived as two separate geographic spaces,” Naqvi said. “Even though both cities are intertwined, in a sense, the citizens must unsee the people, buildings, and events of the other city. This, among many other plot elements from Miéville’s book, was used as a conceptual framework that was then mapped onto the real places and histories of St. Louis.”

The result is a suite of seven short pieces weaving in and out of time to explore the principles of chance and intention—in both music and history. Clocking in at just over 30 minutes, the scope of Naqvi’s album is nothing if not ambitious. But without a minute wasted, Naqvi manages to explore the power of music in all of its complexity, with special concern taken to St. Louis’s cultural, geographical, and political histories.

“It’s very much about the city’s history and as well the tragic and fracturing events of Ferguson, sort of raising the question of what a city chooses to see and unsee in times of tragedy,” he said.

The first piece on the album is the title track, which immediately introduces Naqvi’s unusual timbral palette: flute, clarinet, strings, vibraphone and piano. Metallic dissonances and abstracted harmonies ebb and flow in a fascinating textural landscape that seems to exist outside of time and space altogether.

It’s followed by the resonant plucking, sparse harmonies, and hollow textures of “Meg Erase Meta,” a piece inspired by St. Louis’s complex network of underground caves—a city beneath a city, so to speak. With modest forces of strings and piano, Naqvi explores these hidden places and the musical magic to be found within them.

But Naqvi also explores the city’s more somber mysteries. The duality and disjointed melodic fragments of “Children of the Drawer” give way to the sharp and, at times, jarring woodwinds of “Imagined Garages,” wherein long pauses punctuate metallic clamor and fragmented melodic flutters.

“Beyond Stars” takes on a more meditative atmosphere, with sliding strings in the lower registers swaying fluidly back and forth across a softly shimmering harmonic backdrop. A more frantic and unsettling “Aero” builds into the drama of the closing piece: “Esc.” Flute, clarinet, and strings swell into different colors and shapes, transforming and shifting across the soundscape until we are left with an unexpected silence.

Throughout “Preamble,” Naqvi colors outside the lines—he takes his bold textural and timbral palette and smears the rules of time, space, and traditional composition. He explores the notion of chance and intention throughout music and throughout history—and ultimately, by leaving some of the musical elements up to the performers, he ensures that this tale of two cities is never told the same way twice.

“What happens as a result is that you have these moments of the music being in control, and then you have moments where the music starts to fall over onto itself,” Naqvi said. “Those types of moments really interest me because they’re inexplicable. You can’t transcribe or write those moments down or recreate them. And there’s something kind of amazing about that.”

PS – for a special bonus, here’s a recent installment of The Takeover, hosted by Qasim Naqvi, introducing all of the tracks on Preamble: