An old English ballad gets a brassy new spin in the Westerlies’ rendition of “Saro,” which borrows from an arrangement by Nico Muhly and Sam Amidon.
The tune, which dates back to the 18th century, is timeless in its bittersweet melody and melancholy lyrics—the wrenching memory of a love just out of reach. Yet the Westerlies capture the tune’s heartache and spin it into hope without using any words at all, their radiant melodies and hymn-like harmonies telling a new tale of the poor man and his pretty Saro.
We’re thrilled to premiere our in-studio video of the Westerlies performing “Saro.”
The Westerlies are a Seattle-bred brass quartet that has gained national acclaim for their genre-defying chamber music. Now, they’re giving back to the community that raised and inspired them with Westerlies Fest: a four-day music festival in Seattle featuring student workshops and concert collaborations with local artists.
The New York-based quartet is made up of Riley Mulherkar and Chloe Rowlands on trumpet with Andy Clausen and Willem de Koch on trombone. Mulherkar, Clausen, and de Koch are childhood friends from Seattle, and Rowlands (their newest member) was also born in Western Washington.
“The festival, for us, is an opportunity to feature all of the elements of what we do in their purest form as we envision them,” de Koch said. “Of course Seattle, being our hometown, seemed like the perfect place to bring together everything that we’ve gleaned from living in New York and traveling around the country performing.”
The festival runs Thursday, Sept. 20 through Sunday, Sept. 23. During the day on Thursday and Friday, the Westerlies are speaking and performing in schools around Seattle, with an emphasis on teaching in underserved areas. On Saturday and Sunday, they are leading a workshop for high school and college age musicians at Seattle Pacific University.
All four evenings, the Westerlies are performing at different venues around Seattle with a diverse group of collaborators ranging from spoken word poets to jazz singers and music students of all levels and instruments. Learn more about the concerts below:
In partnership with Youth Speaks Seattle, the Westerlies are inviting local spoken-word poets to perform alongside them. Music will be interspersed between poetry performances, and the quartet will also accompany two poems with original compositions.
“[This performance includes] a lot of exciting young voices from Seattle that we wanted to hear and we wanted to give a platform to,” Mulherkar said.
One poet is Troy Osaki, a friend of the Westerlies from Garfield High School who now serves as a Youth Speaks mentor. Seattle Youth Poet Laureate Azura Tyabji will also perform original works, as will Zora “Rainchild” Seboulisa and Esther Eidenberg-Noppe. Emphasizing identity and examining areas of inequality, these young artists use poetry as a tool for inspiring change in the world.
Friday’s performance is really two concerts in one: a set from the Westerlies and a set from the Seattle-based chamber ensemble TORCH.
The group is comprised of trumpeter Brian Chin, clarinetist Eric Likkel, double bassist Steve Schermer, and percussionist Ben Thomas (who also plays vibraphone and bandoneon). Like the Westerlies, TORCH is known for combining the intellectual rigor of classical music with a genre-meshing sound. Chin is also the founder and artist director of the nonprofit arts organization Common Tone Arts, a partner for the festival.
“That night really features some of the best of Seattle’s contemporary classical scene,” Mulherkar said. “This is really an opportunity for us to bring what we got from New York and present it right alongside all the amazing music that’s going on in Seattle.”
Kate Davis (left) and Theo Bleckmann (right; photo by Lynne Harty).
The Westerlies are joined by two acclaimed guest artists from New York: contemporary classical and jazz singer Theo Bleckmann and singer-songwriter Kate Davis.
The core of Bleckmann’s set will be “Songs of Refuge and Resistance,” a project that the Westerlies and Bleckmann developed this June while in residency at Yellow Barn, an international center for chamber music in Vermont. The project combines songs of refuge and protest pieces to highlight both music’s integral role in resistance movements and its ability to provide solace in the midst of turmoil.
Davis will perform a set of original works showcasing her warm, velvety vocals and inventive lyrics—including a Westerlies collaboration on her song “St. Joseph,” arranged by de Koch.
Sunday’s performance will serve as the culmination of the two-day student workshop the Westerlies are hosting for young musicians of all levels, styles, and instruments. The workshop will give students insight into the Westerlies’ unique approach to composition, improvisation, and ensemble practice.
“One thing that we’ve grown to be passionate about as an ensemble is improvising in a way that isn’t idiosyncratic to any genre,” de Koch said. “The goal is to be able to introduce improvisation in a way that isn’t inhibited by any of the trappings of particular styles of music.”
The Westerlies also want to push young musicians to explore unusual instrument combinations, and to allow creative compatibility to overtake conventional ideas about ensemble work. Given their own history, the Westerlies know that good chemistry can lead to great music with any instrumentation.
“When we formed as a band, we didn’t form with the intention of being a brass quartet,” de Koch said. “We formed because we got along well as friends and admired one another’s personalities and musical tastes.”
At the concert on Sunday, students will perform in ensembles with the Westerlies, playing the music they create themselves through improvisation exercises.
Westerlies Fest runs Sept. 20 through Sept. 23. Thursday and Sunday’s performances are free, but reservations are recommended to guarantee admission. Student discounts and festival passes are available for Friday and Saturday’s concerts. For tickets and more information, click here.
I just realized that this album was released on my birthday this year. So, first, thank you, Steve Reich for the thoughtful gift. The pieces on the album were written a few years earlier—Pulse, in 2015, and Quartet in 2013, and recorded by the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) and the Colin Currie Group respectively. (Reich wrote both pieces for the ensembles by whom they are performed here.) But they work together beautifully in an unbroken narrative.
Pulse opens with an almost folk Americana sound a la Aaron Copland. Big wide open prairie, amber waves of grain-variety archetypical hopefulness and promise. Our hero is setting out from home. The instruments—violin, viola, flute, clarinet, piano, and bass—begin to lob notes back and forth between them. But very quickly, a darker bass note joins the mix. Minors and majors mix together. The bass chugs along with nods to a steady rock music beat. There’s a stillness in the background and movement in the fore, and they swap places constantly. The instruments join together, playing in sync, and then fly apart again, creating dissonance. This piece is like a train, passing by in perpetual motion, and the listener is hearing different cars as the train goes by. The players involved are all wrapped up together in call and response—they need each other to create a whole melody. And then the journey slows down and our hero finally comes to a rest.
Quartet has 3 movements: I. Fast, II. Slow, and III. Fast. And if Pulse is the wide open objective spaces of America, Quartet is its crowded solipsistic cityscapes. There’s something about Quartet that makes me think of a late ‘70’s/early ‘80’s gritty cop drama. You know, when TV was more subtle, dialogue-based, and recorded on film; when it relied less on fake blood. In the first movement, there’s one moment of urgency, but the rest seems to be about our main character’s workaday life. The piano and vibes come together. Neither is ever really in charge. I imagine that one is the city and one is the character, but I can’t figure out which is which. “Slow,” is like a rainy night, staring out a window. The hero is a little gloomy and drinks with quiet resolve. And in the third movement, there’s a shift. It’s the same story as the first movement, but a few decades in the future. We’re back in the daylight after a dark, solitary night that ended in passing out on the couch. This new version of the first story is lighter, emphatic and upbeat with the sound of a news dateline in the background creating an urgency, and the story ends, finally, on a high note.
According to Reich, Pulse was a sort of reaction to Quartet because it’s “[a]ll in all, a calmer more contemplative piece,” though that is not what this listener hears. (I can’t help wondering what you’ll think.) In Quartet, he employs the Steve Reich version of a quartet, using his trademark grouping of two pianos and two percussion instruments (in this case, two vibes) instead of a traditional string quartet. As Reich notes, the piece is one of his most complex, and it, “frequently changes key and often breaks off continuity to pause or take up new material.”
The Last Paragraph
Steve Reich once said, “All music does come from a time and place. I was born and raised in New York. I moved out of New York, but it’s inside of me and it will be inside of me until they put me in a box in the ground.” This album feels like it’s of several times (which makes sense from an almost 82-year old) and places, but most distinctly of New York. I like the idea that even in music that’s dependent on pattern rather over emotion, you can hear who the composer is, and it endears me to this work.
As a gigantic Arcade Fire fan, my heart grew 10 sizes when I found out about Richard Reed Parry’s Music for Heart and Breath, an album of original compositions. When I actually heard the music and learned about the inspiration for the pieces, I was knocked over like I haven’t been in the longest time.
The musical conceptualization of this album comes from the heart – literally. Each of the six pieces requires involuntarily moving organs of the body to dictate the tempi and rhythms. How, you may wonder, does one determine those speeds?
Paging Doctor Beat. We’ll need your stethoscopes.
Each musician is instructed to play with a stethoscope (and consequently, at a soft dynamic level) in order to be exactly in sync with his or her own heartbeat. The variety in ebb and flow between the players’ pulses creates a pointillistic effect – in many instances on the album is like that of a relaxing rainfall – that will undoubtedly never sound exactly the same in two different instances.
In fact, the nature of the performance situation can impart serious variation on the length of the piece. Rehearsals take significantly more time than performances. “Interruptions,” took 25 minutes to rehearse the first time, and only 19 minutes to perform. Thanks, adrenaline!
The album journeys between instrumentation varieties and sizes and features an all-star cast of musicians: yMusic, Kronos Quartet, Nico Muhly, Nadia Sirota, and Bryce & Aaron Dessner. The smallest group is a duet; the largest a 14-member chamber orchestra, with sizes in between to keep depth of sound and dynamic range at varying levels.
(music streaming for this album is no longer available)
While Parry doesn’t have formal training in classical music, he comes from a family of musicians and enjoys music from Machaut to Debussy to Ligety to Reich. Influences from all of those composers are hinted at here and there throughout the disc. Parry presents himself as an extremely well-rounded musician and a revolutionary way of conceiving time and imparting creative innovation into the realm of music performed on orchestral instruments.
I think Parry sums it up best with this lovely phrase, “I think there’s something quite beautiful about the idea of trying to literally play your heart out.”