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: First by yMusic & Son Lux

by Seth Tompkins

First, a collaboration between the chamber ensemble yMusic and Ryan Lott, the founder of Son Lux, is a unified expression of a narrow set of aesthetics. That is not to say that First lacks depth; on the contrary, First explores its chosen aesthetics comprehensively. The result is a release that listens like a concept album. Therefore, it is no surprise to see that yMusic’s stated goal for this project was to “build a record of chamber music which emulates the flow and structure of a rock album.” At that, they have succeeded.

Like other releases that are designed to work as wholes, First is best absorbed in one sitting. The expressive nuances and subtle aesthetic variations that fade in and out throughout the album are much more apparent when the music is taken as a whole. Of course, most of the tracks are quite effective on their own, too.

The compositional predilections of Ryan Lott are obvious in First.  In particular, the use of “repetitive structures,” background “pads” of sound, and the emergence of a noticeably more expressive lead line are frequent in First. Also present is the technique of juxtaposing highly active and fast accompaniment figures with bass lines and harmonic pads moving at a much slower speed on top of the same rhythmic framework. The difference here is that the overriding use of acoustic instruments by yMusic creates a different flavor of intimacy than that seen in the music of Son Lux. The two are certainly related, but also deliciously different.

 

There are a few moments when compositional elements not seen in Son Lux’s music make appearances on First. The most notable of these is the inclusion of contrapuntal writing in Sunset Boulevard. Perhaps the slightly more “classical” flavor of yMusic’s setup inspired Lott to lean more on this technique largely associated with music of the past. Whatever the genesis, it works.

Ryan Lott’s love of acoustic instruments is obvious in the music of Son Lux. Furthermore, it seems that he has found a perfect partner with whom to explore that interest more deeply in yMusic. The players of yMusic execute Lott’s with remarkable facility and fearlessness. The woodwind technique on First deserves special praise, as does the trumpet playing. Many of the licks on this album are beyond tricky, but yMusic makes them seem like no big deal.  This attention to excellence and detail is absolutely necessary in order for Lott’s intricate musical designs to sparkle.

One particularly pleasing element of this project is how the first and last tracks (Eleven and Paris, respectively) encapsulate the release as a whole. While the last piece includes some of the familiar characteristics of the first, it is tempered with elements of the intervening tracks. This synthesis of ideas yields a satisfying conclusion that recalls the boldness of the opening while remaining informed by the complexity of the entire album.

Moments that are both simple and beautiful are rare in First, and most of them dissolve or morph into moments of increased emotional complexity. While these simple moments are cathartic, the real beauty here is in the complexity and tension that leads from one exhalation to the next.

Second Inversion’s Top 5 Videos of 2015

2015 was all about the videos here at Second Inversion! We hosted 22 recording sessions and produced a total of 44 videos! We connected with musicians from Seattle, San Francisco, New York, Chicago, Montreal, Los Angeles, Austin, Paris, Denmark, Malaysia, Colombia, and Indonesia! You can peruse them all on our video page, but here are the top 5…

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#5: Third Coast Percussion and Joshua Roman at Town Hall, Seattle

#4: Christopher O’Riley and Matt Haimovitz at the Tractor Tavern

#3: yMusic in our studios

#2: Friction Quartet in our studios

#1: Ashley Bathgate (Bang on a Can All-Stars) in our studios

Stay tuned for videos in 2016 of local musicians playing Steve Reich, SO Percussion, Gabriel Kahane w/ Brooklyn Rider, and more!

ALBUM REVIEW: Eighth Blackbird’s “Filament”

by Jill Kimball

Forget J. S. Bach: Philip Glass is the new granddaddy of music…or so sayeth eighth blackbird in its latest album, Filament.

This new release from the Chicago-based contemporary music supergroup cleverly connects the groundbreaking repetitive structures in Glass’s music with American folk tunes, contemporary compositions, and poppy vocals. The album’s name is meant to conjure a mental image of musical threads linking all its performances, new and old.

In this case, “old” is a relative term. The nexus of Filament is “Two Pages,” written by Philip Glass in 1968. It’s a classic illustration of Glass’s signature repetition, a mind-bending 16 minutes of subtly changing patterns. The piece famously sounds meditative and nightmarish at the same time. It’s notoriously difficult for performers–the liner notes compare it to walking a tightrope “with no net below”–but the expert musicians here meet the challenge admirably, almost making it sound easy. Performing this piece alongside the sextet are organist Nico Muhly and guitarist Bryce Dessner (of The National), and it’s no coincidence that both of them are also featured composers on Filament.

In fact, the album opens with Dessner’s multi-movement piece Murder Ballades, inspired by folk songs about real and imagined killings that were passed down through many generations. The murder ballad tradition began in Europe, but Dessner’s piece focuses on the maudlin stories that originally come from early settlers in New England and Appalachia. Dessner chose to arrange three real ballads, “Omie Wise,” “Young Emily,” and “Pretty Polly,” all of which tell stories of love affairs turned violent. Imagine if someone took the music from a Ken Burns documentary and gave it a little edge, and you’ll have an idea of what these movements sound like. The other four ballads in the piece are Dessner’s original compositions, still clearly inspired by early Americana but more deconstructed and intense. In these four movements, Philip Glass’s repetitive, meditative influence is clearly felt.

FilamentComposers

Composers featured on Filament. Clockwise from top left: Nico Muhly, Philip Glass, Bryce Dessner, and Son Lux.

Nico Muhly’s piece, Doublespeak, is so closely linked with Two Pages that it’s as if Muhly managed to burrow directly into Philip Glass’s midcentury brain. Muhly wrote this piece for the composer’s 75th birthday celebration, so it’s fitting that he chose to salute a decade when “classical music perfected obsessive repetition,” as he puts it. You’ll hear snippets of 1970s staples like In C and Violin Phase flit in and out as the piece alternates between a fast-tempo frenzy and a slow, dreamy state.

As if there weren’t already enough threads connecting these three pieces, eighth blackbird rounds out Filament with a pair of works by Son Lux. The legendary pop-classical electronic composer took sound bites from the album and mixed in Glass-inspired vocals by Shara Worden, aka My Brightest Diamond. The result is a half-ambient, half-catchy five minutes that nicely break up the album’s studied repetition, which can be a little mentally taxing.

It goes without saying that the performance quality on this disc is top-notch, no less fine than any of eighth blackbird’s past albums. You’re luxuriously free to focus solely on the compositions themselves, all of which are worth contemplating at length. In an age when most albums’ connecting filaments are somewhere between ultrathin and nonexistent, it’s a pleasure to listen to a set of pieces with such close ties.

LIVE CONCERT SPOTLIGHT: June 27-28

by Maggie Stapleton

This week’s Seattle new music events offer cross-genre flavors at the Crocodile, a world premiere by Timo Andres, and a homecoming for the Westerlies!

Town Music: Town Hall Seattle and Seattle Youth Symphony Orchestras present John Adams’ ‘Shaker Loops’ and original work, commissioned by Town Hall from Timo Andres 

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Town Music Artistic Director (and Second Inversion’s Artistic Advisor!) Joshua Roman will conduct the Seattle Youth Symphony (current members and alums!) in the Town Music season finale.  This talented group of musicians will present the world premiere of a new work by Timo Andres, who “achieves an unhurried grandeur that has rarely been felt in American music since John Adams came on the scene” (The New Yorker). His new work was commissioned by Town Hall and will be a great fit amidst John Adams’ Shaker Loops and Bartok’s Divertimento for Strings.

Second Inversion will present this concert as a LIVE BROADCAST.  You can tune in at bit.ly/SI-stream and RSVP to our Facebook Event!

The performance is this Saturday, June 27 at 7:30pm (doors at 6:30pm) at Town Hall Seattle on First Hill.

STG Presents Son Lux and Olga Bell 

55427c656c2cc3.93172918Son Lux’s leader is Ryan Lott, who was named “Best New Artist” by NPR’s All Song’s Considered in 2008.  Lott “works at the nexus of several rarely-overlapping Venn Diagrams (Pitchfork)” which couldn’t be a better description of what we seek to showcase on Second Inversion.  His composition “Beautiful Mechanical,” for yMusic instantly caught our attention and is in frequent rotation on our 24/7 stream.  He has also collaborated with a multitude of other prestigious artists including Richard Reed Parry, Chris Thile, Lorde, Beyoncé producer Boots, Sufjan Stevens, Matthew Dear, Busdriver, Vijay Iyer, Nico Muhly and Pulitzer Prize winner Caroline Shaw.

Son Lux will perform selections from their latest album Bones (released June 23), the premiere release from the newly formed trio, including Guitarist-composer Rafiq Bhatia and drummer Ian Chang.

Olga Bell joins Son Lux for this event.  Olga’s elite training as a classical pianist paved way for the pursuit of electronic composition and songwriting. Second Inversion regulars are likely familiar with Bell’s 2014 New Amsterdam release Krai, which is a tribute to edge towns in her birth country of Russia. Olga Bell is also noted for her work with Nothankyou, Charlift, and Dirty Projectors.

 

The performance is this Saturday, June 27 at 9pm (doors at 8pm) at the Crocodile in Belltown.

The Westerlies: Summer Show at The Royal Room 
SAA_0954_cSashaArutyunova2014_1600pxWEBThe Westerlies (“prevailing winds from the West to the East) are home from another year of Conservatory training in NYC and return to The Royal Room for a special performance of brand new music soon to be recorded on their second album!

This brass quartet composed of Riley Mulherkar, Zubin Hensler, Andy Clausen, and Willem de Koch navigate between American folk music, jazz, classical, and indie rock and have expanded the repertoire by premiering over 40 original brass quartets.  Second Inversion hosted them for an in-studio video session back in January and we’re always thrilled to have them back in town.

 

The Westerlies will be joined by Brooklyn based indie-alt vocalist Julia Easterlin. Vocals. Loops. Drums. Drones. Beatz. The Westerlies and Easterlin – a great combination!

 

The performance is this Sunday, June 28 at 5pm (doors at 4:30pm) at the Royal Room in Columbia City.

ALBUM OF THE WEEK: yMusic’s Balance Problems

by Maggie Molloy

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New York has long been one of the U.S.’s leading centers for new and experimental classical music, and who better to spearhead the city’s lively and eccentric music scene than innovative young musicians?

yMusic is quickly making a name for themselves as one of New York’s most imaginative young music ensembles. The sextet, which formed in 2008, is named for the stylish Millennial Generation from which its musicians hail. Each of its members has their own distinct personal style and musical flair, and together their music toes the line between the classical and pop music worlds.

The ensemble is composed of a string trio carefully balanced with flute, clarinet, and trumpet. yMusic features Rob Moose on violin, Nadia Sirota on viola, Clarice Jensen on cello, Hideaki Aomori on clarinet, Alex Sopp on flute, and CJ Camerieri on trumpet.

Though the group is full of virtuosic, classically-trained musicians, yMusic strives to make classical chamber music accessible to a wider range of audiences outside of the traditional concert hall.

In their new album, “Balance Problems,” the group takes on dazzling new compositions by Nico Muhly, Marcos Balter, Andrew Norman, Jeremy Turner, Timo Andres, Mark Dancigers, and Sufjan Stevens. The result is a series of carefully crafted sonic landscapes which blend imaginative musical textures of enormous depth and detail.

The album’s sound is heavily influenced by Son Lux (Ryan Lott), a fellow genre-bending New York-based musician who served as the producer and mixing engineer for “Balance Problems.” His extensive background in electronic and experimental music informed the mixing process, helping to expand yMusic’s sound while still preserving the integrity of their acoustic instruments.

“Balance Problems” starts off with the title track, a delicate but densely colorful piece composed by modernist Nico Muhly. The piece’s overlapping wind and brass motifs are carefully balanced against the constantly shifting, often pizzicato string backdrop.

Marcos Balter’s “Bladed Stance,” toys with various tempos on different instruments, creating depth through swelling woodwind melodies which whisper like wind, gradually rising and falling with each breath.

Of all the pieces, Andrew Norman’s two-part “Music in Circles” is perhaps the most familiar in structure. True to its title, the piece begins and ends with the same airy, ambient backdrop. If you listen closely, you can even hear someone breathing on the recording. The stark, simple atmosphere gradually gives way to growing depth and drama. The middle of the piece is rounded out with vibrant and colorful timbres, each instrument’s part swirling around each other to produce a brilliant, sparkling musical texture.

The more chaotic tracks on the album are balanced out by softer, gentler compositions such as Jeremy Turner’s “The Bear and the Squirrel.” The piece begins with a rich cello tone, embracing a bass-heavy sound with smooth, sweet strings and a muted trumpet melody. The lovely, dreamlike melodies give the piece a tranquil, lulling quality.

Sufjan Stevens ends the album with “The Human Plague,” a more heavily produced track which experiments with delayed and gated effects. All of the instruments play in sync for the first time on the album, dizzily repeating one rhythm until each voice gradually slows down and fades away into silence. The result is a modern, minimalist finale which seamlessly drives home the album’s theme of blending pop and classical.

As an album, “Balance Problems” is truly brought to life by yMusic’s youthful, imaginative energy and fearless commitment to creating innovative and expressive new music. The group’s extraordinary musicianship and unique ear for pop and avant-garde musical elements allows them to flawlessly tie together two very different musical worlds into one intricate but accessible classical music album.