ALBUM REVIEW: Steve Reich’s ‘Pulse/Quartet’

by Dacia Clay

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.

The Story

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.

The Facts

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.

What do you hear?

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.

Second Inversion’s Top 5 Moments of 2016

2016 was filled with lots of fun on our 24/7 stream, video production studios, & blog, but this year we really focused on getting out in the community. While these digital offerings reach people world-wide, we are grateful to connect with our Seattle-area fans and like-minded folks! Here are our top 5 moments/events/milestones/projects/good times listed in chronological order.

This is the final post in a series of Top 5 of 2016 lists (check out our Top 5 Videos,Top 5 Albums, and Top 5 Blog Features).

February 1, 2016: Co-presenting Brooklyn Rider and Gabriel Kahane at the Tractor Tavern

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When we had the opportunity to team up with Tractor Tavern to co-present Gabriel Kahane and Brooklyn Rider, we jumped for joy and hopped aboard. The honky-tonkin’ venue was filled with people from all walks of musical life and a great showcase of how to – as we like to say around here – Rethink Classical. Click here for a review of the performance.


April 9, 2016: Second Inversion Presents: Seattle Rock Orchestra Quintet with Tamara Power-Drutis

Second Inversion moved up and over to the Eastside to close Classical KING FM’s inaugural concert series On Stage with Classical KING FM at Bellevue’s newest concert hall, RESONANCE at SOMA Towers. The Seattle Rock Orchestra Quintet with the inimitable, versatile vocalist Tamara Power-Drutis, transformed popular song into art song, in a program that re-imagined the work of artists such as Radiohead, Beck, Bjork and others as intimate and emotional chamber works born for the recital hall. 

Best of all? Back by popular demand, they’ll be performing again next year on April 15, 2017! Tickets are on sale now.

All photos by Jason Tang.


May 26, 2016: Second Inversion Showcase at the 2016 Northwest Folklife Festival

This spring, we came together to celebrate the sounds of the Pacific Northwest in our 2nd annual Second Inversion Showcase at the Northwest Folklife Festival, which featured performances by the bi-coastal brass quartet The Westerlies, the innovative and always-interactive Skyros Quartet, and the boundary-bursting Sound of Late.

All photos by Maggie Molloy.


July-November: New Music Happy Hours hosted by Second Inversion and the Live Music Project

Second Inversion and the Live Music Project host monthly(ish) Happy Hours at the Queen Anne Beerhall for anyone and everyone with an open mind and a willingness to engage in meaningful dialogue about music and art in Seattle and beyond. Sign up for e-mail alerts to find out when the next one is occurring!

All photos by Maggie Molloy.

October 3, 2016: Steve Reich at 80

reichat80Second Inversion celebrated Steve Reich’s birthday in huge style with a 24 hour marathon of his music on our stream. Our staff and over a dozen community members joined in the fun by contributing recorded introductions to their favorite Reich pieces and by writing mini-reviews. We have more 24 hour marathons planned for 2017, birthday and non-birthday related!

Second Inversion’s Top 5 Videos of 2016

Second Inversion is proud to produce video sessions in our studios and in beautiful venues around Seattle. You can peruse them all on our video page, but here are the top 5 viewed in 2016!

#5: Andy Akiho: in/exchange for string quartet and steel pan (featuring Friction Quartet)

#4: John Cage: Living Room Music (featuring So Percussion)

#3: Steve Reich: Cello Counterpoint (featuring Rose Bellini, cello)

#2: Gabriel Kahane: Bradbury (304 Broadway) from “The Ambassador” (featuring Gabriel Kahane and Brooklyn Rider)

#1: Steve Reich: New York Counterpoint (featuring Rachel Yoder, clarinet)

Stay tuned for more great videos to come in 2017!

2017 New Music Grammy Nominees

Extra! Extra! The 2017 Grammy nominees have been announced and we’re here to celebrate the discs that have been featured as our Album of the Week or in regular rotation on our 24/7 stream. Congratulations to all of the nominees!

2016 Second Inversion Albums of the Week

Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance

Steve Reich — Third Coast Percussion (Cedille)
Second Inversion Album of the Week February 15-19

51moxudgtlIn their new album, the quartet surveys the composer’s works for percussion over a four-decade span, beginning with the most recent: his three-movement Mallet Quartet. Composed in 2009, the work is scored for two vibraphones and two five-octave marimbas. Third Coast Percussion twirls effortlessly through the circling motives and interlocking canons of the two outer movements, transitioning seamlessly both in and out of the central slow movement. A stark musical contrast between the thinly textured, almost transparent middle movement against the persistent pulse of the outer two brings color and narrative to the piece. – Maggie Molloy

Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance

Serious Business — Spektral Quartet (Sono Luminus)
Second Inversion Album of the Week February 8-12

dsl-92198-coverSpektral’s new album, titled “Serious Business,” is anything but serious. The album comprises four different perspectives on humor through the lens of classical music, featuring three new works by living composers and one classic from that late, great father of the string quartet, Joseph Haydn.

But don’t let the lighthearted humor fool you—these guys are no classical music newbies. Comprised of violinists Clara Lyon and Austin Wulliman, violist Doyle Armbrust, and cellist Russell Rolen, the Spektral Quartet performs music from across the classical music spectrum. The group is committed to creating connections across the centuries and providing a discourse between the traditional classical canon and the, well, not-so-traditional contemporary classical canon. – Maggie Molloy

Best Music Film

The Music Of Strangers — Yo-Yo Ma & The Silk Road Ensemble (Sony)
Second Inversion Album of the Week July 25-29 (companion album to the film)

Sing Me HomeWe need music now more than ever—not as a distraction or an escape, but as a gateway toward experiencing our shared humanity. We need music to open our hearts, our ears, and our minds. We need music to connect us in ways which transcend language, religion, tradition, and geography.

That’s the idea behind Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble, a global music collective comprised of performers and composers from over 20 countries throughout Asia, Europe, and North America. – Maggie Molloy

Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album

Real Enemies — Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society (New Amsterdam)
Second Inversion’s Album of the Week October 10-14

a2976727568_16Whether you’re a conspiracy theory junkie or a sideline skeptic, even the most patriotic of us loves a good old-fashioned conspiracy. Whether it’s the Watergate scandal or the inner-workings of the Illuminati, alien sightings or the mysterious murder of JonBenét Ramsey, we just can’t help but turn up our ears when we hear a juicy top-secret scheme.

And since we’re already listening, Brooklyn-based composer and bandleader Darcy James Argue decided to take our eavesdropping ears to the next level: his new album Real Enemies is a 13-chapter exploration into America’s unshakable fascination with conspiracy theories. Performed with his 18-piece big band Secret Society and released on New Amsterdam Records, the album traverses the full range of postwar paranoia, from the Red Scare to the surveillance state, mind control to fake moon landings, COINTELPRO to the CIA-contra cocaine trafficking ring—and everything in between. – Maggie Molloy


2016 albums in rotation on Second Inversion’s 24/7 stream

Best Surround Sound Album & Best Engineered Album, Classical

Dutilleux: Sur La Mêe Accord; Les Citations; Mystère De L’Instant & Timbres, Espace, Mouvement — Alexander Lipay & Dmitriy Lipay, engineers (Ludovic Morlot & Seattle Symphony) (Seattle Symphony Media)

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Best Contemporary Classical Composition

Winger: Conversations With Nijinsky — C. F. Kip Winger, composer (Martin West & San Francisco Ballet Orchestra) (VBI Classic Recordings)

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