ALBUM REVIEW: The Westerlies

by Seth Tompkins

The Westerlies’ eponymous sophomore album is unified by a clarity of purpose and a distinctive sonic palette. The overall effect of this release is one of harmony and serene simplicity. In fact, this album is so consistently styled and masterfully produced that it could be easy to miss the ingenious subtleties and careful construction that underpin the simple beauty of this release. That would be unfortunate, because to miss the subtleties in these 17 tracks is to miss the potential lasting impact of this album.

 

It is difficult talk about The Westerlies without mentioning the album’s distinctive sound. Despite differences between tracks, the sound of this album is remarkably consistent from track to track, creating a satisfying unity that runs from beginning to end.

The chief element in this unity of sound is the types of articulations The Westerlies have chosen to use. This is not to say that the articulations are uniform across the album; quite the opposite is true! Within just the first few tracks, the wide variety of articulations varies from mellow to aggressive and from bright and insistent to smooth and nonchalant. However, despite this obvious prowess, the group does manage to create a unified sound through articulation alone. This is mostly accomplished through their heavy reliance on a specific articulation: a somewhat soft, breathy, but very consistent sound that is reminiscent Stan Getz. This particular sound is one that guides the listener through the entire album. While not a sound that may be familiar top all listeners, by the end of the second disc, it seems like an old friend.

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Photo Credit: Sasha Arutyunova

The most outstanding specific sonic element on this disc is the way in which the group has handled the bass. Despite the trombone usually being a “bright” instrument, through smart microphone placement and expert execution, The Westerlies have coaxed an incredibly broad array of bass sounds out of the humble trombone. In many sections, the bass sounds as if it being produced by a euphonium, tuba, or even an electronic bass instrument. There are also moments when the bass sound is pure trombone. The staggeringly wide range of bass sounds The Westerlies include on this release is worthy of high praise, especially as it is apparently achieved with little or no digital alteration.

Another notable element of the sound world of this album is the group’s use of extended techniques. The noodling, the screeching, the growling, and related sounds make frequent appearances on this release. However, instead of the intrusive gimmicks these techniques can sometimes be, here they serve only to color and shade the unified sonic world the group has created. In many instances, these unusual sounds blend so well with the main textures of the music that they may pass unnoticed as they sculpt the soundscape. In many spots on this release, these effects take the place of electronic effects; there are many moments when what sounds like a digital alteration is actually being created live via the acoustic instruments of the group through these deftly executed special techniques.

The apparent lack of digital enhancements on this release is one of its chief merits. Through the use of extended techniques, savvy microphone placement, and top-notch engineering, The Westerlies and their producer, Jesse Lewis, have managed to create a collection of sounds that in many other cases would require a great deal of computerized hocus-pocus. And beyond that, they have managed to do it in a way that is not the least bit self-righteous. They are not shoving the fact that they are mostly acoustic in our faces; acoustic is simply the way their music exists.

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Photo Credit: Michael George

A secondary aspect of the laudable lack of digital trickery on this release is the freedom the group takes with letting some of the “uglier” sounds of brass playing bleed through. In many spots, edgy sounds come through that some producers might want to keep off their finished products. In other places, the sound of these muscular instruments can be heard bouncing of the wall and ceiling of the recording space. The fact that these peripheral brass sounds made it onto the final album is evidence that this group has done some deep soul-searching on the true nature of brass playing. Much like their choice to stick with a mostly-acoustic sound, The Westerlies’ choice to include some of these realistic sounds onto the album shows that they are not interested in the expectations of anyone else; they are thinking for themselves and forging their own path.

Perhaps one reason The Westerlies chose to build the sonic world of this release with the above elements is that they see their group as primarily a live acoustic ensemble, even in the context of a studio recording. Few, if any, of the tracks on this release would be difficult for the group to recreate in a live setting, and the live performance would likely sound much like the album, including sounds of “the room” and many of realistic sounds of live brass playing that are often omitted in commercial recordings. If this is indeed the case, this is an integrity move and their audience is better for it.

The compositions themselves also warrant praise. Much like the delicious balance between varied and unified articulations and colors throughout the album, the pieces themselves represent a diverse, yet broadly unified element that ties the entire release together. All the compositions on this release save three are by The Westerlies themselves. While there are moments of raucousness and unique diversions that occur frequently among these compositions, the overall effect is similar to that of the soundscape that pervades the album; the pieces have enough in common that they hang together remarkable well. Hopefully, these overarching unities bode well for the future of the ensemble, signaling that the quartet is bonded in a way that will afford them fruitful collaboration for years to come.

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Photo Credit: Michael George

Finally, the three compositions not by The Westerlies must be considered. It is a fascinating trio of pieces: one traditional tune (arranged by Nico Muhly and Sam Amidon), a Duke Ellington tune, and a piece by Charles Ives. There might be myriad reasons why the quartet chose these three, but it seems that the most likely plan is this: these tunes give just enough context to convince a skeptical listener to buy into this genre-defying acoustic quartet. Also, one jazz tune, one “modern” piece of classical music, and one traditional hymn-like tune are an excellent representation of the background that most classical-trained brass players have. Whether these tunes are intended to provide context for the new music on the album, or are a nod to the background of the quartet members, or are simply included because the quartet likes them, they are woven with the same delicious technique and careful construction as the rest of the release.

The Westerlies is an album with two layers of existence. It is at once a plainly beautiful release shot through with genius technique and considerate musical planning, and an innovative exploration into what the future of acoustically-driven music could be. The fearless choices The Westerlies have made on this release lead the way for acoustic music in the face of an increasingly computerized musical landscape, while at the same time creating a sublime listening experience that can be enjoyed for its simplicity and peace.

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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, September 23 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!

Gabriel Kahane: Last Dance (Story Sound Records)a4106913517_16

Utterly lovely.  Two words are all one needs to describe Gabriel Kahane’s “Last Dance.”  It starts softly with poetic vocals accompanied by a light instrumental touch and swells then swerves to a more energetic, somewhat off-kilter indie pop composition heavy on guitar.  It’s an intelligent, beautiful song full of empathy. – Rachele Hales

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 12pm hour today to hear an excerpt from this piece.


Traditional (arr. Danish String Quintet): Five Sheep, Four Goats (DACAPO Records)8-226081

Autumn is in the air, so I’m in the mood for music that encourages nesting. I’ve found such a piece in Five Sheep, Four Goats, a traditional tune on the Danish String Quartet’s 2013 release Wood Works. This arrangement by the DSQ is comforting without being boring. The folk tune itself is simple and gorgeous, but the true gem on this track is the placidly rhapsodic flugelhorn solo by Mads la Cour. Crank this one up and break out the cinnamon donuts! – Seth Tompkins

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 4pm hour today to hear this piece. In the meantime, enjoy the recording that DSQ made of this piece in our studios!


Wayne Horvitz: “The Circus Prospered,” arranged and performed by The Westerlies91e6ovdpx2l-_sx425_ (Songlines Recordings)

“The Circus Prospered” is the kind of melancholy curtain-raiser that accompanies the opening scene of a crackling black and white silent film—or perhaps more specifically, a Charlie Chaplin film.

Composed by Seattle-based jazz giant Wayne Horvitz and arranged by The Westerlies for their two-trumpet, two-trombone brass quartet, the piece was originally conceived as a 21st century accompaniment for Charlie Chaplin’s 1928 film The Circus. With swelling harmonies and soulful dissonances, the piece harbors the nostalgic warmth of a black and white film while also capturing the irresistible whimsicality and color of the circus.

Recorded on Lopez Island amidst the calm and quiet of the Pacific Northwest’s most beautiful landscapes, the quartet’s muted colors bleed softly into one another like a cloud-smudged sunrise—and just like those old Charlie Chaplin flicks, the music sparkles with charisma, charm, and a certain cinematic timelessness. – Maggie Molloy

Tune in to Second Inversion in today to hear this piece.

 

PHOTO GALLERY: Second Inversion Showcase at NW Folklife Festival

by Maggie Molloy

Here in Seattle, we pride ourselves on our imaginative and innovative new music scene. Second Inversion is proud to be a part of that community, where so many hard-working and creative artists and musicians come together to create, support, and share new and unusual sounds from around the Pacific Northwest and beyond.

This past weekend, we came together to celebrate these sounds 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.

We would like to give a tremendous THANK YOU to everyone who came out to support new music over the weekend, both as performers and as audience members. Together, we make the Northwest new music something truly special.

2016 FOLKLIFE PREVIEW: Meet the Skyros Quartet

by Maggie Molloy

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Beethoven to Britten, Sibelius to Shostakovich—the sky is the limit for the Seattle-based Skyros Quartet. Comprised of violinists Sarah Pizzichemi and James Moat, violist Justin Kurys, and cellist Willie Braun, the quartet is known for their innovative and interactive approach to classical music both old and new.

Founded in 2010, Skyros studied chamber music at the University of Texas at Austin under the mentorship of the Miró Quartet and Sandy Yamamoto. By 2012, they became the first quartet-in-residence at the University of Nebraska, where they pursued doctorates in chamber music performance under the guidance of the Chiara String Quartet.

Suffice it to say, they’re pretty qualified musicians. And lucky for us, they recently relocated to Seattle to continue their work as contemporary classical performers, teachers, and collaborators.

You can catch Skyros in action on Friday, May 27 at our annual Second Inversion Showcase at Northwest Folklife, along with Sound of Late and the Westerlies. In the meantime, we sat down with the quartet to talk about classical music, cultural heritages, and #casualfridays:

Second Inversion: How would you describe or characterize your ensemble’s sound?

skyros-018James Moat: Whether we’re playing Mozart, Beethoven, Shostakovich, or Ruben Naeff’s “Jackass,” our group strives to create a sound world that is true to the nature of the composer.

When performing the classics, we have help from history to determine what kind of character and sound we’re looking for in our performance. When playing modern works, we’ve always taken every opportunity to work directly with the composer. This type of collaboration is always interesting because the composer has a chance to work with us to find the sound that they want, and we also have a chance to provide them with our own interpretations. The result is a wonderful blend of everyone’s artistic contributions.

SI: The Pacific Northwest is really blossoming in the contemporary classical music sphere—what do you think makes our music scene here so unique?

skyros-024+-+Version+2Willie Braun: Contemporary classical music in Seattle is more than just a sphere or scene, it’s a whole community of composers, performers, and audiences who are passionate about sharing the experience of new music. Having recently moved to the Seattle area last fall, our quartet has felt very welcomed into this community. It is refreshing to see so many artists collaborating, working together, and supporting one another to create music rather than compete for audiences.

The result is a diverse community representing many unique spectrums of contemporary classical music. Seattleites are great audiences, ready and willing to try something new. Going back a few decades, Seattle has a rich history of supporting innovation in music (i.e. grunge) and audiences here are still eager to explore new sounds and experiences.

SI: Northwest Folklife strengthens local communities through art and music, celebrating diverse cultural heritages and working to ensure their continued growth and development. What types of communities or music traditions are represented in your music?

Matching+headshot1Sarah Pizzichemi: The classic canon of string quartet literature is a melting pot of Western art music and a diverse range of influences from Balinese gamelan and Russian folk music, to American jazz and the Finnish national epic poem. The intimate yet universal appeal of four voices in conversation through the timbral spectrum of the string instrument family has made it an ideal medium for composers to record their most cherished musical thoughts, and a way to celebrate many cultural heritages in one masterwork.

We consider ourselves above all else collaborators, and we especially like to work with living composers who are continuing this tradition of musical globalization through the lens of today’s experiences. As an ensemble we also directly explore specific musical traditions like Celtic, Americana, pop culture, film scores, and different types of folk music in contexts like our #casualfriday series on Facebook and YouTube.

SI: As Seattleites, what does the annual Northwest Folklife Festival mean to you?

Sarah Pizzichemi: Skyros Quartet just moved to the Seattle area in September, but I personally was born and raised here. Some of my earliest memories are coming to Folklife to hear the cornucopia of different kinds of music. My parents were fans of world and folk music, so it was so influential for me to hear live ensembles and bands playing such a diverse range of music all in one setting.

As a junior high school student I participated in Folklife as an Irish Dancer, and as a high schooler, I would come to Folklife with other musician friends and we would busk near the Center House playing Shostakovich quartets. I will never forget the invigorating feeling of catching the attention of passersby with the ferocious second movement of the Eighth String Quartet!

I’ve continued to make memories with friends at Folklife, especially visiting the Trad Stage, as I have quite a few friends in the Celtic music circuit. I can’t wait for this year and the special opportunity to share my passion of contemporary classical music with Folklife audiences.

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

skyros+063Justin Kurys: As a quartet, we are very passionate about reaching and connecting with new audiences. As this is our first time performing at Folklife, we are looking forward to interacting with the diverse audience this type of event attracts!

Performances are always at their best when a connection with the audience is created. We hope to engage the audience and create a musical landscape for them to take a journey with us as we perform a very interesting and varied show. The music we will perform shows a different side of art music from what is generally conceived of when people think of classical art music, so we hope that this inspires thought and emotion that is somewhat unexpected from the audience coming into this.

The Skyros Quartet will be featured along with Sound of Late and the Westerlies at our 2nd Annual Second Inversion Showcase at Folklife on Friday, May 27 at 8 p.m. For more information, please click here or RSVP to our Facebook event.

New Music Concerts: May 2016 Seattle * Eastside * Tacoma

SI_button2Second Inversion and the Live Music Project create a monthly calendar featuring contemporary classical, cross-genre, and experimental performances in Seattle, the Eastside, Tacoma, and places in between! 

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Keep an eye out for our this flyer in concert programs and coffee shops around town. Feel free to download, print, and distribute it yourself! If you’d like to be included on this list drop us a line at least 6 weeks prior to the event.

Program Insert - May 2016(updated) - onesided

 

 

Racer Sessions
A weekly showcase of original music with a jam session based on the concepts in the opening presentation.
Every Sunday, 8-10pm, Cafe Racer | FREE

Wayward Music Series
Concerts of contemporary composition, free improvisation, electronic/electroacoustic music, & more.
Various days, 7:30/8pm, Good Shepherd Chapel | $5-15

1
Noise Yoga with John Teske
Noise Yoga is a series of yoga classes that combine the meditative intentionality of yoga with the sonic depth of live performance by local musicians
Sun, 5/1, 11:30am, Frye Art Museum | $10

5
Josh Archibald-Seiffer + Ania Stachurska
UW composers Josh Archibald-Seiffer & Ania Stachurska present works with themes spanning political civil war, children’s lit, language, & the uncanny.
Thurs, 5/5, 8pm, Good Shepherd Chapel | $5-$15

6
Seattle Composers’ Salon
Composers, performers, & audience gather in a casual setting that allows for experimentation & discussion of finished works & works in progress.
Fri, 5/6, 8pm, Good Shepherd Chapel | $5-$15

6-8
The Esoterics: Milton Babbitt
A celebration of Babbitt’s centenary featuring his entire catalog of a cappella choruses, several of which have never been performed in live concert.
Fri, 5/6, 8pm, St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, Seattle | $15-$20
Sat, 5/7, 8pm, Holy Rosary Church, West Seattle | $15-$20
Sun, 5/8, 7pm, Christ Episcopal Church, Tacoma | $15-$20

7
Seattle Wind Symphony: American Places
Donald K. Miller leads the SWS in a program of Donald Grantham, William Schuman, Eric Whitacre, Ron Nelson, and more.
Sat, 5/7, 7:30pm, Shorewood Performing Arts Center | $5-$20

7/8
Seattle Rock Orchestra performs Neil Diamond
SRO celebrates the man, the myth, the legend: Neil Diamond. SRO will explore his entire catalogue, performing hidden gems and revered hits alike.
Sat, 5/7, 8pm, The Moore Theatre | $20-$37.50 (+ fees)
Sun, 5/8, 2pm, The Moore Theatre | $20-$37.50 (+ fees)

10
Inverted Space: Long Piece Fest
A double-header concert featuring two commissions from Seattle composers Kevin Baldwin and Takemitsu prize-winner Yigit Kolat.
Tues, 5/10, 7:30pm, Good Shepherd Chapel | $5-$15

13
Seattle Symphony: Sonic Evolution: This is Indie!
This concert features Michael Gordon, William Brittle, Tomoko Mukaiyama, Fly Moon Royalty & Filmmaker Bill Morrison. Co-Presented With SIFF.
Fri, 5/13, 8pm, Benaroya Hall | $25-$52

20/21
Universal Language Project: The Elements
An interactive event featuring visual artist Scott Kolbo and iconoclast band TORCH.
Fri, 5/20, 8pm, Resonance at SOMA Towers, Bellevue | $10-$25
Sat, 5/21, 8pm, Velocity Dance Center | $15-$25

21
Kirkland Choral Society: Luminous
KCS premieres a commission from Ola Gjeilo plus many Gjeilo favorites from previous concerts and will be joined by the Skyros Quartet.
Sat, 5/21, 7:30pm, Bastyr University Chapel | $15-$20

21
SMCO Season Finale: Mozart, Carter, Ligeti, and Haydn
Seattle Met. Chamber Orchestra welcomes Cristina Valdes, Matthew Kocmieroski & Maria Mannisto – 3 soloists in high demand for contemporary music!
Sat, 5/21, 8pm, First Free Methodist Church | $15-$20

22
Music of Remembrance: Jake Heggie’s Out of Darkness
This two-act opera and portrait of survival conveys the vastness of the Holocaust’s scope through emotionally rich depictions of those caught in its grasp.
Sun, 5/22, 4pm, Benaroya Hall | $30-$45 ($5 TeenTix)

24
Town Music at Town Hall: Season Finale
Joshua Roman, Arnaud Sussman, Karen Gomyo, & Kyle Armbrust will perform Britten’s String Quartet No. 2 and a commissioned piece by Andrius Zlabys.
Tues, 5/24, 7:30pm, Town Hall | $5-$25

27
Second Inversion Showcase at Folklife
Join us for Second Inversion’s 2nd annual showcase at Northwest Folklife! We’ll feature bi-coastal musicians and local favorites alike.
Fri, 5/27, 8pm, Center House Stage | FREE