CONCERT PREVIEW: Q&A with Andrew Waggoner (Seattle Modern Orchestra)

Seattle Modern Orchestra opens its 2016-17 season with a concert featuring works by three composers who reflect on the past, both personal and cultural, to create an expressive piece of music for today. Both celebrated German composer Wolfgang Rihm and Lithuanian composer Vykintas Baltakas recontextualize ideas from other works in their respective catalogs, with a language of gesture linking us to past traditions.


We had the great pleasure of chatting with Andrew Waggoner, the third composer on the program, whose Concerto for Piano will be premiered by Grammy-winning pianist Gloria Cheng:

Second Inversion: How did the collaboration between you, Gloria Cheng, and Seattle Modern Orchestra come about?


Gloria Cheng. PC:

Andrew Waggoner:
My relationships to Gloria and to Julia and the SMO are representative of what I love most in my compositional life: the chance to work over many years with small and intersecting groups of close friends who are also beautiful artists. Gloria and I met in 1989 when I went to Los Angeles for concerts with the L.A. Phil. Soon after that we started working together on a range of projects, including two large-scale solo piano pieces I composed for her and the durable, collaborative L.A. series Piano Spheres. She also picked up another piano piece that I had written for myself as a kind of compositional etude and gave its first performances, just because she liked the piece. Everything she does, from her Grammy-winning disk of Stucky, Salonen and Lutoslawski, to the concerto she’s premiering with the SMO, is a labor of love, which is one of the main things I love about her.

I met Julia through Michael Jinsoo Lim. Both Mike and Melia Watras knew Julia well from her time at UDub, and Mike had performed the Scelsi violin concerto with her and the SMO. He suggested that we meet and so we did, and almost immediately started looking for ways to work together. Julia and Mike collaborated on the premiere of my violin concerto with Philharmonia Northwest, another labor of love! The piece had been commissioned by an orchestra in the UK, then had gone begging for four years before Julia picked it up. Once Gloria and I had decided the time was right for a concerto we offered it first to Julia and the SMO and were thrilled when she responded with an enthusiastic “yes!” (this both for the idea of the piece and for the chance to work with Gloria!).


Julia Tai. PC: Amy Vandergon Photgraphy.

Gloria was also part of the original personnel for our group Open End, with Mike; Melia; my wife, cellist Caroline Stinson; and me, so the Seattle connection is deep and multifaceted.

SI: What does it mean to you to be working with such a young, yet thriving, ensemble here in Seattle on the premiere of your piano concerto?

AW: I’m deeply honored to work with the SMO. Everything about the group, from the scope of its season to the depth of its programming, is unique on the current new music scene. To commit to doing full concerts of large, sinfonietta-scale works, many of which are among the most sophisticated in recent memory, is really remarkable. There’s not a whiff of political convenience or professional grandstanding in anything they do; as a composer one feels safely tucked into a program of complete integrity, one that, at the same time, is vivid, exciting and welcoming to the audience. That the group exists in Seattle and not New York is telling, and a wonderful corrective to the (still weirdly persistent) notion that the East is where it’s at. Not so!


Seattle Modern Orchestra. PC: Amy Vandergon Photgraphy.

SI: What would be helpful for audiences to know about the piece before hearing it? And what kind of impression do you hope to leave?

AW: Probably the most important thing for the audience to know in advance about the concerto is that it is highly personal; I was well into composing it when it occurred to me that it’s very much a diary piece. This was unintentional, but is certainly an outgrowth both of the depth of my affection for Gloria and her playing, and of my relationship to concerto writing in general: I can’t get anywhere with a concerto until I know who the soloist is, that is, who the instrument is in dramatic terms. I need to hear the instrument’s voice as a character with a whole backstory that defines its expressive personality. Once I have that the piece takes shape fairly quickly, and in this case it became clear that the backstory was in large part mine, and that the piano both gives voice to and comments upon that story over the course of the piece. The piano, then, is a trusted friend with her own emotional response to what is, at least to some degree, a shared history.

The large-scale trajectory of the piece takes the listener from an interlacing of dream- and waking-states, sometimes violently juxtaposed; through an extended rumination on the necessity and challenge of compassion, for others and for oneself, that seems to grow directly from the dream encounters of the first movement; to an extended reminiscence that has a kind of incandescent quality, called Quantum Memoir. While I was deep in the heart of this movement we lost Steven Stucky, one of the strongest, most significant musical voices of the last 40 years, and a very close friend and mentor. Steve, then, impresses himself upon this memoir that seems to be inscribed in pulsating quanta. Exactly how is difficult to say, but I feel him there, and so the movement is dedicated to him.

Both the first and second movements jump off from literary points of reference, Carl Jung’s The Red Book in the first, Whitman’s poem Reconciliation in the second, at the center of which are these lines:
For my enemy is dead—a man divine as myself is dead;
I look where he lies, white-faced and still, in the coffin—I draw near;
I bend down, and touch lightly with my lips the white face in the coffin.

As for the impression I’d like to leave, it’s fairly simple: I want listeners to have an experience that is both strange and beautiful. Strange in that they feel pulled in a direction, to a place, they would neither have anticipated nor, perhaps, chosen for themselves; beautiful in that when they’re in it they find that they’re happy for it, even if they can’t quite say how or why.


PC: Amy Vandergon Photgraphy.

SI: Outside of any concert-related activities, what are you looking forward to doing in Seattle while you’re in town?

AW: I’m looking forward to seeing friends and to eating at Poppy! Beyond that, I’ll be there with my son Henry, who came with me the last time I was in town for the violin concerto with Julia and Mike. He and I can’t wait to: visit the aquarium; eat Top Pot doughnuts; and swim in the local pools.


PC: Amy Vandergon Photgraphy.

SI: What’s next for you this season?

AW: On the near horizon is another piano piece; and a new movement for a six-voice chanson I wrote two seasons ago for the virtuoso vocal collective Ekmeles, based on a poem by my oldest daughter Sally Williams. This coming spring will see the premiere of a new string octet, Ce morceau de tissu, for two string quartets, (inspired by the writing of Fatima Mernissi) commissioned by the Lark Quartet for their 30th anniversary. The first performances will be given by the current and founding Larks, in Weill Hall at Carnegie on May 1st, and next season at the Schubert Club in Saint Paul. After that I’ll spend some quality time writing songs, and get started on a new orchestra piece that will be in some way be constellated around Michelle Alexander’s epic (and shattering) study, The New Jim Crow.

Seattle Modern Orchestra’s season opener is Thursday, November 3 at 8 p.m. at the Chapel Performance Space at the Good Shepherd Center in Wallingford. For information and tickets, please click here.

From John Cage to Afro-Cuban Jazz: Concerts You Do NOT Want to Miss This Season

by Maggie Molloy

Ahh, fall. The leaves are changing, the rain is sprinkling, the sky is cloudy, and the pumpkin spice marketing is in full swing. Those hot summer days are finally behind us and we’re back to our familiar, cozy, flannel-covered fall in Seattle. After all, October is a time for new beginnings, new adventures, and—most importantly—new music.


Seattle’s 2016-2017 concert season is jam-packed with fresh new music of every shape, style, and structure (or lack thereof). From John Cage to Afro-Cuban jazz,  Astor Piazzolla to Andy Warhol, Benjamin Britten to Brazilian poetry—there is something for everyone. Here are some of our top picks for the season:

On Stage with KING FM: Second Inversion is thrilled to host two concerts this year as part of the second season of On Stage with Classical KING FM! In March, we’ll present the Seattle Marimba Quartet with an eclectic program of classical favorites, modern marimba repertoire, and interactive drumming rhythms drawing from Afro-Cuban, Brazilian, and African musical traditions.

Then in May, back by popular demand, we present the Seattle Rock Orchestra Quintet with the mesmerizing Tamara Power-Drutis for a program that transforms pop songs into art songs, reimagining both classic and modern tunes as intimate chamber works for the recital hall. Check out our videos from last season for a sneak-peek of what you can expect.


Seattle Symphony: Ditch the conventional concert-going experience of strict seating, fancy attire, and three-hour long performances with Seattle Symphony’s [Untitled] concert series. This season you can catch landmark works by Witold Lutosławski (arguably Poland’s most innovative composer since Chopin), drench yourself in the dramatic soundscapes of Polish composer and singer Agata Zubel, explore the wide-ranging musical styles of Soviet era composers, and even enter into the twisted worlds of two of America’s most confounding cultural icons: pop artist Andy Warhol and jazz pianist Thelonious Monk.

And speaking of jazz: Seattle Symphony will also co-present their annual Sonic Evolution concert with Earshot Jazz this November. Grace Love and the Garfield High School Jazz Band join the symphony for an evening celebrating two extraordinary Seattle musicians: the incomparable composer and record producer Quincy Jones and the legendary blues singer Ernestine Anderson, both of whom attended Garfield High School.

Untitled Concert

Meany Center for the Performing Arts: Formerly known as the UW World Series, Meany Center is still just as committed as ever to bringing music from around the world to their Seattle stage. In November, they’ll feature the Grammy-nominated Imani Winds quintet, known around the globe for their dynamic playing, culturally conscious programming, and adventurous collaborations. Argentine tango composer Astor Piazzolla, Cuban-born jazz saxophonist Paquito D’Rivera, and Palestinian-American oud and violin virtuoso Simon Shaheen are just a few of the composers listed on this program.

In January, the New York-based Jack Quartet presents an evening of composed and improvised music along with visiting artists from the internationally acclaimed Six Tones Ensemble and UW School of Music faculty members Richard Karpen, Juan Pampin, Cuong Vu, and Ted Poor. And if you can’t make it to these concerts, don’t sweat—Second Inversion will be broadcasting them live on our online stream.


John Cage Musicircus: Come one, come all to the John Cage Musicircus this November 19! This multimedia concert “happening” features over over 60 musicians, dancers, performance artists, and poets simultaneously performing pieces from Cage’s expansive body of work, including the Sonatas and Interludes for prepared piano, In a Landscape for (unprepared) piano, Child of Tree for amplified cactus, Third Construction for unorthodox percussion instruments, Cartridge Music for amplified small sounds, 45’ For A Speaker for spoken voice, and much more!

Performers will be stationed all over Town Hall, with audience members encouraged to explore how the sonic and visual experience shifts as they wander freely throughout the building. Plus, Second Inversion’s own Maggie Molloy will present the pre-concert lecture, perform two piano works, and distribute free copies of her John Cage Diary series as a zine for audience members to take home!

john-cage-musicircusNorth Corner Chamber Orchestra: Celebrate those cozy winter nights with NOCCO’s annual Solstice Celebration, this year featuring the music of Stravinsky, Respighi, Bach, and Seattle composer Angelique Poteat. Then in February for Black History Month, NOCCO performs a program featuring a newly commissioned work by local composer Hanna Brenn and performance artist C. Davida Ingram alongside classics by two Pulitzer Prize-winning African American composers: Scott Joplin and George Walker. And in April, their season wraps up with a brand new world premiere by NOCCO’s principal clarinetist and composer, Sean Osborn, along with well-loved works by Rossini and Haydn.

noccoSeattle Modern Orchestra: These guys are starting their season off with a bang: three new premieres by living composers. First, a U.S. premiere by Lithuanian composer Vykintas Baltakas, then a West Coast premiere by German composer Wolfgang Rihm, followed by a world premiere by American composer Andrew Waggoner featuring Grammy-winning guest pianist Gloria Cheng.

The rest of the season features cutting-edge collaborations with University of Washington’s Solaris Vocal Ensemble and the Paris-based clarinetist Carol Robinson, a world premiere by SMO co-artistic director Jérémy Jolley, the 80th birthday of legendary Seattle trombonist Stuart Dempster, the 90th birthday of renowned Seattle clarinetist and composer William O. “Bill” Smith, and the centennial celebration of American composer Robert Erickson.

gloria-chengUniversal Language Project: ULP is back for another season of interdisciplinary and out-of-the-box collaborations between 21st century musicians and artists of all disciplines. In October: a multi-media work by Marcus Oldham about racial reconciliation (featuring Second Inversion regulars the Skyros Quartet). In January, composer Chris Stover showcases his works for chamber jazz ensemble featuring spoken word, found sounds, and dance inspired by Brazilian poets. Then in March, the season wraps up with a surreal, outer space-inspired performance featuring artist Erin Jorgensen with local musicians, the overtones of her 5-octave marimba merging with intimate whispering and beautifully minimal music in a small stab towards enlightenment.

erin-jorgensenEmerald City Music: Now in its inaugural season, Emerald City Music is on a mission to make classical chamber music accessible to broader audiences in Seattle and Olympia. And they’re not wasting any time: their inaugural season features 45 renowned guest artists from around the world. Each of the concerts offers a uniquely thematic glimpse into the chamber music repertory, featuring classical masterworks and newly composed music alike. Bookended by concerts featuring familiar works by Bach and Beethoven, this year you can also expand your classical music palette with cutting-edge performances of works by the likes of Henri Dutilleux, Thomas Adès, Benjamin Britten, Bohuslav Martinů, Percy Grainger, David Schiff, Per Nørgård, Ryan Francis, Thomas Koppel, and more.

dover-quartetTown Music Series: Curated by Second Inversion Artistic Advisor Joshua Roman, the Town Music Series programs cutting-edge and virtuosic chamber works which bring together the best of old and new classical traditions. Their 2016-2017 season kicks off with cellist Joshua Roman joined by violinist Caroline Goulding for an evening of dynamic duets by Halvorsen, Kodály, and Ravel. Stay tuned for details on the rest of the season!

joshua-romanWayward Music Series: If you’ve got wayward or otherwise unconventional music taste, the Wayward Music Series will keep you satiated all year long. Check their online calendar or subscribe to their newsletter for specifics on upcoming events, which span the new music gamut from contemporary classical to the outer limits of jazz, electroacoustic experiments to explorations of the avant-garde, eccentric instruments to unorthodox sound art, multimedia collaborations and much more.

wayward-music-seriesThese are just a handful of the new music happenings we’re most looking forward to this season—for more up-to-the-minute details on experimental, avant-garde, and otherwise unconventional music events around the Northwest, check out Second Inversion’s full event calendar!

ALBUM REVIEW: Alarm Will Sound’s Modernists

by Geoffrey Larson


The always-adventurous Alarm Will Sound is an ensemble that seems equally hungry for fun as they are for musical innovation. The music on their latest release seems to benefit from an approach that eschews austerity, focusing on what an incredibly good time it is for a virtuosic ensemble like AWS to perform music of such a level of fascination and complexity.

The album is cleverly bookended by contemporary takes on Varèse modernism, beginning with music that started life as a Beatles track, no less. Musique concrète and the avant-garde influenced John Lennon and Paul McCartney in the creation of their experimental track Revolution 9. McCartney was listening to quite a bit of Varèse and Stockhausen at the time, and Yoko Ono’s modernist aesthetic was also a guiding force on Lennon, who said he was trying to paint a picture of a revolution using sound. Although Matt Marks’ arrangement begins with the basic repeated building blocks of the Beatles track (a looping “Number 9” vocal sample and a piano melody), he quickly moves away from what would become an extremely annoying repetition. We are swiftly thrust into a kaleidoscopic world of similar musique concrète-like materials presented with increasing variety: samples of speech and crowd noise, short fragments of abbreviated melody, and instrumental effects that seem to mimic tapes being played backwards. The dark, noir-like feel of the first half of the track seems to veer towards a more chaotic depiction of revolutionary activity, and the ensemble is brought together at the conclusion with unified, purposeful chanting. Whatever one would call this music, it is a fascinating mix of sounds that not only reminds us of the awesome powers of a small chamber ensemble, but also connect the expressive qualities of conventional instruments with the speaking (and yelling) human voice. It is relentlessly striking, and although I am not always a fan of abrupt swerves in approach throughout a short piece, it absolutely is successful here.

In the middle, we experience a more introspective Augusta Reed Thomas, flanked with good old (new?) contemporary music party time. I saw Charles Wuorinen’s Big Spinoff live in 2014, and found the virtuosity and romping rhythms that drive the work to be intoxicating. It’s a work that unmistakably shares some DNA with John Adams’ two chamber symphonies, in all their banging rhythm and cartoonish runs of notes. The percussive, endlessly riffing texture is pretty non-stop with little variation, however, making us ready for something new by the time we get to Augusta Reed Thomas’ Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour. That next track features two texts, the titular Wallace Stevens poem and The Poem that Took the Place of a Mountain by the same author. The English text is spoken and sung, and explores the godliness of artistic creation and imagination, among other things. Without a doubt, we are in the midst of a theatrical experience here, and staging and lighting effects immediately come to mind when we hear the wispy curtain backdrop of instrumental sound. Alarm Will Sound changes gear again in the following track, where disjunct saxophone melodies introduce Wolfgang Rihm’s Will Sound, a technically challenging work written specifically for AWS (duh). It is atonal nearly to the point of serialism, which makes the surprising major and minor chords at the very end that much more neat and quirky. Alarm Will Sound under the direction of Alan Pierson is tremendously well-organized in its technical outbursts, but those startling chords at the conclusion would have had an even more powerful effect if had they been perfectly in tune. Masterful displays of technique abound on the succeeding track as well, as do moments of unsettled intonation. John Orfe’s Journeyman rounds out the core of this album with music that uses some seriously wacky combinations of instruments, seeming to evoke things like a local carnival ride, a Broadway opening, and a train.

At the end of the collection, we get Evan Hause’s ambitious acoustic re-imagining of Edgar Varèse’s Poème électronique. The original is one of Varèse’s most famous works, conceived to be part of an architectural installation by Le Corbusier at the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair. The swooping, beeping, and thumping electronic sounds have been given to the ensemble here, sort of a Poème analogique. We’ve even got a bit of singing, somehow even creepier in this arrangement than the original. Honestly, it’s an amazing arrangement executed to stunning effect by AWS; listening to Varèse’s original, it’s hard to believe that such an interesting musical feat could possibly be successful. Acoustic instruments seem to bring out more shades of character than the all-electronic sounds of the original: the bizarre, schizoid sounds are now somehow augmented with humor and intimacy.

That’s the triumph of AWS’s latest recording in a nutshell: these composers and this ensemble are able to take modernism, with its strange, confusing soundscape, and make it personable and relatable. This kind of music is probably not something you want in your life every day; but when you need it, it’s there, and it’s an amazingly good time.


Photo credit: Cory Weaver