ALBUM OF THE WEEK: Martin Scherzinger’s African Math

by Martin Scherzinger (guest post)

302706The ground rule for this music was toadapt sounds located at the heart of the classic western instrumentarium to the performance techniques of instruments found in Africa. I have long taken an interest in the interface design of technical devices and their relation to the human body — the way they choreograph tactility and action, and thereby, in the case of musical instruments, comport sound patterning in specific ways. The mbira dza vadzimu from Zimbabwe, for example, a kind of digital musical device with iron keys protruding from a sound board, differs strikingly from the modern industrial piano in various respects. Like the piano, the mbira construes music on the model of a keyboard, but its template inverts the left-to-right arrangement of low-to-high notes found on the piano. With the mbira, the low notes are clustered toward the center of the template, with the higher notes fanning off to the edges. This reflects the biological symmetry of the two hands, a very different conception to that found on the left-right orientation of the piano keyboard.

Arguably, the piano was designed to integrate the qualitative differences between the five fingers – from the binary phalanges of the pollex (thumb) to the ternary ones of the digitus mi’nimus ma’nus, etc. – with the quantitative equality of the keyboard’s parallel components. A number of assumptions informed this design. Facility, for example, was associated with the upper notes of the right hand, where the faster-moving passages of music were generally to be found. Also, the thumb was construed as clumsier than the other four fingers, and in early keyboard performance, eliminated from fingering patterns altogether. The same marginalization of the thumb can be seen in the interface design of the QWERTY typewriter. The mbira dza vadzimu reverses the psychology of the assymetry found in piano design in two respects. First, it paradoxically favores left-handedness (the left-hand side of the mbira has two manuals, while the right-hand side has only one), and, second, it deploys the thumb alone to strike all the keys. (Of course, it is now clear that recent western industrial technologies, such as the iPhone, and so on, have since discovered that we can all adapt our typing hands to the mbira-style with equal facility, but this was not always the case!).

In the battle for path dependency of industrial standards, we often find one kind of technical arrangement dominating another, which creates a kind of technological lock-in. Despite the many updates during the past three hundred years, it is surprising to observe how similar Bartolomeo Cristofori’s 1709 invention is to the modern piano of today. More surprising still is the capacious stability of its interface design in technologies no longer controlled by criteria oriented to the task of integrating equidistant mechanical components with the tactility range of digiti extending from human hands. No longer situated at the crossroads of technics and flesh – a once productive mélange of key, code, signal, hammer, hand, finger, and ear – musical time today is nonetheless still held in the arms of its code.

From the pitch lattices grounding current popular music to the sound designs of commercial ambience; from the programs underwriting MIDI audio beeps, alarms, recorded voices and ringtones to software applications for iPhones and iPads that enable users to create sound compositions, auditory experience today is increasingly marked by a subset of discrete tones that fit on a standardized modular grid. The piano’s coded key template has become immortalized as the archetypal digital representation scheme for musical form in our times – a Platonic object.

In contrast, the mbira-type instrument is fast losing ground as an organizational principle for making music today. Traditionally played in pairs, with four hands, one mbira player interlocks (within the spaces of) the other. The woven arrangement produces a particular kind of ratchet-wheel aleatorics, which issues figures of asynchronous sound. Not only is the motor image of the striking fingers radically delinked from the acoustic image that comes to ear, but musical lines issue forth as ventriloquism. The mbira writes sound by throwing lines of unplayed material; a parallel polyphony that escapes the supervision of its makers. I point this out because, along the way, for all the incredible affordances of the piano, we are losing these techniques for making sounds and patterns as certain systems of coded relationships become technologically locked-in.

So, African Math is an attempt to bring some of these techniques to the piano, as well as to the stringed instruments. In the first movement, for example, the cello is made to imitate a technique of plucking and stopping found in single-string bow music from the Kalahari region; in the second movement we inhabit the world of the Basotho accordion, and so on. As I mention in the notes on the disc, with the arrival of pianos, guitars and accordions in the colonies, Africans have long adapted industrial western instruments to great effect. The accordion music of the Basotho, for example, tends to take advantage of the complementary pitch sets inherent to the instrument in ways that reflect African interlocking techniques. It is, in this sense, Africanized.

When I was growing up in South Africa, I remember how African pianists at the local music school approached works of the great European masters, with a rich and strange inflection. It is not easy to define the approach they took, but perhaps one can speak here of a change in focus from figure/ground relations to all-over-pattern. Instead of bringing long range structural lines and harmonic schemata to the fore, the African approach finds inspiration in the texture of the figures, their manner of weaving, the surface as cloth. The music is also often a little faster or slower than the median tempi found in the west. Perhaps one may even say the African approach hears music, not as developmental or goal-directed, but as continuous and cyclic. Perhaps it becomes a kind of present tense music. But it becomes other things too, bearing resemblances across time and space, like speaking German Biedermeier with a Tswana or Zulu accent.

LIVE CONCERT SPOTLIGHT: April 17-26

by Maggie Molloy

This week’s marvelous music calendar has everything from minimalism to medieval poetry!

Pianist R. Andrew Lee Performs Shepard, Knight, Evans, and Gibson

andrewleephoto1-600x400For pianist R. Andrew Lee, less is more. Throughout his career, he has garnered critical acclaim as one of the foremost interpreters of minimal music.  But despite the genre’s somewhat misleading title, minimalism is anything but basic.

“I am entranced by the invitation that minimal music offers the listener,” Lee says. “Rather than pushing and pulling listeners through a piece—manipulating us (no matter how deftly) into some experience—minimal music presents an invitation to explore a musical space slowly and carefully. Where Beethoven gave us drama that touches our souls, for which we rightly praise him, minimal music gives us a sunset, and we gaze in wonder.”

This weekend, Lee is coming to Seattle to share two evenings of newly commissioned minimal music. The Friday program opens with a performance of Craig Shepard’s “December,” an exploration into the rumbling overtones of just a few bass notes on the piano. Lee will also perform the world premiere of two new works: local composer Nat Evans’ improvisatory “Desert Ornamentation” for piano and electronics and Adrian Knight’s “Obsessions,” a piece which explores stubborn habits, routines, patterns, and, well, obsessions.

Saturday evening features a performance of Randy Gibson’s immersive “The Four Pillars Appearing from the Equal D under Resonating Apparitions of the Eternal Process in the Midwinter Starfield.” The only thing longer than the title is the piece itself—it’s over three hours! But don’t worry, it doesn’t drone on. Rather, the ambient drone piece creates an entrancing melodic soundscape by patiently exploring the overtones of each D on the piano, in combinations and alone, with the aid of electronics.

The performances are this Friday, April 17 at 8 p.m. and Saturday, April 18 at 7 p.m. at the Chapel Performance Space at the Good Shepherd Center in Wallingford.

Turtle Island Quartet and Simple Measures: It’s Island Time

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Take a much needed vacation from the April showers with a trip to Turtle Island—Turtle Island Quartet, that is. This weekend you can relax to the soothing sounds of this Grammy Award-winning ensemble whose innovative and eclectic music combines the best of classical and jazz.

Since the quartet’s inception nearly 30 years ago, they have cultivated a massive and diverse body of repertoire consisting primarily of original compositions and arrangements by quartet members. This weekend, they are joining forces with musicians from Seattle’s own Simple Measures classical chamber music group to present an evening of captivating “clazzical” music, including a works composed by Turtle Island violinist David Balakrishnan and cellist Mark Summers, as well as octets by the Beatles, Darius Milhaud, and more!

The performances are this Friday, April 17 at Town Hall at 7:30 p.m.and Sunday, April 19 at Mt. Baker Community Club at 2 p.m.


Donald Byrd’s “Carmina Burana” World Premiere

Carmina-Slider2-1024x689When you hear the word “cantata,” you probably think of an old-fashioned, early 17th century vocal work used for church services or other religious occasions—and you’d be correct. But the 20th-century German composer Carl Orff updated this antiquated musical medium in 1935 when he composed his scenic cantata “Carmina Burana,” a 25-movement vocal work based on 24 poems from the medieval poetry collection of the same name.

And now, Seattle’s own Spectrum Dance Theatre is pushing the piece even further: this weekend they are presenting the world premiere of choreographer Donald Byrd’s fully staged “Carmina Burana” in a co-production with Seattle Theatre Group. Byrd reimagines Orff’s popular work, combining music and dance to illustrate a larger narrative: the journey from doubt and disillusionment to restoration of faith in humankind. The performance is scored for two pianos, percussion, and voice, featuring the operatic expertise of singers Cyndia Sieden and José Rubio.

Performances are next Thursday, April 23 through Saturday, April 25 at the Moore Theater. Doors open at 7 p.m. and the show begins at 8 p.m. A matinee show will also take place on Sunday, April 26. Doors open at 1 p.m. and the show begins at 2 p.m.

The Esoterics Present “AGONIA”

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When it comes to expressing the most intimate human experiences of pain and suffering, few artistic media are as compelling as the human voice. But the voice can also be a powerful tool for expressing compassion, joy, and release—and as it turns out, suffering and reprieve are deeply intertwined. This weekend, the Esoterics are performing three modern choral masterworks inspired by medieval poetry on the theme of agony and liberation.

 

The Esoterics’ “AGONIA” program begins with Russian composer Alfred Schnittke’s ghostly, mystical “Verses of Repentance,” a piece which explores contrasts between dark and light, chaos and control, sin and salvation. Next is American composer Ned Rorem’s haunting cycle of madrigals, titled “In Time of Pestilence.” The program ends with the tragic lament and ultimate triumph of South African-born English composer John Joubert’s “Pro Pace Motets.”

“AGONIA” is next Friday, April 24 at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Seattle at 8 p.m. The Esoterics will also perform their “AGONIA” program at Christ Episcopal Church in Tacoma next Saturday, April 25 at 7:30 p.m. and at Holy Rosary Catholic Church in West Seattle next Sunday, April 26 at 3 p.m.

ALBUM REVIEW: Turtle Island Quartet’s Confetti Man

by Maggie Molloy

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According to Native American folklore, Sky Woman fell down to the Earth long ago, back when it was entirely covered by water. Realizing that she could not survive in the water, the surrounding sea creatures dug up dirt from the bottom of the ocean in order to create land for her. They placed this dirt on the shell of a giant turtle—and eventually this turtle grew into Turtle Island, the land known today as North America.

This tale is a powerful symbol not only for creation, spirituality, and environmental awareness, but also for coexistence and community. It is a story which celebrates and synthesizes both old and new cultural traditions—a broader theme which the Turtle Island Quartet strives to explore through their music.

The Turtle Island Quartet is a Grammy Award-winning ensemble whose innovative and eclectic sound infuses a classical string quartet aesthetic with contemporary musical influences such as jazz, folk, funk, be-bop, bluegrass, Latin American groove, and Indian classical.

Based in the San Francisco Bay Area, the quartet is comprised of violinists David Balakrishnan and Mateusz Smoczynski, violist Benjamin von Gutzeit, and cellist Mark Summer. Since the group’s inception in 1985, they have cultivated a vast and wide-ranging repertoire consisting primarily of original compositions and arrangements by quartet members.

And after 30 years as an ensemble, the group certainly has cause for celebration: they recently released their 15th studio album, “Confetti Man.” The 10-track disc is a collection of original compositions, arrangements, and commissioned works.

The two-movement title track, written by Balakrishnan, integrates elements of classical with jazz, bluegrass, folk, and even a touch of Indian musical influences. The dynamic mixture of musical styles from across history (and across the world!) is meant to reflect the computer age, where everything is fast-paced and at our fingertips. Inspired by his wife’s painting depicted on the album cover, the piece explores a wide range of vibrant melodic material, as if traveling through a musical museum of different cultures and time periods, often blurring the line between musical traditions past and present, near and far.

The title track is followed up with “Windspan,” written for the quartet by the famous saxophonist Bob Mintzer of the Yellowjackets. As one might expect, the piece harnesses a bold, big band sound featuring some seriously saxophone-like string solos brimming with slides, glides, and bona fide jazz grooves.

Another jazzy showpiece is “La Jicotea,” which was written for the quartet by renowned clarinetist Paquito D’Rivera—a musician who is celebrated as much for his artistry in Latin jazz as for his achievements in the classical music realm. The piece combines both of these strengths, mixing Latin American grooves in unusual meters with a carefully-crafted polyphonic soundscape featuring imaginative musical textures and timbres.

The sweetest and most charming song on the album, though, is certainly Turtle Island’s rendition of the Burt Bacharach and Hal David classic “Send Me No Flowers,” featuring the inimitable Nellie McKay on vocals and ukulele. McKay’s sugary sweet, ’60s-tinged vocals float effortlessly above a darling and delicate string accompaniment.

Another piece with plenty of personality is Balakrishnan’s “Alex in A Major,” which was inspired by his next-door neighbor’s son. The charming and youthful main theme illustrates the boy’s playful and sassy nature, and the piece features both Balakrishnan and Smoczynski as dueling bluegrass fiddlers.

In all, Turtle Island’s “Confetti Man” is a charming and charismatic fusion of imaginatively diverse musical styles, a beautiful reminder that musical traditions old and new can still exist in perfect harmony.

 

LIVE CONCERT SPOTLIGHT: April 9-14

by Maggie Molloy

This week’s crazy concert calendar has burgers, brews, British acousmatics, and Bach!

UW School of Music and DXARTS Presents Jonty Harrison

Jonty Harrison

Jonty Harrison

In today’s innovative arts scene, you can make music from just about anything. Computers, sound clips, found objects—anything is fair game. But in recent decades British composer Jonty Harrison has been pushing the envelope even further, popularizing the notion that perhaps even the concert hall itself can be an instrument of musical expression.

Harrison is highly regarded as one of the central figures behind the British acousmatic school of composition: a type of electroacoustic music which is specifically composed for presentation using speakers as opposed to live performance. In 1982, he founded BEAST (Birmingham ElectroAcoustic Sound Theatre), a sound diffusion system designed to present electronic music over an orchestra of loudspeakers. And this week, he is turning Seattle’s own Meany Theater into a stunning soundscape by presenting a variety of works from throughout his compositional career.

The performance is this Thursday, April 9 at 7:30 p.m. at the University of Washington’s Meany Theater.

Seattle Modern Orchestra Presents 21st Century Violin

21st Century Violin

Graeme Jennings

The violin has been one of the central solo instruments of Western music since the Baroque era—and even now, five centuries later, composers are still finding new ways of exploring this vibrant instrument’s vast sonic possibilities. This weekend, Seattle Modern Orchestra will celebrate a colorful palette of 21st century violin music in a special concert featuring Australian violinist Graeme Jennings.

Jennings will perform the world premiere of a piece written for him by Seattle Modern Orchestra co-Artistic Director, Jérémy Jolley. The piece, titled “Controclessidra,” is scored for violin and electric guitar. Next on the program, Jennings will tackle Luciano Berio’s virtuosic “Sequenza VIII” for solo violin, the U.S. premiere of Salvatore Sciarrino’s translucent “Le Stagioni Artificiali,” and finally, Franco Donatoni’s melodic and modal “Spiri.”

The performance is this Saturday, April 11 at the Chapel Performance Space at the Good Shepherd Center in Wallingford. A pre-concert presentation will begin at 7:30 p.m. and the performance will begin at 8 p.m.

Bach, Brews, and Burgers at Naked City Brewery

Early Music Underground

Early Music Underground

What does Bach have to do with burgers? More than you might think. This weekend, Early Music Underground and Naked City Brewery are teaming up to present “Bach, Brews, and Burgers,” an evening of Baroque music in a not-so-Baroque setting: a local brewery and bar.

The concert setting may be new, but the music is classic—after all, if it’s not Baroque, don’t fix it, right? Feast your ears on the musical works of J.S. Bach, C.P.E. Bach, Johann Fasch, and Frantisek Tuma, performed by flautist Joshua Romatowski, violinist Steve Creswell, bassoonist Ron Evans, and harpsichordist Henry Lebedinsky.

Fun fact: C.P.E. Bach was known as “the Hamburg Bach” since he spent 20 years working as music director at the court in Hamburg, Germany (from which the American “hamburger” is derived). His famous “Hamburger Sonata” is on the program (or should we say menu?) for the evening’s performance.

The concert is next Tuesday, April 14 at 7 p.m. at Naked City Brewery in Greenwood.

For more concert listings, check out Second Inversion’s event calendar.

ALBUM REVIEW: Tristan Perich’s Parallels

by Maggie Molloy

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For many composers, a little bit of musical material can go a long way. For New York-based composer and sound artist Tristan Perich, even just 1-bit has a world of musical potential.

Throughout his career, Perich has created a variety of innovative works combining 1-bit electronics with traditional forms in both music and visual art. But what exactly is 1-bit? Perich describes it as music that never has more than one bit of information being played at any given time.

“In my work with 1-bit music, the audio waveforms are streams of 1s and 0s, on and off pulses of electricity that the audio speaker turns into sound,” Perich said. “I build my own circuits to make the connection between code and sound as direct as possible.”

Tristan+Perich+-+Portrait+(White,+courtesy+Perich)Among Perich’s most famous 1-bit works is his 2004 composition “1-Bit Music,” the first album ever released as a microchip programmed to perform an entire electronic composition live. The piece takes the form of an electronic circuit assembled inside a transparent CD case—and the microchip performs the music through a headphone jack attached to the case itself. (Perich later created an entire “1-Bit Symphony,” also housed inside a single CD case.)

His latest musical venture? A series of four imaginatively packaged recordings, each featuring a single work composed for 1-bit electronics and acoustic instruments. The collection, titled “Compositions,” artfully captures Perich’s background in music, math, computer science, and visual art.

Each recording is set to be released individually throughout this calendar year, beginning with the March release of Perich’s “Parallels,” the first composition in the series. The piece is scored for tuned triangles, hi-hats, and 1-bit electronics, a fascinating combination of timbres which pushes the boundaries of music and sound art.

The recording features a performance by the Meehan/Perkins Duo, comprised of percussionists Todd Meehan and Doug Perkins. The sonic interaction between human hands playing instruments and computer codes generating tones creates a truly mesmerizing electroacoustic soundscape.

(Buy the album on iTunes)

Furthermore, the piece echoes an intriguing theme present in many of Perich’s artistic works: the intersection between music and math, mere mortal and machine. For Perich, the physical aspect of performance (by both human and computer) is a crucial component of his artistic vision.

“Similar to performance, computation itself is a physical process, so these compositions are essentially duets between human and machine, explorations of this soundmaking process,” he said.

“Parallels” seeks to draw comparisons between the duality of 1-bit sound (on vs. off) with the duality of tuned triangles and hi-hats (open vs. closed timbres)—hence the title. The 50-minute piece restlessly experiments with a unique fusion of pure 1-bit tones combined with pitched and unpitched percussive sounds. With rhythmic verve and mathematical precision, the music skitters, jitters, and glitches, relentlessly oscillating between tone and noise.

If you’re looking for a little bit more Perich, stay tuned for the rest of the “Composition” series. Next in the collection is “Telescope” for two bass clarinets, two baritone saxophones, and 1-bit electronics, followed by “Dual Synthesis” for harpsichord and 1-bit electronics, and “Active Field” for 10 violins and 1-bit electronics. Each installment of the series (including “Parallels”) comes as a CD package with a poster-sized print of the entire musical score.

In itself, “Parallels” is a hypnotic fusion of creativity, code, and computer science—an imaginative glimpse into the intersection of music and mathematics. And in a world full of composers competing for novelty and innovation, Perich has certainly made a name for himself as a 1-bit wonder.