LIVE CONCERT SPOTLIGHT: May 27-31

by Maggie Molloy

This week’s imaginative concert calendar has everything from opera to oboe trios to Edgar Allan Poe!

Inverted Space Presents “Don Perlimplín” and Maderna-Fest

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Italy has long been a center for innovations in vocal music—the Italians created opera in the late 16th century and, to this day, they still maintain a rich and dynamic vocal music tradition. This weekend, the University of Washington’s Inverted Space Ensemble is celebrating the musical contributions of one contemporary Italian composer in particular: Bruno Maderna.

An influential (but often-overlooked) figure of the avant-garde, Maderna was a 20th century composer known for his expressive musical freedom and commitment to the modernist cause. He moved in the same circles as composers like Karlheinz Stockhausen, Pierre Boulez, and Luciano Berio.

This weekend, Inverted Space is presenting the U.S. premiere of Maderna’s experimental opera “Don Perlimplín,” based on a play about love and loss by the 20th century Spanish dramatist Federico García Lorca. But that’s not all! The celebration continues with “Maderna-Fest,” a four-day festival of Maderna’s music and musical influences. Performances are as follows:

Inverted Space will perform small-scale chamber works by Maderna and Berio this Wednesday, May 27 at 7:30 p.m. at Jack Straw Cultural Center in the U District.

The group will perform the premiere of “Don Perlimplín” this Friday, May 29 at 7:30 p.m. at UW’s Meany Studio Theater.

The musicians will also perform three café concerts featuring vocal and instrumental works by Maderna, Pergolesi, Purcell, and Berio. The first is this Saturday, May 30 at 6 p.m. at Café Solstice in the U District, the second is this Saturday, May 30 at 8:30 p.m. at Stone Way Café in Fremont, and the final performance is this Sunday, May 31 at 8 p.m. at Café Racer in the U District.

Ursula Sahagian Performs Viet Cuong

Ursula-Sahagian-600x400How many live oboe trios have you seen? None? Well this weekend, you have the opportunity to change that.

This weekend, oboist Ursula Sahagian and friends are presenting an evening of riveting music for double reeds written by composer Viet Cuong. The group will perform his award-winning Suite for Oboe Trio, as well as his “Trains of Thought” for oboe, bassoon, and piano. Sahagian will also perform two of Cuong’s works for solo oboe: “Six Canadian Scenes” and the world premiere of “Soda Apple.” Both pieces push the oboe to the edge of its technical limits and beyond.

The performance is this Saturday, May 30 at 8 p.m. at the Chapel Performance Space at the Good Shepherd Center in Wallingford.

ALBUM REVIEW: Dreamfall by NOW Ensemble

by Maggie Molloy

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If you’re looking for the latest in contemporary classical, it doesn’t get any more current than NOW Ensemble. The dynamic seven-member group is committed to pushing the boundaries of the classical chamber music tradition, often crossing into new genres and artistic media.

True to their name, NOW ensemble infuses traditional Western art music with contemporary music styles such as indie rock, jazz, pop, and minimalism—bringing classical music to new audiences in the here and now.

The foundation for their one-of-a-kind sound is their eclectic instrumentation: electric guitar, flute, clarinet, double bass, and piano. Currently in their 10th year as a group, the ensemble is comprised of artistic director and guitarist Mark Dancigers, flutist Alexandra Sopp, clarinetist Sara Budde, double bassist Logan Coale, pianist Michael Mizrahi, and composers Patrick Burke and Judd Greenstein.

So NOW, what’s the latest?

The ensemble just released their fourth full-length album, an eclectic new music mash-up titled “Dreamfall.” The expansive new release features works by seven remarkable composers of contemporary music: Scott Smallwood, Mark Dancigers, John Supko, Nathan Williamson, Sarah Kirkland Snider, Andrea Mazzariello, and Judd Greenstein.

“It is a state of immense freedom,” Dancigers said of the album’s title. “The sounds on this record reflect this freedom, this sense of something a little out of our hands, and, beyond all else, the practice of making music that is NOW Ensemble.”

Scott Smallwood’s “Still in Here” is the first piece on the album, and it begins with low, grumbling piano trill—in fact, the graphic score denotes a “slow, drunken piano trill” throughout. The piece is atmospheric and dark, even apocalyptic at times. It swells in dynamics, periodically highlighting the unique texture of each instrument above a blur of musical vibrations. Listen for the soft crinkling of a foil stove burner liner amidst the ambiance. (According to Smallwood, “the handi-foil type 302 liner is a good candidate” if you’re looking to perform this one at home.)

The title track, written by Dancigers, showcases a more expressive side of the ensemble. The three-movement work explores an eclectic collection of melodic fragments, similar to a dreamland—one moment here and the next somewhere completely different. “Dreamfall” showcases the ensemble’s full range of timbral and textural possibilities, capturing the ever-shifting moods and melodies that we experience once we finally let go and start dreaming.

Speaking of dreams, John Supko’s “Divine the Rest” is nothing short of a mesmerizing daze. It immerses the listener in an ambient electroacoustic soundscape, with calm narration whispering over sparse instrumentation. Each and every note gently rings over the surrounding static to create a slowly shifting musical landscape.

The listener is abruptly awoken from this trancelike state with an audacious piano slide introducing the next piece on the album, Nathan Williamson’s vivacious “Trans-Atlantic Flight of Fancy.” Harmonies sprawl across the keyboard with rhythmic verve, restlessly pushing forward beneath bold and brash woodwind melodies.

The ensemble again switches gears for Sarah Kirkland Snider’s “Pale as Centuries,” a musical collage which combines diverse, distinctive, and sometimes even mismatched melodic fragments into a single cohesive image.

Andrea Mazzariello’s “Trust Fall” has a somewhat more linear development, growing gradually in drama and expressivity, from its sparse and simple introduction to its climactic close. However, one thing remains a key focus throughout: lush, dolce melodies.

The album ends with Judd Greenstein’s “City Boy,” a colorful musical depiction of a free and fearless young boy, his eyes twinkling as he playfully explores the world around him. The piece moves rapidly from one melodic idea to the next, switching from a jazzy guitar groove to a circling piano motive to a flowing clarinet melody within a matter of minutes.

The piece serves as a reminder of the major themes present throughout NOW Ensemble’s musical ventures: experimentation, innovation, and above all, a genuine enthusiasm for pursing curiosity. NOW that’s what I call contemporary classical!

(NOW Ensemble’s November 2014 visit to our studios)

LIVE CONCERT SPOTLIGHT: May 20-26

by Maggie Molloy

Spice up your week with Southern soul, contemporary clarinet, and microtonal music!

Rhiannon Giddens and the Carolina Chocolate Drops

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We may live in the Northwest, but that doesn’t mean we can’t appreciate some serious Southern soul music. This weekend blues vocalist, violinist, and banjo player Rhiannon Giddens is coming to Seattle to perform songs from her new solo album, “Tomorrow Is My Turn.”

Giddens is known for reimagining gospel, folk, and bluegrass tunes, bringing her incredible vocal control and classical rigor to a wide range of musical styles. Backed by her Grammy Award-winning old-time string band, the Carolina Chocolate Drops, Giddens will perform music made famous by female music icons like Patsy Cline, Dolly Parton, Odetta, and Nina Simone.

Sri Lankan-American singer-songwriter Bhi Bhiman will open the show.

The performance is this Wednesday, May 20 at 8 p.m. at UW’s Meany Hall.

Clarinetist Sean Osborn and Pianist Jessica Choe

SeanBazooka1smallThe clarinet is frequently overshadowed by its flashier, jazzier cousin the saxophone—but trust us, this often-overlooked instrument has a wide range of musical possibilities. This weekend, tune into the sounds of clarinet soloist Sean Osborn and pianist Jessica Choe as they perform an evening of dynamic and diverse clarinet works.

The program features everything from classical to contemporary clarinet repertoire, ranging from composers like Franz Anton Hoffmeister to Joseph Horvitz. The evening will also feature Osborn’s own musical portraits titled “Three Women and Three Girls,” as well as local composer Karen P. Thomas’s “When Night Came,” a piece written in response to events from the Bosnian War of the 1990s.

The performance is this Friday May 22 at 7:30 at Richmond Beach Congregational Church United Church of Christ. All proceeds from the performance will benefit Emergency Financial Assistance at the Shoreline Hopelink.

Music of Today: The Music of Harry Partch

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For classical music buffs, being inside a microtonal music instrumentarium would probably be on par with being a kid in a candy store. Lucky for us, the Harry Partch Instrumentarium recently took up residency at the University of Washington School of Music.

Partch was one of the first 20th century composers in the West to work with microtonal scales, building his own custom-made instruments in different tunings in order to perform his compositions. Next week, you can hear these extraordinary instruments in all their microtonal magnificence as UW music students and faculty perform works written by Partch on the composer’s own handmade instruments.

The performance is Tuesday, May 26 at 7:30 p.m. at UW’s Meany Studio Theater.

Shifting Gears

by Joshua Roman

Follow Joshua on Facebook, Twitter, and see his schedule at joshuaroman.com

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Dear Reader:

Is it really May, already? It’s such a cliché, but I really do feel sometimes that the calendar must be lying. April was a more typical month for me, with multiple concertos and recitals. Mostly traditional repertoire: Dvorak’s Cello Concerto, Haydn’s C Major Cello Concerto, Tchaikovsky Rococo Variations, Bach Suites… there were a few newer pieces mixed in as well, including my own “Riding Light”. In fact, that particular performance was one of the few in my life where my Cstring has had the audacity to snap during a juicy moment. Audiences seem to love that, although for me it’s just a pain to have to go grab another one and retune, then decide where to start again.

Along with all of that, April is also of course tax season, and every self-employed Musician knows just how long that can take. So between all of these things, plus other random tasks, I did not get as much done on my upcoming cello concerto as I’d like. Luckily, this month is dedicated to producing notes on paper!

One thing that I’ve always been curious about: where do ideas come from? I know much has been written on the subject, both in the form of studies and also from the notes and journals of creative types. Among my composer friends, the variety of work habits is astonishing. Some are night owls and do the bulk of their creative work after the sun goes down. Others do it first thing in the morning. And this is not always where the genesis of an idea occurs! I’ve been encouraged to carry a notebook around with me everywhere, and this has been immensely helpful, as many times ideas will strike at the most inopportune moment. Often, for me this happens on airplanes, or on the elliptical machine (I hate that thing. My excuse: knee injury). Sometimes, it’s a response to something I hear in a concert, or on the radio. Usually, I’ll hear a composer do something structurally, or turn a phrase or color on its head in an interesting way, and wonder to myself: “would I do that? Or would I do the opposite? Or something in between?”

Which brings me to an exercise I want to share with all of you musicians out there. Perhaps you’ve tried this in the past, but it’s something I don’t think it hurts to revisit. As you’re practicing whatever piece it is you’re playing, take one of the more obviously interesting (okay, that’s subjective, but that’s kind of the point so just go with your gut) passages and play through it a few times. As you do, try to pinpoint what the underlying idea is, what led the composer to the notes they chose. Is there an increase in tension? Is there a moment where something breaks away? Anything will do for these purposes. Then, forget for a moment that the piece was written by someone else. Take the idea, and begin with the same note the composer does, but modify the phrase as if you are composing it yourself. Try different notes and rhythms, dynamics and accents, colors, everything. What would it sound like if YOU had written the notes to achieve the emotional/structural impact the composer did?

This can take a while, especially if you’ve not improvised before. Be patient. Explore, and don’t judge what you’re doing. Just observe! Notice how many options you come up with, and what makes them different from what the composer did. Perhaps some of them may even be equally effective in their own way! In the end, you’ll see a little bit of what distinguishes this composer’s voice from your own, and others. Bonus points: change the phrase to create the same effect in the voice of other composers. Even more bonus points: see if you can keep as much the same as possible, but achieve the opposite emotional impact.

So what’s the point? Interpretation. Interpretation depends on our relationship to a composer, and our understanding of their voice. It helps to have insight into what having a voice means in the first place, and that comes very strongly through improvisation, composition, and other means of creative exploration. This is something I’ve been playing with a lot. There’s much more to try, and to share, but for now I’ll leave you with that bit of nerdy fun and open up the score to my own piece, which is calling out for attention from the top of my keyboard. Had a few good ideas during my workout today, now it’s time to see whether they pan out.

Music On Rotation

Bela Bartok: Divertimento for Strings (buy)
Peteris Vasks: Vox Amoris (buy)
Amon Tobin: Foley Room (buy)

ALBUM REVIEW: Bang on a Can All-Stars’ “Field Recordings”

by Maggie Molloy 

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You’ve probably heard countless buskers playing bucket drums and other found objects on city streets—but you’ve never heard anyone bang on a can like this before.

The Bang on a Can All-Stars are a six-member amplified ensemble known for exploring the furthest reaches of the classical music world, with an affinity for imagination, experimentation, multimedia music performances, and all things avant-garde.

The one of a kind ensemble is comprised of cellist Ashley Bathgate, bassist Robert Black, pianist Vicky Chow, percussionist David Cossin, guitarist Mark Stewart, and clarinetist Ken Thomson, and their wide-ranging repertoire spans from the minimalist musings of Philip Glass and Steve Reich to the computer music compositions of Paul Lansky and Tristan Perich.

But the All-Stars’ latest project combines an even more colorful palette of creative influences. Toeing the line between music and sound art, “Field Recordings” is a new multimedia project which combines music, film, found sound, and obscure audio-visual archives to create a dialogue between past and present art traditions.

(Purchase links and more information from Cantaloupe Music)

“It’s a kind of ghost story,” composer David Lang said of the album. “We asked composers from different parts of the music world 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.”

Lang is one of the co-founders of Bang on a Can, along with Julia Wolfe and Michael Gordon. The three appear as featured composers on the new 12-track album, along with Florent Ghys, Christian Marclay, Tyondai Braxton, Jóhann Jóhannsson, Todd Reynolds, Steve Reich, Bryce Dessner, Mira Calix, and Anna Clyne.

The album begins with a performance of Julia Wolfe’s “Reeling,” a lively piece based around a sound clip of a French Canadian vocalist. He sings in a twirling, sing-song style with no lyrics, his melody taking on the role of a fiddle or banjo soloing in a folk reel. Little by little Wolfe adds more instruments to the mix, creating an increasingly chaotic and computerized sound, like a record being rewound and replayed over and over, speaking to the album’s overarching theme of manipulating recorded sound.

The next piece on the album is nothing short of an absolute treasure. Florent Ghys’s “An Open Cage” uses as its basis excerpts from John Cage’s “Diary: How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse),” a poetic five-hour diary recorded by Cage himself a year before his death. In Ghys’s piece, a solo pizzicato bass line dances within the rhythms of Cage’s calm and serene narration, painting his deadpan delivery with a funky groove and a distinctly contemporary color. The lively bass line creates an undeniably catchy duet with Cage’s witty and obscure observations, and the piece grows in musical force, gradually adding more instruments until finally a small chorus of voices appears, echoing Cage’s words.

Christian Marclay’s “Fade to Slide” is equally experimental. The multimedia piece is a dramatic exploration into the rich sounds and distinctive timbres of the world around us, featuring everything from water splashing to record playing, bike riding to gong ringing, glass breaking to soup eating, perfume spraying to bagpiping. Yes, even bagpiping.

Marclay specializes in creating sonic collages from found footage, as evidenced by the imaginative—and at times humorous—combinations of recorded sounds in both the audio and video versions of the piece. (The video version is included in “Field Recordings” on a DVD along with five other multimedia pieces.)

The All-Stars also pay tribute to one of the biggest names in contemporary classical: Steve Reich. The album features the ensemble’s own arrangement of “The Cave of Machpelah,” an excerpt from Reich’s multimedia opera, “The Cave.” The slow-moving and ambient piece features an interesting mixture of musical timbres, with wispy, high-pitched cello strings skidding above a deep, droning bass, muffled recorded sound, and a bowed xylophone.

The album ends with a performance of Anna Clyne’s “A Wonderful Day,” the first in a series of short electroacoustic works combining recordings of Chicago street musicians with live instrumental ensembles. This particular piece features the raw, slow voice of an elderly man singing a sweet and poignant tune, surrounded by the muted sounds of the city and the All-Stars’ gentle accompaniment.

Each piece on the album uses recorded sound in a different and distinct way, but they all have one thing in common: they combine music of the past with music of the present, thereby crafting a new vision for music of the future. And in doing so, “Field Recordings” opens up a colorful new can of worms in contemporary classical music.