Seattle New Music Happy Hour: Wednesday, February 22 at 5:30pm

How happy?

SO HAPPY! (photo cred: NUMUS Northwest)

The next edition of New Music Happy Hour (co-hosted by Second Inversion & Live Music Project) is TONIGHT, Wednesday, February 22 at 5:30pm at the Queen Anne Beerhall!

Join Seattle’s vibrant community of musicians, music-lovers, and open minds for an evening of casual banter and meaningful dialogue about music and art in Seattle and beyond.

Sign up for alerts for future happy hour dates and day-before reminders so you won’t miss a beer, er, beat.

ALBUM REVIEW: First by yMusic & Son Lux

by Seth Tompkins

First, a collaboration between the chamber ensemble yMusic and Ryan Lott, the founder of Son Lux, is a unified expression of a narrow set of aesthetics. That is not to say that First lacks depth; on the contrary, First explores its chosen aesthetics comprehensively. The result is a release that listens like a concept album. Therefore, it is no surprise to see that yMusic’s stated goal for this project was to “build a record of chamber music which emulates the flow and structure of a rock album.” At that, they have succeeded.

Like other releases that are designed to work as wholes, First is best absorbed in one sitting. The expressive nuances and subtle aesthetic variations that fade in and out throughout the album are much more apparent when the music is taken as a whole. Of course, most of the tracks are quite effective on their own, too.

The compositional predilections of Ryan Lott are obvious in First.  In particular, the use of “repetitive structures,” background “pads” of sound, and the emergence of a noticeably more expressive lead line are frequent in First. Also present is the technique of juxtaposing highly active and fast accompaniment figures with bass lines and harmonic pads moving at a much slower speed on top of the same rhythmic framework. The difference here is that the overriding use of acoustic instruments by yMusic creates a different flavor of intimacy than that seen in the music of Son Lux. The two are certainly related, but also deliciously different.

 

There are a few moments when compositional elements not seen in Son Lux’s music make appearances on First. The most notable of these is the inclusion of contrapuntal writing in Sunset Boulevard. Perhaps the slightly more “classical” flavor of yMusic’s setup inspired Lott to lean more on this technique largely associated with music of the past. Whatever the genesis, it works.

Ryan Lott’s love of acoustic instruments is obvious in the music of Son Lux. Furthermore, it seems that he has found a perfect partner with whom to explore that interest more deeply in yMusic. The players of yMusic execute Lott’s with remarkable facility and fearlessness. The woodwind technique on First deserves special praise, as does the trumpet playing. Many of the licks on this album are beyond tricky, but yMusic makes them seem like no big deal.  This attention to excellence and detail is absolutely necessary in order for Lott’s intricate musical designs to sparkle.

One particularly pleasing element of this project is how the first and last tracks (Eleven and Paris, respectively) encapsulate the release as a whole. While the last piece includes some of the familiar characteristics of the first, it is tempered with elements of the intervening tracks. This synthesis of ideas yields a satisfying conclusion that recalls the boldness of the opening while remaining informed by the complexity of the entire album.

Moments that are both simple and beautiful are rare in First, and most of them dissolve or morph into moments of increased emotional complexity. While these simple moments are cathartic, the real beauty here is in the complexity and tension that leads from one exhalation to the next.

STAFF PICKS: Friday Faves

Second Inversion hosts share a favorite selection from their playlist. Tune in on Friday, February 17 to hear these pieces and lots of other great new and unusual music from all corners of the classical genre!

Daníel Bjarnason and Ben Frost: SÓLARIS with Sinfonietta Cracovia (Bedroom Community)

Iceland is the most sparsely populated country in all of Europe—yet somehow, it has one of the biggest, boldest, and most iconic new music scenes. Daníel Bjarnason and Ben Frost are just two Iceland-based composers in a long laundry list of artists shaped by the arid winds and ocean currents of this breathtaking northern island.

The duo’s ambient and ethereal symphonic suite SÓLARIS is a sparkling addition to Iceland’s massive library of new and innovative sound art. Composed for orchestra with live programming and performed with Sinfonietta Cracovia, the elusive melodies and expansive soundscapes ebb and flow across icy strings and haunting distortion.

Inspired by Stanisław Lem’s 1961 sci-fi novel of the same name, the quiet and consuming suite explores the utter vastness of outer space, the paralyzing fear of the unknown, and—perhaps most importantly—the extraordinary beauty of being so very, very small. – Maggie Molloy


Timo Andres: Thrive on Routine; American Contemporary Music Ensemble (Sono Luminus Records)

I am not much of a morning person, so it’s hard for me to imagine Charles Ives’ supposed morning routine of waking up at 4 AM, digging in a potato patch, and playing through Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. Timo Andres, however, imagines doing just that in his string quartet Thrive on Routine, composed in 2010. It offers some interesting ideas in direct imitation of these activities, from an alarm-tone-like introduction to the pastoral drone of the potato patch and a somewhat jerky fugue. The sounds have a sunny quaintness, somewhat comforting, even – which is, I guess, one purpose of routine. – Geoffrey Larson


Olga Bell: Perm Krai (New Amsterdam Records)

I have selected a track from this album as my staff pick before… but I it’s so good that I have absolutely no regrets about choosing another one.  In the midst of an extremely busy time, I have been seeking out energetic music that helps me overcome the paralysis that often accompanies an increased workload. Olga Bell’s Perm Krai, and much of the album from which it comes, fits that prescription. – Seth Tompkins

Women in (New) Music: Celebrating the Treemonishas in Classical Music

by Maggie Molloy


Education as salvation is the major theme of Scott Joplin’s 1912 opera Treemonisha, the powerful tale of a young African-American woman who protects her community against those who seek to take advantage of their systemic lack of education.

It’s a theme that continues to influence art and music of today, as over a century later we find ourselves still grappling with the far-reaching effects of slavery and the oppression of the African-American race.

This Saturday and Sunday, the North Corner Chamber Orchestra (NOCCO) presents RESONANCE: a concert celebrating the voices of African-American composers who have, across history, given a musical voice to the strength, power, and perseverance of their communities.

The concert program features the overture from Joplin’s Treemonisha alongside brand new works by two local artists: composer Hanna Benn and conceptual artist C. Davida Ingram.

Benn’s new work for chamber orchestra, titled Sankofa, is a spiritual reflection on the music and influence of African-American women composers across history. Ingram’s piece is an illuminating lyrical/visual essay about modern day Treemonishas: women of color who are powerful leaders of their communities. Also featured on the program are evocative works by Alvin Singleton and George Walker.


To find out more about what’s in store, we spoke with Hanna Benn and C. Davida Ingram about music, race, today’s Treemonishas, and the importance of education:

Second Inversion: What was the inspiration behind Sankofa, and what does it sound like?

Hanna Benn: “Sankofa” is a word in the Twi language of Ghana that translates to “Go back and get it,” as in we must go back and understand our heritage in order to go forward.

This piece is very meditative and reflective. I imagine it sounds like the meditation I’ve been in for the past several months of musing, reflecting, and doing research on black American composers—really finding inspiration from them. It was like subconsciously asking for guidance from my ancestors.

SI: What story does your piece tell? What are the major themes and ideas at work behind the music?

HB: Sometimes for me, it feels like speaking is not my first language, and so when composing music or writing a piece, once I’m finished, I have a hard time articulating what it’s about. It’s almost like being in a trance—I have no memory of it anymore; it’s gone. But this piece came from somewhere—it came from the inspiration, history, and music of these women.

The reason why I actually titled the piece “Sankofa” was that sentiment of asking my ancestors for help so that I might understand more about myself, looking inward. The piece sounds somewhat reflective and introverted in nature. I have six different movements, and there isn’t a narrative to the piece but they are these six poems, almost—six states of being:

Mvt. I: Inward Gazes the Spirit
Mvt. II: May I Come Back to Me
Mvt. III: Divide
Mvt. IV: Walks with an Offering
Mvt. V: Joy Submits and It Repeats
Mvt. VI: My Beloved Speaks

“My beloved” we usually say when we’re speaking of God or a higher being, but with this piece I’m speaking to my higher being. When I say “my beloved,” it’s like a love poem to myself. So Sankofa, you must go back and get it—it’s this love, this loving of the self and truly understanding oneself.

In one of his poems, Rumi says, “You must be as wide as the air to learn a secret,” and it’s this gesture of knowledge and understanding in order to move forward.

SI: How did writing this piece stretch you as an artist and musician?

HB: I have written for orchestra before, however this ensemble is completely different because they do not have a conductor, and so they have this beautiful process of hyper-listening. If there’s no conductor, they have to have more faith in each other, and it asks for more communication all around.

On a larger scale, it is such a crucial time for us to listen and to be present and open. I believe this concert is very special because of that—not only the material we will be performing, but the balance and the lack of hierarchy in this ensemble and the example it sets for others.

SI: In what ways (if any) do you feel that being a woman of color has shaped your experiences as an artist? What advice do you have for other female-identifying artists who face similar prejudices?

HB: One hundred percent, it shapes me. It is important, as a woman, to never forget that beautiful part of you. I am very proud and in love with the vessel that I carry and I think one hundred percent it shapes my experience and my outlook and what I write.

Me being a woman and me being a woman of color is my music, because that is who I am. I would encourage other women to not let go of that, because it is very precious.

SI: What do you find most inspiring about this NOCCO program?

C. Davida Ingram: The artists who I found most inspirational in RESONANCE were Hanna Benn and Scott Joplin. Their music speaks to me in different ways: Hanna because of her virtuosity and polyrhythmic cadence—she sort of feels like if you could listen to all of the those ways Our Lady of Theresa was having jouissance because of her ecstatic love affair with the divine—and Joplin because he gave me the gift of an intersectional feminist story that is set in the first Redemption as we go through the second Redemption that is delight to the ear. 

I wrote that his overture in Treemonisha “explains why black joy matters. This opening melody sounds like rushing in of something that has the feel of dancing in sunshine with a blazingly open heart.”

SI: Can you tell us a bit about the lyrical/visual essay you are sharing? What was the inspiration behind it?

CDI: I fell in love with Treemonisha after I learned about Joplin’s piece for the NOCCO show. Heather Bentley sent me a book with discs of the music and I sort of went into the Matrix—complete with a very vivid dream of an ancestor who looks a lot like Scott Joplin walking me down a pink stair.

Because of the spiritual way that Joplin’s piece moved me, the central figure of Treemonisha became in a way a muse for me, and also a way of giving a meditation on the black song book. James Baldwin’s fictional gospel singer Arthur Montana cries: Look what you done to my song. I follow that directive.

Personally I took this project as an opportunity to reflect on how indebted I feel to black educators on one hand—that particular subject is close to my heart. My mother is an incredible teacher and finished her PhD on how black students and their families think about the opportunity gap they face.

And on the other I am considering what white people do not know about whiteness. I feel very historical, at this moment, when I think about race in America—not as something that must always define the present but as something that is simply good to know about human behavior, and as an aftereffect.

For example, did you know in Antebellum Virginia there was a law that white human traffickers could give 20 lashes of the whip to kidnapped Africans that they enslaved if the latter were found reading or writing? Think about that. It’s the sort of thing that gives Treemonisha a resplendent repose and riposte. Black master teachers make maps to freedom—always have, always will.

So my mind’s eye went looking for the “Treemonishas” in my life—the community-building educators, those who believe in restorative justice, the feminists who believe women of color can lead (these are all part of the story of Joplin’s Treemonisha).

I was lucky to have a gifted educator as a mom. Sometimes I cringe when people call me ‘articulate’ after I speak. However, I also know a portion of what they are seeing is a partial blueprint of survival in white America—mastery of words and ideas that white people can recognize as their own. My mother loved me and the rest of my four siblings, so she taught as though our lives (and hers) depended on it; because in many respects it did. Both of my parents gave me that.

In terms of music, I think of blackness as an essential primer for understanding the American song book because all of our original American music comes directly from black culture—e.g. blues, jazz, hip hop, house music. America is very African, in that way. At the same time, I engage whiteness when I do my work here because it gets a bit tiresome if the expectation is that I am supposed to always be explaining blackness to assuage white curiosity. Our world has gotten mighty peculiar of late, and I think it is in large part due to not talking about whiteness.

SI: In what ways (if any) do you feel that being a woman of color has shaped your experiences as an artist? What advice do you have for other female-identifying artists who face similar prejudices?

CDI: In my lyrical essay for the piece (which still needs a title), I write:

Because of the constant context of white supremacy in all American art forms, I see this program as a meditation on black brilliance—underscore brilliance.

When I soften the emphasis on blackness it is not because I want to avoid footnoting the brutishness of white supremacy and institutional racism. If we did, it would still remain the elephant in the room. However, when we see that a group of predominantly white musicians can acknowledge how racism seeks to impoverish them, how it cuts off the air in the room in terms of what versions of excellence take space in the canon, then the light that shines brightest here is black brilliance and what also extrudes are the ways that whiteness is benighted, at times, because of the construction of racism and white supremacy.

And if I take things a step beyond that—it is not blackness that we are looking at but rather brilliance, which is to say that kaleidoscopic light that humans cast out and its incredible, inexorable beauty.


Performances of RESONANCE are this Saturday, Feb. 18 at 2pm at New Holly Gathering Hall and Sunday, Feb. 19 at 7:30pm at Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute. For tickets and information, click here.

John Adams at 70

Today we are celebrating John Adams’ 70th birthday in great style with a 24-hour streaming marathon of his music. Tune in all day and night for his chamber, choral, piano, orchestral, and vocal works along with insights from the Second Inversion staff and community! Listen here.

And enjoy this throwback to 2015 in our studios with San Francisco-based Friction Quartet, performing an excerpt from his first String Quartet.

5 Tips for Handling Procrastination

by Joshua Roman

If you’re like me, your days are full of blank calendar space but long to-do lists. I essentially run a small business, and while I have partners such as a manager and publicist, there’s plenty of busy-work to fill each and every day. Problem is, since I’m not at an office with coworkers, I have to be a manager to myself, as my only full time employee! Given the lack of structure around my time, I’ve tried to implement various kinds of self-imposed schedules, but it’s tough with the randomness of traveling and performing.

Being someone who is naturally prone to procrastination, it’s a subject I’m become far more familiar with than I’d like. However, this has given me a few helpful go-to habits that might be useful for your own challenges of prioritization. Whether you’re a self-employed musician, or a full-time job holder with the tendency to put things off, perhaps these can help you get your day going as well.

1) Change your space.
A lot of times I find myself easily distracted by the things that surround me. One of my favorite ways to procrastinate is to reorganize my space so it feels “just right”. Of course, once I finish doing that, I have to enjoy the fresh feeling for a while. Then, there are the habits that are triggered by seeing my laptop and the couch, the books on my shelves, the light-fixture project that hasn’t been finished yet… you get the picture. While on a normal day, any of these things can be a good and necessary task, when the mood of procrastination sets in they become obstructions to the prioritization of whatever I’m avoiding. So, moving to another room, especially a pretty empty one, is helpful. Our bedroom doesn’t have bookshelves and usually is devoid of electronic devices, so dragging my chair in there is often a great way to kick-start whatever practicing I can’t seem to do in the living room. If you’re lucky enough to have a studio, keep it optimized for focus! Hotel rooms, oddly enough, often do the trick for me as well. I stopped watching “real” tv long ago, so a hotel room is a simple space with no distractions other than what I bring in my bag. Whatever it is for you – a change of scenery can often help shift your mindset as well.

2) Start with the big things, in small chunks.
Maybe you find yourself, as I do, procrastinating by doing all of the little things that are also necessary. Perhaps there’s a big piece you need to learn, but it looks complicated, so practicing more familiar rep over and over again gives just enough of a sense of accomplishment to reward that need for productivity, without having to tackle the “big deal”. Same can be true of starting a new composition, or really any task that seems monolithic before it’s broken down. And that, right there, can be the key: break it down. Don’t try to learn the piece all at once, let yourself read through it, go on to something else, and then make a schedule that divides the learning process into chunks. Almost every project or task is made up of smaller elements, and if you find yourself feeling anxiety when thinking about the totality of a project, zooming in on the individual elements can be a good way to get yourself started.

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3) Start with the little things.
Sometimes getting started can be more effective if you approach it in a subtly different way – if you are being super hard on yourself, thinking things like “I’ll never amount to anything if I don’t get this done today”, or “I’m just a lazy bum”, then you might do better starting with the low hanging fruit. Example: emails! Sometimes I’ll set a timer for 30 minutes, and clear all browser windows except Gmail so that I can start to clear up the inbox. This is more of a rolling start – as each success happens, mark it and look for something slightly bigger until you’re replying to that one email that requires research for a thoughtful reply. The timer is important here, once it goes off, give yourself a moment to enjoy the small win, then head over to your schedule or whatever you use to manage your time, and plot out the bigger immediate goals. I also think it’s important to schedule time for scheduling! This lets you check in on your progress and adjust for the best results.

4) Schedule your play time.
I think there’s a little kid somewhere inside of me that’s always concerned I’m working too hard. What if I never get around to the “fun” stuff? Sometimes setting aside time in my schedule for relaxing, hanging out, or even watching a movie will assuage those subconscious worries and help me stay focused. It may even be that those moments of play are a good goal to look forward to, a motivating force to help push through the To Do’s. Breaks of any kind help – usually when I practice or compose I make myself stop for ten minutes every hour. No matter what I end up doing, it gives the brain a rest and allows me to refocus in a more powerful way upon returning to the work.

5) Buddy up
Accountability is a powerful thing. Being near other people who are working hard has always gone a long way towards inspiring me to stay focused, as well. This is not always easy, or possible, with the self-composed work life. However, having a friend – even at a distance – to check in with and report to can be a big help. Someone who won’t let you make lame excuses, but understands the challenges of what you do as well. It’s not necessary that the people around you be musicians, artists, or anything similar, really. Work buddies are about creating a sense of responsibility that goes beyond your inner voice.

These are just some of the tricks I use to get moving again. There are many useful books and tools out there – and some might even say procrastinating is not always the worst thing to do. Of course, even when it’s useful, there is a limit. Here are a couple of videos from TED with different perspectives on procrastination. Share your own favorite tips and tools below – I’m always looking for more ways to be effective with my time!

ALBUM REVIEW: 26 by Melia Watras

by Geoffrey Larson

Photo by Michelle Smith-Lewis

If you’ve ever witnessed a live solo or chamber music performance by Melia Watras, you are familiar with the sense of immediacy that her playing involves. It’s this immediacy of beautiful tone and hard-charging energy that seizes the listener in her live performances. I was hoping that her new album on Sono Luminus, titled 26 after the total number of strings on instruments played in the recording, would yield the same ear-grabbing experience. On the whole, it does not disappoint.

The album’s selections are all world-premiere recordings of new works of music, the majority of which are Watras’ compositions. The program of music here is smart for a couple reasons. First, let’s be honest: an album of contemporary viola solos and duets may not be everyone’s cup of tea, even fellow musicians. But for those in search of interesting discoveries of great new music and those eager to discover the far reaches of a viola’s solistic capabilities, this album presents a vibrant range of music that refreshingly eschews mainstream-appeal fluffiness. Watras’ personal connection to the composers and performers also strengthens the performances immeasurably: her former teacher Atar Arad performs his and Watras’ compositions, and she is also joined by her husband, violinist Michael Jinsoo Lim and longtime collaborator Garth Knox on viola d’amore. For these reasons, it definitely deserves a listen.

Watras’ compositions on 26 present a style with foundations in improvisation, rounded out with high amounts of technical difficulty. Liquid Voices, with its shimmering harmonics, crunching dissonances and angular, Stravinsky-like melodies, was inspired by a Virginia Woolf short story. Prelude and Luminous Points are both intensely personal portrait-like works, the first inspired by Bach and Watras’ relationship with her former teacher and the second by Lim’s evocative high playing. Photo by Mikel is possibly the album’s most energetic work and sounds especially improv-driven, evoking all sorts of different characters from the instrument. The Sonata for Viola Solo seems like a real repertoire piece, just jam-packed with musical content that utilizes a huge range on the instrument and some interesting techniques. Though the speed at which ideas move by is occasionally jarring, this is great musical storytelling, and I am left feeling like I’ve been along with Watras on a real journey of some sort. Its message is slightly uplifting, with the theme of a “timeless positive force” from the second movement returning at the very end in offstage playing.

Bicinium, a composition by Watras’ UW colleague Richard Karpen, presents two long, winding lines that succeed in creating a lush, enjoyable texture from only two instruments. Lim’s violin and Watras’ viola are tightly wound together, never resting in this marathon 20-minute composition until the viola gets the last word at the end. The piece’s general idea is varied in expressive ways, evoking shifting pastel colors, but this work is straightforward overall, producing no sounds that seem particularly new or different.

The two works by Arad and the one by Garth Knox are more instantly accessible than the other pieces on this release, for better or for worse. In the album-opening Toccatina a la Turk, I could feel a bit of Brubeck even before I heard the direct Blue Rondo reference. The short, fiery variation at the end left me wishing that this brief composition was longer, and took that theme further into Turkish territory. Esther contains some of the most lyrical writing on the whole album, and is a wonderful showcase for the richness of Watras’ and Arad’s viola sounds. Knox’s Stranger is possibly the album’s most tonal work, but not one of simplicity, cycling through some arresting sonic elements that are easy to love and stay with the listener.

The crystal-clear Sono Luminus sound only serves to strengthen the impact of 26. This is an album that does more than just show off virtuosity: it showcases Melia Watras’ bravery as a performer and composer, and clearly translates the power of close personal relationships in great chamber music performances. The only thing better would be seeing these musicians perform this program live in person.

[editor’s note: you CAN see selections from this performed live! Melia’s 26 album release show will be on Friday, February 24 in Brechemin Auditorium (University of Washington School of Music) at 7:30pm. The program includes selections from 26, a video presentation, and commentary from the artist.]