ALBUM REVIEW: Jherek Bischoff’s Cistern

by Geoffrey Larson  

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Photo credit: Alex Stoddard

Cistern is Jherek Bischoff’s anticipated follow-up to his debut album Composed, which featured a quirky, orchestral pop sound. On Composed, Bischoff recorded orchestral instruments separately and layered the sounds to create a full ensemble. With Cistern, he gets help from the excellent NYC-based ensemble Contemporaneous, who provide the orchestral sounds that have become the touchstone of his work. It’s been called “headphone music,” and it is experienced best when enveloped in large headphones. Audiences in Times Square were given just this opportunity, listening to a late-night “Silent Orchestra” performance of Cistern on wireless headphones, accompanied by visuals displayed on massive video screens (a Midnight Moment presented by Times Square Arts).

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Times Square presentation. Photo credit: Jim Batt.

Serenity – that’s the feeling that pervades the music on this album. It’s music that isn’t meant to really excite or engage you in a particular way, but seeks to bring you to a contemplative place. For Bischoff, that place was a massive cistern underneath Fort Worden on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, where he improvised inside a space with a 45-second reverb. This is no place for fast, complex music, and it’s easy to hear the inspiration of this cavernous space in the music of the album, which uses simple, slow motives and a lot of repetition to convey its ideas.

 

The experience of playing in a massive darkened echo chamber is possibly the most closely portrayed by Lemon, the album’s shortest track, and the evocative closing track The Sea’s Son, which use silence to the fullest extent. Interesting orchestration abounds on Cistern from the start of the album, with a toy piano and militaristic percussion entering the mix on the track Automatism. Strings sliding and bending pitch create an interesting atmosphere on the title track, a straight-up passacaglia. The one track to create a bit of tension is The Wolf, playing low instruments off the rest of the ensemble in a hunt-like dance of sound, but it stands apart from the all-encompassing introspection of this album.

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Photo credit: Alex Stoddard

Though music that is relentlessly inward-looking and meditative rarely suits my taste, the melodies and harmonies of Closer to Capture, together with the stop-start of this music’s rhythm makes it the star for me on this new release. It’s also hard not to be swept away by the nostalgia of The Sea’s Son; Bischoff says that as he composed in this album’s slower, almost back-to-basics style, he was reminded of the simpler times of his childhood, growing up on a sailboat in Seattle. As the final track’s unresolved harmony hangs in the air, it’s easy to visualize a human figure standing on the prow of a boat, gazing across the bay. I find that I actually enjoy the music of Cistern much more in film soundtrack form; Bischoff has done a small amount of scoring (i.e. Netflix’s Wet Hot American Summer), and I hope we can look forward to more film-related projects from this busy composer.

For more videos featuring Jherek Bischoff, visit our video page for 3 tracks from Cistern recorded right here in our studios with a quartet of the Seattle-based string ensemble, SCRAPE.

Touched by Creativity in Nature

by Joshua Roman

With Maggie Stapleton and Rachel Nesvig at Camp Muir on Mount Rainier (Washington State).

It’s no secret that some of the greatest composers in history have sought inspiration, solace, and rejuvenation in nature. Beethoven loved to escape Vienna to walk through the countryside, and Bartok was an avid collector of insects in addition to folk melodies from the countryside. And they certainly weren’t the only ones.

So good for them, right? Now we’ve got the (insert superlative) music they wrote, and we also get a glimpse into the natural world as they experienced it. At least, that’s what I would guess is the attitude of many of us based on our general (if not total) lack of engagement with the great outdoors. Myself, I’ve always loved being outside, and felt frustrated by the fact that my cello does not acclimate very well to wind, rain, heat, cold, or humidity. So being outdoors, which is a natural part of much of my life, has been largely separated from my artistic endeavors. A few multimedia projects – like some of the videos I shot outside for the Popper Project or my Everyday Bach videos – have hinted at a connection, but it’s only really this summer that I’ve begun to feel a tangible and powerful, even primal, creative force arise when out in nature.

View from Mount Si (little Si) near Seattle, Washington.

It started with a hike near Seattle. I was so ready to do something non-digital, something peaceful, that took me away from the demands of this life that start out joyful, but can easily pile up and become overwhelming due to their sheer volume. Here’s a picture from the summit – I was already feeling a calm but directional energy throughout the ascent, but upon reaching this view it exploded into a force of deep, resonant sound that was surprising and exciting. It was a sound that I couldn’t identify, except that it had a rolling momentum and begged to be orchestrated. Someday, it will. In the meantime, I cannot forget how it came from the peak next to ours, and though the grandeur was bigger than I knew how to express, the desire to share it was so very strong.

Lake Morraine near Banff, Canada.

At that point, I immediately knew I needed to do more of this. Luckily, my summer has taken me to such strikingly beautiful places as Banff to perform for TED in a collaborative concert I curated with other TED Fellows, Boulder for a series I curated (as well as for the Colorado Music Festival), and Maine for the Bay Chamber Concerts summer festival.

View from Bear Peak in Boulder, Colorado.

Looking at photos of stunning views is always nice, but for me they are most powerful when they serve as a reminder tied to a real experience. I’ve had more music come to mind in these places–a result of the inspiration and the sense of release we feel when we connect with our physical bodies and engage with the natural world around us. I think it’s about centering – a rich tapestry of experiences can certainly help us to learn about human expressiveness and the essential parts of our existence, but it’s important to find a way to stay grounded. Connecting with nature is a great way to achieve this balance.

View of the bay near Rockport, Maine.

Sometimes, if you can pull it off, a day or three away from everything goes a long way towards clearing the mind and allowing natural creative energy to flow. But even if that’s out of the question, finding a quiet park for a stroll, or a trail just outside of the city, can make a difference in the flow of artistry. If you can manage it, get outside–whether near or far–and allow yourself to be open to that special source which has inspired so many of our heroes – nothing is better than tapping into that directly.

CONCERT REVIEW: Music in the American Wild

by Seth Tompkins

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On Sunday, August 14, I had the pleasure of attending a concert presented by Music in the American Wild at the Sunrise Visitor Center in Mount Rainier National Park. Here at Second Inversion, we have been following this project closely, especially since the group arrived in Washington for the western leg of their tour. After learning about this group and their project months ago, I finally had the chance to attend one of their concerts in its “natural habitat.” This occasion was made even more special by the fact that I had attended their concert in Seattle at the Good Shepherd Center on August 6; the opportunity to compare the group’s performances in these two disparate settings was a rare treat.

The concert at Sunrise on Mt. Rainier was the group’s third in that park; they played concerts at Ohanapecosh Campground and Paradise Visitor Center on Friday the 12th and Saturday the 13th, respectively. The rangers had the ensemble set up in the picnic area just north of the Sunrise Visitor Center. The concert began at 2pm, in perfect weather.

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It doesn’t get much better than this.

The concert began with an introduction by Mt. Rainier National Park’s Education Director, Fawn Bauer. Bauer assisted the group as they arranged their visit to the park, helping them organize everything from where to stay to where and when to set up for their concerts. As she began the introduction, it was clear that Fawn was a natural; she put the crowd at ease and warmed them up for the music to come.

One interesting fact came to light during Fawns introduction: Over half of the 50-60 people attending this performance had come to the site specifically for this event; the rest had drifted in by chance. The proportion of people that had come specifically for the concert seemed high to me, but it was an inspiring statistic; people will, in fact, visit unusual venues for new music! That said, given how many people were at Sunrise that day, I thought the crowd should have been larger.

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Note the crowded parking lot.

Just like their concert at the Good Shepherd Center, Music in the American Wild’s director and flutist Emlyn Johnson began the performance by welcoming the audience and explaining the genesis of the project. For more on that, see our earlier post. This bit of discussion was the first of many; Emlyn and the other musicians took questions from the audience between each of the pieces.

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Music in the American Wild’s Emlyn Johnson speaks with the audience at Sunrise.

Over the course of the 75-minute concert, some audience members drifted away, but they were largely replaced by new listeners that drifted in and out of the grove of trees in which the concert was set. The audience remained engaged throughout the show, asking many thoughtful questions.

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The audience was spread between off-limits areas set aside for native wildflower recovery

The concerts that I attended included five (at Mt. Rainier) six (in Seattle) pieces (of the 11 they commissioned), four of which were the performed on both programs. This overlap presented a special opportunity to compare these nature-inspired works in different settings. The sharp contrasts created by the disparate settings of the two concerts highlight interesting aspects of how location and setting interact with music.

One of the pieces that was shared between the two programs was Tonio Ko’s Covers and Uncovers. This piece begins and ends with very soft percussion parts played by all members of the ensemble on desk (or “concierge”) bells. These difference in how this element sounded in the two settings was striking. At the indoor concert at the chapel, the desk bells had the flavor of a “challenging” sound: the kind of sound that might make traditional concertgoers squirm a bit as they get used to the novelty. However, in the outdoor setting at Mt. Rainier, the bells had the opposite effect! Because these sounds exist on the fringes of traditional classical music, they served to blend the opening and closing of Ko’s piece into the natural ambience of the mountainside venue, gently introducing the more traditional sounds to come. The end result was that Covers and Uncovers was one of the more effective pieces on the program at Sunrise.

The other remarkable contrast between the two versions of a particular piece that the ensemble performed in both locations was Chris Chandler‘s the view from here. This piece is a musical triptych depicting Shenandoah National Park. The first movement, “drones and swells of the not-far road” was notably different in tone at the two concerts that I attended. This movement features a musical re-creation of the sounds that visitors to Shenandoah National park hear coming from Skyline Drive, which winds through the entire length of the park. At the Good Shepherd concert, in the middle of the city, the imitation road noise blended pleasantly with the city sounds drifting through the open windows of the Chapel Performance Space; it was easy to accept the sounds of a busy roadway integrated into a natural setting while listening at the Good Shepherd Center. The effect at the Mt. Rainier performance was entirely different. Unlike at the Good Shepherd Center, where the hum of the city is ubiquitous, Mt. Rainier has almost no urban sounds. In this peaceful setting, the simulated road noise of Skyline Drive took on an intrusive and obscene cast. The somewhat dissonant and harmonically unsettled moments in this section of music that sounded perfectly natural in the city sounded grotesque and inappropriate in the near-pristine acoustic of Mt. Rainier. Despite my negative reaction to this element of the piece at the Mt. Rainier concert, the overall effect was positive; the different reactions I had to the piece were a beautiful consequence of experiencing it in two dramatically different locales.

These contrasts that arose solely from the different venues of the two concerts can teach us about the musical value of setting. Sure, one would expect some dramatic differences when these concerts are compared; the familiar sound of a rich, warm, wood-heavy concert hall near sea level and the dry acoustic encountered outdoors on the side of a volcano at 6400 feet could not be much more different! Still, the specific ways in which the music seemed to change are worth exploring, especially given that this music was written with wild outdoor spaces in mind.

You can catch the final concerts by Music in the American Wild this week in Olympic National Park. Stay tuned to the Second Inversion blog for the final installment of our series on Music in the American Wild, coming next week!

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All photos by Seth Tompkins

ALBUM REVIEW: Northwestern University Cello Ensemble’s Shadow, Echo, Memory

by Brendan Howe

Inspired by his profound love for his new bride, Alma, Mahler saturated his Adagietto (the fourth movement of his Fifth Symphony) with his love of obsession and conflict. If you haven’t yet heard it performed by a world-class institution, I would recommend watching a clip of Leonard Bernstein and the Vienna Philharmonic perform the Adagietto so you get a sense of just how high the bar has been set with regard to the movement’s emotional capacity and execution.

For non-expert groups performing the masterpiece, walking the line between musical expression and self-indulgence often proves an impossible challenge. The Northwestern University Cello Ensemble, however, delivers a sublime performance that showcases both the work and the magnificent capacity of the cello to express the ineffable as the capstone track from their latest album, Shadow, Echo, Memory.

Shadow, Echo, Memory

The Adagietto rounds out the album’s emotional exhibition of the cello as well as its theme of capturing specific moments in larger contexts. Shadow, Echo, Memory was recorded by a total of 45 current students and 15 highly successful alums of Northwestern’s Bienen School of Music, under direction of the celebrated cellist and educator Hans Jørgen Jensen.

It is a collection of 19th, 20th, and 21st century music written and arranged for cello ensemble. The well-established idea of the cello’s unique ability to match the range and timbre of the human voice plays a large role, as Fauré’s Après un Rêve, Rachmaninov’s Vocalise, Ligeti’s Lux Aeterna, and contemporary composer Zachary Wadsworth’s Three Lacquer Prints are all arrangements of vocal works. What makes this album stand out, however, is the Ensemble’s ability to combine technical excellence with poignant depth (Kernis’ Ballad, Mahler’s Adagietto) and conceptual clarity (Wadsworth’s Three Lacquer Prints, van der Sloot’s Shadow, Echo, Memory) in a moving and accessible fashion.

The opening track of the album orients the audience solidly on the conceptual end of the spectrum. The vocal group The Esoterics had commissioned Wadsworth for a piece to premiere in October 2012, and he began fleshing out an idea he’d been contemplating – while poetry and music are narrative forms of art that share the characteristic of changing over time, the relationship between visual art and poetry (and accordingly, music) is both far less tangible and underrepresented.

In order to rectify this oversight, Wadsworth found inspiration in a collection of Amy Lowell’s verse poems on Japanese Ukiyo-e woodblock prints, written between 1913 and 1919 (the three pertinent poems are reproduced in the album booklet). Wadsworth was struck by the elegance with which Lowell captured single moments through the inferred context of her words while ultimately respecting their static nature.

Wadsworth took this string of artistic influence one step further by writing one vocal vignette each using the Lowell poems Temple Ceremony, A Year Passes, and A Burnt Offering. The pieces mold and elongate Lowell’s lyrics to lend valuable time and perspective to the motionless, print-inspired experience.

Adding a fourth artistic interpretation to the woodblock-poem-chorus dynasty already in play, the NU Cello Ensemble recorded arrangements of Wadsworth’s Three Lacquer Prints, removing the restrictions of language in favor of the familiar, interpretive qualities of cello music.

NU Cello Ensemble

Roland Pidoux arranged Fauré’s Après un Rêve with similarly emancipatory results, achieving a surreal dreamscape with eight cellos that would be unattainable with piano accompaniment. Van der Sloot’s titular track, Shadow, Echo, Memory, goes the furthest back into human history of all the pieces, drawing inspiration from Ice Age cave paintings. It opens with a spectral, water-droplet percussive quality, which feeds into the wide range of the unknowable creativity of the ancient mind – anxious slides, centered resolutions, fitful exclamations, and intense darkness.

As the album continues onward from the Rachmaninov through the Mahler, it becomes clear that the Ensemble has achieved their purported goal of using the cello to express textures of dark and light, bring to life sounds and images from another time, and finally to aid listeners in revisiting their own histories. It does indeed provide a fascinating, haunting individual experience to those who are up for a little soul-searching.

 

STAFF PICKS: Friday Faves

Second Inversion hosts share a favorite selection from this Friday’s playlist. Tune in during the indicated hours below on Friday, August 12 to hear these pieces. In the meantime, you’ll hear other great new and unusual music from all corners of the classical genre 24/7!

Daniel Wohl: 323 (Transit) on New Amsterdam Records

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Like so much of what we play on Second Inversion, “323” by Daniel Wohl is difficult to categorize.  It’s an exuberant piece full of interesting sounds, found noises, and jangly percussion that I’m fairly sure is pots and pans yet the overall feel of the piece can be summed up with the word “radiant.”  It’s music that pulsates and cuts into your tympanic membrane with its soft edges.  “323” is like if drone and a junkyard gave birth to… a solar system?  It’s confusing, but it is a bold confusion that truly works and inspires. – Rachele Hales

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 1pm hour today to hear this recording.


Darcy James Argue: Phobos (Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society) on New Amsterdam Records

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If you’re someone who is immersed in (small ‘c’) classical music most or all of the time, it can be refreshing (and necessary) to bend your ears on something that really challenges you to think about what makes music “classical.”  Where are the boundaries of the art form?  Darcy James Argue’s track Phobos can help you grapple with (if not answer) these questions.  This is first and foremost jazz, but it has so many elements more closely associated with other types of music that it really forces listeners to ask themselves some tough questions (if they are insistent on classifying the music at all!).  Among the shades of minimalism and post-rock, those big-band “jazz” chords begin to sound like tone clusters…  Listen to the barriers fall!  Wonderful! – Seth Tompkins

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 4pm hour today to hear this recording.


Missy Mazzoli: Vespers for a New Dark Age (Victoire, Lorna Dune, and Glenn Kotche) on New Amsterdam Records

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The Western classical music tradition as we know it began in the Church. And both the Church and the Western classical music tradition have historically excluded women from positions of power and authority.

Which is a big part of what makes composer Missy Mazzoli’s 30-minute masterwork Vespers for a New Dark Age so striking, so liberating, and—for lack of a better word—so brilliant. Performed with her all-female new age art pop ensemble Victoire, electro keyboardist Lorna Dune, and rock drummer Glenn Kotche, the piece reimagines the traditional vespers prayer service in the modern age, replacing the customary sacred verses with the haunting and elegant poetry of Matthew Zapruder.

The result is a 21st century version of the vespers service which explores the intersection of our modern technological age with the old-fashioned formality of religious services. Oh, and I guess it could also be heard as a feminist assertion of women’s immense (and too often forgotten) contributions to the classical music tradition. – Maggie Molloy

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 6pm hour today to hear this recording.


Kevin Puts: River’s Rush (Marin Alsop, Peabody Symphony Orchestra) on NAXOS Records

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With its churning arpeggios and big, muscular orchestration, this piece reminds me of hurtling down the Salmon River in Idaho on a whitewater rafting trip. The tremendous excitement that the opening music generates is matched by the beauty of a lushly-orchestrated, flowing middle section. A winner of the Pulitzer Prize for his opera Silent Night, Puts is known for his flute and piano concertos and four symphonies, but this stand-alone work might be my new favorite. – Geoffrey Larson

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 9pm hour today to hear this recording.

Seattle New Music Happy Hour: Wednesday, August 24 at 5:30pm

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C’mon, c’mon get happy with Second Inversion, Live Music Project, and Seattle’s vibrant community of musicians at our next New Music Happy Hour on Wednesday, August 24 at 5:30pm at the Queen Anne Beerhall!

Whether you’re a full-time musician, a casual freelancer, music hobbyist, or total music novice, you are welcome! The only prerequisite is an open mind and a willingness to engage in meaningful dialogue about music and art in Seattle and beyond.

RSVP and invite your friends on Facebook and sign up for alerts for future happy hour dates and day-before reminders.

The Queen Anne Beerhall has become our favorite place to gather! It has 25 premium draft beers, over 50 bottles, and full bar offering unique cocktails made with in-house prepared syrups and shrubs. The food menu includes PNW-influenced classic beer hall fare and perfectly executed staples such as soft Bavarian pretzel, wiener schnitzel and a variety of grilled sausages with sauerkraut. 

A few of our favorite shots from last month’s NMHH on July 19! All photos credit: Maggie Molloy

ALBUM REVIEW: Maya Beiser’s TranceClassical

by Maggie Molloy

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Johann Sebastian Bach’s influence on the classical music tradition is immeasurable. Even now, nearly three centuries after his death, he remains one of the most performed composers of all time. Bach was the first of the three B’s, he was the golden standard against which all future composers would come to be measured—he was the undisputed king of counterpoint.

And he was also among the first composers that cellist Maya Beiser ever heard as a child, quickly becoming a central pillar in her musical development. Bach’s influence on Beiser extended far past her studies of the Baroque tradition or even the classical tradition—clear into her musical interpretations of 21st century compositions.

Beiser’s new album, TranceClassical, features the cutting-edge works of an incredible cast of contemporary composers: Michael Gordon, Imogen Heap, Glenn Kotche, Lou Reed, David Lang, Julia Wolfe, Mohammed Fairouz, and David T. Little.

And yet, the album is not wholly a product of the 21st century. TranceClassical is bookended by Beiser’s own arrangements of classic works by Bach and Hildegard von Bingen—and every 21st century work in between draws from the style, sensitivity, and skill of the early classical music tradition.

TranceClassical started from a washed-out still photo in my mind,” Beiser said. “Me, as a little girl curled with a blanket on her parents’ sofa, hearing Bach for the first time, hanging onto every mysterious note coming out of the scratchy LP. TranceClassical is the arc my mind sketches between everything I create and Bach—David Lang and Bach, Glenn Kotche and Bach, Michael Gordon and Bach.”

The album begins with Beiser’s own wistful arrangement of Bach’s famous “Air on the G String,” recreated as she first heard it in her childhood: the melody singing sweetly above the sounds of a distant, crackling LP.

Composer Michael Gordon’s “All Vows” features another meandering melody, this one echoing in churchlike reverberations. Interlacing cello motives transport the listener straight into a meditative trance, evoking a somber and nostalgic glance backward in music history.

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It’s followed by a glance forward: Beiser’s rendition of synth-pop superstar Imogen Heap’s “Hide and Seek.” Here we find Beiser singing in ghostly three part harmonies above a solemn cello accompaniment—all heavily processed to create an unshakable sense of eeriness and desolation.

The cello moves back to center stage for rock drummer Glenn Kotche’s contribution, “Three Parts Wisdom.” Densely layered to showcase Beiser’s remarkable cello chops, the piece features one fiercely challenging melodic line plus seven layers of computer-generated delays—and all happening in real time.

And speaking of rock stars: the album also features a rendition of the Velvet Underground’s “Heroin,” arranged by composer David Lang. But don’t expect the hypnotic drone of Lou Reed’s original two-chord tune—Lang’s arrangement is almost unrecognizable, layering Beiser’s despondent, breathless vocals above jagged cello arpeggios in this haunting rendition.

Composer Julia Wolfe’s “Emunah” is a different kind of haunting: the droning, dissonant, and anxiety-driven kind of haunting. Wordless vocals whisper above cello tremolo, relentlessly pulling the listener back and forth in time.

Arab-American composer Mohammed Fairouz’s “Kol Nidrei” is perhaps the most striking and evocative work on the album. The piece echoes of ancient cantorial styles, with Beiser singing sacred Arameic text above ominously deep, dark cello melodies.

The trance is broken, however, with the onset of composer David T. Little’s “Hellhound,” a metallic rock ‘n’ roll tune inspired by blues legend Robert Johnson’s song “Hellhound on my Trail.” Andrew McKenna Lee steps in on electric guitar, but Beiser shreds hard enough on her cello to rival his raging solos.

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And in another unexpected musical turn, the album ends with Beiser’s own cello arrangement of Hildegard von Bingen’s choral work “O Virtus Sapientiae.” (Yes, as in Hildegard the 11th century composer and Christian mystic you studied in music history class.) Beiser’s rendition, however, features no vocals at all—it doesn’t need any. The sacred, solemn melody of her cello is music enough.

And although medieval choral music seems a far cry from the metallic drone of the Velvet Underground, Beiser manages the full range of music on the album with skill, precision, and charisma. Because whether she’s playing Julia Wolfe or Imogen Heap, Michael Gordon, or even Lou Reed—there’s a little bit of Bach in all of it.

“No matter how far I venture, how rebellious, or avant-garde or electronic, my artistic mooring stays with the creation of this immense genius,” Beiser said. “The pieces I bring here give me a sense of trance—a reverie and meditation on his place in my heart.”

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