The Starman sent shock waves across the universe when he died last month after a courageous 18-month battle with cancer—and while we continue to mourn the loss of this talented artist and creative visionary, we find comfort in knowing that his sparkling light will never burn out.
David Bowie’s bold vision, fierce courage, and revolutionary music continue to live on in the lives and art of his family, friends, fans, and collaborators. A true artist, he continued creating all the way up until his death—and his musical influence will continue to live on long after.
Within days of Bowie’s death, punk-rock pianist and cabaret songstress Amanda Palmer teamed up with pop polymath Jherek Bischoff to create “Strung Out in Heaven: A Bowie String Quartet Tribute.”
Arranged, recorded, mixed, and released within just two weeks, the six-song EP also includes six Bowie-inspired works of visual art. The album also features musical contributions from singer-songwriter Anna Calvi and actor, writer, and director John Cameron Mitchell.
The EP was financed by Palmer’s Patreon supporters, and is being sold for $1 on Bandcamp. Part of the money will go to Bowie’s publisher, and the remaining proceeds from the first month of sales will be donated to the cancer research wing of the Tufts Medical Center in memory of Bowie.
“I was on the phone with Jherek [Bischoff], discussing another project, and I was feeling a bit trapped in the non-productive new-mother cave—so we joked that we should do a flash Bowie tribute,” Palmer wrote in a statement. “And suddenly, we weren’t joking. I had funding from my 7,000 fans on Patreon to ‘make stuff.’ What better ‘stuff’? We started that night, giving ourselves a deadline of two weeks to release it as a surprise.”
And so in the spirit of surprise Bowie tributes, Second Inversion decided to write a surprise album review. Here are all the things we love about this shimmering Starman string tribute:
BLACKSTAR: The album begins with the end: a cover of the title track from Bowie’s final studio album. Palmer and Bischoff turn Bowie’s surreal musical dreamscape into a soulful string lament, with Palmer’s and Calvi’s vocals echoing from opposite ears above layered string melodies. It’s one part mystic hymnal, one part cult cabaret, one part pop poetry, and all parts transcendent.
SPACE ODDITY: Palmer’s husband, author Neil Gaiman, provides the countdown to “Space Oddity,” Bowie’s 1969 interstellar single. Weightless string melodies and pizzicato backdrops sparkle like the stars beneath Palmer’s airy vocals in this nebulous outer-space adventure.
ASHES TO ASHES: Palmer and Bischoff strip out the synth from this New Romantic 1980s nursery rhyme and focus instead on its melancholic vocal melodies. Palmer’s theatrical voice floats softly through layers of angular string melodies and deadpan backup vocals—wistful, nostalgic, and “strung out in Heaven’s high.”
HEROES: Of course, the album just wouldn’t be Bowie if it didn’t have a rendition of his 1970s synth-laden serenade, “Heroes.” Effervescent strings propel Palmer’s fervent vocals forward in this heartfelt tribute, with John Cameron Mitchell providing the background vocals for its impassioned climax.
HELDEN: Palmer and Mitchell also team up for an abridged cover of the German version of “Heroes.” Their fiery duet soars triumphantly over a textured string backdrop, paying tribute to a Bowie classic that truly transcends language.
LIFE ON MARS?: Bischoff turns Bowie’s surrealist sci-fi anthem into a lively instrumental string serenade, taking the original heartrending melody and transforming it into a happy and hopeful reminder of Bowie’s boundless musical imagination.
Because that’s the beauty of Bowie: his creative vision extended beyond genre, geography, or language. Throughout his chameleonic career, he created music that could connect and inspire people from all over the globe, and perhaps even beyond it.
“Music is the binding agent of our mundane lives,” Palmer wrote. “It cements the moments in which we wash the dishes, type the resumes, go to the funerals, have the babies. The stronger the agent, the tougher the memory, and Bowie was NASA-grade epoxy to a sprawling span of freaked-out kids over three generations. He bonded us to our weird selves. We can be us, he said. Just for one day.”
In the end, Bowie’s contributions to the world of music extend far past the confines of rock, glam, pop, or classical genres, reminding us that when it comes to art, the sky is the limit—and a creative spirit like his belongs right up alongside the stars. Rest in peace, Starman.
“The man, the artist, exits,” Palmer wrote. “But the music, the glue; it stays. It never stops binding us together.”
In Medieval times musicians were essentially court jesters—entertainers who performed music, told jokes, and did tricks to entertain the nobility or to make money at fairs and markets. But somewhere along the long and winding road of the Western music tradition, music became much more serious.
Fast forward to the 21st century, where opera houses and concert halls protect and preserve a canon of “serious” classical works. Audience members dress in suits and gowns, sit quietly in their seats, read expertly-crafted program notes, stick their noses in the air and, most importantly, never clap between movements.
Or at least, that’s how it feels sometimes. But the Spektral Quartet is here to dispel that classical concert-going stereotype and inject a little much-needed comic relief into the classical music realm.
Spektral’s new album, titled “Serious Business,” is anything but serious. The album comprises four different perspectives on humor through the lens of classical music, featuring three new works by living composers and one classic from that late, great father of the string quartet, Joseph Haydn.
But don’t let the lighthearted humor fool you—these guys are no classical music newbies. Comprised of violinists Clara Lyon and Austin Wulliman, violist Doyle Armbrust, and cellist Russell Rolen, the Spektral Quartet performs music from across the classical music spectrum. The group is committed to creating connections across the centuries and providing a discourse between the traditional classical canon and the, well, not-so-traditional contemporary classical canon.
“THIS ALBUM IS NOT FUNNY,” reads the first page of the album’s liner notes, in bold black and all caps. True, the music is not ha-ha funny per se—it’s not going to get you on the floor laughing, crying, or rolling around gut-busted and teary-eyed. But the music is, however, full of humor, tricks, subtle charm, and clever wit.
The first piece of “Serious Business,” composed by Sky Macklay, is not-so-subtly titled “Many, Many Cadences.” Suffice it to say, the piece has a lot, A LOT of cadences. Each instrument pings rapid-fire back and forth between the stratosphere and the lowest note in its pitch range, creating a twitchy, glitchy sound mass of tonal cadences clangoring up, down, sideways, and across like a pinball machine.
“Heaping nothing but cadences on top of one another is a little like an America’s Funniest Home Videos highlight reel of dads getting head-butted by waist-high toddlers,” violist Doyle Armbrust writes in the liner notes, “Which is to say, it’s all payoff.”
But that payoff doesn’t come easy—it takes a seriously talented group of string players to perform a tangled nine-minute mess of interwoven and overlapping melodic fragments, brain-frying base-jumps, and constant cadences.
Five short movements and some existential poetry comprise the next piece on the album, David Reminick’s “The Ancestral Mousetrap.” An absurdist macabre text by poet Russell Edson serves as the libretto for this musical phantasmagoria—and the string players themselves are the singers.
“The five-movement timbral kaleidoscope opens with a preposterous slide and ends with a scurry up the fingerboard,” Armbrust writes, “But for what happens in between, you are on your own.”
Yes, in between you are on your own in a thrilling and nightmarish hallucination of operatic horror, deranged pitch collections, melodic dissonance, asymmetrical meter, and the occasional four-part vocal harmony. In fact, it’s so unapologetically macabre that it borders on pulp—and therein lies the humor. But in all seriousness, the sheer skill it takes to perform a kaleidoscopic string quartet while also singing four-part harmonies is pretty incredible—and it’s on full display in this macabre musical mashup.
Spektral reels it back in with a performance of Haydn’s String Quartet Op. 33 No. 2, “The Joke.” From toying with key signatures to tongue-in-cheek codas and trap-door endings, this classic crowd favorite is filled with musical subversions to charm and amuse audiences—and Spektral doesn’t miss a beat. It’s a lighthearted homage to one of the greats, a charismatic and jovial joke reminding us classical music buffs never to take ourselves too seriously.
The album ends with a performance of Chris Fisher-Lochhead’s “Hack,” a sprawling 22-part piece composed on the transcribed vocal deliveries of standup comics. The source materials for each part vary in length from four seconds to three minutes, and the comics featured encompass a wide range of comedic styles and historical periods.
(Second Inversion was thrilled to present the video premiere of this gem a few weeks ago)
“Some are truculent, some are reflective,” Fisher-Lochhead said of the comedians. “Some use the stage as an arena for withering social critique, some for personal confession, some for ritualized transgression. Each section treats a single comedic bit by a single comedian; the source material is not always clearly foregrounded—it is often submerged, dissected, amplified, deconstructed, or otherwise transformed.”
The piece features impeccably nuanced string quartet transcriptions of 16 comedians ranging from Robin Williams to Sarah Silverman, Robert Pryor to Kumail Nanjiani, Dick Gregory to Sam Kinison. But here’s the funny thing: the piece removes the words from the formula of the joke, leaving us with just the humor of the comedic cadences.
It is sonic anarchy. “Hack” is an obstacle course of screeches, swoops, and sputters, breakneck tempos and unison outbursts, gauzy glissandi and meter changes. But for being a piece about comedy, it’s actually quite serious in scope and subject matter: it is an exploration into the music of American speech and the way that language, laughter, and music connects us all.
Because in the end, that’s what the entire album is about: finding the humor and charm in classical music, making a joke, sharing a smile, and maybe, just maybe, accidentally clapping between movements.
For most classically-trained musicians, performing a world premiere is the exception. But for flutist Paul Taub, it’s the rule.
Taub, a Cornish College of the Arts professor and well-known Seattle-area performer, has been a proponent of new music for decades. Over the years, he’s performed and commissioned countless premieres. But last November, he took it a step further.
Taub organized a concert of made up exclusively of world premieres by five area composers–Tom Baker, Andy Clausen, David Dossett, Jessika Kenney and Angelique Poteat–and featured a handful of world-class local performers, including Taub himself. The concert was part of the Wayward Music Series at the Good Shepherd Center’s chapel performance space. Second Inversion was there to record the concert and we’re pleased to present the audio!
I asked Taub a few questions about the pieces he commissioned, and his answers are below.
My musical life—as a student, an educator, member of ensembles, professional organizations, circles of colleagues and friends—has often centered on new works and their creators and interpreters. And my relationships and interactions with composers have been highlights of my career. In my thirty-six years in Seattle, I have participated in hundreds of commissions of new music. This project gave me a chance to create opportunities for five unique composers to write works for me, in a chamber setting. The works you will hear on this program will contribute significantly to the general repertoire for the flute in chamber music. They are also gifts to the Seattle music-loving community, brought together through its interest and support and enjoyment of these engaging and inspiring composers. For me, the final gift is to be able to prepare and perform these new works with some of my favorite colleagues – Laura DeLuca, clarinet; Walter Gray, cello; Joe Kaufman, contrabass; Cristina Valdes, piano; and Matthew Kocmieroski, percussion!
You’ve heard and performed lots of new music. What do you think makes a new piece really good?
That’s a tough question! People have such contrasts in taste, stylistic preference… What one person considers a masterpiece someone else will find trivial, or boring. I consider myself a musical omnivore in terms of style so I can only answer the question more “generally” by saying that what I really, really like is music that grips me both emotionally and intellectually. Somehow the perfect balance between those two elements makes for a great piece.
Why did you choose these five composers?
[These composers] have been invited to participate in this project because of the high artistic quality of their work, the diversity of their styles, the varied stages of their career trajectories, and above all, because their music truly speaks to me and to the public.
The variety of musical styles is a key element of the project. Baker and Kenney are well-established “mid-career” composers, with impressive resumes and works that have been played internationally. Poteat, in her late 20s, is emerging as a significant voice in the Seattle and national music world, with recent pieces commissioned by the Seattle Symphony. Emerging composers Dossett and Clausen (whose band The Westerlies has taken the jazz world by storm), are recent college graduates (Cornish College of the Arts and the Juilliard Jazz Program). The composers’ musical styles are varied and contrasting, with influences as diverse as jazz, electronics, Persian modes, classical music and improvisation.
What does the rest of this concert season have in store for you?
I’m especially looking forward to a few events. I’ll be playing a solo by Estonian composer Helena Tulve with the Seattle Modern Orchestra on February 20; touring the Northwest with a program of Brazilian flute and piano music with pianist/composer Jovino Santos Neto (Portland, Methow Valley, Seattle and Bellevue) in late February/early March; and taking the lead in a concert of music by Janice Giteck on April 12 at Cornish.
by Joshua Roman
I write this post as I head towards a concert in an unusual situation. I might actually use the sheet music.
This is very rare for me. I was brought up to not use music – in fact, it was not allowed in lessons at all. Memorization was not another step, it was simply part of “learning the piece”, and if you had learned the piece, you wouldn’t be using the music. It seemed simple enough, so that’s what I did for the first ten years of my musical life – never having the sheet music in front of me at a lesson, unless my teacher wanted to show me a rhythm or note I’d misread.
I do believe that as an approach, when coupled with the right techniques for internalizing music, this is the most effective method. It makes memorization a natural part of the process instead of something to be feared. Also, many of my friends growing up would save memorization for last, and in my experience, the thing saved for last is always the one that carries the most anxiety. This is as much to do with the placement in the order of things as it is to do with the actual task itself.
In order to make memorization part of the learning process, I like to start getting away from the music as early as possible. Even after the first reading, one should play through what you remember. Don’t worry if it’s not much at all. Over time, you’ll begin to remember more. Draw upon whatever senses help you. Visualizing the page, hearing when the theme returns, or similar (or unusual) sounds occur, the feeling in your hands in passagework, the emotional effect of the structure, etc., these are all useful. The main thing is to get an overview. Then, go back and use the music again, or even just look to see what you missed.
This is a very effective way of internalizing the piece, which goes beyond memorization. It’s not just about overview, though. As you continue your practicing beyond the initial reading of a new piece, continue avoiding looking at the music whenever possible, while playing. In fact, I like to study the music before touching the cello – hear it in my head, mark things down, make a plan – and then practice. Even if the plan gets tossed out the window, the practicing is almost always more effective.
You can come up with your own analogy of what the notes, dynamics, and other markings on the page are, but in the end they are just the beginning, the road map. One must follow them to the letter, but the map is there to send you on a journey, to take you off of the page into a 3D world full of valleys and mountain ranges, oceans and rivers. It’s a shame when I hear a performance stuck on the page because someone is afraid to let go. For me, switching the mentality from memorization to internalization is very helpful.
Another exercise: As you have a passage you need to practice, run it in your head while looking at the music. Be careful to note all of the expressive markings and dynamics, and to have a strong sense of the phrasing and character. Then, close your eyes and play. Go as deep into the character as possible, and don’t worry if you miss a few notes. Rinse and repeat. If you are truly immersing yourself in the musical aspects and not just the technical (caveat: you must have a good technical foundation, and be going slow enough that the technique of the passage is not an issue), you’ll find it etched deep into your performative brain and easy to recall later.
People ask me a lot if I have a photographic memory. I don’t- I just like to use as many kinds of memory as possible. At any given moment, it’s nice to have backups. But really, a well rounded memory bank of a piece is the natural result of a curious exploration of the work from all angles. As you study the score, you develop the visual memory. As you are aware of your body while you play, the motor memory kicks in. With the characters and emotional content come the structure of the piece, and as you listen in your head or sing out loud, the purely aural memory strengthens as well. Sometimes, stories, colors, shapes or other imaginative ideas become a part of the mashup. With all of these at play, it’s hard to forget something you learned well even years ago.
Our descent is about to start, and I’m going to review the Pärt as we go down. I stepped in on last minute notice for this recital, and while we’ve made plenty of time to rehearse, I haven’t had as much time on my own to practice. I’ve been feeling under the weather lately and the doctor gave me some wild medication which made me pretty useless yesterday, but today is better. I’m happy I even made it to the end of this post, and have gone through it several times to make sure sentence order is not reversed. Conversations have been full of backwards syllables, so I’m not sure Fratres is the best piece to internalize in this state…
(Joshua and Andrius Zlabys performing at Town Hall in April, 2014)
If you want to know more about memory outside of music, my pianist Andrius Zlabys recommends reading Moonwalking with Albert Einstein. I’ve been seeing the effects of the process as his lovely daughter puts it into practice and it’s quite impressive.
Last note: performance practice has changed in the last century, and it is more common now for music to be used. I’m not suggesting this is a bad thing, although I prefer not to use it myself. I find that if I’m able to internalize the music and remove the physical stand and sheet music from the stage, it’s one less barrier between the emotions in the music and the audience.
Concerto Grosso No. 1 – Schnittke (Gidon Kremer et al.)
The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars – David Bowie
David Bowie Narrates Peter and the Wolf – Prokofiev