ALBUM REVIEW: Los Angeles Percussion Quartet’s Beyond

by Seth Tompkins

The Los Angeles Percussion Quartet’s Beyond places intimacy front and center.  The delicate sonic encounters that permeate these two discs (or just one if you’re listening to the Blu-Ray) are not classic fodder for percussion ensembles.  While there are a smattering of grooves and some loud moments, Beyond leans much more strongly toward the ethereal and the delicate.  This forward-thinking curation, paired with LAPQ’s sensitive and thoughtful musicianship, makes this release a delight.

Daníel Bjarnason’s “Qui Tollis” is a microcosm of the whole of Beyond, with beckoning atmospheric figures framing a collection of engaging grooves that are made all the more striking by their juxtaposition with the gentle outer material.  This atmospherics-to-groove ratio and pattern runs through many of the individual pieces on this release, but also throughout the entire album as a whole.

Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s “Aura,” like much of her music, explores the boundaries of perception.  A collection of diverse and austere timbres unfolds throughout this piece as it plays with the edge of silence.  A deeply meditative piece, “Aura” benefits, as do many other pieces on this album, from listening in headphones or on a good surround-sound system.  Fancifully, “Aura” could be the musical version of experiencing an unfamiliar landscape: a place that, while neither particularly hostile nor favorable toward you, is captivating in its natural strangeness.

Christopher Cerrone’s transformational “Memory Palace” was the only piece on this release that was not new to my ears; Second Inversion recently released a video of Ian David Rosenbaum performing the entire work.  However, it was very interesting to experience the piece in an audio-only version.  In the video, the visual depiction of the enormous variety of instruments and performance techniques was a delight, but the audio-only performance on this recording offers a sense of intimacy and mystery that the video does not.  Ultimately, both performances are certainly worth a listen: they provide different ways of experiencing a tremendous piece that seems to have already staked out a lasting place in the percussion repertoire.

“Fear-Release” by Ellen Reid is an exercise in well-defined color palettes.  Most instruments used in this piece are metallic, although there are integral parts for marimba and bass drum.  This is perhaps a more traditional soundscape than some of the other pieces on Beyond, but it certainly matches the others in terms of its sophistication.  All five pieces on this release follow internal guiding principles—”Fear-Release” just happens to use a more traditional instrumentation within that same laudable compositional ethic.

Beyond closes with “I Hold the Lion’s Paw” by Andrew McIntosh.  This piece occupies nine tracks and comes packaged by itself in a separate disc (in the CD version).  This is a slightly puzzling setup until you take into account the listening note that accompanies this piece, which  recommends that this piece is best taken in its entirety.  This instruction makes sense, given “Lion’s Paw”‘s tendency towards percussive recitative. This is a slower burn than the other pieces on Beyond, but it is perhaps the most dramatic work on the album.

At many points during Beyond, it is easy to forget that you are listening to a percussion ensemble.  These moments, when the music itself becomes the primary focus, beyond any considerations of the instrumentation, performers, or extra-musical context, are rare—and the ability to deliver them is a triumph for any ensemble.  The fact that Beyond presents so many opportunities in which to become lost in the music is a credit to the curation of the quartet.  The construction of this collection deserves as much praise as the intelligent performances and thoughtful compositions contained therein.

A Mouthful of Forevers: An Interview with Gregg Kallor

by Maggie Molloy

Composer and pianist Gregg Kallor is used to being on stage during the premiere of most of his compositions—but at the Town Music season finale last night, he watched from the audience as Joshua Roman led members of the Seattle Symphony and Seattle Youth Symphony Orchestras in the world premiere performance of his new string orchestral work, A Mouthful of Forevers.

Based in New York, Kallor’s music fuses elements of classical and jazz to create a deeply personal musical language. We caught up with him during the dress rehearsal of his new piece to talk about music, poetry, and his new world premiere.

 

Second Inversion: What was it like hearing A Mouthful of Forevers performed for the first time?

Gregg Kallor: Exhilarating, nerve-wracking, gratifying, exciting—it was amazing. This is actually the first piece of mine that I have not been a part of the premiere of (as a performer or conductor).  It’s a different experience to sit in the audience and listen to it—but I couldn’t ask for a better advocate than Joshua Roman. It was so beautiful to watch these musicians whom I’ve never met all digging into this piece that I wrote. They’re all bringing their experience and their ideas. They really took it on as their own, and there’s no greater feeling than that.

SI: How would you describe the sound of this piece?

GK: I wanted to write something both lithe and lush—evocative vignettes with the grooving rhythms and shifting moods that Joshua navigates so beautifully.

SI: What was the inspiration for this piece?

GK: There’s an incredible poet, her name is Clementine von Radics, and she wrote a poem called “Mouthful of Forevers”; it’s also the title of a collection of poems that she published. It’s exquisite—it’s this heartbreaking, beautiful love poem and it’s talking about how both people have come into it with baggage and scars, but that makes the miracle of them finding each other that much more potent. It’s just beautiful. Her language is so honest and direct—there are no filters. I’m struck by a lot of her poetry—I’ve read that book ten times, but that poem in particular just really got to me and it was the inspiration for this piece.

SI: What was it like collaborating with Joshua Roman on this premiere?

GK: Joshua is one of the best musicians I’ve ever met. He’s extraordinary as a player, he’s a fantastic composer—now I’m seeing him conducting and it’s amazing. He’s just an extraordinary musician and a great, great friend, and I’m so honored and lucky that he’s championing my music.

LIVE BROADCAST: Town Music Season Finale

by Maggie Molloy

Every end marks a new beginning—and as the 2016-2017 Town Music series comes to a close, artistic director Joshua Roman looks excitedly toward the future with a program of works by living (and thriving!) composers.

For this Wednesday’s season finale, Joshua conducts members of the Seattle Youth Symphony Orchestra as they perform alongside SYSO alums and musical mentors. The wide-ranging program draws from musical traditions old and new, near and far—featuring a tribute to Haydn by Pulitzer Prize-winner Caroline Shaw, the world premiere of a new jazz-inspired work by Gregg Kallor, a tango-infused chamber piece by Osvaldo Golijov, a string homage to Hindustani classical by Reena Esmail, and much more.

Join us as we broadcast the performance LIVE this Wednesday from Town Hall Seattle! Download our app or click here to listen to the broadcast online from anywhere in the world, streaming live on Wednesday, June 21 at 7:30pm PST.

Concert Program:

Caroline Shaw: Entr’acte
Reena Esmail: Teen Murti
Gregg Kallor: A Mouthful of Forevers (World Premiere)

—INTERMISSION—

Osvaldo Golijov: Last Round
Christopher Theofanidis: Visions and Miracles
Jessie Montgomery: Starburst


Town Music’s Every New Beginning concert is Wednesday, June 21 at 7:30pm at Town Hall. Click here for more information, and click here to tune in to Second Inversion’s live broadcast.

VIDEO PREMIERE: Memory Palace by Christopher Cerrone

by Maggie Molloy

Still frame from Mark DeChiazza’s video for Christopher Cerrone’s Memory Palace.

The method of loci is a mnemonic strategy dating all the way back to the ancient Greeks and Romans. The idea is this: you memorize the layout of a building or geographic space, then assign memories to any number of discrete locations within itand to recall the information, you imagine yourself walking back through the space.

In composer Christopher Cerrone’s Memory Palace, he takes that method one step further: instead of imagining a geographic space, he creates a sonic one. Composed for solo percussion and electronics, the piece is performed on a collection of homemade instruments and field recordings. In Cerrone’s memory, the palace is built of crickets and cheap guitars, wind chimes and wooden planks, beer bottles and quiet breath. The result is a vivid mosaic of music and memory—an intimate retrospective of a life lived in sound.

Memory Palace is a kind of paean to places and people that have deeply affected me,” Cerrone said. “The sounds in the piece are signposts; they help me remember—and more important, understand, who I am.”

Percussionist Ian David Rosenbaum premieres Cerrone’s Memory Palace in this brand new video by Mark DeChiazza:

György Ligeti’s Musical Odyssey

by Michael Schell

When Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey hit theaters in 1968, it caused quite a stir. Here was a major Hollywood feature film that had no famous actors and very little dialog (indeed none at all during its first and last 25 minutes), a soundtrack built mainly from classical music matched to the imagery with extraordinary symbiosis, and an ambiguous ending that owed more to the aesthetics of experimental cinema than to conventional narrative filmmaking. Although the space age had inspired plenty of science fiction movies, Kubrick’s Odyssey was unique, and it remains so today even on the cusp of its 50th anniversary.

In popular culture, the most iconic music from 2001 seems to be Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra (the first 21 bars anyway), followed by the Blue Danube Waltz and the most degenerate rendition ever of Bicycle Built for Two. But connoisseurs of modern music are drawn to the evocative compositions of György Ligeti (1923–2006) that anchor the film’s monolith and stargate sequences.

With digital projection technology making it easier for traditional concert venues to screen big Hollywood movies, orchestras have begun presenting Kubrick’s classic with live musicians instead of a canned soundtrack—and on June 30 and July 1, Seattle Symphony will do just that, joined by the Seattle Symphony Chorale, Associate Conductor Pablo Rus Broseta, and the vaunted technical crew at Benaroya Hall. Leading up to this will be three concerts June 22-24 featuring the first complete Seattle performances of one of the Ligeti works excerpted in the soundtrack, the Requiem.

After 2001’s release, Ligeti fans quickly embraced it as a landmark for evangelizing his work (“You remember the music in 2001 when the astronaut goes through the stargate? That was Ligeti.”). But it turned out Kubrick had never even contacted Ligeti about the film—and when the composer first saw it, he was furious at the unauthorized use of his compositions. Lawyers eventually worked out the licensing, tempers cooled down, and Kubrick went on to use Ligeti’s music again (this time with the composer’s blessing) in The Shining and Eyes Wide Shut. Meanwhile, 2001 exposed Ligeti’s music to a wide audience, though for better or worse it was now associated with “space music.” But who was this Ligeti fellow anyway, and what was this strange music all about if it wasn’t written specifically for sci-fi flicks?

Early Years

Ligeti was born in Transylvania, a Hungarian-speaking border region that changed nationality twice during his youth (it’s now part of Romania). The family name is Hungarian, accented on the first syllable, and György is pronounced like “George.” A secular Jew of military age during World War II, he defied the odds by avoiding both conscription to the Eastern Front (where hundreds of thousands of Hungarian soldiers died) and deportation to the Nazi death camps (where most of his family perished).

Ligeti came of age musically in the heavily-censored environment of post-War communist Hungary, where contact with contemporary classical music was suppressed, and even a national hero like Bartók was considered dangerously subversive. Most of Ligeti’s music from this time is folkloristic, but his best early composition, the First String Quartet (subtitled Métamorphoses Nocturnes), shows the clear influence of Bartókian modernism, even surreptitiously incorporating a four-note lick from the master’s “decadent” Fourth String Quartet as a recurring ritornello.

In 1956 Soviet tanks brutally suppressed a popular uprising in Hungary, and Ligeti escaped to Vienna, eventually becoming an Austrian citizen. He took advantage of his new freedom to immerse himself in the post-War avant-garde, attending the famous Darmstadt Courses, and getting to know leading European composers like Boulez, Stockhausen, Xenakis, and Penderecki, as well as American figures like John Cage and David Tudor.

Middle Years and Atmospheres

After some experiments with tape music, Ligeti decided that when it came to creating new sounds, conventional instruments playing in unconventional ways could outclass the simple electronic music instruments available at the time. So he created a remarkable series of scores whose exploration of sheer instrumental timbre was unprecedented in Western music.

Atmospheres (from 1961) is perhaps the purest expression of Ligeti’s new aesthetic, in which tone color is elevated to a role equal to or greater in importance than pitch and rhythm. Atmospheres has no recognizable tunes or distinctive rhythms, making it the ideal accompaniment for the entry of 2001 astronaut Dave Bowman into the stargate (a sequence that’s devoid of representational imagery).

Stargate sequence from 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Many listeners whose first exposure to Atmospheres is over the radio or through the soundtrack to 2001 assume that the piece is electronic—but it’s actually written for large orchestra. Ligeti discovered that sustained tone clusters—where all the available chromatic pitches within a specific range are sounded together—diminish one’s sense of definite pitch, leaving behind an impression of pure timbre and register. The piece starts off this way, pianissimo, with the full string section, joined by some horns and woodwinds, holding a chromatic cluster of notes distributed across four and a half octaves. At 4:21 in the above video, the double basses grind out a low cluster that ranges down to the orchestra’s bottommost C.

Rather than coalescing into a chord, this cluster sounds more like a dark pool of color. It soon dissolves into a new sonority, made up of the remaining bowed strings individually sliding stepwise along a narrow range, a technique that Ligeti called micropolyphony. It looks incredibly complicated in the score excerpt—each player’s part is separately notated in 2/2 time with extreme rhythmic precision. But Ligeti’s notation is designed to synchronize the musicians and control the density of the texture without conveying any kind of beat. The effect is that of a slowly moving cloud, like a swarm of insects, with little sense of individually distinguishable line.

Any composer can write a piece like this today, but it was Ligeti who demonstrated how these astonishing sounds could be coaxed out of an ensemble and organized into a new musical language that we now call sonorism.

Aventures

Not all of Ligeti’s music from the 1960s was of the sonorist variety. Aventures and Nouvelles Aventures are closer to the pointillist style common in Europe after World War II, though their craft and invention places them above the pack. Scored for three singers and chamber ensemble, they use no conventional text, only nonsense syllables together with a host of extended vocal techniques, such as the audible breathing at the start of Aventures that’s depicted in the score using triangular note heads:

Poème Symphonique at Benaroya Hall, October 2012 with Ludovic Morlot in the background.

There’s also no explicit libretto, though the singers do seem to be acting out some sort of unspecified comedic drama. Ligeti, like Cage, could deploy humor when he needed to, and that often gave him an edge over his more chronically serious European colleagues. A two-minute electronically filtered excerpt from Aventures accompanies Dave Bowman’s breathing as he walks through his extraterrestrial chambers in the final scene of 2001.

Ligeti’s sense of humor also comes out in a few unabashed “joke” pieces, like the Poème Symphonique for 100 metronomes. Ligeti unveiled it in 1962 as a bit of Fluxus levity, but the gradually decaying clatter of the mechanical devices had its serious side which found expression later in several rhythmically driven “metronome” pieces, such as the third movement of the Second String Quartet, a landmark of the 20th century quartet repertory that applies sonorism to the intimate sphere of chamber music.

Requiem and Lux Aeterna

Ligeti’s Requiem (completed in 1965) combines his sonorist and pointillist styles into a single epic work for large choir and orchestra and two solo female voices. It’s arguably one of the three greatest 20th century Requiem settings, along with Britten’s War Requiem and Stravinsky’s Requiem Canticles (all written in the 1960s by non-Catholics). The fact that it has taken half a century to mount a performance of it in Seattle is testament to its difficulty.

The opening introit, Requiem æternam dona eis Domine, is in the style of Atmospheres. The dynamic range is from soft (p) to extraordinarily soft (pppp), and except for the line exaudi orationem meam (“hear my prayer”) growled by the basses midway through, the movement progresses gradually upward from bass to treble clusters—an obvious metaphor for ascension. At about five minutes in comes the last line, et lux perpetua luceat eis (“and may everlasting light shine upon them”), where Ligeti brings in a bright cluster featuring flutes and string harmonics. It’s like a gentle beam of white light illuminating the afterlife.

The Kyrie appears in 2001’s monolith and stargate sequences. It’s a classic example of micropolyphony that took the composer nine months to write. Ligeti gives groups of choristers distinct entries where they start out in unison (supported by sustained orchestral notes), then fan out in disparate lines whose movement accelerates as their range expands—like a creek that divides into multiple channels as it descends a cascade (click here to see the score). Except for some initial consonants, you can’t really make out any words. Incredibly, the form is very similar to the great choral fugues of Handel and Haydn, but in place of the latter’s triumphalism the effect here is more like a subdued mob of humanity desperately pleading for mercy.

The Dies Irae shifts to the pointillist style of Aventures, but without the latter’s humor (divine justice is serious business!). The crazy leaps in the soloists’ parts have been likened to “the Queen of the Night on acid,” and the accompanying tumult, inspired by Renaissance depictions of the Last Judgment by Memling, Bruegel, Bosch, and Dürer, was aptly described by the composer as “hysterical, hyperdramatic, and unrestrained.”

Pieter Bruegel the Elder: The Last Judgment.

After this ordeal, the closing Lacrimosa prayer functions as something of a release. It begins with a pedal on the orchestra’s lowest C, and progresses through a sound world similar to the introit, but it’s more transparent, with several textures featuring extreme lows and highs with little in the middle. The ending is ambiguous: a high cluster seems to offer illuminating hope, but the last word goes to the bass instruments, as if to reflect a fundamental ambivalence.

Ligeti’s Requiem only sets a portion of the traditional text of the Catholic Mass for the Dead. A few years later, he wrote a separate setting of the closing Lux Aeterna communion for 16 a cappella voices. It’s the last Ligeti piece excerpted in 2001, where it accompanies the moon shuttle sequence, and it resembles the vocal writing in the Requiem’s Kyrie movement, though the lines move more slowly and the texture is more transparent. An interesting detail is that the first half of Lux emphasizes female voices while the latter half emphasizes men’s. Today the work is recognized as one of the classics of postmodern choral music.

Later Years

Ligeti’s sonorist period culminated in 1977 with Le Grand Macabre, his only full length opera. The success of its farcical, surrealist libretto, adapted from a play by Michel de Ghelderode, is still debated. But there’s little debate about the caliber of the music, which is colorful, varied, and unashamed of its voluptuous sound surface.

After Le Grand Macabre Ligeti, like Beethoven, was quiet for a few years before reinventing himself in a third style period that combined avant-garde techniques with more traditional forms. What his middle period music did for timbre, his late music does for rhythm, and one often hears the distilled influence of African indigenous music, American minimalism, and the polymetric player piano studies of Conlon Nancarrow.

Many of Ligeti’s most frequently performed works come from this period, including the Piano Etudes and the Violin Concerto which Augustin Hadelich will perform with Ludovic Morlot and the Seattle Symphony in January 2018.

Ligeti’s last major work was the 2002 Hamburg Concerto for one solo horn, four “natural” (valveless) horns, and orchestra. He contemplated writing a second opera based on Alice in Wonderland, but old age and ill health curtailed his compositional activity. He died in 2006, leaving behind his wife Vera and his son Lukas, himself a noted composer and drummer based in the U.S.

But this hardly scratches the surface of one of 20th century music most resourceful and multi-faceted characters: a cosmopolitan intellectual who taught composition in the local language at universities in Hungary, Germany, Sweden, and the U.S., and who could additionally speak French and Romanian; an atheist Jew who wrote one of the most important Requiems of all time; a gregarious and generous man who spent countless years haunted by the specter of death and evil; and an artist as demanding in his craft as he was daring in his aesthetics, notorious for insisting on precise execution of his meticulous performance directions. He had that in common with Kubrick, who was likewise infamous for his obsessive preparation and endless takes. By the end of their careers, both men were considered by many to be the best in the world at their profession. Perhaps their ultimate affinity was that of a lifetime devoted to perfecting new horizons.

“Dave, I can’t put my finger on it, but I sense something strange about him. He keeps listening to this weird modern music.”


The Seattle Symphony performs Ligeti’s Requiem on June 22-24 and 2001: A Space Odyssey on June 30 and July 1. Click here for tickets and additional information.

Click here for a list of recommended recordings of Ligeti’s music.

Staff Picks: Friday Faves

Second Inversion hosts share a favorite selection from their weekly playlist. Tune in on Friday, June 16 to hear these pieces and plenty of other new and unusual music from all corners of the classical genre!

Daníel Bjarnason: “all sounds to silence come” (Bedroom Community)

There is so much good music coming out of Iceland that sometimes it’s a challenge just to keep up with all of it. Icelandic composer and conductor Daníel Bjarnason is a staple on my personal playlist—his gorgeously textured, celestial soundscapes blur the line between classical and electronic musical idioms, drawing freely from the intellectual rigor of the classical tradition while living in the spontaneity and experimentalism of new music.

Scored for chamber orchestra and conducted by Bjarnason, “all sounds to silence come” is a two-movement bonus track released on his debut album Processions. The piece makes use of the orchestra’s entire timbral palette, drifting from a dramatic and densely textured first movement to a soft and ethereal second that hovers just above silence. The result is an immersive sound world that shimmers with color and sparkles with orchestral detail. – Maggie Molloy

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 2pm hour today to hear this piece.


Alyssa Morris: Four Personalities for Oboe and Piano (MSR Classics)
Michele Fiala, oboe; William Averill, piano

Have you ever wondered what the four personalities of Hartman’s Personality Profile would sound like as duets for oboe and piano?

Before reading this most people probably hadn’t wondered, but now it’s an intriguing proposition! American composer Alyssa Morris brings us Four Personalities for Oboe and Piano. She based the four-movement work on the four general categories associated with the Hartman test, which aims to assess the underlying elements that motivate individuals, then assigns them a color: Yellow is motivated by fun, White by peace, Blue by intimacy, and Red by power.

Each movement is entertaining, energetic, and expertly executed by oboist Michele Fiala and pianist William Averill. They capture not just the basic comic book hue of each color, but rather the full kaleidoscopic palette within each personality and clearly have a great time doing it. – Brendan Howe

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 3pm hour today to hear this piece.


Ben Lukas Boysen: Golden Times 2 (Erased Tapes Records)

It occurs to me that this track could be heard as mournful or melancholy, but I have an alternative interpretation.  Despite the Donnie Darko aesthetic, Golden Times 2 seems to be a relaxed and optimistic meditation.  I especially love the extra-low bass that creeps around for most of the track and the swingy cymbal groove that completely transforms the vibe upon entry.  Grab a cold beverage and a seat in the sunshine and enjoy!
– 
Seth Tompkins

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 7pm hour today to hear this piece.


Robert Beaser: Pag-Rag (Albany Records)
Christopher Janwong McKiggan, piano

Pianist Christopher Janwong McKiggan was the 2009 collegiate gold medalist from the Seattle International Piano Competition. As he moves forward in his career, he is charting a path of new music, commissioning seven composers in 2012 to compose works for piano inspired by Niccolò Paganini’s 24th Caprice. Beaser’s Pag-Rag is both undeniably fun and a deliciously mean technical challenge for the pianist. A far cry from most listeners’ straightforward idea of a rag, this piece is full of lightning-fast changes of character and texture, giving it unexpected depth and variety. It’s a wonderful showcase of McKiggan’s playing. – Geoffrey Larson

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

Westerlies Go West: Tonight at the Royal Room!

by Maggie Molloy

Photo by Sasha Arutyunova.

The Westerlies are back in the Northwest this week, coming home with new sounds and brand new music to premiere tonight at the Royal Room in Columbia City.

Far from your typical brass band, the Seattle-bred, New York-based quartet is known on both coasts for their bold artistry, impeccable finesse, eclectic musical interpretations, and remarkable versatility. Together, they’ve cultivated an expansive brass quartet repertoire featuring over 50 original compositions as well as adaptations of composers as diverse and wide-ranging as Ives, Ellington, Bartók, Ligeti, and many more.

Comprised of Riley Mulherkar and Zubin Hensler on trumpet with Andy Clausen and Willem de Koch on trombone, the Westerlies grew up together playing music in Seattle under the mentorship of Wayne Horvitz—making their homecoming performance all the more special, as Horvitz is the co-founder and music programmer of the Royal Room.

The Westerlies performing with Wayne Horvitz at the Royal Room. Photo by Daniel Sheehan.

Tonight, you can expect to hear a little jazz, a little classical, some folk, roots, blues, and chamber influences—but no matter what the Westerlies play, the one element that remains constant across all of their music is the warmth, camaraderie, charisma, and humor of four longtime friends.

“Whatever ‘sound’ the Westerlies have stumbled upon is the result of four friends channeling these diverse interests through warm air, buzzing lips and conical brass tubes—with a lot of love and saliva in there too,” said Andy Clausen.

For a sneak preview, check out our in-studio videos of the guys performing works by Charles Ives, Andy Clausen, and Wayne Horvitz:


The Westerlies perform at the Royal Room Thursday, June 15 at 8pm. For tickets and additional information, please click here.