ALBUM OF THE WEEK: Richard Reed Parry’s “Music for Heart and Breath”

by Maggie Stapleton

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As a gigantic Arcade Fire fan, my heart grew 10 sizes when I found out about Richard Reed Parry’s Music for Heart and Breath, an album of original compositions.  When I actually heard the music and learned about the inspiration for the pieces, I was knocked over like I haven’t been in the longest time.

The musical conceptualization of this album comes from the heart – literally.  Each of the six pieces requires involuntarily moving organs of the body to dictate the tempi and rhythms.   How, you may wonder, does one determine those speeds?

Paging Doctor Beat.  We’ll need your stethoscopes.

Each musician is instructed to play with a stethoscope (and consequently, at a soft dynamic level) in order to be exactly in sync with his or her own heartbeat.  The variety in ebb and flow between the players’ pulses creates a pointillistic effect – in many instances on the album is like that of a relaxing rainfall – that will undoubtedly never sound exactly the same in two different instances.

In fact, the nature of the performance situation can impart serious variation on the length of the piece.  Rehearsals take significantly more time than performances.  “Interruptions,” took 25 minutes to rehearse the first time, and only 19 minutes to perform.  Thanks, adrenaline!

The album journeys between instrumentation varieties and sizes and features an all-star cast of musicians: yMusic, Kronos Quartet, Nico Muhly, Nadia Sirota, and Bryce & Aaron Dessner.  The smallest group is a duet; the largest a 14-member chamber orchestra, with sizes in between to keep depth of sound and dynamic range at varying levels.

 

Quartet for Heart and Breath

Interruptions (Heart and Breath Nonet): Miniature I

Interruptions (Heart and Breath Nonet): String Peaks

Interruptions (Heart and Breath Nonet): Wind’s Idea

Interruptions (Heart and Breath Nonet): Miniature II

Interruptions (Heart and Breath Nonet): Sticks/Tension

Interruptions (Heart and Breath Nonet): French Guitars

Interruptions (Heart and Breath Nonet): Freeform Winds/String Drones

Duet for Heart and Breath

Quartet for Heart and Breath (for Kronos)

While Parry doesn’t have formal training in classical music, he comes from a family of musicians and  enjoys music from Machaut to Debussy to Ligety to Reich.  Influences from all of those composers are hinted at here and there throughout the disc.  Parry presents himself as an extremely well-rounded musician and a revolutionary way of conceiving time and imparting creative innovation into the realm of music performed on orchestral instruments.

I think Parry sums it up best with this lovely phrase, “I think there’s something quite beautiful about the idea of trying to literally play your heart out.”

You can purchase this album at Deutsche GrammaphonAmazon, or iTunes.

 

ALBUM OF THE WEEK: Julia Wolfe’s “Steel Hammer”

by Jill Kimball

Julia Wolfe's Steel Hammer

Almost everyone has heard some version of a song about the man called John Henry. Legend has it that John Henry was a steel driver–someone who drilled holes into rock so that explosives could blast entire mountainsides and make way for tunnels and railroads. One day, he tried to keep up with a machine and succeeded, only to die of stress-induced heart failure on the spot.

A statue of John Henry in Summers County, West Virginia.

A statue of John Henry in Summers County, West Virginia.

The character is fictional, but he represented the hordes of exploited laborers who built miles of American railroad in the late 19th century in harsh conditions for next to no pay. To this day, he is a symbol of unfair labor practices, of human strength, and of the skilled worker’s ongoing struggle to find work in an age of machines.

The folk song “John Henry” is well-known across so many genres. Everybody from Bruce Springsteen to Johnny Cash to Aaron Copland to They Might Be Giants has recorded, arranged or referenced it. Rather than being deterred by its ubiquity, though, the composer Julia Wolfe was inspired by it. Believe it or not, she waded through every version of “John Henry” she could find, noted all the lyric differences–since it’s an old folk tale, there are many–and wrote her own tribute in an album called Steel Hammer.

 

Musically, there’s a lot going on in this album. Norway’s vocal Trio Mediaeval provides strange, haunting and ethereal vocals throughout, accompanied by vastly different groups of instruments on each track. But the concept is simple: it’s an amalgamation of every John Henry story ever told, the details of which are often contradictory.

The album begins with mysterious, minimalistic vocals that reminded me a lot of fellow Bang on A Can composer David Lang. Then, a few effects are layered over the voices as they mimic the sound of a train whistle amid what sounds like a steel hammer driving into rock and the constant chug-a-chug of a steam engine.

According to legend, John Henry worked on a railroad in West Virginia. Or perhaps it was Kentucky. Or was it Columbus, Ohio? All of John Henry’s supposed locations are listed off in the folky, meandering second track, “The States,” which is pleasantly dissonant in all the right places. I especially like the introduction of driving percussion later in the track.

Two other tracks, “Characteristics” and “Polly Ann – The Race,” poke fun at the inconsistencies between John Henry stories. Some say he was tall; others say he was small. While some versions call his lover Polly Ann, others call her Mary Ann.

In “Destiny,” we learn that John Henry sealed his fate when he discovered his strength. “This hammer’s gonna be the death of me,” the vocal trio repeats as a piano and a cello play frenetic dissonant patterns and grow ever louder. The whole track ends loudly and abruptly, creating a frightening cliffhanger. We’re on the edge of our seats even though we all know the story’s tragic end.

“Mountain” paints a musical picture of the setting around which John Henry worked. At first it’s contemplative and tonal, but it grows increasingly dissonant as the steel driver’s death sinks in.

The two last movements, “Winner” and “Lord, Lord”, are like the modern answer to a Requiem mass, a seven-minute opportunity to come to grips with John Henry’s death, to grieve, and finally to hope that he is at peace now.

There’s a reason why this album was the runner-up for a Pulitzer Prize. It’s a triumph: beautiful but challenging, modern but accessible, at once relaxed and disquieting. I highly recommend you check it out! It’s available now on Cantaloupe Music‘s website.

CONCERT PREVIEW: Parnassus Project’s “Six Melodies”

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Seattle’s innovative chamber music collective Parnassus Project has been busy this summer performing on the Mostly Nordic Concert series, Occidental Park’s ArtSparks series, Kirkland Summer Fest, KING FM’s NW Focus Live and this Friday, August 15 at 8pm they’re performing a special program of American music on the Wayward Concert Series at the Good Shepherd Center in Wallingford.  The repertoire spans 66 years of the late 20th and early 21st centuries and highlights both American composition masters and up-and-coming composers Cole Bratcher, based here in Seattle, and George Gianopoulos, based in Los Angeles.

A handful of the performers stopped by the KING FM studios last Friday night to preview the concert.  Here are their recordings of some Elliott Carter (Haeyoon Shin, cello; Brooks Tran piano):

 

and Philip Glass (Luke Fitzpatrick, Sol Im, violins; Clifton Antoine, viola; Emily Hu, cello):

The full program for Friday includes:

John CAGE: Six Melodies for violin and keyboard (1950)
Elliott CARTER: Sonata for cello and piano (1948)
Cole BRATCHER: “Child of a Broken Home” for solo flute (2014)
George N. GIANOPOULOS: Three Conversations for violin & cello Op. 16b (2008-2009/2012) // 24 Chorale Preludes for string quartet Op. 6b [selections] (2011)
Philip GLASS: String Quartet No. 5 (1991)

…performed by some top-notch local musicians – all of the aforementioned as well as flutist Daria Binkowski.  Invite your friends and go check it out!

ALBUM OF THE WEEK: Time for Three (Self-Titled)

by Maggie Stapleton

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Time for Three (a.k.a. TF3) totally nails the concept of “Rethink Classical.”  The members of this genre-defying trio (Zachary (Zach) De Pue, violin; Nicolas (Nick) Kendall, violin; and Ranaan Meyer, double bass) were trained at the Curtis Institute of Music and undoubtedly have incredible classical chops.  Their fluency and natural ability to play arrangements of The Beatles, Kanye West, and Katy Perry equally as well as Bach and Brahms is what sets these guys apart and makes their self-proclaimed “classically-trained garage band” title totally accurate.

“How do we reach a younger audience?” is a hot topic among symphony orchestras around the globe right now.  The Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra has teamed up with TF3 for their “Happy Hour Series,” where they perform on about four programs per year.  I had a chance to talk to TF3 a few weeks ago about this experience and they absolutely love it.  They’ve developed a fan base of young professionals (90% are ages 20-45) who keep coming back, concert after concert.  TF3 caters to the needs of that demographic by crafting performances in the concert hall that are similar in format to rock shows – lights, trajectory of a playlist that takes you on a journey, and music that is groove-oriented and familiar.  They’ll pair Beethoven alongside Coldplay… Brahms… Radiohead.  The audience may come for the Radiohead, but find unexpected connections with Brahms.

And speaking of performances and venues, the guys are currently on tour and stopping right here in Seattle on Wednesday, August 13 at the Columbia City Theater, where you can sit or stand, drink a beer, dance, and make merry in this fun, historic space.  The show starts at 8pm and tickets are still available!

Their recently released self-titled album is an emblem for the modern era of genre-crossover, containing an impressive collection of arrangements, originals, and guest performers (Joshua Radin! Alisa Weilerstein!  Jake Shimabukuro!  Branford Marsalis!  Lily & Madeleine!).  We had the pleasure of having Nick, Ranaan, and Zach in our studios for a special in-studio performance:

 

Our hats are off to you, TF3, for this amazing collection of originals, covers, and collaborations!  If you like what you hear, pop over to iTunes or Amazon and make it yours.