ALBUM OF THE WEEK: Howard Hersh’s “Angels and Watermarks”

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by Seth Tompkins

Angels and Watermarks, a new release from Snow Leopard Music, features music of Californian composer Howard Hersh.  California-based pianist Brenda Tom performs on all three pieces on this CD, two of which are for solo keyboard.  This disc contains a delightful mix of musical styles set in the broad and colorful world of Hersh’s own modern musical language.

The final piece on the disc, Dream, for solo piano, was written as the composer was “exploring ways of incorporating tonal harmony.” Recalling, at times, some of the lighter music of Arvo Pärt, this piece unfolds slowly and delicately, repeating simple melodic lines in a manner consistent with its title.  The overall effect is one of relaxation, but not without struggle.  Resolution finally comes after the seven-minute mark, with the surprising introduction of a powerful bass note.  This is the first point in the piece when low sounds of any heft are used; it is the only moment when the piece feels at all grounded.  It is a brief moment, but quite satisfying and appropriate in the context of this largely ethereal solo.  On this track, pianist Brenda Tom’s reserve and patience are laudable.  She does not rush the development of this piece, but allows it to grow at the measured, steady pace that this type of music requires in order to be effective.

The preceding piece, Angels and Watermarks, showcases a completely different type of performance from Tom.  Here, she wholeheartedly digs into multi-faceted music that displays the harpsichord in many different lights.

In Angels and Watermarks, for solo harpsichord, Hersh has built a suite that not only fulfills its goal of displaying the harpsichord’s “historical voice,” but that also takes the instrument into relatively new places, all of which work equally well.  The title adds depth to this sonic exploration; it is taken from the title of an essay by painter Henry Miller, in which Miller describes his attempt to create authentic and personal art while inescapably conscious of the work of the generations of artists that came before.  This connection seems appropriate for a suite that clearly references past sounds while branching out in new directions.

The outer movements of Angels are the most referential to classical harpsichord styles, complete with comfortably familiar (but slightly tedious) filigree straight out of the 17th century.  Despite this traditional styling, the modern harmonies in these movements keep them interesting.  The second movement is a romping perpetuum mobile that, among other devices, uses a variety of meters and cluster chords to keep listeners on their toes.  The middle movement is perhaps the most challenging of the suite, containing the widest variety of sounds from disparate genres.  Here live ghosts of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, 20th century minimalism, impressionism, and ragtime, along with a healthy dose of ancient sounds that showcase the almost lyre-like qualities of the harpsichord.  Despite the mash-up, pianist Brenda Tom blends the styles beautifully.  The fourth movement, designed to recall the toccata, is also particularly enjoyable.  Continuing in the style-blending footsteps of the third, it includes, along with a healthy dose of straight-forward and exuberant chromaticism, a good deal of blues and an apparent (and charming) recurring reference to Dave Brubeck’s Blue Rondo a la TurkAngels and Watermarks is successful in that it seamlessly blends harpsichord sounds, both old and new, in a pleasingly contiguous way.  Hersh manages to transcend the unmistakable sound of the harpsichord in service of good music, an impressive feat.

The leading piece on this disc, Hersh’s Concerto for Piano and Ten Instruments is the collection’s best example of the full spectrum of Hersh’s original musical language.  As in the other two pieces, some genre-specific sounds (tango, swing, and bossa nova, mostly) do appear occasionally, but overall, the language here seems original and modern.   When it comes to the accompanying ensemble, Hersh has chosen the instruments well; he manages to draw an impressively wide spectrum of colors from the mid-sized ensemble.  Of particular note is the broad array in which the solo piano interacts with the ensemble; some passages are purely piano or purely ensemble, but are also a myriad colors in between in which the piano plays every role that could be expected, from melodic leader to supporting player.  Brenda Tom, as in Angels, again moves effortlessly between styles and characters, further deepening the already engaging music of the Concerto.

One of the more enjoyable characteristics about the Concerto is the light and airy quality of many of Hersh’s melodies; they manage to feel free and easy without lacking substance.  The tact of conductor Barbara Day Turner and the ensemble is notable here; such smoothness would not be possible without their adept support.  Percussionist Patti Niemi, in particular, executes Hersh’s perfectly balanced percussion parts with exceptional grace and reservation.

You can purchase this album on:
AmazoniTunes, or Arkiv Music

LIVE PERFORMANCE FEATURE: Seattle Pro Musica sings David Lang

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David Lang‘s the little match girl passion won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for music, and was recently performed by Seattle Pro Musica under the direction of Karen P. Thomas:

A little bit of background on the piece, by David Lang:

“My piece is called The Little Match Girl Passion and it sets Hans Christian Andersen’s story The Little Match Girl in the format of Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion, interspersing Andersen’s narrative with my versions of the crowd and character responses from Bach’s Passion. The text is by me, after texts by Han Christian Andersen, H. P. Paulli (the first translator of the story into English, in 1872), Picander (the nom de plume of Christian Friedrich Henrici, the librettist of Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion), and the Gospel according to Saint Matthew. The word ”passion” comes from the Latin word for suffering. There is no Bach in my piece and there is no Jesus—rather the suffering of the Little Match Girl has been substituted for Jesus’s, elevating (I hope) her sorrow to a higher plane.”

A few of Seattle Pro Musica’s concert-goers offered up their reactions to this moving piece:

“What has stayed with me most from LMGP is the last line, “Rest soft, rest soft”. Boom. “Rest soft, rest soft”. The weight of that single drum beat. The weight in the silent lift of Karen’s hands following that drum beat. The weight and beauty of such a ‘simple’ phrase. “Rest soft, rest soft”.

Boom.

Boom.

Silence.” –Miriam Gnagy

the little match girl passion is one of those pieces that’s very difficult for performers. Besides being technically demanding, the story is so moving that you could easily get carried away by your emotions and become lost. It’s a delicate balancing act – being in the moment enough to make it powerful for the audience without losing control of the performance. It was an unforgettable experience.” –Wes Kim

“Evocative. Poignant.  Difficult.  Heartbreaking.  David Lang’s the little match girl passion causes the singer—and the listener—to experience viscerally the shivering of a little girl on the last evening of the year, and mourn her passing in a forgotten corner of the village.  The Hans Christian Anderson fairytale brought to musical life—a 21st century artistic masterpiece.” –Marilyn Colyar

“The music was mesmerizing. It made me FEEL cold. The blend and balance of the voices was perfection, the halting rhythms dropped me into a focused suspended listening state, so that the sudden shift to the intense soprano solo swept me up and broke me open. What a piece! The stamina of the performers and their complete engagement was extraordinary. The use of instruments (that low drumbeat, the tubular bells, the chain on the hub) was powerful and haunting.” –Elly Hale

“The LMGP performances were haunting. The austere walls of St. James’ made the repetitions in the music even more relentless, providing a suitably cold and eerie atmosphere for the piece to grab the listener by the throat. And so it ended: the candle died with our last breath.” –Isabelle Phan

Many thanks to Karen P. Thomas and David Lang for the allowance of this streaming on-demand!

ALBUM OF THE WEEK: Christopher Bono’s BARDO

by Rachele Hales

stock-4Christopher Bono spent his early life devoted to baseball and was even drafted by the Seattle Mariners before an injury prevented him from playing, but it’s this music that he really knocks out of the park.  This is an artist just totally hitting his stride.  I feel like I haven’t even experienced enough in life to fully appreciate an album like this; music that is powerful and humble and confronts the spiritual and the unknowable beginning from a place of absolute desperation.

Bono’s narrative for Bardo draws heavily from Tarot (specifically “The Fool”) as well as the Tibetan Book of the Dead to share the surreal journey of The Fool as he moves through a cycle of loss — from intense sorrow toward the afterlife and eventually rebirth.  (“Bardo” translates from Tibetan as “the transition.”)

The story is told in four movements, with preludes before each meant to suggest “ambient portals” acting as passages to the next chapter of The Fool’s journey.  “Bardo I: Enter the Mystic” invites you in with a drone and then quickly jumps to a stormy, chaotic yearning before, as the liner notes indicate, our protagonist is driven to “face the churning storm of dark destiny emanating from his own mind.”

The listener soon finds herself in “Bardo II: The End of the Oligarchs,” a musically jagged, violent, thumping battle that ends abruptly before everything, including the life of The Fool, is destroyed and gives way to the calm sounds of water.  “It is The Fool passing from his earthly end into what the Tibetans call the Chönyid Bardo, or the state between lives…  He begins a spiraling journey through the hallucinations and obstacles inside this labyrinth of karmic repercussions.”  In “Bardo III: Enter the Void,” his offenses and virtues are weighed by the deities and the music takes on a militant tone before swelling, swelling, swelling, and then bursting into silence as The Fool learns to trust his own inner wisdom and thus is liberated.  Here the music carries him rhythmically to a place above and beyond the darkness of doubt and we hear the euphonious expression of prayers for our Fool from those who remain in the physical plane.

At this point we have listened to The Fool’s odyssey from despair to destruction, destruction to death, and death to liberation.  Before entering Bardo IV, we are treated to “Endless Doors to Endless Wombs,” which is this reviewer’s favorite of all the preludes.  The beautiful, meditative piece lasts for a blissful seven minutes and, if you close your eyes and turn up the volume, it might feel like you’re floating.

The Fool finally enters “Bardo IV: Clouds Blooming at the Thought of Union,” which tells of his rebirth by way of gentle, pulsing sounds that cycle, crescendo, and decrescendo until there is only silence and our protagonist begins his story anew.

When I had this album playing at home, several friends commented on how “epic” it felt.  And that’s true.  If you didn’t read the liner notes or have any frame of reference for Bono’s inspiration, it could totally sound like the soundtrack for an amazing RPG or fantasy film.  Played straight through it is like a saga told in sound and the fact that you may not know the details doesn’t stop you from connecting to, understanding, and enjoying it.  That’s really saying something.  The fact that this is sixty minutes of extremely dense material yet it remains approachable from start to finish (or should I say rebirth?) is quite a feat.  Listening with headphones and the volume cranked up was like ! in my heart and I didn’t just appreciate the experience, but also the experience of the experience if that makes any sense.

To purchase the entire album, please visit iTunes or the Our Silent Canvas store for Vinyl or CD.

WORLD PREMIERE: DEREK BERMEL’S “DEATH WITH INTERRUPTIONS”

by Jill Kimball

Derek Bermel

Composer and clarinetist Derek Bermel.

About 22 years ago, the composer Derek Bermel was in Ghana, practicing the xylophone.

(It’s a long story. Just go with it.)

“I see this woman walking along, carrying a jug of water on her head, and she’s moving her hips, dancing to the music,” he said. “But then I notice that she’s dancing in a different rhythm than I was playing.”

Bermel kept playing, confused but smiling. “I thought…why is she doing this dance to another rhythm? And then I realized: My whole way of feeling the rhythm was wrong in that song.”

To Derek Bermel, an award-winning composer and clarinetist who has traveled the world to perform and write music, context is everything. If he hadn’t been in Ghana that day to see a local woman dancing along to his music, he’d never have been able to see beyond his Western view of rhythm.

Similarly, if we hadn’t caught up with Bermel in the studios for some context before the world premiere of his latest piece, “Death with Interruptions,” we might not be quite as choked up listening to it now.

On Monday night, at the Seattle Chamber Music Society‘s Summer Festival, “Death with Interruptions” had its premiere.

“Death with Interruptions” was commissioned by the Seattle Chamber Music Society and is a piano trio, an established classical form that in Bermel’s hands sounds anything but established. It begins with a simple, plaintive melody and moves through a series of transformations in movement, speed, and texture. Every variation continually returns to the piece’s core, which sounds like a kind of musical heartbeat.

“Death with Interruptions” is inspired by Jose Saramago’s novel of the same title, in which death is a living character. “It was an intriguing thought,” he said. “Yes, death is often very dispassionate, but also quite ridiculous and impulsive,” like a human might be.

He began writing the piece just a month after the passing of his father, playwright and theatre critic Albert Bermel. Much like Johannes Brahms in his German Requiem, he was interested in exploring the ways we, the living, cope with death as it strikes us again and again over the years.

“We experience death in many, many ways–the deaths of parents, friends, pets, lovers–but life keeps going as death hits,” he said. “So the way we experience death, I realized, is not so much as this one calamity but as a series of pangs we experience. The experience is continually interrupted, and we return to it when we’re in a quieter moment. There’s something about that that’s present in the form of the piece.”

Bermel was never shy about exploring feelings of loss. One of his first compositions was “A Pig,” which he dedicated to the family’s pet guinea pig when it passed away.

Between early childhood and adulthood, Bermel pursued music–he played in his high school jazz band and in a rock group simply called The Generic Band–but he also loved science, and his focus shifted between the two for a number of years.

“I was interested in a bunch of different things, and I’m grateful for that time I had to figure out who I was as a human being,” he said. “That hopefully comes through in my music.”

 

ALBUM OF THE WEEK: GABRIEL KAHANE’S “THE AMBASSADOR”

by Jill Kimball

What springs to mind when you think of Los Angeles? Most will immediately think of sun, surf, and superficiality.

The city of nearly 4 million falls victim to a heck of a lot of stereotypes considering its size and diversity. But we native Californians (even Northerners who are, ahem, not always fond of our neighbors to the South) know LA is a lot more complicated than the rest of the world would have you believe.

The composer Gabriel Kahane spent the first two years of his life in Venice Beach, but he grew up primarily in Upstate New York and Northern California. It wasn’t until adulthood that he began to understand the rich history and complexity of his birthplace. His newest CD, “The Ambassador,” is a wonderful tribute to Los Angeles in all its beautiful and gritty glory. The album, released on Sony Masterworks, is a testament to Kahane’s versatility as a singer and songwriter. It provides proof (as if we needed it) that classical, indie and pop needn’t exist apart from each other. The whole album is available for streaming on Spotify below:

Part of the reason this album appeals to large cross-sections of people is that its producers included Matt Johnson of the band St. Vincent, Casey Foubert of Sufjan Stevens‘ band, and Rob Moose of Bon Iver–three people who have mastered the art of creating music that’s unusual yet likable. But another part is the unique structure of this album. Each of its 10 tracks takes place at a different Los Angeles address and contains words from a different person’s perspective. It’s as much a tribute to the city’s awe-inspiring and wildly varied architecture as it is to the colorful residents.

The Bradbury Building (Google Maps)

It’s clear from this whole disc that Kahane has spent a lot of time in Central LA, near Griffith Park, Hollywood Boulevard and the recently revitalized downtown. One of the more famous locations Kahane features is the Bradbury building, a filming location for “Blade Runner,” “(500) Days of Summer” and numerous other movies. But there’s a less glamorous side to the building: it houses the Los Angeles Police Department’s Internal Affairs division and is nicknamed “the Oven” because officers attend their own disciplinary hearings here and often “get burned.” In “Bradbury,” Kahane juxtaposes mellow, delicate melodies with lyrics that paint dramatic cinematic pictures, and he occasionally builds musical tension to imply moments when these two elements are at odds with each other.

9127 S. Figueroa St., once the site of Empire Liquor Mart (Google Maps)

The album’s central song is unquestionably “Empire Liquor Mart,” the site of a 1991 murder that shook South Los Angeles to its core. The words are from the perspective of 15-year-old Latasha Harlins, who was shot fatally by the market’s owner. The resulting outrage is believed to have been a catalyst for the 1992 LA riots. In an intimate performance with delicate vocals and spare instrumentation, Kahane brilliantly and beautifully sheds light on the long and fraught history of race relations in one of America’s most diverse cities.

Union Station in Los Angeles. (Google Maps)

“Is there defeat in a train to L.A./When Manifest Destiny brought us all this way?” Kahane asks in his song “Union Station.” Millions of people hopeful for a big break or a better life have come here, become disillusioned and left. To Kahane, the city’s main train station in “elegant decline” is a romantically tragic place to find yourself; if you’re leaving, it might mean you’ve given up on your dreams.

With the help of Kahane’s silky voice and spare instrumentation, the whole album effortlessly carries keen observations and clever commentary without ever seeming pretentious or overwrought. When the music does get fuller, it makes subtle nods to music of the past, whether it’s to film noir scores in “Veda”, a track inspired by the film “Mildred Pierce,” or to the era of Big Band and swing in “Musso & Frank,” a grill whose patrons once included movie stars and American authors.

As an added bonus, the album provides a fascinating trip through the city’s quirky collection of famous buildings, from Art Deco to Cubist to Spanish to just plain bizarre. From these songs I learned about the St. George Hotel, destroyed repeatedly by fire; the angular Lovell house that was an object of praise and then a target of ridicule; and the Ambassador Hotel, which faded from its former glory and ultimately closed after an assassination took place there.

And that is Kahane’s point: While Los Angeles is a city that represents all things mythical and aesthetic–the fame, the fortune–it is also extraordinarily vulnerable–to fickle taste, to natural disaster and to changing priorities.

ALBUM OF THE WEEK: Portraits of Contemporary Polish Composers: EWA TRĘBACZ

by Maggie Stapleton

Outdoor locations in Washington (and all over the Pacific Coast, for some, like Nat Evans) have proven to be inspiring recording venues for new music.  Ancient Lakes and the Dan Harpole Cistern are two such locations that inspired Seattle-based Ewa Trebacz (originally from Kraków, Poland).

Second Inversion’s Album of the Week is a collection of some of Ewa’s finished products which include field recordings from these locations.  What makes this album so fascinating is that while much of it was recorded and produced in Poland, there’s a very special part of Washington state incorporated into some of these pieces (things lost things invisible, Errai and ANC’L’SUNR).

Furthermore, this album is part of a special annual project from The Polish Music Information Centre and Polish Composers’ Union to preserve new works and performances by living composers.  Each year they publish 10 CDs, featuring a different composer In 2013, Ewa Trebacz one of the chosen composers.

Second Inversion was thrilled to talk to Ewa and Josiah Boothby (French horn collaborator on much of this disc) about each work:

The two have a longstanding friendship, which surely made the collaboration fun, but Ewa says, “Horn is AWESOME for processing or editing.  You can almost make any instrument out of the horn sound… you can process it so many ways, create so many timbres, you will never be able to tell it came from the horn.”

On the method of composition, recording, and production, Ewa told us, “our method of work is somewhat like film production.  We basically travel from one place to another and then later I create some basic shape of the piece that’s kind like a labyrinth of spaces.  Later, in the concert performance the electronic part is reproduced by a surround speaker system at the same time the live performers bring the element of ‘here and now.’  Josiah ends up playing with himself from the past and at the same time creating the very direct interaction of where the performance takes place.”

The Dan Harpole Cistern at Ford Worden is a large underground space with a 45-second reverberation time.  Ewa recorded several musicians in this space to be used later in live performance.  What’s it like to play an instrument in the Cistern?  Josiah says, “It’s other worldly down there!… so often when we’re performing this difficult music by living composers, it’s hard.  As a performer for me in that piece (things lost things invisible), I got to go into a resonant space, make big noises, and I got told, you know, do something a little less this way or a little more this way.. it was a lot of fun!”

Errai was another piece with samples (Josiah on horn and Anna Niedzwiedz, voice) recorded in the Cistern.  Josiah goes on to say, “in a space that’s resonant enough to still sound while I’m playing another note, all of a sudden I can play chords with myself.  Anna and I were not only playing with each other, we were playing with ourselves and there were several of us, simultaneously, and this is before Ewa starts doing anything with the electronics.”

Recordings from ANC’L’SUNR came from multiple locations, including the Cistern and also another Washington location, Ancient Lakes.  What’s with the title?  Ewa explains, “Funny thing, everyone keeps asking me what the language is, or what it means… but really, it’s an abbreviation for places where I made recordings.  So, the word itself doesn’t really mean anything, but I think it’s inspiring.”  This piece was produced with ATK, a software package developed by  Juan Pampin, Joshua Parmenter, and Joseph Anderson at the UW DXARTS which preserves as much spatial relation in sounds as possible.

Ewa holds Masters Degrees in Composition, Computer Science and Econometrics and a PhD from the University of Washington’s Center for Digital Arts and Experimental Media (DXARTS) , where she currently works as a Research Scientist.

SEATTLE CHAMBER MUSIC FESTIVAL 2014: DEREK BERMEL WORLD PREMIERE AND MORE

by Maggie Stapleton

The Seattle Chamber Music Society, founded by the late Toby Saks in 1982, is gearing up for the 2014 Summer Festival, running July 7-August 2 with twelve performances at the intimate Nordstrom Recital Hall (and one at Volunteer Park!).  Artistic Director James Ehnes does a fantastic job of bringing together musicians of the highest caliber from all over the globe to present world class performances.  A handful of the shows particularly stand out for Second Inversion:

  • Monday, July 7, 7pm (FREE): Augustin Hadelich performs David Lang’s Mystery Sonatas
  • Wednesday, July 9, 8pm (tickets): The tour-de-force that is Stravinsky’s Octet for Winds opens a program also offering a Mendelssohn trio and Beethoven quartet.
  • Friday, July 11, 8pm (tickets): The complete version of The Soldier’s Tale by Stravinsky will be narrated by Jeff Kready, currently in the Broadway hit A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder. The concert also features a Mozart flute quartet and a Brahms piano quartet.
  • Monday, July 14, 8pm (tickets):  While chamber music staples of Brahms, Mozart, and Beethoven are at the forefront of SCMS programming, James Ehnes is passionate about programming new music and a commissioning club funds a new work every year.  This year’s featured composer is Derek Bermel, and his piano trio, Death with Interruptions for Violin, Cello and Piano will be premiered on this July 14 concert.

Outreach and accessibility to the community is another area SCMS is passionate about, and these events are well worth exploring:

I hope you’ll take advantage of at least one of SCMS’ offerings.  Happy summer listening!