NEW VIDEOS: Danish String Quartet

Here’s a charming little story, summarized from the Danish String Quartet‘s website, interspersed with the in-studio videos from November 3, 2015:

The Danish String Quartet are three Danes (Rune, Asbjørn, Fredrik) and one Norwegian cellist (Fredrik). They often joke about being modern Vikings – perhaps a touch more harmless than their ancestors, not pillaging cities or razing the English coastline!


The three Danes met at a summer music camp and bonded, as the youngest players in the group, and became best friends through football and chamber music and continued their studies together at the Royal Academy of Music. In 2008, Norwegian cellist Fredrik joined the group – they “found him hidden away in a castle outside Stockholm.” While the quartet has varied hobbies ranging from sailing, old cars, cooking, gaming, reading, playing, talking, and drinking – they play string quartets like it’s their job (because it is!) but also because it’s a lot of fun.

If all goes according to plan, around 2060 they will beat the world record for longest running string quartet and will celebrate with a giant feast. We’ll be waiting for our invitations!

Huge thanks to the UW World Series for helping to make this video session possible!

Diary: How to Read John Cage – Part V

by Maggie Molloy

This post is part of a series on John Cage’s “Diary: How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse).” For earlier installments of the series, please visit: Introduction, Part I, Part II, Part III, and Part IV.

Part V Photo 2
In the competitive world of classical music, aspiring musicians are often pigeonholed into a single identity. Either you’re a violinist or a composer, a tenor or a pianist or maybe even a contrabassoonist—but whatever your specific musical interest or talent is, you have to commit yourself wholly to it if you’re ever going to make a name for yourself.

Cage_DiaryJohn Cage disagreed with that unspoken axiom. He did not believe musicianship was confined to an instrument or a voice or even to the five lines and four spaces of a musical staff. He believed in creativity and thoughtfulness, humor and awareness, indeterminacy and experimentation. He believed in ideas—BIG ideas, the scope of which I could not possibly tackle in one week, or even in the course of a two-month long series on his “Diary: How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse).”

“Don’t just ‘do your thing,’” Cage murmurs into my ear as I listen through Part V. “Do so many things that no one will know what you are going to do next.”

And let me assure you, Cage did not just talk the talk—he actually walked the walk. Here’s a clip of his 1960 television performance of his piece “Water Walk.”

You can tell from the audience’s laughter and surprise that they took Cage to be a bit of a madman. I mean, what kind of music is scored for water pitcher, wine bottle, whistle, electric mixer, ice cubes, cymbals, quail call, mechanical fish, tape recorder, seltzer siphon, radios, bathtub, and a grand piano? (The other stuff I can understand, but a grand piano? Really?)

Honestly, Cage was equal parts madman and musical genius, radical and revolutionary—he was extraordinarily eccentric, yet his work embraced the ordinary and the everyday. He was surprisingly relatable, and he even had a bit of a crazy cat-lover streak. (For what it’s worth, the cats loved Cage, too.)

Cage with Cat

“Clothes I wear for mushroom hunting are rarely sent to the cleaner,” he says softly. “They constitute a collection of odors I produce and gather while rambling in the woods. I notice not only dogs (cats, too) are delighted (they love to smell me).”

Cage was not just a musician and a mycologist but also an intellectual. He was extremely well-read, and not just in terms of history or literature, but also in terms of politics, religion, science, and art.

“College: two hundred people reading same book,” he says blandly. “An obvious mistake. Two hundred people can read two hundred books.”

Cage’s own reading interests certainly spanned the gamut: his diary is sprinkled with quotes, theories, maxims, and mystical musings from the likes of Marshall McLuhan, Buckminster Fuller, Marcel Duchamp, Sri Ramakrishna, and even Mahatma Gandhi.

“We talked of current disturbance of ecology, agreed man’s works no matter how great are pygmy compared with those of nature,” Cage says. “Nature, pressed, will respond with grand and shocking adjustment of creation.”

His thoughts on art and nature reminded me of a famous quote from Debussy: “Surely you know that a genuine appreciation of beauty can only result in silence? Tell me, when you see the daily wonder of the sunset have you ever thought of applauding?”

I suppose that the greatest art is that which does not pretend to be one thing or another, but just simply exists as it is, without worry or pretention.

“He’d have preferred silence to applause at the end,” Cage says vaguely, “(Art instead of slap in the face.)”

The difference between art and entertainment is that art is not always beautiful or funny, charming or pleasant—art does not always have an immediate appeal or warrant an applause. Art is about making people think critically; it’s about challenging perceptions, fueling curiosity, provoking discomfort, and capturing imagination.

Cage incorporates all these elements into his diary, and that’s what makes it a fascinating work of art. His writing is thoughtful, humorous, whimsical, and at times even prophetic. Did I mention that somewhere amidst the tangled poesy and poetry of his diary, Cage actually predicted the Internet?

“Add video screen to telephone,” he says blankly. “Give each subscriber a thousand sheets of recordable erasable material so anytime, anywhere, anyone’d have access to a thousand sheets of something (drawings, books, music, whatever). You’d just dial. If you dialed the wrong number, instead of uselessly disturbing another subscriber, you’d just get surprising information, something unexpected.”

In other words: social media. (Of course, even Cage couldn’t have predicted the onslaught of cat memes and kitty videos that has since taken over the World Wide Web.) And not only was he a prophet of sorts but he was an everyday poet.

Part V Photo 1

“London publisher sent blank (‘Fill out.’) so I’d be included in survey of contemporary poets of the English language,” Cage says. “Threw it out. Week later urgent request plus duplicate blank arrived. ‘Please return with a glossy photo.’ Complied.”

But as challenging and as massive in scope as Cage’s musical ideas were, his compositions typically employ very modest means. He never composed grand operas or bombastic symphonic climaxes, was not interested in excessive displays of talent or in following in the footsteps of past composers. Cage took his inspiration from the ordinary and the uninspiring—but it was his uncanny ability to see the humor and the sparkle in the everyday mundane that makes his work truly exceptional.

“July, August, September,” Cage continues. “Publisher then sent letter saying it’d been decided I’m not significant poet after all: if I were, everyone else’d be one too.”

ALBUM REVIEW: Ilimaq by John Luther Adams ft. Glenn Kotche

by Maggie Molloy

What do you get when you cross a Pulitzer Prize-winning composer and environmentalist with one of the 40 greatest rock drummers of all time? A 50-minute electroacoustic Inuit-inspired meditation on spirituality and sound, as it turns out.


John Luther Adams and Glenn Kotche, courtesy Cantaloupe Music

John Luther Adams first rose to contemporary classical fame with his 2013 orchestral composition “Become Ocean,” commissioned and recorded by our very own Seattle Symphony Orchestra. The composition is a 45-minute orchestral approximation of the ocean’s ebb and flow—and it flowed right to the top of classical music charts.

The surround-sound recording of “Become Ocean” debuted at number one on the Billboard Traditional Classical Chart, stayed there for two straight weeks, and went on to win the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Music and the 2015 Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Classical Composition. Not bad for a little-known recluse who spent much of his life composing from a 16×20 ft. one-room cabin in the Alaskan woods.

Throughout his career, Adams’ music has been inspired by Alaskan landscapes, ecology, environmentalism, and the natural world—and though he recently left Alaska to move to New York, his music is still profoundly immersed in the spirit of nature.

His latest recording, titled “Ilimaq,” takes its title from the Inuit word for “spiritual journey”—and the composition is nothing short of one. It is a 50-minute metaphysical meditation on the power of nature, and it’s led by the most primordial of all instruments: drums.

“In Inuit tradition the shaman rides the sound of the drum to and from the spirit world.” Adams writes. “In ‘Ilimaq’ the drummer leads us on a journey through soundscapes drawn from the natural world and from the inner resonances of the instruments themselves.”

Scored for solo drum kit and electronic accompaniment, “Ilimaq” features the passion and precision of one of the most skillful drummers of all time: Glenn Kotche (you may recognize him as the drummer from the twangy alt-rock band Wilco). Back in 2008, Kotche personally contacted Adams, as he had been a fan of his music for years and was interested in collaborating.

“My own musical journey began with rock drumming,” Adams said of his decision to work with Kotche. “And all these years later, in Glenn Kotche, I’ve found the drummer I always imagined I could be.”

The five-part piece features three different “stations” of percussion instruments (all played by Kotche), the drama of which are heightened by ambient electroacoustic accompaniment, field recordings of nature, and live-electronic processing of Kotche’s playing. And while each of the five parts certainly have their own distinct character and timbral palette, each flows seamlessly into the next to create a cohesive narrative—a spiritual journey.

It all begins with a “Descent” into a mesmerizing trance. The 16-minute introduction envelops the listener in an entire earthquake of sound—organic and intimate, yet massive in scope. The rolling bass drum hurls forward and backward restlessly as ambient electronics ebb and flow in response to its rippling sound waves.

And as the introduction comes to a close, the sounds of trickling water float straight into part two of the composition: “Under the Ice.” The heavy drumming dissolves into a meditative blend of field recordings, electronics, and delicate cymbal work, and Kotche begins exploring the beauty and breadth of textures in the Inuit-inspired Arctic soundscape. Circling sound waves and hypnotic echoes softly color the scene, and gentle whistles punctuate an otherwise smooth and liquid soundscape.

Once the listener is completely submerged, part three begins: “The Sunken Gamelan.” As if in a dream, harmonic colors blend together and apart in a wash of sound, creating a gorgeous percussion orchestra ringing out underwater.

It’s the calm before the storm that is part four: “Untune the Sky.” Kotche’s expanded drum set becomes the rain, the wind, the waves, and the stormy clouds all at once in this visceral climax. The scene is dramatic and dissonant, spiritual and sacred—ritualistic even. Steadily building in passion and ferocity, Kotche’s virtuosic playing reaches a violent peak before quieting down into the end of “Ilimaq.”

The thrashing subsides and in the final “Ascension,” ethereal high-pitched drones glide back and forth like spirits whispering to one another across the shimmering starlight. And as the spiritual journey comes to a close, the music evaporates into the sky above until all we have left is a beautiful and transformative silence.

NEW VIDEO: Ensemble Variances perform Manoa by Thierry Pécou

Ensemble Variances recently visited Seattle as featured guest artists on Joshua Roman‘s Town Music at Town Hall series. Before the show, the musicians gave Second Inversion an exclusive performance of a piece that was not on the program – Thierry Pécou’s Manoa – featuring the low, lush sounds of the bass flue, bass clarinet, and violoncello. Not only did the musicians play their instruments brilliantly, they swirled around the stage in beautiful, barefoot motion. We hope that you enjoy this special performance!

Notes on Manoa, courtesy Continuum Contemporary Music:

“For centuries, the mythic Amazonian city of Manoa has kept its secrets hidden from the many explorers who have zealously sought to find even a trace of its existence. Running throughout the work, there is one musical phrase the instrumental trio plays in unison to symbolize the ideal splendour of Manoa and its golden King  – El Dorado. On several occasions this phrase moves toward its own disappearance as its slowly fades and finally winks out, like a mirage. Built upon the question-and-answer motif of the songs of the Goahibo, an indigenous culture of the Oronoco, the score calls for the instrumentalists to move, particularly the flutist and clarinetist, linking the intertwined instrumental game with the body game of the native cultures. Anchor to the earth, beacon from space, spiral movements, alternating steps, the piece is a dance whose music unfolds like the undulating leaves of a Mayan codez.”

Diary: How to Read John Cage – Part IV

by Maggie Molloy

This post is part of a series on John Cages Diary: How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse). For earlier installments of the series, please visit: Introduction, Part I, Part II, and Part III.

JC Part IV Photo 2
To say that the avant-garde composer and iconoclast John Cage was a musical revolutionary would be a bit of an understatement. He was a pioneer of indeterminacy in music, a precursor to contemporary electroacoustic music, an innovator of musical instruments, and, perhaps most controversially, a philosopher of sound and silence.

He was much more than just a composer—he was a music theorist, a writer, an artist, and a thinker. He was a learned musician, and not just in the traditional Western sense. His interests extended far past the sphere of Western classical music and into music and art from around the world—particularly East and South Asian cultures.

Siglio Press Diary“Revolution,” he says in Part IV of his “Diary: How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse).” Then he pauses for a moment. “Two people making same kind of music is one music too many.”

As the title of the piece might suggest, revolution is a key theme throughout his diary—and Cage is not just talking about a musical revolution. The diary addresses social and political issues from across the spectrum, ranging from technology and environmentalism to poverty and violence. And in today’s day and age, those issues ring truer than ever.

“Civilization is Hamletized,” he says gravely, “(People are dying right and left): To be or not to be. That is the question.”

All whimsical Shakespeare references aside, the truth is saddening, sobering, and impossible to ignore. The all-too-frequent mass shootings, the constant wars, the terrorism—at times it feels as if hostility and violence have taken over our world, transforming our lives into a devastating drama. But when will the curtain finally close on this tragedy?

While Cage speaks of revolution almost exclusively in metaphors, analogies, and anecdotes, his optimism is still palpable—buried though it may be beneath his philosophical musings and fragmented memories. He must ultimately have faith in the future—why else would he write a five-hour diary on how to improve the world?

“If the situation is hopeless, we have nothing to worry about,” he says softly.

In other words, we worry because there is still hope; we worry because we haven’t given up yet. We know that we can still create a healthier, happier, and more peaceful world We can do it through art: through connecting with one another and inspiring one another—through understanding our world as it is, and through working together to make it better.

JC Part IV Photo 1

Image courtesy of the Vogue Archives

“Hands aren’t possessive,” Cage says calmly. “They belong to the same body. They taught us art was self-expression. You had to have ‘something to say.’ They were wrong: you don’t have to say anything. Think of the others as artists. Art’s self-alteration.”

Art is not solely in expressing oneself but in changing oneself—in growing, learning, collaborating with others, and gaining new perspectives. Art exists in creating community.

My former oil painting instructor used to tell me: “Once you finish your painting and you release it out into the world, it’s not yours anymore—it belongs to those who look at it.”

Art is not restricted to the hands that create it but rather, art changes and evolves as it continues to inspire new ideas and interpretations from its audiences. Each viewer will gain something different from a single work of art—and in that regard, the artwork itself opens a wealth of possibilities for the community that views, listens to, and engages with it.

“Spent several hours searching through a book trying to find the idea I’d gotten out of it,” Cage says blandly into my left ear. “I couldn’t find it. I still have the idea.”

When we engage with a piece of art, music, or literature, it sparks new ideas within us—and often even revisiting the same artwork multiple times will create an entirely new constellation of thoughts and emotions. And with advancements in technology, we now have infinite sources of art, knowledge, and inspiration at our fingertips at any given moment. Nowadays, it’s easier than ever to share our creations, collaborate with others, and make music and art accessible for all.

“Computers’re bringing about a situation that’s like the invention of harmony,” Cage says. “Sub-routines are like chords. No one would think of keeping a chord to himself. You’d give’t to anybody who wanted it. You’d welcome alterations of it. Sub-routines are altered by a single punch. We’re getting music made by man himself: not just one man.”

All of this technology, all of this music, and all of this art is in our grasp—and we can use it to start a revolution. We can use it as a catalyst for action, and we can use it as a catalyst for positive change.

“The mind, like a computer, produces a print-out,” Cage says. “It’s on the palms of our hands.”