LIVE BROADCAST: ETHEL with Robert Mirabal



Robert Mirabal - Hi-Res Image - Photo Credit - Kate RussellThis Thursday, October 8, at 8pm PT tune in to Second Inversion for a LIVE broadcast featuring the critically acclaimed (and incredibly fun) string quartet ETHEL with Native American flutist and two-time Grammy winner Robert Mirabal!  They have been collaborating for over six years, using rivers as inspiration for collaboration, and exploring water as the embodiment of spirit and its essential role in life on earth in a cross-cultural concert experience. Through music, narrative and ritual, their performance evokes timeless Native American traditions. Their program on Thursday includes works by Robert Mirabal, Phil Kline, and members of Ethel, themselves (see below for full program)!


We hope that if you’re in Seattle, you’ll come hear the concert in person at Meany Hall on the UW World Series (and say “Hi!” to KING FM and Second Inversion at the table in the lobby). For ETHEL and Robert Mirabal lovers worldwide, tune in on Thursday, October 8 at 8pm PT! On the go? Be sure to download our mobile app to listen anywhere.

We will also broadcast a bonus post-performance Q&A with artists immediately after the performance, so stay tuned for that, too!


Sky River Suite / music by ETHEL, words by Robert Mirabal
An Kha Na / Robert Mirabal
The River / Phil Kline
Kalimba Waterfall, Tsintskaro Memory and Rana Run / Ralph Farris
Gat’te / Dorothy Lawson
Jay-Red, Tsoma, and Clean Dirge, Dirty Dirge / Kip Jones
Tuvan Ride, In the Eyes of E, Wi-wa (traditional) and Peace Calls / ETHEL + Robert Mirabal

SI Logo Final

ALBUM REVIEW: Eighth Blackbird’s “Filament”

by Jill Kimball

Forget J. S. Bach: Philip Glass is the new granddaddy of music…or so sayeth eighth blackbird in its latest album, Filament.

This new release from the Chicago-based contemporary music supergroup cleverly connects the groundbreaking repetitive structures in Glass’s music with American folk tunes, contemporary compositions, and poppy vocals. The album’s name is meant to conjure a mental image of musical threads linking all its performances, new and old.

In this case, “old” is a relative term. The nexus of Filament is “Two Pages,” written by Philip Glass in 1968. It’s a classic illustration of Glass’s signature repetition, a mind-bending 16 minutes of subtly changing patterns. The piece famously sounds meditative and nightmarish at the same time. It’s notoriously difficult for performers–the liner notes compare it to walking a tightrope “with no net below”–but the expert musicians here meet the challenge admirably, almost making it sound easy. Performing this piece alongside the sextet are organist Nico Muhly and guitarist Bryce Dessner (of The National), and it’s no coincidence that both of them are also featured composers on Filament.

In fact, the album opens with Dessner’s multi-movement piece Murder Ballades, inspired by folk songs about real and imagined killings that were passed down through many generations. The murder ballad tradition began in Europe, but Dessner’s piece focuses on the maudlin stories that originally come from early settlers in New England and Appalachia. Dessner chose to arrange three real ballads, “Omie Wise,” “Young Emily,” and “Pretty Polly,” all of which tell stories of love affairs turned violent. Imagine if someone took the music from a Ken Burns documentary and gave it a little edge, and you’ll have an idea of what these movements sound like. The other four ballads in the piece are Dessner’s original compositions, still clearly inspired by early Americana but more deconstructed and intense. In these four movements, Philip Glass’s repetitive, meditative influence is clearly felt.


Composers featured on Filament. Clockwise from top left: Nico Muhly, Philip Glass, Bryce Dessner, and Son Lux.

Nico Muhly’s piece, Doublespeak, is so closely linked with Two Pages that it’s as if Muhly managed to burrow directly into Philip Glass’s midcentury brain. Muhly wrote this piece for the composer’s 75th birthday celebration, so it’s fitting that he chose to salute a decade when “classical music perfected obsessive repetition,” as he puts it. You’ll hear snippets of 1970s staples like In C and Violin Phase flit in and out as the piece alternates between a fast-tempo frenzy and a slow, dreamy state.

As if there weren’t already enough threads connecting these three pieces, eighth blackbird rounds out Filament with a pair of works by Son Lux. The legendary pop-classical electronic composer took sound bites from the album and mixed in Glass-inspired vocals by Shara Worden, aka My Brightest Diamond. The result is a half-ambient, half-catchy five minutes that nicely break up the album’s studied repetition, which can be a little mentally taxing.

It goes without saying that the performance quality on this disc is top-notch, no less fine than any of eighth blackbird’s past albums. You’re luxuriously free to focus solely on the compositions themselves, all of which are worth contemplating at length. In an age when most albums’ connecting filaments are somewhere between ultrathin and nonexistent, it’s a pleasure to listen to a set of pieces with such close ties.

ALBUM OF THE WEEK: Anthracite Fields

by Jill Kimball


When it comes to contemporary music, the biggest cause for celebration is its determination to find inspiration in unusual places. Increasingly, composers have tossed aside those old standbys–rich royals, first-world travel, God–and have instead embraced the unpredictable.

In the past, composer Julia Wolfe has found inspiration in a Vermeer painting, an Aretha Franklin song, and the idea of a slow-motion scream. Last year, she even released a musical hommage to the American folktale hero John Henry, a steel driver who died trying to compete with a machine.

But this time, Wolfe found her muse unexpectedly close to home.

For Wolfe, writing Anthracite Fields began with a rumination on her childhood home of Montgomeryville, Pennsylvania. The dirt-road town straddled polar opposite worlds: on one side of it lay the big city, Philadelphia; on the other lay an expanse of coal mining fields, where men and boys once toiled long hours in dangerous conditions for a pittance. She’d almost never ventured in the latter direction before. Curiously, she set off to explore the mines and soon found herself consumed by the history of the coal fields. By April 2014, she’d written an hour-long piece dedicated to the hundreds of thousands of people who literally powered upper- and middle-class American lives for more than a century.

It’s no mystery why Wolfe has already won a Pulitzer Prize for this work, which features performances by Bang on a Can All-Stars and the Choir of Trinity Wall Street. The sound is intense, evocative, and completely original. The carefully chosen words, taken from historical documents, interviews, and speeches, are heart-wrenching. Perhaps most importantly, the piece explores themes that are just as relevant to American lives today as they were 150 years ago: class inequality, unfair working conditions, and the social cost of using coal to generate electricity.

“The politics are very fascinating—the issues about safety, and the consideration for the people who are working and what’s involved in it,” Wolfe said in a recent NPR interview. “But I didn’t want to say, ‘Listen to this. This is a big political issue.’ It really was, ‘Here’s what happened. Here’s this life, and who are we in relationship to that?’ We’re them. They’re us. And basically, these people, working underground, under very dangerous conditions, fueled the nation. That’s very important to understand.”

The five-movement piece begins below ground, in the midst of a typical coal miner’s long, dark, and dangerous workday. An uneasy collection of sustained notes is interrupted by a loud, jarring noise every minute or so. The choir names off a series of men named John, found on a list of more than 50,000 Pennsylvania mining casualties between 1869 and 1916. In a genius compositional move, Wolfe chose to pair this heartbreakingly endless list of names with sung text, at turns mournful and fiery, explaining how coal is formed.

Sadly, children in Pennsylvania’s anthracite region started working in the mines as early as age 6 to help put food on the family table. The second movement of Anthracite Fields remembers those working children, called breaker boys. The children sat bent over on planks all day, cutting their fingers up to pick debris out of freshly mined coal. The text Wolfe set in this movement comes from a perversely catchy regional folk song (“Mickey Pick-Slate, early and late, that was the poor little breaker boy’s fate”) and from a heart-rending interview with a one-time breaker boy (“You didn’t dare say anything, you didn’t dare quit, you didn’t wear gloves”). I admit it: this movement made me cry.

In the second half of the piece, Wolfe moves above ground to examine the social implications of underground coal mining. Her third movement, “Speech,” mixes sparse choral writing with rock opera-style solo vocals, using text from a union president’s speech advocating for fair working conditions and compensation.

The last two movements come from two very different non-miners’ perspectives. Wolfe says “Flowers” was inspired by an interview with Barbara Powell, the daughter of a miner who says she never felt poor, thanks to her town’s generous community and the cheerful little things in life, like growing her beautiful garden. The last movement, “Appliances,” is an uncomfortable reminder that coal miners put their lives on the line for next to no pay so that the upper classes could live in comfort, whether they were traveling by train or heating their homes. At the very end, the singers whistle, conjuring the sound of a train grinding against the rails.

Composer Julia Wolfe.

Composer Julia Wolfe.

Anthracite Fields is not an easy listen, but I don’t think Julia Wolfe wanted it to be. We Americans tend to gloss over unpleasant parts of our history when, in order to make peace with our past, we’d do better to confront it. In telling these miners’ stories through vivid music, Wolfe has brought an important but often ignored chapter of our country’s story to the forefront. I encourage people of all backgrounds to listen to this award-winning work, daunting though it may seem. You’ll learn a little about life in late-1800s Pennsylvania, you’ll contemplate energy usage and workers’ rights, and if you’re like me, you’ll have a good cry.

2015-16 SEASON PREVIEW: Fresh music, from Britten to Bowie

by Jill Kimball

With Seattle’s ever-growing and ever-diversifying population, it’s easy to see why our city has become a top destination for up-and-coming composers, young musical talent, and adventurous concert formats. The 2015-16 season is so packed with new music concerts that, on most weekends, you’d need both hands (and maybe a few toes) to count them. From revitalized Britten to badass multimedia concerts to the classiest Bowie you’ve ever heard, there’s a little something for everyone. Read on for our top picks of the season.

The Town Music series at Town Hall Seattle, curated by our own Artistic Advisor Joshua Roman, is a bastion for cutting-edge music. The season kicks off with a young Russian violinist’s interpretations of Bach’s beautiful, complicated Sonatas and Partitas. And the rest of the season is anything but staid: it includes the premiere of a work composed over two continents, a dynamic performance of Britten’s second string quartet, and a new piece by Roman himself, featuring Pulitzer Prize-winning poetry by Tracy K. Smith and the up-and-coming soprano Jessica Rivera.

Another go-to destination for edgy music with global influences is the UW World Series, an arts season at Meany Hall featuring big names and even bigger ideas. This season is packed with exciting concerts that feature mainstays on the Second Inversion stream. In October, the ETHEL quartet teams up with Native American flutist Robert Mirabal for a concert focused on water’s essential role in all our lives. If drums and mallets are your thing, you must check out So Percussion’s set of modern classics by Reich, Cage, and more. For those who prefer concerts that combine edgy work with timeless pieces, go see the young, bearded Danish String Quartet (they take on music by Beethoven, Schnittke, and a composer from their homeland, Per Nørgaard), pianist Jeremy Denk (he’ll work in some Hindemith and Nancarrow between the Bach and Byrd), or the Daedalus String Quartet (a Huck Hodge world premiere is sandwiched between Beethoven chamber works). If you can’t make it to some of these much-anticipated concerts, don’t worry: we’ll have your back with a live broadcasts or a video from each one.

The UW World Series isn’t the only destination for new music on the University of Washington campus. The School of Music itself has an impressive lineup of concerts. On Halloween weekend, we’re excited to hear the Chicago-based Ensemble Dal Niente perform the works of Seattlites Huck Hodge, Joël-François Durand, and Marcin Pączkowski, among others. In late April, the Carnegie Hall resident ensemble Decoda caps off its weeklong UW residency with a Meany Hall concert of new and old music. And finally, some UW students pay homage to Harry Partch, who created new instruments along with new music, with performances of some of his work.

The UW isn’t the only higher education arts game in town, of course. Cornish College of the Arts is a wealth of compositional talent and its concert season, Cornish Presents, attracts world-class acts every year. Cornish teacher Wayne Horvitz starts off the new-music feast with his piece “Some Places are Forever Afternoon/11 Places for Richard Hugo,” performed with chamber groups Sweeter Than The Day and the Gravitas Quartet. A few days later, flutist Camilla Hoitenga teams up with composer and sound designer Jean-Baptiste Barrière for an electronic concert with video. In December, Paul D. Miller, better known as DJ Spooky, uses interviews from survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs to create a moving original composition. And for an ultimate exploration of music from both sides of the Pacific, stop by PONCHO Hall in November, when a famous gamelan ensemble joins four Seattle string players for a performance of new, local music.

Full-time locavores may not be satisfied until everything about the concert, from composer to performer to creator, is Northwest-based. If you want all local, all the time, your concert season destination should be the Universal Language Project. Founded by trumpeter and composer Brian Chin, the project draws on local talent to present a commissioned premiere in every concert. This season, we’ll hear music inspired by local landscapes written by Karen P. Thomas, Brian Cobb, and Tim Carey; music for strings performed by Seattle-based Scrape Ensemble; and an interactive concert with stunning visuals by Scott Kolbo.

And if that’s not enough to whet your new music appetite, the Seattle Modern Orchestra‘s upcoming season has even more new music. Each of its three main concerts features a premiere of some sort, from Orlando Jacinto Garcia’s From Darkness to Luminosity to an as-yet-unnamed work by Ewa Trębacz to the U.S. premiere of Anthony Cheung’s 2011 work Discrete Infinity.

In the last few years, Benaroya Hall has become an internationally recognized center for cutting-edge new music, from the avant garde to the crossover. If you’re into the former, you probably already know about the Seattle Symphony’s famed [untitled] series, which takes place in the Benaroya lobby fashionably late at night. This [untitled] season proves it means business with a season kickoff made up entirely of world premieres, then goes on to focus on New York City’s avant garde scene and an Arctic-themed piece by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer John Luther Adams. If the latter is more your taste, check out the undefinable Sonic Evolution series, which this season focuses on the way different artists influence each other across genres and the phenomenon of indie music and film.

Finally, if you’re looking to get some culture but indulge in musical guilty pleasures at the same time, your go-to season should be the Seattle Rock Orchestra‘s. The ensemble that famously covers popular music on orchestral instruments has put together a killer 2015-16 series, which includes a David Bowie showcase, a collection of Mowtown music, and an evening devoted to Neil Diamond. A quintet from SRO also closes out Classical KING FM’s inaugural concert series with a very exciting Eastside concert featuring covers of Beck, Bjork, Radiohead, and more.

These are only a few highlights from an expansive, diverse, and exciting upcoming concert season. For a full listing of shows around the Northwest that’ll make you rethink classical, check our full event calendar.

SI Logo Final

CONCERT REVIEW: Inuksuit at Seward Park Amphitheater

by Roger Downey

Photo Sep 19, 2 25 03 PM

Inuksuit was performed on Saturday, September 19 at the Seward Park Amphitheater, organized by Melanie Voytovich. Photo credit: Seth Tompkins.

John  Luther Adams says he wrote his Inuksuit for “9 to 99 percussionists.” That sounds as if it’s supposed to be epic in scale, and it is, in ambition. When you hear the commercial recording, with just 30-odd players, that feeling is confirmed. But Adams is thinking in terms of multiples of musicians, and 99 players would probably need more than nine times the footprint of just nine.

So the main shock of encountering Inuksuit live, on a sunny-cloudy, coolish-warmish Saturday afternoon in Seattle was the discovery that the piece is chamber music; that at its thundering climax about a half hour in iit’s just as calm and transparent as at its amplified breathing opening and its shimmering-triangles conclusion.

Every review of earlier performances round the world mentions how Adams’ slowly shifting soundscape captures the random sounds of its surroundings. That bare statement doesn’t convey the way it bends those sounds and enfolds them, makes them seem as appropriate to their moments as the sounds of the written score.

Other composers are surely studying this piece, learning from it how to tear down the material concert hall built into their preconceptions and replace it with a virtual cathedral, where the winds are the walls and the sky Shelly’s dome of multicolored glass, “staining the white radiance of Eternity.”