ALBUM REVIEW: “American Dreams”

by Maggie Molloy

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“I got piano lessons when I was 5 years old from the widow of the town doctor in a little farm town in Iowa,” said composer Ken Benshoof. “I would go there after school, she would give me bread with brown sugar and butter, and we would have a music lesson.”

And it was there, in America’s heartland, that Benshoof got his very early start to a career in music composition.

“It wasn’t very long before I felt that the pieces she was asking me to play were not very good, and that I probably could write better pieces,” he laughed. “So, I found a piece of paper and drew some lines on it and started putting notes. I’m sure whatever I wrote wasn’t any better than what I was playing, but the impulse to make the world better by writing a better piece stayed with me for my whole life.”

In many ways, that’s the dream—finding one’s passion, pursuing it with unbridled determination and dedication, creating a life for oneself, and maybe even making the world a better place along the way. In fact, some would even consider that to be the American Dream.

Benshoof is just one of four American composers featured on the Seattle-based Saint Helens String Quartet’s debut album, “American Dreams.” Comprised of violinists Stephen Bryant and Adrianna Hulscher, violist Michael Lieberman, and cellist Paige Stockley, the quartet is committed to exploring adventurous and uncharted musical territory.

The modern-day musical pioneers’ latest creative endeavor explores the beautiful and bold diversity of American music, mixing contemporary classical with elements of folk tunes, blues and jazz grooves, American spirituals, and more. The album was recorded and produced at Jack Straw Cultural Center, the Northwest’s only nonprofit multidisciplinary audio arts center.

“What we found attractive about [these composers] is that their music is warm, it’s approachable, it doesn’t turn you off,” cellist Paige Stockley said of the album. “It’s not hard to grasp. It helps audiences just immediately connect to the music because it’s heartfelt and it’s beautiful. One of the rules that I use when I’m choosing repertoire is ‘Is this music that I love? Is this music that I want to hear? Is this music that feeds my soul?’”

The album’s title track is Grammy Award-winning composer Peter Schickele’s five-movement String Quartet No. 1, “American Dreams.” The piece evokes images of rural America through an adventurous combination of jazz and Appalachian folk elements over waltzing basslines, rustic melodies, sustained harmonics, and energetic syncopations.

“This piece is so beautiful because it has birds at dawn, it has barn dances, it has Indian chants played by the viola,” Stockley said of the piece. “If you can picture American Midwest and the wheat fields at 4 o’clock in the morning and birds chirping and the distant, fading sound of a barn dance—that’s ‘American Dreams’ quartet.”

Ken Benshoof’s “Swing Low” is similarly nostalgic. Based on the historic spiritual, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” the work is comprised of eight very short pieces, each about one minute in length. The work makes use of folk-like pentatonic melodies in both major and minor harmonic contexts, with the original melody peeking through in ever-changing shapes and structures. Benshoof uses a colorful palette of textures and timbral details to explore the deceptively buoyant tune’s dismal subject matter.

The work is followed by Janice Giteck’s somber and lyrical one-movement quartet, “Where Can One Live Safely, Then? In Surrender.” Based on a cantus firmus by Johannes Fux, the piece portrays a sense of calm yearning, making use of the Dorian mode in a meditation on the unraveling of Western culture.

Bern Herbolsheimer’s five-movement “Botanas” explores a very different perspective: the piece is based on the rich melodies, flavorful food, and exquisite culture of the Yucatán region of Mexico.

“I always have been interested in the similarities between food, cooking, eating, creating music, and consuming it with our ears,” Herbolsheimer said of his inspiration for the piece. “So I thought I would combine each movement with a traditional Mayan melody and the name of a traditional Mayan botana or appetizer.”

From spicy salsa to roasted squash seed humus to traditional tamales eaten on the Day of the Dead, each piece has its own lively and distinct flavor. And while each one may be just a little tidbit of flavorful timbres and textures, together the piece is an entire feast of dynamic colors and characters.

The work is followed by Giteck’s “Ricercare (Dream Upon Arrival),” a slow and dreamy piece with lines of poetic counterpoint softly weaving in and out of each other.

Benshoof follows with his “Diversions” for violin and piano, performed by violinist Stephen Bryant and pianist Lisa Bergman. The six short movements include a variety of folk and blues elements which give each a warm, whimsical, and often playful character.

The final piece on the album is Benshoof’s “Remember,” a short, sweet, and hopelessly heartfelt piece inspired by the classic American folk song “Get along Home, Cindy.” (You know the one: “I wish I was an apple / Hangin’ on a tree / And every time my Cindy’d pass / She’d take a bite of me.”)

“The piece has a rich, romantic feel about it,” Benshoof said. “There’s a warmth in it and there is a little bit of ‘biting the apple’ and there’s a little bit of some third thing in there which I’m not going to try to describe.”

Perhaps that third thing might be wishing or wistfulness, melancholy longing or maybe even unrequited love—but whatever it is, it’s certainly nostalgic.

“‘American Dreams’  captures that early pioneer spirit,” Stockley said of the album, “The America that we wish we still had, or maybe we never even had it at all, but that feeling of hope and nostalgia, memory and warmth—and looking to a bright future.”

The Birth of a Cello Concerto

by Joshua Roman

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Damn. This is hard! My respect for composers has gone through the roof since I first began scrawling on manuscript paper, and at no time has it been higher than the present. The focus and skill required to compose a work for soloist and orchestra are not easy to come by. Taking a few initial ideas – whether they come as a sound, a form, a gesture, a transitional mechanism – and turning them into a cohesive musical narrative is a process that can only be learned through experience.

There have got to be as many ways to do this as there are composers. I’ve gone through several myself, even on this one piece. To begin with, I had the idea to write from the piano. Supposedly, this would help me focus on the relationship between soloist and orchestra, rather than writing a solo line with incidental backup music behind it. Ironically, I realized several weeks into this method that all of the best moments were in the orchestra part, and the solo line was now secondary! Not to mention, it was taking forever due to my rudimentary keyboard skills.

A fun fix for this came from my growing experience playing the great concertos each season. I close my eyes, cello in hand, and imagine this scene: Walking out onto stage, bowing, shaking hands with the concertmaster (a friend), looking over at the conductor (another friend), and nodding that it’s time to begin. At that point, what happens? Who starts? What have I always wanted to do and hear that has not yet existed?

This method is very fun for me; involving more than one sense in the creative process. Picturing people I know helps, too. When I see them in my mind’s eye, I want to give them something meaningful to do musically. The natural outcome is that the orchestra becomes a partner, and the dynamic between solo line and ensemble is one that takes on a malleable quality. In the end, it even affects the form of this piece, and shapes the climactic moments, as a metaphor for individuality and life purpose emerge.

A little bit of a teaser: my concerto is in five sections, or movements (attacca). The rough outline follows that of a love affair, beginning and ending without the love interest. Of course, this is mostly a structure, the themes and motifs themselves interact on their own terms, and in the end, their momentum supersedes any story I might be using as inspiration. The orchestra is sometimes the broader setting, sometimes a reflection of the solo line, and sometimes used in smaller units as a partner or even antagonist.

It’s difficult to describe this process completely without musical examples. The work is not quite finished, but it’s getting there. Along the way, much has fallen to the cutting floor, and many moments and connections undergo intense scrutiny and revision. And yet, there is so much more that could be done. I understand both the desire to continue working on a piece forever – revising every few years as Stravinsky might – and the feeling of wanting to leave it behind and go on without looking back, taking along only the lessons learned.

Composing is a tough path, and I’m beginning to see that one must really earn their way to a good piece every time. It is a beautiful thing, something I hope we all learn to turn to from time to time as our artistic journeys deepen. And for those who are already in the thick of it, I offer my heartfelt gratitude as you bare your souls to give your music that touches something unique in each of us, and ignites our shared humanity.

Spotify Playlist
Taking a break from other music until I’ve finished the concerto, at which point the regularly scheduled playlist will resume… AKA, Silence, until I’ve finished the concerto!

ALBUM REVIEW: In the Light of Air: ICE Performs Anna Thorvaldsdottir

by Maggie Molloy

Anna Þorvaldsdóttir tónskáld er höfundur Aeriality sem Sinfóníuhljómsveit Íslands frumflytur nk. fimmtudag. Anna lauk nýverið doktorsnámi sínu í tónsmíðum. Hún segir heilu og hálfu vinnubækurnar með hugmyndum bíða úrvinnslu og vonast til að geta einbeitt sér að tónsmíðunum af krafti á næstu árum.

photo: Kristinn Ingvarsson

You could say composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir is a bit of an ice sculptor. No, not the frozen water type of ice—the musical type of ICE. The Icelandic composer recently collaborated with ICE, the International Contemporary Ensemble, to create a new four-movement chamber work titled “In the Light of Air.”

And while we’re on the topic of ICE, let it be known that they are not your average ensemble. With a modular makeup of 35 leading instrumentalists, the group performs contemporary classical music in forces ranging from solos to large ensembles. In fact, they make it their mission to advance the music of the 21th century by pioneering new musical works and multimedia strategies for audience engagement.

In 2011 they created ICElab, an innovative new musical project which places teams of ICE musicians in collaboration with emerging composers to develop works that push the boundaries of the classical genre.

ICE’s latest album, titled “In the Light of Air: ICE Performs Anna Thorvaldsdottir,” is just a single product of that collaborative project. The album features two gorgeously enigmatic pieces: “In the Light of Air” for viola, cello, harp, piano, percussion, and electronics, and “Transitions” for solo cello. The performers on the album are ICE members Kyle Armbrust on viola, Michael Nicolas on cello, Nuiko Wadden on harp, Cory Smythe on piano, and Nathan Davis on percussion.

The title track is a tetralogy of works that together form a unified structure—the four main movements are connected by texturally fascinating transitions and framed by a prologue and epilogue. The first movement is an airy, delicate sound world aptly titled “Luminance.” The percussion and electronics provide a slowly rumbling bass part beneath a gradually shifting texture of sound materials, melodic fragments, and harmonies.

The second movement, titled “Serenity,” is an entire ocean of sound: infinitely varied yet beautifully unified in its ever-changing timbres and textures. The translucent calm sparkles with gorgeous harp details and gentle piano echoes, the vast and limitless soundscape punctuated with delicate, misty whispers of simple melodies.

The third movement is much shorter than the rest. Clocking in at less than four minutes, “Existence” is a slow and pensive journey, each bow stroke in the strings a deliberate, measured step through an atmospheric sound mass of deep drones and rumbling echoes.

The piece ends with “Remembrance,” a movement which delicately balances the lyrical, long-breathed melodies of the strings with the harmonic depth of piano and the textural interest of percussion. In fact, the percussion part features an installation of metallic ornaments which Thorvaldsdottir designed specifically for use in this particular movement. The ornaments, called Klakabönd (which is Icelandic for “a bind of ice”), were created by artist Svana Jósepsdóttir.

And if you’re lucky enough to see the piece performed live, there is an additional multimedia component: “In the Light of Air” incorporates a light constellation that was designed in collaboration with ICE. A collection of lightbulbs twinkles softly above the musicians during the performance, glowing and dimming according to the intensity of the music.

The other piece on the album is “Transitions,” which was commissioned by cellist Michael Nicolas in 2014. The single movement work explores the theme of man and machine, both of which are represented through contrasting cello parts. Nicolas soars through the organic lyricism and expressive melodies of man while also excelling at the metallic timbres and technical accuracy of machine. Through his sensitive balance and imaginative interpretation of each role, he showcases the cello’s rich tone, wide pitch range, and stunning timbral depth.

As a composer, Thorvaldsdottir is known for creating large sonic structures that reveal a vast variety of sustained sound materials—and both of these pieces are a perfect example of her visionary style. Throughout the album, her subtle timbral nuances, poetic textures, and lyrical gestures immerse the listener in austere, somber, and utterly spellbinding soundscapes.

So in the end, Thorvaldsdottir is probably more of a sound sculptor than an ice sculptor—but either way, she is certainly carving out a name for herself in the contemporary music scene.

In the Light of Air is released on August 28, 2015 – you can pre-order on Amazon or iTunes!

Staff & Community Picks: August 21

A weekly rundown of the music our staff and listeners are loving lately! Are you interested in contributing some thoughts on your favorite new music albums? Drop us a line!


Joshua Roman on Christopher Cerrone’s “The Night Mare”:

fcr162_cover.500x0“The Night Mare” by Christopher Cerrone is a piece which I had the immense pleasure of conducting on my first performance as a conductor with the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara, California.  This piece is for seven players and electronics and it’s a very good use of electronics, sort of creating this background against which the players punctuate with various sounds.  The piece itself is not so much about a nightmare, I think as about the process of piecing together the nightmare that you’ve just had.  You’re trying to figure out what you’ve heard – is it the sound of a train, is it the sound of a flute?  All of these things are all very hazy, it’s all about the blurred lines.  There may be a moment where everything comes together and starts to make sense, you know, as when you wake up and you start to piece together that this was in fact a dream, not reality… but that doesn’t hold for very long.  It’s a wonderful piece, very evocative, very scary, and I’m excited to share it with you.



Rachele Hales on Little King’s My Friend:

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Indie Chamber Pop group Little King offers up thirteen charming compositions in My Friend.  The pieces are fairly short and all are so lovely and goofy that, when accompanied by Thomas Cruz’s beautiful lilting deadpan lyrics, it’s easy to imagine they could each be used as the score for a series of adorable animated short films.  The lolling woodwinds support the wackiness of the album while also lending earnestness and warmth.

 



Stephen Vandivere* on Charles Wuorinen’s Six Trios:

51G9K8FeRBLThe Trios by Charles Wuorinen were all composed in the early ’80s, and most of which include at least one brass instrument. My son, who played the trombone in high school and college, and took it up again a few years ago, heard this CD and had only one comment: “wow!”. This is more approachable, though still gnarly, than much of his earlier work I’ve heard. I have the intuition that more listening will eventually allow me to grasp the structure of the compositions. For now, I listen for fall and effect.

*Stephen Vandivere is a Second Inversion listener. We’d love to hear from you, too!

ALBUM REVIEW: ORBIT: Music for Solo Cello (1945-2014)

by Maggie Molloy

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What do Jimi Hendrix guitar solos, György Ligeti sonatas, Shakespeare sonnets, and Spanish sarabandes all have in common? Each of them appears in one form or another on cellist Matt Haimovitz’s latest release, “Orbit: Music for Solo Cello (1945-2014).”

Sprawling in scope, “Orbit” is a three-disc compilation of music for solo cello featuring works by over 20 contemporary composers, 15 of whom are still living. The ambitious solo album is also one of the first releases on the new Pentatone Oxingale Series. This innovative new project is a collaboration between the Dutch classical music label PENTATONE and Haimovitz’s own  trailblazing artists’ label Oxingale Records, which he created in 2000 with his partner in life and music, composer Luna Pearl Woolf.

Clocking in at a hefty 3 hours and 45 minutes, the album features solo works that Haimovitz initially released on Oxingale as five thematic albums: “Anthem” (2003), “Goulash!” (2005), “After Reading Shakespeare” (2007), “Figment” (2009), and “Matteo” (2011). The album also includes two newly-recorded works: Philip Glass’s “Orbit” and a new arrangement by Woolf of the Beatles’ “Helter Skelter.”

Over the course of three discs, Haimovitz takes the listener on a musical odyssey through time and space, from minimalism to maximalism, tonal to atonal, folk to avant-garde, abstract to narrative, and everything in between.

The album begins with the title track, Philip Glass’s “Orbit.” Warm and achingly tender melodies evolve softly over the course of this seven-minute solo work, and Haimovitz crafts each note gorgeously.

He tackles a very different style of contemporary classical in his performance of Luciano Berio’s “Sequenza XIV,” a virtuosic piece with mesmerizing rhythms inspired by Sri Lankan drumming. Haimovitz bows, plucks, taps, twangs, slides, scrapes, and soars through a number of extended techniques before settling into silence.

Another memorable moment on the album is György Ligeti’s Sonata for Violoncello Solo, a piece Haimovitz worked directly with Ligeti himself to learn. The piece’s modal melodies and Hungarian profile make clear the influence of Bartók and Kodály, and Haimovitz brings out the complex polyphonic counterpoint beautifully. It is followed by a performance of Du Yun’s “San,” a piece which weaves musical fragments of Eastern mysticism and meditation into a mesmerizing yet haunting sound world.

Haimovitz also takes a crack at some contemporary popular music: the album includes his own cello arrangement of Jimi Hendrix’s famous “Star-Spangled Banner” performance at Woodstock. He snarls, growls, and wails through the Hendrix classic so convincingly that you’d almost expect him to have a whammy bar hidden somewhere on his cello. Haimovitz also takes on the Beatles’ loud, wild, and raunchy proto-metal anthem, “Helter Skelter.”

Over the course of disc two Haimovitz glides through the dramatic and dense melodies of Elliott Carter’s “Figment” (Nos. 1 and 2), the ethereal whispers of Salvatore Sciarrino’s “Ai Limiti Della Notte,” and the gorgeous cantabile lyricism of Luigi Dallapiccola’s “Ciaccona, Intermezzo e Adagio.”

But the most sentimental piece on the album is Woolf’s “Sarabande.” Derived from the Baroque Spanish dance form, the piece is also named after Haimovitz and Woolf’s child, who was lost mid-term in utero. The poignant and pensive work is both delicate and passionate, and Haimovitz brings it to life with remarkable timbral detail.

The third disc features three suites inspired by literature. The first is Ned Rorem’s “After Reading Shakespeare,” a suite in which each movement is based on a quotation from a Shakespearean play or sonnet—and the nine movements explores the romance, beauty, and balance of Shakespeare’s poetry without using a single word.

Inspired by Rorem’s work, Haimovitz commissioned two new suites based in literature by Pulitzer Prize-winning composers Paul Moravec and Lewis Spratlan. Moravec’s “Mark Twain Sez” takes the witty words of Mark Twain as the basis for an eight-movement exploration into the human condition, exploring themes of dreams, love, humor, insanity, mystery, and more.

The album comes to a close with Spratlan’s four-movement “Shadow,” a surreal musical reflection which takes the symbolist poetry of Rimbaud to a whole new world.

Because in the end, the musical possibilities for solo cello are about as numerous as the stars in the sky—and Haimovitz puts them all into “Orbit.”

Matt Haimovitz and Christopher O’Riley, from our field trip to the Tractor Tavern in Seattle on February 2, 2015