Women in (New) Music: Remembering Ana-Maria Avram (1961–2017)

by Michael Schell

The new music community was stunned to hear of Ana-Maria Avram’s sudden passing on August 1. Born in Bucharest in 1961, she studied in both Romania and France, acquiring from the latter an admiration for spectralism, a way of composing that focuses on tone color as a primary musical parameter and places an emphasis on forms built from continuous processes rather than delineated sections. Throughout a prolific career she remained aligned with this philosophy, becoming one of her country’s best known living composers and a leader in what has become known as Romanian spectralism.

Together with her husband and collaborator Iancu Dumitrescu, Avram co-directed the Hyperion Ensemble, performing extensively in Romania, France, and the UK, and releasing dozens of recordings on the Edition Modern label. In the above video, you can see her conducting Hyperion in her piece Orbit of Eternal Grace (II). Scored for chamber orchestra, computer sounds and two “dueling” clarinet soloists (one on bass clarinet the other on basset horn), it shows the influence not only of spectralists like the Frenchman Grisey and Avram’s compatriot Rădulescu, but also sonorist composers like Xenakis, Ligeti and Penderecki.

Also evident is the influence of American free jazz, and indeed Avram’s most recognizable trait may be the way she dances along the border between formal, composed music and free improv. Her frequent collaborators included the veteran English improvisers Chris Cutler and Ian Hodgkinson (both alumni of the avant-rock band Henry Cow), and in the video Hodgkinson is the soloist to Avram’s right. Orbit of Eternal Grace reminds me of some of the ensemble works of Anthony Braxton, himself a musician readily at home in both improvised and composed music worlds.

Avram grew up under the Ceaușescu dictatorship, where embracing the musical avant-garde was itself a kind of tacet challenge to the prevailing authoritarianism. Her music always seems to convey a certain transgressive thrill—as though reveling in the liberty to work directly with the raw materials of sound, to play instruments the “wrong” way, to build a personal musical language without any hummable melodies or government-approved chord progressions.

But not all of her music is as aggressive as Orbit of Eternal Grace. Her Zodiaque (III) is slow and soothing, built from a synthesized drone on low E-flat and its natural harmonics. Peeking through the texture are various sharp gestures on two prepared pianos, often played directly on the strings. It sounds like Éliane Radigue jamming with George Crumb. In the video (which misidentifies the title) she is heard performing the piece with Dumitrescu.

Zodiaque reveals Avram as an accomplished electronic musician, and she could often be seen in performance conducting an ensemble while coaxing computer-generated sounds from her laptop. That’s on display in her Four Orphic Sketches for female voice, ensemble and live electronics. Its sound world, including the eschewal of a text in favor of nonsense syllables, is close to that of Ligeti’s Aventures. The video below includes some shots of the score, which uses graphic notation, reflecting Avram’s view of a musical text as “a base from which to fly away.”

All told, Avram wrote over 100 compositions, ranging from fixed media works and solo instrumental pieces to works for full orchestra. She also co-organized music festivals in Romania, and volunteered for several new music advocacy organizations. As if that weren’t enough, she was also a capable pianist, as evinced in her performance of some arrangements of Romanian folksongs collected by Bartók. There’s much more from her available on YouTube and SoundCloud.

It’s tough to lose someone as talented as Avram, especially at the premature age of 55. But we can at least be grateful that she left as much behind as she did—a testament to her passion for sound and her devotion to musical freedom.

Seattle New Music Happy Hour: Tuesday, August 15 at 5:30pm

by Maggie Molloy

There’s nothing like a cold beer and a crowd of new music enthusiasts to keep you company while you wait out the rush hour traffic.

Join us Tuesday, August 15 at 5:30pm at Queen Anne Beerhall for our favorite after-work pick-me-up: New Music Happy Hour, co-hosted by Second Inversion and the Live Music Project. Bring a friend, make a friend, have a drink, and discover connections with fellow new music lovers from all over Seattle!

Click here to RSVP and invite your friends. Plus, sign up for alerts for future happy hour dates and day-before reminders so you’ll never miss a beer—er, beat.

ALBUM REVIEW: Danny Elfman’s Rabbit & Rogue

by Lauren Freman

If, like me, you thought that Danny Elfman’s Rabbit & Rogue looked like a fashionable reboot of a Bugs Bunny cartoon, you might be tempted to write off this score as self-indulgent and twee. But hear me out—

Rabbit & Rogue was the source material for a collection of short films that premiered at the LA Film Festival just last month. Produced by Indi.com, the Danny Elfman Project: Rabbit and Rogue was a contest inviting filmmakers to create a short film to set to the score, in the same vein as Disney’s Fantasia. Or Baby Driver. Submissions were judged by a star-studded panel, and the winning pieces screened for LAFF’s 36,000-some-odd festival attendees. The Limited Deluxe Edition was just released as an album this past June, brought to life by the Berlin Session Orchestra with conductor Joris Bartsch Buhle.

Rabbit & Rogue actually first premiered in 2008, as the six-movement score to a ballet, commissioned for the American Ballet Theater and choreographed by Twyla Tharp. The production was met with a few curmudgeonly responses (one New York Times critic named it “irksome” and “relentless”) which, okay, slow your roll. It’s a Danny Elfman score. Y’know, Danny Elfman? The guy who wrote the score for The Simpsons, and Batman Returns, and basically every Tim Burton movie ever? If you’re not here for whimsy, then get up out my face. But to be honest, I had a hard time imagining this as a ballet too. It’s just too cinematic (you can take the Danny Elfman outta the film score…), which is likely the motivation behind repurposing this piece for short films.

The “Intro” begins quietly with the percussion bubbling with a nervous heartbeat, which sets into motion the fidgety, pent-up kinesthetic energy that permeates the entire work. It opens gradually into a spacious—though no less fidgety—storybook landscape, letting the saxophone serve some serious Creation du Monde vibes before tumbling abruptly into the second movement, “Frolic.”

At points, the second movement could be mistaken for a Looney Tunes score (that xylophone tho). It evokes the sense that Rabbit is scampering through other symphonic works: there’s a reference to a theme from Rite of Spring’s third movement, a “Flight of the Bumblebee” nod in one piano solo section, and this perfectly cheeky moment about nine minutes in, where we are in full John Williamsy triumphant brass glory, then a pause—just long enough to raise an eyebrow—then BAM we’re doing a wild Charleston. It’s worth a listen just for the sonic scavenger hunt alone.

You know what they say: The way to a new music snob’s heart is through their gamelan. Admittedly, Rabbit & Rogue’s third movement, “Gamelan,” bears dubious resemblance to any traditional gamelan, but still it’s pretty magical. The beginning of this movement reprises the fluttery rabbit-heartbeat from the “Intro” (Are you trying to pass off the Berlin Session Orchestra’s xylophones as gamelan, Danny? Tell the truth…). The movement later leans hard into standard box office film score territory: sweeping, no-surprises-here anthems that remind you of the VHS tapes you watched and re-watched as a kid. If any one movement is dangling precariously close to preciousness, it’s this one. One might rebut, though, that, in a ballet about the adventures of a bunny, a little preciousness might be forgiven.

I won’t spoil the rest, but suffice it to say that Elfman continues this Macaulay Culkin-meets-Milhaud-meets-Mel-Blanc remix all the way through the Finale. Does this mean that Rabbit & Rogue essentially is, in fact, a fashionable reboot of a Bugs Bunny cartoon? Okay, yes. But who cares? The value in this piece is in its marriage of smartypants in-jokes and blockbuster soundtrack accessibility.

If, like me, you spend a fair amount of time wrestling for common ground with friends and family who “just don’t GET classical music,” this is precisely the kind of music that serves our cause. This kind of you-got-new-music-in-my-film-score/you-got-film-score-in-my-new-music mashup allows us to offer “If you liked that, you might enjoy this John Adams; this Charles Ives; this Conlon Nancarrow,” and before you know it, you and Uncle Craig are blasting Pierrot Lunaire from his truck like it’s no big deal.

As classical music people, our biggest image problem is in being perceived as too serious. Rabbit & Rogue helpfully reminds us to lighten up, lol at Elfman’s musical jokes, and for goodness’ sake, watch some cartoons.

Lauren Freman is a multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, and composer, hell-bent on blurring the boundaries between high and low art. Follow her at
www.freman.band, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

Staff Picks: Friday Faves

Second Inversion hosts share a favorite selection from their weekly playlist. Tune in on Friday, August 4 to hear these pieces and plenty of other new and unusual music from all corners of the classical genre!

John Cage: Piano Sonata XI from the Sonatas and Interludes (Centaur Records)
Susan Svrcek, piano

John Cage threw a wrench in the Western music tradition when he invented the prepared piano in 1940. Presented with the challenge of writing dance music for a small stage, he created his own percussion orchestra inside a piano by placing screws, bolts, and pieces of rubber between the strings.

The Sonatas and Interludes was his magnum opus for the iconoclastic instrument. Pianist Susan Svrcek lends her fingers to the Cage classic in this stunning recording, pulling the percussive melodies out of a mess of strings and hardware supplies with sincerity, warmth, and an ever so delicate touch. – Maggie Molloy

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 12pm hour today to hear this piece.

John Adams: Phrygian Gates (RCA Records)
Hermann Kretzschmar, piano

Sometimes, instead of a complicated meal full of newly-invented ingredients and prepared with exotic techniques, it is preferable to have a simple salad composed of greens, oil, and salt. John Adams’s Phrygian Gates is the musical equivalent of this, in my opinion. This piece confirms that a construction built from the simplest ingredients can unfold into a supremely delicious and satisfying experience. – Seth Tompkins

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 4pm hour today to hear this piece.

So Percussion and Matmos: “Flame” from Treasure State (Cantaloupe Music)

Electronic music and modern composition collide in Treasure State, the collaborative album from Matmos and So Percussion.  In “Flame,” a melancholy guitar and phonoharp are joined and propelled by ripples of vibraphone, glockenspiel, and stomping as the song transitions from alluring to pure cacophony.

Matmos is notorious for bizarre sampling, having previously used sounds of “the amplified neural activity of crayfish,” lasers, and even surgical procedure noises to produce gorgeous experimental techno. Treasure State is a showcase for both Matmos and So Percussion, as well as an interesting study in unusual musical resources—and “Flame” will thank your ears for “sampling” the album with its stylized cascading groove. – Rachele Hales

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 8pm hour today to hear this piece.

David Leisner: Dances in the Madhouse (Centaur Records)
Clayton Haslop, violin; Jack Sanders, guitar

An early 20th century lithograph, entitled “Dance in a Madhouse,” depicts a scene in an insane asylum that inspired composer David Leisner to write four dances for the highlighted patients. The first movement, “Tango Solitaire,” is for the stylish woman dancing solo in the center of the frame. “Waltz for the Old Folks” corresponds with the happy couple in front of her, who seem completely comfortable with their insanity. Third, “Ballad for the Lonely” represents the despairing women on the sidelines, and “Samba!” is for the couple on the left, dancing with wild, dizzying energy.

The recognizable dance rhythms move through lenses of distortion as they may be perceived by individual patients in the scene. The melodies and cadences are largely harmonious and accessible, conveying a sense of joy in spite of circumstance, with “Ballad for the Lonely” evoking a swell of sympathy for those unable to take part in the celebratory moment. Jack Sanders’ guitar and Clayton Haslop’s violin respond seamlessly to one another, delivering a remarkably rich and unique listening experience. – Brendan Howe

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 9pm hour today to hear this piece.

Sneak Peek Audio Leak: “Disarm” by Tristan Eckerson

by Maggie Molloy

Composer and pianist Tristan Eckerson is a bit of a nomad—both literally and musically. Moving from city to city since his teenage years, he’s developed an ear for musical exploration and a willingness to follow the melodies wherever they lead him.

His compositions draw musical inspiration from around the world, distilling it through the uniquely tender, quiet introspection that only solo piano music can express. The music itself is nomadic, balancing a restless, forward momentum against moments of silence, reflection, and restraint.

Eckerson’s new album Disarm, which comes out September 16 on 1631 Recordings, features a collection of solo piano works which blend elements of minimalism and modal jazz with more traditional classical idioms.

But you don’t have to wait until September 16 to get a taste. We’re thrilled to premiere the title track off the album right here on Second Inversion. Give it a listen and read through our interview with Eckerson below.

Second Inversion:  What was the inspiration behind “Disarm”?

Tristan Eckerson: I had been getting really into modal writing and listening to a lot of Chick Corea, and I wanted to do a piece that was modal all the way through—so that was the basis for “Disarm.” I also think it was inspired by listening to a lot of Alberto Ginastera for the same reasons. I didn’t want to get into tonal harmony at all, but I still wanted to do something that had some variation, a chord progression, and excitement.

SI: How would you describe the sound of this piece?

TE: It’s definitely modal and you could say it has a modern, minimalist sound, at least to me. It also harkens back a little bit to Ginastera, or at least that’s what I hope. I think it’s energetic and I was really trying to fuse the sounds of jazz and world with contemporary classical—to make something that wasn’t outwardly “jazzy,” but that incorporated elements of modal jazz, was composed, and could still fit into the world of what’s considered “contemporary classical” music.

SI: How does this piece relate to the rest of the album?

TE: I think it is the lynchpin of the album. I wanted to do something minimal, ethereal, and modal, but also contemporary, genre-bending, and exciting. And I think that “Disarm,” being the title track, is a fusion of all of those things. Some of the other pieces have elements of one or the other, but “Disarm” combines the many elements that I like in classical and contemporary music into one composition.

Tristan Eckerson’s full-length album Disarm comes out September 16 on 1631 Recordings. Click here to view tour dates for his European tour in September.

ALBUM REVIEW: Cartography by Mariel Roberts

by Brendan Howe

When I asked cellist Mariel Roberts what it means to be labeled as virtuosic (as numerous outlets have done with respect to her abilities) in the context of contemporary music, she replied that contemporary virtuosi wear more and different hats than those in strictly classical music. However, the primary requirement of all virtuosi is the release of ego.

We’ve all heard performers whose technical ability is so acute, and expressive capacity so vast, that we are spellbound by the music, forgetting both ourselves and that a performer is even playing. The music goes beyond subjective labels like good or bad and reaches its ostensible point: to create an entirely unique, transcendental experience. This is what Roberts has achieved with Cartography. The four pieces that comprise the album are beautifully curated for their exceptionally focused approach to expressing powerful musical ideas, executed with boldness and precision.

As the leading track on the album, Eric Wubbels’ “Gretchen am spinnrade” instantly shocks the conscious mind into submission. It creates an auditory deer-in-headlights effect for several moments before the mind recognizes sonic landscape as its own constant white noise in the form of music – loops of compulsive thought and action, repetitive behavior and cycles of history. Having based the piece on Goethe and Schubert’s Gretchen at the spinning wheel, illustrating a tortured relationship between fantasy and reality, Wubbels also sees the piece as representative of karma, the turning of cause and effect. He describes it as a “manic, hounded piece, alternating relentless motoric circuits with plateaus of ‘idling motion.’”

The second track, “Aman,” sneaks in like the shadow of a rat, tinkling through industrial debris along a warehouse wall, bookended by moments of silence. Turkish composer Cenk Ergün wrote the piece for cello and live electronic signal processing using a software instrument of his own design. He uses various techniques to warp the ominous, textural, percussive sounds of Roberts’ cello in real time, creating a compelling and instantaneous distortion of meaning.

Ergün notes that, while the word “aman” in its original Arabic means “security,” in Turkish it is used to alert someone of imminent danger, as in “watch out!” This piece certainly fits that mood, the uneasy calm before – or perhaps during – the storm.

George Lewis’ “Spinner” resurrects the Greek myth of The Three Fates, in which Clotho spins the thread of an individual’s life, Lachesis measures it, and Atropos cuts it off. Lewis recalls that Plato’s account of the Fates positions them indispensably at the moment of a soul’s transmigration, though the responsibility of choices throughout life remain with humans themselves. If the piece is heard as a life in final judgment, or as a life happening contemporaneously, it is worth noting that it does not romanticize or edit out the mundane. It is completely honest, and malleable societal preconceptions of what is valuable or not do not come into play.

“The Cartography of Time,” by one of Iceland’s most noted contemporary composers, Davi∂ Brynjar Franzson, closes the album. A 20-minute feat of immense concentration and willpower, this glacially moving piece meditates on a problem posed by Wittgenstein regarding the measurement of time: “The past cannot be measured, as it is gone by; and the future can’t be measured because it has not yet come. And the present can’t be measured for it has no extension.” Franzson has done away with the need to define what is past, present, or future in this piece. The overall effect is mesmerizing.

Seattle New Music Happy Hour: Tuesday, July 18 at 5:30pm

by Maggie Molloy

You like new music. We like new music. Let’s get together and talk about new music, drink a couple beers, and make some new friends along the way.

Join us Tuesday, July 18 at 5:30pm at Queen Anne Beerhall for New Music Happy Hour, co-hosted by Second Inversion and the Live Music Project. Bring a friend, make a friend, have a drink, and discover connections with fellow new music lovers from all over Seattle!

Click here to RSVP and invite your friends. Plus, sign up for alerts for future happy hour dates and day-before reminders so you’ll never miss a beer—er, beat.