Thinking Outside the Voice Box: Stacey Mastrian on Contemporary Vocal Music

by Maggie Molloy

In order to be a contemporary classical vocalist, you’ve got to be prepared to do a lot more than just sing. Sometimes, you have to be able to act, speak, compose, or play the piano. Sometimes, you have to be able to interpret graphic scores, or trigger live electronics—and sometimes, when the situation calls for it, you have to be able to bark.

Those are just a few of the extramusical activities that are featured in Seattle-based soprano Stacey Mastrian’s Binary Solo+ performance this Wednesday, July 12 at the Royal Room, joined by pianist Josh Archibald-Seiffer. The program features rarely-performed works for voice with electronics and piano by two generations of American composers: the venerable Earle Brown, Morton Feldman, and Alvin Lucier, and the current generation—Mike Boyd, Stephen Lilly, Kristian Twombly, and Steve Wanna.

The pieces range from meditative and intimate to humorous and theatrical—but all are distinctly contemporary. Morton Feldman’s unpublished Lost Love for voice and piano is based on a poem by a Victorian realist, while Stephen Lilly’s Portrait in Song pokes fun at the clichés of the art song tradition, substituting lyrical melodies for a zoo of animal utterances.

The musical scores employed are similarly wide-ranging: the score for Steve Wanna’s Smriti forgoes traditional Western notation for a new musical language comprised entirely of dots and arrows. The score for Earle Brown’s “For Ann, 1 May ’94,” forgoes the concept of a “page” altogether—it is comprised of rectangular patterns scribbled on a bar coaster.

Mastrian’s performance is part of a double bill with pianist Jesse Myers, who will perform a program of works by iconic minimalist composers like Philip Glass and Steve Reich, as well as brand new 21st century works for acoustic piano and electronics by the likes of Missy Mazzoli and Christopher Cerrone. (Click here to learn more about that program.)

In anticipation of the concert, we sat down with Mastrian to talk about electronics, animal sounds, graphic scores, and the thinking outside the voice box:

Second Inversion: As a singer, you specialize in 20th and 21st century vocal works. What inspires you most about new music? What draws you to new and unusual sounds?

Stacey Mastrian: With new music, I am frequently challenged to step outside of my comfort zone.  It demands or permits me to do things that I otherwise would never consider doing, forcing me to continue learning and driving creativity.

I love the chance to contribute to works that have never been done before, works that have not been done often, or works that have not been performed in a way that has done them justice.  I enjoy collaborating with composers to create something new, as well as learning from those who worked with the composers (in the case of those who are no longer with us).  From a musical standpoint, it is an opportunity to participate in shaping history and in linking with the recent past so that we do not lose those connections.  It also has tinges of the revolutionary, in the political-social-musical disruptions that many of the pieces imply or overtly convey—sometimes seriously and at other times with humor.  Sharing this repertoire with new audiences is particularly thrilling.

As far as “new and unusual” sounds, in some cases it is the exploration of the sounds themselves that fascinates me, or the different ways of conceiving of music, of hearing, or of space.  In other cases, the plurality of options helps express the piece in a way that traditional singing might not:  there are times when bel canto singing in the harmonic language of the Romantic period can express grief beautifully, but sometimes that is not enough—sometimes atonality or shouting or noise can be the only response—from the gut, in a raw, theatrical way.  This is not to say that I do not care about solid vocal technique, but there is less concern about only the beauty of sound and more about what the sound conveys.

SI: How does your Royal Room program differ from more standard classical vocal repertoire?

SM: With standard classical vocal recital rep, one typically stands near the piano and sings beautifully for an hour.  In this program I sing, speak, play the piano, trigger live electronics on the computer, compose with water sounds I recorded, make noises with objects ranging from vases to bowls to teapots to an airplane nose cone, vocalize with ridiculous animal and battle sounds, and mime.

SI: What are some of the unique challenges and rewards of performing music that uses graphic scores? What about music that uses electronics?

SM: With graphic scores, the challenge for me is “Where do I start?  I am not a composer!  Give me parameters!”  There is usually a framework with very specific rules, but the actual content is quite open.  The rewarding part of this work is that every time it teaches me to think outside of the box (haha).  It also is exciting to engage with a score that is so visually compelling and with a result that could be different each time.

With electronics the challenge is “WILL THEY WORK??”  There are so many variables between the hardware hookups and functionality and the software—sometimes the programs just crash, or due to randomness built into certain live electronics processes, they do not cooperate.  This is way more stressful than just singing.  The rewards of working with electronics, however, are many:  I love the way that they sound and the endless possibilities for combinations of options that are not possible otherwise.  The unexpectedness of live processing can be fun when it is not frustrating.  Also working with electronics means that I do not need an accompanist, which is useful for situations that require portability.

SI: What goes through your head when you’re looking at a graphic score for the first time? How do you make sense of it? Are there certain things you look for to orient yourself?

SM: My process looks something like this:

Look at it.  For a long time.  Decide it is impossible to perform because I will never have enough ideas. …or I have too many ideas and do not know where to start. Look at it again.  Think.  Jot down notes.  Repeat. Ask the composers (or performers who worked with them) a lot of questions. Be prepared for them to tell me to read the instructions again. Think some more. Throw away some ideas. Start over.

SI: What are you most looking forward to with this performance? What do you hope audience members gain from it?

SM: With this performance, I look forward to giving several world premieres of works by longtime friends and colleagues and performing some works I have wanted to do for a while, as well as a few entertaining favorites. Performing with pianist Josh Archibald-Seiffer is always a pleasure, and I am honored that Jesse invited me to be a part of his program.

I hope that the audience will enjoy a new sonic and theatrical world—one filled with humor and humanity as well as links with art, everyday items, meditation, poetry and prose, theater, and technology. Mostly I just hope that people will come.  It is difficult to take a chance on a composer or a performer you may not know; it might be terrible and you waste an evening—but it might be amazing! And you either have that opportunity to experience it, or you miss it.

Also—come hear me bark.


Stacey Mastrian and Jesse Myers perform this Wednesday, July 12 at 7:30pm at the Royal Room in Columbia City. For details and additional information, click here.

Expanding the Piano Keyboard: Jesse Myers on Experimenting with Electronics

by Maggie Molloy

Pianist Jesse Myers. Photo by Lee Goldman.

When it comes to the piano, Jesse Myers likes to think outside the standard keyboard.

Last year, he created an entire percussion orchestra inside his piano for his performances of John Cage’s prepared piano masterpiece, the Sonatas and Interludes. This year, he’s forgoing the screws and bolts in favor of something a little more electric.

On Wednesday, July 12 at the Royal Room, Myers presents Living in America: a concert of solo piano works by living American composers. Urban, adventurous, and uniquely American, the program highlights the groundbreaking work of iconic minimalist composers, as well as brand new 21st century works for acoustic piano and electronics.

The first half of the program features John Adams’ misty and modal China Gates alongside Philip Glass’ half-hypnotic, half-neurotic Mad Rush and a selection of his virtuosic Piano Etudes. The second half showcases music for piano and electronics, including Christopher Cerrone’s 21st century urban nocturne Hoyt-Schermerhorn, Missy Mazzoli’s ethereal Orizzonte, and her swirling fantasia Isabelle Eberhardt Dreams of Pianos. Steve Reich’s pulsing, palindromic Piano Counterpoint finishes the program.

The evening also features a set of rarely-performed music for solo voice with electronics and piano, performed by soprano Stacey Mastrian. She lends her voice to two generations of American composers, ranging from Earle Brown and Morton Feldman to Kristian Twombly and Steve Wanna.

In anticipation of the concert, we sat down with Myers to talk about urban sounds, electronics, and expanding the sonic possibilities of the piano:

Second Inversion: What inspires you most about exploring the expanded possibilities of the piano?

Jesse Myers: Discovery. It’s not that I’m tired of the piano in the traditional sense—it’s really about the two words you just used: exploring and expanding. The Steinway grand is the benchmark of great American craftsmanship, and it has stopped evolving.

While new music is, of course, still being written for the piano, new music that involves electronics is a way for composers to personally contribute to a new sort of evolution of the piano.  I am not sure composers are thinking of their work in that way, but as a pianist and a curator of the repertoire, I can’t help but see their work in that light. 

The great thing about electronics, prepared piano, and extended piano techniques, is that at the end of the day, the good old acoustic grand piano is still there. Akin to the way Cage first prepared the piano with bolts and weather-stripping, the electronics drastically change the sound and our impression of the piano—but in the end it is easily returned to its original form.  

SI: What are some of the unique challenges and rewards of performing music that uses electronics?

JM: It used to be that I could show up and play a concert without any paraphernalia, and that’s nice and all, but I love my ever-expanding bag of tricks. The tinkering that is necessary in the practice of this repertoire, and the ability to perform a wider range of timbres in a solo performance while making use of the venue’s sound system are big payoffs to me. But, yeah, part of the reason I became a musician was so I didn’t have to get a haircut and wake up early—so if I can plug into a sound system and feel like a rock musician for a brief moment, I can feel closer to achieving my lifestyle.

There are certainly a great deal of challenges, and I’m sure that turns some musicians off to exploring music like this for themselves. Technical setups are unique to each piece, with varying arrays of requirements. This means that creating a program takes even more planning and practice to get it right. On top of that, these technical requirements can also make two pieces completely incompatible with each other in a single program.  Electroacoustic music often requires a couple different software applications, an ear piece for click tracks on some fixed electronics, foot pedals for cueing live electronics on more flexible ones, different settings on both hardware and software depending on the piece or venue, etc. 

SI: This program features all American composers—what are some of the overarching themes that connect the music of these composers?

JM: Urban sound.  All of these composers, with the exception of Adams, are living and working in New York right now.  To me, this imprints an unmistakable urban character into their music. There is a relentless activeness in this urban sound which is illustrated most clearly by the minimalist music of Glass and Reich.  The electroacoustic soundscapes of Mazzoli’s music have this wonderful sort of raw grittiness about them, and Cerrone’s work, Hoyt-Schermerhorn, is named after a New York subway station. Cerrone says “…the piece explores the myriad and contradictory feelings that often come to me late at night in my city of choice—nostalgia, anxiety, joy, panic.” There is a beautiful peacefulness among the urban activity in these works.

The electronics are also a theme that connects most of the works. The first half of the program (the Adams and Glass pieces) will have no amplification or use of electronics, while the last half will use an increasing amount of electronics. But there is an electronic connection between the two halves. The program starts with an acoustic piece that references electronic music.  The gates in the title, China Gates, refer to the gating of electronic music.  Adams uses sudden changing modes to mimic gating effects in electronic music. 

Conversely, the end of the program, Reich’s Piano Counterpoint, is an electronic work that references an acoustic one. Reich originally wrote the music for this as a work called Six Pianos in 1973.  In 2011, pianist Vincent Corver adapted the work for one piano and a pre-recorded soundtrack.  Four of the six piano parts are pre-recorded and the last two are combined into a more virtuosic single part, which I’ll play live and amplified.  In 2014, the Bang On a Can All Stars pianist Vicky Chow worked with the composer to further edit the piece and create a new flexible pre-recorded soundtrack that allows the performer to use a foot pedal to trigger the phasing of the other parts. Reich’s original version of Six Pianos asked for each measure to be repeated within a range of times—not a fixed amount of time. Since Corver’s version was backed by a fixed-length soundtrack, the most recent version is a truer realization of the original work’s flexibility. My performance will be the most recent, flexible version of the work. 

SI: How do the minimalist composers’ works differ from the 21st century works on the program?

JM: These 20th century minimalist works lack an extramusical association.  They are really about rhythmic structures and form. China Gates (which isn’t really about China or gates), for instance, is a famous, short minimalist work that uses recurring patterns that slowly change and shift apart over time, while making up a nearly perfect palindrome in its structure.

The music of Cerrone and Mazzoli in this program, which are 21st century works, tell a story or capture a vivid scene. So, the audience should be listening for entirely different things in the two styles. In the first half of the program, listen for minimalist patterns and structures (like palindromes), that ultimately lead the way for the second half to transport you into another scene altogether.

What is interesting, though, is despite the lack of an extramusical association, the works of Glass and Reich often capture the busy energy of a dense urban environment, which somehow creates a beautiful, weightless sense of calm.  In this sense then, the minimalist works do have the ability to move beyond the academic, form, and rhythmic structure that are the hallmarks of its style.

SI: What are you most looking forward to with this performance and what do you hope audience members gain from it?

JM: Playing in a relaxed bar setting should really gel with this music. I’ve always wanted to take music like this out of the standard classical concert venue. As someone who can’t take their instrument with them when they gig, bars and many other non-classical venues are off-limits.  But The Royal Room has a Steinway B, a great sound system, and a reputation for taking good care of local musicians—so I’m really excited to play in that environment.

I hope the audience gains an appreciation for the things I’ve come to realize as a musician. There is amazing music being created by composers who are alive and working in this country right now—it’s innovative, part of us, and who we are. Embrace technology. Accept that electronics and a reverence to the classical music tradition can coexist.


Living in America is Wednesday, July 12 at 7:30pm at the Royal Room in Columbia City. For details and additional information, click here.

A Singer’s Account of György Ligeti’s Requiem

by David Gary

Last week the Seattle Symphony and Chorale presented the Pacific Northwest’s first ever performance of György Ligeti’s ethereal and rarely performed Requiem (1965), conducted by Music Director Ludovic Morlot. This weekend, they’ll present a portion of it again as part of their live performance of Stanley Kubrick’s sci-fi classic 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Perhaps best remembered for his dense harmonies, tone clusters, and micropolyphonic textures, Ligeti was famous for crafting nearly impossible repertoire—and the fact it has taken half a century to mount a Seattle performance of his Requiem is a testament to its difficulty. This musical undertaking was certainly out of the typical chorale wheelhouse and was an audacious selection for the Symphony to perform. As a member of the chorale, I had the opportunity to learn this requiem and will share my experience in doing so.

Looking at the Score for the First Time

The physical score is bulkier than a standard choral scores, elongated both vertically and horizontally by the 20-part chorus notation. As singers, we are typically accustomed to four-part staffs—so it was immediately evident that this was not our standard choral repertoire.

Much of the Introit movement is written with sustained tones with shifts in tonality over quintuplet figures. The intended effect mimics a large crowd murmuring the Latin text of the Requiem Mass. However, the text throughout this movement remains entirely discernable because it is melismatic over so many different parts. (Ligeti’s own instructions call for a distant sound.) For many of us this piece was well outside our comfort zone, so this movement was a pragmatic place to begin breaking into Ligeti’s musical paradigm.

We quickly realized that pitches would not be our main focus throughout our work on the Requiem. Given the short time we had to learn the piece—only about three or four months with multiple other concerts sprinkled in—and the sheer difficulty of the written pitches, our pitch focus was aimed more at staying within certain range clusters and not wandering too far from the tonal core we were looking to find. Because finding pitches was going to prove so difficult, we put much of our initial energy on learning the rhythmic regime of this piece

Unique Musical Challenges

Like many musical undertakings, this piece presented three large challenges: notes, rhythm, and musicality.

Notes: One of the first things we realized was that we would not be able to learn our pitches as they were written. (This is not to say it is an entirely impossible task, but given our time constraints it would have proven impossible.) During the time of composition, Ligeti himself had to retract and edit some of his harmonies because choirs were unable to learn and perform their parts. There are times in the score where a thick black line appears over a vocal part indicating sections where exact pitches can be jettisoned. This is a challenge for any choir who is accustomed to learning and performing exactly what is on page.

Rhythm: This piece was easy to get lost in, so fighting to stay on track in this score was important. For instance, Ligeti subdivides some of his beats over 7 or 9. These unconventional rhythmic figures create an aural effect of dense clouds of quickly moving harmonies—but they are also incredibly difficult to learn and even harder to execute in context. Another challenge of this piece was remaining on your part’s staff within the score. In rehearsals, there were frequent times where upon flipping a page I would shift to a different line without noticing I was singing the wrong part for several measures.

Musicality: Some of the more important musical gestures in the piece have less to do with notes or rhythms than they do with the shaping of a particular phrase to achieve a human (rather than musical) effect. This sometimes proved a bit of a challenge, since many of us as singers are used to having our phrasing guided by melody and word stresses rather than purely visceral emotion.

Presenting the Performance

We had no idea how this piece would be received. For many of us, a piece like this wasn’t exactly the reason we had joined the chorus. Because it was so easy to get lost in the score, performing was a frantic combination of counting, score following, watching our conductor for the count, and finding first pitches. As any performer knows, one does not get on stage to necessarily listen and enjoy the performance but rather to focus in on one’s task as a musician: to present an audience with entertainment and an unforgettable experience. I believe we achieved this goal and helped evoke emotions in the audience that Ligeti strove to encapsulate in this piece.

Though this was an atypical finale for our regular season, I think many of us ultimately found great satisfaction in how this piece was received and the level of admiration bestowed upon presentation. As we move on to our next challenges, we can all agree that as a group our musicianship has been augmented—and I look forward to bringing what I learned from Ligeti to my next musical projects.


David Gary is the Development Coordinator at Classical KING FM 98.1 and a bass in the Seattle Symphony Chorale. The Seattle Symphony and Chorale perform Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey on June 30 and July 1 at 8pm. For tickets and additional information, click here.

LIVE BROADCAST: Town Music Season Finale

by Maggie Molloy

Every end marks a new beginning—and as the 2016-2017 Town Music series comes to a close, artistic director Joshua Roman looks excitedly toward the future with a program of works by living (and thriving!) composers.

For this Wednesday’s season finale, Joshua conducts members of the Seattle Youth Symphony Orchestra as they perform alongside SYSO alums and musical mentors. The wide-ranging program draws from musical traditions old and new, near and far—featuring a tribute to Haydn by Pulitzer Prize-winner Caroline Shaw, the world premiere of a new jazz-inspired work by Gregg Kallor, a tango-infused chamber piece by Osvaldo Golijov, a string homage to Hindustani classical by Reena Esmail, and much more.

Join us as we broadcast the performance LIVE this Wednesday from Town Hall Seattle! Download our app or click here to listen to the broadcast online from anywhere in the world, streaming live on Wednesday, June 21 at 7:30pm PST.

Concert Program:

Caroline Shaw: Entr’acte
Reena Esmail: Teen Murti
Gregg Kallor: A Mouthful of Forevers (World Premiere)

—INTERMISSION—

Osvaldo Golijov: Last Round
Christopher Theofanidis: Visions and Miracles
Jessie Montgomery: Starburst


Town Music’s Every New Beginning concert is Wednesday, June 21 at 7:30pm at Town Hall. Click here for more information, and click here to tune in to Second Inversion’s live broadcast.

György Ligeti’s Musical Odyssey

by Michael Schell

When Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey hit theaters in 1968, it caused quite a stir. Here was a major Hollywood feature film that had no famous actors and very little dialog (indeed none at all during its first and last 25 minutes), a soundtrack built mainly from classical music matched to the imagery with extraordinary symbiosis, and an ambiguous ending that owed more to the aesthetics of experimental cinema than to conventional narrative filmmaking. Although the space age had inspired plenty of science fiction movies, Kubrick’s Odyssey was unique, and it remains so today even on the cusp of its 50th anniversary.

In popular culture, the most iconic music from 2001 seems to be Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra (the first 21 bars anyway), followed by the Blue Danube Waltz and the most degenerate rendition ever of Bicycle Built for Two. But connoisseurs of modern music are drawn to the evocative compositions of György Ligeti (1923–2006) that anchor the film’s monolith and stargate sequences.

With digital projection technology making it easier for traditional concert venues to screen big Hollywood movies, orchestras have begun presenting Kubrick’s classic with live musicians instead of a canned soundtrack—and on June 30 and July 1, Seattle Symphony will do just that, joined by the Seattle Symphony Chorale, Associate Conductor Pablo Rus Broseta, and the vaunted technical crew at Benaroya Hall. Leading up to this will be three concerts June 22-24 featuring the first complete Seattle performances of one of the Ligeti works excerpted in the soundtrack, the Requiem.

After 2001’s release, Ligeti fans quickly embraced it as a landmark for evangelizing his work (“You remember the music in 2001 when the astronaut goes through the stargate? That was Ligeti.”). But it turned out Kubrick had never even contacted Ligeti about the film—and when the composer first saw it, he was furious at the unauthorized use of his compositions. Lawyers eventually worked out the licensing, tempers cooled down, and Kubrick went on to use Ligeti’s music again (this time with the composer’s blessing) in The Shining and Eyes Wide Shut. Meanwhile, 2001 exposed Ligeti’s music to a wide audience, though for better or worse it was now associated with “space music.” But who was this Ligeti fellow anyway, and what was this strange music all about if it wasn’t written specifically for sci-fi flicks?

Early Years

Ligeti was born in Transylvania, a Hungarian-speaking border region that changed nationality twice during his youth (it’s now part of Romania). The family name is Hungarian, accented on the first syllable, and György is pronounced like “George.” A secular Jew of military age during World War II, he defied the odds by avoiding both conscription to the Eastern Front (where hundreds of thousands of Hungarian soldiers died) and deportation to the Nazi death camps (where most of his family perished).

Ligeti came of age musically in the heavily-censored environment of post-War communist Hungary, where contact with contemporary classical music was suppressed, and even a national hero like Bartók was considered dangerously subversive. Most of Ligeti’s music from this time is folkloristic, but his best early composition, the First String Quartet (subtitled Métamorphoses Nocturnes), shows the clear influence of Bartókian modernism, even surreptitiously incorporating a four-note lick from the master’s “decadent” Fourth String Quartet as a recurring ritornello.

In 1956 Soviet tanks brutally suppressed a popular uprising in Hungary, and Ligeti escaped to Vienna, eventually becoming an Austrian citizen. He took advantage of his new freedom to immerse himself in the post-War avant-garde, attending the famous Darmstadt Courses, and getting to know leading European composers like Boulez, Stockhausen, Xenakis, and Penderecki, as well as American figures like John Cage and David Tudor.

Middle Years and Atmospheres

After some experiments with tape music, Ligeti decided that when it came to creating new sounds, conventional instruments playing in unconventional ways could outclass the simple electronic music instruments available at the time. So he created a remarkable series of scores whose exploration of sheer instrumental timbre was unprecedented in Western music.

Atmospheres (from 1961) is perhaps the purest expression of Ligeti’s new aesthetic, in which tone color is elevated to a role equal to or greater in importance than pitch and rhythm. Atmospheres has no recognizable tunes or distinctive rhythms, making it the ideal accompaniment for the entry of 2001 astronaut Dave Bowman into the stargate (a sequence that’s devoid of representational imagery).

Stargate sequence from 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Many listeners whose first exposure to Atmospheres is over the radio or through the soundtrack to 2001 assume that the piece is electronic—but it’s actually written for large orchestra. Ligeti discovered that sustained tone clusters—where all the available chromatic pitches within a specific range are sounded together—diminish one’s sense of definite pitch, leaving behind an impression of pure timbre and register. The piece starts off this way, pianissimo, with the full string section, joined by some horns and woodwinds, holding a chromatic cluster of notes distributed across four and a half octaves. At 4:21 in the above video, the double basses grind out a low cluster that ranges down to the orchestra’s bottommost C.

Rather than coalescing into a chord, this cluster sounds more like a dark pool of color. It soon dissolves into a new sonority, made up of the remaining bowed strings individually sliding stepwise along a narrow range, a technique that Ligeti called micropolyphony. It looks incredibly complicated in the score excerpt—each player’s part is separately notated in 2/2 time with extreme rhythmic precision. But Ligeti’s notation is designed to synchronize the musicians and control the density of the texture without conveying any kind of beat. The effect is that of a slowly moving cloud, like a swarm of insects, with little sense of individually distinguishable line.

Any composer can write a piece like this today, but it was Ligeti who demonstrated how these astonishing sounds could be coaxed out of an ensemble and organized into a new musical language that we now call sonorism.

Aventures

Not all of Ligeti’s music from the 1960s was of the sonorist variety. Aventures and Nouvelles Aventures are closer to the pointillist style common in Europe after World War II, though their craft and invention places them above the pack. Scored for three singers and chamber ensemble, they use no conventional text, only nonsense syllables together with a host of extended vocal techniques, such as the audible breathing at the start of Aventures that’s depicted in the score using triangular note heads:

Poème Symphonique at Benaroya Hall, October 2012 with Ludovic Morlot in the background.

There’s also no explicit libretto, though the singers do seem to be acting out some sort of unspecified comedic drama. Ligeti, like Cage, could deploy humor when he needed to, and that often gave him an edge over his more chronically serious European colleagues. A two-minute electronically filtered excerpt from Aventures accompanies Dave Bowman’s breathing as he walks through his extraterrestrial chambers in the final scene of 2001.

Ligeti’s sense of humor also comes out in a few unabashed “joke” pieces, like the Poème Symphonique for 100 metronomes. Ligeti unveiled it in 1962 as a bit of Fluxus levity, but the gradually decaying clatter of the mechanical devices had its serious side which found expression later in several rhythmically driven “metronome” pieces, such as the third movement of the Second String Quartet, a landmark of the 20th century quartet repertory that applies sonorism to the intimate sphere of chamber music.

Requiem and Lux Aeterna

Ligeti’s Requiem (completed in 1965) combines his sonorist and pointillist styles into a single epic work for large choir and orchestra and two solo female voices. It’s arguably one of the three greatest 20th century Requiem settings, along with Britten’s War Requiem and Stravinsky’s Requiem Canticles (all written in the 1960s by non-Catholics). The fact that it has taken half a century to mount a performance of it in Seattle is testament to its difficulty.

The opening introit, Requiem æternam dona eis Domine, is in the style of Atmospheres. The dynamic range is from soft (p) to extraordinarily soft (pppp), and except for the line exaudi orationem meam (“hear my prayer”) growled by the basses midway through, the movement progresses gradually upward from bass to treble clusters—an obvious metaphor for ascension. At about five minutes in comes the last line, et lux perpetua luceat eis (“and may everlasting light shine upon them”), where Ligeti brings in a bright cluster featuring flutes and string harmonics. It’s like a gentle beam of white light illuminating the afterlife.

The Kyrie appears in 2001’s monolith and stargate sequences. It’s a classic example of micropolyphony that took the composer nine months to write. Ligeti gives groups of choristers distinct entries where they start out in unison (supported by sustained orchestral notes), then fan out in disparate lines whose movement accelerates as their range expands—like a creek that divides into multiple channels as it descends a cascade (click here to see the score). Except for some initial consonants, you can’t really make out any words. Incredibly, the form is very similar to the great choral fugues of Handel and Haydn, but in place of the latter’s triumphalism the effect here is more like a subdued mob of humanity desperately pleading for mercy.

The Dies Irae shifts to the pointillist style of Aventures, but without the latter’s humor (divine justice is serious business!). The crazy leaps in the soloists’ parts have been likened to “the Queen of the Night on acid,” and the accompanying tumult, inspired by Renaissance depictions of the Last Judgment by Memling, Bruegel, Bosch, and Dürer, was aptly described by the composer as “hysterical, hyperdramatic, and unrestrained.”

Pieter Bruegel the Elder: The Last Judgment.

After this ordeal, the closing Lacrimosa prayer functions as something of a release. It begins with a pedal on the orchestra’s lowest C, and progresses through a sound world similar to the introit, but it’s more transparent, with several textures featuring extreme lows and highs with little in the middle. The ending is ambiguous: a high cluster seems to offer illuminating hope, but the last word goes to the bass instruments, as if to reflect a fundamental ambivalence.

Ligeti’s Requiem only sets a portion of the traditional text of the Catholic Mass for the Dead. A few years later, he wrote a separate setting of the closing Lux Aeterna communion for 16 a cappella voices. It’s the last Ligeti piece excerpted in 2001, where it accompanies the moon shuttle sequence, and it resembles the vocal writing in the Requiem’s Kyrie movement, though the lines move more slowly and the texture is more transparent. An interesting detail is that the first half of Lux emphasizes female voices while the latter half emphasizes men’s. Today the work is recognized as one of the classics of postmodern choral music.

Later Years

Ligeti’s sonorist period culminated in 1977 with Le Grand Macabre, his only full length opera. The success of its farcical, surrealist libretto, adapted from a play by Michel de Ghelderode, is still debated. But there’s little debate about the caliber of the music, which is colorful, varied, and unashamed of its voluptuous sound surface.

After Le Grand Macabre Ligeti, like Beethoven, was quiet for a few years before reinventing himself in a third style period that combined avant-garde techniques with more traditional forms. What his middle period music did for timbre, his late music does for rhythm, and one often hears the distilled influence of African indigenous music, American minimalism, and the polymetric player piano studies of Conlon Nancarrow.

Many of Ligeti’s most frequently performed works come from this period, including the Piano Etudes and the Violin Concerto which Augustin Hadelich will perform with Ludovic Morlot and the Seattle Symphony in January 2018.

Ligeti’s last major work was the 2002 Hamburg Concerto for one solo horn, four “natural” (valveless) horns, and orchestra. He contemplated writing a second opera based on Alice in Wonderland, but old age and ill health curtailed his compositional activity. He died in 2006, leaving behind his wife Vera and his son Lukas, himself a noted composer and drummer based in the U.S.

But this hardly scratches the surface of one of 20th century music most resourceful and multi-faceted characters: a cosmopolitan intellectual who taught composition in the local language at universities in Hungary, Germany, Sweden, and the U.S., and who could additionally speak French and Romanian; an atheist Jew who wrote one of the most important Requiems of all time; a gregarious and generous man who spent countless years haunted by the specter of death and evil; and an artist as demanding in his craft as he was daring in his aesthetics, notorious for insisting on precise execution of his meticulous performance directions. He had that in common with Kubrick, who was likewise infamous for his obsessive preparation and endless takes. By the end of their careers, both men were considered by many to be the best in the world at their profession. Perhaps their ultimate affinity was that of a lifetime devoted to perfecting new horizons.

“Dave, I can’t put my finger on it, but I sense something strange about him. He keeps listening to this weird modern music.”


The Seattle Symphony performs Ligeti’s Requiem on June 22-24 and 2001: A Space Odyssey on June 30 and July 1. Click here for tickets and additional information.

Click here for a list of recommended recordings of Ligeti’s music.

Westerlies Go West: Tonight at the Royal Room!

by Maggie Molloy

Photo by Sasha Arutyunova.

The Westerlies are back in the Northwest this week, coming home with new sounds and brand new music to premiere tonight at the Royal Room in Columbia City.

Far from your typical brass band, the Seattle-bred, New York-based quartet is known on both coasts for their bold artistry, impeccable finesse, eclectic musical interpretations, and remarkable versatility. Together, they’ve cultivated an expansive brass quartet repertoire featuring over 50 original compositions as well as adaptations of composers as diverse and wide-ranging as Ives, Ellington, Bartók, Ligeti, and many more.

Comprised of Riley Mulherkar and Zubin Hensler on trumpet with Andy Clausen and Willem de Koch on trombone, the Westerlies grew up together playing music in Seattle under the mentorship of Wayne Horvitz—making their homecoming performance all the more special, as Horvitz is the co-founder and music programmer of the Royal Room.

The Westerlies performing with Wayne Horvitz at the Royal Room. Photo by Daniel Sheehan.

Tonight, you can expect to hear a little jazz, a little classical, some folk, roots, blues, and chamber influences—but no matter what the Westerlies play, the one element that remains constant across all of their music is the warmth, camaraderie, charisma, and humor of four longtime friends.

“Whatever ‘sound’ the Westerlies have stumbled upon is the result of four friends channeling these diverse interests through warm air, buzzing lips and conical brass tubes—with a lot of love and saliva in there too,” said Andy Clausen.

For a sneak preview, check out our in-studio videos of the guys performing works by Charles Ives, Andy Clausen, and Wayne Horvitz:


The Westerlies perform at the Royal Room Thursday, June 15 at 8pm. For tickets and additional information, please click here.

Electroacoustic Operas, Space Odysseys, and More: Summer Music in Seattle

SI_button2Second Inversion and the Live Music Project create a monthly calendar featuring contemporary classical, cross-genre, and experimental performances in Seattle, the Eastside, Tacoma, and places in between! 

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Keep an eye out for our this flyer in concert programs and coffee shops around town. Feel free to download, print, and distribute it yourself! If you’d like to be included on this list, submit your event to the Live Music Project at least 6 weeks prior to the event and be sure to tag it with “new music.”


June-July 2017 New Music Flyer

Racer Sessions
A weekly showcase of original music with a jam session based on the concepts in the opening presentation.
Every Sunday, 8-10pm, Cafe Racer | FREE

Wayward Music Series
Concerts of contemporary composition, free improvisation, electronic/electroacoustic music, & more.
Various days, 7:30/8pm, Good Shepherd Chapel | $5-$15

Harry Partch Celebration: Works Arranged for Partch’s Instruments
The UW School of Music and the Harry Partch Ensemble, under the direction of Charles Corey, perform three different concerts on the Partch instruments collection, including music by Partch, Lou Harrison, James Tenney, and more.
Wed, 5/31, 7:30pm, Meany Studio Theater | $10
Thurs, 6/1, 7:30pm, Meany Studio Theater | $10
Fri, 6/2, 7:30pm, Meany Studio Theater | $10

Seattle Pacific University: Symphony of Psalms (World Premiere)
In commemoration of SPU’s 125th anniversary, university ensembles perform a new work for choirs and orchestra by SPU Professor Emeritus Dr. Eric Hanson.
Fri, 6/2, 7:30pm, First Free Methodist Church | Free

Kaley Lane Eaton: Lily (World Premiere)
Lily is a brand-new electroacoustic opera by Seattle Composer Kaley Lane Eaton based on the experiences of Eaton’s great-grandmother, an immigrant to the US who fled Europe at the start of the second world war.  Performance includes projected images by Rian Souleles.
Fri, 6/2, 8pm, Good Shepherd Chapel | $5-15

Seattle Modern Orchestra: Mystic Clarinet featuring Carol Robinson
Paris-based clarinetist Carol Robinson joins SMO for works centered around Italian Composer Giacinto Scelsi, including a world premiere composed by SMO Co-Artistic Director Jérémy Jolley.
Sat, 6/3, 8pm, Good Shepherd Chapel | $10-$25

Seattle Symphony: The Merriman Family Young Composers Workshop Concert
Players from Seattle Symphony perform 10 world premieres by composers under the age of 18. Presented in partnership with the Harry Partch Instrumentarium currently in residence at UW, under the direction of Charles Corey.
Mon, 6/5, 7pm, Nordstrom Recital Hall | Free (RSVP encouraged)

Town Music: Every New Beginning (with SYSO)
Curated and conducted by Seattle favorite Joshua Roman, current Seattle Youth Symphony Orchestra members, alumni, and professional mentor artists perform works by a diverse group of living composers, including Pulitzer-winner Caroline Shaw and Gregg Kallor, who contributes a world premiere.  Also broadcast LIVE on Second Inversion.
Wed, 6/21, 7:30pm, Town Hall | $5-$20

Seattle Symphony: Ligeti’s Requiem
Paired with the fifth symphony of Gustav Mahler, the Seattle Symphony and Chorale perform György Ligeti’s Requiem under the baton of Music Director Ludovic Morlot.
Thurs, 6/22, 7:30pm, Benaroya Hall | $37-$122
Fri, 6/23, 8pm, Benaroya Hall | $37-$122
Sat, 6/24, 8pm, Benaroya Hall | $37-$122

Seattle Symphony: 2001: A Space Odyssey LIVE
Join Seattle Symphony for a screening of Kubrick’s masterpiece with the score played live.  The mind-bending classic prominently features György Ligeti’s Atmospheres.
Fri, 6/30, 8pm, Benaroya Hall | $38-$128
Sat, 7/1, 8pm, Benaroya Hall | $38-$128

Seattle Symphony: Helen Grime U.S. Premiere
Alongside works by Felix Mendelssohn and Carl Nielsen, Thomas Dausgaard leads the symphony in the U.S. premiere of Helen Grime’s “Snow” from Two Eardley Pictures, which had its world premiere at BBC Proms last summer.
Thurs, 7/1, 7:30pm, Benaroya Hall | $22-$122
Fri, 7/1, 12pm, Benaroya Hall | $22-$122
Sat, 7/1, 8pm, Benaroya Hall | $22-$122

Seattle Chamber Music Society Summer Festival: Recitals and Concerts
SCMS offers a variety of new music in this summer’s series, including multiple pieces by Aaron Jay Kernis and Lisa Bielawa (one is a world premiere), and Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time.
Mon, 7/3, 7pm, Nordstrom Recital Hall | Free
Mon, 7/10, 7pm and 8pm, Nordstrom Recital Hall | Free-$52
Mon, 7/24, 8pm, Nordstrom Recital Hall | $16-$52
Wed, 7/26, 8pm, Nordstrom Recital Hall | $16-$52

Jesse Myers & Stacey Mastrian: Living in America & Binary Solo+
In a double-header concert, pianist Jesse Myers and soprano Stacey Mastrian share the bill.  Myers performs solo piano music of John Adams, Glass, Reich, Christopher Cerrone, and Mizzy Mazzoli, while Mastrian performs wide-ranging music for solo voice with electronics and piano.
Wed, 7/12, 7:30pm, The Royal Room | Free