ALBUM REVIEW: First by yMusic & Son Lux

by Seth Tompkins

First, a collaboration between the chamber ensemble yMusic and Ryan Lott, the founder of Son Lux, is a unified expression of a narrow set of aesthetics. That is not to say that First lacks depth; on the contrary, First explores its chosen aesthetics comprehensively. The result is a release that listens like a concept album. Therefore, it is no surprise to see that yMusic’s stated goal for this project was to “build a record of chamber music which emulates the flow and structure of a rock album.” At that, they have succeeded.

Like other releases that are designed to work as wholes, First is best absorbed in one sitting. The expressive nuances and subtle aesthetic variations that fade in and out throughout the album are much more apparent when the music is taken as a whole. Of course, most of the tracks are quite effective on their own, too.

The compositional predilections of Ryan Lott are obvious in First.  In particular, the use of “repetitive structures,” background “pads” of sound, and the emergence of a noticeably more expressive lead line are frequent in First. Also present is the technique of juxtaposing highly active and fast accompaniment figures with bass lines and harmonic pads moving at a much slower speed on top of the same rhythmic framework. The difference here is that the overriding use of acoustic instruments by yMusic creates a different flavor of intimacy than that seen in the music of Son Lux. The two are certainly related, but also deliciously different.

 

There are a few moments when compositional elements not seen in Son Lux’s music make appearances on First. The most notable of these is the inclusion of contrapuntal writing in Sunset Boulevard. Perhaps the slightly more “classical” flavor of yMusic’s setup inspired Lott to lean more on this technique largely associated with music of the past. Whatever the genesis, it works.

Ryan Lott’s love of acoustic instruments is obvious in the music of Son Lux. Furthermore, it seems that he has found a perfect partner with whom to explore that interest more deeply in yMusic. The players of yMusic execute Lott’s with remarkable facility and fearlessness. The woodwind technique on First deserves special praise, as does the trumpet playing. Many of the licks on this album are beyond tricky, but yMusic makes them seem like no big deal.  This attention to excellence and detail is absolutely necessary in order for Lott’s intricate musical designs to sparkle.

One particularly pleasing element of this project is how the first and last tracks (Eleven and Paris, respectively) encapsulate the release as a whole. While the last piece includes some of the familiar characteristics of the first, it is tempered with elements of the intervening tracks. This synthesis of ideas yields a satisfying conclusion that recalls the boldness of the opening while remaining informed by the complexity of the entire album.

Moments that are both simple and beautiful are rare in First, and most of them dissolve or morph into moments of increased emotional complexity. While these simple moments are cathartic, the real beauty here is in the complexity and tension that leads from one exhalation to the next.

ALBUM REVIEW: 26 by Melia Watras

by Geoffrey Larson

Photo by Michelle Smith-Lewis

If you’ve ever witnessed a live solo or chamber music performance by Melia Watras, you are familiar with the sense of immediacy that her playing involves. It’s this immediacy of beautiful tone and hard-charging energy that seizes the listener in her live performances. I was hoping that her new album on Sono Luminus, titled 26 after the total number of strings on instruments played in the recording, would yield the same ear-grabbing experience. On the whole, it does not disappoint.

The album’s selections are all world-premiere recordings of new works of music, the majority of which are Watras’ compositions. The program of music here is smart for a couple reasons. First, let’s be honest: an album of contemporary viola solos and duets may not be everyone’s cup of tea, even fellow musicians. But for those in search of interesting discoveries of great new music and those eager to discover the far reaches of a viola’s solistic capabilities, this album presents a vibrant range of music that refreshingly eschews mainstream-appeal fluffiness. Watras’ personal connection to the composers and performers also strengthens the performances immeasurably: her former teacher Atar Arad performs his and Watras’ compositions, and she is also joined by her husband, violinist Michael Jinsoo Lim and longtime collaborator Garth Knox on viola d’amore. For these reasons, it definitely deserves a listen.

Watras’ compositions on 26 present a style with foundations in improvisation, rounded out with high amounts of technical difficulty. Liquid Voices, with its shimmering harmonics, crunching dissonances and angular, Stravinsky-like melodies, was inspired by a Virginia Woolf short story. Prelude and Luminous Points are both intensely personal portrait-like works, the first inspired by Bach and Watras’ relationship with her former teacher and the second by Lim’s evocative high playing. Photo by Mikel is possibly the album’s most energetic work and sounds especially improv-driven, evoking all sorts of different characters from the instrument. The Sonata for Viola Solo seems like a real repertoire piece, just jam-packed with musical content that utilizes a huge range on the instrument and some interesting techniques. Though the speed at which ideas move by is occasionally jarring, this is great musical storytelling, and I am left feeling like I’ve been along with Watras on a real journey of some sort. Its message is slightly uplifting, with the theme of a “timeless positive force” from the second movement returning at the very end in offstage playing.

Bicinium, a composition by Watras’ UW colleague Richard Karpen, presents two long, winding lines that succeed in creating a lush, enjoyable texture from only two instruments. Lim’s violin and Watras’ viola are tightly wound together, never resting in this marathon 20-minute composition until the viola gets the last word at the end. The piece’s general idea is varied in expressive ways, evoking shifting pastel colors, but this work is straightforward overall, producing no sounds that seem particularly new or different.

The two works by Arad and the one by Garth Knox are more instantly accessible than the other pieces on this release, for better or for worse. In the album-opening Toccatina a la Turk, I could feel a bit of Brubeck even before I heard the direct Blue Rondo reference. The short, fiery variation at the end left me wishing that this brief composition was longer, and took that theme further into Turkish territory. Esther contains some of the most lyrical writing on the whole album, and is a wonderful showcase for the richness of Watras’ and Arad’s viola sounds. Knox’s Stranger is possibly the album’s most tonal work, but not one of simplicity, cycling through some arresting sonic elements that are easy to love and stay with the listener.

The crystal-clear Sono Luminus sound only serves to strengthen the impact of 26. This is an album that does more than just show off virtuosity: it showcases Melia Watras’ bravery as a performer and composer, and clearly translates the power of close personal relationships in great chamber music performances. The only thing better would be seeing these musicians perform this program live in person.

[editor’s note: you CAN see selections from this performed live! Melia’s 26 album release show will be on Friday, February 24 in Brechemin Auditorium (University of Washington School of Music) at 7:30pm. The program includes selections from 26, a video presentation, and commentary from the artist.]

VIDEO PREMIERE: Liquid Voices by Melia Watras presented with Sono Luminus

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photo: Michelle Lewis-Smith

Melia Watras: Violist, Chamber Musician, Composer, Professor of Viola, Sono Luminus Recording Artist, Chair of Strings at the University of Washington. And to top it all off? One of the nicest people you could possibly meet.

Second Inversion has had the opportunity to review her album Ispirare, film a video with her and Michael Jinsoo Lim in our studios, host the two of them on The Takeover, and now we’re thrilled to premiere the video for Liquid Voices, a piece from her upcoming album 26 to be released on Sono Luminus on January 27, 2017.

Melia Watras wrote Liquid Voices in 2013, inspired by Virginia Woolf’s short story, The Fascination of the Pool. Watras was taken with the story’s fluidity, imagery and depth, which helped shape the structure and basic concept for the piece: voices floating on top of each other. Liquid Voices was recorded by Michael Jinsoo Lim, violin and Melia Watras, viola and this video was created by Ha Na Lee.


If you’re in the Seattle area, take note that Melia’s 26 album release show will be on Friday, February 24 in Brechemin Auditorium (University of Washington School of Music) at 7:30pm. The program includes selections from 26, a video presentation, and commentary from the artist.

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ALBUM REVIEW: Symmetry Series No.1: Danny Clay & Joseph M. Colombo

by Seth Tompkins

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Symmetry Series No. 1: Danny Clay & Joseph M. Colombo is the first release of a new series of EPs on Pinna Records, all of which feature pairs of works by two emerging composers from the San Francisco Bay Area. The two works featured on this disc contrast dramatically. Danny Clay’s the first and the last is a warm and intimate journey that implies friendship, while Joseph M. Colombo’s Ouroboros is a fascinating, if emotionally cold, study derived from the mythical image of an autophagous serpent. Both pieces are certainly intriguing on their own, but are also heightened by their contrast with the other.  

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Clay’s the first and the last is a pleasant exploration of two different kinds of string playing. Written for the Mobius Trio and the Friction Quartet, this piece delves into the commonality and differences that exist between guitar and bowed strings. This music winds through a wide variety of modes of expression, recalling the music of John Luther Adams, Vivaldi (the Winter concerto, in particular), and Sigur Rós. The healthy measure of pop influence combined with strings here also has much in common with some of the music of Matt McBane and Bill Ryan. Despite the widely varying styles here, the first and the last returns to certain material often enough to have a secure structure. By the time the conclusion begins, a calming sense of peace has become the overriding aesthetic. This recording contains expert playing by all involved. Particularly notable is the attention to articulation shown by both the trio and the quartet. The subtle (and sometimes obvious) shifts between articulations make Clay’s music sparkle.

Pinna Records describes Joseph M. Colombo’s Ouroboros as “an immersive study.” That is a particularly apt description for this interesting piece. As the piece begins, a single chromatic line descends through the entire range of the piano. As the initial descending voice exits the low end of the piano, it reappears at the top, and is eventually joined by more lines moving in the same manner at increasing speeds. As more descending voices appear, there seems to be room for additional musical material-which never arrives. It then becomes clear that these descending motions are the only element of this piece; it truly is a study. Despite the awareness that the piece is crafted solely from a single idea, Ouroboros eventually becomes engrossing music as the independent lines, which are quite sterile on their own, create rich and varied sounds through their interactions with the others. This piece is certainly more enjoyable upon a second or third listening.

The stark contrast between these two works would seem to be the reason they were packaged together on the release. It will be interesting to see if the following “Symmetry” EPs in are presented in this arrangement as well.  This engaging duo bodes well for future of the series! 

SNEAK PEEK AUDIO LEAK: I sang you to the moon by Gregg Belisle-Chi

by Maggie Stapleton

Second Inversion presents new and unusual music from all corners of the classical genre… and we mean NEW. Sneak Peek Audio Leak is your chance to stream fresh sounds and brand new music of note with insights from our team and the artists.

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Gregg, Chelsea, Raymond, and Carmen. Photo by Andrew Nicholl.

I sang to you and the moon is a brand new release from guitarist and composer Gregg Belisle-Chi, featuring vocalist Chelsea Crabtree, trumpeter Raymond Larsen, and bassist Carmen Rothwell. This quartet is a fusion of two preexisting groups – Gregg and Chelsea as a singer-songwriter duo & Tyrant Lizard, a trio of Gregg, Raymond, and Carmen. 

The sonic landscape of this project captures overlapping musical influences from both groups’ past traditions with their hometown musical heroes Bill Frisell and the Fleet Foxes. It also dives gracefully into an interdisciplinary world, melding the poetry of Carl Sandburg. It’s a little bit jazz, a heaping spoonful singer-songwriter, a splash of folk, and seeping with originality, above all.

Second Inversion is thrilled to give you a Sneak Peek Audio Leak of the first track, Between Two Hills, prior to the album’s release on December 21!

You can hear this music live at their Royal Room release show on Wednesday, December 21 at 7:30pm (no cover, but all donations go directly to the musicians).

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Gregg Belisle-Chi. Photo by Sasha Arutyunova

SNEAK PEEK AUDIO LEAK: Symphony Number One

by Maggie Stapleton

Second Inversion presents new and unusual music from all corners of the classical genre… and we mean NEW. Sneak Peek Audio Leak is your chance to stream fresh sounds and brand new music of note with insights from our team and the artists.

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Symphony Number One is Baltimore’s newest chamber orchestra dedicated to performing and promoting substantial works by emerging composers. Led by Music Director Jordan Randall Smith, Symphony Number One brings together great composers of the past, virtuoso performers of the present, and the leading compositional voices of the future.

Their new album, more, is released on December 16 but we’re thrilled to offer a Sneak Peek Audio Leak of one of the selections: The Promised Burning by Andrew Posner.

 

Inspired by the Sabbath poems of writer and activist Wendell Berry, it’s a musical representation of man-made environmental destruction and the profound grief that future generations will feel en masse when the effects of this destruction are painfully obvious. It is a call to awaken from the delusions that we are separate from the Earth and that its resources and ecosystems are expendable tools in our fruitless attempts to satisfy our greed.

The album features music by two other young, talented composers. Timelapse Variations by Natalie Draper and Light Cathedral by Jonathan Russell round out this sophisticated third album from an ensemble with a very bright future ahead.

583f1e9470a81L-R top – Natalie Draper, Jonathan Russell;
L-R bottom: Andrew Posner, Jordan Randall Smith

ALBUM REVIEW: A O R T A from Vicky Chow

by Seth Tompkins

Pianist Vicky Chow’s recent release A O R T A is above all else a triumph of curation. Chow’s performance, the editing, and the mixing are all laudable as well, but the real story of this album is the strength of the playlist and its presentation. A O R T A is a rare instance of an album in which the delivery of the audio itself contributes to the artistic goals of the project in a meaningful way.

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Even before the music begins, curatorial strength shapes the album. A O R T A is packaged with only minimal notes and there is no explanation of the project’s genesis nor discussion of the artists involved or their biographies. While this may initially appear to be a simple stylistic choice in favor of minimalist packaging, after listening it is apparent that this lack of detail is, in actual fact, a bold statement about how well the music on this release hangs together. The lack of notes seen on A O R T A would diminish other albums, but in this instance, the dearth of information makes this release stronger. It is a symbol of how well-designed the album is as a whole, letting the music and its curation stand on their own.

However, if you are curious, a more detailed explanation of the release is available here.

 

Musically, the supreme design of A O R T A takes the shape of remarkable continuity between the first three tracks. These tracks, which encompass Christopher Cerrone’s Hoyt-Schermerhorn, Jacob Coopers Clifton Gates, and the first movement of Jakub Ciupinski’s Morning Tale, all for piano and electronics, flow seamlessly from each into the next. That is not to say that these pieces are continuous or homogenous; upon closer listening these tracks each yield interesting features deserving of investigation and fascination.

These first three pieces make up the programmatic section of the release. All three, while they do have their own individual characters, are touching meditations on real-world human experiences ranging from the concrete to the notional.

The smoothness with which the initial three tracks flow from one to the next is a perfect aperitif for the rest of A O R T A. Only when the second movement of Morning Tale arrives does this CD begin to deliver sequential sounds juxtaposed in a manner that obviously marks the beginning of a new track. This slight shift marks a turning point in this release; this is the point after which more surprising and disparate sounds can be expected.

 

Those disparate sounds take the shape of Molly Joyce’s Rave, and Daniel Wohl’s Limbs and Bones, all three of which explore different facets of the interaction of live piano with electronic sound. While these heady tracks are distinctly different from the first three pieces, they somehow fit together into the larger arc of this album. This continuity of artistic trajectory is further evidence of expert curation. These pieces, in this order, tell a story that is in and of itself a work of art.

Finally, A O R T A ends with Vick(i/y), by Andy Akiho. While the preceding six pieces lean toward the atmospheric, Vick(i/y) has a completely different character that trends toward immediacy. This piece was written for Vicky Chow (as well as for Vicki Ray – hence the title) and is the only piece on this release that is NOT for piano and electronics. Vick(i/y) is for prepared piano. Additionally, while the preceding pieces on A O R T A tend to individually remain within one or two sound areas, Vick(i/y) is a veritable symphony within a prepared piano. The extended range of sounds, combined with Chow’s presumed heightened intimacy with this music (which was written with her in mind), result in a piece that acts an exclamation mark. Vick(i/y) is Chow’s indelible signature at the end of an already markedly individualistic album.

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Even though A O R T A cycles through an expansive of range sounds and expressive modes, this disc never loses sight of the instrument at its center. Every bit of this music is completely focused on the piano, with all sounds either produced by or strongly referring to the instrument. Also always in sight here are the composers who inspired much of this music. Pieces on this album explicitly reference John Adams and John Cage while slightly more covertly recalling the music of Steve Reich, Erik Satie, and Thom Yorke.

A O R T A is packed with smart, fully-conscious music that is quite aware of the giants upon whose shoulders it stands. This awareness of the past, combined with bold steps toward the future and omnipresent consummate curation, results in a well-balanced and highly interesting release that is at once calming, stimulating, and invigorating.

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