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 Mouthful of Forevers: An Interview with Gregg Kallor

by Maggie Molloy

Composer and pianist Gregg Kallor is used to being on stage during the premiere of most of his compositions—but at the Town Music season finale last night, he watched from the audience as Joshua Roman led members of the Seattle Symphony and Seattle Youth Symphony Orchestras in the world premiere performance of his new string orchestral work, A Mouthful of Forevers.

Based in New York, Kallor’s music fuses elements of classical and jazz to create a deeply personal musical language. We caught up with him during the dress rehearsal of his new piece to talk about music, poetry, and his new world premiere.

 

Second Inversion: What was it like hearing A Mouthful of Forevers performed for the first time?

Gregg Kallor: Exhilarating, nerve-wracking, gratifying, exciting—it was amazing. This is actually the first piece of mine that I have not been a part of the premiere of (as a performer or conductor).  It’s a different experience to sit in the audience and listen to it—but I couldn’t ask for a better advocate than Joshua Roman. It was so beautiful to watch these musicians whom I’ve never met all digging into this piece that I wrote. They’re all bringing their experience and their ideas. They really took it on as their own, and there’s no greater feeling than that.

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

GK: I wanted to write something both lithe and lush—evocative vignettes with the grooving rhythms and shifting moods that Joshua navigates so beautifully.

SI: What was the inspiration for this piece?

GK: There’s an incredible poet, her name is Clementine von Radics, and she wrote a poem called “Mouthful of Forevers”; it’s also the title of a collection of poems that she published. It’s exquisite—it’s this heartbreaking, beautiful love poem and it’s talking about how both people have come into it with baggage and scars, but that makes the miracle of them finding each other that much more potent. It’s just beautiful. Her language is so honest and direct—there are no filters. I’m struck by a lot of her poetry—I’ve read that book ten times, but that poem in particular just really got to me and it was the inspiration for this piece.

SI: What was it like collaborating with Joshua Roman on this premiere?

GK: Joshua is one of the best musicians I’ve ever met. He’s extraordinary as a player, he’s a fantastic composer—now I’m seeing him conducting and it’s amazing. He’s just an extraordinary musician and a great, great friend, and I’m so honored and lucky that he’s championing my music.

Seattle Sounds and Musical Utterances: Q&A with James Falzone and Bonnie Whiting

“There is a ‘sound’ here, no doubt,” says James Falzone of Seattle’s distinctive new music scene. “It is one I would describe as patient and less influenced by the frenetic energy that you might find in a city with less vistas.”

Photo on left by Patrick Monaghan.

Those famous Northwest vistas are relatively new to clarinetist/composer James Falzone and percussionist Bonnie Whiting, each of whom recently moved here from the Midwest to serve as educators at two major academic institutions: Falzone as the new Chair of Music at Cornish College of the Arts and Bonnie Whiting as the Chair of Percussion Studies and Artist in Residence at the University of Washington.

Both powerful players in contemporary and experimental music circles, Falzone and Whiting first met at one of our New Music Happy Hours (co-presented with the Live Music Project)—and their conversation led to a musical collaboration which premieres this Thursday, March 2 at the Wayward Music Series.

Utterances is the name of the performance, which combines original, composed, and improvised music based on text, spoken word, and translation. The program merges the distinct sounds and styles of each musician: Falzone known for his matchless musical fusion of jazz, classical, and world music traditions, and Whiting for her interdisciplinary performances which often venture into nontraditional notation and instrumentation.

The concert program opens and closes with duo improvisations that expand, challenge, and subvert the traditional roles of clarinet and percussion. In between are solo sets featuring original works by Falzone, Whiting, and other composers, along with a performance by Falzone’s jazz-infused clarinet and saxophone sextet the Renga Ensemble.

We sat down with both artists to talk about Seattle sound experiments, unusual instruments, and musical utterances:

Second Inversion: You are both relatively new to Seattle, each serving as educators at two major academic institutions in the Northwest.  What do you find most inspiring about your respective new roles, and what do you hope to accomplish?

Photo by William Frederking.

James Falzone: Cornish has a legacy unlike any other institution, connected to the very heart of American experimentalism. Being the steward of that legacy is something I find very exciting but also humbling, and I intend to take good care of it. This means learning from that legacy and continuing the sense of openness, experimentation, and disruption that Cornish has always represented.

Bonnie Whiting: There are already so many fabulous opportunities that exist for percussionists at UW: the Harry Partch instrument collection on campus, a partnership with the Seattle Symphony, opportunities to perform with groups like the steel band and gamelan ensembles through the ethnomusicology department, and an ever-expanding jazz program.

I’m excited to teach, create, and perform new music by living composers alongside historical works from the 20th century. I also plan more touring and outreach for the percussion ensemble. In March, we’ll perform and lead a hands-on workshop for Tent City 3 (currently hosted on the UW campus.) I’ve been giving workshops in local high schools and middle schools, and we are going to be featured at the Northwest Percussion Festival in April.

In addition to my work with the students, it’s thrilling to have such great faculty colleagues. It’s an incredible scene for new music and improvised music, and I’ve met so many dream collaborators. Right now, I’m working on a project with another new faculty member in the DX Arts program: Afroditi Psarra. She has these incredible embroidered synthesizers and works with sensors, and so integrating these into a percussive soundscape has been fascinating.


SI: What do you find most unique or inspiring about the Northwest’s new music scene?

JF: There is a “sound” here, no doubt. It is one I would describe as patient and less influenced by the frenetic energy that you might find in a city with less vistas. I’m hearing this in composed music, in improvised music, in the soundscape around me; even in the way people speak.

Artists seem hard at work here, presenting their ensembles and music and building a sense of community, attributes of a healthy, vibrant scene. I’m delighted to be a part of it as an artist, and hope to use my role at Cornish to be of service. The wonderful NUMUS Northwest event—which, though not sponsored by Cornish, was held there as a means of service to the community—is an example of what I want to see Cornish doing more of in the future.

Solo improvisation by James Falzone, inspired by the writing of Christian Wiman:


SI: How did this collaboration come about, and how would you describe the music you’re creating together in this performance?

BW: James happened to sit across from me at a New Music Happy Hour last fall, and we had a great conversation. I had heard of him and was familiar with his music; we both moved from the Midwest and moved in similar experimental music circles but hadn’t yet had the pleasure of collaborating.

Earlier this month, we opened the Seattle Improvised Music Festival with a duo set and it was a real joy. One of the elements that has developed (that I love) is the way we subvert the traditional roles played by a percussionist and a wind player. Often, he’ll play rhythmic, groove figures while I make distorted long tones. He’s also happy to move while playing and explore the space. It’s been fun to find percussion instruments that can travel too.

Transcription of an electronic audio score by Richard Logan-Greene. Original realization and performance by Bonnie Whiting:


SI: The Renga Ensemble features six clarinets/saxophones—what is it about this instrument combination that grabs you and pulls you in?

JF: I love homogenous sounding ensembles, though I know many composers do not. The sound of six single reeds resonating together offers far more color than one might imagine. But Renga Ensemble, both in its original state and now with this Seattle mix of players, has always been about personality coming through the texture by way of improvisation.

All of the music I’ll be presenting incorporates improvisation, mixed with through-composed elements, and this back and forth—this teetering between the “already” and the “not yet”—is what my work focuses on. For me, improvisation brings forth a musician’s personality like nothing else can and the challenge I set for myself in the Renga music is to find the balance point so that you hear the voice of each player as much as you hear the voice of the composer.


SI: Many of your percussion performances feature unusual instruments, sounds, or spoken elements—has your career as a percussionist changed the way you listen to your surroundings in your everyday life? (Or vice versa—was it your interest in sounds that originally led you to percussion?)

BW: Even as a kid I had a long attention span, and I have always loved sounds. My mother says some of my first toys were pots and pans on the kitchen floor. Just the other night I was listening to the radio on a long drive across upstate New York, and I stumbled upon the last movement of Mahler 9.  It’s quite long and I was on the Thruway, so gradually the piece became punctuated by static as I moved out of range. This intensified the listening experience for me: my memory filled in some of the music, my imagination more, and I actually enjoy the sound of static.

I’ve spent more time than I’d like to admit trying to replicate the sound of static and white noise on my snare drum and sandpaper blocks, and my collection of found tuned pot lids are more valuable to me than my five-octave marimba. I’m naturally drawn to pieces that use speech patterns to generate rhythmic material: Globokar’s Toucher and Parenti’s Exercise No. 4 on our program feature this technique. These days, I have a very young son and I enjoy “performing” our bedtime stories, adding sound effects and rhythm each night.


SI:What were some of the written sources that inspired the music of Utterances?

JF: In addition to improvised duets with Bonnie, I’ll be presenting two works that connect to text. The first is an ongoing solo project I call “Sighs Too Deep for Words,” which is an improvised, long-form work that is inspired by language from the New Testament that speaks of “utterances,” which is sometimes translated as “sighs,” that communicate the prayers we do not have words for.

The other pieces come from music I’ve created for my Renga Ensemble, which takes its name from a form of Japanese collective poetry. Most of the music for Renga was created around a haiku by American poet Anita Virgil:

not seeing
the room is white
until that red apple

“The Room Is,” composed by James Falzone and performed with the Renga Ensemble:


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

BW: John Cage often said that his goal as a composer was to “make an art that, while coming from ideas, is not about those ideas, but rather produces others.” I echo this desire when I honestly answer that I don’t wish for our audience members to gain any one insight or worse, “message.” I hope our program might inspire others to improvise, or to make work of their own, or to seek out the fantastic spirit that is within each mundane utterance or environmental sound in their daily lives.

Photo on right by Marc Perlish.

Utterances is Thursday, March 2 at 8pm at the Chapel Performance Space at the Good Shepherd Center in Wallingford. For more information, click here.

Women in (New) Music: Celebrating the Treemonishas in Classical Music

by Maggie Molloy


Education as salvation is the major theme of Scott Joplin’s 1912 opera Treemonisha, the powerful tale of a young African-American woman who protects her community against those who seek to take advantage of their systemic lack of education.

It’s a theme that continues to influence art and music of today, as over a century later we find ourselves still grappling with the far-reaching effects of slavery and the oppression of the African-American race.

This Saturday and Sunday, the North Corner Chamber Orchestra (NOCCO) presents RESONANCE: a concert celebrating the voices of African-American composers who have, across history, given a musical voice to the strength, power, and perseverance of their communities.

The concert program features the overture from Joplin’s Treemonisha alongside brand new works by two local artists: composer Hanna Benn and conceptual artist C. Davida Ingram.

Benn’s new work for chamber orchestra, titled Sankofa, is a spiritual reflection on the music and influence of African-American women composers across history. Ingram’s piece is an illuminating lyrical/visual essay about modern day Treemonishas: women of color who are powerful leaders of their communities. Also featured on the program are evocative works by Alvin Singleton and George Walker.


To find out more about what’s in store, we spoke with Hanna Benn and C. Davida Ingram about music, race, today’s Treemonishas, and the importance of education:

Second Inversion: What was the inspiration behind Sankofa, and what does it sound like?

Hanna Benn: “Sankofa” is a word in the Twi language of Ghana that translates to “Go back and get it,” as in we must go back and understand our heritage in order to go forward.

This piece is very meditative and reflective. I imagine it sounds like the meditation I’ve been in for the past several months of musing, reflecting, and doing research on black American composers—really finding inspiration from them. It was like subconsciously asking for guidance from my ancestors.

SI: What story does your piece tell? What are the major themes and ideas at work behind the music?

HB: Sometimes for me, it feels like speaking is not my first language, and so when composing music or writing a piece, once I’m finished, I have a hard time articulating what it’s about. It’s almost like being in a trance—I have no memory of it anymore; it’s gone. But this piece came from somewhere—it came from the inspiration, history, and music of these women.

The reason why I actually titled the piece “Sankofa” was that sentiment of asking my ancestors for help so that I might understand more about myself, looking inward. The piece sounds somewhat reflective and introverted in nature. I have six different movements, and there isn’t a narrative to the piece but they are these six poems, almost—six states of being:

Mvt. I: Inward Gazes the Spirit
Mvt. II: May I Come Back to Me
Mvt. III: Divide
Mvt. IV: Walks with an Offering
Mvt. V: Joy Submits and It Repeats
Mvt. VI: My Beloved Speaks

“My beloved” we usually say when we’re speaking of God or a higher being, but with this piece I’m speaking to my higher being. When I say “my beloved,” it’s like a love poem to myself. So Sankofa, you must go back and get it—it’s this love, this loving of the self and truly understanding oneself.

In one of his poems, Rumi says, “You must be as wide as the air to learn a secret,” and it’s this gesture of knowledge and understanding in order to move forward.

SI: How did writing this piece stretch you as an artist and musician?

HB: I have written for orchestra before, however this ensemble is completely different because they do not have a conductor, and so they have this beautiful process of hyper-listening. If there’s no conductor, they have to have more faith in each other, and it asks for more communication all around.

On a larger scale, it is such a crucial time for us to listen and to be present and open. I believe this concert is very special because of that—not only the material we will be performing, but the balance and the lack of hierarchy in this ensemble and the example it sets for others.

SI: In what ways (if any) do you feel that being a woman of color has shaped your experiences as an artist? What advice do you have for other female-identifying artists who face similar prejudices?

HB: One hundred percent, it shapes me. It is important, as a woman, to never forget that beautiful part of you. I am very proud and in love with the vessel that I carry and I think one hundred percent it shapes my experience and my outlook and what I write.

Me being a woman and me being a woman of color is my music, because that is who I am. I would encourage other women to not let go of that, because it is very precious.

SI: What do you find most inspiring about this NOCCO program?

C. Davida Ingram: The artists who I found most inspirational in RESONANCE were Hanna Benn and Scott Joplin. Their music speaks to me in different ways: Hanna because of her virtuosity and polyrhythmic cadence—she sort of feels like if you could listen to all of the those ways Our Lady of Theresa was having jouissance because of her ecstatic love affair with the divine—and Joplin because he gave me the gift of an intersectional feminist story that is set in the first Redemption as we go through the second Redemption that is delight to the ear. 

I wrote that his overture in Treemonisha “explains why black joy matters. This opening melody sounds like rushing in of something that has the feel of dancing in sunshine with a blazingly open heart.”

SI: Can you tell us a bit about the lyrical/visual essay you are sharing? What was the inspiration behind it?

CDI: I fell in love with Treemonisha after I learned about Joplin’s piece for the NOCCO show. Heather Bentley sent me a book with discs of the music and I sort of went into the Matrix—complete with a very vivid dream of an ancestor who looks a lot like Scott Joplin walking me down a pink stair.

Because of the spiritual way that Joplin’s piece moved me, the central figure of Treemonisha became in a way a muse for me, and also a way of giving a meditation on the black song book. James Baldwin’s fictional gospel singer Arthur Montana cries: Look what you done to my song. I follow that directive.

Personally I took this project as an opportunity to reflect on how indebted I feel to black educators on one hand—that particular subject is close to my heart. My mother is an incredible teacher and finished her PhD on how black students and their families think about the opportunity gap they face.

And on the other I am considering what white people do not know about whiteness. I feel very historical, at this moment, when I think about race in America—not as something that must always define the present but as something that is simply good to know about human behavior, and as an aftereffect.

For example, did you know in Antebellum Virginia there was a law that white human traffickers could give 20 lashes of the whip to kidnapped Africans that they enslaved if the latter were found reading or writing? Think about that. It’s the sort of thing that gives Treemonisha a resplendent repose and riposte. Black master teachers make maps to freedom—always have, always will.

So my mind’s eye went looking for the “Treemonishas” in my life—the community-building educators, those who believe in restorative justice, the feminists who believe women of color can lead (these are all part of the story of Joplin’s Treemonisha).

I was lucky to have a gifted educator as a mom. Sometimes I cringe when people call me ‘articulate’ after I speak. However, I also know a portion of what they are seeing is a partial blueprint of survival in white America—mastery of words and ideas that white people can recognize as their own. My mother loved me and the rest of my four siblings, so she taught as though our lives (and hers) depended on it; because in many respects it did. Both of my parents gave me that.

In terms of music, I think of blackness as an essential primer for understanding the American song book because all of our original American music comes directly from black culture—e.g. blues, jazz, hip hop, house music. America is very African, in that way. At the same time, I engage whiteness when I do my work here because it gets a bit tiresome if the expectation is that I am supposed to always be explaining blackness to assuage white curiosity. Our world has gotten mighty peculiar of late, and I think it is in large part due to not talking about whiteness.

SI: In what ways (if any) do you feel that being a woman of color has shaped your experiences as an artist? What advice do you have for other female-identifying artists who face similar prejudices?

CDI: In my lyrical essay for the piece (which still needs a title), I write:

Because of the constant context of white supremacy in all American art forms, I see this program as a meditation on black brilliance—underscore brilliance.

When I soften the emphasis on blackness it is not because I want to avoid footnoting the brutishness of white supremacy and institutional racism. If we did, it would still remain the elephant in the room. However, when we see that a group of predominantly white musicians can acknowledge how racism seeks to impoverish them, how it cuts off the air in the room in terms of what versions of excellence take space in the canon, then the light that shines brightest here is black brilliance and what also extrudes are the ways that whiteness is benighted, at times, because of the construction of racism and white supremacy.

And if I take things a step beyond that—it is not blackness that we are looking at but rather brilliance, which is to say that kaleidoscopic light that humans cast out and its incredible, inexorable beauty.


Performances of RESONANCE are this Saturday, Feb. 18 at 2pm at New Holly Gathering Hall and Sunday, Feb. 19 at 7:30pm at Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute. For tickets and information, click here.

LIVE BROADCAST + CONCERT PREVIEW: Q&A with the JACK Quartet

by Maggie Molloy

[Editor’s Note] JACK Quartet’s performance tonight will be streamed LIVE on Second Inversion from Meany Hall, presented by Meany Center for the Performing Arts.

To listen, tune in tonight at 7:30pm PST. In the meantime, read all about the concert below, including our special Q&A with JACK violist John Pickford Richards!

jack-quartet

In the classical music world, it’s quite rare to see a string quartet perform works by the 20th century avant-gardist Morton Feldman or, say, the mathematical musical revolutionary Iannis Xenakis.

But the JACK Quartet is not your traditional string quartet. This evening, they’re performing works by both Feldman and Xenakis—plus a couple pieces by Ruth Crawford Seeger, Derek Bermel, and Julia Wolfe, just for good measure.

Comprised of violinists Christopher Otto and Austin Wulliman, violist John Pickford Richards, and cellist Jay Campbell, JACK is dedicated to the performance, commissioning, and spreading of new and experimental string quartet music. And tonight, they’re bringing a little bit of that new music to Seattle for a performance at Meany Hall.

Presented as part of the Meany Center for the Performing Arts’ 2016-2017 season, the concert program features Feldman’s pointillist string Structures, Seeger’s densely dramatic String Quartet, Bermel’s blues-bending Intonations, Julia Wolfe’s fiery, fervent Early That Summer, and Xenakis’s modal, mathematical Tetora.

jack

It’s a program of 20th and 21st century works by primarily American, New York-based composers—a musical account of the way experimental art has grown, stretched, and changed over the last 100 years.

We sat down with violist John Pickford Richards of the JACK Quartet to find out a little bit more about what audience members can expect at tonight’s performance:

Second Inversion: What does “new music” mean to you?


jrJohn Pickford Richards:
To me, new music is anything written by a living composer. I like to equate new classical music to the kind of art you might see in an art show or a chic gallery, while the classics are safe and sound in museums.


SI: What are some of the unique challenges and rewards of performing contemporary works?

JR: Knowing the composers personally is invaluable. It provides extraordinary insight. Also, composers are constantly pushing performers to reimagine our instruments, which keeps us on our toes.

SI: The contemporary classical “genre” is massive and extraordinarily diverse—how do you go about selecting which pieces to put on your concert programs?

JR: Our programming is a combination of following our raw interests as well as exploring new composers we aren’t familiar with, many of whom are introduced to us through our community. And we aim to seek emerging artists outside our network, which is a fun challenge.


SI: What are some of the things audience members can expect to hear in your Meany Hall concert program?

JR: Our program at Meany focuses on music from NYC written in the past 100 years, highlighting a theme of experimentalism that defines the American vangard. We’re pairing this with a work by Iannis Xenakis, who was one of the most unique and inventive artists in Paris following the Second World War.


SI: What are you most looking forward to with your Meany Hall performance, and what do you hope audience members will gain from it?

JR: We aim to give a high-energy account of the music we think is it today.

The JACK Quartet performs tonight, Jan. 10 at 7:30 p.m. at Meany Hall in the University District. For tickets and information, please click here.

To listen to the live audio broadcast beginning at 7:30 p.m. PST, please click here.

CONCERT PREVIEW: Meet the Sound Ensemble Q&A

by Maggie Molloy

It’s a new year and there is a new Sound in Seattle—the Sound Ensemble, to be precise.

sound-ensemble

Founded and directed by conductor Bobby Collins and tuba player Jameson Bratcher, the Sound Ensemble is a new music collective dedicated to performing innovative and transformative classical music concerts that defy traditional concert hall expectations. With a flexible lineup of winds, brass, strings, piano, and wide-ranging percussion, the ensemble crafts performances that are at once thought-provoking and accessible for contemporary classical newcomers and seasoned new music enthusiasts alike.

This Saturday, Jan. 7, marks the second concert in their inaugural season at the Chapel Performance Space at the Good Shepherd Center in Wallingford. Cheekily titled “Life After Y2K,” the concert features a full program of music written after the turn of the 21st century.

First on the program is the world premiere of a brand new chamber orchestra work composed by Sound Ensemble flutist Sarah Bassingthwaighte. Titled Further Letters from the Earth, the piece calls for a whole range of extended techniques and unfamiliar sounds inspired by the world’s most primordial music: the sounds of nature.

Life After Y2K also features new works by local composers Greg Dixon, Sean Osborn, and Marcin Paczkowski, and New York-based composer Daron Hagen’s fiercely mystical Chamber Symphony concludes the evening.

We wanted to hear a bit more about what’s in store for the Sound Ensemble, so we sat down with Bobby Collins, Jameson Bratcher, and Sarah Bassingthwaighte to get an inside scoop:

Second Inversion: What was the inspiration behind starting the Sound Ensemble?

bobby-collinsBobby Collins: In starting the Sound Ensemble, Jameson and I sought to create a flexible ensemble that could morph to fit the needs of our community, both audience and performer. 

Our goal is two-fold: firstly, to create an exploratory and welcoming environment in which our audience can experience contemporary classical music and discover their own connections to the music without feeling intimidated by the culture of classical music.

We want to curate a listening experience for the audience that more accurately represents their listening at home through diversity of style, ensemble size, and instrumentation. As someone who loves the classics but has found a home in the music of our time, I work to create in-roads to contemporary music for those who might otherwise be scared away by the infamous term “new music.” By demonstrating connections to pop music and music of earlier times, I believe we can engage a wider range of music appreciators than might otherwise attend “classical” concerts.

Secondly, we work to create an organization that can help our members fulfill their artistic goals. When we recruit performers, we look for highly-skilled and creative musicians who are eager to share their artistry with those around them. As Music Director, I welcome their input about future programming and outreach ideas that will help us connect with the community. If one of our performers has an idea for a concert or particular piece, I will work with them to make it part of our season. 

SI:  Can you tell us a bit about the Life After Y2K performance and the repertoire you selected?

BC: The programing of Life After Y2K goes to the heart of what the Sound Ensemble is working to accomplish. In our experience of classical music, we often unconsciously think of great composition ending after 1900 or 1950 at the latest, but there is so much beautiful, playful, and profound music being composed to this day.

For Life After Y2K, we chose music that represents the wide range of compositional techniques currently in common use, including premieres by Greg Dixon and Sarah Bassingthwaighte, plus other new works by local composers Sean Osborn and Marcin Paczkowski. We will round the concert out with Daron Hagen’s Chamber Symphony.

The title Life After Y2K is a playful jab at our inclination as performers and audience members to think that musical life practically ended once we reached the 20th century, just as we all thought the world was going to end after Y2K. Thankfully, we are all here to keep enjoying music together.

SI: What makes the Sound Ensemble unique?jameson-b

Jameson Bratcher: The Sound Ensemble hopes to engage with our audience in a more intimate way than the usual concert experience. Rather than retreating backstage, the musicians hang out in the audience when they are not performing and are readily available to chat. The Sound Ensemble has a refreshing humility to it; the “rules” of music are changing so continually that we don’t have time to be dogmatic. We perform whole-heartedly and passionately, but not with closed minds.


SI: What type of listening experience do you create at Sound Ensemble concerts?

JB: I like to think of our concerts like having a bunch of friends over for a meal. The Sound Ensemble as the host does a lot of prep beforehand and is certainly busy in the kitchen as our guests arrive. When it is time to perform, just as in a great meal, we engage with our guests and we all get to enjoy the fruit of the hard work together. At the Good Shepherd Center the stage is hardly higher than the floor, which diminishes the separation between musician and audience that is felt at most halls.

Audience members can expect to hear some new and unusual things but in a casual atmosphere. Back to our meal, just as you might ask about what ingredients are in a dish or what method of cooking was used, our musicians are available and excited to talk about the music and also learn about what your favorite parts are. We are all hungry for beauty and understanding of the world around us and our concerts are aimed to whet that appetite. 

I personally love when younger students attend our concerts as they have no deep-seated expectations of how things “should” go. No one really knows where the future of music is going so we want to discover it for ourselves as a community. 

SI: Can you tell us a bit about your piece Further Letters from the Earth?

sarah-bSarah Bassingthwaighte:
The inspiration for Further Letters from the Earth is the complex relationship between humans and the natural world since the year 2000. I spend a lot of time in our beautiful mountains, as well as on the water, and the first part of the piece, “Playful,” features some of the sounds that I enjoy so much: splashing water, rain, wind, birds. I use a drone to represent the sense of quiet I experience when I’m out backpacking—which is a little ironic, since it actually is the escape from the drone of everyday electronic noise and traffic that I love. 

Then the tension increases in “Heat,” and the sounds of heat, melting, burning, and stress replace the playful sounds. This gradually leads to the third section, “Unleashed,” which is driving and energetic. This section is inspired by the hurricanes, typhoons, earthquakes and so on that have occurred in the last decade and are caused, in part, by humans. This section is the most rhythmically compelling, and the most traditional musically. The last section, titled “After,” represents an uneasy peace with the natural world.

Further Letters from the Earth is a follow-up piece to one that I wrote for the Seattle Percussion Collective in 2011. That group did an amazing job, and a few of the sounds from that piece (and some of the message) made it into this one: a gravel box, (which the percussionist runs in), bed sheets that are torn, and a giant pot of water for splashing sounds.  

Overall, the sounds throughout the piece are unusual and otherworldly. I call for exercise bands threaded through the strings of the piano (and operated by the other instrumentalists)—these create an eerie sound that has no attack, that sort of floats above the rest of the music. Each instrument has special capabilities, such as helicopter tonguing in the bassoon, growling in the tuba, or singing while playing the flute. Plus I really enjoyed experimenting with ping pong balls on the strings of the piano—a great sound! 

SI: What are you most looking forward to with the Life After Y2K performance, and with the future of the Sound Ensemble?

SB: It is my hope that performing this piece, and listening to it, is actually pretty fun.  Each player explores unusual sounds on their instruments, from multiphonics to wind sounds to percussive techniques, and most of the players get up out of their chair at some point to make sound inside the piano (so there’s a bit of a visual element to the piece).

The Sound Ensemble is an exciting and inspiring group for me to work with.  Everyone in the group has a sense of adventure as well as technical mastery of their instrument, and the energy is so positive and stimulating.  Bobby is a strong, organized, and inspirational leader, and he helps pull together this amazing group of musicians. 

And at the concerts, the players mix with the audience at every opportunity to discuss the music and the instruments. I’m hoping that some audience members will be interested in our unusual instruments and techniques, and give us the opportunity to demonstrate. 

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The Sound Ensemble’s Life After Y2K performance is this Saturday, Jan. 7 at 7 p.m. at the Chapel Performance Space at the Good Shepherd Center in Wallingford. For tickets and additional information, please click here.

Women in (New) Music: NOCCO Concert Preview and Q&A with Angelique Poteat

by Maggie Molloy

With the Winter Solstice rapidly approaching, the days are shorter and the nights are colder. Daily temperatures hover just around freezing and the sun sets before most people even leave the office.

It’s been a trying year in more ways than one, and as winter winds blow us straight toward the end of 2016, it’s easy to feel that the world is dark and cold—both literally and figuratively.

noccoBut the North Corner Chamber Orchestra (NOCCO) is combatting that coldness with music that is warm, radiant, and bursting with light. Their annual Winter Solstice Celebration this weekend offers a sonic respite from the cold and dreary December temperatures with performances Sunday at Magnolia United Church of Christ and Monday at the University Christian Church.

The celebration pairs classics by Stravinsky, Respighi, and Bach with a West Coast premiere of a new work by Seattle composer and clarinetist Angelique Poteat. Titled Floral Interactions, the piece is a garden of swirling melodies composed for eight wind players and two percussionists.

And since this is its very first Seattle performance, we asked Poteat to give us a sneak peek at what’s in store:

Second Inversion: How would you describe your compositional style? What are some of your major influences?

angelique-poteatAngelique Poteat: As a performer of a melodic, or linear instrument (clarinet), my music tends to be fairly melodic and very thematically oriented.  There is a great deal of layering of lines, which in turn influences my use of harmony.

I grew up listening to a plethora of musical styles, from country music and rock ‘n roll to church hymns and jazz.  A lot of this has found its way into my music, aside from classical influences like Bartók and Messiaen.  I feel that my music and style is constantly evolving.

 

SI:  What was the inspiration behind Floral Interactions? What does it sound like, and how did you choose this instrumentation?

AP: I wrote Floral Interactions in 2006 for the 21/21 New Music Ensemble at Rice University.  The instrumentation was requested by the ensemble.  My inspiration for the work came from several friends of mine, who at the time were reassessing their relationships with one another.  I wanted to capture some of the emotions involved with feeling like a friend is drifting away because of the introduction of a significant other.  With the exception of the climax, much of the piece is dynamically understated, with swirling, dense textures that are juxtaposed with moments of awkwardness and solitude. The title is a play on Florid, which describes the writing for each instrumental part.

SI: Women are extremely underrepresented in musical leadership roles, and especially in composing.  How has being a woman shaped your experiences in this role?

AP: In a society that promotes ideas like Affirmative Action, extra effort is being made to assure that female composers are given opportunities to have their music recognized.  As a composer in the “minority,” I have felt extra pressure to create music that is significant not only within my gender, but compared to all contemporary classical music that is being written today.

I don’t want to be categorized as a good “female composer,” or programmed as the “token female composer,” but instead thought of as an “outstanding composer,” period.   It is not so easy to cross that gender line, and maybe that means that my music has to be better than better.  I think all women, to some extent, feel that they have to put forth more effort than they should in order to be taken seriously.

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SI: What advice do you have for other women who are fighting to have their music heard?

AP: Writing music is not easy!  Music has a great potential to affect people differently in very strong ways; someone out there will love what you write, and someone out there will hate it.  With that in mind, write what YOU love.  

If you’re writing music for live musicians, remember that you’re writing for people, and put care into writing each part.  Share your music with as many people as possible, and your excitement about it!  In today’s world, you have to be the greatest advocate for your music, especially in the face of adversity.  Your enthusiasm about your music will be contagious, and others who hear and like your music will also fight to have it heard again.

SI: What are you most looking forward to with the NOCCO Solstice Celebration, and what do you hope audiences will gain from it?

AP: This weekend’s NOCCO performances will be the first time Floral Interactions will be performed without a conductor!  I’m excited to hear the difference that a more “chamber music” approach to performing the piece will have on how the music is interpreted and coordinated.  I made a few small revisions to the work earlier this year, so we could call this the world premiere of the updated version and, at the very least, the West Coast premiere of the piece.

I love NOCCO’s idea of creating light during the darkest time of the year by sharing warmth and beautiful music, and this program will certainly feature plenty of that!  I’m grateful to be included in the Celebration, and I hope that audiences will feel inspired and moved by the experience.


Performances of NOCCO’s Winter Solstice Celebration are this Sunday, Dec. 18 at 7:30pm at Magnolia United Church of Christ and Monday, Dec.19 at 7:30 at the University Christian Church in Seattle. For tickets and additional information, please click here.