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.]

ALBUM REVIEW: “Hopscotch” produced by The Industry

by Maggie Molloy

The opera tradition as we know it has always been lavish and large-scale—but never quite this large.

In 2015, the 21st century experimental opera troupe The Industry produced Hopscotch: a modern-day immersive opera experience collaboratively created by a team of six composers, six librettists, and over 100 artists. Massive in scope, the opera performances took place not in your traditional opera house, but rather, across the grand and sparkling stage of Los Angeles, California.

Photo credit: Casey Kringlen

That’s right: Hopscotch was staged in 24 cars and countless locations across Los Angeles, crafting a singularly extraordinary experience that was equal parts road trip, architectural tour, immersive theatre, and avant-garde opera.

Audience members were carted around the city in a fleet of limousines that were divided into three distinct geographical routes—each route featured eight chapters (a mixture of car rides and visits to undisclosed sites) lasting approximately 10 minutes each.

Photo credit: Casey Kringlen

The only limitation? You had to be in Los Angeles to experience it.

Well this year, the Industry has alleviated that restriction with the release of Hopscotch as an album—or more precisely, a key-shaped USB stick that you can plug into your computer or car.

Inspired by Julio Cortazar’s novel Rayuela (Hopscotch), both the live performance and the recording invite the listener to experience the narrative in a non-chronological order, and with multiple singers forming a composite of each individual character’s identity. So, without further ado, let’s meet the characters.

Hopscotch tells the tale of Lucha, an L.A.-based puppeteer who meets and marries a motorcycle-riding scientist named Jameson. But like all great scientists, Jameson loses himself in his explorations of the esoteric. Distraught, Lucha hallucinates an encounter with Jameson in the underworld and attempts, without success, to bring him back to life.

The story borrows heavily from the ancient Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice (which is symbolically significant in that this myth was the basis of the world’s earliest surviving opera)—but unlike Orpheus, Lucha overcomes her grief and finds love again with a fellow performer named Orlando.

Photo credit: Casey Kringlen

Oh, and one other major difference: in Hopscotch, the narrative is nonlinear. The story is presented in episodic chapters which highlight moments of Lucha’s life, each episode acting as its own point of entry to (or a port of departure from) the overarching narrative. In the live performances, this allowed each of the three geographical routes to tell the story in a different order—and as listeners to the recording, we’re invited to experience the opera in any order we choose. Included in the digital CD liner notes is a series of suggested playlists ordered by original performance route, by composer, by librettist, by storyline, and by musical development.

“Opera is about layering—music, image, text, experience,” said Yuval Sharon, Founder and Artistic Director of the Industry, and the creative mastermind behind Hopscotch. “And that’s where Hopscotch is most operatic: it’s a project with many layers that intersect each other, offering each audience member a highly personal experience, their own combination of elements unlike anyone else’s.”

Photo credit: Casey Kringlen

The music itself is also highly personal. Each moment in the characters’ lives was shaped by a different composer and librettist, performed by a different ensemble, and was created in response to a specific street or site on the route. The only restriction? Each episode had to be 10 minutes in length—allowing the composers to play with the perception of time inside that specific life moment.

The published recording alternates between live and studio recordings, and between brief excerpts and full scenes. But even beyond those more structural variances, the music itself is also extraordinarily eclectic. The two-hour work bounces from soaring arias to infectious theatre riffs, twinkling lullabies to industrial static, free jazz and improvisation to surrealist choral soundscapes, rainy day ballads to Latin American folk melodies.

Photo credit: Casey Kringlen

And yet, somewhere amidst the swirling anarchy of avant-garde sound art and Baroque opera vocal stylings, the music takes on a much grander purpose. As the Industry’s Music Director Marc Lowenstein describes:

“From evocations of experimental music to musical theater to improvisations to folk traditions to large scale quotations of Monteverdi to installation music, from the intimacy of a single performer in a car with you to the grandness of using the entire city as a stage—as the opera hopscotches through our city, so does the music, always on a road, evoking different scenes, cultures, and sounds. A thousand paths.”

In fact, the opera is an entire web of musical and theatrical threads which connect and intersect in ever-changing ways, subject to each listener’s own experience and interpretation. Conceptually, the project is complex enough to write an entire book on (and in fact, the digital liner notes are 52 pages long), but as you travel through the swirling sonic landscape, the meaning behind the music becomes quite clear:
By creating a vibrant mosaic of so many different sounds, styles, composers, and performers, Hopscotch reminds us that Lucha’s story is also our story—and that we are all subject to these same transcendental experiences of time, memory, and perception.

Photo credit: Dana Ross

In the end, all paths converge and the opera climaxes with a live recording from the Central Hub, a temporary space on the performance route where all the journeys were live-streamed to create a dizzying panorama of life in the city—an ecstatic vision of community in Los Angeles.

“The Central Hub is the possibility of simultaneity,” Yuval Sharon said. “A circle where there is no differentiation between past, present, and future. Separate neighborhoods become one fluid landscape. And the mysterious logic that escapes you from chapter to chapter becomes completely legible, supernaturally, when you can see them all happening at the same time. In a city so infamously without a center, I think creating aspirational centers is crucial.”

STAFF PICKS: Friday Faves

Second Inversion hosts share a favorite selection from their playlist. Tune in during the indicated hours below on Friday, January 20 to hear these pieces. In the meantime, you’ll hear other great new and unusual music from all corners of the classical genre 24/7!

David P. Jones: Music for South Africa (Caballito Negro)

For many living in the United States, this past week has felt like a lit fuse. Today, protests & rallies will explode all over the country as marginalized groups and their allies rebuke violence, advocate for social justice, and work together from every corner of the nation to make a statement of unity. Seems like a good time for some “music of hope,” which is how David P. Jones describes Music for South Africa. In this piece, Jones took inspiration from the struggle against apartheid and drew from traditional South African music to create a percussion-heavy composition akin to the sounds of Johannesburg night-club jazz. Whether or not you participate in a mass movement, let Music for South Africa encourage thoughts of hope and expressions of your limitless potential. – Rachele Hales

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 2pm hour today to hear this piece.


Joseph Byrd: Prelude to “The Mystery Cheese Ball” American Contemporary Music Ensemble (New World)

ACME’s album exploring Joseph Byrd’s work in NYC from 1960-1963 has some interesting sounds, not least of which is the final track. This experimental work for balloon ensemble serves as the prelude to a chamber opera that was performed at Yoko Ono’s loft in the spring of 1961 (with Ono as one of the performers). There is no score, rather only a sort of oral history of the event to follow: each performer is instructed to allow air to escape their balloon, creating different pitches by stretching the neck in different ways. It results in an improvised crowd of squeaks and whines, and it goes for some time – maybe the balloons are pretty big in this recording. Some combine together to almost form a melody, but not quite. It’s a good bit nose-thumbing anti-music, with a hilariously abrupt ending as the last bit of air escapes. – Geoffrey Larson

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 2pm hour today to hear this piece.


Madeleine Cocolas: If Wisdom Fails (Futuresequence) 

A distillation of her “track-a-week-for-52-weeks” composition project, Cocolas’s album Cascadia was written after the composer relocated from Australia to Seattle.  Lately, my ever-deepening connections to the Seattle area have been an indispensable source of solace, and those feeling were brought back to the surface by If Wisdom Fails.  Seattle’s The Stranger newspaper called this album “cathartic;” I wholeheartedly agree. – Seth Tompkins

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 5pm hour today to hear this piece.


Matt Marks: The Little Death, Vol. 1 (New Amsterdam Records)

Matt Marks’ The Little Death, Vol. 1 is a classic tale of boy meets girl—except for instead of the familiar happily-ever-after ending, the boy and girl take a romantic ride through the world of Fundamentalist Evangelism, struggling to cope with their religion-prescribed repressed sexuality in the 21st century.

Performed by Marks and Mellissa Hughes, the post-Christian nihilist pop opera features 11 provocatively-titled chapters which detail the extraordinarily convoluted relationship between religion and sexuality using surprisingly modest means: Marks self-produced the album using only a couple microphones and a laptop running Ableton Live.

The ambitious two-character theatrical work draws on sampled material from Marks’ own collection of 1970s gospel, hip-hop, and soul albums, crafting surprisingly catchy tunes that fuse hypnotic pop hooks with satirical lyrics and apocalyptic Christian imagery. It’s definitely not your traditional church service—but it’s a surprisingly spiritual experience.
Maggie Molloy

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 7pm hour today to hear an excerpt from this recording.

ALBUM REVIEW: Partita for 8 Voices Remixes

by Maggie Molloy

caroline-shawIn 2013, at the ripe old age of 30, Caroline Shaw became the youngest ever recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Music for her a cappella masterpiece Partita for 8 Voices.

Shaw had originally composed the piece for her boundary-bursting vocal group Roomful of Teeth, and it appeared on their Grammy Award-winning debut album the year prior. Modelled loosely after the tradition of Baroque dance suites, the 25-minute masterwork makes full use of the eight-voice ensemble’s four-octave pitch range, exploring a bold sonic palette of speech, sighs, whispers, murmurs, wordless melodies, spoken prattle, throat singing, and more.

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But all musical intricacies aside, the concept behind the piece is really quite simple.

Partita is a simple piece,” Shaw said of the work. “Born of a love of surface and structure, of the human voice, of dancing and tired ligaments, of music, and of our basic desire to draw a line from one point to another.”

That line stretches clear in 2017 with Partita’s most recent reincarnation: an EP of remixes created by six different New York-based electronic musicians and sound designers. Originally created for New Amsterdam Records’ 2013 fundraiser, the Partita Remixes were only just recently released to the public alongside the first ever vinyl-edition of the original work.

The six remixes featured on the EP are as varied and daring as the six artists who created them: electro art pop composer Olga Bell, synth-driven sound designer No Lands, sound artist and software engineer Morgan Packard, dreamy gloom-pop powerhouse Violetness, electro-folk experimentalist Aaron Roche, and hair-raising hypno-techno minimalist Lorna Dune.

The album begins with Olga Bell’s infectious, beat-driven remix: a 21st-century play on the “dance” element of the original Baroque partita form. Roomful of Teeth’s vocals bounce across a danceclub-worthy drum beat before crescendoing into a kaleidoscopic climax of layered vocals and electronics.olga-bellNo Lands takes quite a different approach with his remix: he transforms Shaw’s original partita into a synthy slow jam of airy, wordless vocals and echoing melodic motives that transport the listener straight into sonic hypnosis.

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Self-proclaimed “laptop musician” Morgan Packard takes the hypnosis a step further: his transfixing techno-infused partita is a barely-recognizable rendition of the original. Heavy repetition of short vocal snippets creates a patterned pulse that turns Shaw’s partita into a spellbinding trance.

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Violetness, by contrast, transforms Shaw’s partita into a siren song: a noir-pop concoction of haunting electronics and ethereal ambience. Roomful of Teeth’s vocals slither through an industrial soundscape of dancing ghosts and ghoulish laments—a whirring choir amidst a sea of synth.

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Folk-infused avant-gardist Aaron Roche offers an eerie, softly echoing sonic landscape of Shaw’s slowly-evolving melodic motives. Recorded by layering recordings of Shaw’s original composition as projected through speakers in Manhattan’s Clocktower Gallery, the piece captures the building’s resonant frequencies as much as its haunting transfixion with the passage of time.

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The album closes with experimental pianist and electronic minimalist Lorna Dune’s remix: a dreamy synthscape of airy vocals and typewriter techno drum beats, the voices echoing higher and higher into the stratosphere as the piece floats upward.

lorna-dune

Clocking in at just 30 minutes, the Partita Remixes EP is only a small glimpse into the vast musical possibilities of New Amsterdam Records—a chance to hear the music of our time through the ears of some of today’s most promising new music luminaries. Because in the end, that’s really what the album is really all about: reimagining the music of the past through the sounds of the future—our desire, as Shaw says, to draw a line from one point to another.

Second Inversion’s Top 5 Album Reviews of 2016

You can count on Second Inversion for Album Reviews of the latest and greatest new releases. These are the top 5 most popular reviews of 2016!

#5: Jessie Montgomery: Strum (Azica)

download-26The album combines classical chamber music with elements of folk music, spirituals, improvisation, poetry, and politics, crafting a unique and insightful newmusic perspective on the cross-cultural intersections of American history. And while this album may just be the beginning for Montgomery, “Strum” certainly echoes with possibility. – Maggie Molloy


#4: Northwestern University Cello Ensemble: Shadow, Echo, Memory (Sono Luminus)

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As the album continues onward from the Rachmaninov through the Mahler, it becomes clear that the Ensemble has achieved their purported goal of using the cello to express textures of dark and light, bring to life sounds and images from another time, and finally to aid listeners in revisiting their own histories. It does indeed provide a fascinating, haunting individual experience to those who are up for a little soul-searching. – Brendan Howe


#3: Contact: Discreet Music by Brian Eno (Cantaloupe Music)

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As performers, Contact makes the music their own—and as listeners, so do we. With precision, patience, and the utmost reverence, Contact recreates Eno’s ambient masterwork as an echo chamber of circling motives and mismatched musical textures. Each ripple of the repetitious melody is a perfectly crafted piece of the larger pattern, a discreet but unique little gem in and of itself. – Maggie Molloy


#2: Boston Modern Orchestra Project: Mason Bates’ Mothership (BMOP/Sound)

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Part of what makes this music great is its versatility: it’s at home in so many different settings, from the venerated orchestral concert hall, to the sweaty dance club, to your living room on a Tuesday night. – Geoffrey Larson


#1: Pink Floyd: “Wish You Were Here” Symphonic featuring Alice Cooper with the London Orion Orchestra (Decca)

wish-you-were-here-symphonic

Fans of Pink Floyd will definitely enjoy the musical fantasia of Wish You Were Here Symphonic.  Those who are less familiar with Pink Floyd will also find a lot to love in this recording.  You listen to this album for the symphonic arrangements and in every way they deliver.

This was Smith’s first go at producing an album by himself and I’d call it a great success.  I hope to hear symphonic versions of Pink Floyd’s other classics in the future.  Hint hint, Pete Smith.  Tell us, where will you go from Here? – Rachele Hales

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!