ALBUM REVIEW: Max Richter’s Three Worlds: Music from Woolf Works

by Geoffrey Larson

Three novels by Virginia Woolf, the British modernist writer living 1882-1941, shaped a choreographic work by Wayne McGregor created for The Royal Ballet in 2015—a triptych that Max Richter was given the risky task of scoring. These three works show the great variety in Woolf’s writing, each contrasting dramatically in subject matter and purpose. In his score, Richter has drawn on his own varying talents as a pianist, film composer, and electro-acoustic producer. But is this music worthy of its inspiration?

It’s worth mentioning that Richter is not the only living composer who has undertaken the task of creating a musical companion to Virginia Woolf’s writing. Philip Glass’ challenge of scoring the 2002 film The Hours was both different and similar: the story of Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway was the key subject of the film, but the action took place in three different time periods. Glass’ aesthetic was successful at weaving together the different storylines, using the bare materials of pulsing, repetitive rhythmic patterns and simple harmonic changes to help the listener connect the dots. Perhaps minimalist music, the genre that both Glass and Richter subscribe to in different ways, is that which serves Woolf’s narrative style and subject matter the best. Apart from the most obvious fact that both phrases of minimalist music and sentences of Woolf’s stream-of-consciousness writing seem to go for pages, both artistic forms create magic out of seemingly basic, ordinary materials.

“Minimalist” music makes use of repeating simplicity (say, continuous groups of eighth notes) and fairly straightforward harmony, while Woolf looks to the realistic lives of everyday people for her subject matter. The first few pages of Mrs. Dalloway are a complete tour-de-force of narrative storytelling, creating something stunningly engrossing out of the doldrums of daily routine: Woolf takes an ordinary London street scene, and with great care delves into the thoughts and dreams of one random passerby after the next, looking past the mundane to essentially create something fascinating from nothing.

It seems perfect then that the Mrs. Dalloway section that begins Richter’s album starts with a sample of London street sounds: Big Ben, church bells, etc. Slipped in at the very beginning is the only surviving recording of Virginia Woolf herself, a BBC archive of her reading the essay “Craftsmanship” in 1937. As this gives way to a gentle piano line played by the composer himself, we immediately understand that this project is something deeply personal for Richter, who spent much of his early 20s with his nose in Woolf novels. The sound of Richter’s piano anchors the music of this part, and although it has clear emotional depth and a richness of sound flowing from the Deutsches Filmorchestrer Babelsberg under the baton of Robert Ziegler, there are a couple moments that sound so similar to Philip Glass that they could be mistaken for the other composer’s heavily piano-based score of the same Mrs. Dalloway subject matter. However, what follows next in Orlando is stunningly different.

Richter always seems at his best when he brings his skill as an electronic musician and producer to bear on the world of the orchestra, and when he is confronted with Woolf’s more unusual story of a fictional 16th-century male poet who transforms into a woman and lives to the present day, things get interesting. In “Modular Astronomy” he patches together a beat using a mosaic-like conglomeration of orchestral sounds, each of them bizarrely clipped. If you are a classical musician, you are either awed and fascinated by this effect or it gives you a conniption. Richter uses analogue modular synth, sequencing, digital signal processing, and computer-generated synth as he explores Orlando, sometimes eschewing the orchestra for exclusively electronic sounds. These tracks may be the most beautiful surprise on this album, although it’s hard to beat the breathtaking reference in “Love Song” to a famous theme that composers such as Rachmaninoff also couldn’t resist modernizing.

The final track is by far the longest, and is the sole selection dedicated to The Waves, a 1931 novel consisting of the soliloquies of six characters. The sound of waves at the outset seems to have a sort of triple-significance: beyond the allusion to this most experimental of Woolf novels and the current of the river that would ultimately take the author’s life in her suicide, we can feel the relentless weight of depression washing over her. A reading of her suicide note would have seemed cheap here if they had gotten a less-than-fantastic actor to record it; we’re lucky Gillian Anderson was given the chance to do such a poignant reading. High strains of violin in wide-open intervals begin to accompany the words in a heart-breaking progression, and when the orchestra and soloists are left alone at the conclusion of the letter, the music continues on with ever-deepening orchestration and intensity. We’ve been without a true emotional climax of great orchestral scale so far in this album, but the final track does not disappoint.

There’s something else to address here. Many a graduate thesis has been written on the subject of Virginia Woolf’s great subtlety: she masterfully leads us deeper into the lives of seemingly unimportant characters and pulls us in unexpected narrative directions without our knowledge, all while crafting language that makes use of colorful, existential references and imagery. Does the music of Richter’s score to Woolf Works possess a similar subtlety? The answer is a complicated yes and no.

Richter’s music is often disarmingly and purposefully simple, which for many makes it instantly accessible. Most listeners’ ears will easily absorb the trademark “cinematic” harmony and orchestration that create drama and emotion in a straightforward way, and in a sense, what you hear is what you get. Certainly, opening the album with a recording of the voice of Virginia Woolf herself is anything but subtle. However, poetic details in this music’s construction are hidden beneath the surface. Richter claims “asymmetries and trapdoors” in the rhythm and harmony of the music for Mrs. Dalloway, with the intention that this music is meant to feel “misremembered after a long absence.” The electronic creations of Orlando draw heavily on variations on a fragment known as La Folia, popular with a huge variety of composers starting in the 17th century. A ground bass is the backbone of this sort of music, and music to The Waves is also structured this way. A “suicide” theme in the final track connects to musical allusions to the shell-shocked character Septimus in “War Anthem” from the Mrs. Dalloway music. The subtlety of these details makes Woolf Works a richer musical offering, and is probably Richter’s greatest gift to the world of art influenced by the writing of Virginia Woolf.

ALBUM REVIEW: Sound from the Bench by Ted Hearne

by Maggie Molloy

If U.S. politics is all just a puppet show, then who’s pulling the strings?

The Crossing. Photo by Becky Oehler.

That’s the big question behind Ted Hearne’s probing new choral work, “Sound from the Bench.” The sprawling 40-minute political cantata casts corporations as the grand puppeteers: after the Supreme Court’s controversial Citizens United decision back in 2010, businesses and the multimillionaires who run them were free to funnel their corporate money into politics—and to directly influence the course of history.

But of course, the answer is not so simple. In fact, court decisions like this one merely raise a myriad of other questions—questions of power, privilege, politics, and perspective.

Ted Hearne. Photo by Nathan Lee Bush.

“Sound from the Bench” is the title track and centerpiece of Hearne’s new album, a collection of four choral works which examine many of those unanswerable questions. Performed (and co-commissioned) by Philadelphia’s contemporary chamber choir the Crossing under the artistic direction of Donald Nally, the four featured works delve into the depths of our current political climate, stitching together historical political texts and haunting literature in gripping musical settings.

The title track, for instance, combines text from landmark Supreme Court cases with words from ventriloquism textbooks and poetry from Jena Osman’s Corporate Relations, a collection which explores the history of corporate personhood in the U.S.

Scored for choir with two electric guitars and percussion, the five-movement work is a kaleidoscope of influences: ethereal choral polyphony, infectious rock grooves, dense harmonies, and dramatic utterances color the dry legal language of Citizens United—reminding us of the humanity at stake in these formal and detached court documents. The manic fantasia boomerangs between conventional choral settings and heavily distorted rock riffs in a fiery exploration of opposites: individual vs. corporation, man vs. machine, and puppet vs. puppeteer.

“Guitars are loud and they can growl menacingly,” Donald Nally said of the work. “Machines can always speak louder than individuals—even louder than a whole lot of individuals combined into a unified voice. Drums keep beats, but the beat that you hear may not be trusted. And harmony tells stories.”

Donald Nally. Photo by Becky Oehlers.

Another story is at stake in the album’s opening track, “Consent” for 16 unaccompanied voices. The haunting motet takes its text from love letters, religious wedding rites, and text messages used as evidence in the 2013 Steubenville Rape Trial. The piece begins with tense breathing in the soprano and alto parts, deeply contrasted against obsessive advances in the tenor and bass. But as the work progresses, the women begin to sing—and yet the men still do not listen. The drama climaxes in a chaotic clash of voices and ends with sweet choral harmonies singing the Catholic wedding phrase, “Who gives this woman?”, leaving us to reflect on how, even in the 21st century, our society still conditions us to treat women as property.

“Ripple” for unaccompanied choir uses simple, sweet harmonies to underscore another type of discord: America’s blissful ignorance. The piece ruminates on a single, haunting sentence of the Iraq War Logs across eight short, continuous movements—each becoming progressively more introspective with the quiet and overwhelming realization of the tragedy at hand.

The album closes with “Privilege,” a collection of five short pieces exploring generational privilege, the deep class divide, and the unjust erasure of the poor.  The movements shift between clashing perspectives: Hearne’s own personal reflections, Bill Moyer’s 2009 interview with The Wire creator David Simon, and an English translation of an anti-Apartheid song from South Africa. Hearne spins the listener through a dizzying maze of musical styles, sporadically shifting between densely harmonized, mechanical rhythms and airy, organic melodic lines: a musical representation of our search for meaning in an ever-shifting media landscape.

Photo by Becky Oehlers.

“Hearne’s work is fundamentally about asking questions—questions about the world we live in, about art, and about language and music,” Nally said. “He asks questions that don’t have easy answers, and his art makes artistic demands that are not easily reached.”

Yet the Crossing reaches every single note on this album, shifting effortlessly from warm, immersive harmonies to disembodied and detached percussive textures when the music and libretto call for it. Each court case, war log, letter, and poem comes alive through the choir’s stunning vocal precision, balance, and depth—and the result is a visceral and deeply moving mosaic of the horrors of modern America.

It’s a story that couldn’t be told quite so compellingly in any other musical medium: choral music in itself represents community, harmony, and humanity. In this album, the Crossing’s voices become all of our voices, blending together to tell both individual and universal stories of our humanity.

Because for all the probing questions Hearne asks with this album, this is perhaps the most central one:

Who has a voice in the U.S.—and more specifically: how do they use it?

ALBUM REVIEW: Recurrence by Iceland Symphony Orchestra with Daníel Bjarnason

by Maggie Molloy

Iceland is the most sparsely populated country in all of Europe—with a population just half the size of Seattle’s—and yet somehow, it has cultivated one of the biggest, boldest, and most iconic new music scenes of the 21st century.

Exhibit A: the Iceland Symphony Orchestra’s newest album.

Recurrence is a collection of five utterly ethereal works written by a handful of emerging and established Icelandic artists: Anna Thorvaldsdottir, Thurídur Jónsdóttir, Hlynur A. Vilmarsson, María Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir, and Daníel Bjarnason, who also serves as the orchestra’s conductor and Artist-in-Residence on the album.

It’s a lineup that is emblematic of Iceland’s radiant new music scene, known for its massive, slow-moving sound sculptures illuminated with delicate instrumental details. Each piece on the album is a gorgeously abstracted soundscape in itself, showcasing the small Nordic island’s all but unparalleled explorations of texture, timbre, and immersive, atmospheric colors in music.

The album begins with Thurídur Jónsdóttir’s surging “Flow & Fusion,” a sparkling sound mass for orchestra and electronics—but here’s the twist: the electronics are all derived from recordings of the actual instruments of the orchestra, creating a kaleidoscopic aural effect that plays off the concert hall’s acoustics. The sonic seascape ebbs and flows across the entire orchestra, swelling in glorious waves of sound and evaporating back into near-silence.

It’s followed by Hlynur A. Vilmarsson’s sprawling “BD,” which gradually transforms from an amorphous blur of low-pitched vibrations into a rhythmic, tightly-constructed sound off of nearly every distinctive timbre and extended playing technique in the orchestra. Muliphonics, glissandos, prepared piano, vertical bowing, harmonic overtones, and nontraditional percussion instruments all make an appearance in this playfully orchestrated exploration of the symphonic outer limits.

An entire ocean of sound comes alive in María Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir’s “Aequora,” which takes its name from the Latin word for the calm surface of the sea. Sigfúsdóttir takes the image a step further, emulating the majestic beauty of the sea both under softly glistening sunlight but also under the exquisite lightning of an ominous storm: soft strings and whispering winds evoke the sustained surface of the sea amidst swelling percussion motives and brilliantly colored washes of deep brass.

The theatrical climax of the album comes with Daníel Bjarnason’s cinematic three-movement “Emergence,” an aurally arresting exploration of darkness and light. The piece traces the arc of existence from the vast expanse of total darkness to the life-giving warmth of breath, touch, and worldly textures—and all the way out into the luminous, incandescent light of outer space.

The album closes with Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s “Dreaming,” an icy and ethereal illumination of the beauty of utter stillness. Enormous sound masses sparkle with delicate orchestrational nuance in a sound world so stunning that it almost seems to halt time itself.

It’s a reminder, like so many of the works on this album, to be still, to listen—and to dream in shimmering detail.

ALBUM REVIEW: The Passionate Pilgrim by Oracle Hysterical and New Vintage Baroque

by Maggie Molloy

The name “W. Shakespeare” reads in bold print on the title page of The Passionate Pilgrim, a poem cycle published right as Shakespeare was beginning to achieve widespread fame in 1599. But there’s a pretty good reason why most people haven’t heard of the anthology: Shakespeare didn’t actually write it.

Or at least, he didn’t write much of it. The 20-poem anthology was compiled and published by a scheming editor named William Jaggard, who got hold of two of Shakespeare’s poems and combined them with 18 other poems by various hands—passing them off as Shakespeare’s to sell more copies.

Suffice it to say, the jig didn’t last long: several of the poems were attributed to other poets during his lifetime, and the anthology was quickly revealed as a desperate marketing ploy.

But now, over four centuries later, that orphaned “Shakespearean” poem cycle finds a new home in a collaborative chamber pop album of the same name by Oracle Hysterical and New Vintage Baroque.

Let’s meet the characters, shall we?

Oracle Hysterical is comprised of four extraordinarily well-read composer-performers: Majel Connery (vocals), Elliot Cole (guitars, vocals, harmonium), and twin brothers Doug Balliett (double bass, viola da gamba) and Brad Balliett (bassoon). “Half band, half book club,” the ensemble combines classical and art-rock musical idioms with exceptional literary breadth, recreating great works of literature through the medium of song.

For this particular project, Oracle Hysterical joins forces with New Vintage Baroque, an adventurous, Julliard-trained period ensemble dedicated to the creation of 21st century repertoire for historical instruments.

Photo by Katrin Albert.

The album unfolds as a song cycle that toes the line between indie rock and Baroque chamber pop, hitting all the major Shakespearean themes of youth, beauty, love, and death along the way.

Tone painting abounds in this collection of modern-day madrigals, which feature Majel Connery and Elliot Cole’s indie vocals floating atop poised, balanced, and beautifully textured Baroque accompaniments. Yet the pieces expand upon the traditional roles of these period instruments, experimenting with low-pitched drones, unexpected instrument pairings, stereo sound, and intricately layered musical textures.

The 14 pieces range from classical chansons to singer-songwriter musical stylings, lilting lullabies to charming folk duets. Witty hooks and buoyant rhythms bring the poetry of Shakespeare’s lesser-known (or in this case, completely unknown) contemporaries clear into the 21st century, drawing connections through the timeless literary themes that have gripped writers for centuries.

But aside from the actual text setting, texture is of paramount concern in these musical arrangements, the counterpoint carefully shaped and articulated with precision, grace, and old world finesse. The result is a song cycle that echoes with the elegant charm of a Baroque dance suite and resonates with historical depth and drama.

It may not be Shakespearebut it’s poetry, through and through.

ALBUM REVIEW: Unbound by the Jasper String Quartet

by Maggie Molloy

Photo by Dario Acosta.

Over the course of their decade-long career, the Jasper String Quartet has become pretty familiar with the famous quartets of historic masters like Haydn, Beethoven, and even Bartók—so when it came time to record a new album, they decided to look for new musical inspiration a little closer to home.

Unbound is a collection of 21st century works that burst through the boundaries of traditional Western musical styles and forms. The Jaspers—comprised of violinists J Freivogel and Sae Chonabayashi, violist Sam Quintal, and cellist Rachel Henderson Freivogel—explore the furthest reaches of the string quartet repertoire with new works by seven of today’s most dynamic composers.

Featuring compositions by Caroline Shaw, Missy Mazzoli, Annie Gosfield, Judd Greenstein, David Lang, Donnacha Dennehy, and Ted Hearne, the album unfolds as a survey of today’s spectacularly diverse and dynamic string music landscape, each piece stretching the string quartet tradition in new and inventive ways.

The album begins with Caroline Shaw’s tangy and succulent “Valencia,” the video for which we premiered just last week on Second Inversion. The Jaspers bring precision and playfulness to Shaw’s billowing harmonics and bold bow strokes, evoking the brilliant colors and juicy texture of the fresh, flavorful fruit.

Missy Mazzoli’s contribution to the album, by contrast, is a bit more narrative-driven. “Death Valley Junction” is inspired by a small American town of the same name, where a woman named Marta Becket resurrected a crumbling opera house in the late 1960s and went on to perform weekly one-woman shows there for over 40 years. An airy, sparse, desert-inspired soundscape gradually gives way to a wild and exuberant dance, evoking Becket’s colorful imagination and unshakable optimism.

It’s followed by Annie Gosfield’s “The Blue Horse Walks on the Horizon,” a piece she wrote specifically for the Jaspers. Inspired by the surreal radio broadcasts and codes used by European resistance groups during World War II, the piece unfolds through shifting, repetitive figures that evoke the abstract coded messages.

Group dynamics are the key theme behind Judd Greenstein’s contribution to the album. “Four on the Floor” is an energetic, fast-paced work which explores different instrument pairings working with and against one another in constantly changing teams.

Photo by Dario Acosta.

David Lang’s “almost all the time” explores a different type of evolution. The piece begins with a simple cell of a musical idea—what he calls “a little 10 note strand of musical DNA”—but across 18 minutes expands and evolves into a beautiful genetic mutation, each detail carefully crafted under the Jaspers’ fingers.

Donnacha Dennehy’s “Pushpulling” is more elastic in its movements. Frenetic bow strokes speed ever-forward, but are slowly and patiently pulled back to silence each time—pushing and pulling the listener along for the ride.

The album closes with Ted Hearne’s circular “Excerpts from the middle of something,” the first movement of his Law of Mosaics. Unusual in its form, the piece consists of a climactic build-up that, instead of resolving, is simply repeated and revised several times. And yet, each time it is convincing: the Jaspers play each rendition with the explosive energy and enthusiasm of a grand finale.

It’s an exclamation point at the end of the album but also a metaphor, perhaps, for the album’s overarching theme: the string quartet repertoire did not die with Haydn or Beethoven, but is still alive and still evolving to this day.

ALBUM REVIEW: Thrive on Routine by American Contemporary Music Ensemble (ACME)

by Maggie Molloy

Photo credit: Ryuhei Shindo

We all have our morning routines. Some of us like to go for a brisk morning walk, read the newspaper, flip through the daily comics, or have a leisurely cup of coffee. Some of us like to hit the snooze button six or seven times, roll out of bed, rub the sleep from our eyes, and scramble to work. American modernist Charles Ives liked to wake up at 4 or 5 in the morning, garden in his potato patch, and play through some of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. (How’s that for a little early morning exercise?)

Ives’ idiosyncratic early morning regimen was the inspiration behind composer-pianist Timo Andres’s Thrive on Routine, the title track of a new album by the American Contemporary Music Ensemble (ACME). A flexible music collective comprised of over 20 musicians (Andres among them), ACME is an ensemble known for championing masterworks of the 20th and 21st centuries. Their newest album is no exception: Andres finds himself in good company amongst works by John Luther Adams and fellow ACME members Caroline Shaw and Caleb Burhans.

Andres’ “Thrive on Routine” was, in fact, first commissioned and premiered by the ACME string quartet in 2009. Structured in four short, continuous movements, the piece offers abstract imitations of Ives’ Bach-and-potatoes routine, evoking a rustic alarm jingle, the pastoral drone of the potato patch, and a folk-infused passacaglia. The earthy, textured landscapes come to life under the fingers of violinists Yuki Numata Resnick and Ben Russell, violist Caleb Burhans, and cellist Clarice Jensen.

That same group gives voice to Caleb Burhans’ composition “Jahrzeit,” a requiem for his late father. In Judaism, the jahrzeit is a time of remembering the dead by reciting the Kaddish, lighting a 24-hour candle, and remembering the person who has died. In Burhans’ piece, the strings flicker and glow like a quiet flame, the colors blending and separating in a warm and pensive haze.

The work is followed by two similarly introspective compositions by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Caroline Shaw. The first is her solo cello suite “in manus tuas,” inspired by a 16th-century motet by Thomas Tallis and performed by ACME Artistic Director Clarice Jensen. Shaw’s composition makes the cello sing, its strings echoing like sacred choral music against a serenely silent cathedral.

Shaw’s second work, the achingly gorgeous “Gustave le Gray” for solo piano, features Timo Andres as the performer. Inspired by Chopin’s Op. 17 A Minor Mazurka, Shaw maintains the poignant, long-breathed melodies but forgoes the trademark Chopin ornamentations. The resulting music plays like an improvisation on Chopin, transforming phrases of the original mazurka as it blossoms ever outward into new chromatic melodies and characters.

The album closes with John Luther Adams’ breathtakingly beautiful “In a Treeless Place, Only Snow,” featuring the ACME string quartet along with Andres on piano, Peter Dugan on celesta, and Chris Thompson and Chihiro Shibayama on vibraphones. Atmospheric melodies, delicately detailed textures, and enchanting celesta embellishments bring this immersive sonic landscape to life, evoking the extraordinary vastness of the natural world and the overwhelming sense of awe that comes with simply being in its presence.

Because whether it’s a potato patch or a snowy mountainside, there’s beautiful music to be found all around us—sometimes we just need to step out of our routine.

 

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.