Women in (New) Music: Emissary Quartet Video Premiere and Q&A

by Maggie Molloy

For the Emissary Quartet, new music knows no bounds—geographical or otherwise. Comprised of four flutists living in four different cities around the U.S., the group is dedicated to expanding the flute quartet repertoire by commissioning and performing innovative new works.

Though scattered across the country, flutists Weronika Balewski, Meghan Bennett, Colleen McElroy, and Sarah Shin meet for performances and teaching residencies throughout the year, building a diverse catalogue of new works which explore the dynamic and expressive capabilities of their instrument.

We’re thrilled to premiere their latest project on Second Inversion: a brand new music video for composer Annika Socolofsky’s airy and ethereal “One wish, your honey lips,” shot and edited by Kevin Eikenberg for Four/Ten Media.

The video premiere serves as an exciting preview for the quartet’s upcoming Seattle residency, which takes place April 18-22. Centered around the goal of inspiring young artists to get creative with classical music, the five-day residency features performances and workshops throughout the greater Seattle area.

To find out more, we sat down with Socolofsky and the Emissary Quartet to talk about flutes, feminism, and future projects:

Second Inversion: What was the inspiration behind “One wish, your honey lips”?

Annika Socolofsky: As a vocalist, I have long been obsessed with the nuanced resonance of the human voice, and in particular the timbral variation and inflection inherent to many folk vocal traditions. These highly expressive micro-variations deliver intense pangs of emotion that can be sung in the subtlest of ways. They are distilled, fleeting moments of suffering and joy that fall between the cracks of melody and harmony. This piece is about the music that exists in those cracks between the notes.

SI: What were some of the unique challenges and rewards of writing for this unique instrumentation?

AS: For me, writing for Emissary Quartet was less about the instrumentation, and more about working with four amazing and truly sensitive musicians. I knew I could trust their artistry, so I called for some very demanding and expressive nuance, as well as incessantly delicate shifts in their sound color. That said, the flute quartet repertoire is so heavily based on transcriptions that I wanted to write something that was really, truly for the flute and that explored the instrument’s unique resonance in the same way a singer resides in their own unique voice.

Kristin Kuster, one of my teachers from my days at the University of Michigan, is a huge proponent of the concept of “restrained virtuosity,” a variety of virtuosity that is about detailed and sophisticated artistry, rather than dazzling showmanship. EQ truly understands this sort of musicianship, which made working with them one of the most rewarding experiences of my career thus far.

SI: In what ways (if any) do you feel that being a woman has shaped your experiences as an artist? What advice do you have for other female-identifying artists who are aspiring to creative leadership roles?

AS: I’ve grappled with this question for some time, in large part because I’ve spent my entire life battling with gender norms and expectations. However, that exact fight with gender and sexuality has undeniably shaped my art more than anything else. There are infinite components to an artist’s identity and voice, and every one of them is essential to the process of creation. This is why it’s so important to advocate for oppressed voices in the arts—the more perspectives and stories and voices we can hear from, the better we can understand one another and grow together.

My advice to female-identifying artists who aspire to have a career in the arts is quite simply: you do you. There’s no “right way” to do this stuff, whatever your teachers might say, whoever your textbooks might celebrate. There is only one thing you can do better than anyone else in this world, and that is to be beautifully, unapologetically you.

SI: What do you find most inspiring about this particular piece, and what do you think makes the flute quartet such a compelling genre to explore?

Colleen McElroy (Seattle, WA): This piece feels so natural in many ways, that playing it evokes breathing for me. The beginning comes from nothing, and the combination of multiphonics and soft high notes allow the four of us to blend seamlessly into a single sound. Annika uses so many different flute sounds—traditional tone, harmonics, multiphonics, air sounds— in such an organic way that the flute quartet becomes more like a group of voices expressing a wordless melody rather than four independent instruments.

The flute as a solo instrument has been exploited by countless composers throughout music history. There is substantial literature for the flute in nearly every genre. Solo flute offers vast possibilities in timbre, articulation, dynamics, and many other parameters—and flute quartet offers the same times four! I’d love to see more composers exploring this uncharted territory. There is so much left to discover.

Weronika Balewski (Boston, MA): The complexity of this music manifests itself in subtle tone colors, micro-gestures, and tiny melodic shifts, all in imitation of the human voice. It’s challenging from a technical standpoint, but not in a flashy way. Rather, every note and gesture has nuance and dimension. I also love the simple unison melody, the way we each play it with our own nuances, and how beautiful harmonies and counterpoint emerge as the melody gets repeated and extended.

For most of the flute quartet’s history, people have thought of it as four melodic instruments, or as an ensemble with a very high bass voice. We have a standing invitation to composers to send us radically new ideas about how four flutes could sound together. We have not even begun to exhaust the possibilities. Annika’s piece is a stunning example of one composer’s reimagination of the ensemble—she took a look at the possible sounds we know how to make and put them together in a way that pushed us to the extremes of our playing, creating a new type of sound for the flute quartet.

Meghan Bennett (Austin, TX): I find the intricacy between the parts most unique about this piece. The voices interact in such a way that sometimes it’s hard to pick one voice from another—just when you think one voice is the “melody,” another emerges. 

There is such great diversity in solo flute music, but this diverse range is not often seen in flute quartet repertoire. I think what makes the flute so appealing is that there are so many colors, articulations and extended techniques that serve to really capture audiences’ imaginations. These characteristics haven’t been explored fully in flute quartet music and I think that is what makes it such a compelling genre—there is still so much to discover.

Sarah Shin (New Brunswick, NJ): What I found unique about this piece is how Annika was able to create a homogeneous timbre with the group with the extended techniques. Usually when composers write with extended techniques, it’s for a special effect, but Annika really wrote these techniques in a way that treated them as if they’re normal notes played on the flute. This inspired me to open my mind and think outside of the box with the colors I produce on my instrument.

I think what makes flute quartet so compelling is the textures of sound four flutes can create. Yes, each flutist has their own tone, and flutes can create big and small sounds, but what makes flutes so different is the range of extended techniques they can do. Along with that, when one combines four flute sounds together and they blend well together, it’s a beautiful sound! There’s a richness and shimmer to the flute tone that I believe other woodwinds cannot create, and there is a lush sound to four flutes that is very beautiful.


The Emissary Quartet’s Seattle residency takes place April 18-22 and features collaborations with Seattle Music Partners, the University of Washington Chamber Music Lab and Flute Studios, and more. Click here for a full list of Seattle performances, workshops, and events.

ALBUM REVIEW: Eleonore Oppenheim’s Home

by Maggie Molloy

In classical music, the double bass is one of those instruments you never really hear much about. In fact, you rarely even hear it very much at all—usually the bass is pushed to the back corner of the stage, largely reduced to providing rhythmic support, textural depth, and a lower pitch range for the rest of a larger ensemble.

But not anymore.

Eleonore Oppenheim

Bassist Eleonore Oppenheim recently released her debut solo album Home: a collection of five contemporary works which explore the vast and varied possibilities of the double bass as a modern solo instrument. To bring the vision to life, she enlisted the talents of five fearlessly innovative and experimental composers.

“We as bassists have a conundrum,” Oppenheim said. “As our technique evolves, and as we explore the ever-expanding possibilities of our instrument as a voice that can stand on its own, we need music to play that will grow and evolve with us. I am fortunate enough to have a number of talented and adventurous composer friends who all have an interest in pushing the limits not just of the instrument, but of preconceived ideas of genre and form.”

Among those friends are the likes of Angélica Negrón, Florent Ghys, Wil Smith, Jenny Olivia Johnson, and Lorna Dune—each of whom contributed a composition for the album.

Home

The album begins with composer Angélica Negrón’s contribution, “La Isla Mágica.” Brimming with whimsy and wistful nostalgia, the piece combines punchy, video game-worthy electronics with bowed bass, percussion, and even some ambient vocals. At times it almost sounds as though Oppenheim and her bass are in the middle of a theme park, playing among the neon signs, the colorful carnival games, and the translucent
stars above.

Florent Ghys’ “Crocodile” takes a decidedly more avant-garde turn: double the double basses. Composed for live bass, prerecorded bass, and audio samples, the piece layers two independent bass lines above excerpts from the 1996 French documentary La fabrique de l’homme occidental (The Fashioning of Western Man) by filmmaker Gérard Caillat and psychoanalyst Pierre Legendre. Broad bow strokes set the scene before shifting to funky pizzicato syncopations which showcase both Oppenheim’s technical skill as well as her musical finesse.

Percussion takes on a new meaning, though, in Wil Smith’s “Heavy Beating.” The piece features Oppenheim literally beating her bass in a series of dramatically percussive blows both on the wood and the strings. Glitchy electronics trickle in as she begins to bow, digging deep into the strings as her bass howls and growls in response.

The album’s title track, composed by Jenny Olivia Johnson, is a bit more patient in its intensity. Oppenheim slowly saws away at her lowest strings, each note buzzing, ringing, and echoing in the surrounding silence as the piece builds toward the shrill reaches of the instrument’s higher range, climaxing in a swirl of agitated bowings and electronics.

The album comes to a close with electropop remix of “Home” by composer Lorna Dune. Synthesized melodies and hypnotic drum machines dance above a slow and solemn bass line as the album slowly fades into silence.

And at just under 40 minutes, the album is over too soon—yet the musical terrain traversed over the course of just five pieces is astounding. Oppenheim drifts seemingly effortlessly from classical to noise rock, jazz to synth pop, and even toward the outer reaches of the avant-garde. In doing so, Oppenheim and her team of composers prove that 21st century bass is in very good hands indeed—and when it comes to center stage, the bass is right at Home.

Eleonore Oppenheim Photo

 

ALBUM OF THE WEEK: Howard Hersh’s “Angels and Watermarks”

brandaangels

by Seth Tompkins

Angels and Watermarks, a new release from Snow Leopard Music, features music of Californian composer Howard Hersh.  California-based pianist Brenda Tom performs on all three pieces on this CD, two of which are for solo keyboard.  This disc contains a delightful mix of musical styles set in the broad and colorful world of Hersh’s own modern musical language.

 

 

The final piece on the disc, Dream, for solo piano, was written as the composer was “exploring ways of incorporating tonal harmony.” Recalling, at times, some of the lighter music of Arvo Pärt, this piece unfolds slowly and delicately, repeating simple melodic lines in a manner consistent with its title.  The overall effect is one of relaxation, but not without struggle.  Resolution finally comes after the seven-minute mark, with the surprising introduction of a powerful bass note.  This is the first point in the piece when low sounds of any heft are used; it is the only moment when the piece feels at all grounded.  It is a brief moment, but quite satisfying and appropriate in the context of this largely ethereal solo.  On this track, pianist Brenda Tom’s reserve and patience are laudable.  She does not rush the development of this piece, but allows it to grow at the measured, steady pace that this type of music requires in order to be effective.

The preceding piece, Angels and Watermarks, showcases a completely different type of performance from Tom.  Here, she wholeheartedly digs into multi-faceted music that displays the harpsichord in many different lights.

In Angels and Watermarks, for solo harpsichord, Hersh has built a suite that not only fulfills its goal of displaying the harpsichord’s “historical voice,” but that also takes the instrument into relatively new places, all of which work equally well.  The title adds depth to this sonic exploration; it is taken from the title of an essay by painter Henry Miller, in which Miller describes his attempt to create authentic and personal art while inescapably conscious of the work of the generations of artists that came before.  This connection seems appropriate for a suite that clearly references past sounds while branching out in new directions.

The outer movements of Angels are the most referential to classical harpsichord styles, complete with comfortably familiar (but slightly tedious) filigree straight out of the 17th century.  Despite this traditional styling, the modern harmonies in these movements keep them interesting.  The second movement is a romping perpetuum mobile that, among other devices, uses a variety of meters and cluster chords to keep listeners on their toes.  The middle movement is perhaps the most challenging of the suite, containing the widest variety of sounds from disparate genres.  Here live ghosts of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, 20th century minimalism, impressionism, and ragtime, along with a healthy dose of ancient sounds that showcase the almost lyre-like qualities of the harpsichord.  Despite the mash-up, pianist Brenda Tom blends the styles beautifully.  The fourth movement, designed to recall the toccata, is also particularly enjoyable.  Continuing in the style-blending footsteps of the third, it includes, along with a healthy dose of straight-forward and exuberant chromaticism, a good deal of blues and an apparent (and charming) recurring reference to Dave Brubeck’s Blue Rondo a la TurkAngels and Watermarks is successful in that it seamlessly blends harpsichord sounds, both old and new, in a pleasingly contiguous way.  Hersh manages to transcend the unmistakable sound of the harpsichord in service of good music, an impressive feat.

The leading piece on this disc, Hersh’s Concerto for Piano and Ten Instruments is the collection’s best example of the full spectrum of Hersh’s original musical language.  As in the other two pieces, some genre-specific sounds (tango, swing, and bossa nova, mostly) do appear occasionally, but overall, the language here seems original and modern.   When it comes to the accompanying ensemble, Hersh has chosen the instruments well; he manages to draw an impressively wide spectrum of colors from the mid-sized ensemble.  Of particular note is the broad array in which the solo piano interacts with the ensemble; some passages are purely piano or purely ensemble, but are also a myriad colors in between in which the piano plays every role that could be expected, from melodic leader to supporting player.  Brenda Tom, as in Angels, again moves effortlessly between styles and characters, further deepening the already engaging music of the Concerto.

One of the more enjoyable characteristics about the Concerto is the light and airy quality of many of Hersh’s melodies; they manage to feel free and easy without lacking substance.  The tact of conductor Barbara Day Turner and the ensemble is notable here; such smoothness would not be possible without their adept support.  Percussionist Patti Niemi, in particular, executes Hersh’s perfectly balanced percussion parts with exceptional grace and reservation.

You can purchase this album on:
AmazoniTunes, or Arkiv Music