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.

 

STAFF PICKS: Friday Faves

Second Inversion hosts share a favorite selection from their playlist. Tune in on Friday, February 17 to hear these pieces and lots of other great new and unusual music from all corners of the classical genre!

Daníel Bjarnason and Ben Frost: SÓLARIS with Sinfonietta Cracovia (Bedroom Community)

Iceland is the most sparsely populated country in all of Europe—yet somehow, it has one of the biggest, boldest, and most iconic new music scenes. Daníel Bjarnason and Ben Frost are just two Iceland-based composers in a long laundry list of artists shaped by the arid winds and ocean currents of this breathtaking northern island.

The duo’s ambient and ethereal symphonic suite SÓLARIS is a sparkling addition to Iceland’s massive library of new and innovative sound art. Composed for orchestra with live programming and performed with Sinfonietta Cracovia, the elusive melodies and expansive soundscapes ebb and flow across icy strings and haunting distortion.

Inspired by Stanisław Lem’s 1961 sci-fi novel of the same name, the quiet and consuming suite explores the utter vastness of outer space, the paralyzing fear of the unknown, and—perhaps most importantly—the extraordinary beauty of being so very, very small. – Maggie Molloy


Timo Andres: Thrive on Routine; American Contemporary Music Ensemble (Sono Luminus Records)

I am not much of a morning person, so it’s hard for me to imagine Charles Ives’ supposed morning routine of waking up at 4 AM, digging in a potato patch, and playing through Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. Timo Andres, however, imagines doing just that in his string quartet Thrive on Routine, composed in 2010. It offers some interesting ideas in direct imitation of these activities, from an alarm-tone-like introduction to the pastoral drone of the potato patch and a somewhat jerky fugue. The sounds have a sunny quaintness, somewhat comforting, even – which is, I guess, one purpose of routine. – Geoffrey Larson


Olga Bell: Perm Krai (New Amsterdam Records)

I have selected a track from this album as my staff pick before… but I it’s so good that I have absolutely no regrets about choosing another one.  In the midst of an extremely busy time, I have been seeking out energetic music that helps me overcome the paralysis that often accompanies an increased workload. Olga Bell’s Perm Krai, and much of the album from which it comes, fits that prescription. – Seth Tompkins

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: Carolina Eyck’s Fantasias for Theremin and String Quartet

by Maggie Molloy

If you thought the theremin was only for corny sci-fi film soundtracks and intergalactic sound effects, think again. It may be October, but the theremin makes (electromagnetic) waves all year round.
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Just ask Carolina Eyck, one of the world’s foremost theremin virtuosi—in fact, she quite literally wrote the book on it. For the past decade, her performances in classical and contemporary music around the world have helped promote the instrument and build its repertoire.

For Eyck’s latest project, she composed and recorded Fantasias for Theremin and String Quartet: an entire album of works highlighting the theremin’s unique capacity for improvisation and imagination. Oh, and she didn’t collaborate with just any old string players, either: the album features American Contemporary Music Ensemble (ACME) members Caroline Shaw and Ben Russell on violins, Caleb Burhans on viola, and Clarice Jensen on cello.

Conceptually, the album was inspired by Eyck’s vivid childhood memories of the woods of Northern Germany where she grew up. In keeping with the whimsical, free-spirited explorations of childhood, Eyck composed the Fantasias for the 12” vinyl LP format—meaning that all performances were recorded in full takes with no editing. The string players tracked the scores first, and then Eyck overdubbed her deft, fluid, single-take improvisations—hence the title Fantasias.

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The result is an organic virtuosity that leads the listener through the hazy and nostalgic soundscapes of Northern Germany, each piece an open window into Eyck’s imagination. And to add another layer of whimsy, the titles for each piece were devised by Eyck and the album’s producer, Allen Farmelo, by scanning multiple Scandinavian languages for pleasing lingual combinations.

The album begins with “Oakunar Lynntuja (Strange Birds),” Eyck’s nimble hands flittering up and down the theremin’s two antennas to produce the sound of metallic birds chirping amidst a forest of angular strings.

“Leyohmi (Luminescence)” shows a very different side of the instrument: Eyck’s patient fingers pull thoughtful whispers from the theremin, its gentle voice shimmering softly among luminous harmonics. Alternative bowing techniques blur the line between the theremin and strings, immersing the listener in a glistening and ethereal soundscape.

Then, as if having drifted into a fairy tale, “Nukkuva Luohla (Sleepy Dragon)” picks up with a sputtering sparkle of strings. A snarling theremin grumbles across its lowest registers like a drowsy dragon tossing and turning—and the strings flicker about like sparks from its snoring breath.

The strings swell and tumble like waves in the next fantasy, “Metsa Happa (Jumping River).” Eyck’s theremin melodies playfully hop in and out of the rolling river, soaring high above the waves and diving deep beneath their iridescent surface.

Another idyllic forest scene inspires “Dappa Solarjos (Dappled Sunlight).” Wavering string arpeggios imitate the forest of mottled leaves, with Eyck’s theremin painting the full spectrum of sunlight: light and dark, daytime and dusk.

The album closes with a more abstracted fantasia: “Nousta-Needad (Ascent-Descent).” A staggered string backdrop sets the stage for Eyck’s theremin as it hums quietly up and down from its highest, airiest registers to its lowest, earthiest grumbles—at times even crossing the realm into a distinctly humanlike voice.

It’s incredible that an instrument played with no physical contact by the performer could ever sound so human—that music once confined solely to intergalactic sound effects could ever be so intimate. These fantasias are proof of Eyck’s profound understanding of her instrument and, perhaps even more inspiring, her playful and imaginative musical voice.

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ALBUM REVIEW: Max Richter’s “From Sleep”

by Rachele Hales

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From Sleep is an offshoot of Richter’s durational album Sleep, which clocks in at 8 hours – about the amount of sleeping time scientists recommend for adults.  While Sleep is intended as “a personal lullaby for a frenetic world” and meant to be listened while one is counting sheep and through the duration of the sleep cycle, From Sleep is a more modest 60-minute ambient daydream.  It’s a warm blanket of hazy, cozy sound.  Richter calls it his “manifesto for a slower pace of existence.”  The two albums share a common landscape, but with a much shorter run-time From Sleep is less of a political statement.

The album contains seven selections that sound different enough to be their own pieces but flow seamlessly together, enough so that it’s difficult to tell when one piece has ended and the next begins.  Richter has composed a delicate musical cocoon with no sharp edges.   From Sleep opens with “Dream 3 (In the Midst of My Life).”  The gentle, pulsing piano feels like a lone boat bobbing up and down in a vast ocean.  The vaguely aqueous feel continues into the next selection, “Path 5 (Delta),” which offers up synthesized vocals from soprano Grace Davidson that sound like they could have been recorded underwater.  As the song goes on her voice even begins to sound less human and more like a beautiful, sorrowful, looping whale song.

“Space 11 (Invisible Pages Over)” is a simple drone that serves as a bridge to “Dream 13 (Minus Even),” where we are again treated to Richter’s tranquil piano.  This time the piano is less pulsing and more like a lullaby with the cello taking its time to join in like a tranquil foghorn.  The fog begins to lift at about the halfway mark and you can almost feel the warm sun dappling the aural scenery.

The looping structure of the album mirrors the looping within the songs as we move from “Dream 13 (Minus Even)” to another bridging drone (“Space 21 (Petrichor)”), to more slow, precious, circular piano in “Path 19 (Yet Frailest)”, and finally return in “Dream 8 (Late & Soon)” to silky strings, moody organ, and Davidson’s lamenting vocals floating in and out like a zephyr.

Given its graceful serenity, From Sleep could be used as ambient background music for students, a meditative companion for yogis, or the soundtrack to a relaxing evening walk.  And yes, you can also use it as a sleep aid.  Hit play on this dulcet album in any situation where the end goal is to relax, open up the mind, and disengage from the busy whirring of everyday life.

ALBUM OF THE WEEK: Ryan Streber’s “Concentric”

By Maggie Molloy

Ryan Streber

Math and music have always been intertwined. In fact, numbers pervade nearly every aspect of music—form, rhythm, meter, even intervals. But while mathematical studies such as arithmetic and algebra have often been linked with music, few composers have explored the relationship of music to geometry.

New York-based composer and audio engineer Ryan Streber is changing that.

In Streber’s new album, he experiments with a unique geometrical concept as it relates to music: concentricity. The album, titled “Concentric,” explores ideas of shape and symmetry through sound.

“The intimation through musical time of such a non-temporal idea as concentricity is something that fascinates me, as is the way in which a piece can simultaneously tell a linear narrative while still invoking a cyclical or center-oriented continuity,” Streber said. “In their own ways, all of the works on this album engage in this interplay.”

[Buy the album here!]

Each piece is inspired in some way by notions of concentricity, whether through symmetrical musical forms, experimentation with visual and spatial orientation (both in performance and in the stereo field), or the permutational patterns of pitch and rhythm structures used.

Streber studied composition with Milton Babbitt at Julliard, as evidenced in the modernist and experimental aspects of his work. However, he avoids characterizing his music as belonging to any particular aesthetic school, instead focusing on exploring his own musical voice by creating compositions which engage the listener in multiple ways.

Streber’s commitment to new and innovative music is further exemplified in his recording studio, Oktaven Audio. He is the engineer and owner of the studio, which specializes in classical, jazz, and acoustic music recording. In fact, Streber recorded, edited, mixed, and mastered “Concentric” himself at Oktaven.

He also enlisted the help of a few local friends in order to bring his musical vision to life. These include his close colleagues and collaborators, the New York-based ensembles counter)induction, Line C3 Percussion Quartet, and musicians of ACME and ICE, all of whom are featured as performers on the album.

The album begins with Streber’s single-movement String Quartet performed by counter)induction. The piece begins with snarling string melodies creating a dramatic and restless musical atmosphere. This tension eventually gives way to a slow and intimate middle section, which features a delicate violin melody flowing sweetly over a variety of quasi-improvised string backdrops. The music then returns to the drama and tension of the beginning, thus framing the middle section and creating a concentric musical form.

Concentricity takes on both a physical and visual form in “Cold Pastoral,” a much more ambient and translucent piece performed by Line C3 Percussion Quartet.  The piece is performed with all four musicians oriented symmetrically around a small collection of shared instruments. Each note lingers in the air long after it is played, expanding outward from the concentric circle in a series of widening sound waves.

Streber switches gears in “Compassinges,” where he explores the unique instrumentation of electric guitar, violin, viola, cello, percussion, and voice. The piece features a short song setting of A. R. Ammons’ poem, “Love Song (I).” The vocal part is an ethereal melody drifting in and out of the musical forefront, often hiding just behind the electroacoustic accompaniment. Short melodic motifs from each instrument encircle the delicate vocal part, creating a constantly shifting musical texture.

Streber’s three-movement “Dust Shelter” explores the rich timbral and textural possibilities of flute, viola, and cello. The first and third movements are an enchanting ebb and flow of different musical textures, with angular and aggressive motifs building in intensity and then flowing back to soft and peaceful melodies. The second movement features a gorgeously expressive viola cadenza, thus creating a delicate, intimate central movement framed by two bold and dynamic movements.

Streber’s “Concentric” succeeds in exploring a wide circumference of musical ideas and forms, but at its center, the album showcases his true commitment to following his own creative voice and expanding the boundaries of his musical language.