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: “Discreet Music” by Brian Eno

by Maggie Molloy

Editor’s Note: Brian Eno was a longtime friend and collaborator of the late David Bowie, who died this weekend after an 18-month battle with cancer. As we mourn the loss of this talented artist and creative visionary, we find comfort in knowing that his bold vision, fierce courage, and revolutionary music live on in the lives and art of his family, friends, fans, and collaborators. Bowie’s immeasurable contributions to the world of music extend far past the confines of rock, glam, pop, or classical genres, reminding us that when it comes to art, the sky is the limit—and a creative spirit like his belongs right up alongside the stars. Rest in peace, David Bowie.

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Brian Eno, courtesy Warp Records

In this day and age, we tend to take music for granted. It’s always playing in the background, whether it’s in on the radio, in the car, around the house, in a movie, or—if you’re really old-school—on your vintage record player. But before technology made it possible for us to stream music wherever we are at all hours of the day and night, the notion of “background music” as we now know it simply didn’t exist.

It wasn’t until 1917 when the French composer and iconoclast Erik Satie first coined the term “furniture music”—that is, music played in the background while listeners engaged in other activities. He wrote many pieces which were meant to be just another piece of furniture in the room—each comprised of interesting colors and textures, pleasing to the ear but not intended to capture one’s full attention.

And in 1975, the British ambient music composer Brian Eno took this notion of furniture music one step further, creating something even more ambient, ethereal and—well, discreet.

Thus was born “Discreet Music,” Eno’s 30-minute ambient music masterpiece: a gentle immersion into the slow, warm sound waves of an EMS synthesizer. The inspiration for the piece came to him when he was left bedridden in the hospital by a car accident. An album of 18th-century harp music was playing in his hospital room with the volume turned down toward the threshold of inaudibility—but he lacked the strength to get out of bed and turn it up.

“This presented what was for me a new way of hearing music,” Eno said, “As part of the ambience of the environment just as the color of the light and the sound of the rain were parts of that ambience.”

And now, another 40 years later, Toronto’s classical Contact ensemble has created a modern arrangement of Eno’s original “Discreet Music” for acoustic and electric instruments. Arranged by Contact’s artistic director and percussionist Jerry Pergolesi, the new recording is scored for violin, cello, soprano saxophone, guitar, double bass, vibraphone, piano, flute, and gongs.

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Aside from the expansion of musical instruments, Contact’s version of “Discreet Music” also expands the length of the piece. Contact’s performance is one hour long, so as to fill an entire CD—just as Eno’s original was 30 minutes long, so as to fill one side of a vinyl album.

And no, Contact did not just place a giant repeat sign at the end of Eno’s original score. “Discreet Music” was originally written as an experiment into generative composition: a type of self-organizing music created within compositional parameters predetermined by the composer. Such systems create pieces that could theoretically go on forever—static, ongoing musical material which never repeats exactly the same way twice.

In other words, it is music of process, not product.

In Eno’s original, he wrote two simple melodic lines and then hooked his synth up to a tape delay system that allowed the melodies to transform and evolve with very little input on his part. In Contact’s version, the band itself is the looping apparatus.

It may sound complicated, but the result is really quite simple: ambient, meditative music that’s best listened to while doing something else.

Contact’s recording was completed in one take, in keeping with the spirit of the original—allowing the music to organize itself. The recording is divided into seven parts which blend seamlessly into one another, with the textural details blossoming and transforming ever so slowly across the full 60 minutes.

The result is a mild and melancholy meditation into the process of music-making—a willingness to sit quietly and listen to one’s own surroundings as they merge and coalesce in ever-changing ways.

“We concluded that music didn’t have to have rhythms, melodies, harmonies, structures, even notes, that it didn’t have to involve instruments, musicians and special venues,” Eno once wrote of the mid-20th century movement toward more experimental ways of writing music. “It was accepted that music was not something intrinsic to certain arrangements of things—to certain ways of organizing sounds—but was actually a process of apprehending that we, as listeners, could choose to conduct.”

And in that regard, Contact offers a fresh reinterpretation of the work, following the systems set in place by Eno while also expanding the music melodically, texturally, and timbrally.

“If there is a lasting message from experimental music,” Eno wrote, “It’s this: music is something your mind does.”

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.

So in the end, maybe “Discreet Music” really is just another piece of furniture in the room—but wow, what an incredible piece of furniture.

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ALBUM REVIEW: Madeleine Cocolas’ Cascadia

by Maggie Molloy

Creating and recording a new musical composition in just one week is no easy feat. But that’s precisely what Seattle-based composer and sound artist Madeleine Cocolas did—every week for an entire year.

Week+29+photo The “Fifty-Two Weeks” project began when the Australian musician first moved to Seattle with her husband a few years ago. After settling into her new home, Cocolas challenged herself to write a new piece of music every week for 52 weeks and post it to her SoundCloud.

The result was a series of 52 pieces wrapped up into a year-long blog chronicling her artwork, her travels, her successes, her struggles, and above all, her music. To call it ambitious would be an understatement—the project is downright massive in scope. It’s got minimalist piano musings, dreamy and ethereal vocal soundscapes, melodicas and found sounds, glitches and glitter. It’s got recorded kitchen clatter, toy accordions, and tape cassettes. It’s got vintage radio clips, Capitol Hill street art, a dash of Christmas whimsy and yes, even a healthy dose of cat photos.

But perhaps what’s most inspiring about Cocolas’s project is the authenticity behind each composition. There are good weeks, bad weeks, silly weeks, serious weeks, and even a few delirious weeks. There are some missed deadlines, a couple of do-overs, and the occasional rut—but that’s what makes the project honest and relatable. Her willingness to experiment, to push herself creatively, and to get outside her comfort zone are what makes the series so candid, authentic, and genuine. Each piece is a part of the journey—warts and all.

Last year Cocolas took over the Second Inversion airwaves to share a bit more about her 52-week process and some of her favorite pieces—and this year, she’s revisited the project with her new debut album titled “Cascadia.”

“A big part of ‘Fifty-Two Weeks’ was to explore and better define my compositional style,” Cocolas said. “And to me, ‘Cascadia’ best represents my ‘Fifty-Two Weeks’ project and current compositional style.”

The album is a refinement of material produced for her “Fifty-Two Weeks” project, along with a couple of brand new tracks. The result is a beautifully amorphous blend of ambient, experimental, electronic, and contemporary classical sound worlds with plenty of Pacific Northwest whimsy.

“Living in Seattle and the Pacific Northwest for the past three and a half years has influenced my music immeasurably,” Cocolas said, “And I feel like the music on ‘Cascadia’ and my ‘Fifty-Two Weeks’ project is a direct response and reaction to my surroundings here.”

The album begins with an oceanic dream: “The Sea Beneath Me.” Composed after the completion of her “Fifty-Two Weeks” project, this piece was the result of a collaboration with Australian textile artist Monique Van Nieuwland on her exhibition “Ocean Forest.” Van Nieuwland recorded herself weaving, and Cocolas reworked the recordings into an entire oceanscape of sounds which went on to become the basis for “The Sea Beneath Me.” Ethereal vocals float along the waves to create a shimmering seascape, immersing the listener in its vast expanse and its softly pulsing echoes. Nostalgic and melancholy, each wave is a work of art.

“Moments of Distraction” takes the listener out of the ocean and into the clouds with its whimsical and weightless piano melodies circling above a minimalist electronic backdrop. “I Can See You Whisper” layers twinkling piano melodies atop ambient textures and subtle strings, while “Sometimes I Can’t Hear You” crafts its own minimalist sound world out of layered piano motives and textured echoes.

A warm and ethereal new realm comes to life in “When I Knew I Loved You,” with airy vocals floating above ambient piano and toy accordion—it’s like the aural equivalent of having butterflies in your stomach.

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Cocolas takes her electronic exploration to new sonic spaces in “Echoes,” an ethereal sound sculpture of vibration and reverb. Then her dreamy, washed-out vocals float through “If Wisdom Fails,” a lullaby brimming with tenderness and warmth.

“Static” shifts through dissonant piano melodies atop a textured drone, and the album comes to a close with a sweet and sincere solo piano piece: “If You Hear Me, I Hear You Back.” Cocolas’s tender piano melodies drift gracefully through the surrounding silence, accompanied by nothing but the vintage sounds of a tape recorder.

Simple yet powerfully poignant, it serves as a reminder of the humble beginnings from which this panoramic album was born. After all, with just “Fifty-Two Weeks” and a little imagination, Cocolas was able to create a musical map of Cascadia in all it’s sparkling and mystical splendor.

SNEAK PEEK AUDIO LEAK: Pale Ground by Andrew V. Phillips and Jon Buckland

by Maggie Stapleton

Second Inversion presents new and unusual music from all corners of the classical genre… and we mean NEW. Sneak Peek Audio Leak is your chance to stream fresh sounds and brand new music of note with insights from our team and the artists.

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Imagine you’re here. It’s the largest and northernmost region of Finland, known as Lapland. Only 3.4% of Finland’s population lives here and the population has been declining for the last 25 years. Peaceful, serene, remote.

Now imagine you’re here recording an album in a remote cabin for one week only. Start to finish, Jon Buckland and Andrew V. Phillips had this very experience, and the fruit that bore is Pale Ground. They had no formal, thematic, or stylistic plans, but rather set with intentions to reflect and react upon the landscape, the vastness, the distance, and their emotions that came with it.

(Streaming through Second Inversion’s SoundCloud has closed, but you can stream and purchase via Bandcamp!)

Beginning with “Close In,” Buckland and Phillips perfectly depict the snowy landscape, the Pale Ground, in all its expanse. Slowly unfolding harmonic and melodic ideas strike feelings of contemplation, longing, and searching. A sparkle, the sound of a sleigh bell, emerges amidst the grey backdrop. It’s a subtle nod to the season, and to hopefulness of finding one’s way through the never ending landscape.

Bell-like tones ring throughout “Nautical Twilight,” evoking twinkling stars and a dreamlike state. By the end, it gives way to a demon, emerging at first with gentle persistence. This “night terror” fights with intensity, but only for a brief two minutes, through “The Machine,” and releases its tension into “Skull Beneath The Skin.” By this point, the album has established an ebb and flow that keeps this listener on her the edge of her seat to hear what unfolds next.

After one week, I don’t know if I’d have cabin fever or would want to stay there forever, but I’m glad to have been transported there for 30 minutes with this music. Whether your day-to-day surroundings are vast or compact, I encourage you to immerse yourself in the simulation of space by way of Pale Ground and travel to this virtual winter wonderland of mystery, discovery, and hope.