Staff Picks: Friday Faves

Second Inversion hosts share a favorite selection from their weekly playlist. Tune in on Friday, June 30 to hear these pieces and plenty of other new and unusual music from all corners of the classical genre!

Florent Ghys: “An Open Cage” (Cantaloupe Music)
Bang on a Can All-Stars

If you don’t have five hours to listen to John Cage’s sprawling, narrated sound art piece Diary: How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse), Florent Ghys’s “An Open Cage” offers a compelling (and surprisingly catchy) four-minute summary. In Ghys’s version, a solo pizzicato bass line dances within the rhythms of Cage’s calm and serene narration, painting his deadpan delivery with a funky groove and a distinctly contemporary color. The unconventional duet expands as the piece grows in musical force, gradually adding more and more instruments until finally a small chorus of voices appears, echoing Cage’s words:

“The avant-garde is flexibility of mind and it follows like day the night from not falling prey to government and education. Without avant-garde, nothing would get invented.”

 – Maggie Molloy

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 12pm hour today to hear this piece.


Anthony Barfield: Soliloquy (Albany Records)
Joseph Alessi, trombone; Stentorian Consort Quartet

Here at Second Inversion, I hear new music every single day. But sometimes, no matter how far you’ve traveled, you need to go home. So…I picked trombone music this week.  Anthony Barfield’s Soliloquy is a delightful and thoughtful piece. There is a lightness here that belies the seriousness of this piece’s genesis. Beyond the composition, the quality of the performance on this recording is exceptional. In case you’re wondering what good trombone playing sound like, this is it. – Seth Tompkins

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 3pm hour today to hear this piece.


Augusta Read Thomas: “Incantation” (MSR Classics)
Stephanie Sant’Ambrogio, viola

In 1995, Augusta Read Thomas wrote three iterations of “Incantation” for solo strings—violin, viola, and cello—as a tribute to her friend Cathryn Tait. Tait, battling cancer at the time, premiered the piece a few weeks before her death—a piece which celebrates her generosity of spirit with grace, richness, and elegance.

Stephanie Sant’Ambrogio’s solo viola performance of “Incantation” speaks with a distinctly eloquent, present, and meditative atmosphere. She moves through the short, five-minute work’s loose ABA form and concludes on a major seventh, unresolved, as though ending with a question. – Brendan Howe

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 4pm hour today to hear this piece.


Bright Sheng: Silent Temple II (Telarc Records)
Ying Quartet

I’ve always been a big fan of the pizzicato obbligato movement, which, in limiting all performing instruments to one motion (the plucking of strings), immediately achieves a unique character. Bright Sheng creates mystery with his pizzicato in Silent Temple II, evoking droplets of water, the creaking and cracking of old wood planks, or the rustling and knocking of bamboo. Or is it the plucked Chinese zither instrument, the guzheng, that we hear? In any case, he succeeds at evoking the stunning environment of his inspiration for the work, an abandoned Buddhist temple he visited in the 1970s in northwest China. Left empty and unattended at the height of Mao’s Cultural Revolution and falling into disrepair, it retained its quiet grandeur. In the case of the pizzicato here, only the smallest gestures of the quartet are necessary to paint a vivid picture. 
– Geoffrey Larson

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 8pm hour today to hear this piece.

ALBUM REVIEW: Bearthoven’s Trios

Photo by Jaime Boddorff.

by Seth Tompkins

Trios, the new release by New York City-based piano trio Bearthoven is a masterclass in eclecticism.  With this album, the trio, which consists of percussion (Matt Evans), piano (Karl Larson), and bass (Pat Swoboda), set out to create a collection that presents a sample of the more than 20 new works that Bearthoven has commissioned as well as to showcase music from composers with markedly different musical backgrounds.  Trios more than achieves these goals; the blend of sharply contrasting aesthetics and exceptional musicianship here yields a fascinating and joyful product that fuses exuberant eclecticism with top-quality performance.

Although each of the six pieces on Trios comes from quite different musical places, there is an overarching structure.  Broadly speaking, these selections fit into two groups: three of the six tracks are rhythm-forward, “post-minimalist” pieces, while the other three tend toward soundscape and abstraction.  Trios begins with one of the post-minimal compositions, and alternates between the two categories, ending with Adrian Knight’s peaceful and contemplative “The Ringing World.”

While Bearthoven identifies as a “piano trio,” their instrumentation (percussion, piano, and bass) is decidedly unusual.  This setup is common in other types of music (jazz, pop, etc.), but is largely unexplored as a vehicle for contemporary classical.  One other notable group that shares this interesting space is the all-acoustic ensemble Dawn of Midi, similarly composed up of drums, piano, and bass, and also based in New York City.  Both groups occupy similar inter-genre spaces.  However, their divergent raisons d’être result in musical outputs that are complementary and non-duplicative: while Dawn of Midi focuses on self-composed and improvised groove-based music that is influenced by global traditions, Bearthoven is oriented around collaboration with a diverse range of composers whose music tends strongly toward contemporary classical.

That is not to say that Bearthoven has an aversion to grooves, however.  In fact, the opening track, Brooks Frederickson’s “Undertoad,” and the second-to-last track, Brendon Randall-Myers’s “Simple Machine,” have collections of grooves that are both wantonly energetic and fascinating in their complex construction.  Bearthoven executes both enjoyably and with great attention to detail, which is typical for tracks on this release.

The more atmospheric pieces on Trios also showcase Bearthoven’s remarkable energy and outstanding musicality.  Especially in these tracks, the constant communication between the players is obvious.  On Knight’s “The Ringing World” and Fjóla Evans’ “Shoaling” particularly, the unity with which the trio executes (sometimes quite subtle) shifts of volume, intensity, and time is a triumph.  The responsiveness and individual mastery necessary to pull off that kind of seamless groupthink is rare and requires real dedication.

Diversity of repertoire, attention to detail, flexibility, and commitment to individual and ensemble excellence are Bearthoven’s strengths.  With these assets, Bearthoven has achieved a consistent ensemble sound that is apparent even in the face of broad eclecticism.  Based on Trios, Bearthoven is an ensemble that can be counted upon to deliver with poise, mastery, and style—and to produce new material that is both diverse and superlative.

Photo by Jaime Boddorff.

STAFF PICKS: Friday Faves

Second Inversion hosts share a favorite selection from their weekly playlist. Tune in on Friday, May 26 to hear these pieces and plenty of other new and unusual music from all corners of the classical genre!

David Lang: the national anthems III. fame and glory (Cantaloupe Music)
Calder Quartet and Los Angeles Master Chorale

A survey of national anthems from nations all over the world confronted composer David Lang with a startling reality: the texts of these songs are generally quite violent. It seems that in the course of expressing national pride through song, we tend to reflect on the bloody struggle of war that gave us the freedoms we now enjoy.

Lang put together a sort of “meta-anthem” text from the anthems of a few nations, and observed that “hiding in every national anthem is the recognition that we are insecure about our freedoms, that freedom is fragile, and delicate, and easy to lose.” His music for string quartet and chorus, titled the national anthems in purposeful lower-case, exudes this unsettled feeling of insecurity.

“Fame and glory” has a lot of counterpoint and imitation, seemingly creating a dialogue within the chorus that is mindful of the past and its relationship with the present. It’s not overtly political music, but it is incredibly sensitive, contemplative, and hopeful. Lang has successfully achieved a sort of extra-mindfulness in his setting of this pieced-together text, a fascinating reflection on and transformation of the one-sided militarism of national anthems. – Geoffrey Larson

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 11am hour today to hear this piece.


Toru Takemitsu: Toward the Sea
Michael Partington, guitar and Paul Taub, alto flute

Celebrated Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu breathes a meditative second life into the tale of Moby Dick with his three-section work, Toward the Sea. In the final section, entitled “Cape Cod,” Michael Partington’s guitar gently chops and forms the New England seascape while Paul Taub’s airy alto flute responds as Captain Ahab’s ship, the Pequod.

It is a beautifully haunting meditation paired with images of Cape Cod inspired by Melville’s novel. With these pieces, Takemitsu emphasizes the spiritual dimension of the book, quoting the passage, “meditation and water are wedded together.” He also said that “the music is an homage to the sea which creates all things, and a sketch for the sea of tonality.”

The composer wrote no bar lines and took a Cagian, aleatory approach to the work, in which performers are given more interpretive license. The flute’s primary melodic line derives from the spelling of “sea” in German musical notation – E♭-E-A – a motif which later became a favorite of Takemitsu’s. – Brendan Howe

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


Carolina Eyck: “Metsa Happa (Jumping River)” (Butterscotch Records)
Carolina Eyck and ACME

If you thought the theremin was only for corny sci-fi film soundtracks and intergalactic sound effects, think again. Carolina Eyck, one of the world’s foremost theremin virtuosi, has spent the past decade exploring and expanding the musical possibilities of this eerie electronic instrument.

Her album Fantasias for Theremin and String Quartet, recorded with members of ACME, takes the instrument out of the galaxies and into the woods of Northern Germany, with each piece inspired by her childhood memories of growing up there.

In keeping with the whimsical, free-spirited explorations of childhood, Eyck composed her Fantasias in full takes with zero editing. In “Metsa Happa (Jumping River),” theremin melodies playfully hop in and out of a rolling river of strings, soaring high above the waves and diving deep beneath their iridescent surface. – Maggie Molloy

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 3pm hour today to hear this piece.


Stevie Wonder: “Superstition” (arr. Kathy Halvorson)
Threeds Oboe Trio

Turns out you can replace a synthesizer and a clavinet with a few reed instruments and you still have a song that’s funky as hell. Threeds Oboe Trio’s cover of Stevie Wonder’s classic “Superstition” shows off impressive technical ability and a rebellious sense of humor. “Superstition” has a driving bassline provided by clarinet and, since it swings just as hard as the original, it will have you smiling and grooving and bebopping before the oboes even kick in. – Rachele Hales

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 7pm hour today to hear this piece.

STAFF PICKS: Friday Faves

Second Inversion hosts share a favorite selection from their weekly playlist. Tune in on Friday, May 12 to hear these pieces and plenty of other new and unusual music from all corners of the classical genre!

Missy Mazzoli: “Orizzonte” (Cantaloupe Music)
Performed by Lisa Moore

Missy Mazzoli’s “Orizzonte”—Italian for “horizon”—features gently undulating sine waves to create an audible landscape, over which pianist Lisa Moore plays a hypnotic line of understated landmarks.

During a residency at a squat in Amsterdam, the piano on which Mazzoli worked had been left to the elements for a year as part of an art installation, so some of the keys didn’t work. She wrote “Orizzonte” for that piano. The piece includes no bar lines, so the rhythm changes with each performance. It’s the perfect music for refocusing your mind as you watch power lines rise and fall through your car window. – Brendan Howe


Richard Carrick: “Sub-merge” (New World Records)
Performed by Richard Carrick with DZ4 Wind Quartet

Have you ever wondered what a wind quartet would sound like underwater? Richard Carrick did.

His two-part “Sub-merge” is written to sound like an ensemble under the ocean, illustrated through sinuous sonic distortions and contorted musical textures. Scored for winds and piano, at times you can actually hear the individual instruments being pushed and pulled away from one another in the currents, creating rich harmonies and microtonal echoes that sparkle like a sunken treasure.
 Maggie Molloy

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 12pm hour today to hear this piece.


Max Richter: Sleep: Path 5 (delta) (Deutsche Grammophon)

This Max Richter piece reminded me of the cravings for still, peace, and introspection which often seem to come as an involuntary reaction to prolonged stress and business.  In this track, I hear both the defensive, convalescent retreat and the hopeful, rejuvenating centering that come with sleep, often in the same night.  Taking in this small portion of the piece makes me want to investigate the larger (8 hours!) work, perhaps overnight.   Perhaps I should “sleep on it.” – Seth Tompkins

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 4pm hour today to hear this piece.


Allen Vizzutti: Snow Scenes for Trumpet and Orchestra (De Haske Records)
Performed with the Budapest Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Jan De Haan

Vibrant and jazzy, Allen Vizzutti’s Snow Scenes for Trumpet and Orchestra is another effortless performance by this master trumpeter. Vizzutti, who has performed on hundreds of motion picture soundtracks and TV shows (as well as with Sinatra, Streisand, Prince, and on and on…), is a bonafide savant when it comes to the trumpet. Don’t believe it? Let countless YouTube videos of Vizzutti performing while rotating the trumpet, or playing it upside down, or just teaching “trumpet clinics,” make the case.  His talent is stupefying.
Rachele Hales

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 6pm hour today to hear this piece.


Ellen Taaffe Zwilich: Memorial (Soundbrush Records)
Performed by the Canticum Novum Youth Choir

Here is a stunning work of music that cannot be ignored. Ellen Taafe Zwilich’s Memorial for the Victims of the Sandy Hook Massacre is scored for a regular SATB chorus that begins singing the Requiem aeternam text, and is then joined by a children’s choir with a heartbreaking task: reciting the names of the young victims of the school shooting.

Subject matter aside, the music is fascinatingly beautiful, with shifting colors and long, drawn-out suspensions. There is an enchanting interplay in the voices that only serves to heighten the power of Zwilich’s reaction to this tragedy, and makes this short work a must-hear.  – Geoffrey Larson

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 9pm hour today to hear this piece.

STAFF PICKS: Friday Faves

Second Inversion hosts share a favorite selection from their playlist. Tune in during the indicated hours below on Friday, February 3 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!

Glenn Kotche: Drumket Quartet No.51; So Percussion (Cantaloupe Music)

A few weeks ago, I decided to take a nice urban hike on a gorgeous, clear, sunny day here in Seattle. I didn’t feel like wasting any of that time in a car driving to a trail head, so I stayed local and used the power of my legs to circumvent Lake Union – a healthy handful of miles. I put my iPhone on shuffle and this piece came on in the mix. To me, it definitely has the tinkling sound of rain – which was no where in sight – but nonetheless set a perfect soundtrack for my walk. I enjoyed this piece so much that I put it on repeat and listened to it 3 times in a row because it’s just that good – Maggie Stapleton

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 11am hour today to hear this piece.


James Taylor: You Can Close Your Eyes (arr. Philip Lawson); The King’s Singers (Signum Classics)

James Taylor offered the world a peak into the gray area of a relationship when he wrote “You Can Close Your Eyes.”  The couple is stuck somewhere between a love ballad and a blues song as they remain in love but see the end edging nearer.  It’s a tricky tone for one man to negotiate, so how do the six men of The King’s Singers sound in their arrangement of this song?  Precise & layered with tight harmonies; it’s like a beautiful song woke up one morning and decided to put on its best crisp suit. – Rachele Hales

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 12pm hour today to hear this piece.


Philip Glass: Piano Étude No. 10; Bruce Levingston, piano (Sono Luminus)

Composed over the course of two decades, Philip Glass’s 20 Piano Études offer a fascinating retrospective of his musical progression—a rare chance to see his style grow and change through one single, controlled variable: the piano étude.

Pianist Bruce Levingston presents one in the exact middle: the dense and relentless No. 10. A friend and frequent collaborator of Glass, Levingston is quite at home amidst the cyclical harmonies and motoric rhythms, his fingers dancing nimbly through a kaleidoscopic soundscape of restless and repetitious motives. Suffice it to say: Glass’s Étude No. 10 is in very good hands. – Maggie Molloy

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


Charles Wuorinen: Big Spinoff; Alarm Will Sound

Charles Wuorinen’s Spinoff for violin, bass, and bongos of 1983 was a sort of ode to the harsh music of New York City: imagine if a violinist and bassist were having a chamber music rehearsal, and the sounds of their jamming wafted out the apartment window and mingled with the percussive physical sound of the city. Big Spinoff is essentially a spinoff of Spinoff, with a small chamber orchestra joining the musical fray. We get a lot of short, unison licks that propel the music forward and seem to capture the spirit of a chamber music rehearsal, which for some groups is more chaotic than others. At least Alarm Will Sound seems to be having a good time, and it’s a fun listen as well. I especially love the rapid-fire shifts of loud and soft music, an exciting contrast that is punctuated with toms and pounding piano. – Geoffrey Larson

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

STAFF PICKS: Friday Faves

Second Inversion hosts share a favorite selection from their playlist. Tune in during the indicated hours below on Friday, November 18 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!

Jacob Cooper: Silver Threads (Nonesuch)

st-front_finalThis piece is the opening song of a six-part cycle of the same title.  With text by 17th-century Japanese poet Bashō, this track is a good choice if you’re looking for a uplifting contemplative experience. Make sure your headphones or speakers can produce decent bass for this one; the sliding low tones make this piece come alive. – Seth Tompkins

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 11am hour today to hear this piece.


Robert Honstein: “Why are you not answering? I don’t wish to play games”
From RE: You (New Focus Recordings)

fcr146_cover-750x0Here’s a little 21st century love story for you:

Once upon a time, Boston-based composer Robert Honstein’s email address was erroneously paired with the online profile of one Midwestern, middle-aged Jeffrey K. Miller. As such, Robert was mistakenly cc’d on hundreds of private emails and unwittingly given a ringside seat at the romantic travails of a complete stranger.

Inspired, Robert decided to make an album of lyricless love songs titled RE: You using the email exchanges as its basis. The pieces, titled after unusual (and sometimes alarming) email subject lines, explore not so much love itself as the longing for love—those most intimate, most vulnerable, most profound moments of our humanity.

Performed with a mixed chamber ensemble of strings, winds, percussion, and piano, this album’s got all the ups, downs, butterflies, and backlashes of looking for love on the internet. We may be living in a digital age, but the universal yearning for love is just as palpable as ever. – Maggie Molloy

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 12pm hour today to hear a piece from this album.


Zubin Hensler: The Beach (Songlines Recordings) 

songlines-1617-2-440x440Oh, The Westerlies.  How do I love thee?  Let me count the ways: Willem, Andy, Zubin, Riley…  All four have a knack for taking common brass instruments and crafting uncommon brass music. In Zubin Hensler’s “The Beach,” trumpets and trombones create a sound more tender and poetic than the typical military/fanfare we’re used to hearing from brass. Here, the notes float in the air like seagulls and the warmth the performers exude makes the heart feel all good and mushy. Total sigh…

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


Michael Gordon: Timber (Hauschka Remix) (Cantaloupe Music)

ca21121_timber_remixed_frontComing off a long period of orchestral composition, Michael Gordon welcomed an opportunity to throw orchestration and pitch out the window when he composed Timber in 2009. Scored for six wooden simantras (a fancy word for 2x4s) cut at gradual lengths, the 60-minute original work has a simple beauty that can easily turn a hardware store into a performance venue.

Timber has been remixed into twelve vignettes by producers and DJs who incorporate some electronica, drones, and beats into Mantra Percussion’s studio recording. I’m excited to present Hauschka’s iteration, which goes so far as to incorporate prepared piano in the mix. If you like Timber but want a smaller dose, join Hauschka and the good company of Mira Calix, Greg Sanier, Johann Johannson and many more, on this beautifully re-imagined collection. – Maggie Stapleton

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 7pm hour today to hear this piece.

ALBUM REVIEW: Kronos Quartet and Aleksandra Vrebalov: The Sea Ranch Songs

by Geoffrey Larson

ca21122_kronos_quartet_sea_ranch_songs_frontIn Aleksandra Vrebalov’s The Sea Ranch Songs, the Kronos Quartet takes us on a tour of a special natural landscape that is breathtakingly beautiful and profoundly personal. The Sea Ranch, stretching for ten miles along the northern California coast, is an area defined both by stunning natural beauty and the carefully-planned developments that house its stewards, the Sea Ranch Association. Founded in 1965, the area recently celebrated its 50th anniversary as a community “dedicated to living, building, and interacting with its surroundings in harmonious and responsible ways.”

What an amazing subject for a piece of music! This album makes the fullest use of its subject matter, giving us both a sound recording and a DVD of an artistic film created by Andrew Lyndon set to the music. Vrebalov composed thirteen songs for Kronos Quartet, using audio of personal testimonials from permanent residents of Sea Ranch and those who have made the curation and development of this unique place their work. For my journey through this music, I chose the film, which uses scenes shot on location at the Sea Ranch and a small amount of stylized animation.

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All photos credit No Ordinary Resort.

The opening shot of a patch of grass with faraway sea sounds actually seems somewhat plain at the outset, but the frank depiction of this unremarkable part of the landscape scene soon makes sense. A heavily processed recording of the singing of First Nations people is the first form of music we hear, an homage to the Kashia-Pomo Indians that were Sea Ranch’s first residents. The entrance of the quartet is stark and imposing, and the video here is heavily edited, re-colored, and distorted, creating mystic images. As the video returns to its opening shot of grass, each blade seems to have taken on spiritual significance.

The second track, “Fort Ross Chorale,” provides immediate contrast and introduces us to the frontier-like architecture of the settlements. The chorale-like music seems honest and practical. In the third song, “Gratitude,” we hear the voices of Sea Ranch residents, speaking of the natural beauty and inspirational qualities of the landscape, with music from the quartet growing more romantic and swelling with pride and nostalgia. The fourth song’s pizzicato throughout is the perfect accompaniment to recordings of navigational coordinates being read, a sort of laundry list of figures describing the area’s features with scientific precision. Footage of a pristine white barn is the centerpiece for the video of “Numbers,” a musical quantification of the Sea Ranch settlement. Blueprints are the visual focus of the fifth song, “Ideas: Condominium One,” where an architect talks of unique designs for long-roofed, lean-to-like structures. Long notes and electrified sounds from the quartet reflect the designs and huge expanse of the Sea Ranch environment.

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The sixth through thirteenth songs reflect on the beauty and motion of the natural landscape, and the spiritual connection Sea Ranchers have with it. Swooping melodic slides in the Kronos violins in “Creatures” are accompanied by video of diving seabirds, and shots of wildlife interlocking with video of underwater fauna. Music with beautiful, open chordal textures plays against spiritual, stained-glass-like imagery in “Chapel, Rainbows,” where we see the sea and its wildlife through the lens of human religious constructs. The eighth song is perhaps the most pure fun to listen to: fast, minor music in the form of an aria and accompaniment set to video of crashing waves and flocks of birds constantly changing direction. The relentlessness of the melody and arpeggiated cello figures in this song, “Elements I,” seem to portray the motion of nature, both free and monotonous. In “Starry Night,” we hear the pitter-patter of ponticello ricochet with twinkling imagery of the night sky. The contemporary-sounding techniques are fascinating here, and mix with electronics to portray the vast expanse of a cosmic light show.

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Lyrical music full of counterpoint tells the story of hard work and tired hands in “Ideas: Barn Fugue,” with accompanying testimonials of Sea Ranch barn-builders. An actual recording of coyotes is the arresting sound of “Spirit II,” with a lonely, reverberant piano sound portraying the emptiness of the night. The violin solo that opens the twelfth song, “Elements II,” is expressive and virtuosic, adorned with double stops and sweeping melody. It precedes a chaotic duet, trio, then quartet, with imagery of frothing water and crashing waves. Vrebalov saves the most heartfelt music for the final song, which begins on a pastoral drone against a static shot of the sunset over crashing waves. The music of “Gratitude, Coda” embodies the calmness and fullness of the feelings related in testimonials by Sea Ranch residents, detailing joyous childhood memories and descriptions of their harmonious relationship with nature. There is so much contained in that static shot, and so much about this final music that is profoundly comforting. The virtuosic frenzy of rising figuration that ends the songs in a flourish of leaping water is a complete surprise. That final flourish might be a shock, but it seems to sum up the great musical depth and ability of the vessel for our journey, the fantastic Kronos Quartet, who have created yet another special musical offering of tremendous scope and ambition in collaboration with Aleksandra Verbalov and Andrew Lyndon.