Concert Preview: Orchestra ROCKS On Stage with KING FM

by Maggie Molloy

Photo by Jason Tang

Rock out with Second Inversion this weekend at our next On Stage with Classical KING FM concert: a rock ‘n’ roll reprise of the Seattle Rock Orchestra Quintet performing with the mesmerizing Tamara Power-Drutis!

Back by popular demand after a rousing concert last season, the band is back to transform popular song into art song, performing a program that reimagines both classic and modern songs as intimate and emotional chamber works born for the recital hall.

So how about a preview? Watch our exclusive videos below of the band performing works last year by Radiohead, Beck, and Jeremy Enigk:

Radiohead (arr. Scott Teske): Nude 

Beck (arr. Bischoff/Teske): Do We? We Do.

Jeremy Enigk (arr. Scott Teske): Ballroom

Plus, listen to the rest of last year’s setlist on-demand below:


Second Inversion presents the Seattle Rock Orchestra Quintet with Tamara Power-Drutis this Saturday, April 15 at 7:30pm at Resonance at SOMA Towers in Bellevue. Click here for tickets.

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.

Women in (New) Music: 10 Feminist Works by Women Composers

by Maggie Molloy

The Womxn’s March made history on January 21, bringing together over 4.9 million activists across all seven continents in an unprecedented show of solidarity, strength, and resistance.

The march was the largest single-day protest in U.S. history—but it extended far beyond U.S. borders. A total of 673 marches took place in 82 countries across the globe, and in Seattle alone an estimated 175,000 people showed up and marched for women’s rights.

January 21 was an uplifting and empowering day: a palpable reminder that we are, quite literally, surrounded by strong, capable, inspiring, and unapologetically forward-thinking womxn and allies.

Photo by Shaya Lyon.

But the work is only just beginning.

As we press forward into a challenging new era, we’re going to need to fight every day for justice, for human rights, for dignity, respect, and peace—and we’re going to need some pretty extraordinary music to keep us inspired.

We can’t have Womxn’s Marches every day, but we can make a conscious effort each day to seek out and support artists, musicians, and activists who engage our hearts, minds, and ears with thought-provoking and empowering art.

Allow us to give you a head start on your 2017 resistance playlist with these 10 feminist anthems by female composers:

1. Ethel Smyth – The March of the Women

Equal parts classical hymn and battle cry, a century ago Ethel Smyth’s March of the Women became the anthem of the Women’s Social and Political Union and, more broadly, the women’s suffrage movement in the U.K. and beyond.


2. Ruth Crawford Seeger: String Quartet

Being a woman writing music in the early 20th century was an act of feminism in itself. In the 1920s, a critic at one performances remarked with surprise that Ruth Crawford Seeger could “sling dissonances like a man”—because, you know, what could a woman possibly know about discord?


3. Pauline Oliveros – Bye Bye Butterfly

Pauline Oliveros puts a radically feminist spin on Puccini’s politically problematic Madama Butterfly in this 20th century tape delay reconstruction. The resulting mix bids farewell, as Oliveros wrote, “not only to the music of the 19th century but also to the system of polite morality of that age and its attendant institutionalized oppression of the female sex.”


4. Meredith Monk – Education of the Girlchild

Benjamin Button meets feminist deconstruction in this interdisciplinary (and unapologetically avant-garde) one-woman opera which traces the life of a woman in reverse from old age to childhood.


5. Joan Tower – Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman

A cheeky response to Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man, Joan Tower’s fanfare is a bolder, brassier celebration of the women who are risk-takers and adventurers—women, for instance, with the courage to create music and fight for change in a male-dominated fields.


6. Laura Kaminsky – As One

Composed for two voices, As One tells the immensely powerful tale of one transgender woman’s journey to self-discovery—celebrating trans and queer voices that are far too often silenced in the classical music sphere.


7. Matana Roberts – Coin Coin

Massive in scope, Matana Roberts’ multi-chapter one-woman masterwork stands the intersection of feminism and African-American identity, exploring the diverse trajectories of the African diaspora through a panoramic sound quilt of wailing saxophones, spoken word, field recordings, loop and effects pedals, and more.


8. My Brightest Diamond – This is My Hand

Chamber pop powerhouse Shara Nova sings an anthem of self-love and bodily autonomy— because hand, heart, mind, and voice: our bodies are our choice.


9. Miya Masaoka – Survival

Written as a reaction against the U.S. internment of her own mother (along with 120,000 other Japanese immigrants) during World War II, second generation Japanese-American composer Miya Masaoka weaves a tale of resistance and resilience through angular strings, furious rhythms, and fearless resolve.


10. Angelique Poteat – Listen to the Girls

In a world where young women are constantly being told how to act, dress, and live, Angelique Poteat had a novel idea: what if we ask the girls what they want? The resulting piece for girlchoir and orchestra offers teenage girls a chance to sing their own words—and reminds us, as audience members, to listen.

Women in (New) Music: Women, Creativity, and the Classroom

by Kaley Lane Eaton

Well, here we are. It is 2016, and 14 of the top US orchestras have programmed zero works by female composers in the 2016-2017 season. The U.S. presidential election has exposed various unsettling realities that women experience on a daily basis, much of which is particularly relatable for women in leadership positions in male-dominated fields.

As a female composer working towards my DMA in composition, after spending years entrenched in feminist liberal arts colleges and female-dominated opera programs, it is easy to get discouraged about the state of women; indeed, recent studies have shown that gender imbalance in favor of men can actually contribute to health problems for women in those fields. But the imbalance in our field need not be permanent.

In 2013, as part of my Master’s thesis, I conducted a study titled “Women, Creativity, and the Classroom” with the goal of highlighting how women versus men are conditioned to experience their creativity in the music classroom. As my study found (and additional research supports), gender imbalance in creative leadership roles is rooted in K-12 classrooms across America.

The lack of women in our music education paradigm is rooted in the lack of presence of women in the actual world of music. The popular new music blog NewMusicBox conducted an informal study of progressive chamber ensembles that focus on performing the work of recent and living composers, calculating the percentages of their season repertoire composed by women:

Both interpretations of these pie charts are troubling: that women have written only an average of 16% of all existing new music, or that these ensembles are deliberately selecting such a small percentage of actual existing repertoire.

These numbers reflect the kind of education that girls and women receive in school and higher education: A History of Western Music by Grout and Palisca, the standard music history text used in most institutions, includes only eight mentions of women as composers in its 1136 pages. Consistently, only 15.8% of doctorates awarded in music composition and theory go to women.

Despite the wealth of research that points to a universal (although with variation) aptitude for creativity among children, there is a gap in research that examines how each gender navigates creativity in differing social circumstances. Carol Gilligan’s groundbreaking work illuminates the fact that pubescent girls deal with dissociation, a psychological phenomenon where one questions the validity of experience and hesitates to express experiences authentically.

Gilligan notes, “If [girls] speak freely and reveal what they see and hear and know through experience, they are in danger of losing their relationships.” If we assume this truth, then young girls feel their relationships are at risk when they express their authentic selves, which distances them from the desire to pursue creative and expressive work. This was the concept I attempted to unearth in my research, and my findings prove dissociation is well at work within the minds of our young girls.


Methods Phase I: Surveys

I undertook a variety of methods to collect data from two 6th grade drumming classes and two 9th and 10th grade (combined) choir classes: during the initial phase, I administered a detailed survey in which I asked students to rank their feelings towards, enjoyment of, and beliefs about their creative activity. Students had the opportunity to justify their numerical rankings with written responses, which most chose to do – these responses heavily impacted my conclusions. On the same survey, I also asked these students to list their musical role models.

Below is a selection of questions and their results, visualized into a graph. A “5” on the answering scale indicates strong agreement, and a “1” indicates strong disagreement.

To read the full study, which featured a series of six questions, please click here.

Survey Question: I feel comfortable taking risks in improvisation and composition activities.

6th Grade Responses
6th-grade-first-question

9th/10tGrade Responses
9th-grade-first-question

Findings:

  • All girls who answered with 2 or 3 indicated a fear of making a mistake, being laughed at, or cited their lack of experience with music. Their responses showed high social awareness: “my peers will think,” “they will laugh,” etc.
  • High school girls indicated that mistakes were a major component of the activity: those that answered 4 and 5 had justifications like “I might mess up but I know it’s ok,” and those that answered low cited reasons such as “I make too many mistakes.” As our improvisation activity had no possible “mistakes,” the girls were allowing a fabricated idea of the “mistake” to inform their comfort level.
  • Many girls of all scoring levels indicated they were low in self-esteem and therefore did not feel comfortable taking risks.
  • By contrast, 6th grade boys answered with only 4s and 5s – showing strong confidence in risk-taking. These boys explained that improvising and risk-taking were enjoyable regardless of circumstance, and not a single boy used any vocabulary relating to the opinion of their peers.
  • High school boys indicated confidence was related to skill – “It’s fun because I am good at it.”
  • Not a single survey from a high school boy used the word “mistake” or any of its synonyms. One survey did say rather poignantly, “No risk and no consequence to improvisation.”

Questions in the survey phrased using “I believe” were designed to assess students’ levels of self-esteem and self-confidence in their creative ability. Self-esteem and self-confidence are not accurate predictors of actual talent and creativity in either men or women from childhood to adulthood, with men typically showing inflated confidence and women showing low self-esteem. My findings support that; these questions showed great gender and age disparity.

Survey Question: I believe I have leadership skills in music.

6th Grade Responses
question-2-6th-grade

9th/10th Grade Responses
9th-grade-second-questionFindings:

  • This question showed not only the greatest gender disparity in both ages, but also the greatest change from 6th grade to high school. Genders answered in nearly opposite percentages in all grades.
  • Comments that students left on surveys display the same trends that the other questions indicate – where boys viewed leadership as an expression of individual power, girls viewed leadership as a construction primarily in place to help others. Girls were careful not to justify their high scores with self-praise but rather with acknowledgement of group needs.
  • Girls that cited strong or neutral attitudes towards leadership skills in both 6th grade and high school were unanimous in their view of leadership as a role that is in place to help others, rationalizing their scores with statements such as “I work well with groups,” “Students tend to ask me for help,” “I want to encourage others,” and  “I’m not the best but I want to help others.” Responses such as these reflect the tendency for girls of all ages to divert positive attention away from themselves and attribute it to outside forces.
  • Boys showed waning confidence with age in their responses to this question as well, but also illuminated their conception of leadership as fundamentally different from the girls’ conception: leadership was a mark of success, of individual power and talent – not a role primarily concerned with helping others.
  • Boys in all grades cited achievement, confidence and skill (or lack thereof) as a means of justifying their leadership scores. Those that answered low said they were “not a leader”, “not comfortable”,  “just started with music” or “didn’t play an instrument” and those that answered highly said “I play in a band”, “I’m great at music”, “I love music,” “music is my strength,” and “I’ve led musical groups before.”
  • This is important to contrast with the high school girls’ answers – boys felt that their passion and their strength was enough to qualify them as a leader, whereas girls unanimously cited nomination from their peers as the primary reason for pursuing leadership.

Overall, these responses illuminate the central problems that divide our genders from childhood throughout adulthood: society places more pressure on women to be a certain “way,” whatever that “way” may be. In 6th grade, girls begin to display awareness of society’s pressures: that in order to succeed, they must fit someone else’s definition of who they are. Because creativity and identity are intricately intertwined, this inhibits the development of their creative life. Boys, however, respond to different pressures and display less fear of failure. The pressures of masculinity that so shape their adolescent life predispose them to risk-taking in order to be accepted by male peers. Creativity is simply another form of risk-taking, and the likelihood that boys will face societal rejection upon taking creative risks is much smaller.  


Methods Phase II: Expressing their experiences

During the second phase, I designed an improvisation activity for 6th grade students and asked them to write, draw, or somehow represent on paper their experience during the improvisation activity. Following the written activity, each student had the opportunity to share his or her experience with the class. I created two poems, one using the girls’ responses and one using the boys’, of which each line is a student-written response.

Girls
My mind was all over the place.
They might think I’m crazy.
I felt like my mind was an unknown puzzle trying to find the right pieces, the pieces were my peers, community.
What would work with the other person?
I was thinking about sounds that would sound really good or bad.
What I did sounded bad.
I felt like we were a community.
I was nervous that if I messed up maybe some people would laugh at me.
We are a community.
With each beat came harmony.
The rhythm didn’t come as planned, so I thought of something else.
I had nothing to be afraid of.
I stare at the window as I drum my new idea and try to tune in.
I am listening with the beats on my hand, their beats on my ears, and the drum in my heart.

Boys
My mind was blank.
In my own world with my own beat yet fully aware of the beats around me.
At first I didn’t know what to do but then I got into rhythm, it was really easy for me. I think I am nervous because it’s out of my comfort zone and I don’t really do music.
When I put my hand on a drum I can feel it lingering through my fingers.
I felt very musical and a little offbeat.
When we started the first improv I didn’t have a clue what to do. When we did the second I had a better idea.
A certain rush comes through me that I can’t explain, it feels like I could do anything I put my mind to.


Who will I be?: Musical Role Models

When I researched this same group of students’ musical role models, the results were harrowing:

  • Of the 27 artists mentioned by both 6th grade girls and boys, zero were female.
  • 50% of the 6th grade girls and 13% of 6th grade boys indicated they had no musical role models. 26.6% of high school girls and 17.6% of high school boys had no musical role models.
  • Comparing this data to the survey data, in which 6th grade girls answered with lower scores for each question across the board, there seems to be a correlation at this age between available role models and creative confidence.
  • 30 high school girls mentioned 46 artists, 20 of which were female. High school girls represented the most diverse stylistic tastes of all samples, with role models ranging from classical, pop, and classic rock to musical theatre.
  • Interestingly, this sample was the only group to mention family members as role models, with 4 of the 30 girls citing relatives as major musical influences. Four high school girls also mentioned their classroom music teacher – who is a woman – as a musical role model.
  • In stark contrast, the 18 high school boys surveyed mentioned 40 artists, only one of which was female. Only one high school boy mentioned family as an influence and only one mentioned the classroom music teacher.

The numbers are clear: young women and men do not have enough female musical role models. Perhaps most troubling is the fact that, of all the samples, only the high schools girls mentioned female artists as role models, and even then, at a lower rate than they mentioned male artists. In order for us to claim true equality in the way we educate our young musicians, both boys and girls should ideally be claiming comparable numbers of male and female role models.


What Can We Do?

The classical music world – especially the portion that contains new music, in which living composers are the vital presence – is a relatively small portion of society. There are few opportunities to have conversations about gender representation because the majority of white, male composers and conductors in leadership positions have rarely had to battle institutional barriers; thus the conversation of institutional barriers rarely makes the top of the agenda.

Further, in speaking with some of my composing colleagues and collecting survey data from adult, professional female composers and conductors, many women noted hostility between women in our field. Often, this is reported as conflict between women who celebrate their gender as an important factor of their art and women who refrain from explicitly speaking about it. Thus the gender conversation, in gender imbalanced situations, can range from inspiring, to awkward, to, unfortunately, silencing or even harassing, as reported in several surveys. The unpredictability of this kind of conversation based on past experiences, according to these same reports, often prevents women (and men) from bringing it up.

The best way we can improve the situation is to address the problem, and to think critically about the music that we consume, study, perform, and share. Music teachers must work tirelessly to develop their own curriculums that include equal representations of female and male composers and creative role models and refrain from using old textbooks that do not provide accurate representations of women and people of color. This is no easy task, as even the most dedicated of progressive teachers often fail to provide their students with fair numbers. It is, however, feasible. There is enough available published music for school music ensembles to be able to provide close to equal representation of female composers at school concerts.

Where possible, educators can incorporate composition into school curriculum to allow for student compositions to be presented in concert as well. Educators may also opt for an active role in the pursuit of equality by asking students to write letters to publishing companies and arts organizations that fail to provide decent representation of women.


Conclusions

Our music industry, in all its facets – from underground indie rock to classical music to corporate pop – reflects our societal attitude towards women: we are not creative agents, but targets of male visions. This mentality has permeated our school system, where the same dichotomy is enforced in the way that we allow our students to relate to one another socially and in the way that we, as teachers, encourage and reprimand them.

Behaviorally, we expect girls – from kindergarten to high school – to follow rules rather than question them. Every day, the patterns that our girls experience in school are reinforced by the patterns they see in women in the media. As girls age and become more aware of social roles and dynamics, they consequently begin to pigeonhole themselves as appeasers, as helpers, as bystanders. We heap the responsibility of perfect social order in the classroom on our girls rather than expecting equal contribution AND deviation from both genders. Girls of all ages should feel just as comfortable as boys to mess up, to break rules, to be punished – this is how we develop confidence, and this is how we break creative boundaries.

kaley-lane-eaton-with-studentsIn my data, it became clear that over time, girls associate creativity with deviation from the group, and boys associate creativity with individual success. What seems like a difference in vocabulary is representative of our society’s depressingly imbalanced attitude towards the role of women. What results from this imbalance is exactly what we have now: consistently misunderstood female public figures, and very few women in creative leadership roles. This, in turn, reinforces the vicious cycle: in this world, there are few creative female role models and, most importantly, new, relevant art is not being created to its full capacity.

Can our world progress in equality, in empathy, in opportunity for all, if this is the dominant paradigm? My answer is yes: it is in the hands of artists and educators, who are thankfully and wonderfully radical in what they do, to chip away at this paradigm.

Every initiative made by major arts organizations to combat social problems, be they issues of race, social class, gender, or other imbalances in the arts community, serves to help women and girls rise up. Every resilient and brave woman that applies for professorships, fellowships, and grants inspires a friend, student, or colleague. Every mother that shares what her day at work was like with her daughter creates an inspired young leader. Every woman that makes a record inspires a girl to write her first song. And every vote made towards candidates, initiatives, and policies that address equity helps to create a society where women and men both lead and take creative risks. For these reasons, I am optimistic.

Please click here for a full list of references.

NEW VIDEO: Skyros Quartet performs Peteris Vasks

by Maggie Stapleton

If you missed our showcase at Northwest Folklife in May, or hey, even if you were there, we have a little throwback treat to one of our favorite moments, filmed a few weeks later at Resonance at SOMA Towers: Skyros Quartet‘s rendition of Peteris Vasks’ String Quartet No.3: II. Allegro energico. We love this video and hope that you do too!

Be sure to check out our other videos, shot in our studios and in fun venues around Seattle, too!

ALBUM REVIEW: Traffic Quintet Plays Alexandre Desplat

by Maggie Molloy
desplat_alexandre_v2_c_brigitte_lacombe_hi_res
Most music and film fans are familiar with the music of Alexandre Desplat. After all, eight Oscar nominations (including one win), two BAFTA awards, a Golden Globe, and two Grammys tend to put you on the map.

But even if you’ve never heard of Alexandre Desplat, you’ve almost certainly heard his music. Do movies like The Queen, The Golden Compass, and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button ring a bell? How about The Danish Girl, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Godzilla, and The Grand Budapest Hotel? Desplat composed the music for all of them, and for many more.

But you don’t have to be a movie buff to appreciate the music of Desplat—in fact, you don’t even have to watch the movies.
TrafficQuintet-Desplat-Planes
The Traffic Quintet recently released an album titled “Traffic Quintet Plays Alexandre Desplat,” which reimagines 13 of Desplat’s famous film scores for piano quintet, with occasional interventions from the composer himself on flute, glockenspiel, and celesta.

Led by director and violinist Dominique Lemonnier (better known as Solrey), the Traffic Quintet is committed to revisiting iconic soundtracks which have entered into the musical canon. The ensemble, which features violinists Solrey and Constantin Bobesco, violist Estelle Villotte, cellist Raphaël Perraud, and bassist Philippe Noharet, made their debut in cinema in 1997 when they performed Desplat’s music for Jacques Audiard’s film Un héros très discret. After their first encounter with the silver screen, they kept their film-inspired name, a tribute to filmmaker Jacques Tati, and began to explore the world of film music. For this latest project, the quintet is joined by the pianist Alain Planes.

Traffic Quintet Alexandre DesplatAfter working on Un héros très discret,
Solrey became Desplat’s favorite soloist, concertmaster, artistic director, and eventually, his wife.

“Solrey’s influence on my music is crucial,” Desplat said. “When I heard her sound for the first time, the rich palette of her bow technique, the energy or tenderness she could convey with her instrument, I was under her charm, I was hooked: I had to inject this special and modern conception of violin playing into my compositions.”

Solrey supervised all the transcriptions on “Traffic Quintet Plays Alexandre Desplat,” and was also the one who persuaded Desplat to perform on the album. But with such a vast library of musical scores to choose from, how could they possibly pick which to perform?

“Closely,” Desplat said, “Solrey and I would spend hours listening to my collection of soundtracks to decide which piece had the potential required: a strong musicality and an original orchestration, which offered many transcription options, a technical challenge for the five musicians.”

Solrey also came up with the musical program for the album. Given the ensemble’s strong ties to cinema, the Traffic Quintet’s performances feature original video projections which tie into the colors and themes of the music in order to create an immersive experience for the audience. For this album, Solrey uses Desplat’s native city Paris as the storyline, musically portraying a leisurely stroll along the banks of the River Seine, capturing the changing light and the mysterious secrets of the river.

“Alexandre’s music invites you on a walk, wraps you up and lulls you gently into contemplation,” Solrey said. “The beauty of the banks and the ever-flowing streams of the Seine become a source of inspiration. I have been steeped in his music for so many years that when I came to go through the many scores I had recorded as a solo violinist, creating a sequence that would trace Alexandre’s musical evolution came quite naturally to me.”

The stroll begins with a twinkling piano theme from The King’s Speech. Soft strings accent the sweetly circling piano melody in this charming rendition of the movie’s warm, minimalist soundtrack.

Then, as if walking past the open window of a riverside apartment, the listener is suddenly transported into a daydream. A gorgeous, haunting flute and violin theme takes the listener into the mid-17th century world of Girl with a Pearl Earring. The two instruments intertwine over a bed of strings, balancing passionate lyricism with restraint, evoking musical images of the the young maid and her painter.

Yearning strings then travel through tales of love, death, and heartbreak in the music from Love Etc. and Le plus bel âge. The Traffic Quintet amps up the drama for the syncopated melodies and the textured pizzicato and col legno harmonies of Un héro très discret, a movie about a French man who sets out to Paris to find adventure and make himself a hero.

But like any slow stroll along the water, the listener soon encounters the shadows and hidden secrets of the flowing river. Aggressive, bold bowings and relentless rhythmic drive build suspense in the music of the political thriller, The Ghost Writer, before the listener returns to the calm, contemplative piano melodies of the existential, experimental drama film The Tree of Life.

Cello and double bass ground the foreboding music of Un prophète, a film about an imprisoned Algerian criminal who rises in the inmate hierarchy. Subtle glockenspiel flourishes and persistent col legno bowings create texture beneath the dramatic violin melodies. Tragedy, mystery, and discovery shine through in the pensive melodies and arresting climaxes of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, with introspective melodies shifting through flute, violin, piano, and cello.

The walk along the river eventually takes the listener through tales of forbidden love, transitioning through the ominous and slow-moving crescendos of the espionage erotic thriller Lust, Caution followed by the soaring, palpably passionate (and sometimes mischievous) violin and cello melodies of Chéri.

Layered strings shift slowly through colorful harmonies in the music of Sur mes lèvres, and the Parisian stroll comes to a close with the whimsical lyricism and silvery shimmer of Coco avant Chanel, a tribute to French film, fashion, and music.

And although Desplat and the Traffic Quintet traverse the music of 13 wildly different films in just over an hour, all the individual stories blend together in the beautiful wash of the River Seine.

ALBUM OF THE WEEK: Break of Reality’s “TEN”

by Maggie Stapleton

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Break of Reality is a quartet composed of 3 cellists and a percussionist who perform music ranging from Tool to Radiohead to Bach to their own original compositions inspired by rock, classical, folk, and pop music.

There are a lot of attempts at this genre cross-pollinization these days, but BoR REALLY does it well.  This music is genuine and it doesn’t try too hard.  Percussionist Ivan Trevino says, “Rock is as much in our blood as classical music. Our music is organic; we’re not doing it as a gimmick to play rock music on the cello. We want our instruments to be respected both in the classical and rock worlds.”  Success, I say!

“Ten,” their latest release (buy it here!), is the band’s proudest and most mature record to date.  All of the songs are original compositions by cellist Patrick Laird and/or Ivan Trevino and their sound has transitioned from “heavy metal cello band” to a more mellow, classically influenced sound, which comes across very authentically.  They also experimented with different microphones and recording techniques and invested in a lot of their own equipment with this album.  The result is well-balanced, nuanced, yet totally grooves.

I had the pleasure of talking to Ivan and Patrick about a few of the tracks and learned the following tidbits:

“Star” was written for Patrick Laird’s wife, Marnie, who makes a guest piano appearance on the track.

“Helix” is one of their favorite tunes to perform, with a winding cello riff that travels through all different types of time signatures, leaving one wondering if it’s in 7 or 4.  Can you figure it out?

“Six” is the only track on the album that Ivan Trevino wrote all on his own.  It was a originally a mallet sextet composed for the Eastman Percussion ensemble.  This arrangement is for three cellos, piano, 2 percussionists and features marimba, piano, glockenspiel, and drumset. It has a cinematic, mellow, indie rock flavor, “kind of like Bon Iver meets Steve Reich,” as Ivan puts it.

BoR independently releases all of their records.  Trevino recognizes that as a cello band with no singer, their sound doesn’t appeal to a pop music demographic.  Rather, they use their niche genre to be 100% in charge of the art.  They can take complete control of record sales, keep all of the income from record sales, and have all of the say in the sound and recording process.

Oh, and the sweet cover artwork?  It was done by Lauren Yandell, one of Ivan’s high school marching bandmates!

Keep an eye on BoR’s tour schedule and check them out live, if you get a chance.  Percussionist Ivan Trevino says Break of Reality’s shows have the energy of rock concerts; the music is memorized which helps communication and interaction with the audience and there are elements of improv.  The cellists have more articulate, aggressive, vertical types of bow strokes to get the “rock sound,” while playing with a drummer.  However, they always try to bring the unexpected and keep their classical roots at heart and keep the audience guessing what’s going to come next – rock or Bach.

Cheers to you, Break of Reality, for a fantastic new album!  We can’t wait to hear what’s next to come.