NEW VIDEO: Movement for String Quartet and Piano by Andrius Žlabys

On May 24, 2016, Town Hall Seattle concert-goers and Second Inversion listeners were fortunate to hear the world premiere of Movement for String Quartet and Piano by Andrius Žlabys. If you missed it, we’re pleased to present this video production on the Town Hall stage!

Joshua Roman sat down to chat with Andrius about the piece and his composition background.

Joshua Roman: When was the first time you thought about writing your own music?

Andrius Žlabys: Well, actually from childhood. I started by improvising, before I began formal piano studies, to the horror of my piano teacher, because my whole setup was fairly developed in an amateur way. So I had learned, on my own, the Bach Toccata and Fugue for organ, but my fingers were all over the place, so it was a kind of promising disaster.

JR: What style did you improvise in?

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AŽ: I started to come to the keyboard (we have a grand piano where I grew up) – and I would begin just tinkering with the piano, finding any sonorities I could. I don’t know what style that was. Kid style. But I think I might have made some sense, because my parents thought “it’s not just regular banging on the piano”, and I would spend a lot of time on it. So they decided maybe it’s a good idea to try lessons. And so I kept improvising, and the style was kind of baroque for a while, and then some contemporary elements were added as I was exposed to more contemporary music. And at some point I did try to write it down, fragments, but I didn’t have any formal composition studies until I came to the U.S. to Interlochen, where I studied composition.

JR: Did you ever write anything that was performed at Interlochen?

AŽ: Yeah! I wrote a piano sonata, a piece for violin and piano, and actually a suite for cello and piano. When I auditioned for schools, I got into Peabody as a double major; composition and piano, but I chose to go to Curtis as a piano major. So for a while, I didn’t compose, and then started up again later. But I kept improvising.

JR: Who are some of your influences as a composer?

AŽ: I have composers that I love and play all the time like Bach, and obviously Mozart. Looking at more current composers, I love Messiaen, and I love Shostakovich, Schnittke, and Arvo Pärt. But I was also influenced by many of my close friends who are composers. For example, Dmitri Levkovich, and Yevgeniy Sharlat, who was a tremendous influence. He wrote a piano quartet for me; through that and other pieces that I observed him writing I got to see the process, the struggle, and moments of joy when it comes through.

Somehow I was so in a piano mode that I never developed the ability to write lengthy things. Because the actual technique of writing is to be able to capture the ideas before they float away. So once I became able to capture longer ideas, there was more possibility. The ideas were always there, I just never had the capacity to capture them until I took up composing in a more focused way.

JR: Do think that composing affects your piano playing at all?

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AŽ: Absolutely. Yes, they’re so interconnected. In interesting and sometimes strange ways. For example, when I compose – as a piano teacher, I change a lot. Because I start to see all kinds of motivic connections that I would never see otherwise. I remember once I was teaching Mozart Fantasia in C minor, and at the time I was actively writing a piece, and I saw all kinds of things in the Mozart that were totally out of my vision when I was practicing the piece myself. So yes, it affects my interpretation. First of all, you get to see how the thought is developed. So I get to see what is the core idea, which influences the piece mostly on a subconscious level. I get to see how everything revolves around that idea, which is usually just a couple of notes. And to see the whole, not just the parts – that musical cognitive process, a kind of inner logic.

Since I started composing more, Beethoven has become a total mystery. In his case, there are so many rather simple harmonic progressions; we have tonic-dominant, dominant-tonic; fairly straightforward. And then you get ornamentation in the form of the melody, which is also often just very simple arpeggios. And the real genius is somewhere in between those two things. Because by themselves, harmonic progressions are just harmonic progressions, right? And without them, those ornamentations would not make sense. So something happens in this very thin area, a kind of boundary layer. So I began to see more of those things when I started really composing.

As a performer of my own music, I always hear “how it should really sound”. It makes me much more demanding of what my sound should be. On the other hand, I realize that how the piece should sound is not defined by, you know, precise dynamics. When I analyze the great works I now see how masterfully the composers placed those dynamics. They are precise enough, but leave just enough room for freedom, and every composer does it differently. It’s such an important element, and when I compose myself, I can imagine the music being interpreted in different ways, as long as the underlying thought is somehow expressed.

JR: How do you feel playing the piano affects your composition? This is kind of the opposite question.

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AŽ: Playing the piano of course gives me access to polyphony. For me, voice leading in composition is probably the most important thing. The lines follow a certain kind of logic – almost like physical laws. And then, when they try to break the boundaries of those laws, those have to be intentional moments, not accidental. Voice leading, polyphony, the importance of independent yet strongly interacting lines, are the most important values for me, no matter what style. I think that if you look at any music that we consider great music, the voice leading is almost always impeccable, unless intentionally not so. Then, of course, it’s breaking those rules quite purposefully.

Writing for piano, it helps to know how to write for my own hands. Sometimes it makes me write kind of demanding stuff for the piano, and then of course I have to deal with it.

JR: Aside from knowing the idiom of the piano, do you think being someone who interprets other people’s music and performs it for audiences affects your compositions at all?

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Photo Credit: D. Matvejavas

AŽ: Oh yes, absolutely. It’s been kind of a tradition throughout classical music; every composer was a performer and every performer a composer, up to a certain historical period when they began to separate. Ideally you should be able to play every instrument that you’re writing for. I can only play piano, but I try to strongly envision how it would be on the other instruments, so I can write in a way that would be comfortable. Or if uncomfortable, there would be a good reason for that.

For me, I want to write as few notes as possible to convey the feeling. I try to avoid unnecessary complexity. It’s like words; I like to be laconic if possible. Get to the point.

JR: Let’s talk about your piece, A Movement for Piano Quintet.

AŽ: Movement for String Quartet and Piano. Actually, somehow I prefer — “quintet” for me is not as noble sounding as “quartet”, because for me it implies a kind of mesh. I think the string quartet is such a complete sonority. The piano is like a guest, that gets to join for a little while.

JR: Fair point. What was the inspiration for your piece, Movement for String Quartet and Piano?

AŽ: The initial sketches for the piece, and the original motive – a rising three note line – came from a feeling I had during the events in Ukraine in 2014. In fact, the piece is dedicated to the memory of the victims of the war in Ukraine. So the whole piece comes from that feeling or thought. It’s definitely not a very happy piece. There’s a sense of things going wrong, and kind of a protest against that.

This was very close to home – Lithuania. I felt solidarity with Ukraine, and we felt that this could happen to Lithuania as well. To this day, there’s a lot of uncertainty about that.

JR: How does the feeling affect your compositional process?

AŽ: Well, there’s nothing explicit on purpose. There’s an intention, and I think that intention directs the whole process. The obsessive rhythm, and the images that might be seen, come from that intention. It’s not a peaceful piece, even though it has peaceful moments, maybe. There’s kind of an underlying feeling of foreboding.

JR: Is that the ostinato?

AŽ: Yes, the ostinato, with its obsessive quality.

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There’s another place with strong images – after the big climax there’s a solo quartet section, which is kind of like a Sarabande. And then the piano eventually comes on top, and that feeling was of disjointed, parallel realities, that kind of coexist, but not necessarily coincide. That creates a hallucinatory feeling; it’s not quite a cadenza, but elaborate passagework that comes on top of quite a nice harmony and destroys it.

Then there’s a pizzicato canon, which feels like a person who’s locked into a room of a certain number of dimensions, and cannot get out of it. It’s just perpetually repeating. And again, the piano comes in with little scales which are really a rearticulation of the theme from the beginning.

One of the reasons I couldn’t write for a while when I was – back at Curtis was that I felt I wasn’t allowed to write tonal music. So when I would write, the stuff that would come out would be tonal, and I would dismiss it because it’s just not contemporary. And at some point I said “OK, if that’s what’s coming out then that’s what I have”. That’s my natural language. So, of course, everybody looks for their own style, but my idea is that if I have something that sounds a certain way in my head, and it sounds enough that I want to write it down, then that takes precedence over style. For me, if I can express a certain idea to the best of my ability, or state of mind, then the style will take care of itself.

Finding the Music

by Joshua Roman

Fraud. Faker. Sham artist.

Roman_2 (Joshua Roman. Photo credit: Hayley Young)

These are just some of the things that ran through my head as I tried to push through the internal noise and jot down a few melodic ideas to match the words in front of me. The negative voice in my head can be quite derisive. I’ll avoid, for your sake, typing the more profane things it comes up with to keep me from making progress.

While that voice was not helpful at all, it was not entirely without ground to stand on. I’d never taken someone else’s words and set them as music before. I’d never written for an ensemble of such size, or a piece of such scope. It was yet another creative stretch past my previous efforts and it was, at times, very painful. There were times when I really did feel like I was faking it until I could make it.

But that’s the thing about doing something for the first time, isn’t it? You don’t know what will happen. Not that you can ever truly know, and be 100% sure, of any future. But at least you can have an experience-based sense of what to expect.

So how did I end up in this stress position, reaching for something new? I tend to say “yes” a lot. It’s one of the things that has been a blessing and a curse. Sometimes, both. In this particular case, I’m super glad that I did say “yes”, because those intense, stressful periods were short, and interspersed with real glimpses of inspiration. Were it not for the deadline, I might have had nothing but joy and a synergetic experience. Truth be told, though, without a deadline I might have never finished. And, once the piece was complete, I had the thoroughly moving experience of performing it with committed and powerful musicians. And there’s more to come!

41xrjOsUnvLThis project, my setting of Tracy K. Smith‘s poem “Life on Mars”, from her Pulitzer prize winning book Life on Mars was an outgrowth of an earlier collaborative seed. Scott Reed, at the Music Academy of the West, had approached me about working with Tracy at some point, and as an intro to her work, had given me a copy of Life on Mars as well as another one of her books, Duende. I’d read them multiple times when there suddenly was the need for another composer on one of Town Hall Seattle’s concerts full of premieres. We wanted four new works with our available forces – Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire was the big work on the program, scored for Soprano, Violin, Cello, Flute, Clarinet, Piano, and a few doublings – and had run out of contacts with time on their hands. I was convinced to set two of the nine pieces from “Life on Mars” for that concert, and when Music Academy of the West found out I was already in that project, they commissioned me to finish the 9 song cycle.

I chose “Life on Mars” because to me it represented a colorful, modern voice using creative analogies to probe some of the deeper questions about complicity and empathy. Up to that point, the little music I’d written down on paper had been more fanciful in nature; playing with the idea of light traveling through different atmospheres, or exploring the naïve quality of young love. I wanted, this time at least, to look something straight in the face and tell it I was not afraid.

Tracy’s work does this. In “Life on Mars,” we circle around the darkness, toying with theories about what binds us together or pulls us apart. We also take the time to more directly confront episodes of moral error, looking at the horrifying story of a man who kept his daughter in a cage in his basement for years, a girl recounting the rape and destruction wrought on her village, and the actions at Abu Ghraib.

Finding a musical way to embrace the variety of tones, even among those darker passages, was a unique challenge. The nine poems had a few through lines – a character named Tina (a real-life friend and colleague of Tracy’s) muses about scientific connections to emotion and language while the author’s voice responds in the text – and a rhythm of wild fantasy in contrast with the depths of depravity emerges – but my initial and pervading instinct was to follow the many colors within the poems to their most natural musical styles. Thus, I began to search out the most obvious clues and go from there.

One of the first things that jumped out at me was the sarcasm in the poem about Abu Ghraib (“Strung Up”). As I heard a voice in my head speaking the text, enunciation became stronger and a blues rhythm began to emerge. There was no going back from this, and it became a hardcore blues riff with bass clarinet taking center stage along with the soprano. In “They”, where the girl has been dragged from her village, the italicized text and hauntingly stark descriptions of the event made me feel an incredibly discordant juxtaposition of stillness with bubbling energy underneath. More whispered than spoken, with moments of beautiful reverie that become disturbing for their context.


At other times, it was not a voice that captured my imagination so much as connections to the structure or the words themselves. The first movement references “dark matter” (which I chose as the title of the song), and the rhythm of those words began popping up as a unifying music gesture. In “Back and Forth”, violin and cello exchange false harmonics in an easy dancing rhythm, and the singer alternates between two notes as she sings the line. I used a simple inversion technique in “In Error” as the words “and told in reverse” are sung, and amplified the effect with a sudden stop on the word “hacked.”


As for structure, one of the happy things about writing based on an existing piece of art (or anything, really) is that I am able to come up with a musical structure based on what I perceive as the existing narrative. Rather than coming up with a new abstract form, or imposing my own, I was able to just spend a lot of time with the text and watch as the shape began to emerge, seemingly on its own. Obviously this is my interpretation, and is based on my musical associations with the text, as well as my understanding of the text on its own merit. Other artists might not have gone off so playfully with passages like the one in “A Pair of Them” where words like “spaces”, “nothing”, and “equation” are repeated in the text, and so repeated as flourishing musical gestures in the song. Also, someone else might not have bothered to count that there were 12 statements about “The earth” and decided that a “Passacaglia” was in order, with each phrase starting on a different chromatic tone over the same ground (earth).

I could geek out all day over this, hehe. That’s the fun part. Once you get an idea, it can be absolutely exhilarating. My parents, who hosted me at their farm in Oklahoma for much of the writing of this piece, probably thought I was nuts as I would shout and repeat just-discovered harmonies over and over again on the piano. Especially as I’m not really a trained pianist or vocalist, but have no shyness at home.

But even that might not compare to hearing this sung and played live. I’m very grateful to all the musicians who have performed notes I’ve written – each time it has been a humbling and invigorating experience. And, as someone fairly new to composition, mind-bending as well. With this piece, with my short chamber work “take me all the way,” and again with my cello concerto “Awakening.”

The latest performance of my own work, which you can hear in its entirety, was with Jessica Rivera singing “we do it to one another” at Town Hall Seattle, and all of the musicians brought their best in a performance that left me feeling amazing gratitude. Jessica and the others really got into the characters, and left me with goosebumps from intensity as well as beauty (yes, there are moments of great beauty in this poetry as well). Jessica Rivera is someone who takes the roles she inhabits very seriously. She is not only a singer with a beautiful voice, but one that uses it with a great sense of responsibility and deep preparation.

I was especially grateful for their dedication as a fever had me horizontal for much of the week, and shaky on my feet even during the performance, which I conducted. So, a brief but heartfelt thank you is necessary to:

Jessica Rivera (soprano)
Mae Lin (violin)
Richard Belcher (cello)
Todd Palmer (clarinet, bass clarinet)
Andrew Rehrig (flute)
Conor Hanick (piano)

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(February 25, 2016 performance at Town Hall Seattle. Photo Credit: Libby Lewis)

As part of this very special event, Tracy was able to join us and read some of her poetry, including “Life on Mars.” You can hear this, as well as our panel discussion with Rebecca Hoogs, below. Tracy shares some of her insight into the writing process, as well as her feelings about having her work turned into a musical piece after the fact. Spoiler: we feel the same about that – it is a unique situation when compared to either setting poems from an author of the past, or working with a librettist in a real-time collaboration.

Thank you for supporting my artistic journey by reading this blog. Please feel free to comment, and even suggest topics for future posts. There are plenty on the docket, but it’s always nice to know what you are most interested in hearing about, as well. In a process that is not too dissimilar from my composing, that negative voice pops up during the writing of blog posts as well. One thing I’m slowly learning: sometimes that voice just means you’re breaking new ground, and it’s important to keep going as you expand your artistry, and ultimately, your concept of self.

I hope you have a chance to listen to the concert in its entirety. Back to my initial impulse to write this particular piece; I am a fan of music that helps us escape, celebrate, etc. I know I am in part, an entertainer. But sometimes, I think it’s important to explore a little deeper, within the safe place that art can offer. Then we have the opportunity to challenge ourselves to look within, with fearless scrutiny, and face every aspect of our collective nature together.

CONCERT SPOTLIGHT: “The Way West” presented by the Universal Language Project

by Maggie Stapleton

“An event with music, words, and smoke inspired by the optimism and grandeur of the West.”

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Photo Credit: Kimberly Chin

Brian Chin has added something unique and fresh to the already forward-thinking music community in Seattle. The Universal Language Project is an innovative concert series rooted in the commissioning and performance of 21st century music and interdisciplinary collaboration. It turns the traditional classical music concert on its head by presenting the music in informal settings, premiering commissioned music by local composers, and collaborating with other art forms. AND! The experience doesn’t stop when the music ends; the audience is encouraged to mingle with the musicians and composers over a glass of wine afterwards to get a personal, inside scoop into the music.

Last season, ULP gave musical birth to works by Sean Osborn, Wayne Horvitz, and Jovino Santos Neto. (You can listen to them on our live concerts page!) Their new season kicks off this Friday, January 22 at Resonance Hall at SOMA Towers in Bellevue & Saturday, January 23 at Velocity Dance Center in Seattle and features musicians from Inverted Space, the contemporary music ensemble of the University of Washington. The program includes“Campfire Songs” by Brian Cobb (including a commissioned concert overture and a new piece to complete the cycle), “The Lone Ranger,” a theatrical work by Karen Thomas, and the commissioned premiere by young composer Tim Carey.

 

Second Inversion is proud to be a sponsor of this concert series. We’ll see you there on Saturday, January 23 at Velocity Dance Center!

 

 

Due Date: Awakening

by Joshua Roman

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#TFW you’re about to hear your first orchestral composition for the first time…

It’s alive! My first cello concerto, has come into the world – kicking and screaming – but alive. What a crazy experience. I’ve never done anything quite like this, and while it was a project that stretched me almost to the limit, it’s been worth it. I feel more in touch with my artistic sensibility than ever, and more motivated to continue the creative process than I have been in a long time.

I’ll save details of the piece for the day when I’m able to share a recording. In the meantime, there were plenty of lessons in the process.

Lesson 1: Everything Takes Longer Than You Think!
Lesson 2: Everything Takes Longer Than You Think, Even After Allowing For Lesson 1.

The other lessons were more fun, and didn’t require all-nighters. (which leads to apologies to my copyist, George Katehis, who should be sponsored by Red Bull.)

I learned that I am not so good at revision – I already kind of knew this, in relation to writing this blog (among other things). I think it might have something to do with my training as a performer, spending years developing the skill of memorizing quickly. Perhaps those neural pathways need to chill a bit, and not wear those grooves in so deeply on first hearing. Luckily, I’ve been getting better at it by necessity. The blog helps, but the concerto really was a breakthrough in that sense. The pressure of an impending performance where I’m presenting my own art led to much more scrutiny than I realized I was capable of.

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As usual, Mom and Dad got the first preview via Skype.

I also learned that it takes a bit longer than the warm-up time between dress rehearsal and the concert to switch from the composing mindset to the performing one. It didn’t help that the damn composer (me) didn’t give the cellist (me) the music until very late in the game. As I rehearsed, my focus was very much on the orchestra bringing my imaginary sounds to life. Listening to hear if what I had notated was being played, and if so, was it working the way I expected? In this state of mind it’s hard to do much more than play the notes. During my break, I had time with the cello alone, and quickly realized that I needed to breathe and bring myself back into that special focus that I need to perform. It worked, somewhat, but as with everything else that week it would have been easier had the details of orchestration and rehearsal been more prepared by yours truly when we showed up for the endgame. I’ve kept careful track of these lessons, and am now super excited to apply them next time around.

In fact, I have the opportunity to do much of that as I finish my revisions before the next performance with ProMusica Chamber Orchestra of Columbus in January. I’m making changes now so there’s time to sit with them and continue modifying until it seems right. And then, I’ll walk away from it and just enjoy the continuing process as the interpretation can evolve rather than the notes themselves.

There’s not much to do: a couple of sections need an extra measure or two to develop the way I meant. And balance! I was sure, as a cellist who has played many concertos, that I would get the balance right the first time around. Lo and behold, I was overambitious and could tell immediately that adjustments were needed. Some of it was a matter of adjusting dynamics in rehearsals, but we didn’t get quite all the way to balance perfection. No way am I going to practice some of the ridiculous passagework if it can’t even be heard! Those are relatively easy fixes though. The more I hear others play my music, the more I realize the importance of detailed markings. They can convey a shape and a character that bring them out even if a dynamic is soft, or simply serve to hold a players’ attention in a way that attracts the ear of a listener.

I’m very grateful to all who made this project possible. To have created something that speaks of personal emotions is a great feeling, and the fact that I’m able to share it on such a platform and with the support of others is incredibly inspiring and uplifting. This is only part two – eventually there will be music to play for you, and I look forward to that moment. In the meantime, go create something!!

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Backstage after the premiere. That was intense! It was great to have David Danzmayr conduct.

My current playlist:
Ingram Marshall: Gradual Requiem
David Byrne and St. Vincent: Love This Giant
Barber: Essay No.2 for Orchestra

Joshua Roman’s cello concerto “Awakening” was premiered on October 17, 2015 with Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra and conductor David Danzmayr, commissioned by Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra, ProMusica Chamber Orchestra of Columbus, The Lied Center of Kansas, and The Corral Family. For more about “Awakening,” check out the Chicago Tribune preview and its first review in Chicago Classical Review.

ALBUM OF THE WEEK: Anthracite Fields

by Jill Kimball

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When it comes to contemporary music, the biggest cause for celebration is its determination to find inspiration in unusual places. Increasingly, composers have tossed aside those old standbys–rich royals, first-world travel, God–and have instead embraced the unpredictable.

In the past, composer Julia Wolfe has found inspiration in a Vermeer painting, an Aretha Franklin song, and the idea of a slow-motion scream. Last year, she even released a musical hommage to the American folktale hero John Henry, a steel driver who died trying to compete with a machine.

But this time, Wolfe found her muse unexpectedly close to home.

For Wolfe, writing Anthracite Fields began with a rumination on her childhood home of Montgomeryville, Pennsylvania. The dirt-road town straddled polar opposite worlds: on one side of it lay the big city, Philadelphia; on the other lay an expanse of coal mining fields, where men and boys once toiled long hours in dangerous conditions for a pittance. She’d almost never ventured in the latter direction before. Curiously, she set off to explore the mines and soon found herself consumed by the history of the coal fields. By April 2014, she’d written an hour-long piece dedicated to the hundreds of thousands of people who literally powered upper- and middle-class American lives for more than a century.

It’s no mystery why Wolfe has already won a Pulitzer Prize for this work, which features performances by Bang on a Can All-Stars and the Choir of Trinity Wall Street. The sound is intense, evocative, and completely original. The carefully chosen words, taken from historical documents, interviews, and speeches, are heart-wrenching. Perhaps most importantly, the piece explores themes that are just as relevant to American lives today as they were 150 years ago: class inequality, unfair working conditions, and the social cost of using coal to generate electricity.

“The politics are very fascinating—the issues about safety, and the consideration for the people who are working and what’s involved in it,” Wolfe said in a recent NPR interview. “But I didn’t want to say, ‘Listen to this. This is a big political issue.’ It really was, ‘Here’s what happened. Here’s this life, and who are we in relationship to that?’ We’re them. They’re us. And basically, these people, working underground, under very dangerous conditions, fueled the nation. That’s very important to understand.”

The five-movement piece begins below ground, in the midst of a typical coal miner’s long, dark, and dangerous workday. An uneasy collection of sustained notes is interrupted by a loud, jarring noise every minute or so. The choir names off a series of men named John, found on a list of more than 50,000 Pennsylvania mining casualties between 1869 and 1916. In a genius compositional move, Wolfe chose to pair this heartbreakingly endless list of names with sung text, at turns mournful and fiery, explaining how coal is formed.

Sadly, children in Pennsylvania’s anthracite region started working in the mines as early as age 6 to help put food on the family table. The second movement of Anthracite Fields remembers those working children, called breaker boys. The children sat bent over on planks all day, cutting their fingers up to pick debris out of freshly mined coal. The text Wolfe set in this movement comes from a perversely catchy regional folk song (“Mickey Pick-Slate, early and late, that was the poor little breaker boy’s fate”) and from a heart-rending interview with a one-time breaker boy (“You didn’t dare say anything, you didn’t dare quit, you didn’t wear gloves”). I admit it: this movement made me cry.

In the second half of the piece, Wolfe moves above ground to examine the social implications of underground coal mining. Her third movement, “Speech,” mixes sparse choral writing with rock opera-style solo vocals, using text from a union president’s speech advocating for fair working conditions and compensation.

The last two movements come from two very different non-miners’ perspectives. Wolfe says “Flowers” was inspired by an interview with Barbara Powell, the daughter of a miner who says she never felt poor, thanks to her town’s generous community and the cheerful little things in life, like growing her beautiful garden. The last movement, “Appliances,” is an uncomfortable reminder that coal miners put their lives on the line for next to no pay so that the upper classes could live in comfort, whether they were traveling by train or heating their homes. At the very end, the singers whistle, conjuring the sound of a train grinding against the rails.

Composer Julia Wolfe.

Composer Julia Wolfe.

Anthracite Fields is not an easy listen, but I don’t think Julia Wolfe wanted it to be. We Americans tend to gloss over unpleasant parts of our history when, in order to make peace with our past, we’d do better to confront it. In telling these miners’ stories through vivid music, Wolfe has brought an important but often ignored chapter of our country’s story to the forefront. I encourage people of all backgrounds to listen to this award-winning work, daunting though it may seem. You’ll learn a little about life in late-1800s Pennsylvania, you’ll contemplate energy usage and workers’ rights, and if you’re like me, you’ll have a good cry.

LIVE PERFORMANCE FEATURE: Seattle Pro Musica sings David Lang

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David Lang‘s the little match girl passion won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for music, and was recently performed by Seattle Pro Musica under the direction of Karen P. Thomas:

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A little bit of background on the piece, by David Lang:

“My piece is called The Little Match Girl Passion and it sets Hans Christian Andersen’s story The Little Match Girl in the format of Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion, interspersing Andersen’s narrative with my versions of the crowd and character responses from Bach’s Passion. The text is by me, after texts by Han Christian Andersen, H. P. Paulli (the first translator of the story into English, in 1872), Picander (the nom de plume of Christian Friedrich Henrici, the librettist of Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion), and the Gospel according to Saint Matthew. The word ”passion” comes from the Latin word for suffering. There is no Bach in my piece and there is no Jesus—rather the suffering of the Little Match Girl has been substituted for Jesus’s, elevating (I hope) her sorrow to a higher plane.”

A few of Seattle Pro Musica’s concert-goers offered up their reactions to this moving piece:

“What has stayed with me most from LMGP is the last line, “Rest soft, rest soft”. Boom. “Rest soft, rest soft”. The weight of that single drum beat. The weight in the silent lift of Karen’s hands following that drum beat. The weight and beauty of such a ‘simple’ phrase. “Rest soft, rest soft”.

Boom.

Boom.

Silence.” –Miriam Gnagy

the little match girl passion is one of those pieces that’s very difficult for performers. Besides being technically demanding, the story is so moving that you could easily get carried away by your emotions and become lost. It’s a delicate balancing act – being in the moment enough to make it powerful for the audience without losing control of the performance. It was an unforgettable experience.” –Wes Kim

“Evocative. Poignant.  Difficult.  Heartbreaking.  David Lang’s the little match girl passion causes the singer—and the listener—to experience viscerally the shivering of a little girl on the last evening of the year, and mourn her passing in a forgotten corner of the village.  The Hans Christian Anderson fairytale brought to musical life—a 21st century artistic masterpiece.” –Marilyn Colyar

“The music was mesmerizing. It made me FEEL cold. The blend and balance of the voices was perfection, the halting rhythms dropped me into a focused suspended listening state, so that the sudden shift to the intense soprano solo swept me up and broke me open. What a piece! The stamina of the performers and their complete engagement was extraordinary. The use of instruments (that low drumbeat, the tubular bells, the chain on the hub) was powerful and haunting.” –Elly Hale

“The LMGP performances were haunting. The austere walls of St. James’ made the repetitions in the music even more relentless, providing a suitably cold and eerie atmosphere for the piece to grab the listener by the throat. And so it ended: the candle died with our last breath.” –Isabelle Phan

Many thanks to Karen P. Thomas and David Lang for the allowance of this streaming on-demand!

AARON GRAD RETHINKS THEORBO

by Maggie Stapleton

Here at Second Inversion, our catchphrase is “Rethink Classical.”  The multi-talented Aaron Grad (Composer, Guitarist, Artistic Consultant, Program Note Author, Lecturer, the list goes on) has done some serious rethinking of his own.  Let’s go a step or two back in time and call it “Rethink Renaissance.”

In 2012, Aaron built a one-of-a-kind electric theorbo.  You read that correctly.  Here’s a sample of the instrument’s sound in an excerpt from Aaron’s composition, Old-Fashioned Love Songs.theorbo_body

 

I had the pleasure of chatting with Aaron about the concept and design of the instrument as well as his upcoming performance featuring Aaron on electric theorbo and Gus Mercante, countertenor on Saturday, June 21, 8pm at the Chapel Performance Space at the Good Shepherd Center.  Aaron recently returned to Seattle after an East Coast tour with performances in NYC, Delaware, and Maryland (which got a great review in the Washington Post).

Listen if you’d like, or keep reading if that’s your preference!

Q. Could you tell us a little bit about this instrument you’ve created, the electric theorbo?

A. It’s based on an old instrument, the theorbo, which is a 16th century Italian lute with long bass strings plus a fretted fret board like a lute would have.  I fell in love with this instrument – it’s audacious, bold, has a deep bass sound, is beautiful for accompanying vocal music.  I had the idea to create a version that would work for me, because I’m not a period practiced lute player, like there are so many wonderful people who do that, especially here in Seattle, so I had to find my version.   I had this idea to hybridize the theorbo, with its many strings and deep bass notes and combine that with an electric guitar, with is my instrument.   So I came up with a design that brought those two worlds together and it uses some old ideas and old stringing and tuning but also very modern techniques of carbon fibers and other new materials.

Q. Did you actually build the instrument yourself?

I did.  It took me many months to design it and probably 8 months in a wood shop putting it together.  I had to try a bunch of things, engineer new techniques and bits and pieces that just don’t exist.  There aren’t a lot of precedents for this so I had to come up with a way to make a new bridge and find the right kind of tuners and even the pickups – every single component I had to rethink, source from somewhere, and ultimately assemble and put it all together.

Q.  What did you have in mind as far as the music to be performed on this instrument ?  Old?  New?

A. The overall message I had in mind was “the timelessness of love songs,” so it ended up being a new-old hybrid, but in a way my goal was not to show not how different those worlds are, but how similar they are.  Any time I’m involved in that new-old territory (which I find I’m doing a lot of), it’s usually to find common threads and connections back to something that I think is immortal in a musical statement or even a human, personal statement.  I ended up using love songs as far back as the 16th century and up to the 21st century and then I wrote a bunch of my own new songs.   The idea was just to show a common thread, that music has always been used to express love.  The simplest version is one person singing and the sound of something being strummed or plucked (and that goes back even farther than the theorbo) and as long as people have been singing or plucking strings, they’ve been expressing love.

Q. Is that the impetus for the concert you have coming up on June 21st?

A.  The two sides of it came together – one was building the instrument and just having the idea for that as a sound that I was drawn to.  The other was this idea about love and its timelessness and universality.  And so those came together in Old-Fashioned Love Songs – an evening length song cycle and the whole thing is one big love letter to my wife.  It’s my way of putting out in a very public, exposed, and somewhat vulnerable way- very true and personal feelings.  That’s what I’m interested in doing as a composer – I’m trying to push myself to be as “out there” as I can be with what I feel deeply.  I used to allow musical activities to just be on the surface… write a piece that sounded nice.  I’m sure I’ll do that again, but right now I’m interested in going really deep into what is most true and personal for me at that point in my life and figuring a way to put it to music.

Q.  Can you give us a sense of the range of songs we can expect to hear?

A.  The first thing on the program is a Toccata by an Italian theorbo composer written in a 1604.  The earliest song on the program is by John Dowland, great master of English love songs – beautiful, heartsick love songs (the agony of love!).  I also touch some Henry Purcell, which is also from that era when the theorbo was an active instrument.  Then I move somewhat chronologically… some Stephen Foster, George Gershwin, Kurt Weill.  Then we get into some later 20th century pop music by Cyndi Lauper and Norah Jones.  Interspersed between all of those are some of my own songs which were written in the last year or two.

Q. Tell us a little bit about the collaboration with the vocalist.

A. The singer is a countertenor, a wonderful singer from Delaware named Gus Mercante who I worked with for the first time over a decade ago.  It’s been so nice to work with that voice type which also has these old resonances.  It’s a voice associated with centuries past.  There’s something so pure and angelic about a countertenor voice that helps to deliver that message that floats just beyond one moment.  He’s just been a wonderful musician and partner to work with.  We’ve been working very closely together and touring together and it really helps that I think our friendship shows up on stage and from the last performances we just did on the east coast, I saw how important that was as a part of what we’re doing because it is such personal music and especially because I’m not the one singing it, he’s really a mouthpiece for my ideas and I just felt like we were really close and connected and able to move together and phrase together in ways that spoke to our friendship and connection just as two people.

Old-Fashioned Love Songs will be a great way to cozy up with a loved one and take a journey through time, all the while experiencing the electric theorbo in the intimate setting of the Chapel Performance Space at the Good Shepherd Center.

Visit our Streaming Albums On-Demand page to hear more of Aaron Grad’s compositions and recordings!