Seattle Sounds and Musical Utterances: Q&A with James Falzone and Bonnie Whiting

“There is a ‘sound’ here, no doubt,” says James Falzone of Seattle’s distinctive new music scene. “It is one I would describe as patient and less influenced by the frenetic energy that you might find in a city with less vistas.”

Photo on left by Patrick Monaghan.

Those famous Northwest vistas are relatively new to clarinetist/composer James Falzone and percussionist Bonnie Whiting, each of whom recently moved here from the Midwest to serve as educators at two major academic institutions: Falzone as the new Chair of Music at Cornish College of the Arts and Bonnie Whiting as the Chair of Percussion Studies and Artist in Residence at the University of Washington.

Both powerful players in contemporary and experimental music circles, Falzone and Whiting first met at one of our New Music Happy Hours (co-presented with the Live Music Project)—and their conversation led to a musical collaboration which premieres this Thursday, March 2 at the Wayward Music Series.

Utterances is the name of the performance, which combines original, composed, and improvised music based on text, spoken word, and translation. The program merges the distinct sounds and styles of each musician: Falzone known for his matchless musical fusion of jazz, classical, and world music traditions, and Whiting for her interdisciplinary performances which often venture into nontraditional notation and instrumentation.

The concert program opens and closes with duo improvisations that expand, challenge, and subvert the traditional roles of clarinet and percussion. In between are solo sets featuring original works by Falzone, Whiting, and other composers, along with a performance by Falzone’s jazz-infused clarinet and saxophone sextet the Renga Ensemble.

We sat down with both artists to talk about Seattle sound experiments, unusual instruments, and musical utterances:

Second Inversion: You are both relatively new to Seattle, each serving as educators at two major academic institutions in the Northwest.  What do you find most inspiring about your respective new roles, and what do you hope to accomplish?

Photo by William Frederking.

James Falzone: Cornish has a legacy unlike any other institution, connected to the very heart of American experimentalism. Being the steward of that legacy is something I find very exciting but also humbling, and I intend to take good care of it. This means learning from that legacy and continuing the sense of openness, experimentation, and disruption that Cornish has always represented.

Bonnie Whiting: There are already so many fabulous opportunities that exist for percussionists at UW: the Harry Partch instrument collection on campus, a partnership with the Seattle Symphony, opportunities to perform with groups like the steel band and gamelan ensembles through the ethnomusicology department, and an ever-expanding jazz program.

I’m excited to teach, create, and perform new music by living composers alongside historical works from the 20th century. I also plan more touring and outreach for the percussion ensemble. In March, we’ll perform and lead a hands-on workshop for Tent City 3 (currently hosted on the UW campus.) I’ve been giving workshops in local high schools and middle schools, and we are going to be featured at the Northwest Percussion Festival in April.

In addition to my work with the students, it’s thrilling to have such great faculty colleagues. It’s an incredible scene for new music and improvised music, and I’ve met so many dream collaborators. Right now, I’m working on a project with another new faculty member in the DX Arts program: Afroditi Psarra. She has these incredible embroidered synthesizers and works with sensors, and so integrating these into a percussive soundscape has been fascinating.


SI: What do you find most unique or inspiring about the Northwest’s new music scene?

JF: There is a “sound” here, no doubt. It is one I would describe as patient and less influenced by the frenetic energy that you might find in a city with less vistas. I’m hearing this in composed music, in improvised music, in the soundscape around me; even in the way people speak.

Artists seem hard at work here, presenting their ensembles and music and building a sense of community, attributes of a healthy, vibrant scene. I’m delighted to be a part of it as an artist, and hope to use my role at Cornish to be of service. The wonderful NUMUS Northwest event—which, though not sponsored by Cornish, was held there as a means of service to the community—is an example of what I want to see Cornish doing more of in the future.

Solo improvisation by James Falzone, inspired by the writing of Christian Wiman:


SI: How did this collaboration come about, and how would you describe the music you’re creating together in this performance?

BW: James happened to sit across from me at a New Music Happy Hour last fall, and we had a great conversation. I had heard of him and was familiar with his music; we both moved from the Midwest and moved in similar experimental music circles but hadn’t yet had the pleasure of collaborating.

Earlier this month, we opened the Seattle Improvised Music Festival with a duo set and it was a real joy. One of the elements that has developed (that I love) is the way we subvert the traditional roles played by a percussionist and a wind player. Often, he’ll play rhythmic, groove figures while I make distorted long tones. He’s also happy to move while playing and explore the space. It’s been fun to find percussion instruments that can travel too.

Transcription of an electronic audio score by Richard Logan-Greene. Original realization and performance by Bonnie Whiting:


SI: The Renga Ensemble features six clarinets/saxophones—what is it about this instrument combination that grabs you and pulls you in?

JF: I love homogenous sounding ensembles, though I know many composers do not. The sound of six single reeds resonating together offers far more color than one might imagine. But Renga Ensemble, both in its original state and now with this Seattle mix of players, has always been about personality coming through the texture by way of improvisation.

All of the music I’ll be presenting incorporates improvisation, mixed with through-composed elements, and this back and forth—this teetering between the “already” and the “not yet”—is what my work focuses on. For me, improvisation brings forth a musician’s personality like nothing else can and the challenge I set for myself in the Renga music is to find the balance point so that you hear the voice of each player as much as you hear the voice of the composer.


SI: Many of your percussion performances feature unusual instruments, sounds, or spoken elements—has your career as a percussionist changed the way you listen to your surroundings in your everyday life? (Or vice versa—was it your interest in sounds that originally led you to percussion?)

BW: Even as a kid I had a long attention span, and I have always loved sounds. My mother says some of my first toys were pots and pans on the kitchen floor. Just the other night I was listening to the radio on a long drive across upstate New York, and I stumbled upon the last movement of Mahler 9.  It’s quite long and I was on the Thruway, so gradually the piece became punctuated by static as I moved out of range. This intensified the listening experience for me: my memory filled in some of the music, my imagination more, and I actually enjoy the sound of static.

I’ve spent more time than I’d like to admit trying to replicate the sound of static and white noise on my snare drum and sandpaper blocks, and my collection of found tuned pot lids are more valuable to me than my five-octave marimba. I’m naturally drawn to pieces that use speech patterns to generate rhythmic material: Globokar’s Toucher and Parenti’s Exercise No. 4 on our program feature this technique. These days, I have a very young son and I enjoy “performing” our bedtime stories, adding sound effects and rhythm each night.


SI:What were some of the written sources that inspired the music of Utterances?

JF: In addition to improvised duets with Bonnie, I’ll be presenting two works that connect to text. The first is an ongoing solo project I call “Sighs Too Deep for Words,” which is an improvised, long-form work that is inspired by language from the New Testament that speaks of “utterances,” which is sometimes translated as “sighs,” that communicate the prayers we do not have words for.

The other pieces come from music I’ve created for my Renga Ensemble, which takes its name from a form of Japanese collective poetry. Most of the music for Renga was created around a haiku by American poet Anita Virgil:

not seeing
the room is white
until that red apple

“The Room Is,” composed by James Falzone and performed with the Renga Ensemble:


SI: What are you most looking forward to with this performance, and what do you hope audience members will gain from attending?

BW: John Cage often said that his goal as a composer was to “make an art that, while coming from ideas, is not about those ideas, but rather produces others.” I echo this desire when I honestly answer that I don’t wish for our audience members to gain any one insight or worse, “message.” I hope our program might inspire others to improvise, or to make work of their own, or to seek out the fantastic spirit that is within each mundane utterance or environmental sound in their daily lives.

Photo on right by Marc Perlish.

Utterances is Thursday, March 2 at 8pm at the Chapel Performance Space at the Good Shepherd Center in Wallingford. For more information, click here.

Women in (New) Music: Celebrating the Treemonishas in Classical Music

by Maggie Molloy


Education as salvation is the major theme of Scott Joplin’s 1912 opera Treemonisha, the powerful tale of a young African-American woman who protects her community against those who seek to take advantage of their systemic lack of education.

It’s a theme that continues to influence art and music of today, as over a century later we find ourselves still grappling with the far-reaching effects of slavery and the oppression of the African-American race.

This Saturday and Sunday, the North Corner Chamber Orchestra (NOCCO) presents RESONANCE: a concert celebrating the voices of African-American composers who have, across history, given a musical voice to the strength, power, and perseverance of their communities.

The concert program features the overture from Joplin’s Treemonisha alongside brand new works by two local artists: composer Hanna Benn and conceptual artist C. Davida Ingram.

Benn’s new work for chamber orchestra, titled Sankofa, is a spiritual reflection on the music and influence of African-American women composers across history. Ingram’s piece is an illuminating lyrical/visual essay about modern day Treemonishas: women of color who are powerful leaders of their communities. Also featured on the program are evocative works by Alvin Singleton and George Walker.


To find out more about what’s in store, we spoke with Hanna Benn and C. Davida Ingram about music, race, today’s Treemonishas, and the importance of education:

Second Inversion: What was the inspiration behind Sankofa, and what does it sound like?

Hanna Benn: “Sankofa” is a word in the Twi language of Ghana that translates to “Go back and get it,” as in we must go back and understand our heritage in order to go forward.

This piece is very meditative and reflective. I imagine it sounds like the meditation I’ve been in for the past several months of musing, reflecting, and doing research on black American composers—really finding inspiration from them. It was like subconsciously asking for guidance from my ancestors.

SI: What story does your piece tell? What are the major themes and ideas at work behind the music?

HB: Sometimes for me, it feels like speaking is not my first language, and so when composing music or writing a piece, once I’m finished, I have a hard time articulating what it’s about. It’s almost like being in a trance—I have no memory of it anymore; it’s gone. But this piece came from somewhere—it came from the inspiration, history, and music of these women.

The reason why I actually titled the piece “Sankofa” was that sentiment of asking my ancestors for help so that I might understand more about myself, looking inward. The piece sounds somewhat reflective and introverted in nature. I have six different movements, and there isn’t a narrative to the piece but they are these six poems, almost—six states of being:

Mvt. I: Inward Gazes the Spirit
Mvt. II: May I Come Back to Me
Mvt. III: Divide
Mvt. IV: Walks with an Offering
Mvt. V: Joy Submits and It Repeats
Mvt. VI: My Beloved Speaks

“My beloved” we usually say when we’re speaking of God or a higher being, but with this piece I’m speaking to my higher being. When I say “my beloved,” it’s like a love poem to myself. So Sankofa, you must go back and get it—it’s this love, this loving of the self and truly understanding oneself.

In one of his poems, Rumi says, “You must be as wide as the air to learn a secret,” and it’s this gesture of knowledge and understanding in order to move forward.

SI: How did writing this piece stretch you as an artist and musician?

HB: I have written for orchestra before, however this ensemble is completely different because they do not have a conductor, and so they have this beautiful process of hyper-listening. If there’s no conductor, they have to have more faith in each other, and it asks for more communication all around.

On a larger scale, it is such a crucial time for us to listen and to be present and open. I believe this concert is very special because of that—not only the material we will be performing, but the balance and the lack of hierarchy in this ensemble and the example it sets for others.

SI: In what ways (if any) do you feel that being a woman of color has shaped your experiences as an artist? What advice do you have for other female-identifying artists who face similar prejudices?

HB: One hundred percent, it shapes me. It is important, as a woman, to never forget that beautiful part of you. I am very proud and in love with the vessel that I carry and I think one hundred percent it shapes my experience and my outlook and what I write.

Me being a woman and me being a woman of color is my music, because that is who I am. I would encourage other women to not let go of that, because it is very precious.

SI: What do you find most inspiring about this NOCCO program?

C. Davida Ingram: The artists who I found most inspirational in RESONANCE were Hanna Benn and Scott Joplin. Their music speaks to me in different ways: Hanna because of her virtuosity and polyrhythmic cadence—she sort of feels like if you could listen to all of the those ways Our Lady of Theresa was having jouissance because of her ecstatic love affair with the divine—and Joplin because he gave me the gift of an intersectional feminist story that is set in the first Redemption as we go through the second Redemption that is delight to the ear. 

I wrote that his overture in Treemonisha “explains why black joy matters. This opening melody sounds like rushing in of something that has the feel of dancing in sunshine with a blazingly open heart.”

SI: Can you tell us a bit about the lyrical/visual essay you are sharing? What was the inspiration behind it?

CDI: I fell in love with Treemonisha after I learned about Joplin’s piece for the NOCCO show. Heather Bentley sent me a book with discs of the music and I sort of went into the Matrix—complete with a very vivid dream of an ancestor who looks a lot like Scott Joplin walking me down a pink stair.

Because of the spiritual way that Joplin’s piece moved me, the central figure of Treemonisha became in a way a muse for me, and also a way of giving a meditation on the black song book. James Baldwin’s fictional gospel singer Arthur Montana cries: Look what you done to my song. I follow that directive.

Personally I took this project as an opportunity to reflect on how indebted I feel to black educators on one hand—that particular subject is close to my heart. My mother is an incredible teacher and finished her PhD on how black students and their families think about the opportunity gap they face.

And on the other I am considering what white people do not know about whiteness. I feel very historical, at this moment, when I think about race in America—not as something that must always define the present but as something that is simply good to know about human behavior, and as an aftereffect.

For example, did you know in Antebellum Virginia there was a law that white human traffickers could give 20 lashes of the whip to kidnapped Africans that they enslaved if the latter were found reading or writing? Think about that. It’s the sort of thing that gives Treemonisha a resplendent repose and riposte. Black master teachers make maps to freedom—always have, always will.

So my mind’s eye went looking for the “Treemonishas” in my life—the community-building educators, those who believe in restorative justice, the feminists who believe women of color can lead (these are all part of the story of Joplin’s Treemonisha).

I was lucky to have a gifted educator as a mom. Sometimes I cringe when people call me ‘articulate’ after I speak. However, I also know a portion of what they are seeing is a partial blueprint of survival in white America—mastery of words and ideas that white people can recognize as their own. My mother loved me and the rest of my four siblings, so she taught as though our lives (and hers) depended on it; because in many respects it did. Both of my parents gave me that.

In terms of music, I think of blackness as an essential primer for understanding the American song book because all of our original American music comes directly from black culture—e.g. blues, jazz, hip hop, house music. America is very African, in that way. At the same time, I engage whiteness when I do my work here because it gets a bit tiresome if the expectation is that I am supposed to always be explaining blackness to assuage white curiosity. Our world has gotten mighty peculiar of late, and I think it is in large part due to not talking about whiteness.

SI: In what ways (if any) do you feel that being a woman of color has shaped your experiences as an artist? What advice do you have for other female-identifying artists who face similar prejudices?

CDI: In my lyrical essay for the piece (which still needs a title), I write:

Because of the constant context of white supremacy in all American art forms, I see this program as a meditation on black brilliance—underscore brilliance.

When I soften the emphasis on blackness it is not because I want to avoid footnoting the brutishness of white supremacy and institutional racism. If we did, it would still remain the elephant in the room. However, when we see that a group of predominantly white musicians can acknowledge how racism seeks to impoverish them, how it cuts off the air in the room in terms of what versions of excellence take space in the canon, then the light that shines brightest here is black brilliance and what also extrudes are the ways that whiteness is benighted, at times, because of the construction of racism and white supremacy.

And if I take things a step beyond that—it is not blackness that we are looking at but rather brilliance, which is to say that kaleidoscopic light that humans cast out and its incredible, inexorable beauty.


Performances of RESONANCE are this Saturday, Feb. 18 at 2pm at New Holly Gathering Hall and Sunday, Feb. 19 at 7:30pm at Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute. For tickets and information, click here.

ALBUM REVIEW: 26 by Melia Watras

by Geoffrey Larson

Photo by Michelle Smith-Lewis

If you’ve ever witnessed a live solo or chamber music performance by Melia Watras, you are familiar with the sense of immediacy that her playing involves. It’s this immediacy of beautiful tone and hard-charging energy that seizes the listener in her live performances. I was hoping that her new album on Sono Luminus, titled 26 after the total number of strings on instruments played in the recording, would yield the same ear-grabbing experience. On the whole, it does not disappoint.

The album’s selections are all world-premiere recordings of new works of music, the majority of which are Watras’ compositions. The program of music here is smart for a couple reasons. First, let’s be honest: an album of contemporary viola solos and duets may not be everyone’s cup of tea, even fellow musicians. But for those in search of interesting discoveries of great new music and those eager to discover the far reaches of a viola’s solistic capabilities, this album presents a vibrant range of music that refreshingly eschews mainstream-appeal fluffiness. Watras’ personal connection to the composers and performers also strengthens the performances immeasurably: her former teacher Atar Arad performs his and Watras’ compositions, and she is also joined by her husband, violinist Michael Jinsoo Lim and longtime collaborator Garth Knox on viola d’amore. For these reasons, it definitely deserves a listen.

Watras’ compositions on 26 present a style with foundations in improvisation, rounded out with high amounts of technical difficulty. Liquid Voices, with its shimmering harmonics, crunching dissonances and angular, Stravinsky-like melodies, was inspired by a Virginia Woolf short story. Prelude and Luminous Points are both intensely personal portrait-like works, the first inspired by Bach and Watras’ relationship with her former teacher and the second by Lim’s evocative high playing. Photo by Mikel is possibly the album’s most energetic work and sounds especially improv-driven, evoking all sorts of different characters from the instrument. The Sonata for Viola Solo seems like a real repertoire piece, just jam-packed with musical content that utilizes a huge range on the instrument and some interesting techniques. Though the speed at which ideas move by is occasionally jarring, this is great musical storytelling, and I am left feeling like I’ve been along with Watras on a real journey of some sort. Its message is slightly uplifting, with the theme of a “timeless positive force” from the second movement returning at the very end in offstage playing.

Bicinium, a composition by Watras’ UW colleague Richard Karpen, presents two long, winding lines that succeed in creating a lush, enjoyable texture from only two instruments. Lim’s violin and Watras’ viola are tightly wound together, never resting in this marathon 20-minute composition until the viola gets the last word at the end. The piece’s general idea is varied in expressive ways, evoking shifting pastel colors, but this work is straightforward overall, producing no sounds that seem particularly new or different.

The two works by Arad and the one by Garth Knox are more instantly accessible than the other pieces on this release, for better or for worse. In the album-opening Toccatina a la Turk, I could feel a bit of Brubeck even before I heard the direct Blue Rondo reference. The short, fiery variation at the end left me wishing that this brief composition was longer, and took that theme further into Turkish territory. Esther contains some of the most lyrical writing on the whole album, and is a wonderful showcase for the richness of Watras’ and Arad’s viola sounds. Knox’s Stranger is possibly the album’s most tonal work, but not one of simplicity, cycling through some arresting sonic elements that are easy to love and stay with the listener.

The crystal-clear Sono Luminus sound only serves to strengthen the impact of 26. This is an album that does more than just show off virtuosity: it showcases Melia Watras’ bravery as a performer and composer, and clearly translates the power of close personal relationships in great chamber music performances. The only thing better would be seeing these musicians perform this program live in person.

[editor’s note: you CAN see selections from this performed live! Melia’s 26 album release show will be on Friday, February 24 in Brechemin Auditorium (University of Washington School of Music) at 7:30pm. The program includes selections from 26, a video presentation, and commentary from the artist.]

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.

CONCERT PREVIEW: Meet the Sound Ensemble Q&A

by Maggie Molloy

It’s a new year and there is a new Sound in Seattle—the Sound Ensemble, to be precise.

sound-ensemble

Founded and directed by conductor Bobby Collins and tuba player Jameson Bratcher, the Sound Ensemble is a new music collective dedicated to performing innovative and transformative classical music concerts that defy traditional concert hall expectations. With a flexible lineup of winds, brass, strings, piano, and wide-ranging percussion, the ensemble crafts performances that are at once thought-provoking and accessible for contemporary classical newcomers and seasoned new music enthusiasts alike.

This Saturday, Jan. 7, marks the second concert in their inaugural season at the Chapel Performance Space at the Good Shepherd Center in Wallingford. Cheekily titled “Life After Y2K,” the concert features a full program of music written after the turn of the 21st century.

First on the program is the world premiere of a brand new chamber orchestra work composed by Sound Ensemble flutist Sarah Bassingthwaighte. Titled Further Letters from the Earth, the piece calls for a whole range of extended techniques and unfamiliar sounds inspired by the world’s most primordial music: the sounds of nature.

Life After Y2K also features new works by local composers Greg Dixon, Sean Osborn, and Marcin Paczkowski, and New York-based composer Daron Hagen’s fiercely mystical Chamber Symphony concludes the evening.

We wanted to hear a bit more about what’s in store for the Sound Ensemble, so we sat down with Bobby Collins, Jameson Bratcher, and Sarah Bassingthwaighte to get an inside scoop:

Second Inversion: What was the inspiration behind starting the Sound Ensemble?

bobby-collinsBobby Collins: In starting the Sound Ensemble, Jameson and I sought to create a flexible ensemble that could morph to fit the needs of our community, both audience and performer. 

Our goal is two-fold: firstly, to create an exploratory and welcoming environment in which our audience can experience contemporary classical music and discover their own connections to the music without feeling intimidated by the culture of classical music.

We want to curate a listening experience for the audience that more accurately represents their listening at home through diversity of style, ensemble size, and instrumentation. As someone who loves the classics but has found a home in the music of our time, I work to create in-roads to contemporary music for those who might otherwise be scared away by the infamous term “new music.” By demonstrating connections to pop music and music of earlier times, I believe we can engage a wider range of music appreciators than might otherwise attend “classical” concerts.

Secondly, we work to create an organization that can help our members fulfill their artistic goals. When we recruit performers, we look for highly-skilled and creative musicians who are eager to share their artistry with those around them. As Music Director, I welcome their input about future programming and outreach ideas that will help us connect with the community. If one of our performers has an idea for a concert or particular piece, I will work with them to make it part of our season. 

SI:  Can you tell us a bit about the Life After Y2K performance and the repertoire you selected?

BC: The programing of Life After Y2K goes to the heart of what the Sound Ensemble is working to accomplish. In our experience of classical music, we often unconsciously think of great composition ending after 1900 or 1950 at the latest, but there is so much beautiful, playful, and profound music being composed to this day.

For Life After Y2K, we chose music that represents the wide range of compositional techniques currently in common use, including premieres by Greg Dixon and Sarah Bassingthwaighte, plus other new works by local composers Sean Osborn and Marcin Paczkowski. We will round the concert out with Daron Hagen’s Chamber Symphony.

The title Life After Y2K is a playful jab at our inclination as performers and audience members to think that musical life practically ended once we reached the 20th century, just as we all thought the world was going to end after Y2K. Thankfully, we are all here to keep enjoying music together.

SI: What makes the Sound Ensemble unique?jameson-b

Jameson Bratcher: The Sound Ensemble hopes to engage with our audience in a more intimate way than the usual concert experience. Rather than retreating backstage, the musicians hang out in the audience when they are not performing and are readily available to chat. The Sound Ensemble has a refreshing humility to it; the “rules” of music are changing so continually that we don’t have time to be dogmatic. We perform whole-heartedly and passionately, but not with closed minds.


SI: What type of listening experience do you create at Sound Ensemble concerts?

JB: I like to think of our concerts like having a bunch of friends over for a meal. The Sound Ensemble as the host does a lot of prep beforehand and is certainly busy in the kitchen as our guests arrive. When it is time to perform, just as in a great meal, we engage with our guests and we all get to enjoy the fruit of the hard work together. At the Good Shepherd Center the stage is hardly higher than the floor, which diminishes the separation between musician and audience that is felt at most halls.

Audience members can expect to hear some new and unusual things but in a casual atmosphere. Back to our meal, just as you might ask about what ingredients are in a dish or what method of cooking was used, our musicians are available and excited to talk about the music and also learn about what your favorite parts are. We are all hungry for beauty and understanding of the world around us and our concerts are aimed to whet that appetite. 

I personally love when younger students attend our concerts as they have no deep-seated expectations of how things “should” go. No one really knows where the future of music is going so we want to discover it for ourselves as a community. 

SI: Can you tell us a bit about your piece Further Letters from the Earth?

sarah-bSarah Bassingthwaighte:
The inspiration for Further Letters from the Earth is the complex relationship between humans and the natural world since the year 2000. I spend a lot of time in our beautiful mountains, as well as on the water, and the first part of the piece, “Playful,” features some of the sounds that I enjoy so much: splashing water, rain, wind, birds. I use a drone to represent the sense of quiet I experience when I’m out backpacking—which is a little ironic, since it actually is the escape from the drone of everyday electronic noise and traffic that I love. 

Then the tension increases in “Heat,” and the sounds of heat, melting, burning, and stress replace the playful sounds. This gradually leads to the third section, “Unleashed,” which is driving and energetic. This section is inspired by the hurricanes, typhoons, earthquakes and so on that have occurred in the last decade and are caused, in part, by humans. This section is the most rhythmically compelling, and the most traditional musically. The last section, titled “After,” represents an uneasy peace with the natural world.

Further Letters from the Earth is a follow-up piece to one that I wrote for the Seattle Percussion Collective in 2011. That group did an amazing job, and a few of the sounds from that piece (and some of the message) made it into this one: a gravel box, (which the percussionist runs in), bed sheets that are torn, and a giant pot of water for splashing sounds.  

Overall, the sounds throughout the piece are unusual and otherworldly. I call for exercise bands threaded through the strings of the piano (and operated by the other instrumentalists)—these create an eerie sound that has no attack, that sort of floats above the rest of the music. Each instrument has special capabilities, such as helicopter tonguing in the bassoon, growling in the tuba, or singing while playing the flute. Plus I really enjoyed experimenting with ping pong balls on the strings of the piano—a great sound! 

SI: What are you most looking forward to with the Life After Y2K performance, and with the future of the Sound Ensemble?

SB: It is my hope that performing this piece, and listening to it, is actually pretty fun.  Each player explores unusual sounds on their instruments, from multiphonics to wind sounds to percussive techniques, and most of the players get up out of their chair at some point to make sound inside the piano (so there’s a bit of a visual element to the piece).

The Sound Ensemble is an exciting and inspiring group for me to work with.  Everyone in the group has a sense of adventure as well as technical mastery of their instrument, and the energy is so positive and stimulating.  Bobby is a strong, organized, and inspirational leader, and he helps pull together this amazing group of musicians. 

And at the concerts, the players mix with the audience at every opportunity to discuss the music and the instruments. I’m hoping that some audience members will be interested in our unusual instruments and techniques, and give us the opportunity to demonstrate. 

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The Sound Ensemble’s Life After Y2K performance is this Saturday, Jan. 7 at 7 p.m. at the Chapel Performance Space at the Good Shepherd Center in Wallingford. For tickets and additional information, please click here.

ALBUM REVIEW: The Glass Effect from Lavinia Meijer

by Maggie Molloy

When most people hear the harp, they think of Baroque suites or Celtic folk ballads, angels strumming heavenly melodies—or perhaps that sideline string instrument sandwiched between the violin and percussion sections of the orchestra.lavinia-meijer

But harpist Lavinia Meijer is interested in expanding those possibilities. In fact, she’s made an entire musical career out of it.

Meijer has cultivated a name for herself as one of the most diverse harpists of the 21st century, consistently seeking out little-known classical solo and orchestral repertoire, collaborating with contemporary cross-genre artists, and recording brand new music that bursts through classical music boundaries. And when the music’s not written for her instrument—she simply arranges it for harp herself.

Her latest project is The Glass Effect: a two-disc release featuring works composed and inspired by minimalist mastermind Philip Glass. The first disc is classic Glass: 10 of the composer’s famous 20 Piano Etudes, each delicately arranged and deftly performed on harp by Meijer. The second disc highlights Glass’s influence on the next generation of composers, featuring Glass-inspired compositions by Bryce Dessner, Nico Muhly, Nils Frahm, Ólafur Arnalds, and Ellis Ludwig-Leone.

Recorded as a tribute album for Glass’s 80th birthday this coming January, the two-disc set begins with a retrospective glance backward through Glass’s extraordinary compositional discography. Meijer lends her fingers to 10 of Glass’s 20 Etudes which, composed over the course of 1991-2012, offer a glimpse into the development and ongoing transformation of his harmonic language and compositional style.

Etudes are, of course, exercises: short musical compositions designed to develop (and, once learned, demonstrate) the skill and technique of the player. And trust me, Glass’s Etudes are no easy feat.

Yet Meijer dances with grace and charm through the entire obstacle course of changing tempi, textures, and techniques, crafting each phrase and every delicate detail with the utmost care and attention. From the soft and sweet lullabies of Glass’s early Etudes to the motoric rhythms and virtuosic variations of the later ones, Meijer’s arrangements maintain the music’s trademark clarity and unshakable sense of forward motion while also offering compelling insight into her instrument.

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The second disc is bookended by Glass’s haunting theme from the 1982 apocalyptic film Koyaanisqatsi, beginning first with Meijer’s solo harp arrangement. She craftily transforms the original synth-laden ostinato into a poignant and introspective solo piece which speaks to the sheer power and timelessness of Glass’s melody. But she doesn’t forgo the electronics entirely: the theme comes back again at the end of the album in a remixed version with electronics titled “Lift Off,” which Meijer created with sound designer Arthur Antoine in 2014.

The effects of Glass echo clearly throughout the second disc, which showcases how ambient and minimalist music has evolved (and continues to evolve) in the hands of young composers.

Among the first composers featured is Bryce Dessner (who you may recognize from the band The National) with his three-movement Suite for Harp. Dessner’s piece utilizes the full pitch range and performance idiosyncrasies of the harp, painting a hazy soundscape of softly cascading melodies, harmonics, and arpeggios.

laviniaNico Muhly’s two contributions to the album, each originally composed for piano, are more introspective in nature. Meijer’s fingers drift patiently through the simple, chant-like melodies and soft bass drones of Muhly’s “Quiet Music,” and her playing brings a quiet warmth and aching resonance to “A Hudson Cycle.”

Muhly’s pieces dissolve into the soft ambience of two of Ólafur Arnalds’ most music box-worthy compositions. Meijer twirls through the twinkling melodies of “Erla’s Waltz” and drifts sweetly through the circular harmonies of “Tomorrow’s Song.”

Arnalds’ friend and frequent collaborator Nils Frahm follows with two compositions originally composed for piano but expertly arranged for harp by Meijer. Breathy melodies float above soft (but busy) bass arpeggios in “Ambre,” while block chords echo against a serenely silent backdrop in “In the Sky and on the Ground.”

However, it’s perhaps composer Ellis Ludwig-Leone’s contribution which stretches the harp the furthest from its traditional musical stereotype. His composition “Night Loops” for harp, looping pedal, and electronics sparkles with fluttering melodies and crackling electronics, creating an entire glistening garden of timbres and musical textures.

And thus, the album ends with a glance toward the future—a look at how Philip Glass’s musical influence continues onward in all its ever-expanding variations and transformations.

Because although Glass may be a minimalist, his influence is far from minimal.

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Women in (New) Music: Two Women and an Opera House

by Elisabeth Blair, with introduction by Maggie Molloy

It’s been a few years since the Metropolitan Opera featured a work by a female composer—113 years, to be exact.

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That century-long drought ends this month with Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho’s L’Amour de Loin, running now through Dec. 29 at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City. Dazzling melodies, lush orchestration, shimmering electronics, modern LED set designs, and a heartrending French libretto by Amin Maalouf come together to tell a stylized tale of the 12th century troubadour Jaufré Rudel.

But we can’t all be in New York City to see it—so Classical KING FM 98.1 is bringing you the next best thing: a live broadcast of the matinee performance this Saturday, Dec. 10 at 10 a.m. PST.

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L’Amour de Loin (French for “love from afar”) first premiered at the Salzburg Festival in Austria in 2000, and quickly went on to become one of the most acclaimed operatic works of the 21st century. Scored for just three soloists, chorus, and orchestra, the opera offers an intimate look at the enduring power and purity of true love.

“In the midst of composing it, I understood that it was also my story,” Saariaho said in an interview with the New York Times. “I was at once the troubadour and the lady, these two parts of me that I try to reconcile in my life. To write music, concentration is necessary; an interior hearing. To be a woman, to be a mother, one needs to be always available and busy. It’s difficult to have, at the same time, your feet on the ground and your head in the sky.”

It’s difficult for anyone—but especially for women, who have been systemically and institutionally excluded from composition and other leadership roles throughout history. Saariaho’s Metropolitan Opera premiere is a triumph for women everywhere who are fighting to have their music heard—a triumph made possible by the bold footprints of the women who came before us.

The first and only other woman to break the ranks forcefully enough to see her work performed at the Met was English composer and suffragist Ethel Smyth, with her 1903 opera Der Wald: a richly orchestrated folktale of two young lovers and the witch who comes between them.

And so, with the Met’s century-long spell of male composers finally broken, we wanted to take you back in time 100 years and give you a closer look at just what it took for Smyth to become history’s first female composer on the Metropolitan Opera stage.

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Ethel Smyth’s adulthood began with a well-orchestrated protest.  When she was 19, her father forbade her to go to Leipzig to study music composition. She responded by refusing church, musical participation at dinner parties, riding, and speaking. Eventually her father, having become so frustrated with her that he kicked her bedroom door until the panel was “all but penetrated,” relented—and gave up disallowing her much of anything ever again.

She continually found creative solutions to the restrictions placed upon women at the time. In 1878, still 19 and now victoriously arrived in Leipzig, she dressed up as an elderly lady in order to attend an evening concert unescorted. The costume included drawn-on wrinkles and a rented wig, and the ruse was a success. She was plainly unafraid of public humiliation—a valuable quality in a woman whose life’s calling forced her to overstep social mores each day.

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A devout dog-lover, Smyth had a total of five dogs in close succession. Eight years before her death she devoted an entire book, Inordinate (?) Affection, to recollections of her animal companions that sometimes offer an unlikely and intimate view of the elite music world at the time.

In her memoirs she tells of a time that she spiritedly took up a dare and wore a French coachman’s hat while riding her bike down Piccadilly, leading her dog as she went. This may seem unremarkable now, but in the first decade of the 20th century, such a gender-bending public display was bold.

In a musical context she was also unafraid. In 1911 she put on a concert of her opera The Wreckers herself, stepping outside the main concert venues and securing a conductor, Thomas Beecham—who promptly forgot about this engagement. When it came time for the performance, he was nowhere to be found—so Smyth simply conducted the performance herself.

Combined with luck, money, and a high social status, these qualities—a refusal to engage with the male-determined status quo in the manner expected, boundlessly creative problem-solving, and bold ambition—helped her break through the ceiling of the classical music world.

But it was no easy task.

ethelSmyth’s memoirs recall a merry-go-round of failure, rejection, dashed hopes, extraordinary social maneuverings, disappointments, delays, cancellations, futile energies spent, promises broken, twists of fate, and every other kind of impediment, particularly in her fight to have her operas staged.

As she notes in one of her memoirs, What Happened Next, so many sudden, untimely deaths, dismissals and retirements occurred during or leading up to performances that she wondered whether her operas were cursed. Long-awaited contracts about to be signed would halt when the person responsible would be “swept off the scene by sudden illness.”

A producer in Germany, one Georg Pierson, had been working on the rehearsal sheets for a hoped-for premiere of Der Wald when he fell ill and soon thereafter died. (She wrote blithely but resignedly to her long-time companion Henry Brewster, “You will not be surprised to hear that I have killed Pierson.”)

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These events were generally disastrous for her plans, forcing her to start over, leverage new social capital, and follow what leads she could. She underwent trial after trial in this way, and her American adventure was no exception. Soon after she arrived for her five-week stay in New York City, Maurice Grau—the director of policy of the Metropolitan Opera House and the man who had booked Der Wald after its success at Covent Garden—died, after a brief illness.

By Smyth’s account, Grau’s successor was whiny, manipulative, and oppositional. In New York she also suffered from tonsillitis, a fever, and finally laryngitis, and she was only able to attend the final choral rehearsal. Although she granted that the press reviews were favorable overall, of the Met performance itself she remarked only, “I do not remember much about it except that the scene-painting and the quality of the orchestra were on a higher level than at Covent Garden and everything else far worse.”

The replacement director had also limited Der Wald’s run to just two performances in New York and one in Boston, and she felt she had travelled too far for too little return. She pronounced her consent to the New York City project as “one of the major foolish acts of my life.”

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“The cards put by kind Fate into [my] hands […] were good health, a fair dose of persistence and fighting instinct, and most important of all, a small independent income which rendered possible a continuous struggle for musical existence such as no woman obliged to earn her livelihood in music could have carried on.”

In her book Female Pipings in Eden, Smyth carefully details with typical clear-headedness how difficult a process it was for anyone, men included, to move a work from conception to performance. It began with writing the manuscript and parts, making costly engravings, and convincing publishers whom she suspected were of the opinion that “all this damned modern stuff ought to be put down by the police.”

If publication could be had, then a conductor was needed, and at the time conductors always worked with a committee of several dozen tradesmen, who avoided new music in favor of older, more crowd-pleasing stuff. Add to this already intimidating process the hassle of being a woman, and the obstacles became, as she points out, almost insurmountable.

“As things are today,” she wrote, “it is absolutely impossible in this country for a woman composer to get and to keep her head above water; to go on from strength to strength, and develop such powers as she may possess.”

Yet Ethel Smyth did the impossible, and even maintained a vibrant optimism while doing it. She delighted in the notion that any day now a “champion” of women in music, someone with all the power, will, and money necessary to make changes, would enter the scene. She suggested presciently that “the wireless, and future developments thereof that we cannot foresee, may help to break down many ancient taboos, this among the number.”

It is difficult to imagine maintaining such an optimism despite everything—and yet she did. But have we, who are swimming now in the internet and in globalism, yet arrived at that taboo-breaking moment?

Smyth was an exceptional human being and she broke exceptional ground in the face of great resistance. Yet it was apparently asking too much of society to invest in the talent, ambition, and vision of any other female opera composer in the past century who dreamed of a Metropolitan Opera debut.

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Thus we find ourselves at the end of a 113 year gap—the time between the staging of Ethel Smyth’s Der Wald and the current staging of Kaija Saariaho’s L’Amour de Loin—hoping that enough changes are taking place within the classical music world and society at large that we will not have to wait another century for the next woman composer to grace the stage.

Kaija Saariaho’s L’Amour de Loin runs through Dec. 29 at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. KING FM 98.1 presents a live broadcast of the performance on-air this Saturday, Dec. 10 at 10 a.m. PST. Tune in at 98.1 or online at www.king.org.

Please click here for a full list of references.