STAFF PICKS: Friday Faves

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

ALBUM REVIEW: Unbound by the Jasper String Quartet

by Maggie Molloy

Photo by Dario Acosta.

Over the course of their decade-long career, the Jasper String Quartet has become pretty familiar with the famous quartets of historic masters like Haydn, Beethoven, and even Bartók—so when it came time to record a new album, they decided to look for new musical inspiration a little closer to home.

Unbound is a collection of 21st century works that burst through the boundaries of traditional Western musical styles and forms. The Jaspers—comprised of violinists J Freivogel and Sae Chonabayashi, violist Sam Quintal, and cellist Rachel Henderson Freivogel—explore the furthest reaches of the string quartet repertoire with new works by seven of today’s most dynamic composers.

Featuring compositions by Caroline Shaw, Missy Mazzoli, Annie Gosfield, Judd Greenstein, David Lang, Donnacha Dennehy, and Ted Hearne, the album unfolds as a survey of today’s spectacularly diverse and dynamic string music landscape, each piece stretching the string quartet tradition in new and inventive ways.

The album begins with Caroline Shaw’s tangy and succulent “Valencia,” the video for which we premiered just last week on Second Inversion. The Jaspers bring precision and playfulness to Shaw’s billowing harmonics and bold bow strokes, evoking the brilliant colors and juicy texture of the fresh, flavorful fruit.

Missy Mazzoli’s contribution to the album, by contrast, is a bit more narrative-driven. “Death Valley Junction” is inspired by a small American town of the same name, where a woman named Marta Becket resurrected a crumbling opera house in the late 1960s and went on to perform weekly one-woman shows there for over 40 years. An airy, sparse, desert-inspired soundscape gradually gives way to a wild and exuberant dance, evoking Becket’s colorful imagination and unshakable optimism.

It’s followed by Annie Gosfield’s “The Blue Horse Walks on the Horizon,” a piece she wrote specifically for the Jaspers. Inspired by the surreal radio broadcasts and codes used by European resistance groups during World War II, the piece unfolds through shifting, repetitive figures that evoke the abstract coded messages.

Group dynamics are the key theme behind Judd Greenstein’s contribution to the album. “Four on the Floor” is an energetic, fast-paced work which explores different instrument pairings working with and against one another in constantly changing teams.

Photo by Dario Acosta.

David Lang’s “almost all the time” explores a different type of evolution. The piece begins with a simple cell of a musical idea—what he calls “a little 10 note strand of musical DNA”—but across 18 minutes expands and evolves into a beautiful genetic mutation, each detail carefully crafted under the Jaspers’ fingers.

Donnacha Dennehy’s “Pushpulling” is more elastic in its movements. Frenetic bow strokes speed ever-forward, but are slowly and patiently pulled back to silence each time—pushing and pulling the listener along for the ride.

The album closes with Ted Hearne’s circular “Excerpts from the middle of something,” the first movement of his Law of Mosaics. Unusual in its form, the piece consists of a climactic build-up that, instead of resolving, is simply repeated and revised several times. And yet, each time it is convincing: the Jaspers play each rendition with the explosive energy and enthusiasm of a grand finale.

It’s an exclamation point at the end of the album but also a metaphor, perhaps, for the album’s overarching theme: the string quartet repertoire did not die with Haydn or Beethoven, but is still alive and still evolving to this day.

ALBUM REVIEW: David Lang’s the national anthems

by Maggie Molloy

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As we near another anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks, we’re reminded of just how terrifyingly destructive and divisive those events were, both within our country and beyond it. Nearly 3,000 innocent civilians died that day—along with another 6,000 who were injured—and that was only the beginning of what was to come.

The attacks led our nation’s troops into what has become the longest-running war in U.S. history. Since 9/11, nearly 2 million U.S. soldiers have been deployed to Afghanistan or Iraq. Over 6,000 American troops have been killed, another 44,000 wounded, and the rest of our nation’s lives forever changed in the legislation that has followed.

Nineteen hijackers changed our nation, our world, and the entire course of history.

It begs the question: Why?

Why are the nations of the world so divided? Why do we keep terrorizing one another? Why do we keep fighting these wars? Are we really all that different?

These are some of the questions composer David Lang asks with his composition “the national anthems” (note the lowercase, implying equality), a choral work released earlier this summer on Cantaloupe Music. Performed by the Los Angeles Master Chorale (under the baton of Grant Gershon) with the Calder String Quartet, the album takes a critical look at the way we as individual nations define ourselves.

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Los Angeles Master Chorale under the baton of Grant Gershon. Photo credit: David Johnston

“I had the idea that if I looked carefully at every national anthem I might be able to identify something that everyone in the world could agree on,” Lang said. “If I could take just one hopeful sentence from the national anthem of every nation in the world I might be able to make a kind of meta-anthem of the things that we all share. “

He combed through the anthems of all 193 countries in the United Nation, pulling one line from each to use in his libretto.

“What I found, to my shock and surprise,” Lang said, “Was that within almost every anthem is a bloody, war-like, tragic core, in which we cover up our deep fears of losing our freedoms with waves of aggression and bravado.”

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David Lang. Photo Credit: Peter Serling

That underlying sense of fear haunts the entire work, with the choir’s prayerful voices rising above a stained glass string accompaniment. The piece is organized into five movements exploring themes of peace, courage, glory, freedom, and community, ever so slowly sprawling outward from the first movement’s unified, tight-knit harmonies toward contrapuntal chaos.

The piece builds in quiet urgency through the war-stained patriotic glory of the middle movements, the once-unified voices separating as the wounded strings weep softly in the distance. And yet, the final movement returns to a churchlike hymn, the voices once again finding unity in their hopes, their prayers, and their music.

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Calder Quartet. Photo Credit: Autumn de Wilde

The anthem is paired with another largescale choral work: Lang’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “the little match girl passion,” based on the children’s story of The Little Match Girl by Hans Christian Andersen. It’s a classic parable given new depth through Lang’s masterful part-writing: a poor young girl, beaten by her father, fails to sell matches on the street and freezes from the bitter cold of the cruel world around her. Yet in wake of “the national anthems,” her story serves a dual purpose, reminding us of the personal wars and private tragedies we all face—and how truly delicate and cherished is our freedom.

“Hiding in every national anthem is the recognition that we are insecure about our freedoms, that freedom is fragile, and delicate, and easy to lose,” Lang said. “Maybe an anthem is a memory informing a kind of prayer, a heartfelt plea: There was a time when we were forced to live in chains. Please don’t make us live in chains again.

ALBUM REVIEW: Maya Beiser’s TranceClassical

by Maggie Molloy

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Johann Sebastian Bach’s influence on the classical music tradition is immeasurable. Even now, nearly three centuries after his death, he remains one of the most performed composers of all time. Bach was the first of the three B’s, he was the golden standard against which all future composers would come to be measured—he was the undisputed king of counterpoint.

And he was also among the first composers that cellist Maya Beiser ever heard as a child, quickly becoming a central pillar in her musical development. Bach’s influence on Beiser extended far past her studies of the Baroque tradition or even the classical tradition—clear into her musical interpretations of 21st century compositions.

Beiser’s new album, TranceClassical, features the cutting-edge works of an incredible cast of contemporary composers: Michael Gordon, Imogen Heap, Glenn Kotche, Lou Reed, David Lang, Julia Wolfe, Mohammed Fairouz, and David T. Little.

And yet, the album is not wholly a product of the 21st century. TranceClassical is bookended by Beiser’s own arrangements of classic works by Bach and Hildegard von Bingen—and every 21st century work in between draws from the style, sensitivity, and skill of the early classical music tradition.

TranceClassical started from a washed-out still photo in my mind,” Beiser said. “Me, as a little girl curled with a blanket on her parents’ sofa, hearing Bach for the first time, hanging onto every mysterious note coming out of the scratchy LP. TranceClassical is the arc my mind sketches between everything I create and Bach—David Lang and Bach, Glenn Kotche and Bach, Michael Gordon and Bach.”

The album begins with Beiser’s own wistful arrangement of Bach’s famous “Air on the G String,” recreated as she first heard it in her childhood: the melody singing sweetly above the sounds of a distant, crackling LP.

Composer Michael Gordon’s “All Vows” features another meandering melody, this one echoing in churchlike reverberations. Interlacing cello motives transport the listener straight into a meditative trance, evoking a somber and nostalgic glance backward in music history.

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It’s followed by a glance forward: Beiser’s rendition of synth-pop superstar Imogen Heap’s “Hide and Seek.” Here we find Beiser singing in ghostly three part harmonies above a solemn cello accompaniment—all heavily processed to create an unshakable sense of eeriness and desolation.

The cello moves back to center stage for rock drummer Glenn Kotche’s contribution, “Three Parts Wisdom.” Densely layered to showcase Beiser’s remarkable cello chops, the piece features one fiercely challenging melodic line plus seven layers of computer-generated delays—and all happening in real time.

And speaking of rock stars: the album also features a rendition of the Velvet Underground’s “Heroin,” arranged by composer David Lang. But don’t expect the hypnotic drone of Lou Reed’s original two-chord tune—Lang’s arrangement is almost unrecognizable, layering Beiser’s despondent, breathless vocals above jagged cello arpeggios in this haunting rendition.

Composer Julia Wolfe’s “Emunah” is a different kind of haunting: the droning, dissonant, and anxiety-driven kind of haunting. Wordless vocals whisper above cello tremolo, relentlessly pulling the listener back and forth in time.

Arab-American composer Mohammed Fairouz’s “Kol Nidrei” is perhaps the most striking and evocative work on the album. The piece echoes of ancient cantorial styles, with Beiser singing sacred Arameic text above ominously deep, dark cello melodies.

The trance is broken, however, with the onset of composer David T. Little’s “Hellhound,” a metallic rock ‘n’ roll tune inspired by blues legend Robert Johnson’s song “Hellhound on my Trail.” Andrew McKenna Lee steps in on electric guitar, but Beiser shreds hard enough on her cello to rival his raging solos.

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And in another unexpected musical turn, the album ends with Beiser’s own cello arrangement of Hildegard von Bingen’s choral work “O Virtus Sapientiae.” (Yes, as in Hildegard the 11th century composer and Christian mystic you studied in music history class.) Beiser’s rendition, however, features no vocals at all—it doesn’t need any. The sacred, solemn melody of her cello is music enough.

And although medieval choral music seems a far cry from the metallic drone of the Velvet Underground, Beiser manages the full range of music on the album with skill, precision, and charisma. Because whether she’s playing Julia Wolfe or Imogen Heap, Michael Gordon, or even Lou Reed—there’s a little bit of Bach in all of it.

“No matter how far I venture, how rebellious, or avant-garde or electronic, my artistic mooring stays with the creation of this immense genius,” Beiser said. “The pieces I bring here give me a sense of trance—a reverie and meditation on his place in my heart.”

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ALBUM REVIEW: “Nature” by The City of Tomorrow

by Maggie Molloy

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Dating back to the Late Stone Age, the conch shell was among the earliest musical instruments—and while wind instruments have grown and transformed a lot over the course of the last 20,000 years, they have always had maintained an intimate connection with nature. Throughout history, composers have used the rich tone color of wind instruments to imitate the chirping of the birds, the spraying of the sea, or the rising of the sun.

Even today, contemporary musicians are finding new ways to explore this unique musical relationship between wind instruments and nature—in fact, the contemporary wind quintet City of Tomorrow devoted their entire debut album to doing just that.

Comprised of flutist Elise Blatchford, oboist Stuart Breczinski, clarinetist Camila Barrientos, bassoonist Laura Miller, and horn player Leander Star, City of Tomorrow is committed to much more than just music. The one-of-a-kind quintet merges elements of contemporary classical and experimental music with themes of environmentalism and humanism. Through their music they offer new perspectives on current social and political issues ranging from environmental destruction and war to the everyday injustices of living in the Digital Age.

Their new album, titled “NATURE,” explores the evolution of humanity’s relationship with nature through works by four contemporary composers. The album considers nature through the lens of 18th- and 19th-century Romantic ideas of the Sublime: the overwhelming brilliance of the natural world surrounding us and our inexorable vulnerability in its presence. The album also serves as the first installment of a three-disc set that will musically trace the progression of nature from the Romantic era to the apocalyptic.

The first piece on the album is David Lang’s “breathless,” a work which illustrates the ceaseless flow of nature through delicately circling motives in each instrument. The soundscape moves slowly and steadily forward with a minimalist aesthetic, each wind instrument gently layered over one another in prismatic, ever-changing rhythmic patterns.

Next on the album is Luciano Berio’s “Ricorrenze.” Italian for “recurrences,” the piece explores the delicate balance between order and chaos in nature. The work begins with soft, unison D’s in every instrument before growing into swirling layers of virtuosic melodic lines. The dazzlingly diverse range of tone colors makes the piece’s connection to nature palpable—in fact, Berio himself compared the quintet to a seed being sown and gradually maturing into a plant bearing vibrant fruit.

City of Tomorrow jazzes things up with their performance of “…a certain chinese cyclopaedia…” by Denys Bouliane. Inspired by a fantastical encyclopedia of real and imaginary animals depicted in a short story by Jorge Luis Borges, the piece crafts a musical taxonomy cataloguing the infinite variations of bebop. The piece is a colorful collage of frenetic melodic fragments which offer an abstract interpretation of the evolution of bebop jazz.

The concluding work on the album is “Music for Breathing” by Nat Evans, a piece which is rooted in traditionally Eastern understandings of nature. The piece crafts an organic, often meditative illustration of the natural world through guided improvisation, solo spotlights, extended techniques, and even the use of conch shells and stones. Inspired by the rituals of the Yamabushi Buddhists, the piece at times blurs the line between musical instruments made by man and musical instruments found in nature.

Each piece on “NATURE” is its own exquisite flower, a beautifully unique impression of nature’s rich tone colors and ever-changing musical textures. And City of Tomorrow breathes new life into each work through their imaginative musical interpretation, skilled rhythmic precision, colorful tonal palette, and above all, their unparalleled artistic ambition.

This is one wind quintet that is sure to leave you breathless.

ALBUM OF THE WEEK: Julia Wolfe’s “Steel Hammer”

by Jill Kimball

Julia Wolfe's Steel Hammer

Almost everyone has heard some version of a song about the man called John Henry. Legend has it that John Henry was a steel driver–someone who drilled holes into rock so that explosives could blast entire mountainsides and make way for tunnels and railroads. One day, he tried to keep up with a machine and succeeded, only to die of stress-induced heart failure on the spot.

A statue of John Henry in Summers County, West Virginia.

A statue of John Henry in Summers County, West Virginia.

The character is fictional, but he represented the hordes of exploited laborers who built miles of American railroad in the late 19th century in harsh conditions for next to no pay. To this day, he is a symbol of unfair labor practices, of human strength, and of the skilled worker’s ongoing struggle to find work in an age of machines.

The folk song “John Henry” is well-known across so many genres. Everybody from Bruce Springsteen to Johnny Cash to Aaron Copland to They Might Be Giants has recorded, arranged or referenced it. Rather than being deterred by its ubiquity, though, the composer Julia Wolfe was inspired by it. Believe it or not, she waded through every version of “John Henry” she could find, noted all the lyric differences–since it’s an old folk tale, there are many–and wrote her own tribute in an album called Steel Hammer.

 

Musically, there’s a lot going on in this album. Norway’s vocal Trio Mediaeval provides strange, haunting and ethereal vocals throughout, accompanied by vastly different groups of instruments on each track. But the concept is simple: it’s an amalgamation of every John Henry story ever told, the details of which are often contradictory.

The album begins with mysterious, minimalistic vocals that reminded me a lot of fellow Bang on A Can composer David Lang. Then, a few effects are layered over the voices as they mimic the sound of a train whistle amid what sounds like a steel hammer driving into rock and the constant chug-a-chug of a steam engine.

According to legend, John Henry worked on a railroad in West Virginia. Or perhaps it was Kentucky. Or was it Columbus, Ohio? All of John Henry’s supposed locations are listed off in the folky, meandering second track, “The States,” which is pleasantly dissonant in all the right places. I especially like the introduction of driving percussion later in the track.

Two other tracks, “Characteristics” and “Polly Ann – The Race,” poke fun at the inconsistencies between John Henry stories. Some say he was tall; others say he was small. While some versions call his lover Polly Ann, others call her Mary Ann.

In “Destiny,” we learn that John Henry sealed his fate when he discovered his strength. “This hammer’s gonna be the death of me,” the vocal trio repeats as a piano and a cello play frenetic dissonant patterns and grow ever louder. The whole track ends loudly and abruptly, creating a frightening cliffhanger. We’re on the edge of our seats even though we all know the story’s tragic end.

“Mountain” paints a musical picture of the setting around which John Henry worked. At first it’s contemplative and tonal, but it grows increasingly dissonant as the steel driver’s death sinks in.

The two last movements, “Winner” and “Lord, Lord”, are like the modern answer to a Requiem mass, a seven-minute opportunity to come to grips with John Henry’s death, to grieve, and finally to hope that he is at peace now.

There’s a reason why this album was the runner-up for a Pulitzer Prize. It’s a triumph: beautiful but challenging, modern but accessible, at once relaxed and disquieting. I highly recommend you check it out! It’s available now on Cantaloupe Music‘s website.

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:

[this track is no longer available]

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!