ALBUM REVIEW: Sophia Subbayya Vastek’s Histories


by Maggie Molloy

In Indian classical music, a raga is like a melodic mode or scale—but with more depth than the scales of Western music. Far from just a simple collection of notes, a raga is a musical framework which holds emotional significance and symbolic associations with season, time, and mood.

Ragas are just one of the overarching musical ideas at work in pianist Sophia Subbayya Vastek’s new album, Histories. Using her Indian heritage as a jumping off point, the album explores the intersections between her own cultural backgrounds, using a traditionally Western instrument to meditate on scales, modes, harmonies, intervals, and ideas inspired by East and South Asian musical traditions.

Composer Michael Harrison’s two contributions to the album most closely embody this blend of European and Indian musical styles. Both are scored for tanpura (a long-necked plucked lute), tabla (small hand drums), and piano in just intonation (as opposed to equal temperament)—and both are performed by the composer (tanpura), Nitin Mitta (tabla), and Vastek (piano).

The first, “Jaunpuri,” is based on a traditional Indian raga, but shaped with Western compositional notation, structures, and harmony. An embellished piano melody twirls and spins through a buzzing tabla and tanpura trance, building in intensity until the circling rhythmic cycles spin out into a breathtaking piano rhapsody. Vastek’s fingers fly through the rapturous piano solo with passion and profound tenderness, almost as though the melodies were born in her bones.

Harrison’s other work, “Hijaz Prelude,” is more somber in tone, showcasing Vastek’s graceful touch and emotive phrasing. Based on the modal harmonies of a raga most often associated with morning, the introspective prelude combines a Western, arpeggiated keyboard figure with the patient, steady pulse of the tabla and the textured vibrations of the tanpura, rich with reverberating overtones.

If Harrison’s compositions speak to the music of Vastek’s Indian heritage, then Donnacha Dennehy’s contribution represents Vastek’s Western background. Dennehy’s 15-minute “Stainless Staining” for piano and soundtrack is based on a fundamental low G# (lower than the lowest note on a piano). The soundtrack is comprised of audio samples from pianos which have been retuned to showcase a massive harmonic spectrum of 100 overtones based on that one single pitch. Performed on an equal temperament piano, the resulting concoction immerses the listener in a thick cloud of harmony—but with a pulsating rhythm that swirls the overtone series into a dizzying trance.

Scattered between the works of Harrison and Dennehy is the music of John Cage, a composer whose work was famously influenced by East and South Asian cultures (and in particular by his studies of Indian philosophy and Zen Buddhism). Vastek moves to a prepared piano for her performances of Cage’s musing and meditative “She is Asleep” (a wordless duet with soprano Megan Schubert), and captures the percussive heartbeat of Cage’s pulsating prepared piano solo “A Room” with equal warmth.

Interspersed throughout the album are three separate performances of Cage’s ethereal “Dream” (for unprepared piano), each played in a different octave across the keyboard. Vastek’s fingers float freely from one translucent note to the next, the pedal blurring all of it into a beautiful and hazy dreamscape. The album closes with the highest-pitched rendition, drifting softly upward until the music evaporates into silence.

It’s a far cry from the impassioned piano rhapsody that started off the album, yet Vastek is equally at home in both worlds. In just under an hour, she travels from Indian ragas on a just-intoned piano to an immersive exploration of the overtone series, and all the way through to Cage’s prepared piano and pedal-laced dreamscapes.

The result is both an homage to Vastek’s own individual histories but also a beautiful mosaic of the larger cultural intersections of our world—and how we weave those histories together through music.

STAFF PICKS: Friday Faves

Second Inversion hosts share a favorite selection from this Friday’s playlist. Tune in during the indicated hours below on Friday, June 3 to hear these pieces. In the meantime, you’ll hear other great new and unusual music from all corners of the classical genre 24/7!

Tyondai Braxton: Casino Trem; Bang on a Can All-Stars (Cantaloupe Music)

coverThe composer Tyondai Braxton has been busy with some interesting projects. We hear of a lot improvised electronic music  performances in Brooklyn, and a 2013 installation piece at the Guggenheim Museum that featured a quintet of musicians sitting cross-legged on sci-fi ovular pods – some interesting stuff. His Casino Trem from Bang on a Can All-Stars’ Field Recordings is a rich tapestry of every electronic color of the rainbow, and makes me feel like I’m in the middle of an installation just listening to it. – Geoffrey Larson

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


Stephen Sondheim: Johanna in Space (arr. Duncan Sheik); Anthony de Mare, piano (ECM Records)

1444893095_coverThis arrangement is born from Sondheim’s epic horror musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.  In the musical, a handsome sailor spies a young woman (Johanna) at her window and in song he declares his love, learns her name, and promises to come back for her.  Later, Sweeney Todd (Johanna’s father) sings his own version of “Johanna” as he imagines what she’s like as a grown woman.  In Sheik’s arrangement the two versions combine and take on an unearthly vibe created by the layering of dozens of guitar improvisations via a tape echo.  It’s within this echo that Anthony de Mare’s delicate and sleek piano deftly drifts. – Rachele Hales

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 1pm hour today to hear this piece.


Nick Brooke: Chokoloskee (Innova)

826coverI absolutely love it when music conjures specific images. Nick Brooke’s Chokoloskee is one such piece. Written as a an alternate-reality “tableaux” on the town of Chokoloskee, Florida as part of the album Border Towns, the composer describes this work as “surreal Americana.” For me, this music is the sound of the memory of a legendary summertime party; not the objective sounds of the party in real-time, but what my recollection of the party sounds like, as experienced as an aural memory.

This piece incorporates radio samples, historical and field recordings, as well as “live” performance into a lively and pleasantly strange mashup. Aside from being riotously fun, this piece accomplishes the composer’s goal of “blurring the line between recording and live performance.”

All in all, Chokoloskee is a refreshing listen. I suggest using it to assist the planning of your next outdoor party. – Seth Tompkins

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


John Cage: Dream; Bruce Brubaker, piano (Arabesque Recordings)

51cEChNX7tLWhen you hear the name John Cage, you probably think of prepared pianos or philosophical musings, complete and utter sonic chaos, or maybe just 4’33” of silence. But Cage was actually a very thoughtful, introspective composer and thinker—and in few works is that made clearer than in his solo (unprepared) piano piece “Dream.”

Composed on a single treble clef staff (which is extremely unusual for piano), “Dream” features hardly any left-hand accompaniment at all. Instead, the utterly translucent melodic line drifts slowly and freely from one sustained note to the next, with pedal blurring all of it into a beautifully simple and ethereal dreamscape.

The piece was originally written as a piano accompaniment for a dance by choreographer Merce Cunningham, Cage’s life partner and frequent collaborator. Like so many of their cherished collaborations, “Dream” has since become a quiet, hidden Cagean gem—a soft and gentle reminder to immerse ourselves in the sounds around us, both in waking and in dreaming life. – Maggie Molloy

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

STAFF PICKS: Friday Faves

Second Inversion hosts Seth, Geoffrey, and Maggie M. each share a favorite selection from the Friday 4/15/16 playlist! Tune in at the indicated times below to hear these pieces. In the meantime, you’ll hear other great new and unusual music from all corners of the classical genre 24/7!

Lisa Bielawa: “Hurry” from The Lay of the Love (Innova)

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Lisa Bielawa’s Hurry is a breathless recounting of the composer’s impressions of a Boris Pasternak poem, translated to English from the original Russian. I love how Bielawa seamlessly transitions from the sparse, bare and wide-open chamber music textures of the work’s opening sections to the larger, lyrical, almost orchestral sounds later in the piece. It’s an all-star cast on this recording, featuring some of my favorite powerhouse musicians such as pianist Benjamin Hochmann and clarinetist Anthony McGill. – Geoffrey Larson

Check out the first stanza from Boris Pasternak’s poem:

Hurry, my verses, hurry; never
have I so needed you before.
Round the corner there’s a house
where the days have broken rank.
Comfort there’s none and all work’s stopped
and there they weep, ponder and wait.

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


Shara Nova: “A Whistle, A Tune, A Macaroon” from yMusic’s Beautiful Mechanical (New Amsterdam)

homepage_large.cbf92e9bComposer, songwriter, and mezzo-soprano extraordinaire Shara Worden recently changed her name to Shara Nova—and it couldn’t be more appropriate. In Hebrew, Shara means “song”—a pretty serendipitous name for a singer-songwriter—and in Latin, Nova means “new.”

Throughout her career as a full-time contemporary classical chameleon, she has recreated herself and her music again and again, exploring the furthest reaches of the classical genre. She’s created and fronted her own avant-garde rock band, My Brightest Diamond, composed and starred in her own 21st century baroque chamber opera, “You Us We All,” and collaborated with composers and artists as diverse as the Decemberists, Sarah Kirkland Snider, Sufjan Stevens, Colin Stetson, David Byrne, and many, many more.

“A Whistle, A Tune, A Macaroon” showcases a collaboration with another powerful force in contemporary classical: yMusic. Though we don’t get to hear any of Nova’s vocals on this track, her soaring, songlike melodies and keen ear for experimentation are unmistakable in this composition. Exotic flute and clarinet idioms dance above pizzicato basslines to create a new work that is every bit as whimsical as its title. Suffice it to say, it’s a new song you do not want to miss. – Maggie Molloy

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


Matt McBane: “imagining winter” from Build (New Amsterdam)

build-buildViolinist and composer Matt McBane’s ensemble Build is a favorite of mine. This week, I’m pleased to present you with their track imagining winter, composed by McBane. I’ve been very busy lately, so I’ve been focused on keeping my head down and digging in to make it through to Memorial Day weekend.  That is why I connected with this particular piece this week; this music seems to be the sonic equivalent of my recent state of mind. More generally, with characteristics of minimalism, cinematic music (a la Les Triplettes de Belleville), and subdued jazz elements, this piece is an excellent soundtrack for your solitary urban adventures, whether that means a focused day at the office or a surreptitious exploration of forbidden places. – Seth Tompkins

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