Thinking Outside the Voice Box: Stacey Mastrian on Contemporary Vocal Music

by Maggie Molloy

In order to be a contemporary classical vocalist, you’ve got to be prepared to do a lot more than just sing. Sometimes, you have to be able to act, speak, compose, or play the piano. Sometimes, you have to be able to interpret graphic scores, or trigger live electronics—and sometimes, when the situation calls for it, you have to be able to bark.

Those are just a few of the extramusical activities that are featured in Seattle-based soprano Stacey Mastrian’s Binary Solo+ performance this Wednesday, July 12 at the Royal Room, joined by pianist Josh Archibald-Seiffer. The program features rarely-performed works for voice with electronics and piano by two generations of American composers: the venerable Earle Brown, Morton Feldman, and Alvin Lucier, and the current generation—Mike Boyd, Stephen Lilly, Kristian Twombly, and Steve Wanna.

The pieces range from meditative and intimate to humorous and theatrical—but all are distinctly contemporary. Morton Feldman’s unpublished Lost Love for voice and piano is based on a poem by a Victorian realist, while Stephen Lilly’s Portrait in Song pokes fun at the clichés of the art song tradition, substituting lyrical melodies for a zoo of animal utterances.

The musical scores employed are similarly wide-ranging: the score for Steve Wanna’s Smriti forgoes traditional Western notation for a new musical language comprised entirely of dots and arrows. The score for Earle Brown’s “For Ann, 1 May ’94,” forgoes the concept of a “page” altogether—it is comprised of rectangular patterns scribbled on a bar coaster.

Mastrian’s performance is part of a double bill with pianist Jesse Myers, who will perform a program of works by iconic minimalist composers like Philip Glass and Steve Reich, as well as brand new 21st century works for acoustic piano and electronics by the likes of Missy Mazzoli and Christopher Cerrone. (Click here to learn more about that program.)

In anticipation of the concert, we sat down with Mastrian to talk about electronics, animal sounds, graphic scores, and the thinking outside the voice box:

Second Inversion: As a singer, you specialize in 20th and 21st century vocal works. What inspires you most about new music? What draws you to new and unusual sounds?

Stacey Mastrian: With new music, I am frequently challenged to step outside of my comfort zone.  It demands or permits me to do things that I otherwise would never consider doing, forcing me to continue learning and driving creativity.

I love the chance to contribute to works that have never been done before, works that have not been done often, or works that have not been performed in a way that has done them justice.  I enjoy collaborating with composers to create something new, as well as learning from those who worked with the composers (in the case of those who are no longer with us).  From a musical standpoint, it is an opportunity to participate in shaping history and in linking with the recent past so that we do not lose those connections.  It also has tinges of the revolutionary, in the political-social-musical disruptions that many of the pieces imply or overtly convey—sometimes seriously and at other times with humor.  Sharing this repertoire with new audiences is particularly thrilling.

As far as “new and unusual” sounds, in some cases it is the exploration of the sounds themselves that fascinates me, or the different ways of conceiving of music, of hearing, or of space.  In other cases, the plurality of options helps express the piece in a way that traditional singing might not:  there are times when bel canto singing in the harmonic language of the Romantic period can express grief beautifully, but sometimes that is not enough—sometimes atonality or shouting or noise can be the only response—from the gut, in a raw, theatrical way.  This is not to say that I do not care about solid vocal technique, but there is less concern about only the beauty of sound and more about what the sound conveys.

SI: How does your Royal Room program differ from more standard classical vocal repertoire?

SM: With standard classical vocal recital rep, one typically stands near the piano and sings beautifully for an hour.  In this program I sing, speak, play the piano, trigger live electronics on the computer, compose with water sounds I recorded, make noises with objects ranging from vases to bowls to teapots to an airplane nose cone, vocalize with ridiculous animal and battle sounds, and mime.

SI: What are some of the unique challenges and rewards of performing music that uses graphic scores? What about music that uses electronics?

SM: With graphic scores, the challenge for me is “Where do I start?  I am not a composer!  Give me parameters!”  There is usually a framework with very specific rules, but the actual content is quite open.  The rewarding part of this work is that every time it teaches me to think outside of the box (haha).  It also is exciting to engage with a score that is so visually compelling and with a result that could be different each time.

With electronics the challenge is “WILL THEY WORK??”  There are so many variables between the hardware hookups and functionality and the software—sometimes the programs just crash, or due to randomness built into certain live electronics processes, they do not cooperate.  This is way more stressful than just singing.  The rewards of working with electronics, however, are many:  I love the way that they sound and the endless possibilities for combinations of options that are not possible otherwise.  The unexpectedness of live processing can be fun when it is not frustrating.  Also working with electronics means that I do not need an accompanist, which is useful for situations that require portability.

SI: What goes through your head when you’re looking at a graphic score for the first time? How do you make sense of it? Are there certain things you look for to orient yourself?

SM: My process looks something like this:

Look at it.  For a long time.  Decide it is impossible to perform because I will never have enough ideas. …or I have too many ideas and do not know where to start. Look at it again.  Think.  Jot down notes.  Repeat. Ask the composers (or performers who worked with them) a lot of questions. Be prepared for them to tell me to read the instructions again. Think some more. Throw away some ideas. Start over.

SI: What are you most looking forward to with this performance? What do you hope audience members gain from it?

SM: With this performance, I look forward to giving several world premieres of works by longtime friends and colleagues and performing some works I have wanted to do for a while, as well as a few entertaining favorites. Performing with pianist Josh Archibald-Seiffer is always a pleasure, and I am honored that Jesse invited me to be a part of his program.

I hope that the audience will enjoy a new sonic and theatrical world—one filled with humor and humanity as well as links with art, everyday items, meditation, poetry and prose, theater, and technology. Mostly I just hope that people will come.  It is difficult to take a chance on a composer or a performer you may not know; it might be terrible and you waste an evening—but it might be amazing! And you either have that opportunity to experience it, or you miss it.

Also—come hear me bark.


Stacey Mastrian and Jesse Myers perform this Wednesday, July 12 at 7:30pm at the Royal Room in Columbia City. For details and additional information, click here.

Expanding the Piano Keyboard: Jesse Myers on Experimenting with Electronics

by Maggie Molloy

Pianist Jesse Myers. Photo by Lee Goldman.

When it comes to the piano, Jesse Myers likes to think outside the standard keyboard.

Last year, he created an entire percussion orchestra inside his piano for his performances of John Cage’s prepared piano masterpiece, the Sonatas and Interludes. This year, he’s forgoing the screws and bolts in favor of something a little more electric.

On Wednesday, July 12 at the Royal Room, Myers presents Living in America: a concert of solo piano works by living American composers. Urban, adventurous, and uniquely American, the program highlights the groundbreaking work of iconic minimalist composers, as well as brand new 21st century works for acoustic piano and electronics.

The first half of the program features John Adams’ misty and modal China Gates alongside Philip Glass’ half-hypnotic, half-neurotic Mad Rush and a selection of his virtuosic Piano Etudes. The second half showcases music for piano and electronics, including Christopher Cerrone’s 21st century urban nocturne Hoyt-Schermerhorn, Missy Mazzoli’s ethereal Orizzonte, and her swirling fantasia Isabelle Eberhardt Dreams of Pianos. Steve Reich’s pulsing, palindromic Piano Counterpoint finishes the program.

The evening also features a set of rarely-performed music for solo voice with electronics and piano, performed by soprano Stacey Mastrian. She lends her voice to two generations of American composers, ranging from Earle Brown and Morton Feldman to Kristian Twombly and Steve Wanna.

In anticipation of the concert, we sat down with Myers to talk about urban sounds, electronics, and expanding the sonic possibilities of the piano:

Second Inversion: What inspires you most about exploring the expanded possibilities of the piano?

Jesse Myers: Discovery. It’s not that I’m tired of the piano in the traditional sense—it’s really about the two words you just used: exploring and expanding. The Steinway grand is the benchmark of great American craftsmanship, and it has stopped evolving.

While new music is, of course, still being written for the piano, new music that involves electronics is a way for composers to personally contribute to a new sort of evolution of the piano.  I am not sure composers are thinking of their work in that way, but as a pianist and a curator of the repertoire, I can’t help but see their work in that light. 

The great thing about electronics, prepared piano, and extended piano techniques, is that at the end of the day, the good old acoustic grand piano is still there. Akin to the way Cage first prepared the piano with bolts and weather-stripping, the electronics drastically change the sound and our impression of the piano—but in the end it is easily returned to its original form.  

SI: What are some of the unique challenges and rewards of performing music that uses electronics?

JM: It used to be that I could show up and play a concert without any paraphernalia, and that’s nice and all, but I love my ever-expanding bag of tricks. The tinkering that is necessary in the practice of this repertoire, and the ability to perform a wider range of timbres in a solo performance while making use of the venue’s sound system are big payoffs to me. But, yeah, part of the reason I became a musician was so I didn’t have to get a haircut and wake up early—so if I can plug into a sound system and feel like a rock musician for a brief moment, I can feel closer to achieving my lifestyle.

There are certainly a great deal of challenges, and I’m sure that turns some musicians off to exploring music like this for themselves. Technical setups are unique to each piece, with varying arrays of requirements. This means that creating a program takes even more planning and practice to get it right. On top of that, these technical requirements can also make two pieces completely incompatible with each other in a single program.  Electroacoustic music often requires a couple different software applications, an ear piece for click tracks on some fixed electronics, foot pedals for cueing live electronics on more flexible ones, different settings on both hardware and software depending on the piece or venue, etc. 

SI: This program features all American composers—what are some of the overarching themes that connect the music of these composers?

JM: Urban sound.  All of these composers, with the exception of Adams, are living and working in New York right now.  To me, this imprints an unmistakable urban character into their music. There is a relentless activeness in this urban sound which is illustrated most clearly by the minimalist music of Glass and Reich.  The electroacoustic soundscapes of Mazzoli’s music have this wonderful sort of raw grittiness about them, and Cerrone’s work, Hoyt-Schermerhorn, is named after a New York subway station. Cerrone says “…the piece explores the myriad and contradictory feelings that often come to me late at night in my city of choice—nostalgia, anxiety, joy, panic.” There is a beautiful peacefulness among the urban activity in these works.

The electronics are also a theme that connects most of the works. The first half of the program (the Adams and Glass pieces) will have no amplification or use of electronics, while the last half will use an increasing amount of electronics. But there is an electronic connection between the two halves. The program starts with an acoustic piece that references electronic music.  The gates in the title, China Gates, refer to the gating of electronic music.  Adams uses sudden changing modes to mimic gating effects in electronic music. 

Conversely, the end of the program, Reich’s Piano Counterpoint, is an electronic work that references an acoustic one. Reich originally wrote the music for this as a work called Six Pianos in 1973.  In 2011, pianist Vincent Corver adapted the work for one piano and a pre-recorded soundtrack.  Four of the six piano parts are pre-recorded and the last two are combined into a more virtuosic single part, which I’ll play live and amplified.  In 2014, the Bang On a Can All Stars pianist Vicky Chow worked with the composer to further edit the piece and create a new flexible pre-recorded soundtrack that allows the performer to use a foot pedal to trigger the phasing of the other parts. Reich’s original version of Six Pianos asked for each measure to be repeated within a range of times—not a fixed amount of time. Since Corver’s version was backed by a fixed-length soundtrack, the most recent version is a truer realization of the original work’s flexibility. My performance will be the most recent, flexible version of the work. 

SI: How do the minimalist composers’ works differ from the 21st century works on the program?

JM: These 20th century minimalist works lack an extramusical association.  They are really about rhythmic structures and form. China Gates (which isn’t really about China or gates), for instance, is a famous, short minimalist work that uses recurring patterns that slowly change and shift apart over time, while making up a nearly perfect palindrome in its structure.

The music of Cerrone and Mazzoli in this program, which are 21st century works, tell a story or capture a vivid scene. So, the audience should be listening for entirely different things in the two styles. In the first half of the program, listen for minimalist patterns and structures (like palindromes), that ultimately lead the way for the second half to transport you into another scene altogether.

What is interesting, though, is despite the lack of an extramusical association, the works of Glass and Reich often capture the busy energy of a dense urban environment, which somehow creates a beautiful, weightless sense of calm.  In this sense then, the minimalist works do have the ability to move beyond the academic, form, and rhythmic structure that are the hallmarks of its style.

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

JM: Playing in a relaxed bar setting should really gel with this music. I’ve always wanted to take music like this out of the standard classical concert venue. As someone who can’t take their instrument with them when they gig, bars and many other non-classical venues are off-limits.  But The Royal Room has a Steinway B, a great sound system, and a reputation for taking good care of local musicians—so I’m really excited to play in that environment.

I hope the audience gains an appreciation for the things I’ve come to realize as a musician. There is amazing music being created by composers who are alive and working in this country right now—it’s innovative, part of us, and who we are. Embrace technology. Accept that electronics and a reverence to the classical music tradition can coexist.


Living in America is Wednesday, July 12 at 7:30pm at the Royal Room in Columbia City. For details and additional information, click here.

LIVE BROADCAST + CONCERT PREVIEW: Q&A with the JACK Quartet

by Maggie Molloy

[Editor’s Note] JACK Quartet’s performance tonight will be streamed LIVE on Second Inversion from Meany Hall, presented by Meany Center for the Performing Arts.

To listen, tune in tonight at 7:30pm PST. In the meantime, read all about the concert below, including our special Q&A with JACK violist John Pickford Richards!

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In the classical music world, it’s quite rare to see a string quartet perform works by the 20th century avant-gardist Morton Feldman or, say, the mathematical musical revolutionary Iannis Xenakis.

But the JACK Quartet is not your traditional string quartet. This evening, they’re performing works by both Feldman and Xenakis—plus a couple pieces by Ruth Crawford Seeger, Derek Bermel, and Julia Wolfe, just for good measure.

Comprised of violinists Christopher Otto and Austin Wulliman, violist John Pickford Richards, and cellist Jay Campbell, JACK is dedicated to the performance, commissioning, and spreading of new and experimental string quartet music. And tonight, they’re bringing a little bit of that new music to Seattle for a performance at Meany Hall.

Presented as part of the Meany Center for the Performing Arts’ 2016-2017 season, the concert program features Feldman’s pointillist string Structures, Seeger’s densely dramatic String Quartet, Bermel’s blues-bending Intonations, Julia Wolfe’s fiery, fervent Early That Summer, and Xenakis’s modal, mathematical Tetora.

jack

It’s a program of 20th and 21st century works by primarily American, New York-based composers—a musical account of the way experimental art has grown, stretched, and changed over the last 100 years.

We sat down with violist John Pickford Richards of the JACK Quartet to find out a little bit more about what audience members can expect at tonight’s performance:

Second Inversion: What does “new music” mean to you?


jrJohn Pickford Richards:
To me, new music is anything written by a living composer. I like to equate new classical music to the kind of art you might see in an art show or a chic gallery, while the classics are safe and sound in museums.


SI: What are some of the unique challenges and rewards of performing contemporary works?

JR: Knowing the composers personally is invaluable. It provides extraordinary insight. Also, composers are constantly pushing performers to reimagine our instruments, which keeps us on our toes.

SI: The contemporary classical “genre” is massive and extraordinarily diverse—how do you go about selecting which pieces to put on your concert programs?

JR: Our programming is a combination of following our raw interests as well as exploring new composers we aren’t familiar with, many of whom are introduced to us through our community. And we aim to seek emerging artists outside our network, which is a fun challenge.


SI: What are some of the things audience members can expect to hear in your Meany Hall concert program?

JR: Our program at Meany focuses on music from NYC written in the past 100 years, highlighting a theme of experimentalism that defines the American vangard. We’re pairing this with a work by Iannis Xenakis, who was one of the most unique and inventive artists in Paris following the Second World War.


SI: What are you most looking forward to with your Meany Hall performance, and what do you hope audience members will gain from it?

JR: We aim to give a high-energy account of the music we think is it today.

The JACK Quartet performs tonight, Jan. 10 at 7:30 p.m. at Meany Hall in the University District. For tickets and information, please click here.

To listen to the live audio broadcast beginning at 7:30 p.m. PST, please click here.

Seattle Symphony’s Tuning Up! Festival

by Maggie Molloy

The Fourth of July is almost upon us, and you know what that means: parades, picnics, and barbeques abound! And while hot dogs, fireworks, and flag-covered clothing are a (somewhat) relevant expression of American independence, our county has a whole lot more than just cured meats and corny t-shirts to be proud of.

Tuning Up!Which is why this summer, the Seattle Symphony is turning off the barbeque and turning up the music with Tuning Up!: a two-week festival celebrating American musical creativity in the 20th and 21st century. This star-spangled celebration features nine concerts which traverse America’s vast musical landscape, from jazz to Broadway, avant-garde to minimalism, classics to Hollywood, and much more.

So whether you crave the jazzy grooves of George Gershwin or the swinging blues of Duke Ellington, you can hear it all during the Tuning Up! Festival. Maybe you prefer the massive soundscapes of John Luther Adams, the hypnotic minimalism of Philip Glass, or the movie magic of John Williams—the festival has all that too!

Suffice it to say, Second Inversion is all over this festival. Come visit us at the KING FM table in the lobby at the following events for music, magnets, and other free swag!


Stage & Screen: From Appalachian Spring to the Red Violin
Thursday, June 23 at 7:30 p.m.

From stage to screen to concert hall, these giants of American music transcended borders and paved the way for generations to come. Among them is Florence Beatrice Price: the first African-American woman to be recognized as a symphonic composer. The Seattle Symphony pays tribute with a rousing orchestral rendition of her ragtime classic, Dances in the Canebrakes. Plus, dancers take to the stage alongside the Symphony for a performance of Aaron Copland’s famous folk-inspired and Pulitzer Prize-winning Appalachian Spring.

The program also features Leonard Bernstein’s elegant Divertimento for Orchestra, poignant movie music from Schindler’s List and The Red Violin, and a heartwarming tribute to the late Marvin Hamlisch who, among his many accomplishments in music, served as the Principal Pops Conductor at the Seattle Symphony from 2008 until his death in 2012.


The Light that Fills the World: A Meditation in Sound & Light
Thursday, June 30 at 7:30 p.m.

In the face of trauma and political turmoil around the world, Seattle Symphony offers an intimate meditation in sound and silence, light and dark. Julia Wolfe’s My Beautiful Scream, written after the events of 9/11, opens the program with a slow-building and softly illuminating agony. What follows is utter silence: John Cage’s famous 4’33”.

The program also features Pulitzer Prize-winner John Luther Adams’ immersive, Arctic-inspired soundscape The Light That Fills the World, the delicate breath of Morton Feldman’s Piano and Orchestra, and Philip Glass’ scientific salute, The Light.

Plus, the Symphony invites you to submit your own Glass-inspired photographs to be featured during the performance. Deadline for submissions is this Friday, June 24.


In the White Silence: John Luther Adams’ Alaskan Landscapes
Friday, July 1 at 10 p.m.

To say that composer and environmentalist John Luther Adams is inspired by nature would be a bit of an understatement. He spent much of his life composing from a 16×20 ft. one-room cabin in the Alaskan woods, creating large-scale soundscapes which blur the line between nature and man-made instruments.

In 2013, the Seattle Symphony commissioned and premiered John Luther Adams’ Become Ocean, a 42-minute meditation for large orchestra which went on to win a Pulitzer Prize and a Grammy Award.John Luther Adams

And now, during this special late-night concert, the Symphony revisits one of Adams’ earlier explorations into sonic geography: the 75-minute soundscape In the White Silence. The piece unfolds slowly and patiently, translating the vast horizons of the frozen far north into a musical landscape of clean, radiant harmony and subtle transformation.


Looking for more in American music? Check out the Seattle Symphony’s Tuning Up! Festival Map below:

Tuning Up! Visual Guide

CONCERT SPOTLIGHT: June 11-13

by Maggie Molloy 

This week’s concert calendar spans the musical gamut from viola da gamba to Morton Feldman!

Morton Feldman’s “For John Cage”

Morton Feldman

In true New York fashion, composer Morton Feldman first met John Cage at a New York Philharmonic performance of Anton Webern’s Symphony, Op. 21. Disturbed by the audience’s disrespectful reaction to Webern’s work, the two had each individually stepped out into the lobby, where they began talking.

Both composers went on to become pioneers of indeterminate music—and perhaps more importantly, close friends. The two influenced each other over the course of their careers, and in 1997 Feldman wrote “For John Cage,” a 75-minute piece for violin and piano.

This week the University of Washington’s contemporary music ensemble, Inverted Space, is concluding its Long Piece Fest with a performance of this epic (and lengthy) work. Violinist Luke Fitzpatrick and pianist Brooks Tran will breathe life into this unique piece, which is meant to be performed at a barely audible volume. The piece combines Feldman’s expansive harmonies with Cage’s interest in silence and stasis, thus delicately exploring poetic dissonance in a state of prolonged stillness.

The performance is this Thursday, June 11 at 7:30 p.m. at the Chapel Performance Space at the Good Shepherd Center in Wallingford.

 

Joshua Roman Performs Gregg Kallor’s Chamber Music

joshua-roman-683x455Cellist Joshua Roman is well-known in the Seattle classical music community—after all, he became the youngest principal player in Seattle Symphony history at just 22 years old. But his reputation as a gifted and innovative musician expands far beyond just his Seattle achievements. He has performed as a soloist around the world, and this week we have unique opportunity to hear him perform in one of the major classical music centers of America: New York City.

Miranda Cuckson by Beowulf SheehanRoman will be performing a dazzlingly lyrical piece titled “Undercurrent” by composer and pianist Gregg Kallor, the inaugural composer-in-residence at SubCulture in NYC. The performance also features world premieres of two new pieces written by Kallor, performed by violinist Miranda Cuckson, mezzo-soprano Adriana Zabala, and baritone Matthew Worth.

gregg-kallor2-683x1026Kallor’s works blend classical and jazz traditions with a distinctly New York flavor. But since it’s a long flight to NYC, we thought we’d bring the music to you: Second Inversion is going to record the live performance and broadcast it later on our website for your listening pleasure.

The performance is this Thursday, June 11 at 7:30 p.m. at SubCulture in New York. We’ll keep you updated on the details for our Second Inversion broadcast!

Colleen and Hanna Benn

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Violas da gamba may have been popular instruments during the Baroque period, but for the past several centuries the violin family has dominated the classical music scene—which is why one French musician is giving the age-old viola da gamba a new-age makeover.

Colleen is the alias of Cécile Schott, a French musician who reimagines the possibilities of acoustic instruments by taking them out of their usual contexts and pushing them into new musical territory. Over the course of her five albums, she has created a wide-ranging repertoire of compositions spanning from meditative and mysterious to playful and percussive. This weekend, she’s coming to Seattle to present a performance which merges old and new music traditions: viola da gamba with live electronic processing and singing.

Seattle composer and vocalist Hanna Benn will open the show with a rare solo set.

soldoutnew

The performance is this Saturday, June 13 at 8 p.m. at the Chapel Performance Space at the Good Shepherd Center in Wallingford.  UPDATE: This concert is sold out! Please refer to Colleen‘s website and Hanna‘s SoundCloud for future performance info.