ALBUM REVIEW: Recurrence by Iceland Symphony Orchestra with Daníel Bjarnason

by Maggie Molloy

Iceland is the most sparsely populated country in all of Europe—with a population just half the size of Seattle’s—and yet somehow, it has cultivated one of the biggest, boldest, and most iconic new music scenes of the 21st century.

Exhibit A: the Iceland Symphony Orchestra’s newest album.

Recurrence is a collection of five utterly ethereal works written by a handful of emerging and established Icelandic artists: Anna Thorvaldsdottir, Thurídur Jónsdóttir, Hlynur A. Vilmarsson, María Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir, and Daníel Bjarnason, who also serves as the orchestra’s conductor and Artist-in-Residence on the album.

It’s a lineup that is emblematic of Iceland’s radiant new music scene, known for its massive, slow-moving sound sculptures illuminated with delicate instrumental details. Each piece on the album is a gorgeously abstracted soundscape in itself, showcasing the small Nordic island’s all but unparalleled explorations of texture, timbre, and immersive, atmospheric colors in music.

The album begins with Thurídur Jónsdóttir’s surging “Flow & Fusion,” a sparkling sound mass for orchestra and electronics—but here’s the twist: the electronics are all derived from recordings of the actual instruments of the orchestra, creating a kaleidoscopic aural effect that plays off the concert hall’s acoustics. The sonic seascape ebbs and flows across the entire orchestra, swelling in glorious waves of sound and evaporating back into near-silence.

It’s followed by Hlynur A. Vilmarsson’s sprawling “BD,” which gradually transforms from an amorphous blur of low-pitched vibrations into a rhythmic, tightly-constructed sound off of nearly every distinctive timbre and extended playing technique in the orchestra. Muliphonics, glissandos, prepared piano, vertical bowing, harmonic overtones, and nontraditional percussion instruments all make an appearance in this playfully orchestrated exploration of the symphonic outer limits.

An entire ocean of sound comes alive in María Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir’s “Aequora,” which takes its name from the Latin word for the calm surface of the sea. Sigfúsdóttir takes the image a step further, emulating the majestic beauty of the sea both under softly glistening sunlight but also under the exquisite lightning of an ominous storm: soft strings and whispering winds evoke the sustained surface of the sea amidst swelling percussion motives and brilliantly colored washes of deep brass.

The theatrical climax of the album comes with Daníel Bjarnason’s cinematic three-movement “Emergence,” an aurally arresting exploration of darkness and light. The piece traces the arc of existence from the vast expanse of total darkness to the life-giving warmth of breath, touch, and worldly textures—and all the way out into the luminous, incandescent light of outer space.

The album closes with Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s “Dreaming,” an icy and ethereal illumination of the beauty of utter stillness. Enormous sound masses sparkle with delicate orchestrational nuance in a sound world so stunning that it almost seems to halt time itself.

It’s a reminder, like so many of the works on this album, to be still, to listen—and to dream in shimmering detail.

VIDEO PREMIERE: Valencia by Caroline Shaw feat. Jasper Quartet

Fact: the Valencia orange was hybridized in Santa Ana, California in the mid-1800s and has survived through the decades. Whether you enjoy it soccer practice style in wedges or with slightly orange-tinted and moistened fingers after peeling the whole thing, the sweet flesh is a refreshing treat.

Fast-forward to 2017… we have a new interpretation of this fruit to enjoy, also tinged with a Valencia orange hue:

Cellist Rachel Henderson Freivogel of the Jasper Quartet says, “the vibrancy of Caroline Shaw’s “Valencia” is both an evocative representation of a humble orange and a stunning example of the brilliant compositions on Unbound, releasing March 17, 2017. The Jasper String Quartet is delighted to present the definitive recordings of these 7 new remarkable pieces. Packed with energy and brilliance, ‘Valencia’ immediately piques the listener’s imagination.”

Unbound is co-produced by Sono Luminus and New Amsterdam. You can pre-order this March 17 release here.

ALBUM REVIEW: Thrive on Routine by American Contemporary Music Ensemble (ACME)

by Maggie Molloy

Photo credit: Ryuhei Shindo

We all have our morning routines. Some of us like to go for a brisk morning walk, read the newspaper, flip through the daily comics, or have a leisurely cup of coffee. Some of us like to hit the snooze button six or seven times, roll out of bed, rub the sleep from our eyes, and scramble to work. American modernist Charles Ives liked to wake up at 4 or 5 in the morning, garden in his potato patch, and play through some of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. (How’s that for a little early morning exercise?)

Ives’ idiosyncratic early morning regimen was the inspiration behind composer-pianist Timo Andres’s Thrive on Routine, the title track of a new album by the American Contemporary Music Ensemble (ACME). A flexible music collective comprised of over 20 musicians (Andres among them), ACME is an ensemble known for championing masterworks of the 20th and 21st centuries. Their newest album is no exception: Andres finds himself in good company amongst works by John Luther Adams and fellow ACME members Caroline Shaw and Caleb Burhans.

Andres’ “Thrive on Routine” was, in fact, first commissioned and premiered by the ACME string quartet in 2009. Structured in four short, continuous movements, the piece offers abstract imitations of Ives’ Bach-and-potatoes routine, evoking a rustic alarm jingle, the pastoral drone of the potato patch, and a folk-infused passacaglia. The earthy, textured landscapes come to life under the fingers of violinists Yuki Numata Resnick and Ben Russell, violist Caleb Burhans, and cellist Clarice Jensen.

That same group gives voice to Caleb Burhans’ composition “Jahrzeit,” a requiem for his late father. In Judaism, the jahrzeit is a time of remembering the dead by reciting the Kaddish, lighting a 24-hour candle, and remembering the person who has died. In Burhans’ piece, the strings flicker and glow like a quiet flame, the colors blending and separating in a warm and pensive haze.

The work is followed by two similarly introspective compositions by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Caroline Shaw. The first is her solo cello suite “in manus tuas,” inspired by a 16th-century motet by Thomas Tallis and performed by ACME Artistic Director Clarice Jensen. Shaw’s composition makes the cello sing, its strings echoing like sacred choral music against a serenely silent cathedral.

Shaw’s second work, the achingly gorgeous “Gustave le Gray” for solo piano, features Timo Andres as the performer. Inspired by Chopin’s Op. 17 A Minor Mazurka, Shaw maintains the poignant, long-breathed melodies but forgoes the trademark Chopin ornamentations. The resulting music plays like an improvisation on Chopin, transforming phrases of the original mazurka as it blossoms ever outward into new chromatic melodies and characters.

The album closes with John Luther Adams’ breathtakingly beautiful “In a Treeless Place, Only Snow,” featuring the ACME string quartet along with Andres on piano, Peter Dugan on celesta, and Chris Thompson and Chihiro Shibayama on vibraphones. Atmospheric melodies, delicately detailed textures, and enchanting celesta embellishments bring this immersive sonic landscape to life, evoking the extraordinary vastness of the natural world and the overwhelming sense of awe that comes with simply being in its presence.

Because whether it’s a potato patch or a snowy mountainside, there’s beautiful music to be found all around us—sometimes we just need to step out of our routine.

 

STAFF PICKS: Friday Faves

Second Inversion hosts share a favorite selection from their playlist. Tune in on Friday, February 17 to hear these pieces and lots of other great new and unusual music from all corners of the classical genre!

Daníel Bjarnason and Ben Frost: SÓLARIS with Sinfonietta Cracovia (Bedroom Community)

Iceland is the most sparsely populated country in all of Europe—yet somehow, it has one of the biggest, boldest, and most iconic new music scenes. Daníel Bjarnason and Ben Frost are just two Iceland-based composers in a long laundry list of artists shaped by the arid winds and ocean currents of this breathtaking northern island.

The duo’s ambient and ethereal symphonic suite SÓLARIS is a sparkling addition to Iceland’s massive library of new and innovative sound art. Composed for orchestra with live programming and performed with Sinfonietta Cracovia, the elusive melodies and expansive soundscapes ebb and flow across icy strings and haunting distortion.

Inspired by Stanisław Lem’s 1961 sci-fi novel of the same name, the quiet and consuming suite explores the utter vastness of outer space, the paralyzing fear of the unknown, and—perhaps most importantly—the extraordinary beauty of being so very, very small. – Maggie Molloy


Timo Andres: Thrive on Routine; American Contemporary Music Ensemble (Sono Luminus Records)

I am not much of a morning person, so it’s hard for me to imagine Charles Ives’ supposed morning routine of waking up at 4 AM, digging in a potato patch, and playing through Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. Timo Andres, however, imagines doing just that in his string quartet Thrive on Routine, composed in 2010. It offers some interesting ideas in direct imitation of these activities, from an alarm-tone-like introduction to the pastoral drone of the potato patch and a somewhat jerky fugue. The sounds have a sunny quaintness, somewhat comforting, even – which is, I guess, one purpose of routine. – Geoffrey Larson


Olga Bell: Perm Krai (New Amsterdam Records)

I have selected a track from this album as my staff pick before… but I it’s so good that I have absolutely no regrets about choosing another one.  In the midst of an extremely busy time, I have been seeking out energetic music that helps me overcome the paralysis that often accompanies an increased workload. Olga Bell’s Perm Krai, and much of the album from which it comes, fits that prescription. – Seth Tompkins

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.]

STAFF PICKS: Friday Faves

Second Inversion hosts share a favorite selection from their playlist. Tune in during the indicated hours below on Friday, February 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!

Glenn Kotche: Drumket Quartet No.51; So Percussion (Cantaloupe Music)

A few weeks ago, I decided to take a nice urban hike on a gorgeous, clear, sunny day here in Seattle. I didn’t feel like wasting any of that time in a car driving to a trail head, so I stayed local and used the power of my legs to circumvent Lake Union – a healthy handful of miles. I put my iPhone on shuffle and this piece came on in the mix. To me, it definitely has the tinkling sound of rain – which was no where in sight – but nonetheless set a perfect soundtrack for my walk. I enjoyed this piece so much that I put it on repeat and listened to it 3 times in a row because it’s just that good – Maggie Stapleton

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


James Taylor: You Can Close Your Eyes (arr. Philip Lawson); The King’s Singers (Signum Classics)

James Taylor offered the world a peak into the gray area of a relationship when he wrote “You Can Close Your Eyes.”  The couple is stuck somewhere between a love ballad and a blues song as they remain in love but see the end edging nearer.  It’s a tricky tone for one man to negotiate, so how do the six men of The King’s Singers sound in their arrangement of this song?  Precise & layered with tight harmonies; it’s like a beautiful song woke up one morning and decided to put on its best crisp suit. – Rachele Hales

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 12pm hour today to hear this piece.


Philip Glass: Piano Étude No. 10; Bruce Levingston, piano (Sono Luminus)

Composed over the course of two decades, Philip Glass’s 20 Piano Études offer a fascinating retrospective of his musical progression—a rare chance to see his style grow and change through one single, controlled variable: the piano étude.

Pianist Bruce Levingston presents one in the exact middle: the dense and relentless No. 10. A friend and frequent collaborator of Glass, Levingston is quite at home amidst the cyclical harmonies and motoric rhythms, his fingers dancing nimbly through a kaleidoscopic soundscape of restless and repetitious motives. Suffice it to say: Glass’s Étude No. 10 is in very good hands. – Maggie Molloy

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


Charles Wuorinen: Big Spinoff; Alarm Will Sound

Charles Wuorinen’s Spinoff for violin, bass, and bongos of 1983 was a sort of ode to the harsh music of New York City: imagine if a violinist and bassist were having a chamber music rehearsal, and the sounds of their jamming wafted out the apartment window and mingled with the percussive physical sound of the city. Big Spinoff is essentially a spinoff of Spinoff, with a small chamber orchestra joining the musical fray. We get a lot of short, unison licks that propel the music forward and seem to capture the spirit of a chamber music rehearsal, which for some groups is more chaotic than others. At least Alarm Will Sound seems to be having a good time, and it’s a fun listen as well. I especially love the rapid-fire shifts of loud and soft music, an exciting contrast that is punctuated with toms and pounding piano. – Geoffrey Larson

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

VIDEO PREMIERE: Liquid Voices by Melia Watras presented with Sono Luminus

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photo: Michelle Lewis-Smith

Melia Watras: Violist, Chamber Musician, Composer, Professor of Viola, Sono Luminus Recording Artist, Chair of Strings at the University of Washington. And to top it all off? One of the nicest people you could possibly meet.

Second Inversion has had the opportunity to review her album Ispirare, film a video with her and Michael Jinsoo Lim in our studios, host the two of them on The Takeover, and now we’re thrilled to premiere the video for Liquid Voices, a piece from her upcoming album 26 to be released on Sono Luminus on January 27, 2017.

Melia Watras wrote Liquid Voices in 2013, inspired by Virginia Woolf’s short story, The Fascination of the Pool. Watras was taken with the story’s fluidity, imagery and depth, which helped shape the structure and basic concept for the piece: voices floating on top of each other. Liquid Voices was recorded by Michael Jinsoo Lim, violin and Melia Watras, viola and this video was created by Ha Na Lee.


If you’re in the Seattle area, take note that 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.

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