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.

John Adams at 70

Today we are celebrating John Adams’ 70th birthday in great style with a 24-hour streaming marathon of his music. Tune in all day and night for his chamber, choral, piano, orchestral, and vocal works along with insights from the Second Inversion staff and community! Listen here.

And enjoy this throwback to 2015 in our studios with San Francisco-based Friction Quartet, performing an excerpt from his first String Quartet.

ALBUM REVIEW: Carolina Eyck’s Fantasias for Theremin and String Quartet

by Maggie Molloy

If you thought the theremin was only for corny sci-fi film soundtracks and intergalactic sound effects, think again. It may be October, but the theremin makes (electromagnetic) waves all year round.
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Just ask Carolina Eyck, one of the world’s foremost theremin virtuosi—in fact, she quite literally wrote the book on it. For the past decade, her performances in classical and contemporary music around the world have helped promote the instrument and build its repertoire.

For Eyck’s latest project, she composed and recorded Fantasias for Theremin and String Quartet: an entire album of works highlighting the theremin’s unique capacity for improvisation and imagination. Oh, and she didn’t collaborate with just any old string players, either: the album features American Contemporary Music Ensemble (ACME) members Caroline Shaw and Ben Russell on violins, Caleb Burhans on viola, and Clarice Jensen on cello.

Conceptually, the album was inspired by Eyck’s vivid childhood memories of the woods of Northern Germany where she grew up. In keeping with the whimsical, free-spirited explorations of childhood, Eyck composed the Fantasias for the 12” vinyl LP format—meaning that all performances were recorded in full takes with no editing. The string players tracked the scores first, and then Eyck overdubbed her deft, fluid, single-take improvisations—hence the title Fantasias.

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The result is an organic virtuosity that leads the listener through the hazy and nostalgic soundscapes of Northern Germany, each piece an open window into Eyck’s imagination. And to add another layer of whimsy, the titles for each piece were devised by Eyck and the album’s producer, Allen Farmelo, by scanning multiple Scandinavian languages for pleasing lingual combinations.

The album begins with “Oakunar Lynntuja (Strange Birds),” Eyck’s nimble hands flittering up and down the theremin’s two antennas to produce the sound of metallic birds chirping amidst a forest of angular strings.

“Leyohmi (Luminescence)” shows a very different side of the instrument: Eyck’s patient fingers pull thoughtful whispers from the theremin, its gentle voice shimmering softly among luminous harmonics. Alternative bowing techniques blur the line between the theremin and strings, immersing the listener in a glistening and ethereal soundscape.

Then, as if having drifted into a fairy tale, “Nukkuva Luohla (Sleepy Dragon)” picks up with a sputtering sparkle of strings. A snarling theremin grumbles across its lowest registers like a drowsy dragon tossing and turning—and the strings flicker about like sparks from its snoring breath.

The strings swell and tumble like waves in the next fantasy, “Metsa Happa (Jumping River).” Eyck’s theremin melodies playfully hop in and out of the rolling river, soaring high above the waves and diving deep beneath their iridescent surface.

Another idyllic forest scene inspires “Dappa Solarjos (Dappled Sunlight).” Wavering string arpeggios imitate the forest of mottled leaves, with Eyck’s theremin painting the full spectrum of sunlight: light and dark, daytime and dusk.

The album closes with a more abstracted fantasia: “Nousta-Needad (Ascent-Descent).” A staggered string backdrop sets the stage for Eyck’s theremin as it hums quietly up and down from its highest, airiest registers to its lowest, earthiest grumbles—at times even crossing the realm into a distinctly humanlike voice.

It’s incredible that an instrument played with no physical contact by the performer could ever sound so human—that music once confined solely to intergalactic sound effects could ever be so intimate. These fantasias are proof of Eyck’s profound understanding of her instrument and, perhaps even more inspiring, her playful and imaginative musical voice.

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NEW VIDEO: Movement for String Quartet and Piano by Andrius Žlabys

On May 24, 2016, Town Hall Seattle concert-goers and Second Inversion listeners were fortunate to hear the world premiere of Movement for String Quartet and Piano by Andrius Žlabys. If you missed it, we’re pleased to present this video production on the Town Hall stage!

Joshua Roman sat down to chat with Andrius about the piece and his composition background.

Joshua Roman: When was the first time you thought about writing your own music?

Andrius Žlabys: Well, actually from childhood. I started by improvising, before I began formal piano studies, to the horror of my piano teacher, because my whole setup was fairly developed in an amateur way. So I had learned, on my own, the Bach Toccata and Fugue for organ, but my fingers were all over the place, so it was a kind of promising disaster.

JR: What style did you improvise in?

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AŽ: I started to come to the keyboard (we have a grand piano where I grew up) – and I would begin just tinkering with the piano, finding any sonorities I could. I don’t know what style that was. Kid style. But I think I might have made some sense, because my parents thought “it’s not just regular banging on the piano”, and I would spend a lot of time on it. So they decided maybe it’s a good idea to try lessons. And so I kept improvising, and the style was kind of baroque for a while, and then some contemporary elements were added as I was exposed to more contemporary music. And at some point I did try to write it down, fragments, but I didn’t have any formal composition studies until I came to the U.S. to Interlochen, where I studied composition.

JR: Did you ever write anything that was performed at Interlochen?

AŽ: Yeah! I wrote a piano sonata, a piece for violin and piano, and actually a suite for cello and piano. When I auditioned for schools, I got into Peabody as a double major; composition and piano, but I chose to go to Curtis as a piano major. So for a while, I didn’t compose, and then started up again later. But I kept improvising.

JR: Who are some of your influences as a composer?

AŽ: I have composers that I love and play all the time like Bach, and obviously Mozart. Looking at more current composers, I love Messiaen, and I love Shostakovich, Schnittke, and Arvo Pärt. But I was also influenced by many of my close friends who are composers. For example, Dmitri Levkovich, and Yevgeniy Sharlat, who was a tremendous influence. He wrote a piano quartet for me; through that and other pieces that I observed him writing I got to see the process, the struggle, and moments of joy when it comes through.

Somehow I was so in a piano mode that I never developed the ability to write lengthy things. Because the actual technique of writing is to be able to capture the ideas before they float away. So once I became able to capture longer ideas, there was more possibility. The ideas were always there, I just never had the capacity to capture them until I took up composing in a more focused way.

JR: Do think that composing affects your piano playing at all?

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AŽ: Absolutely. Yes, they’re so interconnected. In interesting and sometimes strange ways. For example, when I compose – as a piano teacher, I change a lot. Because I start to see all kinds of motivic connections that I would never see otherwise. I remember once I was teaching Mozart Fantasia in C minor, and at the time I was actively writing a piece, and I saw all kinds of things in the Mozart that were totally out of my vision when I was practicing the piece myself. So yes, it affects my interpretation. First of all, you get to see how the thought is developed. So I get to see what is the core idea, which influences the piece mostly on a subconscious level. I get to see how everything revolves around that idea, which is usually just a couple of notes. And to see the whole, not just the parts – that musical cognitive process, a kind of inner logic.

Since I started composing more, Beethoven has become a total mystery. In his case, there are so many rather simple harmonic progressions; we have tonic-dominant, dominant-tonic; fairly straightforward. And then you get ornamentation in the form of the melody, which is also often just very simple arpeggios. And the real genius is somewhere in between those two things. Because by themselves, harmonic progressions are just harmonic progressions, right? And without them, those ornamentations would not make sense. So something happens in this very thin area, a kind of boundary layer. So I began to see more of those things when I started really composing.

As a performer of my own music, I always hear “how it should really sound”. It makes me much more demanding of what my sound should be. On the other hand, I realize that how the piece should sound is not defined by, you know, precise dynamics. When I analyze the great works I now see how masterfully the composers placed those dynamics. They are precise enough, but leave just enough room for freedom, and every composer does it differently. It’s such an important element, and when I compose myself, I can imagine the music being interpreted in different ways, as long as the underlying thought is somehow expressed.

JR: How do you feel playing the piano affects your composition? This is kind of the opposite question.

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AŽ: Playing the piano of course gives me access to polyphony. For me, voice leading in composition is probably the most important thing. The lines follow a certain kind of logic – almost like physical laws. And then, when they try to break the boundaries of those laws, those have to be intentional moments, not accidental. Voice leading, polyphony, the importance of independent yet strongly interacting lines, are the most important values for me, no matter what style. I think that if you look at any music that we consider great music, the voice leading is almost always impeccable, unless intentionally not so. Then, of course, it’s breaking those rules quite purposefully.

Writing for piano, it helps to know how to write for my own hands. Sometimes it makes me write kind of demanding stuff for the piano, and then of course I have to deal with it.

JR: Aside from knowing the idiom of the piano, do you think being someone who interprets other people’s music and performs it for audiences affects your compositions at all?

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Photo Credit: D. Matvejavas

AŽ: Oh yes, absolutely. It’s been kind of a tradition throughout classical music; every composer was a performer and every performer a composer, up to a certain historical period when they began to separate. Ideally you should be able to play every instrument that you’re writing for. I can only play piano, but I try to strongly envision how it would be on the other instruments, so I can write in a way that would be comfortable. Or if uncomfortable, there would be a good reason for that.

For me, I want to write as few notes as possible to convey the feeling. I try to avoid unnecessary complexity. It’s like words; I like to be laconic if possible. Get to the point.

JR: Let’s talk about your piece, A Movement for Piano Quintet.

AŽ: Movement for String Quartet and Piano. Actually, somehow I prefer — “quintet” for me is not as noble sounding as “quartet”, because for me it implies a kind of mesh. I think the string quartet is such a complete sonority. The piano is like a guest, that gets to join for a little while.

JR: Fair point. What was the inspiration for your piece, Movement for String Quartet and Piano?

AŽ: The initial sketches for the piece, and the original motive – a rising three note line – came from a feeling I had during the events in Ukraine in 2014. In fact, the piece is dedicated to the memory of the victims of the war in Ukraine. So the whole piece comes from that feeling or thought. It’s definitely not a very happy piece. There’s a sense of things going wrong, and kind of a protest against that.

This was very close to home – Lithuania. I felt solidarity with Ukraine, and we felt that this could happen to Lithuania as well. To this day, there’s a lot of uncertainty about that.

JR: How does the feeling affect your compositional process?

AŽ: Well, there’s nothing explicit on purpose. There’s an intention, and I think that intention directs the whole process. The obsessive rhythm, and the images that might be seen, come from that intention. It’s not a peaceful piece, even though it has peaceful moments, maybe. There’s kind of an underlying feeling of foreboding.

JR: Is that the ostinato?

AŽ: Yes, the ostinato, with its obsessive quality.

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There’s another place with strong images – after the big climax there’s a solo quartet section, which is kind of like a Sarabande. And then the piano eventually comes on top, and that feeling was of disjointed, parallel realities, that kind of coexist, but not necessarily coincide. That creates a hallucinatory feeling; it’s not quite a cadenza, but elaborate passagework that comes on top of quite a nice harmony and destroys it.

Then there’s a pizzicato canon, which feels like a person who’s locked into a room of a certain number of dimensions, and cannot get out of it. It’s just perpetually repeating. And again, the piano comes in with little scales which are really a rearticulation of the theme from the beginning.

One of the reasons I couldn’t write for a while when I was – back at Curtis was that I felt I wasn’t allowed to write tonal music. So when I would write, the stuff that would come out would be tonal, and I would dismiss it because it’s just not contemporary. And at some point I said “OK, if that’s what’s coming out then that’s what I have”. That’s my natural language. So, of course, everybody looks for their own style, but my idea is that if I have something that sounds a certain way in my head, and it sounds enough that I want to write it down, then that takes precedence over style. For me, if I can express a certain idea to the best of my ability, or state of mind, then the style will take care of itself.

2016 FOLKLIFE PREVIEW: Meet the Skyros Quartet

by Maggie Molloy

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Beethoven to Britten, Sibelius to Shostakovich—the sky is the limit for the Seattle-based Skyros Quartet. Comprised of violinists Sarah Pizzichemi and James Moat, violist Justin Kurys, and cellist Willie Braun, the quartet is known for their innovative and interactive approach to classical music both old and new.

Founded in 2010, Skyros studied chamber music at the University of Texas at Austin under the mentorship of the Miró Quartet and Sandy Yamamoto. By 2012, they became the first quartet-in-residence at the University of Nebraska, where they pursued doctorates in chamber music performance under the guidance of the Chiara String Quartet.

Suffice it to say, they’re pretty qualified musicians. And lucky for us, they recently relocated to Seattle to continue their work as contemporary classical performers, teachers, and collaborators.

You can catch Skyros in action on Friday, May 27 at our annual Second Inversion Showcase at Northwest Folklife, along with Sound of Late and the Westerlies. In the meantime, we sat down with the quartet to talk about classical music, cultural heritages, and #casualfridays:

Second Inversion: How would you describe or characterize your ensemble’s sound?

skyros-018James Moat: Whether we’re playing Mozart, Beethoven, Shostakovich, or Ruben Naeff’s “Jackass,” our group strives to create a sound world that is true to the nature of the composer.

When performing the classics, we have help from history to determine what kind of character and sound we’re looking for in our performance. When playing modern works, we’ve always taken every opportunity to work directly with the composer. This type of collaboration is always interesting because the composer has a chance to work with us to find the sound that they want, and we also have a chance to provide them with our own interpretations. The result is a wonderful blend of everyone’s artistic contributions.

SI: The Pacific Northwest is really blossoming in the contemporary classical music sphere—what do you think makes our music scene here so unique?

skyros-024+-+Version+2Willie Braun: Contemporary classical music in Seattle is more than just a sphere or scene, it’s a whole community of composers, performers, and audiences who are passionate about sharing the experience of new music. Having recently moved to the Seattle area last fall, our quartet has felt very welcomed into this community. It is refreshing to see so many artists collaborating, working together, and supporting one another to create music rather than compete for audiences.

The result is a diverse community representing many unique spectrums of contemporary classical music. Seattleites are great audiences, ready and willing to try something new. Going back a few decades, Seattle has a rich history of supporting innovation in music (i.e. grunge) and audiences here are still eager to explore new sounds and experiences.

SI: Northwest Folklife strengthens local communities through art and music, celebrating diverse cultural heritages and working to ensure their continued growth and development. What types of communities or music traditions are represented in your music?

Matching+headshot1Sarah Pizzichemi: The classic canon of string quartet literature is a melting pot of Western art music and a diverse range of influences from Balinese gamelan and Russian folk music, to American jazz and the Finnish national epic poem. The intimate yet universal appeal of four voices in conversation through the timbral spectrum of the string instrument family has made it an ideal medium for composers to record their most cherished musical thoughts, and a way to celebrate many cultural heritages in one masterwork.

We consider ourselves above all else collaborators, and we especially like to work with living composers who are continuing this tradition of musical globalization through the lens of today’s experiences. As an ensemble we also directly explore specific musical traditions like Celtic, Americana, pop culture, film scores, and different types of folk music in contexts like our #casualfriday series on Facebook and YouTube.

SI: As Seattleites, what does the annual Northwest Folklife Festival mean to you?

Sarah Pizzichemi: Skyros Quartet just moved to the Seattle area in September, but I personally was born and raised here. Some of my earliest memories are coming to Folklife to hear the cornucopia of different kinds of music. My parents were fans of world and folk music, so it was so influential for me to hear live ensembles and bands playing such a diverse range of music all in one setting.

As a junior high school student I participated in Folklife as an Irish Dancer, and as a high schooler, I would come to Folklife with other musician friends and we would busk near the Center House playing Shostakovich quartets. I will never forget the invigorating feeling of catching the attention of passersby with the ferocious second movement of the Eighth String Quartet!

I’ve continued to make memories with friends at Folklife, especially visiting the Trad Stage, as I have quite a few friends in the Celtic music circuit. I can’t wait for this year and the special opportunity to share my passion of contemporary classical music with Folklife audiences.

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

skyros+063Justin Kurys: As a quartet, we are very passionate about reaching and connecting with new audiences. As this is our first time performing at Folklife, we are looking forward to interacting with the diverse audience this type of event attracts!

Performances are always at their best when a connection with the audience is created. We hope to engage the audience and create a musical landscape for them to take a journey with us as we perform a very interesting and varied show. The music we will perform shows a different side of art music from what is generally conceived of when people think of classical art music, so we hope that this inspires thought and emotion that is somewhat unexpected from the audience coming into this.

The Skyros Quartet will be featured along with Sound of Late and the Westerlies at our 2nd Annual Second Inversion Showcase at Folklife on Friday, May 27 at 8 p.m. For more information, please click here or RSVP to our Facebook event.

Second Inversion Showcase at Northwest Folklife 2016!

by Maggie Stapleton

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We are excited to announce the lineup for Second Inversion’s 2nd annual showcase at Northwest Folklife on Friday, May 27 from 8-10pm! RSVP to our Facebook event and invite your friends to this exciting FREE event!

Sound of Late
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Sound of Late is a new music ensemble that creates distinctive performances and unexpected collaborations that build and inspire the communities around us. They believe music is best when shared with other people, which is why Sound of Late is working to support the artistic and creative community across the Pacific Northwest. By dissolving the boundary between artist and audience, they hope to inspire new collaborations and to raise the visibility of our region.

For more on Sound of Late, visit our “Meet the Artist” feature!

Skyros Quartet
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The Skyros Quartet, praised by the Topeka Capital-Journal as “stellar,” brings a bright and inventive style to the concert hall and can be seen performing, teaching, and leading community events in their new hometown of Seattle, as well as concertizing around the US and Canada.The Skyros Quartet is passionate about the future of music and performing works by living composers. They have worked extensively with composers Tonia Ko, Andy Davis, Devin Maxwell, and Liza Sobel.

For more on Skyros Quartet, visit our “Meet the Artist” feature!

The Westerlies 
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The Westerlies (“prevailing winds from the West to the East”) are a New York based brass quartet comprised of four friends from Seattle, Washington: Riley Mulherkar and Zubin Hensler on trumpet, and Andy Clausen and Willem de Koch on trombone. They re-imagine the chamber music experience through boldly personal performance, recording, collaboration, education, and outreach. Since their inception in 2011, they have cultivated a new brass quartet repertoire featuring over 50 original compositions as well as adaptations of Ives, Ellington, Bartok, Ligeti, Stephen Foster and numerous traditionals. Their music exudes the warmth of their longstanding friendships, and reflects the broad interests of its members.

For more on The Westerlies, visit our “Meet the Artist” feature!

NEW VIDEOS: Gabriel Kahane and Brooklyn Rider

by Maggie Stapleton

Prior to their performance at the Tractor Tavern last week, Gabriel Kahane and Brooklyn Rider stopped by our studios to film a few pieces from their new collaborative album, The Fiction Issue!

If you missed them while they were out on tour recently, keep an eye on their schedules for a performance near you: Gabriel Kahane and Brooklyn Rider

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