From Concert Hall to Capitol Hill Nightclub: Seattle Metropolitan Chamber Orchestra’s SPARK

by Maggie Molloy

When it comes to classical music, the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber Orchestra likes to think outside the concert hall. This Saturday, Second Inversion is thrilled to sponsor the launch of SMCO’s new SPARK performance series: an immersive concert experience that presents classical music old and new in nightclubs and other unexpected venues.

“It’s every musician’s dream for their friends who have no experience with classical music to enjoy this incredible art form as much as we do,” said Geoffrey Larson, Music Director of SMCO. “I wanted to provide a space to enjoy classical music without any rules, real or perceived: where audience members could have a drink, get up and dance, applaud and scream and shout whenever they want. I wanted to show how music of the classical genre can be relevant to our lives today—whether it was composed 300 years ago or three days ago.”

The series launch, which takes place amid the neon lights of the Fred Wildlife Refuge on Capitol Hill, features music from both eras. The concert unfolds as a fully-produced, continuous musical experience that oscillates between guest artist DJ Suttikeeree’s electronic dance music sets and SMCO’s electrifying classical music performances.

Under Geoffrey Larson’s baton, SMCO pairs a Vivaldi chamber concerto with Max Richter’s modern recomposition of the Baroque master’s famous Four Seasons. The centerpiece of the evening is Mason Bates’ infectious and aptly-titled Rise of Exotic Computing for sinfonietta and laptop, and a world premiere of a new work for horns and orchestra by William Rowe—co-commissioned and performed by SMCO and the Skylark Quartet—rounds out the program. Electronic interludes from DJ Suttikeeree provide both dynamic contrasts and fluid connections between the evening’s wide-ranging works.

“Suttikeeree will be spinning his own brand of electro-hop, mixing in fragments of the orchestral music our audience will hear onstage and providing a heartbeat that ties together the different genres throughout the night,” Larson said.

The first of its kind in Seattle, the SPARK series was created with the guidance of composer and producer Gabriel Prokofiev, whose orchestral arrangement of Sir Mixalot’s “Baby Got Back” premiered to viral success with the Seattle Symphony in 2014. The grandson of legendary Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev, Gabriel is also the founder of the Nonclassical record label and Club Night series based in London.

“Gabriel was extremely helpful in helping me strategize three things: what role the DJ should play in the event, how to structure the general ‘flow’ of the evening, and (to a lesser extent) what sort of music we should consider performing,” Larson said. “Through trial and error, Gabriel has come up with a pretty strong and unique concept for the flow of the larger Nonclassical Club Night events, and this sort of timing has been adapted into our plans for the SPARK series.”

Like Nonclassical Club Nights, the SPARK series aims to create immersive, cross-disciplinary performances that redefine the rules of classical chamber music, breaking away from the constraints of the traditional concert hall and sparking new and inspiring collaborations.


The SPARK series launch is this Saturday, May 20 at 8pm at the Fred Wildlife Refuge on Capitol Hill. Click here for tickets and more information.

CONCERT PREVIEW: Q&A with Andrew Waggoner (Seattle Modern Orchestra)

Seattle Modern Orchestra opens its 2016-17 season with a concert featuring works by three composers who reflect on the past, both personal and cultural, to create an expressive piece of music for today. Both celebrated German composer Wolfgang Rihm and Lithuanian composer Vykintas Baltakas recontextualize ideas from other works in their respective catalogs, with a language of gesture linking us to past traditions.

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We had the great pleasure of chatting with Andrew Waggoner, the third composer on the program, whose Concerto for Piano will be premiered by Grammy-winning pianist Gloria Cheng:

Second Inversion: How did the collaboration between you, Gloria Cheng, and Seattle Modern Orchestra come about?

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Gloria Cheng. PC: Lefteristphoto.com


Andrew Waggoner:
My relationships to Gloria and to Julia and the SMO are representative of what I love most in my compositional life: the chance to work over many years with small and intersecting groups of close friends who are also beautiful artists. Gloria and I met in 1989 when I went to Los Angeles for concerts with the L.A. Phil. Soon after that we started working together on a range of projects, including two large-scale solo piano pieces I composed for her and the durable, collaborative L.A. series Piano Spheres. She also picked up another piano piece that I had written for myself as a kind of compositional etude and gave its first performances, just because she liked the piece. Everything she does, from her Grammy-winning disk of Stucky, Salonen and Lutoslawski, to the concerto she’s premiering with the SMO, is a labor of love, which is one of the main things I love about her.

I met Julia through Michael Jinsoo Lim. Both Mike and Melia Watras knew Julia well from her time at UDub, and Mike had performed the Scelsi violin concerto with her and the SMO. He suggested that we meet and so we did, and almost immediately started looking for ways to work together. Julia and Mike collaborated on the premiere of my violin concerto with Philharmonia Northwest, another labor of love! The piece had been commissioned by an orchestra in the UK, then had gone begging for four years before Julia picked it up. Once Gloria and I had decided the time was right for a concerto we offered it first to Julia and the SMO and were thrilled when she responded with an enthusiastic “yes!” (this both for the idea of the piece and for the chance to work with Gloria!).

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Julia Tai. PC: Amy Vandergon Photgraphy.

Gloria was also part of the original personnel for our group Open End, with Mike; Melia; my wife, cellist Caroline Stinson; and me, so the Seattle connection is deep and multifaceted.

SI: What does it mean to you to be working with such a young, yet thriving, ensemble here in Seattle on the premiere of your piano concerto?

AW: I’m deeply honored to work with the SMO. Everything about the group, from the scope of its season to the depth of its programming, is unique on the current new music scene. To commit to doing full concerts of large, sinfonietta-scale works, many of which are among the most sophisticated in recent memory, is really remarkable. There’s not a whiff of political convenience or professional grandstanding in anything they do; as a composer one feels safely tucked into a program of complete integrity, one that, at the same time, is vivid, exciting and welcoming to the audience. That the group exists in Seattle and not New York is telling, and a wonderful corrective to the (still weirdly persistent) notion that the East is where it’s at. Not so!

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Seattle Modern Orchestra. PC: Amy Vandergon Photgraphy.

SI: What would be helpful for audiences to know about the piece before hearing it? And what kind of impression do you hope to leave?

AW: Probably the most important thing for the audience to know in advance about the concerto is that it is highly personal; I was well into composing it when it occurred to me that it’s very much a diary piece. This was unintentional, but is certainly an outgrowth both of the depth of my affection for Gloria and her playing, and of my relationship to concerto writing in general: I can’t get anywhere with a concerto until I know who the soloist is, that is, who the instrument is in dramatic terms. I need to hear the instrument’s voice as a character with a whole backstory that defines its expressive personality. Once I have that the piece takes shape fairly quickly, and in this case it became clear that the backstory was in large part mine, and that the piano both gives voice to and comments upon that story over the course of the piece. The piano, then, is a trusted friend with her own emotional response to what is, at least to some degree, a shared history.

The large-scale trajectory of the piece takes the listener from an interlacing of dream- and waking-states, sometimes violently juxtaposed; through an extended rumination on the necessity and challenge of compassion, for others and for oneself, that seems to grow directly from the dream encounters of the first movement; to an extended reminiscence that has a kind of incandescent quality, called Quantum Memoir. While I was deep in the heart of this movement we lost Steven Stucky, one of the strongest, most significant musical voices of the last 40 years, and a very close friend and mentor. Steve, then, impresses himself upon this memoir that seems to be inscribed in pulsating quanta. Exactly how is difficult to say, but I feel him there, and so the movement is dedicated to him.

Both the first and second movements jump off from literary points of reference, Carl Jung’s The Red Book in the first, Whitman’s poem Reconciliation in the second, at the center of which are these lines:
For my enemy is dead—a man divine as myself is dead;
I look where he lies, white-faced and still, in the coffin—I draw near;
I bend down, and touch lightly with my lips the white face in the coffin.

As for the impression I’d like to leave, it’s fairly simple: I want listeners to have an experience that is both strange and beautiful. Strange in that they feel pulled in a direction, to a place, they would neither have anticipated nor, perhaps, chosen for themselves; beautiful in that when they’re in it they find that they’re happy for it, even if they can’t quite say how or why.

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PC: Amy Vandergon Photgraphy.

SI: Outside of any concert-related activities, what are you looking forward to doing in Seattle while you’re in town?

AW: I’m looking forward to seeing friends and to eating at Poppy! Beyond that, I’ll be there with my son Henry, who came with me the last time I was in town for the violin concerto with Julia and Mike. He and I can’t wait to: visit the aquarium; eat Top Pot doughnuts; and swim in the local pools.

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PC: Amy Vandergon Photgraphy.

SI: What’s next for you this season?

AW: On the near horizon is another piano piece; and a new movement for a six-voice chanson I wrote two seasons ago for the virtuoso vocal collective Ekmeles, based on a poem by my oldest daughter Sally Williams. This coming spring will see the premiere of a new string octet, Ce morceau de tissu, for two string quartets, (inspired by the writing of Fatima Mernissi) commissioned by the Lark Quartet for their 30th anniversary. The first performances will be given by the current and founding Larks, in Weill Hall at Carnegie on May 1st, and next season at the Schubert Club in Saint Paul. After that I’ll spend some quality time writing songs, and get started on a new orchestra piece that will be in some way be constellated around Michelle Alexander’s epic (and shattering) study, The New Jim Crow.

Seattle Modern Orchestra’s season opener is Thursday, November 3 at 8 p.m. at the Chapel Performance Space at the Good Shepherd Center in Wallingford. For information and tickets, please click here.

Women in (New) Music: Q&A with Renée Baker

by Maggie Molloy

reneebakersseatedbatonChicago-based composer Renée Baker knows no creative boundaries—or rather, she just prefers to transcend them. Her music quite literally jumps off the page, often foregoing traditional Western sheet music in favor of graphic scores, improvisation, and even conduction.

As a violinist and composer, Baker has spent the past 25 years creating and conducting musical explorations into classical, jazz, and the furthest reaches of the avant-garde. Over the course of her career, she has founded nearly two dozen new music ensembles with a wide spectrum of musicians ranging from jazz cats to classically-trained orchestral players. Currently the Artistic Director of the Chicago Sinfonietta Chamber Ensemble and Mantra Blue Free Orchestra, Baker has cultivated a singularly expressive and inspiring musical voice.

And that voice is coming to Seattle this Friday, Oct. 28 for a performance with 12 of Seattle’s most outstanding improvising musicians at the Good Shepherd Center’s Chapel Performance Space.

The concert features the world premiere of Baker’s surrealist Cabinet of Wonder suite along with two other well-loved works: RAGE for Chamber Collisions and Altered Consciousness (a spatial conversation between minds).

The titles alone sparked a lot of excited curiosity for us here at Second Inversion. Lucky for us, Baker kindly obliged to answer our questions about her upcoming performance:

Second Inversion: How would you describe your compositional style? What are some of your major influences?

Renee BakerRenée Baker: I can’t ascribe a particular style but can certainly point to ideas and influences which inform my constantly evolving creative world. The process always starts with the question of intent: what do I want this work to say, explain, express, evoke? This is applicable to my composition, film work, sculpture, painting, musings for book works.

The works, whether in traditional or nontraditional notation are distillations of my view of the world. So as a method of communication I think my works transcend the old role of composer and comes closer to being a conduit and channeler of ideas and inspirations as they occur to me, I’m always thinking about what I want a work to say and what the motivation is for starting ANY work of art. So my products are remnants of all music periods, all art periods, past and current architecture, the ever changing palette of fashion, the extremes of the world of cinema, trending food fads—see, all this cycles all the time and everything influences everything.

I’m superbly influenced by Harlan Hubbard, Basho, Anselm Kiefer, Akira Kurosawa, Merce Cunningham, DW Griffith, Anne Truitt, Tasha Tudor, Earle Brown, Morton Feldman, Marina Abramovic, Meredith Monk, Leon Schidlowsky. Anthony Braxton, Joseph Beuys, Oscar Micheaux, William Kentridge—this list can go on and on. I’m a voracious sponge of a mind and at some point everything experienced is channeled directly or indirectly into a creative outlet.

SI: Can you describe a little bit about the three pieces being performed on the October 28 program?

RB: Cabinet of Wonder is a work created to celebrate the worlds of Cornell and Beuys: containers that hold varying compartments of meaning, determined by the viewer/listener in this case. As there works spoke to me, the over-reaching idea that stood out for me is that we are  so similar with the same types of thoughts, fears, idiosyncrasies, doubts and worries running through our minds—so our mind cabinets are quite similar.

I have used traditional notation, colors, forms, gestural conducting to demonstrate the commonality between us. Some of this will be processed organically by every human that interacts with psyche of another person. The three movements of Cabinet of Wonder will not intentionally break, unless there is a need for set change—but they are designed to segue right into each other as a solid representation of the constant state of mind flux. I don’t want to impose boundaries on the work, so we will all meet inside these movements and hopefully touch and relate to each other, right here, right now. 

RAGE for Chamber Collision is my sonic reaction to our human condition. Altered Consciousness is a spatial conversation between the members of the ensemble, myself and the space in which we find ourselves as humans that must relate to each other positively.

SI: What are some of the unique challenges and rewards of creating (and conducting!) music that utilizes conduction, graphic scores, and improvisation?

RB: It’s all about making a connection as a creator and transmitting my intent simply so that we can create new sonic landscapes. It’s so gratifying when you can develop a language with musicians with whom you’ve worked for over 25 years, but I get the same thrill, excitement and fulfillment from making a connection with absolute strangers—that we can meet, quickly size each other and get to the task, the love and joy of making the music happen.

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SI: You’ve been at the forefront of creative and avant-garde music for the past 25 years. What inspires you most about this music?

RB: Oh no!! I’m a baby in the world of creative music. Having spent most of my life in the symphony orchestra. This culture came as a welcome addendum to my creative world. As I have listened and accessed the never ending world of creative, intuitive composition, I am constantly surprised by the creativity of fellow humans. I don’t think we can exhaust the ideas—I hope to maintain this openness regarding creation and intuition always. I never stop studying scores, listening to new works, exposing myself to even the most extreme of performance arts because the disciplines are intersecting each other at a rate I’ve never seen before.

SI: Women are extremely underrepresented in musical leadership roles, and especially in composing and conducting. How has being a woman, and especially an African-American woman, shaped your experiences in these roles?

RB: I’ll make this easy: everyone, men and women, are so bent on getting their piece of whatever pie they think they deserve, that the energy needed for truly creating your vision and sharing that with the universe, gets pushed aside. I have certainly faced racism, discrimination, sexism, ageism, classicism, brown eye-ism, straight and nappy hair-isms—it just doesn’t end.

But it’s not new. When you’re smart, front, and present AND a woman, you have to be ready for your Weeble moments. Remember the Weeble commercials? Weebles wobble but they don’t fall down? There you have it. I formed the Chicago Modern Orchestra Project and my chamber orchestra in Berlin, PEK Contemporary Project, because I didn’t want to be bitter about possibly not being given opportunities to have my music heard. I’ve been wonderfully lucky and terribly unlucky in many circumstances.

The biggest elephants in the room are racism and sexism—okay, got it! So what do you do about? If you feel your voice MUST be added to the chorus of creativity and made tangible for the world to taste, then make it happen. I’ve started over 20 new music ensembles, each fitting a different music demographic, and have had a marvelous time doing it. Not to sound like the happy Pollyanna, but if the wall keeps appearing, be sure that your work can stand up, and you climb on it and go over the wall. As a woman you will have some luck, but you have to provide your own working world sometimes. Be prepared, say yes, show up!!!

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SI: What advice do you have for other women who are fighting to make it onto concert programs and conductor podiums?

RB: CREATE YOUR PLACE!! Puuuuush!!! Be confident that you deserve an opportunity and go after it. Be sure that you’re going after YOUR idea of success—we’re not all going to have Beyoncé-like careers, but diversify your talents and keep your practice fresh and relevant. Podiums are opening but there are still criteria that some of us will never fit—go ’round it!!

 


SI: What are you most looking forward to with the October 28 performance, and what do you hope audience members will gain from it?

RB: I want to experience new, creative minds and ideas from artists who have had special journeys of their own. I hope we can add to each other’s experiences and for the audience, I want them to meet and experience the authentic creative mind of Renée Baker. My way of seeing the world through music is an open door.

Renée Baker’s Seattle performance is this Friday, Oct. 28 at 8 p.m. at the Chapel Performance Space at the Good Shepherd Center in Wallingford. For information and tickets, please click here.

CONCERT PREVIEW: Town Music Season Finale: Q&A with Andrius Žlabys

by Joshua Roman

On Tuesday, I’ll be joined on my chamber music series Town Music by Johnny Gandelsman, Arnaud Sussman, Kyle Armbrust, and Andrius Žlabys for a program of 20th and 21st Century works. We’ll present the world premiere of “Movement for String Quartet and Piano”, written by Andrius and commissioned by Town Hall Seattle. Andrius is a fantastic musician and a regular collaborator of mine, so I jumped at the chance to interview him over the phone about composing, performing, and his new piece.

download (2)By the way, you can hear this performance LIVE on Second Inversion – tune into the 24/7 stream on Tuesday, May 24 at 7:30pm PST!

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.

I hope you’ll be able to join us at Town Hall for the Town Music season finale on Tuesday, May 24, 7:30pm. If you’re not in Seattle, you can listen worldwide on the webstream here at Second Inversion!

Joshua’s May 2016 Playlist

NEW VIDEOS: Paul D Miller (aka DJ Spooky): Peace Symphony (excerpts)

by Maggie Stapleton

In December 2015, Paul D. Miller (aka DJ Spooky) and The Nouveau Classical Project presented the world premiere of Miller’s Peace Symphony: 8 Stories at Seattle’s Cornish Playhouse. Second Inversion was able to capture some of this piece, which you can read about below.

“Inspired by the everyday stories of the last remaining survivors of the nuclear bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the idea behind this work came from Miller’s personal interaction with eight Hibakusha (被爆者 Atomic bomb survivors) on Peace Boat’s 83rd Global Voyage (Peace Boat is an international non-governmental and non-profit organization that works to promote peace, human rights, equal and sustainable development and respect for the environment) where Miller recently served as a guest educator and artist-in-residence.  

Hibakusha’s stories highlight the humanitarian consequences of these weapons of mass destruction, educate youth, and help to bring about a nuclear free world.  Miller has sampled the words and stories of Hibakusha to create electronic and acoustic musical portraits that resonate with some of the deepest issues facing modern society.” – Paul D. Miller (aka DJ Spooky)

The stories Miller engages come from several of the last survivors of the tragedy of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and he takes their tales and weaves together a sound portrait of one of the most powerful moments of the 20th Century.

A few excerpts from an interview between the chair of Cornish College of the Arts with DJ Spooky about Peace Symphony:

Tom Baker: First of all, how in the world do you find the time for all that you do as a creative artist? And secondly, do you find the time to notice the rhythm of the space between things with what must be an incredibly busy life?

​Paul D. Miller: I would say everyone is feeling that they never have enough time in the 21st century. For me, music, art, and literature are all simply reflections of the same creative impulse. It’s a core issue in the 21st Century. Capitalism forces our attention span to be framed by the huge array of commercial advertising that inundate us. I guess you could say that I use my art and compositions to create more time and space to think about all the issues facing us, and distill it all in one form. Music is the language we all speak.

​TB: This new piece, Peace Symphony, draws on a dramatic and profoundly disturbing time in world history. I know that you were artist-in-residence for Peace Boat (an international non-governmental and non-profit organization that works to promote peace, human rights, equal and sustainable development and respect for the environment). Was that experience an inspiration for this piece?

​PDM: Japan and Germany took radically different routes after World War 2. Japan has an amazing group of peace activists and so does Germany, but Japan has a very different relationship to its collective memory of the war. I wanted to talk about memory with the survivors to see what could be done with their story. It’s a story we Americans never get a chance to actually hear. That’s what this project bears witness to: it has to be about purple to people shared experiences. Anything else is government propaganda. I try make this as much about humanity as possible.

​TB: Your work encompasses so many disparate pathways, though there always seems to be singular vision at play, even in the midst of intertwined collaboration. How do you reconcile these diverse adventures and creative work into an aesthetic focus?

​PDM: Inter-disciplinary art is the legacy of some of my favorite composers – from John Cage on one hand and Nam June Paik on the other. Aesthetics in the 21st century is one of the most complex forces because it encompasses everything about what it means to be a creative person in this Era. DJ culture is a kind of template because it’s always about searching for new ways to reconsider history. That’s what a good mix does. It gives you a good idea of what is possible.

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Paul D. Miller aka DJ Spooky is a composer, multimedia artist and writer whose work immerses audiences in a blend of genres, global culture, and environmental and social issues. His written work has been published by The Village Voice, The Source, and Artforum, among others, and he is the Editor of Origin Magazine. Miller’s work has appeared in the Whitney Biennial; The Venice Biennial for Architecture; the Ludwig Museum in Cologne; Kunsthalle, Vienna; The Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, the Miami/Art Basel fair, and many other museums and galleries.

NEW CONCERT AUDIO: Universal Language Project’s “The Way West”

by Maggie Stapleton

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Photo credit: Kimberly Chin

Last month, the Universal Language Project took us out of the Pacific Northwest…. and in to the Wild West!

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Photo credit: Kimberly Chin

This well crafted, western-themed program was presented at Resonance at SOMA Towers on Friday, January 22 and Velocity Dance Center on Saturday, January 23. We’re pleased to share the audio recording of Saturday night’s concert with you. Be sure to mark your calendars for ULP’s next performances on March 11 and 12 featuring SCRAPE!

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Photo credit: Kimberly Chin

Notes on “Campfire Songs” by Brian Cobb:

I have always been intrigued by the American frontier era. It started with the idea of traveling into unknown lands with a dream of a better life. Although I can never truly understand the hardships of such a journey and the discipline required, I admire the courage and the ambition of these settlers. While much can be debated about the pros and cons of this era in American history, as a composer I am not equipped to argue for or against this period. I just know that other people have come before me and their actions have brought us to our present state. Furthermore, since I reside in Seattle I am unquestionably indebted to their journey.

Campfire Songs can be thought of as a symbolic representation of one night on the pioneer trail. I have assembled a collection of poems by different American authors from different periods. A seventh song, Winter in the Sierras, was commissioned by the Universal Language Project for this performance. The collection, as a whole, is intended to convey a story of hopes, hardships, and ambitions of the pioneers.

The campfire is one remnant from the past that I hold dear in my own life. Before wax cylinders, radio, telephones, television, or the internet, the communication of news and personal experiences often took place around the campfi re. What I fi nd fascinating is how the allure of the fire’s flames feeds the imagination, creates camaraderie between people, and offers a primeval connection to our distant past. Beyond the essential needs of warmth and cooking, the campfi re setting offered a diversion from the day’s travel and a chance for much needed rest before the next day’s journey.

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Photo credit: Kimberly Chin

Notes on “Railroad” by Tim Carey:

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Photo credit: Kimberly Chin

My goal in writing “Railroad” was to use the American folk song “I’ve been working on the railroad” as an exploratory vehicle for experimenting with harmonic concepts which I have been wanting to explore for quite a while. I attempted to create a musical space with an open backdrop on which small motives could be presented and heard as singular ideas. The motives are not intended to develop, but instead appear and come to life quickly and vanish before their full realization, as if the listener is staring out the window of a train catching glimpses of the countryside. The piece is structured in four parts as is the original source material. While the themes have been obscured, the form and harmonic content are derived directly from the original song and molded to fi t the desired aesthetic of the piece.

Notes on “There Must Be a Lone Ranger!” by Karen P. Thomas:

A few years ago, in the course of considering my ignominious past – a childhood fi lled with Country & Western music and too much TV – I realized that I rather liked some of that directness and simple imagery. So, as composers are wont to do, I put on my cowboy boots and wrote about it. The result was a song cycle, “Cowboy Songs” – on texts by E. E. Cummings.

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Photo credit: Kimberly Chin

“There Must Be A Lone Ranger!” is a continuation of those earlier cowboy pieces. The sources for the text include 19th century cowboy songs, cowboy poetry and newspaper articles, a poem by e e cummings (“sam was a man”), and a few things I wrote myself. Within it are some of the mythical heroes of childhood: the Lone Ranger, Calamity Jane, Billy the Kid…

Visit our archives for more on-demand, live concert recordings, including more Universal Language Project shows!

Musician credits:

Soprano: Cherie Hughes
Baritone: Michael Monnikendam
Flute: Liz Talbert
Clarinets: Rachel Yoder
Violin: Eric Rynes
Cello: Brad Hawkins
Guitar: Jeff Bowen
Banjo: Michaud Savage
Percussion: Greg Campbell, Melanie Voytovich
Trumpet: Brian Chin
Piano: Kevin Johnson
Conductor: Karen Thomas
Audio Recording: Bill Levey

NEW CONCERT AUDIO: New Works for Flute & Ensemble

by Jill Kimball (original post November 18, 2015 with edits by Maggie Stapleton)

For most classically-trained musicians, performing a world premiere is the exception. But for flutist Paul Taub, it’s the rule.

Taub, a Cornish College of the Arts professor and well-known Seattle-area performer, has been a proponent of new music for decades. Over the years, he’s performed and commissioned countless premieres. But last November, he took it a step further.

Taub organized a concert of made up exclusively of world premieres by five area composers–Tom Baker, Andy Clausen, David Dossett, Jessika Kenney and Angelique Poteat–and featured a handful of world-class local performers, including Taub himself. The concert was part of the Wayward Music Series at the Good Shepherd Center’s chapel performance space. Second Inversion was there to record the concert and we’re pleased to present the audio!

I asked Taub a few questions about the pieces he commissioned, and his answers are below.

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What inspired you to do a whole concert of world premieres?

My musical life—as a student, an educator, member of ensembles, professional organizations, circles of colleagues and friends—has often centered on new works and their creators and interpreters. And my relationships and interactions with composers have been highlights of my career. In my thirty-six years in Seattle, I have participated in hundreds of commissions of new music. This project gave me a chance to create opportunities for five unique composers to write works for me, in a chamber setting. The works you will hear on this program will contribute significantly to the general repertoire for the flute in chamber music. They are also gifts to the Seattle music-loving community, brought together through its interest and support and enjoy­ment of these engaging and inspiring composers. For me, the final gift is to be able to prepare and perform these new works with some of my favorite colleagues – Laura DeLuca, clarinet; Walter Gray, cello; Joe Kaufman, contrabass; Cristina Valdes, piano; and Matthew Kocmieroski, percussion!

You’ve heard and performed lots of new music. What do you think makes a new piece really good?

That’s a tough question! People have such contrasts in taste, stylistic preference… What one person considers a masterpiece someone else will find trivial, or boring. I consider myself a musical omnivore in terms of style so I can only answer the question more “generally” by saying that what I really, really like is music that grips me both emotionally and intellectually. Somehow the perfect balance between those two elements makes for a great piece.

Why did you choose these five composers?

[These composers] have been invited to participate in this project because of the high artistic quality of their work, the diversity of their styles, the varied stages of their career trajectories, and above all, because their music truly speaks to me and to the public.

The variety of musical styles is a key element of the project. Baker and Kenney are well-established “mid-career” composers, with impressive resumes and works that have been played internationally. Poteat, in her late 20s, is emerging as a significant voice in the Seattle and national music world, with recent pieces commissioned by the Seattle Symphony. Emerging composers Dossett and Clausen (whose band The Westerlies has taken the jazz world by storm), are recent college graduates (Cornish College of the Arts and the Juilliard Jazz Program). The composers’ musical styles are varied and contrasting, with influences as diverse as jazz, electronics, Persian modes, classical music and improvisation.

What does the rest of this concert season have in store for you?

I’m especially looking forward to a few events. I’ll be playing a solo by Estonian composer Helena Tulve with the Seattle Modern Orchestra on February 20; touring the Northwest with a program of Brazilian flute and piano music with pianist/composer Jovino Santos Neto (Portland, Methow Valley, Seattle and Bellevue) in late February/early March; and taking the lead in a concert of music by Janice Giteck on April 12 at Cornish.