All posts by Brendan Howe

The Sound Ensemble: A crucible for new ideas in music

In Nature’s Realm
Saturday, October 29, 2016 @ 7:00 pm
The Chapel at the Good Shepherd Center, Seattle

“One of the best parts of going to concerts is having the freedom to disagree,” Bobby Collins tells me over coffee at Ada’s in Capitol Hill. “When I go see a live performance, I’m simultaneously enjoying and critiquing it, thinking things like, ‘That was interesting. I might have done it differently, but it works.’ We’ve all been to concerts where you go and the whole thing washes over you. But nothing challenged you or changed in you, and you forget about it the next day. That’s not what I’m interested in creating. I’m interested in creating immersive experiences of art.”

Bobby is the conductor and co-founder of The Sound Ensemble, a self-governed group of professional musicians seeking to “break down the expectations of the traditional concert hall and provide transformative musical experiences.” He also enjoys a good triple entendre: “[W]e create sound, we’re based near Puget Sound, and we’re a sound investment.” He says he likes to use the word “sound” – rather than a specific genre – when describing the product of the ensemble, in order to avoid labeling the many kinds of music they perform.

(Photo courtesy of The Sound Ensemble)
(Photo courtesy of The Sound Ensemble)

In 2015, Bobby connected with his former high school classmate and tubist Jameson Bratcher over the great experimental and community-building properties of music. They discussed what they could do to bring this into Seattle communities and formed The Sound Ensemble. Bobby sees great potential in the group, formed in August 2015 and now in its first full season, as a crucible for new ideas in music, and works to “bridge the gap between old and new music.”

As for being a sound investment, Bobby cites the ensemble’s 10-member core group of seasoned professional performers. His 10-year plan for the ensemble includes expansion to a sufficient size for orchestral performances (35-45 members), development of programs on Seattle’s east side, and steady wages for its members.

Predisposed to classical music, Bobby did not immediately take to contemporary forms and structures. “I had to get over an ‘Oh, that’s weird’ factor and see the beauty in [more textural soundscapes]. Although I love a good melody, I have always been drawn to dissonant music, and music that communicates powerful images or emotions,” he says. “When I encounter a piece I don’t understand, I want to take it apart until I figure it out. In entering into the world of contemporary music over the last five or six years, I have found a diverse palette of techniques that become powerful expressive tools in the hands of skilled composers. I am continually inspired and challenged as I learn how to harness those tools as a conductor and help realize their full potential.”


Great music prepares us to engage with those around us, those who are different from us.


As a child, Bobby was gripped by the idea of experiencing life through the perspectives of others. “I heard Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony when I was in a youth orchestra. I was immediately drawn in, and experienced emotions I could not have had otherwise,” he tells me, adding that great music challenges people to have experiences outside of themselves. “It prepares us to engage with those around us, those who are different from us.” Now, he is the enthusiastic and selective curator of The Sound Ensemble’s programs.

The Sound Ensemble’s next performance, In Nature’s Realm, pays homage to the eponymous Dvořák overture. Each piece in the program was inspired by nature, and allows us to explore nature through the minds of each composer. Also on the program: John Teske’s susurrus, Greg Dixon’s Cedar Forest, John Cage’s Litany for the Whale, John Luther Adams’ songbirdsongs, and Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s Hrim.

Bobby plans on doing the entire 25 minutes of John Cage’s Litany for the Whale and is excited to perform Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s Hrim; Anna inspired the theme for this concert when speaking on the podcast Meet the Composer.

“A concert is essentially a listening party,” Bobby says, and this is particularly true in the case of Greg Dixon’s Cedar Forest, in which a track is played through a sound system with a video accompaniment, without live performers on stage.

Another multimedia element will be introduced at their January concert, when the ensemble is joined by accelerometers for Marcin Paczkowski’s Deep Decline.

One of the cornerstones of Bobby’s vision for The Sound Ensemble is accessibility in terms of music, location, and cost. It is important to him that audiences be able to come and have their own experiences with this music. With help from donors, the ensemble has been able to keep ticket prices low: $15 for adults, $10 for seniors and students, and $5 for youth symphony members.

The low price point for members of youth symphonies comes from conversations between Bobby and other musicians, in which they realized why they hadn’t gone to concerts when they were young: there was a real or perceived inaccessibility to those concerts. He aims to mitigate that perception – and reality – and provide quick-moving, engaging experiences for kids.

Further opening up channels of accessibility, Bobby tells me about The Sound Ensemble’s equally well-punned happy hour event, The Buzz. Ensemble members, composers, and audience members will have a chance to meet and mingle over a drink and some bar food.

“Ultimately,” he says, “we want to connect with the community and let them know that we’re just people who want to share some really cool stuff with them.” Agree, disagree, be transformed, or remain unmoved – whatever your experience, The Sound Ensemble wants to connect with you.

The Sound Ensemble will perform on Saturday, October 29, 2016 @ 7:00 pm at The Chapel at the Good Shepherd Center. Full program and details are here.

BrendanHoweOakland native Brendan Howe grew up surrounded by music and has been performing since the age of six. He has been listening to a lot of Tom Waits, Sviatoslav Richter, and Kate Bush lately.

A program soaring and gorgeous, torn and crumbled: Organist Susanna Valleau in Recital

Susanna Valleau Organ Recital
Sunday, September 18, 2016 @ 2:00 pm
Plymouth Congregational Church, Seattle

“As an audience member, I appreciate being informed during concerts,” Susanna Valleau tells me. She is a vivacious, charismatic organist with an impressive collection of awards and degrees in organ performance on her résumé – and at the moment, she is turned around on the bench of the monumental, one-year-old Fisk organ in the airy yet intimate Plymouth Congregational sanctuary downtown. We are chatting before one of her three-hour-long rehearsals.

Susanna Valleau (Photos: S. Lyon/LMP)

“I’ll talk to the audience before pieces, let them know to listen for this chord or that harmonic flute, what the pieces mean to me. As a performer, I’m very interested in the audience having that kind of depth of experience.”

She is particularly keen on making her concert accessible and acknowledges the intrinsic obstacles toward that end: organ music performed in a church can be a tough sell. “A lot of people I know have said things like, ‘I’d love to go but, you know, the wrath of God…’” she says, and we joke about the fear of bursting into a ball of flames while on a quest to hear some Bach.

She explains that her favorite organ recitals show variety in both repertoire and registrations.

Susanna has indeed been extremely discerning and intentional in choosing her repertoire. “I picked pieces with which I feel strong personal connections and have spent a lot of time studying,” she says. The first of these is Arvo Pärt’s 1980 work Annum per Annum.

The spectacular, colossal D-A open fifth chord of Annum grandly swells the sanctuary for a full minute after Susanna’s father Reed, dutifully playing the assistant during rehearsal, shuts off the air to the compressors downstairs. Gradually, the chord evaporates into the vaulted ceiling.

The rest of the piece is built around a Minimalist interpretation of a sacred Renaissance theme, and Pärt weaves a tapestry of stunning sound. It is the sublime, musical equivalent of visiting the ruins of an ancient abbey – the construction is majestic, soaring, and gorgeous, but torn and crumbled by diminished and dissonant chords, the fallen notes strewn around the base or gone entirely.

Susanna

Following the Pärt part is Bach’s Organ Sonata No. 6 in G major, an immaculately structured work composed around 1730 that serves as a sort of control for the rest of the program, as many Bach pieces do – the categorically perfect piece for organ against which all other organ music shall be compared.

Pamela Decker’s 2011 piece “Jesu, dulcis memoria” also acts as a control in a way, explicating the implicit connection between organ music and Christianity. It hovers in a quiet register at the border between the conscious and subconscious mind before building in speed and volume to a glorious conclusion.

Four Noble Gases by Daniel Gawthrop comes next, describing neon, argon, krypton, and xenon with musical reverence, revealing the sort of religious wonder inherent in chemistry.

Susanna will finish the set with Charles Tournemire’s Office de l’Epiphanie from L’Orgue Mystique. It is a grand piece that was written in 1922 for the end of Mass at Epiphany, when the Wise Men arrived in Bethlehem.

2016-09-11-15-09-12-1_susannavalleauorganhands

Susanna has spent hours experimenting with sound possibilities and choosing the stops carefully in order to achieve the right timbre for each piece. To someone unfamiliar with the inner workings of a pipe organ, the process seems painstaking, exacting, and complicated, and I ask her about it.

“It is. It is extremely complicated,” she confirms. The instrument requires three rooms. The first is the sanctuary, which houses the console, keyboards, and the congregation (or audience). Behind the console is a room walled off from the sanctuary that contains the rollers and trackers. These pull the pipe pallets open, allowing wind to blow through the pipe when their corresponding key is played. The pipes are housed in the chambers above the back room, and two plywood box tubes burrow through the floor to the air compressors in the basement.

Back at the console, Susanna explains that the many stops can be used in endless combinations. “Part of the art of playing the organ is choosing these stops to bring the music to life,” she says. They are labeled – in French, as the organ itself is French Romantic in style – as the sounds they are meant to resemble, such as “Viole de gambe,” “Trompette,” and “Bombarde,” which refers to an extremely powerful reed stop.

Inside the Opus 140 organ at Plymouth Church
Inside the Opus 140 organ at Plymouth Church.

Susanna explains that there are 3,400 pipes in this particular organ, ranging from 32 feet to about the size of a pencil, and that each was handcrafted in Massachusetts and then shipped across the country. After that, a team of “voicers” went through each pipe to ensure they speak correctly.

The possibilities do feel pretty close to limitless, and the three of us discuss how awed we are by the craftsmanship required to build such a work of art as this.

“When you can go in and actually see how the whole thing works, you really appreciate the time and dedication that goes into it,” Susanna says. “The Fisk organ builders have crafted a phenomenal instrument where every voice is beautiful. This allows the organist to sit down and have a full color palette of sounds to choose from in order to bring each piece to life.”

The concert will take place on Sunday, September 18th, 2016 at  Plymouth Congregational Church. Full program and details are here.

BrendanHoweOakland native Brendan Howe grew up surrounded by music and has been performing since the age of six. He has been listening to a lot of Tom Waits, Sviatoslav Richter, and Kate Bush lately.

LUCO’s Ambitious Russian Repertoire Takes A Delirious Path Through Spectacle, Grim Urgency, and Bleak Hope

As the members of the Lake Union Civic Orchestra (LUCO) took the stage for their season finale performances of Stravinsky and Shostakovich at Meany Hall on Saturday evening, granite clouds rained dramatically over the surrounding University of Washington campus, appropriately evoking the composers’ St. Petersburg roots. The program consisted of Stravinsky’s bright, showy Circus Polka (1942), as well as two works by Shostakovich – the notoriously technically challenging Cello Concerto No. 1 in E-flat major (1959) and the emotionally shattering, rarely performed Symphony No. 8 in C minor (1943) – a set that only orchestras as adventurous and spirited as LUCO would work into one program.

LUCO at Meany Hall. (Photo: Shaya Lyon)

The prolific and buoyant director of LUCO since 2000, Christophe Chagnard, joyfully swept up to the conductor’s platform and led the group through the two-toned tents, popcorn, and enraptured crowds of the Circus Polka. Upon commission, Stravinsky had famously declared that he would only write a polka per the Ringling Brothers’ request if it were intended for “very young elephants.” LUCO succeeded admirably in rallying the energy of several young circus elephants and bringing them to life for the four-minute piece.

In a significant shift in tone, the orchestra then moved away from Stravinsky’s carnival and into Shostakovich’s feverish cello concerto. Virtuosic soloist Michael Center expertly navigated the two worlds of extreme technicality and emotional expression, proving an excellent interpretive match for the solo, 148-bar cadenza. The percussion section and timpanist Rachel Dobrow Stone joined with high-register winds to effectively fill out the mood of grim urgency in the finale.

LUCO at Meany Hall. (Photo: Shaya Lyon)
LUCO at Meany Hall. (Photo: Shaya Lyon)

Following intermission, Chagnard depicted Leningrad (St. Petersburg) of 1943 for the audience, proclaiming that it would be “difficult to think of a darker year in human history, and for Russia [in particular]”. It had been two years since the initial printing of the Soviet propaganda poster featured on the concert program, showing a square-jawed, hawk-eyed, Red Army soldier determinedly glaring into the future, tank cannons ablaze in the background, above the phrase “Вперед! Победа близка!” (Forward! Victory is near!), and the Nazi siege of Shostakovich’s hometown would continue for yet another year. Supplies were extremely scarce, the Russian winters brutal without fuel, and “every month, [tens of thousands] more people died of starvation.” On top of that, Stalin’s authoritarian government was extremely adept at making people disappear if they spoke one wrong word or made art that was not precisely just so.

Such was the context in which Shostakovich penned his heartrending Symphony No. 8 in C minor.

LUCO captured the gravity and depth of the 8th Symphony with a highly conscientious, present performance. As a unit the winds and strings moved under the radar at speeds of varying levels of caution and anxiety. The brass followed Chagnard’s orders closely, joining the winds and strings for several horrific, hair-raising howls, representing the thousands of people the city lost month after month.

Moving deliriously through the constant fear of a knock at the door, imprisonment, and finally to the faintest shred of hope sans optimism an hour later, LUCO performed the five movements of the symphony with careful attention and stirring aptitude.

Storm clouds at the University of Washington on the eve of the performance. (Photo: Shaya Lyon)
Storm clouds at the University of Washington on the evening of the performance. (Photo: Shaya Lyon)

BrendanHoweOakland native Brendan Howe grew up surrounded by music and has been performing since the age of six. He has been listening to a lot of Tom Waits, Sviatoslav Richter, and Kate Bush lately.

Seattle Modern Orchestra Challenges Expectations, Musical Limitations in Season Finale

The Seattle Modern Orchestra, directed by the charming and vivacious duo Julia Tai and Jérémy Jolley, rounded out its 2015-2016 season on June 11th at the Good Shepherd Center with pensive, erudite performances of three notable contemporary concept pieces: Gérard Grisey’s Périodes (1974), Claude Vivier’s Samarkand (1981), and the West Coast première of Anthony Cheung’s Discrete Infinity (2011).

Seattle Modern Orchestra (Photo: Huck Hodge)

Several elements came together to make this performance particularly unique and engaging. First, the remarkable, apparent ease with which the musicians performed both as a unit and as individuals at will. Second, the clear relationship between the three pieces, as each exhibited a shuttering of tradition in favor of using the parts for other purposes. And, finally, the surprising parallels between the pieces and the turning points in the history of the Chapel at the Good Shepherd Center in Wallingford in which they were performed.

Grisey notes that his Périodes for seven instruments represents the “soft” periodicity of the respiratory cycle (organic and varied, as opposed to mechanical and precise): inhalation, exhalation, and rest. A noted proponent and composer of liminal music, which emphasizes the perpetually transitory nature of music itself, Grisey wrote Périodes to explore five of these breathing cycles. Each sequence constructs increasingly complex series of harmonics that share a single fundamental note.

In the first derivation, violist Heather Bentley droned on a dark, controlled low D while the other instruments built up a harmonic profile around it, cut through by a sort of tolling-bell rhythm by trombonist Rebecca Good. The sequence resolved into a calm yet apprehensive whole tone melody before coming to a rest and beginning a new sequence, this time focused on rhythmic structures.

The final cycle included a comedic, revelatory sense of perpetuity, reminiscent of the introduction to Mel Brooks’ 1987 film Spaceballs – just when it’s almost certainly over, it continues. Then it continues to continue, similarly to the intended function of the respiratory cycle.

To open Vivier’s Samarkand, clarinetist Angelique Poteat and oboist Ursula Sahagian joined forces with flautist Jessica Polin, bassoonist Steven Morgen, and Josiah Boothby’s French horn to create a dissonant groundswell of sound while Bathsheba Marcus’ heavily-accented piano forged its own path, stoking an unmistakable sense of fretfulness. The effect was similar to that of listening to a rant of a bona fide mad scientist in a basement lab, whose thread could be logically followed to a point before veering off in a completely unpredictable direction – simultaneously unnerving and enthralling. Gradually, the winds and brass echo the piano, adding a new dimension of depth and clarity, and Vivier again surprised with instructions to rap lightly on the piano’s open lid with a rubber ball.

As the piece came to its glacial close, the winds remained unflinchingly discordant, and the structure of their details lost within each other created an atmosphere of blended, inextricable tension. The SMO’s meticulous interpretation of Samarkand challenged the audience to break free of assumption again and again.

The intermission allowed audience members and performers to mingle over wine and cookies, which fostered a welcoming sense of conversation and community. I was fortunate enough to speak with composer Anthony Cheung about his piece, Discrete Infinity.

A well-spoken, thoughtful, engaging man, Cheung revealed that the piece had taken on a life of its own before he perceived its connection with Noam Chomsky’s idea of discrete infinity: that despite the finite nature of certain systems, such as language, infinite meanings are possible.

Cheung recognized that he could apply this idea to his music. He knew that he wanted his as-of-yet-untitled piece to build on harmonics, primarily those of strings, which derive their intricacy from a single tone or series.

He wrote ascending lines for the brass and wind sections, building upon tones with strong harmonic relationships, then introduced a cacophony of sound from all instruments to break them all down again. The sounds reduced into their discrete properties, leading to previously undiscovered combinations. Cheung accomplished his goal of representing the idea of infinite possibilities in music over time in Discrete Infinity, the limitations of resources and equipment notwithstanding.

BrendanHoweOakland native Brendan Howe grew up surrounded by music and has been performing since the age of six. He has been listening to a lot of Tom Waits, Sviatoslav Richter, and Kate Bush lately.