Category Archives: Concert preview

Alt-Jazz Poetry for a Casual Night Out

(The Daphnes. Photo by Stephen Schildbach)
(The Daphnes. Photo by Stephen Schildbach)

 

There’s a sense of wandering in Monica’s voice, as she describes The Daphnes’ style as a mix of music and poetry and singing.

“I studied poetry, that’s what my degree actually is in, and harp was my minor when I went to college… After I graduated, I was hanging out with all these jazz musicians; being a poet, I was really drawn to the Beats and the merging with jazz and improvisational playing and that seemed like something that I wanted do.”

Monica Schley, harpist, poet, and vocalist, writes and composes the material for The Daphnes. Julie Baldridge (violin) and Nate Omdal (bass) complete the trio for this unconventional group. For a Seattle-neighborhood dinner sort of evening, this is a talented trio with plenty to share over a glass of wine.

The Daphnes perform next on Friday, June 23, 2017 @ 7:00 pm at the Stone Way Cafe, Seattle. Details here.

From the Remnants of Horror

Music of Remembrance: Ceija
Sunday, May 21, 2017 @ 5:00 pm
Nordstrom Recital Hall at Benaroya Hall, Seattle

Traveling through Zion National Park, I found myself strolling through a slot canyon. I was noticing the smoothly carved rock, cut and shaped by eons of rushing, flowing water. Climbing out of the slots, back up to the road, I noticed a very different rock formation: turbulent, violent waters had crushed against this wall. Continuously.

(Zion National Park. Photo by Kent Karnofski)
(Zion National Park. Photo by Kent Karnofski)

It occurred to me that water has this duplicity – smooth or turbulent, flowing or crushing, friend or foe. We, too, have this parallel with our fellow humans, our neighbors, our friends. Each of us wants to think that we can love and respect each other, live and flow together. But sometimes that doesn’t happen. The human turbulence becomes inhuman and horrific.

The water we can understand, watch, and marvel. The humans? Painful and not understandable. We fail to confront.

Seattle’s Music of Remembrance gives us a way to begin the confrontation, in a space where music, art, and community come together to address conflict and horror.

MOR has commissioned Mary Kouyoumdjian to compose an original piece. Mary has found meaning in meeting and studying people who have lived through genocides; it provides an understanding of her own family. Her grandparents, both maternal and paternal, lived through the Armenian genocide, eventually being displaced to Lebanon, where much of her family still lives.

Mary’s new piece, to open myself, to scream, celebrates the life of Austrian-Romani Ceija Stojka, born in 1933, who survived the Holocaust and internment at Auschwitz, Ravensbrück, and Bergen-Belsen. Ceija was a painter, artist, writer, and musician; she passed away in 2013.

I spoke with Mary about her work, about Ceija, and about being a first-generation Armenian-American.

Mary got to know Ceija through her artwork, books, and, later, documentaries that featured her.

“She was an incredibly joyous person, but then you see the burden of her experience weigh her down from time to time. Understandably. Getting to know people on that level where you start to understand how these events, which happened so long ago, still eat away at them every day… That’s how I connect to these people,” Mary tells me.

Still from an animation by Kevork Mourad.
Still from an animation by Kevork Mourad. (Photo courtesy of MOR)

Mary’s new work is a multimedia piece in 4 movements, each movement inspired by selected paintings of Ceija’s. Each movement features a pre-recorded audio track as a backdrop, on top of which a 5-person ensemble (clarinet, trumpet, violin, cello, and double bass) will play live. The audio playbacks are influenced by Mary’s observation that past events continue to impart sorrowful backdrops to survivors’ lives; they live in the present, but they are also always living in the past. In addition, a hand-painted, 25-minute, animated film by projection artist Kevork Mourad will be synced to the pre-recorded audio, adding a visual experience for the audience.

This is a heavy, emotional space to work in. I asked Mary: Does the work become a burden?

“It can be totally burdensome, and these are not easy topics to confront, but I think it’s good to confront them,” she says. “Given my own family’s history, I’m drawn to these topics, and every time I re-approach them, it gives me a bit more understanding about my own family history and what my family members have gone through… and why my community is where it is in our present day. Selfishly, I’m getting something from it, too.”

Emotionally and intellectually, the enormity of genocide triggers overwhelm. As we’re stymied on how to proceed, this phenomenon continues to occur throughout the world. Music of Remembrance, Ceija’s art, and Mary’s new work give us a way to begin to understand – and discuss – the horrors of genocide. Perhaps, by learning the stories of individual lives and sorrows, some humanity can be regained while opening the door to progress.

Music of Remembrance’s Ceija will take place on Sunday, May 21, 2017 @ 5:00 pm in the Nordstrom Recital Hall at Benaroya Hall, Seattle. With Laura DeLuca (clarinet), Alexander White (trumpet), Mikhail Shmidt (violin), Walter Gray (cello), and Jonathan Green (double bass). Full details are here.

GreatWall_GreatKent_BWxKent Karnofski has been a Seattleite most of his adult life. By day he is a research engineer at a local manufacturing firm, by night he is an extraordinary audiophile. In addition to his work with the Live Music Project, he is the curator and primary contributor at CommunityNoise.blog.

Set Free: Compositions for Guitar

The Guitar In My Life
Friday, April 21, 2017 @ 8:00 pm
The Chapel at the Good Shepherd Center, Seattle

In recent months, I’ve been consciously interested in finding the opposite of what I’m currently listening to – adamant to reach out, find something new. New-to-me. As I settle in to write this piece, I’m randomly listening to an album of Jack Kerouac reading his poems, with Steve Allen playing piano accompaniment.

It’s not about music; it’s about the jazzy aura of the Beat Generation: energy, sorrow, exuberance. Wonderment! It’s lyrical. Air and wind.

Kerouac becomes the perfect backdrop as I think about meeting guitarist, composer, and educator Tom Baker to chat about his upcoming show with the Wayward Music Series. “The Guitar In My Life” will feature highlights of Tom’s 25-year career playing guitar and composing new music. The show will include solo classical guitar, electric guitar, and works for guitar and soprano. I asked him what he thought the show was about.

“It’s a celebration of the guitar as an instrument,” he says, without hesitation.

There are certain expectations – rules and norms – that composers may feel compelled to follow when writing for a more traditional ensemble; for example, a string quartet. The guitar? There is no tradition to follow; there are no rules to follow or rules to break.

Tom muses, “It’s only been a concert instrument for about 100 years.” Without a legacy to draw from, a composer is free to innovate, experiment, find the new sound. What can a composer do with that space? “I think of non-traditional sounds and find a way to create those sounds with a guitar.”

Tom Baker with his fretless guitar. (Photo by Tim Summers)
Tom Baker with his fretless guitar. (Photo by Tim Summers)

I frequently wonder if instrumental music is meant to have themes. Would a person image spring or autumn whilst listening to Vivaldi, if they’d not been told, beforehand, the name of the concerti was The Four Seasons? Should the audience think of stories that a piece is about, or is a piece about sounds?

Tom is quick to tell me that for his music, “it’s about sounds.” He uses stories, poems, pieces of literature as motivation; he strives to create sounds that work with the imagery in his head, but the final piece has to stand alone.

Green Guitar, for example, is about a dream he had after buying a new guitar. In the dream, his favorite old guitar, and this new guitar, have a battle for supremacy. Great story! Close your eyes and imagine two guitars duking it out, showing off, playing secret chords and magic riffs; now imagine a composer writing that down. Very cool! However, “I always tell my students that it’s risky to expect an audience to have a certain reaction,” Tom instructs.

Here’s my recommendation: Just listen and enjoy. If the listener has guitar compositions in their repertory already, this should be a great show; Tom has been doing this for a long time, and has a well-respected catalogue, and a catalogue that he is notably excited about. And for the listener without guitar composition as part of their normal? It’s time to come out and give it a try; let it be your opposite experience.

Tom Baker & friends will perform on Friday, April 21, 2017 @ 8:00 pm at The Chapel at the Good Shepherd Center in Seattle. Full details are here.

GreatWall_GreatKent_BWxKent Karnofski has been a Seattleite most of his adult life. By day he is a research engineer at a local manufacturing firm, by night he is an extraordinary audiophile. In addition to his work with the Live Music Project, he is the curator and primary contributor at CommunityNoise.blog.

Listening in the Round: An Interview with Stuart Dempster

Seattle Modern Orchestra / Solaris Vocal Ensemble: Double Portrait
March 11, 2017
Chapel Performance Space
Interview with Stuart Dempster 7:30pm
Concert 8:00 pm

Stuart Dempster’s living room emits a sound: a softly insistent rhythmic noise that my ears, then eyes track to an electrical timer plugged into a corner outlet. Long on this planet, plastic yellowed, its bits charge around in circles, increment by increment, with steadfast metronomic regularity.

I bring my thoughts back to S.M.O.R.E.S., the topic of our discussion. Dempster, 80, is a composer and trombonist; he’s premiering a new work by that name with the Seattle Modern Orchestra on March 11. The program also includes works by his colleague, Robert Erickson, who would have turned 100 this year. Erickson was part of a group of composers he commissioned in his early career that also included Luciano Berio, Andrew Imbrie, Ernst Krenek, Pauline Oliveros, Robert Suderburg, and several others.

Stuart Dempster, February 2017.
Stuart Dempster, February 2017. (Photo by Shaya Lyon)

(Lest you think this commission or his performance of it is an unusual occurrence, I should mention that Dempster’s many recent performances include a collaboration with Wayne Horvitz at the Asian Art Museum; an 80th birthday concert with William O. Smith, who was turning 90; several events with and in memory of his longtime collaborator and dear friend Pauline Oliveros; Bull Roarchestra at the Henry Art Gallery with Ann Hamilton; and a UW Dance Department commission with UW alum and Broadway/Merce Cunningham veteran Holley Farmer. Just last month, he led SMO in a performance of his work Choral Riffs with the Solaris Vocal Ensemble, who will join SMO to perform S.M.O.R.E.S.)

Dempster’s voice is low and gentle. As I record our conversation, I worry that the ticking timer will overpower it, but they work well together.

S.M.O.R.E.S., or “Seattle Modern Orchestra Resonating Enthusiastic Solaris,” was commissioned by SMO and Solaris Vocal Ensemble. The orchestration calls for mixed ensemble, voices, and audience – yes, audience – and seating is in the round, with the audience and Dempster at the center and the performers surrounding them.

Like other pieces Dempster has written recently, S.M.O.R.E.S. pairs structure with improvisation. Both the audience and the performers will have a score and a part to play. Dempster himself will play the trombone as a conductor-leader, and the performers will follow his lead.

“I move around in a circle, giving information to different people,” says Dempster. “I give them information by what I play, and then I give instructions for them to stop, or to do something else. There is the danger that I ‘abandon’ players if I get involved with one section… If I play something else, or if I abandon a player, they have the option to change what they’re doing – for example, choosing a different register, or a different pitch.”

S.M.O.R.E.S. can be played for any length of time; this performance will run for about 12-15 minutes. Beyond that, Dempster says, “I do it in real time – so I can’t really tell you what’s going to happen.”

SMO and Solaris will prepare for the unpredictable in rehearsal, and each time they go through the piece, it will yield a different result. As for the audience, you’ll be humming! (Dempster’s advice: Don’t be timid.)

Joining S.M.O.R.E.S. on the program is a similarly structured piece, Milanda Embracing, written in 1993-94 and named for the child who greeted Dempster and his fellow artists with open arms at a studio at the start of a residency.

Milanda Embracing also involves audience participation. It is more complex than S.M.O.R.E.S., and – unusually – the audience will have a score of its own. (No music-reading skills are required.)

It also differs from S.M.O.R.E.S. in that it’s not led by Dempster. Performers read the instructions, which include directives like “Send sounds across space.”

From the score of 'Milanda Embracing.'
From the score of ‘Milanda Embracing.’

“There’s no piece there, actually,” he says. “If you look at the score, there’s no piece. It’s what you should think in playing a piece, and through that, you can make a piece. It’s what I call the original minimalist piece – because there’s nothing there, among all this verbiage. But most of it is stuff people should be thinking about when they’re playing Haydn, or playing whatever.”

Dempster reassures that he’ll preface the performance with an explanation of the score and the piece itself, but that the players need the audience to join in.

“I have found that the kind of sounds that I make will be influenced by the kind of sounds that the audience makes, or thoughts that an audience has,” he wrote in 1994. “There is a beautiful feedback loop here.”

Also on the program are Erickson’s The Idea of Order at Key West, Pacific Sirens, and General Speech for solo trombone, commissioned by Dempster and written in the late 1960s by his colleague, Robert Erickson.

General Speech is performed with costume (an abstraction of a military costume) and lighting (for pomp and circumstance), and is designed to mimic the sounds of a military speech – specifically, General MacArthur’s “Duty, Honor, Country” farewell speech of 1962.

“MacArthur always seemed to be about nine feet tall,” says Dempster. “He had a huge presence in WWII, and certainly in Japan after the war. Erickson heard a recording of him speaking, and he was intrigued. We got together and decided to try this speech. I figured out a way to sort of say ‘Duty, Honor, Country’ on the trombone, and that’s how it got started.”

It was a 300-hour-long, side-by-side process. Dempster would start playing sounds, and Erickson would work on the score.

“First he’d say, ‘Play the words of the speech.’ After trying this, and then that, I would finally get it figured out. That would take 20 minutes, that one little phrase. Then he would ask – ‘What are you doing?’ – ‘I dunno…’ and we’d have to go back all over it again, trying to figure it out.”

After hours of working through it, they had a score that made some sense. (For a sneak preview, check out the video below.)

The sound of a speaking trombone is not only eerie, but unique to that instrument.

“Erickson – and others too – used to say trombone pieces were mostly piano pieces masquerading as trombone pieces, but when you start using the larger sound palate of the trombone, that’s a different thing,” says Dempster. “It’s idiomatic to the trombone to have all those vowels available. You don’t have that on harp, you don’t have it on piano, you don’t have it on much of anything.”

Dempster is a careful listener; he tunes in to everything from a passing garbage truck to the resonance of a specific corner of the Chapel space in the Good Shepherd Center, where this concert will take place.

“The building has a lot of sounds to offer. I was doing a piece one time – it was the centenary of the building in 2007. It was a Saturday afternoon, and there was a leaf blower outside. When it came my turn to play, Steve [Peters] started to close up the window. I said, no, no, open it! Of course it stopped fairly quickly once I started playing. And oh, the heating! It’s not as noisy as some classic new York heaters that just pound and crash and bang. The Chapel radiator is a little too polite (he laughs) – just one clunk once in a while. I like that. I always enjoy it when that happens.”

Of S.M.O.R.E.S., Dempster reiterates: Just listen! Listen to the performers, the sounds of the room, the surround. Resist the temptation to turn around, or even to turn your head around. Get used to people being behind you. If you do turn, he says, “turn really slowly so that you can change how the piece sounds by what you do in the audience.”

As our conversation winds down, I ask Dempster about the ticking timer. He laughs.

“Oh, that thing! That’s from the Sixties. I keep thinking I’m going to replace it. I probably said that 20 years ago, too.”

His tone sobers.

“You’re sitting here, and suddenly the power goes out. The refrigerator’s off, the heater’s off, and that thing is off. You do have this magnificent quiet. But – it’s been sounding like that for a very long time. In an odd way, it doesn’t bother me… it’s in there with all the other stuff I listen to.”

Come hear Stuart Dempster perform with Seattle Modern Orchestra and Solaris Vocal Ensemble on March 11, 2017. Concert begins at 8pm; arrive at 7:30 for a moderated chat with the composer. Tickets/more info here.

2000 Moving Parts: Crafting Sounds

Sound of Late: 2000 Moving Parts
Saturday, March 11, 2017 @ 8:00 pm
Flutter Studios, Seattle

Somewhere in my home, amongst the heaps of scrap paper I have around, there is a To Do list, now several years old, scrawled upon a notepad; a bunch of checked off items, except one: “Buy a Harp.”

I don’t play, but as objets d’art, harps are remarkable pillars of craftsmanship: the wood, the strings and hardware, the assemblage. The visual anticipation of soothing sounds draws me to their constructed beauty. After the frame warps from strings’ tensions, as certainly a harp frame will do, people sell them off. I want one.

As I prepared for this interview, I kept saying to myself, “Each of us must have our own harp story.” So, I asked harpist Jennifer Ellis, “What drew you to the harp?”

(Photo credit: Jason Paige and Bonnie Lyn Paige)

The Secret Garden was one of my favorite books as a kid, and when the movie came out, my mom took me. There is this beautiful little harp solo in the score, and so I started poking my mom, ‘What instrument makes that sound? I want to play the instrument that makes that sound.'”

Years later, Jennifer joins us in Seattle. On Saturday, March 11, 2017 – together with Sarah Pyle on the flute and Andrew Stiefel playing viola – we’ll be listening to the collaborative trio Sound of Late.

The harp has some 2000 moving parts, inspiring the name of the show. I asked Jennifer to help me count to 2000. “A lot of where the moving parts come in is through the system we have to get flats and sharps.” There are 7 foot pedals; one pedal connects all of the “C” strings, one connects all of the “D” strings, one all of the “E” strings, etc.

When you move a foot pedal, it triggers a spring, which triggers a rod, which triggers the linkage, which triggers the discs, and the discs (2 per string) engage the string, fretting it like a guitar string. One disc raises the note a half step from flat to natural, and the second disc raises the note another half step to sharp. Jennifer manipulates these discs to develop sounds that most harpists try to mute.


That impetus to take things apart to understand them and put them back together is a wonderful one in our world.


I listened to some preview materials prior to the interview. There’s the identifiable harp strings providing sounds, but there’s other stuff; blurts and bits and twongs (I literally heard a “twong”); extra reverberations that help to fill spaces. John Cale would be proud.

I suggested to Jennifer: “The way you’re manipulating the harp, it adds texture and sounds, and it sounds like you’re accompanying yourself.”

I wasn’t far off. “Yeah! Yeah, that’s a fair thing to say!”

Many orchestral instruments play only one note at a time. The harp is played with both hands, 4 fingers each (the pinky finger is too short), so you can play eight notes at once. It’s a very rich instrument to play solo, but, says Jennifer, “it’s really fun to get the opportunity to expand and collaborate with others and play chamber music. Sound of Late is the best of both worlds, because you get to hear the harp solo and then you get to hear the harp with other instruments.”

In her work with the harp, Jennifer enjoys a sense of discovery; take something apart and you feel more connected with it, like something has been revealed to you. “That impetus to take things apart to understand them and put them back together is a wonderful one in our world. I hope people leave with a little glimmer of that feeling and are interested in applying it elsewhere in their lives.”

After the show, Jennifer will invite guests onto the stage to see the harp up close and ask questions.

“I hope this concert helps lift the veil and make the harp feel accessible and dynamic, interesting, and intriguing,” Jennifer added.

It’s your chance to see this beautiful object up close, and understand how it makes beautiful sounds, and develop a harp obsession of your own…

Sound of Late will perform on Saturday, March 11, 2017 @ 8:00 pm at Flutter Studios in Seattle. Full details are here.

GreatWall_GreatKent_BWxKent Karnofski has been a Seattleite most of his adult life. By day he is a research engineer at a local manufacturing firm, by night he is an extraordinary audiophile. In addition to his work with the Live Music Project, he is the curator and primary contributor at CommunityNoise.blog.

Steinways & Screws: Myers plays Cage

Cornish Presents: Jesse Myers
Friday, February 17, 2017 @ 8pm
PONCHO Concert Hall, Seattle

“It transforms the piano into something not recognizable as a piano,” says pianist Jesse Myers, as we peer into his Steinway.

In 1940, while a faculty member at The Cornish School, John Cage devised methods of converting the piano into, as he described, “a percussion ensemble under the control of a single player.”

Originally aimed at a dance accompaniment, his innovation was to insert objects – screws, nuts and bolts, pieces of rubber – between certain piano strings, in specific locations. The foreign objects create unfamiliar timbres that result in sounds more like a wood block than a piano.

Jesse Myers uses screws to modify the sound of the piano. (Photo by Kent Karnofski)
Jesse Myers uses screws to modify the sound of the piano. (Photo by Kent Karnofski)

On Friday, 17 February, at the same Cornish where it all began, Jesse will be performing Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes for prepared piano. Jesse played some for me.

It sounds like a small ensemble of instruments, mostly percussion, with one piano, playing a song together. Instead of each instrument playing its own track, one instrument plays a note, then another instrument plays a note, and then another instrument plays a note, and so on. Sometimes one instrument plays a bar or two. Thus, there is a disruptive continuity, as so many small parts are rhythmically tied together.

I find the result to be pleasing and coherent, yet challenging. (I’ve been trying to count how many instruments I’m listening to, and understand what all of them are.) The piece will arrive at a nice spree of notes, then something fittingly discordant, followed by a short melody, then a clock striking 1 o’clock. Begin again.

“Do you think Cage was a genius?” I assured Jesse that I do not frequently use this term. (People are generally familiar with others tagged with the “genius” label – Beethoven, Einstein – but Cage is out there in the cold obscurity.)


Cage claimed that music consisted of combinations of different sounds, and therefore if you were making noises, you were making music.


Jesse pondered, “You can’t talk about music over the past 50 years without talking about John Cage. He completely changed how we think about contemporary music. So, yes, I would have to say he was a genius.”

I keep wondering, if Cage was a genius, why is he not more prominent in today’s performance spaces? Cage claimed that music consisted of combinations of different sounds, and therefore if you were making noises, you were making music. This assertion gave him space to innovate without rules or interference, and his fertile mind deserved the space.

Cage can be challenging, and sometimes (in my experience) unlistenable. I think this is a show where people not familiar with Cage’s work could invite him in from the cold. Jesse and I agreed that an audience should find this evening, these works, to be quite enjoyable.

“I just want the audience to relax,” Jesse tells me. “This is beautiful music, and people should be able to sit back and enjoy the sounds. If we could throw a couple of bean bags on the floor for people, I’d be all for that.”

The reader can get a preview from Jesse’s SoundCloud; here is Sonata V.

Jesse Myers will perform on Friday, February 17, 2017 @ 8:00 pm at PONCHO Concert Hall at Cornish College of the arts. Full details are here.

GreatWall_GreatKent_BWxKent Karnofski has been a Seattleite most of his adult life. By day he is a research engineer at a local manufacturing firm, by night he is an extraordinary audiophile. In addition to his work with the Live Music Project, he is the curator and primary contributor at CommunityNoise.blog.

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.

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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.

A Very Personal Sound

I am mesmerized, watching a pair of hands dip and soar with a melody, like birds dancing their own flight paths. Clinton Smith, music director, is not far behind, floating a bit himself as he leads Orchestra Seattle through their first reading of Edward Elgar’s From the Bavarian Highlands, which will close their final concert of the season.

The music is beautiful, the rehearsal room absolutely filled with sound, and I am surprised to learn that the 70-member orchestra is seeing their parts for the first time tonight. They are all sight reading, as is Clinton, and yet the music is very much alive. (It turned out the score was late, and had arrived that day from the publisher.)

“You have to dance with me a bit.” ~ Clinton Smith, on tempo
“You have to dance with me a bit.” ~ Clinton Smith, on tempo

It has now been a month since that first rehearsal; on Sunday, the orchestra will perform a program of Elgar, Mozart, and Kai-Young Chan together with their other half, the Seattle Chamber Singers.

Founded in 1969, Orchestra Seattle | Seattle Chamber Singers (OSSCS) pairs chorus and orchestra on equal footing – an unusual undertaking for a community group, and unique in the Pacific Northwest.  The group also works with Cornish College of the Arts and Seattle University to provide ensemble credit for musicians who are pursuing a music degree and wish to play or sing for credit.

I asked Clinton if he would share a few thoughts about Sunday’s concert program, conducting from the piano, and unique character of this ensemble.

 
How did you choose the repertoire for this program?

I came to the idea of the program from reading the texts and the story behind Elgar’s Bavarian Highlands. He and his wife were on vacation in Bavaria, and you can tell they were having a great time together, making happy memories. I wanted to create a program that reflected a happy-go-lucky atmosphere, so I chose the Mozart concerto – which I’ve performed several times, as it represents a happy and successful brief period in Mozart’s life – and the Elgar Serenade. His publisher told Elgar it wasn’t publishable, but he forged ahead and created this well-known gem.

“The beautiful lilting phrases must have just the right amount of emotion, both for the orchestra and the chorus, in order to pull off the simple beauty of the music… Clinton has a strong emotional connection with the piece and the skill to communicate that connection to the musicians, making the performance light, lovely, and carefree for all of us.” ~ Laurie Medill, alto, on ‘From The Bavarian Highlands’

 
What should we listen for?

The Elgar Serenade is a lush, beautiful, strings-only piece written for the fun of it. Listen for Elgar’s very personal sound – the sound of a composer writing from the heart, for fun, instead of for a paycheck.

The Mozart piano concerto is very unique in that he wrote this piece most likely for himself to take on the road and play for high society. It was composed the same year as The Marriage of Figaro, his most famous opera, and one can hear opera characters darting on and off stage even in this, his most famous piano concerto.

The composer competition winner by Kai-Young Chan, Seeking, Searching, is inspired by the poem Sheng Sheng Man by Li Ching-Chao (1084-1155). The audience should listen to the entirely new sound he creates, utilizing new ways of playing the instruments, complex rhythms, and traditional Chinese instrument-inspired sounds with glissandi, grace notes, and tonality.

Finally, Elgar’s From the Bavarian Highlands, we hear the sounds of Elgar and his wife’s travels together around Bavaria on vacation. His wife wrote the text, and he wrote the music, and together they create a delightful six-movement choral work free of worries.

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“It’s a matter of figuring out the rhythms in your own time. You’ll need to do the math, sitting with the part, figuring out where the rhythms go. You have everything you need.” ~ Clinton Smith

 
You will be playing the Mozart piano concerto while simultaneously conducting it. Is that different from doing just one or the other?

Playing and conducting is all about trust – trusting the musicians to listen to each other, and play together without a conductor. Essentially, we are having a conversation, and when I’m not playing, my conducting is part of the conversation the musicians are having with each other.

It’s tricky to do both, and I have to take care of myself first as a performer. That’s where the trust comes in – I know the orchestra can play without me, and when I need to focus on my playing, they will take charge, and together we will perform the piece as chamber musicians.

Clinton Smith conducts Mozart's piano concerto from behind the piano.
Clinton Smith conducts Mozart’s piano concerto from behind the piano.

 
Seattle has dozens of community orchestras. What drew you to OSSCS?

The draw was the repertoire possible with the pairing of a chorus and an orchestra. Where else can you do a concert with Beethoven 9 and Schwanter’s New Morning for the World? A professional orchestra would be far too expensive for such a concert, and the prohibitive difficulty level of the music would exclude most community orchestras. OSSCS can pull off this type of concert beautifully, then turn around and perform a pair of Messiah performances less than a month later.

 
What are you most looking forward to about this concert?

Bringing new works to life is a great privilege and responsibility of mine, and OSSCS is known for its adventurous programming with regard to new music. I am also thrilled that we are able to present Elgar’s Serenade. This is on the program because the violins last year won a fundraising competition. I studied the piece early on when I was just starting to conduct with my teacher Ken Kiesler, and am happy to revisit an old friend.

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OSSCS will perform “Devil may Care” at First Free Methodist Church at 3pm on Sunday, May 22, 2016. For details and tickets, click here. Watch the concert LIVE on Facebook.

“You really have to open your mind and be willing to accept that there are and should be many ways to express emotion through music.” ~ Kenna Smith-Shangrow, violin

Would your ensemble like to be featured on the Live Music Project? Drop us a note at info@livemusicproject.org. All photos © 2016 by Shaya Lyon for the Live Music Project.

An Algorithmic, Emotional New World

“It’s not enough to slow down. You have to relax your soul, then it becomes organic.”

Sound like a yoga class? That’s music director Julia Tai, guiding the musicians of Philharmonia Northwest through their first rehearsal of this concert cycle as they prepare their season finale: a trio of immersive works spanning 250 years.

For Sunday’s concert, Julia has chosen music that looks into the future: a world premiere by Seattle composer David Schneider, computation[0]: algorithmic thoughts of the electric brain for amplified orchestra, and Dvorak’s 9th Symphony, “From the New World,” signifying the beginning of a new era for the orchestra.

Dipping into the past, the program continues with an unusual pairing of concerto instruments in Michael Haydn’s Duo Concertante for Viola and Organ, with soloists Mara Gearman (viola) and Leslie Martin (organ).

Mara Gearman and Leslie Martin rehearse Haydn's Duo Concertante at North Seattle College.
Mara Gearman and Leslie Martin rehearse Haydn’s Duo Concertante.

Philharmonia Northwest has a 40-year history of producing high-quality concerts and promoting local composers and performers. The musicians have an unmistakable common love and passion for music that is shared by all.

When I ask Julia what she is most looking forward to about this concert, she mentions the beautiful program and wonderful soloists – and the challenges around computation[0], a minimalist piece structured around four sorting algorithms. [Listen here]

“Since I’m not a computer person, David had to explain to me how sorting algorithms work and how the piece was composed to illustrate these processes,” she says. “Working on David’s piece is something new for the orchestra. It requires a different mindset and musical discipline. But we like challenges and learning new things all the time. It expands our horizon and improves our musical skills.”

Julia explains that the piece is difficult because it is very minimalistic – there are repeated musical patterns and slight changes with each repetition. The music then changes and morphs over time (a technique developed mostly by John Adams, Steve Reich, and Philip Glass). There are also passages that use the Hocket technique, where each group of instruments plays alternating notes that make up a melody. It is extremely difficult to be precise on those fast notes and rests.

Philharmonia Northwest rehearses 'computation[0]' at North Seattle College.
Rehearsing ‘computation[0]’ at North Seattle College.
Algorithms might seem like a strange muse for an orchestral work, but like other sources of creative inspiration – nature, people, history – algorithms are part of daily life. And they are on David’s mind. For the past year and a half, he’s been on the path to becoming a software developer – and has been devoting most of his energies to learning programming and the math and computer science upon which modern software is built.

“In addition to the fact that algorithms help power the technology I – like just about everybody in our society – use every day, I’ve gotten to know some of them much better in the recent past,” he says. “The thinking required for understanding and applying algorithms is quite abstract, and it occurred to me that music might actually be a very good medium for expressing such abstraction. So in part, this piece is an attempt to capture the logical processes that go on in the ‘mind’ of a computer and convey them to an audience in a way that’s understandable on an intuitive level.”

When David joined for the orchestra’s fourth rehearsal, he heard computation[0] live for the first time – toes tapping, score open, his face a mask of mild concentration. I watched, wondering what it’s like to experience your creation coming to life.

Composer David Schneider looks on as he hears computation[0] live for the first time.
Composer David Schneider follows along in the score as he hears ‘computation[0]’ live for the first time.
“The first time hearing a piece in rehearsal is always an interesting experience, and with an orchestral piece, it tends to be a bit of a blur,” David says. “I try to take in as much as I can, but it’s difficult, because there’s so much going on. What I’m mainly concerned with is: Can I hear the musical narrative unfolding the way I intended?”

Micro-negotiations unfold after the orchestra plays through David’s piece. The opening section needs more trombone. The woodwinds can’t be heard. (In fact, this is a feature of the rehearsal space, which absorbs their sound entirely.) And then there is some rethinking of whether to use the shaker or a different type of percussion.

Philharmonia NW

David explains later why this process is necessary.

“Sometimes in writing a piece there are details that I’m not quite sure about,” he says. “I’ll wonder if maybe I actually want the glockenspiel an octave higher. Or I might worry that I have too many instruments playing a particular line, and maybe they’ll overpower the other parts. The truth is, while I think I have a pretty good sense of how things will sound, there’s still a fair amount of uncertainty, particularly in the way a large number of instruments sound when playing together. And there are other variables that add to this uncertainty, since, for instance, every performer is different, and every space is different.”

Occasionally, David will write something one way but also have in mind one or more alternatives in case it doesn’t work quite the way he wanted.

Julia explains that many composers like to make changes to their work on an ongoing basis, from small changes like dynamic marks to bigger ones like cutting out a few bars. Composers throughout history have done this too, making changes or creating different versions during rehearsal cycles or for different concerts or orchestras.

Philharmonia Northwest rehearses at North Seattle College.

With less than a week to go before this concert, I wonder: At what point do you put down the pencil?

Says David: “If there’s enough rehearsal time, I might ask the performers to try an alternative, but typically these changes are quite small, because it would be extremely impractical to make major changes to the piece at that stage.”

Says Julia: “That’s the beauty and fun about working with living composers! We can have a dialogue on the music, exchange ideas, edit some parts of the music or instruments, and be in the exciting process of creating something new that no one has ever played before!”

Any collaboration between composer and musician produces a work of art that is greater than the sum of its parts; in an orchestral work, the composer has a vision, the conductor communicates that vision to the players, and the players bring it to life. All of these moving parts come together to create a conversation between composer, musician, and audience whenever a piece is performed.

“We can’t forget that music is a living art that breathes and changes, and it can sound very different with different players too,” Julia says. “This is why live music is so amazing. You have to be in the moment to experience it!”

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Music director Julia Tai.


Philharmonia Northwest will perform Schneider, Haydn, and Dvorak at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church at 2:30pm on Sunday, April 24, 2016. For details and tickets, click here.

Would your ensemble like to be featured on the Live Music Project? Drop us a note at info@livemusicproject.org. All photos © 2016 by Shaya Lyon for the Live Music Project.