Hello! If you are reading this you have found the program notes for The Ballad of Ishtar! This is Heather Bentley writing all of this. I'll start with a brief background of me, violist/composer...
I've been a professional classical violist since my teenage years: by the time I was twenty I'd played in Carnegie Hall three times. I studied at Indiana University and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and moved to New York City a week after graduating SFCM. About six or seven years into my free-lance violist life I felt something was missing and went to study jazz viola with Turtle Island String Quartet composer/violinist David Balakrishnan.
Thus began my sojourn into improvised music and composing. The heart of it is collaboration. The folks on stage tonight are some of my favorite musicians in the world and I learn so much from their playing. I want to give a shout-out especially to Beth Fleenor, who has been my partner in creating this work every step of the way. I also want to thank Wayne Horvitz profusely for helping to realize my vision of this piece with his keen sense of phrasing, structure and texture.
Historically, influences for this opera are Vincenzo Galilei (father of Galileo and member of the Florentine Camerata, who invented opera by committee...), Henry Purcell, Giacomo Puccini, WA Mozart, Arnold Schoenberg and Steve Reich.
You are on my website, so if you're curious about any other projects, they're all listed in these pages.
Enjoy the show!
Jealousy, betrayal, rage, sex and redemption: these great operatic themes are explored in The Ballad of Ishtar, a contemporary opera that responds to our current worldwide rape culture crisis. In the grand tradition of opera heroines, Ishtar, Babylonian goddess of sex and war, has a fantastic mythology around her: she possesses the power to give or withdraw the gift of sex. Her disgust with the rampant sexual abuse she sees causes her to cut humanity off from all sexual activity, including not only procreation, but all kinds of physical intimacy and hence all interpersonal connectedness. Humanity is in chaos. Her voyage to the Underworld is marked by surreal encounters with an outrageous band of characters, and leads to her realization of the beautiful elements of humanity that are worth saving.
Part written, part improvised, the opera represents the intersecting energies of a group of twelve musicians hailing from diverse musical traditions. Over a period of several years, the work was crafted in individual meetings/rehearsals, email exchange of Sibelius files and MP3s for study, and an initial three day residency. The debut performances are the culmination of an intensive residency week leading up to the premiere where the piece was built by the performers. Conduction, led by Wayne Horvitz, is a system of hand gestures to organize an improvisation. This process allows the ensemble and singers to respond quickly to each other and craft larger structural shapes within an improvised framework.
The idea for this opera came to me around Easter time a few years ago when I read an erroneous Facebook post asserting that the goddess Ishtar was the source of the original Easter celebrations. A quick look at Wikipedia showed me that it's more likely the German goddess Oester who lends her name to the Christian holiday - but that was not before I read the Wiki article on Ishtar and just knew that she needed her own opera. The first person who jumped into my mind to create this with is the amazing Beth Fleenor.
One of the things that is so great about our group is the depth of collaborative interweavings that connect us. I've recorded an album with Beth in a dark, wet bunker; I learned about conduction alongside her with the late, great Butch Morris; I've loved every free improvisation we've come up with together; and we've had countless long conversations that cover every aspect of artistic life from the practical to the sublime. And that's just with me. Beth has deep musical relationships with everyone in the ensemble.
But this is supposed to be about Beth, and why she just has to be the one person in the world to depict Ishtar's rage about humanity's deep violations. If any singer can summon up a goddess-like fury and put it over the top, it is Beth. From her website, we learn the following: "Composer, clarinetist, and raucous vocal percussionist Beth Fleenor harbors a strong love for variety and all sonic manipulation, moving freely through genres such as jazz, rock, classical, contemporary chamber, Slavic & American folk, metal, musique concrete, ambient, noise & pop. Her work has been heard internationally from 100,000 seat festivals, maximum-security prisons, rural bars, art galleries, bunkers, sidewalks, sacred spaces, and some of the most prestigious concert halls, museums, clubs and theaters in the country - in live music, recording, theater, dance, installation, and film. Believing that "art is the discipline of being," Fleenor uses sound to open the channels of communication between and within individuals and environments."
She has collaborated for 10 years (along with dancer/violinist Paris Hurley) in the innovative ensemble Double Yoko, has recently returned from a monthlong residency at the Millay Colony in Austerlitz, NY, where she completed a number of etudes for her Blindfold Ensemble (free improvisation while blindfolded - you must go hear this) among other projects, and can be heard/witnessed in the eponymous Crystal Beth and the Boom Boom Band - here's Steve Kennedy-Williams' recording from her recent Earshot Jazz show at the Barboza - BOOM! That language is called Bethnic.
I could never ask for a more awesome musical collaborator/friend than Beth. And she helps everyone in Seattle. She alone is a reason to come to the opera. Happy listening!!
Here's a solo photo from what may have been the greatest photo shoot ever: for Ahamefule J. Oluo's recent album/show "Now I'm Fine". Aham, composer, trumpeter, stand-up comedian, writer and colleague par excellence, put together a stunning collection of his own music and darkly comedic stand-up material with vocalist Okanomodé and an ensemble of some of Seattle's finest musicians - sort of a big band plus strings.
I first met Aham a few years ago through our mutual colleague Brianna Atwell, whose support work arranging and engraving sheet music is running in the background of a surprisingly huge number of Seattle projects. She's also a terrific violist. We did a piece with Okanomodé called Luci's Lamb, and if you're lucky you'll be able to find some clips of it on the Internet. I was struck by just how tremendously open and supportive Aham is - yes, he is digging deep for his own material, but he wants you to do that, too. That is a very, very big deal in this music profession we call our home.
Aham is also a member of my favorite band ever, Industrial Revelation, that makes the future of jazz look deliciously rosy. I must quote from the November 2014 Earshot Jazz Publication:
"This year’s winner of The Stranger’s Genius Award is a perfect frame for the cross-genre, cross-generation, cross-racial, cross-economic, ever-morphing magic that Industrial Revelation continues to create. The soaring amalgam of jazz, hiphop, indie rock, punk, and soul, is seamless, substantial, and enormously entertaining. The genius of this band is honest, open, and uncalculated. People dance at these jazz concerts!"
I highly recommend that you catch one of their live performances.
I had been dreaming about having trumpet in The Ballad of Ishtar, and one day I realized that Aham was obviously the musician who had to be in the show. He brings an edge-of-your-seat verve to his playing on the one hand, and simply exquisite phrasing on the other. I am so delighted to be collaborating with him.
You can find out more about him on his website.
Here's a gorgeous tune from Industrial Revelation:
And an awesome tune from Now I'm Fine:
Is that an awesome photo or what? Shout out to photographer Makenzie Stone. It has been really fun to work with Will on the collection of electronic sounds and happenings for this opera. We've had this cool synchronicity of thoughts: I'll share an idea, something like cosmic noise, and it will have turned out that we were both consumed with joy over the sounds emanating from the Rosetta Mission comet landing. Or another time, I asked if he could do some voice distortion/processing, and he had just been delving into algorithms for mutating speech. Very fun. Will is also performing with the ensemble on his prepared electric guitar, a distortion-ful bowed instrument...
Here's what Will says about the sounds in Ishtar:
"Crickets, volcanoes, the ambient engine noise of the USS Enterprise from Star Trek TNG, lions, earthquakes, My Bloody Valentine, Bad Brains, Guided By Voices, subway tunnels, a "country day", metal dragging on metal, whistling tea kettles slowed way down, etc. etc."
Will is a somewhat recent graduate of the Cornish College of the Arts, where he studied composition with Wayne Horvitz and Jarad Powell. I've recorded a piano trio and a piano quartet that he wrote - really beautiful and elegant chamber music. His alter ego is this noise-obsessed electronics artist. Dave Segal of The Stranger says of his band Newaxeyes:
“Newaxeyes’ music is dark without being hackneyed, abrasive yet nuanced, psychedelic in non-obvious ways. Everything’s distorted, all of the time … Newaxeyes are Seattle’s most exciting new band.”
Besides the chamber music and Newaxeyes, Will has worked in film and video, dance, theater and performance art. He is one of a cadre of graduating Cornish artists in various disciplines who have formed a collective/creative production company called Pendleton House. Part dance, part visual art, part music (both live and recorded), Pendleton House reaches deep into the human psyche to present performance art that stirs and challenges its audience.
Here's a video by Newaxeyes, called Lips:
I'm really interested to see how Will's music expands and develops. Please take a look at his very wonderful website.
I hardly know where to begin, writing about Trey. Simply put, I believe he is one of the great artistic seekers of our time. His interests and abilities are so far-ranging: I will attempt to convey a little of what he pursues.
Beth Fleenor introduced me to Trey as a collaborator for this opera, and my first view of his work was this video, which I have since shared with numerous folks. It is about finding your original voice and it represents a slice of the creativity/music coaching that Trey does with students of art, music and life.
Trey not only developed his instrument, the Warr Guitar, or touch guitar, he is also the world's leading virtuoso on this instrument. He has an incredible passion for designing sounds, and also has phenomenal chops. We are so fortunate to be performing with him in this opera.
Trey may be most famously known as an alum of the long-lived progressive rock band King Crimson where he started out playing the Chapman Stick and soon turned to the touch guitar. Over the course of a decade he recorded seventeen CDs and two DVDs as well as appearing in hundreds of live performances with the band. He has since made seven solo recordings and created the group Quodia that combines live music, film, language and storytelling in multi-media performances. Actually, he has quite a number of bands/collaborations going. Visit his website!
He runs his own label (7d Media) and multi-media production company (7 Directions), scores for film and TV...the list goes on.
But I will say this: there aren't that many people out there that you can be conversing with about illegal orchestral score downloads from Russian composer Alfred Schnittke one moment, to talking about traveling to small villages in Mali the next, to seek out local djembe virtuosos. An amazing artist and human.
Kuma is from Trey's solo album The Third Star.
He has a really fantastic website full of all kinds of goodness.
It's a happy day when I get to write about Evan Flory-Barnes, bassist and composer. He plays (along with trumpeter/composer Ahamefule J. Oluo) in one of my favorite bands ever, Industrial Revelation, who won the 2014 Stranger Genius Award. You should absolutely go to one of their shows.
Not only is Evan a completely dynamic and charismatic performer, he is also a deep thinker and philosopher on the connectedness of humanity through the power of openness, love and "holding space". I learn from Evan's writings on a nearly daily basis through his posts about humans and our crazy current events. He writes a lot about what I would call "non-rejection" - it is instructive and helpful to me to be reminded that even those that seem easy to demonize are worthy of consideration and heart space.
But you don't even need to be informed of all that to be aware of how awesome Evan is because you can just hear it in his music. He writes for symphony orchestra and plays hip-hop. He writes chamber music and is a phenomenal jazz artist. As he says on his website, "He is purposeful in his resolve to use his music to remove the barriers imposed on music, musicians and society – no genres. His vision is to create music that reflects beauty; stirs the emotions; and, enlightens the soul."
Some of his own groups are: Threat of Beauty, Industrial Revelation, The Teaching, Rubato Hug and Thrown Together With Love. Evan was the winner of the 2010 Earshot Jazz Golden Ear Award , Concert of the Year for his orchestral work "Acknowledgment of a Celebration." If you listen to these two tracks below, you will be a happy person. His band, The Teaching, collaborated with Macklemore and Ryan Lewis on Bom Bom for the album The Heist, which won a Grammy in 2014.
Wonderful photo of Ivan by Eyeshot Jazz photographer Daniel Sheehan.
Ivan Arteaga, saxophonist, clarinetist, improviser, composer can be found in many new music habitats in and around Seattle. We have a number of musical circles here, and while they tend to be pretty well defined, there is a certain blending between circles, and I see Ivan collaborating with a diverse group of folks. He has a magnificent musical imagination and is a fascinating crafter of sound.
Recently having completed a Masters degree in in composition at the UW, Ivan is also a founder and board member of the Seattle record label Table & Chairs, which, since 2011, has not only produced numerous recordings but also run the weekly improvisation summit/forum called The Racer Sessions Sundays at 8 at Cafe Racer on Roosevelt. Part curated, part open mic, Racer Sessions is an open invitation to practice and hone improvisation chops, be exposed to new ideas, and just hear great music while eating tater tots. Or drinking a beer.
I play in a group called Lawson with Ivan. It's the brainchild of a very interesting Seattle composer named Jacob Zimmerman, who is also a founder of Table & Chairs. I had the chance to work intensively with Ivan when Lawson performed an arrangement of the iconic Chicago musician Roscoe Mitchell's Nonaah in an epic concert at Benaroya Hall a few years ago. I am delighted to be working with him on this opera.
His band Operation ID has some awesome recordings. Like this:
From his website:
It occurred to me fairly late in the process of putting this improvised opera together to ask Wayne to herd us cats via conduction. In retrospect it seems so obvious. Conduction is a term used by the late great Butch Morris to describe the process of organizing a group of improvisers via a complex system of over sixty hand gestures. I had the extreme honor of being asked by Wayne to join a group of about fifteen perfomers (including Beth Fleenor and Paris Hurley) to work with and learn from Butch for an intensive week. It was a life-changing experience that caused me to hear and think differently about music.
Wayne's own approach to conduction is his own development and adaptation. His group, The Royal Room Collective Music Ensemble has just released an album called At The Reception. It is a melding of written and improvised music. Here is the track titled Ironbound. Beth and Ivan can both be heard on this one.
There is so much to say about Wayne Horvitz. He represents the upper echelon of composer/performers not just in Seattle, but anywhere. He is a pianist, electronics artist, improviser and club owner (The Royal Room - only three years old but already a cultural treasure in Seattle), composer and big-time collaborator. He is a teacher of composition and improvising and has spawned countless great ideas for projects with all kinds of musicians, students, dancers, videographers...the list goes on.
A couple of years ago, Wayne asked my trio (Trio Pardalote) to record a bunch of his short pieces in a cold, dark and damp bunker at Fort Worden - a number of artists participated in the same project, some of them even descending into the enormous Cistern (replete with 45 second reverb) to record their improvisations. Wayne mixed and processed everything and the result is a wonderfully uncategorizable album called 55: Music and Dance in Concrete. There was also video and dancing, but that isn't on the record.
I have been playing Wayne's music for many years now in different configurations, and this my first creative project that he is helping me with. Much gratitude.
Photo by Daniel Sheehan.
Please take a look at Wayne's website to find out about his countless albums, collaborations and projects. We are so honored to be working with him.
It is an unexpected pleasure to run across someone like Michaud in this world - besides being a wonderful musician and incredibly helpful and supportive colleague, he is also a deep thinker and daily philosopher. He brings a deep consciousness to everything he works on. Michaud plays the role of the Gatekeeper in the opera, which is funny, because it is a non-singing role...and Michaud has a beautiful voice! Well, that's what happens sometimes in casting. Amid the constellation of divine/supernatural beings in the opera, the Gatekeeper is the only mortal...
Michaud is a guitarist, composer, singer, arranger, copyist, performer, teacher...the list goes on. He is a local Seattle treasure.
He writes on his website:
"Composer, guitarist and performer Michaud Savage is a working musician based in Seattle, WA. A solo and group performer, His work includes works for various chambers ensembles and orchestras, electronics, and improvised music. Michaud runs The Ancient Present, an ensemble performing new works and exploring various musical frontiers.
As a guitarist, Michaud serves a soloist and accompanist, is a member of the Tuesday Tease house band, plays guitar and sings in the tango ensemble Chicharra Tango, and leads The Ancient Present. Over the years, he has had the honor and pleasure to work with Adam Tully, Ramiro Gallo, honey.moon.tree, Paintings for Animals, Justin Froese, Adra Boo, Beth Fleenor, Evan Flory-Barnes, Heather Bentley, Michelle Searle, Ammon Swinbank, and many others over the years.
He studied at the Cornish College of the Arts with Emily Doolittle, Jim Knapp, and Michael Nicolella. Michaud’s studies beyond Cornish include time at The Evergreen State College where his studies with Terry Setter, Ben Kamen, Arun Chandra , and Sean Williams included an emphasis in Consciousness Studies and music."
Michaud's piece "No Matter Live" was recently performed by the Seattle Rock Orchestra, and he runs the ensemble The Ancient Present: here's a demo of his composition, "Only Time".
I love this photo because it is from the day I met okanomodé! That's actually me back there playing the violin, and Ahamefule J. Oluo shaking his hand on the left (Aham is also playing in the opera). We did a piece okanomodé developed called "Luci's Lamb" about Lucifer and Jesus, with okanomodé playing Lucifer. What an amazing performing artist and creative visionary - I've always wanted to do another project together. Okanomodé's character in our opera is Asu Shu Namir, a supernatural intersex being who is implored by a desperate humankind to save them from their terrible fate.
Recently, okanomodé and Aham produced an amazing comedy/pop opera called Now I'm Fine at On The Boards. Okanomodé has appeared with the Seattle Rock Orchestra numerous times.
Here is how he describes himself: okanomodé [pronounced: uh-kahn-uh-mah-day] noun
1. performance artist
6. master of arts
9. high priest
okanomodé is a performance artist of the highest order. A renaissance. An exhibition. The glamazon warrior born of grit, gut, & holypaganfire.
He’s the grandson of a pastor & protégé of afronauts, poets, sex therapists & porn stars.
He is the
& he has come, with a host of others
to shake & stir u from your sleep…
Here's a track from his new album Now I'm Fine: that's also Evan Flory-Barnes on the bass - he plays in the opera, too...
See more about his work here.
Once you hear Jimmie sing, you'll be a fan forever. A recent graduate of the Cornish College of the Arts, he is still in what you'd call his formative years, but his voice is anything but green. I ran into Jimmie in Capitol Hill at the early stages of this opera, and I knew he knew I was thinking about him for one of the roles, so I asked him if he'd rather be the Gatekeeper or the Queen of the Underworld - he enthusiastically expressed interest in the Queen! So there you have it. Check out these pipes and you'll see what I mean.
Jimmie is a consummate musician: pop singer, jazz musician, pianist, composer, singer/songwriter, recording artist...and he is a phenomenal colleague. Those things don't always go together, but Jimmie is one of the most professional working musicians out there - he is super easy to work with!
Some of his projects are:
If you have a chance to hear him live, don't miss it. He performs frequently at Vito's and the Royal Room in Seattle and is currently residing in Portland where he's finishing a Masters degree at Portland State. But he's up here a lot! You can check out more about him at his website
I've known and admired Paris' work for a number of years now - she's one of the most natural and commanding violinists I know. I think about her physically and emotionally integrated approach to music and the violin often when I'm practicing or teaching. She is also a fascinating dancer/choreographer/performance artist whose work, in part, explores and exposes issues of shame around the female body. In our opera, Paris will dancing the role of Ishtar. Her exploration of interior emotional landscapes is haunting and powerful.
Paris' insights into the human psyche are keen. One of the many things that impresses me about Paris is her devotion to engaging her audience in the experiences she's depicting, whether through dance, music or art. She isn't content to have the public being merely observers. I am incredibly honored to be working with her on this project. She brings a profound focus to the exploration of her character.
From Paris' website:
paris hurley is an experimental performance artist working to externalize the internal through sound, movement, and the transformation of spaces. a violinist of 23 years, she thrives in a wide-array of roles – composing, performing, recording, producing, dancing, and creating with a long list of seattle’s most influential artists.
seamlessly morphing between styles and genres, paris has come to be known for her chameleon-like abilities, exquisitely manipulating her strong classical roots to embody and push the boundaries of many traditions from around the world including balkan, javanese, brazillian, argentinian, noise, jazz, fiddle, rock, and pop, to name a few.
while finishing her degree at cornish college of the arts, paris became a core member of the hyper-experimental performance group, degenerate art ensemble. for over two years she worked closely with the collective, collaboratively creating multimedia works that ranged from explosive rock club sets to large-scale dance/theater productions, most notably performing at the moore theatre (seattle), the REDCAT (L.A.), and the TFF festival (germany).
in summer 2008, she joined the ranks of art-rock-gypsy-metal-punk band, kultur shock – since performing on the 2009 release, integration, and co-writing / co-producing / performing on the 2011 release, ministry of kultur. fall 2011 marked her 7th european tour with the group – nearly 200 shows in over 50 cities spanning 30 countries in venues ranging from tiny punk clubs to 100,000 seater festivals including sziget (budapest), stufstock (romania), exit (serbia), the creation of peace festival (russia), sayan ring (siberia), and earth festival (greece).
an avid experimenter and improviser, paris is at home in a multitude of environments, appearing on more than 50 recordings since her carnegie hall debut at age 15. from orchestras and experimental chamber ensembles to rock bands, her fertile list of collaborations includes music for dance, film, theater, and multimedia installations in venues ranging from concert halls, rock clubs, and warehouses to parks, theaters, and prisons.
taking an anthropological approach, paris works to amplify the collective/shared human experience through examining, exploring, and sharing her individual experience. in fall 2009, her piece, BRIDGING WOUNDS: staying the course of uncertainty, was presented as the inaugural performance of the northwest film forum’s live at the film forum series. in 2012, she will share the stage with legendary vocalist, david byrne, as concertmaster of the jherek bischoff orchestra in new york. her latest project, ON EMBODIMENT, features a series of commissioned solos choreographed specifically for paris by 7 of seattle’s most exciting movement artists.
paris was awarded a 2-month residency at PROJECT: space available (january/february 2012), a leaf season residency at studio current (october 2011-july 2012), and will be the first music/dance artist in-residence at the james washington foundation (april 2012), all in seattle.
Artist Profiles: Beth Fleenor as Ishtar
The Ballad of Ishtar is a contemporary opera that responds to our current worldwide rape culture crisis. In the grand tradition of opera heroines, Ishtar, Babylonian goddess of sex and war, has a fantastic mythology around her: she possesses the power to give or withdraw the gift of sex. Her disgust with the rampant sexual abuse she sees causes her to cut humanity off from all sexual activity, including not only procreation, but all kinds of physical intimacy and hence all interpersonal connectedness. Humanity is in chaos. Ultimately redemptive, the story ends with Ishtar having traveled to the Underworld and back and realizing the beautiful elements of humanity that are worth saving.
The work will be premiered in a three evening run at the Chapel Performance Space in Seattle, January, 2015, (part of the Wayward Music Series) by an ensemble featuring alto sax, viola, trumpet, jazz bass, touch guitar, laptop/electronics, prepared guitar and percussion performing live on stage, in addition to the singers and contemporary dancer. The performance partially improvised through the leadership of Wayne Horvitz.
In addition to multiple developmental residencies throughout the year, an intensive lead up rehearsal week in the performance space will allow the artists to dial in the technical, electro-acoustic music and improvisational components of the opera, ensuring a successful run of shows. There will be a public Q&A to discuss the principle themes with a live audience.
The opera will have a distinctly contemporary look, feel and sound because of the unique vocalists in the group - drawing from Baroque, contemporary classical, soul, noise, rock, gypsy and throat singing - and the improvisational compositional process. Lighting will play the heaviest role in the production's set design and implementation.
The opera aims to acknowledge the impact of rape on our individual and collective psyche while emphasizing the beauty and exquisite spiritual aspect of the human body, physical intimacy, vulnerability and communication.
The ensemble comprises a diverse group of improvisers/composers/instrumentalists who are exploring the division between improvisation and through-composed music: Wayne Horvitz leads Heather Bentley, violist, vocalist/composer/improviser/clarinetist/electronics artist Beth Fleenor; violinist/dancer/improviser/composer Paris Hurley; Trey Gunn of King Crimson, leading virtuoso on the touch guitar; William Hayes, electronics artist/composer/guitarist who will create a live-electronic soundscape; Grammy award-winning bassist Evan Flory-Barnes, Ivan Arteaga, saxophone, Ahamefule J. Oluo, trumpet and vocalists Jimmie Herrod and okanomode.
The collaborative process allows these characters to find their voice and specific music organically, contributing to the expressive power of the opera's message. The drama and cohesion of the opera are anchored by a poetry-based libretto by poet/cellist Rowena Hammill of Trio Pardalote with additional text and storyline by Heather Bentley.
Ishtar will be depicted simultaneously by vocalist Beth Fleenor and dancer Paris Hurley, whose work in the ensemble Double Yoko spans a decade. Ishtar's expansiveness warrants depiction by two artists.
The Ballad of Ishtar is a deeply relevant work for our time, supported by a cast of generative visionaries interested in exploring the subject matter in greater depth through the power of ensemble.