It used to be that visiting Jack Straw Productions felt a bit like going to a speak-easy.
To gain entry, you’d ring the doorbell by a smudged glass door in a drab, anonymous building on the corner of Roosevelt Way Northeast and Northeast 43rd Street. After a moment or two, Levi Fuller, Jack Straw’s genial administrative coordinator, would usher you into the place’s narrow confines.
Well, over the summer the newly re-christened Jack Straw Cultural Center has opened itself to the world. It now has a spacious, light-filled lobby, equipped with two comfortable “Story Chairs” that tell you a story when you sit in them (an audio installation by Tina Hoggatt).
Inside, you’ll still find the same complex of recording studios and exhibit spaces. But the change to the building’s facade makes a huge difference to its street presence.
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On Saturday afternoon, an open house will celebrate these changes. Festivities include performances by ChoroLoco (Brazilian music), Alchymeia (Eastern European folk), French horn player Tom Varner and friends (jazz) and fiddle-guitar folk duo Paul Anastasio and Elena DeLisle.
Meanwhile, in Jack Straw New Media Gallery, there’s a sound-installation that demonstrates what Jack Straw does best. It’s Steve Peters’ “Lições dos Antepassados (Lessons of the Ancestors),” an atmospheric piece assembled from field recordings Peters made in Portugal, combined with more formal audio recordings (whispers, song fragments) made in Portugal and Seattle.
Peters is a key presence in Seattle’s new music scene, directing the Wayward Music Series at the Chapel Performance Space in the Good Shepherd Center. In a phone interview last week, he explained what he was up to with “Lições dos Antepassados.”
The piece, he says, was created at the invitation of twin brothers, Luís and Rui Costa, who offer sound-art residencies in Nodar, the village where they were born.
“Part of my family background is Portuguese,” Peters says, “so I was always interested in Portugal and felt like it would be an interesting opportunity to go and do a project there.”
Nodar is part of a network of villages, each with its own tiny chapel. Peters traveled the countryside, recording chapel bells, bird song, insect noise, rushing streams and other sounds.
“I also wrote down the names in the graveyards,” he explains, “because for me the piece is about this idea of how knowledge of the natural world is handed down from one generation to the next. … I wanted this sense of all these ancestral voices whispering through the ether to you.”
The sung phrases are the Latin names of local flora and fauna. Peters showed a similar fascination with Latin taxonomy in “Index Filicum” (2011), in which four vocalists speak the common names and sing the Latin names of species in the fern room of Chicago’s Lincoln Park Conservatory.
To Peters, Latin is made to be sung: “It’s got these beautiful open vowels.” It also interests him because it’s both the sacred language of Christianity and the taxonomic language of science.
“Here we have these two Western modes of trying to understand the world that kind of have a history of being in conflict with each other. Yet they share the same language.”
He sees “Lições dos Antepassados” as his way of “reconciling the spiritual part of us with the part of us that makes meaning and makes knowledge and names things.”
The physical setup for “Lições” is a candlelit, minimalist echo of the chapels where the sounds were recorded. Three pew-like benches are surrounded by eight speakers. The 30-minute score emerging from them is a composition, with bells, voices and field recordings orchestrated into a sound collage that has rhythm, atmosphere, pleasurable textures and dramatic transitions. You’ll want to do more than just drop in on it. A CD of “Lições dos Antepassados,” paired with “Index Filicum,” is due out shortly and should be available when Peters gives an artist’s talk at Jack Straw at 7 p.m. Oct. 18.
Michael Upchurch: firstname.lastname@example.org