ArtsWatch Weekly: Banging the can

David Lang's "Match Girl" opera, JAW snaps open, Chamber Music Northwest's race to the finish, Brian Cox chats, art and science meet

Poor little match girl, and chamber music too: David Lang, cofounder of the effusive Bang On a Can and 2008 Pulitzer Prize-winner for The Little Match Girl Passion, is all over the Portland cultural calendar this week.

Damien Geter, Cree Carrico, and Nicole Mitchell in David Lang’s “The Difficulty of Crossing a Field” at Portland Opera. Photo: Cory Weaver

Portland Opera’s shift to a mainly summer season concludes with a double bill of Lang’s contemporary one-acts Match Girl and The Difficulty of Crossing a Field, opening Friday in the intimate Newmark Theatre. And his music will be on the bill Thursday and Friday at Chamber Music Northwest. Get the lowdown on Lang and his fascinating career from ArtsWatch’s Brett Campbell in his profile David Lang: From iconoclast to eminence.

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David Lang: from iconoclast to eminence

Pulitzer Prize winning composer and Bang on a Can founder's music will be performed at Portland Opera and Chamber Music Northwest this week

When David Lang was a Stanford University undergraduate, he once staged a famous avant garde work by American composer Lamont Young that required the performer to “feed” the onstage piano with a bale of hay. The result: Lang was formally banned from performing onstage at Stanford’s Dinkelspiel Auditorium again.

That experience typified Lang’s college years, and, in a way, his career. Now 60, the New York based composer has spent a lifetime challenging the rules and institutions of contemporary classical music, finding success on his own terms. A member of the faculty at both Yale University and Oberlin College, Lang reached the pinnacle of establishment cred when he received the 2008 Pulitzer Prize in music for his vocal quartet composition Little Match Girl Passion, which has been performed in Portland in the last two  years by Portland State University Chamber Choir and The Ensemble in its choral and original versions, respectively. One of America’s most performed and prolific composers, he’s also collected an Oscar, Musical America’s Composer of the Year award, Rome Prize, and other major grants, fellowships and honors.

Composer David Lang. Photo: Peter Serling.

Since its founding in 1987, Lang’s one-time insurgent organization, Bang on a Can, has grown from an annual music festival for non-establishment composers to a permanent and valuable institution of American music. His music is regularly performed at festivals and in concerts, dance performances, even films (YouthThe Woodmans). World renowned Eugene flutist Molly Barth this year recorded a new album of Lang’s music.

This Thursday and Friday, Chamber Music Northwest performs two concerts featuring three Lang compositions, followed by his appearance in a panel discussion Friday afternoon. And opening July 28 for four performances, Portland Opera stages two Lang creations: his 2002 chamber opera The Difficulty of Crossing a Field and an original operatic setting of Little Match Girl, both designed by Portland’s own theatrical visionary, Jerry Mouawad of Imago Theater. The iconoclast has prevailed.

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Eugene Drucker interview: Emerson to Shakespeare to Bach

Emerson Quartet violinist talks about the ensemble’s origins, his novel, his original compositions, and the differences between playing first and second violin

by ALICE HARDESTY

Editor’s note: ArtsWatch’s Alice Hardesty conducted this 2010 interview with Eugene Drucker, co-founding violinist of 2017 Chamber Music Northwest Artists in Residence Emerson String Quartet, during the ensemble’s appearance at Chamber Music Northwest in 2010. It’s excerpted from a longer version that originally appeared on the website of Chamber Music Concerts in Ashland, but is no longer available. Drucker performed earlier this month at the festival with the quartet and also played his own original music (discussed below) in a July 7 CMNW concert.

Emerson Origins

AH: Let’s talk about your beginnings as a quartet. How did you four come together?

ED: Philip Setzer and I met while we were students at Juilliard. We met at the orchestra, actually, and decided to form a student quartet together, partly because you had to do that for the chamber music requirement, and it felt congenial on a personal basis because we already knew each other. After all, we had the same role model: our teacher, the great violinist Oscar Shumsky. Meanwhile, we were getting coached by members of the Juilliard Quartet, especially Robert Mann — who I think is a Portland native — and also by Felix Galimir, who had formed the Galimir Quartet, which specialized in 20th century music.

Eugene Drucker performed at Chamber Music Northwest. Photo: Tom Emerson.

We had various changes of personnel over the first few years, and when we finished school we had to freelance to make a living. But we always had the quartet as a core of our musical experience. Peter Mennin, the president of Juilliard, heard us perform at a church on the East Side. He felt that we had potential and that we should continue to stay together, so during the 1976-1977 season we got a manager and chose a name (we didn’t have a name for the first few years). Since it was the bicentennial year we chose an American name with cultural associations.

AH: And Emerson himself?

ED: Emerson had said some enlightened things about music, but none of us was really an expert in philosophy, so the name was a bit on the arbitrary side. But everyone thinks very highly of Ralph Waldo Emerson, and we knew that he had great influence on the intellectual and cultural life of the United States throughout the 19th century, so it seemed like a good way to celebrate American history.

First and Second

AH: You’re the only quartet I know of, although there must be others, where the violinists trade places between first and second. Why did you decide to do that?

ED: That’s something that Phil and I have been doing since our student days, because we wanted to learn how to play both parts. The demands they impose on the violin are somewhat different, and we wanted to gain those skills. Since we evolved so gradually into a professional group, we never felt that there was any reason to crystallize the roles of first and second violins.

Emerson Quartet are Chamber Music Northwest’s 2017 Artists in Residence. Photo: Tom Emerson.

AH: Can you tell me a bit about the characteristics of each because I think a lot of people who enjoy string quartets don’t really understand their respective roles.

ED: The first violin part is usually more exposed, especially in repertoire like Haydn and Mozart, where there is some integration of melodic material among all the instruments, but the attention is still focused very much on the first violin. Even in later music, where the material might be more equally distributed among all the parts, the first violin is usually the highest part, so it’s going to stand out acoustically. And composers, in conceiving four-part harmony, will give a lot of detail to the top line. It’s a natural way of writing. The first violin will usually give the rhythmic cues when all four instruments are playing together.

Now with the second violin, one of the challenges is that you’re a few feet farther away from the audience and you have to emerge from the texture if you have a solo part. It takes a bit more work. You’re usually in a lower register with regard to your instrument, so it’s a little harder to project the lines. You also have a role of organizing the rhythmic cues for the lower three instruments. The first violin may be playing a long spun melodic line, but the other three instruments may have more rhythmically oriented material and you have to organize that, so then the second violin will be giving cues to the others.

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Movement and Flow: Portland Dance Films

Fuchsia Lin talks about her new film in next week's Northwest Film Center dance film evening

Can you believe it? It’s a dance-free weekend (as far as I know)! It’s the first in a really long time (Portland dance makers have been really really busy this year). But don’t worry, you won’t have to wait too long to get your dance fix. Opening Wednesday at NorthWest Film Center is a brand new evening of Portland-made dance films called Movement and Flow: Portland Dance Films.

The evening is curated by filmmaker, and NorthWest Film Center’s Filmmaker Services Manager, Ben Popp, who after curating last year’s Northwest Filmmakers’ Festival realized the need for a dance specific film event after seeing how many dance based/themed films had been submitted to the festival. NorthWest Film Center also partners with BodyVox Dance Company in the Contact Dance Film Festival.

Exploring a range of dance and movement elements that can play in the cinematic realm, Popp has brought together six Portland dance filmmakers: Amy Yang Chiao, Jackie Davis, Conrad Kazcor, Fuchsia Lin, Gabriel Shalom, and Dylan Wilbur Media. The films range in style from documentary format, to site-specific, to collaborative projects, and mixed media.

Fuchsia Lin, the director of the film Crystal’s of Transformation, is one of those mixers. She is a conceptual artist and filmmaker who works in costume design, film, performance, and dance. Originally from Michigan, Lin has resided in Portland since 2008 after living and working in New York, Paris, and Taipei. Her work focuses on questions of cultural identity (she is a second generation Taiwanese American), and explores ancient mythology and religious stories. Lin’s mission is to bring awareness to the importance of our relationship with water, which is what drives her film the Crystals of Transformation. Crystals of Transformation is about how the energetic environment of water affects those near it.

I spoke with Lin via email about the film and the filmmaking process. That conversation unfolds below.

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Extradition Series summer concert video preview: open season

Seventh edition of Creative Music Guild's quarterly experimental music series showcases spacious 21st century sounds

by MATTHEW ANDREWS

In January 2016, Portland composer and percussionist  Matt Hannafin spontaneously stood up during intermission at a CD release concert for a recording with Portland oboist Catherine Lee and declared it the first in a new quarterly series. Thus, in appropriately improvisatory fashion, was born Creative Music Guild’s Extradition Series: concerts of sparse, meditative, experimental music drawn from “the 20th-century experimental tradition” that often features works by composers associated with the Fluxus movement, the Wandelweiser Group, and Portland’s improvisation scene, of which Creative Music Guild is a key component.

Matt Hannafin performing with Tim DuRoche, Branic Howard, and Loren Chasse, Extradition Series spring concert 2016, Portland.

The written scores are usually open in some way: flexible in instrumentation and duration, frequently aleatoric and/or improvisatory, and often graphically rather than conventionally notated. It can all be pretty weird, even tedious if you’re not used to it, but once your monkey mind settles down it’s extremely potent stuff.

This Saturday, July 22, the Extradition Series Summer Concert features seven works over the course of about two hours. As with the other Extradition concerts Hannafin’s put on since then, the upcoming summer show—their seventh altogether—alternates solos with larger ensemble pieces. Click on the video below to see excerpts from a rehearsal for this concert.


Video interview with Matt Hannafin and Epstein rehearsal.

Doug Theriault will bring out his electric guitar to perform Giacinto Scelsi‘s percussive 1967 piece Ko Tha. Lee will perform two recent compositions written specifically for her: Dana Reason’s 2017 Chanson de Fleurs – Eleanor of Aquitaine, and Taylor Brook’s 2016 microtonal piece Alluvium for oboe d’amore and pre-recorded sound. Pianist/electronicist Matt Carlson and bass clarinetist Jonathan Sielaff will trade off on a pair of solo pieces by Wandelweiserist Anastassis Philippakopoulos, Sielaff playing 2002’s “Onissia” on bass clarinet and Carlson switching from synthesizers to piano for “Song No. 2” from Two Piano Pieces 2006-2008.

And it wouldn’t be an Extradition show without at least one big ensemble piece. Carlson, trumpeter Douglas Detrick, saxophonist and clarinetist Lee Elderton, and Lee will perform Samuel Vriezen‘s melodic collage The Weather Riots from 2002, and the group (with: sound engineer and composer Branic Howard, saxophonist Reed Wallsmith, and percussionist Loren Chasse replacing Detrick, Lee, and Theriault) will play Nomi Epstein‘s Combine, Juxtapose, Delayed Overlap from 2013. This last ought to be a hoot, if the rehearsal I attended is any indication. Each of the players chooses three sounds and passes them around the ensemble according to the composer’s titular directions.

A lot of the fun in this kind of music, aside from the transcendent realms your spirit can reach when you sit back and soak it up, comes from the interactions among the various players, some of whom have been working together for nearly a decade. This is a group of highly advanced musicians who could be doing whatever they like—and what they like, at least four times a year, is to make slow, beautiful, contemplative music together.

 Extradition Series Summer Concert begins at 7 pm on Saturday, July 22 at Portland’s Leaven Community Center at the edge of Alberta Park on Northeast Killingsworth. Tickets are sliding scale, $5-15.

Matthew Neil Andrews is a composer, percussionist, and editor at Portland State University. He and his music can be reached at monogeite.bandcamp.com.

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A China-Oregon connection: UO’s Jeffrey Stolet bridges the Pacific through music

Electroacoustic concert enriched by cross-cultural influences concludes an intensive University of Oregon workshop for visiting Chinese composers

by GARY FERRINGTON

It is a long journey from Beijing to Eugene, but each July for the past eight years, a cadre of Chinese conservatory students and faculty has been making the 5,000-mile trip to participate in the University of Oregon’s Summer Academy for Computer Music directed by Dr. Jeffrey Stolet, professor of music and head of Future Music Oregon.

Jeffrey Stolet and assistant Chi Wang with Summer Academy students.
Photo: FMO/symbolic sound 2012.

On July 29, the 2017 Summer Academy will culminate in a final concert of new music influenced by the crossing of a cultural bridge between China and Oregon. For some listeners, with an ear tuned to traditional instrumental music, the experience of hearing a soundscape of acoustic effects and driving rhythmic patterns from suspended speakers around the concert hall may seem unfamiliar, distant, and sometimes unsettling. Yet an attentive ear will hear electroacoustic performances rich in compositional practice and musical forms.

The music will be forged in an intensive two week workshop involving Chinese and Oregon student and faculty musicians, a continuing collaboration almost a decade in the making.

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Makrokosmos 3 review: powered by percussion

Minimalist and locally grown music headlined this year's edition of Portland's annual summer new music marathon

Story by MATTHEW ANDREWS
Photos by MASATAKA SUEMITSU 

I walked into Northwest Portland’s Vestas building lobby just as Portland Percussion Group was leading the crowd in a Steve Reich clap-along, an exercise in audience participation that I’d love to hear more of at these types of concerts.

Actually, there aren’t enough of these types of concerts. Produced for the third summer in a row by piano duo Stephanie & Saar (Stephanie Ho & Saar Ahuvia), the June Makrokosmos presented five hours of contemporary classical music in a setting that allowed the audience members to move around, even leave and return, as they pleased.

Portland Percussion Group played part one of Steve Reich’s ‘Drumming’ at Makrokosmos.

The original of Reich’s Clapping Music calls for two players, although many other arrangements are possible (some of my favorites are the Evelyn Glennie rendition and this dollop of ridiculousness), and PPG’s enforced recreation had the audience split into halves to play the two phases of Clapping Music’s diverging pattern. Everyone seemed to be having a grand old time, which is reason enough to do something like this, but doing service as both Happy Hour Ice Breaker and New Music Process Demonstration made it a lot better than other pre-show talks I’ve endured.

I missed the actual opener, PPG’s performance of Steve Reich’s Drumming (Part One) but I can’t say I minded too much: I’ve seen that famous video of theirs, after all, and one of the very few things I’m stodgy about is performances of single movements of larger works. But all this was just the happy hour appetizer. The real action in Makrokosmos 3: Reichmokosmos! happened up in the open atrium/auditorium on the Vestas third and fourth floor, a bright, modern space I heard multiple audients comparing to the Wieden+Kennedy auditorium two blocks away. The stage area—little more than a wide walkway limning the bottom of a tiered wooden seating area covered in floor mats—already housed the six pianos, along with a vast amount of percussion.

Pianos dominated, as in previous years, but this year PPG came out to show us (came out to show us, came out to show us) the power of percussion with some marvelous new ensemble music. The resulting spectacle, for all its epic grandeur, somehow remained delightfully intimate.

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