“We cannot fight old power in old power terms only. The way we can do it is by creating another whole structure that touches every aspect of our existence, at the same time as we are resisting.” — Audre Lorde in an “An Interview: Audre Lorde and Adrienne Rich” (1979)

What are the literary works that have defined the educational experiences in the U.S.? Which authors continue to shape the thinking and writing of those entrenched in this country’s educational systems and academic institutions? De-Canon, a newly launched project in Portland started by literary artists and educators Dao Strom and Neil Aitken, is turning a critical eye on popular understanding of this country’s literary canon—bridging the idea of a site-specific “library” with digital resources, visual art, and performative practices, all centered on literary artists of color.  

De-Canon at UNA Gallery

Questions of educational pedagogy have fueled the organizer’s drive to offer an alternative to the hierarchy of western literature. “Courses, and even workshops (practice-oriented workshops), are consciously or unconsciously built around the assumption that there’s only a western canon to have a conversation around,” explains Aitken. Gesturing to his and many of his fellow writers’ shared experience, he notes, “When we sit in an MFA workshop or someone teaches us the craft of writing, the texts that they reference are almost always exclusively white male writers, with a handful of white female writers. And it ignores generations, hundreds of years, even millennia of other aesthetic work that’s out there. And it also ignores contemporary writers of color.”

With aspirations to “create a forum in which many voices contribute to the defining–or un-defining–of the literary canon,” De-Canon was launched with funding from Portland Institute for Contemporary Art’s granting program, the Precipice Fund. In addition to a website of literary resources and an archive of dialogue between writers of color, De-Canon is also taking physical shape this August in the form of a pop-up library at UNA Gallery that will host a slew of cultural programming. Library open hours are 12-5 pm Saturdays and Sundays through August 26th.  

According to Aitken, the foundation for De-Canon began to emerge in 2015 after Wordstock, Portland’s major book festival. “Portland’s literary spaces can be very, very white,” notes Aitken, nodding to the lack of local POC writers at the festival that year. Shortly afterward, a group of writers of color began meeting and found that a common theme surfaced.

“In those home-based conversations, this type of a conversation would come up often, about both people sharing their experiences in university programs and writing workshops, and frequently feeling silenced or excluded from a discussion about literature, or being told that their experiences or their stories didn’t fit within what other people were writing about,” says Aitken. “So the question then becomes, well where are those stories? Why are we not exposed to other people who write from a world of experience that’s more in line with ours?”

A deeper dive into the field reveals that there are plenty of writers with other modes of sharing their stories and with a range of lived experiences—more than could ever fit in one syllabus, or even multiple syllabi—and many working on a local level in Portland. The idea of multiplicity emerges as a recurring theme in the organizers’ efforts to put together an entire library. This self-made space for building community is not trying to “replace” the Western canon, but instead, it offers numerous canons for people to interact with and think about on their own terms.

It is important for the organizers not to assume a position of authority in presenting de-canon(s), and this is reflected in the setup of texts within the library. “We’re not dictating ‘this is exclusively for this type of thing; This is exclusively for that’,” shares Aitken. “That part of the exhibit is an invitation to anyone there to move things around, to reform what goes into a box or a canon, and think about it differently. What fits together, what doesn’t fit together, for them?”

Art by Sam Roxas-Chua, featured as part of De-Canon’s pop-up library exhibition at UNA Gallery

While plenty of books can be found in De-Canon’s pop-up library exhibit, Strom explains, “We’re loosely interpreting ‘literary arts’ or ‘literary expression’ as something that can happen not just through words on the page or through books but also through other forms, like oral, or image text, or music, or visual [forms].” As a practitioner of hybrid literary forms herself, Strom also elaborates on the hybrid focus, remarking, “You know, that square with text on the page is not necessarily the only shape that we can receive stories or experience through.”

De-Canon’s inclusion of hybrid forms of literary art also reflects an effort to unlearn or subvert the authority of language, particularly the English language, which Strom describes as a “language of colonization, war, and dominance”—a language that many writers of color use, but that is not always the primary language of their culture. Aitken explains that one’s relationship to a language might differ, “whether they’ve grown up in a household where English is not the only language, or maybe it’s the second or third language, or [maybe] they’ve grown up where English, for multiple generations, has been the language, even though everyone around you assumes that it’s not.”

This critical lens on the English language is coupled with an impetus to move away from the tropes and narratives it perpetuates—a societal consciousness of categorization. For Strom, this includes tropes in Asian American “ethnic” literature, such as “food and family, immigrant stories that herald triumph of the spirit or redemptive themes, assimilation narratives…the unacknowledged expectation of gratitude that is wanted of the immigrant tale, which silently reinforces white savior/America as land of rescue complexes.”

“I think that all of us are trying to write beyond that,” Strom continues, “if you speak to any writer of color, most of them are reaching beyond particular tropes.”

But even as the organizers work to move away from tropes, they find themselves having to confront categories as a way to deepen and grow their understanding of the intersecting, overlapping, and expanding canons within the project. Aitken describes “the tension between the project goals of being very flexible with terms and definitions…and then the very practical side of bookkeeping, of trying to track what we’ve actually ordered, and whether or not we’re representing genres, representing different populations of people. It’s like they run at odds with each other, and yet they’re both necessary.”

Strom follows this with her own insightful interpretation of this organizing work. “I guess it develops empathy between people, like to be able to admit that you don’t know something, so you can open yourself up to listening, which, especially right now, seems like a practice to try to engage in,” she says. “And I think it’s hard because then, yes, things aren’t definite…you come in contact with your own discomfort.”

In terms of De-Canon’s aspirations into 2018, both organizers dream of a space where De-Canon can be housed permanently, something well overdue as a local cultural resource. However, for now, the act of coming together to create spaces for the POC literary community in Portland and, as Strom puts it, “a context for the work that we’re doing”—this is vital, and it includes an investment of work in the virtual world as well. “If we profile Portland as part of the website, we were thinking that could be something that could happen in other places,” she continues.

“We don’t have the power to change everything that happens out there,” muses Aitken, “but what we do have is the power to call attention to different things that we see.” This includes a host of literary artists of color in Portland, many of whom are highlighted by De-Canon in their programming at UNA Gallery this month.  

For more unlearning and de-canonization, please see the numerous resources and full schedule of remaining events on De-Canon’s website—the next event, De-Canon {Music+Poetry}, is August 19th; the Unlearning Podcast by Béalleka, one of De-Canon’s presenters; and Strom’s upcoming performance with Samiya Bashir, in collaboration with Shayla Lawson, as part of Time-Based Arts Festival. To take a deeper dive, join Physical Education for Reading Group August 26th, 3-5 pm at UNA Gallery (remember to do your reading beforehand!).

Chamber Music Northwest reviews: defying limits

Concerts and conversations offer insights into contemporary music by female composers

By MATTHEW ANDREWS

In 1985, Pennsylvanian cartoonist Alison Bechdel inadvertently invented the trope that bears her name: The Bechdel-Wallace Test. (You can look at the original comic here.) Not that the test is a perfect indicator of either gender equality or cinematic worth: your average slasher flick passes, and your average Coen Brothers movie does not. Star Wars: Rogue One passes, but just barely. Gravity famously failed it, for rather specific reasons having nothing to do with gender. But as a way of calling attention to the nature of (and reasons for) gender inequality, The Bechdel-Wallace test still serves a useful, perspective-broadening diagnostic purpose.

One thing the Bechdel-Wallace tends to demonstrate: including only one woman in a movie (or a conversation, or a chamber music concert, etc.) inevitably puts all the weight of female representation onto that one character. Tokenism collapses representation into a single vector, a phenomenon best understood as The Smurfette Principle (first noted in 1991 by Katha Pollitt.) The other smurfs, all male, get to be The Nerdy One, The Funny One, The Fat One, The Jock, and so on; the girl smurf is just The Girl. Smurfette doesn’t get to do anything or have any of her own interests and pursuits. She has to be The Girl.

Composer Gabriella Smith discussed ‘Carrot Revolution,’ performed by Tomas Cotik, Becky Anderson and Nokuthula Ngwenyama at Chamber Music Northwest. Photo: Tom Emerson.

None of the composers on Chamber Music Northwest’s July 15 program at Reed College had to be The Woman Composer. After a lovely afternoon exploring the trails around Reed’s campus, I was treated to a concert of not only all women composers, but almost all Pulitzer winners and finalists: Tower’s Violin Concerto was a finalist in 1993, Ellen Taaffe Zwilich won in 1983 for her Symphony No. 1 (Three Movements for Orchestra), and Caroline Shaw won in 2013 for her Partita for 8 Voices. After spending the week with Gabriella Smith and her wonderful music, I’d say she’s in good company.

Smith’s Carrot Revolution opened the concert, performed by an ad hoc string quartet made up of violist-composer Nokuthula Ngwenyama, PSU violin professor Tomas Cotik, Fear No Music / Oregon Symphony cellist Nancy Ives, and Smith’s fellow Curtis Institute of Music alum and erstwhile Oregonian Rebecca Anderson. I’d had the chance to observe this quartet in rehearsal a few days earlier, and I was impressed not only with how much they improved but with how well they handled Smith’s peculiar, energetic, post-modern idiom.

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ArtsWatch Weekly: Let there be dark

Music for the Great Eclipse, free at the museum, remembering Katherine Dunn, Brett Campbell's music picks, having babies & more

It might have come to your attention that six days from now, on Monday, August 21, the sun will be temporarily smitten from the sky across the nation, on a path from the Oregon Coast to Charleston, South Carolina. Here at ArtsWatch World Headquarters we had planned to ignore this astronomical anomaly, figuring you’d be hearing plenty about it elsewhere, until we received a note from All Classical Radio.

Wait! Put on your dark glasses!: Antoine Caron (French, 1521 – 1599), “Dionysius the Areopagite Converting the Pagan Philosophers” (also known as “Astronomers Viewing an Eclipse”), 1570s, oil on panel. 36 1/2 × 28 3/8 inches, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

The network’s seven Oregon outlets and internet stream, it seems, will be playing an Eclipse Soundtrack from 8 in the morning to noon on the Day of Darkness: little ditties ranging from Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra (you might recall it from the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey) to Gustav Holst’s The Planets, Debussy’s Claire de Lune, and more. The broadcast will hit a high note at 10:19 a.m. – when the eclipse hits totality in Oregon – with the world premiere of The Body of the Moon, a commissioned piece by Desmond Earley, performed by Portland’s Resonance Ensemble, cellist Nancy Ives, percussionist Chris Whyte, and improv vocalist Erick Valle.

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‘Madame Butterfly’ review: caged dreams

While confronting social and cultural issues, Seattle Opera's new production of Puccini's classic doesn't neglect the music

by ANGELA ALLEN

Giacomo Puccini’s Madame Butterfly debuted in 1904 and it has been jerking tears ever since. The opera classic remains resilient and fresh when done well, as it is in this Seattle Opera production playing through Aug. 19 at Seattle’s McCaw Hall.

The opera has heartbreakingly lyrical music, a heartrending story — and Butterfly. She is a huge character: tough, demanding, sweet, beautiful, desirable, playful – and stubborn. She refuses to  face reality until she can’t do anything about it. She is Puccini’s bona fide tragic heroine, unlike Mimi in La Boheme, whom we know will die. Mimi is not destroyed by herself, by some tragic flaw; she dies of tuberculosis. On the other hand, Butterfly crafts much of her own fate.

Yasko Sato (Cio-Cio-San) and Renée Rapier (Suzuki). Photo: Jacob Lucas.

Puccini created exquisite music and knew how to seduce us by synching it with dramatic moments. The music is chock full of mellifluous tunes and gorgeous arias. But it’s as complex as Japanese customs. Underneath, like a bass line, the music suggests caution and treachery. The ominous boom of the drums reminds us that all is not well.

The opera’s plot is as familiar as the first act’s “love duet” between Butterfly and Lt. Pinkerton. But here goes again: A mid-level American sailor (Lt. Pinkerton sung alternately by Dominick Chenes and Alexey Dolgov) stops off in Japan, marries Butterfly when she’s 15 with help of a marriage broker, sets up house with her, impregnates her, and leaves. Butterfly believes he will return for her and her son and their life as a family will commence. She holds on to this fantasy despite warnings and reasoning from those around her. She has another suitor, she has ways out. But she shrugs him off and turns her back. No one can convince her that her dreams are doomed.

Pinkerton returns three years later when Butterfly is 18, not to again take up housekeeping with her, but to retrieve their son, Sorrow, with his new American wife, Kate (Sarah Mattox). And when the moment arrives, he lets his wife do the dirty work by telling Butterfly her son will go to America. Meanwhile he has a minor breakdown. It’s clear why Pinkerton gets booed over and over again at curtain calls even if the role is sung by decent tenors.

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Chamber Music Northwest reviews: independent women

Festival’s concerts and conversations with female composers highlights rich diversity of their approaches and their music 

By MATTHEW ANDREWS

“It’s so nice to see you all!” said Chamber Music Northwest Artistic Director and clarinetist David Shifrin, introducing the July 13 concert at Reed College’s Kaul Auditorium with a warm smile. “I’m possibly the only man on stage tonight!”

He was indeed, unless you count The Ghost of Ravel: four CMNW concerts at Reed College and Portland State University July 13-16 featured compositions written and performed by women. Later that evening, Shifrin would join composer and harpist Hannah Lash on her composition Form and Postlude and the piece to which it nods in both instrumentation and style, the Introduction et Allegro by man composer Maurice Ravel.

The Claremont Trio performed a piano trio by Fanny Mendelssohn and the world premiere of Kati Agócs’s ‘Queen of Hearts’ at Chamber Music Northwest. Photo: Tom Emerson.

Night One paired: Kati Agócspiano trio Queen of Hearts with Fanny Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio in D Minor, Op. 11, and Lash’s Form and Postlude for harp, flute, clarinet, and string quartet with Ravel’s Introduction et Allegro. The Claremont Trio, in their premiere season as CMNW Protégé Project Artists, tore their way through Mendelssohn’s liedisch final major work, violinist Emily Bruskin hopping out of her seat at especially dramatic moments, twin sister Julia agile and confident at her cello, while pianist Andrea Lam immersed herself in all the pianistic luxuriance. Agócs’ trio was considerably more modern, with roots in and nods to the musical heritage that comes with writing for piano trio.

Queen of Hearts Meets Queen of Harp

If the 20th-century classical world was about carving up the last of the dissonance and starting radical new schools of composition, the 21st-century classical world seems to be all about synthesis and syncretism, taking up the messy mantle of competing traditions and making something new and personal and beautiful out of it.

Kati Agócs fits right in there: her polystylism has been making waves all over the world for the last decade or so, from 2005’s Hymn for saxophone quartet and 2008’s Requiem Fragments to 2011’s Vessel, 2015’s Debrecen Passion, and last year’s Tantric Variations for string quartet. It would be easy enough to pigeonhole Agócs as yet another post-modern more-is-more composer, but what I hear is an artist with ravenous taste and the skills to match. Compared to her other work, which often includes texts in multiple languages, quotations from earlier composers, grand gestures for percussion, and so on, Queen of Hearts, performed at Chamber Music Northwest, seems positively conservative in its simple neo-Romantic splendour.

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Portland artists create space for galleries

Portland artists fight the rental crunch with Williamson Knight, Chicken Coop Contemporary and Grapefruit Juice

The changes in Portland’s population, zoning, and real estate have rippled through every aspect of our local culture. There’s more to come for sure, but as the dust settles on our nation-leading rental increases the arts community has been finding new places and new methods to carve out a space for their projects and their people. What follows is a brief overview of three of the more interesting spaces to emerge in the past year.

Chicken Coop Contemporary

As the name might suggest, Chicken Coop Contemporary is housed in a spacious, white chicken coop that stands next to the studio of painter Srijon Chowdhury in his backyard in deep Southeast Portland. An accomplished artist, Chowdhury splits his time between Portland and Los Angeles. In the tradition of apartment galleries and can-we-fit-a-gallery-heregalleries, Chowdhury used the space he has as an opportunity to engage the sometimes-diffuse art community of Portland, and as a place to have a dialogue with some of the artists he’s interested in. As his show at Upfor last year proves, he’s able to bring the rich and considered touch he shows in his paintings to curation and collaboration as well.

The Chicken Coop Contemporary stands next to the studio of painter Srijon Chowdhury in Southeast Portland.

Most of the shows so far have featured small, intense paintings such as the haunting work of Dustin Metz, but the last two shows have included multimedia and site-specific work. The current show directly addresses the venue with text and sculptural pieces reflecting on the lives and ways of chickens and other animals. “Collection Sites by Jesse Stecklow draws on writing about livestock handling, including the work of Temple Grandin, to focus consideration on the lives of the gallery residents—the chickens.

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Becoming Welcome: giving center stage to all artists

A contentious review sparks a critical conversation about Portland arts

by MARY McDONALD-LEWIS

Editor’s note: ArtsWatch invited Mary McDonald-Lewis to write this essay based on a meeting at Artists Repertory Theatre of members of Resonance Ensemble and others with our editors. She speaks for herself and the group in her response to ArtsWatch’s original review of the Resonance concert, ArtsWatch’s subsequent response to complaints about it, and the ongoing implications of both.

The Circle Gathers

Studio 2 at Artists Repertory Theatre was tense. It was a hot day on the last Friday in July, and the air was close, but that wasn’t why.

Mary McDonald-Lewis

In an uneven circle, 11 people, many strangers to one another, arrive in ones and twos to review a tough month in Portland’s arts world. Entering the room are a mixed group from varied backgrounds and professions, but they all have one thing on their mind: a review that caught fire on the virtual pages of Oregon ArtsWatch, and that continued to spark controversy and division in the arts community.

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