‘Oregonophony’ review: turning place into sound

Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble concerts feature original music incorporating recorded sounds of Oregon -- but not necessarily the sounds you’d expect


What does Oregon sound like? For its spring 2017 concert, the Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble (PJCE) sought proposals from Oregon composers for music that would incorporate recorded sounds from Oregon. The music selected for Oregonophony evolved from the diverse auditory inspirations of two experienced professionals and three emerging jazz composers.

Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble performed ‘Oregonophony’ in Salem and Portland. Photo: Lynn Darroch.

Assimilating sounds of Oregon into the five musical pieces underscored the presence and importance of external sounds as part of our contemporary musical palette and of our lives. For me, this concert also reflected in music the way Oregon is changing.


Sexmob, Asher Fulero Band, Jazz is PHSH review: three degrees of fusion

A Portland triple bill features bands that combine jazz, rock, funk, jam, and other ingredients in varying proportions


Jazz has come to mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people. So when you combine jazz elements with other styles of music, it tends to make what genre you’re listening to hard to pin down. Is it jazz? Is it jazz fusion? Or is it something that isn’t jazz but gets put in that category anyways? I found representations of all three categories on stage at Portland’s Star Theater one night last month.

Sexmob, the New York based jazz punk-rock fusion quartet, has been tearing it up for twenty years. Their instrumentation, with Kenny Wollesen on drum set, Tony Scherr on electric bass, Briggan Krauss on alto saxophone, and Steven Bernstein taking the lead on the rarely seen slide trumpet, makes for an interesting combination. I’d never seen the the slide trumpet played live before, it looks and plays like a miniature trombone, but sounds very much like a trumpet, with the addition of being capable of playing smears and glissandi typically associated with trombone. I would be hard pressed to name anyone else who played this instrument, a fact I’m sure that Bernstein took into account when deciding to first take up the instrument.

Sexmob’s Steven Bernstein

Sexmob’s music, like their bandleader’s instrument, is equally unique. Yet the ensemble actually does exactly what jazz musicians have been doing for decades. Sexmob comes at you with a staggering variety of styles and melds them together. This is what was exciting about listening to them play. One moment slide trumpet and saxophone are playing familiar pop melodies over a grooving second line drum pattern, the next they are blasting middle-eastern or klezmer infused solos over a raucous punk rock feel.

Alto saxophonist Krauss takes his style straight out of the John Zorn playbook, to great effect, with carefully crafted noise juxtaposed with melodious and rhythmically decisive improvisations. The entire ensemble has a talent that you tend to expect of great jazz musicians: balancing the avant garde with the mainstream. They craft musical environs familiar for the audience, like quoting melodies of pop tunes as they play a warm-up jam, and then take you on a journey through their personal style. Sexmob’s confluence of styles, confident stage presence that could only come from decades of experience, and their ability to achieve these within a wider interpretation of jazz, is testament to the depth of talent these musicians possess.


Calmus review: polish and precision

A wonderful German vocal ensemble's Shakespeare-themed concert 


In a classical music world full of a cappella vocal ensembles, the German group Calmus stands out.

First of all, they sound gorgeous, miraculously so. The five of them — soprano Isabel Jantschek, countertenor Sebastian Krause, tenor Tobias Pöche, baritone Ludwig Böhme, and bass Manuel Helmeke — have wonderful voices, but so do the members of Stile Antico, The Tallis Scholars, and any number of other groups. There are, after all, many, many lovely voices in the world. But Calmus sounds especially good because of their unparalleled ensemble precision. It’s not a cold and implacable precision, but a cohesion of timbres, phrasing, and breathing that can only be the result of talent and a great many very carefully planned rehearsal hours.

Calmus performed at Portland’s St. Philip Neri church. Photo: John Green.

In a program of 25 selections on a Sunday afternoon concert at Portland’s St. Philip Neri Church on April 30, sponsored by Friends of Chamber Music, these five singers showed how all that rehearsing can pay off. Their show was the smoothest, the most polished I’ve ever seen. They started, sang, and ended each piece, exactly together, without looking at one another and without anyone setting a tempo; instead they made contact with their audience. Presenting their program in sets of about five selections each, they reduced interruptions for applause until after each set, and they moved from one selection to the next without retuning, having taken a pitch for just the first number.


A Cascadia Composer in Cuba

A Portland composer brings her music to Havana, and returns with a new perspective on music in everyday life


Editor’s note: with Cascadia Composers bringing Cuban contemporary classical music to Portland for a Friday concert performed by FearNoMusic, we’re sharing Cascadia Composer Christina Rusnak’s experience exploring the Havana music scene and recording her music there last year.

Politics may divide us, but music unites us. In 2015, I was invited by Parma Recordings to come down to Cuba with four other American composers to record our pieces in Havana, Cuba. The focus of much of my musical work is at the intersection of place and culture. To experience Cuban culture and music at this historic juncture – it seemed like destiny called! Along with supervising the recording two of my compositions, I was able to explore Havana and gain some insights on Cuban music, art, and life.

Approaching Havana. Photo: Christina Rusnak.

The piece I submitted was a short work to be sung by the women’s choir Vocal Luna. Written for a wedding, Parma asked if I could I write a companion piece for them to sing. “Yes” is a composer’s best friend, so I finished a funeral piece in January and sent them both off to be rehearsed for the Havana recording session in April 2016.


Black Violin review: black & white

At the classical/hip-hop duo's latest Portland shows, the action happened as much in the seats as on the stage


Commotion at the corner of my right eye. People standing in the rows of the concert hall. No, wait. Grey and white haired women pushing to get to the aisle. Eyes follow to…


Only a few feet away the aisle is bopping to Telemann-like riffs thumping from Black Violin. Playing the posh Schnitzer concert hall, full of older white classical music appreciators and younger African Americans, the classical violin-meets-hip-hop band returned to Portland to promote their album Stereotypes. And oh boy did the mosh pit break ‘em!

Black Violin performed at Portland’s Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. Photo: Kimmie Fadem.

From the stage, violist Wil Baptiste exhorts me to “Put Your Hands Up and Wave Them Like THIS!” His partner, violinist Kev Marcus, nods appreciatively, in rhythm, continuing to plow through noodly passages perfectly in tune. Nat Stokes, Black Violin’s secret weapon on drums, builds a propulsive engaging and LOUD narrative under the flashy strings.

Meanwhile, DJ SPS turned this whole weird juxtaposition between straightahead rock-tight drumming and manic baroque strings into glass, dropping in today’s beats and disembodied vocals. Add columns of colored lights and a fog machine and you’d have to be dead or a snob to not giggle along with the infectious enthusiasm.


Cascadia Composers preview: From Cascadia to Cuba… and back

Culminating a cultural and musical exchange, weekend concerts feature contemporary music by composers from Oregon and Cuba

In July 2015, when President Obama announced that the United States would begin normalizing relations with Cuba, Portland composer David Bernstein thought about music. Not the usual suspects when talking about one of the Western hemisphere’s most important musical traditions — jazz, Buena Vista Social Club, Desi Arnaz — but contemporary classical music.

It was a natural for Bernstein, who’d helped found Cascadia Composers almost a decade ago to provide performance, promotion, networking and other opportunities for composers in the Pacific Northwest. Since then, the organization had become one of the nation’s largest (60 members) and most successful, staging dozens of concerts featuring over 300 homegrown compositions in Portland and Eugene.

Cascadia Composers (l-r) Ted Clifford, Paul Safar, David Bernstein, Jennifer Wright, Dan Brugh in Havana last November. Photo: Nadia Reyes.

But they’d never attempted anything as ambitious as what Bernstein had in mind: sending Oregon composers to Cuba to have their music performed by Cuban musicians, and reciprocating with a Portland concert featuring American musicians playing works by today’s Cuban composers. Neither had anyone else.

“I’d known music of some Cuban composers like Leo Brouwer,” Bernstein explains. “I’d hear it played at various contemporary music festivals. I wanted to get to know what it was like now, and I wanted to get to know them.”

FearNoMusic performs music from Cuba on Friday.

This Friday, Bernstein’s vision becomes reality when Cascadia enlists the veteran Portland new music ensemble FearNoMusic to perform eight pieces by leading Cuban composers, with two in attendance, at its “New Pearls from the Antilles” concert. The following evening, they’ll hear new music inspired by Oregon at a second Cascadia Composers concert.


Conversation with Cuba

Cascadia Composers' journey to Cuba opened eyes and ears to musical and cultural riches


When Havana Contemporary Music Festival president Guido Lopez-Gavilan wrote to David Bernstein inviting the Cascadia Composers association (northwest chapter of the National Association of Composers, USA) to his festival as guests of the Writers and Artists Union of Cuba, he included this entreaty:

“As is well known, our country is going through a difficult economic period, and therefore, we would appreciate it if you could communicate with us, regarding the possibility that you could obtain funding for your trip.”

What a profoundly gracious understatement. As if nearly 60 years of economic sanctions were nothing to go on about between potential friends. Bernstein got busy and procured the help of Project Por Amor to arrange for safe passage of six Cascadia composers (David Bernstein, Daniel Brugh, Ted Clifford, Paul Safar, Jennifer Wright, and Art Resnick whose work was performed though he did not attend due to illness) to Havana for the festival, held Nov. 14-22, 2016.

This Saturday, the Cascadians reciprocate with two concerts, the first featuring new music from Cuba performed by FearNoMusic, the second showcasing the sounds of the Pacific Northwest. In October, Oregon musicians performed the music the Cascadians took to Cuba in a concert at Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall called “A Cuba con Amor — To Cuba with Love.”

Wright rehearses with Cuban musicians for a performance of her “Loopers” in Havana. Photo: Matias Brecher.

I invited each composer to offer their perspectives on the trip and was pleased by the commonality of their responses. All mentioned the warmth and friendliness of the Cuban people and the tragic beauty of Havana. All marveled at the brilliant, sensual, passionate musical environment. And all were blown away by the artistic commitment and passion of the festival players.