Justin Ralls launches the Contemporary Portland Orchestra Project

FearNoMusic is on the bill at Portland’s Someday Lounge. Image via FearNoMusic

Last November at Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall, Portland’s Third Angle New Music Ensemble tore through one of the 20th century’s most famous works, George Crumb’s searing 1970 string quartet Black Angels, music that reflected the turbulence of its time (including the Vietnam War) and which sparked David Harrington to create the Kronos Quartet, so that he would have a vehicle to perform new music with that kind of power and contemporary relevance. The music also inspired the creation of another musical institution.

“I was blown away,” young composer Justin Ralls recalls. “That was the moment I realized that some big things were possible here.”

At the reception after the show, Ralls, recently returned to his hometown after obtaining his degree in composition from the Boston Conservatory in spring 2010, chatted with 3A music director/violinist Ron Blessinger and cellist and PSU prof Hamilton Cheifetz, and learned that Portland’s new music scene had been blossoming since he’d graduated from Cleveland High School in 2006. The 23-year-old composer/drummer saw the enthusiastic but mostly middle aged audience and began to wonder: could there be a place in the city for a larger, orchestra-sized new music group rather than a small ensemble? And could it draw musicians and music lovers of his generation?

Ralls decided to find out, and the first manifestation of his vision appears this Sunday night at Portland’s Someday Lounge, when his new Contemporary Portland Orchestra Project makes its debut at what looks to be a fascinating new music festival featuring another veteran Portland ensemble, FearNoMusic, Eugene’s Beta Collide (founded by two veterans of other major contemporary music groups, New York’s Meridian Arts Ensemble and Chicago’s eighth blackbird), and other musicians from New York and California.

Ralls’s fascination with contemporary “classical” music began in high school, where he studied jazz drumming and percussion, then played in youth orchestras. He started studying composition in his last year at Cleveland, then headed off to Boston. There, he found a wealth of new music connected to the city’s famous music schools — his own, the Berklee School of Music, New England Conservatory — and was especially impressed by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, acknowledged since its founding in 1996 as the pre-eminent US orchestra dedicated exclusively to performing new music.

It’s typical for Oregon’s high achieving musicians to head back east to study — and often, to stay there, seeking out academic or performing opportunities in New York City and elsewhere. Ralls considered graduate school, too, but decided he’d take a break and check out the new Portland scene first. “I didn’t get that memo about staying back east,” he says. “I was kind of burned out a little bit by conservatory life and the East Coast. I decided to take time off and recoup. I started exploring what was here, and it didn’t take me long to start organizing things.”

He was also drawn by the city’s values, particularly its environmental and political ethic. (He’s not the first young Portland musician to link politics and music; Thomas Lauderdale started Pink Martini as a vehicle to play political events.) “That’s a real reason I’ve returned here,” Ralls explains. “Some places are more entrenched in ideologies, but the value structure in Portland is very forward thinking. It enables what a lot of people my age are feeling these days straight out of college.” He sees a link between young Portlanders’ search for political alternatives and his desire to create a new city outlet for new music. “It’s the same direction, going against the grain of the establishment and past systems — the way things are done,” he explains. “Everything is up in the air now.”

On returning home last year, Ralls found a thriving scene around veteran postclassical groups like the quarter century old Third Angle and the two-decade old FearNoMusic, who have an audience of what he calls “connoisseurs of new music. It’s nice to see that going on in Portland.”

But Ralls speculates that the established classical and postclassical groups have a relatively small base of strong supporters and “don’t go out and look for other audiences. They don’t want to change a good thing.” At a time when “there are more composers writing orchestral music today than at any other time in history, the Oregon Symphony, for example, has never had a composer in residence and rarely does commissions.” At the orchestra’s celebrated Carnegie Hall appearance last spring, he notes, the OSO was the only participant in the spring festival of regional orchestras that didn’t feature a new work on its program; the closest was a two-decade old work by John Adams, a piece and a composer that Ralls admires but that hardly offers a new musical experience.

He sees hope in younger generations of musicians. As a member of the regional Cascadia Composers organizations, Ralls has noticed many musicians of his age moving or returning to the city after obtaining their music degrees, including friends from Rice University, Eastman and the San Francisco Conservatory. “These are people who would take Oregon Symphony auditions,” he says, “but there doesn’t seem to be enough work for them all. The classical music scene here isn’t really accommodating the flow of good musicians coming into Portland.”

Most of them want to stay. “In my experience, and all my friends, we keep leaving Oregon to go to school or find careers,” he says. “But the Northwest is this cool sustainable place, and we want to stay or come back and have valuable things going on here and build careers off of that.”

Ralls thinks the success of Third Angle, FearNoMusic and the emerging alt classical scene (Opera Theater Oregon, Classical Revolution PDX, Electric Opera, et al) demonstrates that “people like to be challenged, to hear and experience things they don’t understand yet,” he says. Playing new works starts to build an awareness that classical music isn’t just a phenomenon of the past, but is being created all the time, often by people living here and now, and that in the past twenty to thirty years, a lot of contemporary music — like Adams’s, for example — has begun to reach popular audiences. “It’s not some esoteric phenomenon anymore. If people know [new music] exists, then when they hear it again, it starts to be more familiar,” Ralls maintains. “From that, you can build a consistent audience that understands that classical music is a living art form, and we need to keep it that way.”

Ralls — who writes vocal settings of poetry including a Whitman setting performed in Portland recently, plus “edgy electronics” along with improv, and is involved in a “post jazz fusion” band called Renaissance Cocktail —  believes that an orchestra devoted to works by contemporary local and regional composers could build on Portland’s already fervent commitment to local and sustainable everything. “The future is in regionalism, especially in a place like Portland that has a regional art aesthetic already,” he says. “It’s relevant to hear ideas coming from people you know — works done by friends and neighbors you live and work with who are writing classical music orchestral music.”

Ralls wants CPOP to instigate that awareness. “I feel like there’s a niche here — a large ensemble committed to music by living composers,” he says. If Ralls’s ambitious attempt to create a new orchestra devoted to contemporary sounds succeeds, it will be a major accomplishment for Portland. BMOP is one of only a handful of such groups in the United States. He wants CPOP to be “a significant and accessible voice in contemporary music, playing my own music and music by people my age” as well as established Northwest voices such as PSU music prof Bryan Johanson. He also wants to collaborate with other groups and organizations.

He’s spoken to musicians at PSU, Classical Revolution PDX, and FearNoMusic, and this weekend’s concert represents the first fruits of those discussions. There’s no orchestra as such this time, but the show will include Ralls and sax and clarinet players improvising, plus FearNoMusic performing contemporary DJ/composer Gabriel Prokofiev’s multi-tracked cello piece “Jerk Driver/Outta Pulser” and music by the great Argentine-American composer Osvaldo Golijov, and PSU prof Bonnie Miksch. New York’s Paul Pinto and Jeffrey Young will play an experimental theatrical work scored for “violin, voices, percussion, recorded sound, and a lot of cardboard boxes and packing tape,” inspired by sound bites from politicos, preachers, pundits and poets. Oakland’s Moe! Staiano, NYC guitarist/composers Lucio Menegon and Sabrina Siegel will also perform.

Ralls is planning another CPOP concert at local impresario/composer Bob Priest’s March Music Madness extravaganza. Beyond that, he’s making no predictions. “I’m one year into my ten-year lesson in humility,” he says.

Even if he goes back to school for his master’s degree, Ralls plans to keep projects going in his hometown, despite the challenges. At another Third Angle concert last season, he talked about that with Pulitzer Prize winning composer David Lang, a new music rebel who founded the celebrated Bang on a Can organization that’s produced a tremendous trove of new American music over the past 25 years, and also runs workshops that teach young composers how to create their own careers outside of the big music institutions. Lang expressed optimism about the state of contemporary music. “But what about the esthetic crisis?” Ralls asked, referring to the limited opportunities for progressive new music on American concert programs. “He said, ‘No, it’s an esthetic opportunity,’” Ralls remembers. “That really had an impact on me.”

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