Portland pianist Dianne Davies was looking at scores that she might want to play in an upcoming Cascadia Composers program when she picked up Ghosts and Machines by Jeff Winslow. After she played through the fourth movement, she realized that the Portland composer and ArtsWatch contributor’s solo piano piece, which he began in the wake of his older brother’s death years earlier, “fit perfectly into unresolved deep grief issues I’d had for years,” Davies remembers. “It speaks to a part of me, and says in music what I feel but can’t articulate. I think it’s incredible that people like Jeff can write such music out of deep places of pain.”
Davies knew about pain. Although Winslow’s composition was purely instrumental, she felt the composer’s loss. Davies had also lost a sibling, her beloved older sister, when Dianne was 11. “When my sister died, I couldn’t speak about what I was feeling inside, but it had to come out,” she recalls. “When I went to the piano and played and I could let myself cry, it made me feel better. It helped console me.”
Like most of us, Davies suffered other losses — parents, a child leaving the nest — but at one point, she also almost lost the thing she loved most: music itself. Ultimately, she’d find solace in performing music from her own time and place.
Ghosts and Machines, which anchors Davies’s free show Attachments and Detachments at 3 pm this Sunday, Feb. 28, at Portland State University’s Lincoln Recital Hall, is one of seven works by members of Cascadia Composers that Davies will play in a show unlike any other in memory: a cycle of contemporary compositions, augmented by dance, visual art, humor and narration, that represent turning points in the performer’s own life.
A star pianist as a youngster, Davies studied piano as an undergraduate, hoping to be one of the lucky few who make a life performing classical music recitals, like the pianists we see every few weeks at Portland Piano International recitals. Like many before her, she found the brutal training still common then dehumanizing. “My college professor told me you have to play a piece as good as a professional recording or better,” she remembered. “It became clear that if I didn’t fit this model, she’d be really disappointed. For an undergraduate to have that expectation was ridiculous, but at the time, I bought into it, and practiced myself into a spiral of darkness and pain and hate. It took me me years of therapy to realize that there are still teachers whose whole ego is based on their students winning and being the best.”
Davies’ happiest music experiences had all been collaborative — playing music in her church and in the pit at high school theater productions, accompanying singers — but music school demanded long, lonely hours in practice rooms, performing the same old music recitalists had played for generations. “Why is it,” she began to ask herself, “that I want to play all this stuff everyone’s played hundreds of times for hundreds of years, just to make the teacher and the school look good?”
It was too much. “I just fell apart,” she says. “My love of music was just destroyed.”
Music helped heal her after Davies gave up the false dream of being the next great recitalist to play the same old 19th century classics on endless tours. She formed a duo with a friend from church; they’d dress up in ludicrous garb and perform musical comedy as “Feral and Teich” (a spoof of the famous Ferrante and Teicher duo), which much later would blossom into her current comedy act, Dianne Davies has Fallen Off Her Bench.
She also changed career directions, deciding to teach music in schools and then privately — but in a supportive way very different than she’d encountered in college. “I don’t teach to have [award] winners,” she insists. “I teach to have kids love music and play it for the rest of their lives. I teach what they want to learn as well as the classics. I don’t want classical piano to die, and if we treat our students the way so many of our music teachers do, it will die.”
Teaching and raising a family with her husband Mike kept Davies busy, but the desire to perform gradually reawakened. In 2013, she was planning to attend the state conference of the Oregon Music Teachers Association, who needed a pair of pianists to accompany a baritone singer in a performance of music by the organization’s Composer of the Year, Cascadia Composer Greg Steinke. Even though she’d detested anything later than Chopin or Tchaikovsky in college, Davies volunteered.
“I had such a blast playing something brand new that nobody else had played before,” she recalls. “I got to talk to Greg and get his input. I liked the teamwork and collaboration, and how empowering it was – I didn’t have anyone else’s recording to live up to. I didn’t have to listen to Rubinstein’s Chopin or Horowitz or Uchida or Barenboim’s interpretations. I could make my own. It was such a high.”
Performing music by her contemporaries helped Davies overcome the trauma of music school. “I realized I don’t have to play the standard repertoire,” she says. “I want to play what touches my heart and my life and draws other people in, not just ‘I played an awesome Beethoven sonata and I’m better than you.’”
Now that she understood how the music of her time and place could connect to her own experience in ways that centuries old European classics couldn’t, Davies sought other opportunities to perform contemporary music by local composers, which led her to Winslow’s piece. In that Cascadia concert, Davies shared duties with two other pianists, including Winslow himself, playing individual movements. Since they’d have to be switching out pianists anyway, Davies, recalling her previous experience performing school and church Christmas shows and comedy, decided to make the transition more entertaining for the audiences by adding some subtle characterization to the pianists’ stage movements that reflected each movement’s emotional character.
The audience responded, the performers enjoyed it, and Davies realized that such theatrical touches might help her accomplish another longtime goal: “to draw more people in and rebuild the audience, especially young people.” Her teenage piano students, their playlists dominated by pop performers like Adele and Coldplay, hadn’t responded much to the classical music she’d shown them. “I’m just so tired of the stuffy boring piano recital,” she explains. “I know my kids and my students don’t want to go to them. When kids want to listen to music, they have no reason to go to a concert. They have YouTube, iPads, iPhones, computers. You can YouTube so many performances of Chopin or Beethoven. It doesn’t matter if it’s Lang Lang — they’re not going to sit through a concert like that. What’s going to bring young people out?”
She’d already learned one answer to that question from classical satirists like Victor Borge and Igudesman & Joo, who’d inspired her to start her own classical comedy act, Dianne Davies Has Fallen Off Her Bench.
“Humor is great,” she says. “It builds bridges. It helped me with my shyness, helped me cope through a lot of painful things.”
Davies began seeing theatrical and visual opportunities in other Cascadia compositions. “Each movement of Jeff’s piece had a specific meaning to me — a visual picture,” she realized, and decided to perform it all four movements herself in a future concert with more non- musical enhancements. She began considering other Cascadia compositions to help tell different stories from her life.
Attachments & Detachments
Gradually, the concept of her own show came together. Anchored by Winslow’s Ghosts and Machines, it would include other music by Cascadia Composers that reflected other emotionally significant turning points in her life — how she, and we, respond to losses. It starts with the current detachment in her life (her son leaving the nest), then goes back in time to the earliest (her sister’s death), then works back to the present. Four of the seven pieces are inspired by events in her life, with the others evoking the emotions she’s experiencing as she moves through them.
It would involve not just tragedy but also triumph, humor as well as “serious” moments. “I wanted to use the humorous part of me in the show, and then I had this really serious music of Jeff’s, and I decided to perform polar opposites. Humorous and serious are both cathartic, both important to healing.”
And it would incorporate visual and theatrical elements to make it more appealing to the younger audiences she wants to bring back to contemporary classical music. “If I could really capitalize on all of the arts so that they could see it and hear it and feel it,” Davies reasoned, “the music might really come to life for them.”
That meant collaborating with other artists — which Davies loves. For example, the title of Jan Mittelstaedt’s Masks suggested obvious props, so she engaged her sister in law, a successful artist, to create masks. After seeing an improvisation by Portland composer Art Resnick at a Cascadia concert that accompanied that staple of jam band shows, live painting, Davies decided she wanted a live painter for her performance of a different Resnick piece this weekend. She put up a poster at Pacific Northwest College of Arts, and found a young artist who told her she’d always wanted to do live drawing and dancers.
For Burnside Sketches by Portland composer Nicholas Yandell (who’d had negative experiences with a college music teacher similar to Davies’s), she used an artist friend from church (a classmate of her son Kaleb, who’ll also be performing on drums on some pieces) who’ll draw, naturally, sketches on canvas. Her experience as a piano teacher taught her that “young people are willing to try anything where people who’ve been doing it whole lives they’re whole lives aren’t always willing to try something different,” Davies explains.
For stage movement, which had worked so well in her earlier performance of Winslow’s movement, she decided to use actual dancers rather than the pianists themselves. One of her students’s dance teachers recommended a recent arrival to Portland — a choreographer who’d moved to Portland from New York looking for dance opportunities and was about to give up and head back east. She turned out to be ideal, choreographing her own dance as well as that of a young dancer who’ll represent Davies as a little girl.
“It’s like the show has a life of its own,” Davies marvels. “The music has come together because these pieces perfectly fit different pieces of my life, and so do the artists I’m working with.”
At an earlier incarnation of Davies’ show last fall, I was impressed not just by her undeniable pianistic skills but also her ability to make me and other audience members feel her own emotional connection to music she didn’t write. A friend of hers later told her that after the performance, she’d had dreams about her grandmother who’d died when she was very young.
It’s already having an impact on her target audience: the next generation. Her younger son Josh, who’ll perform on bass on one piece, hadn’t previously been a fan of contemporary classical music. “Why do composers write this awful depressing stuff?” he asked her. Davies explained how the piece in question reflected her own pain and loss after her treatment in music school. “I’m not just playing this stuff because I’m playing this stuff,” she told him. “It means something to me.” He thought about it. His expression changed. And he began playing his part differently, more expressively. “It changed Joshua,” Davies says. She plans to continue the series with more music that reflects other moments in her life.
“I don’t want to play a concert where people just come and leave,” she insists. “The most awesome thing is having people come up to me after performances and telling me, ‘I think I could deal with something in my life after experiencing this.’”
Cascadia Composers presents Dianne Davies in Attachments and Detachments, 3 pm Sunday Feb. 28 at Portland State University’s Lincoln Recital Hall with masks by Vicki Stickney, painting by Steph Hilchen, live art by Margaret Parsons, dancers Jonalyn Salzano & Samantha Barth, drums Kaleb Davies, bass Josh Davies, music by Jeff Winslow, Art Resnick, Tristan Bliss, Nicholas Yandell, Jan Mittelstaedt, Gary Noland and Michael Rudolph. Admission is free.