FearNoMusic review: Church of new sounds

New music ensemble's concert makes a bully pulpit for new music by Oregon composers

by MATTHEW ANDREWS

I have now gone to so many Fear No Music concerts at The Old Church in Southwest Portland and met so many of the same performers, composers, teachers, and classmates (some of these fields overlap) that now it really does feel just like going to church, except that the music is mostly better (as is the company) and the wine comes in adult-sized glasses. The subject of the sermon at the new music ensemble’s February 13 concert, Locally Sourced Sounds, drew an attentive congregation of new music disciples and devotees.

FearNoMusic. Photo: JasonQuigley.

The first acolyte I always spot at these shows is Jeff Winslow, composer, ArtsWatcher, and Cascadian, with his bushy white beard and his attentive, friendly eyes. Percussion guru Joel Bluestone was there too, still part of the FNM family even after retiring from the group last year. Composer, violist, and FNM artistic director Kenji Bunch was tending the famous wine bar, dispensing generous pours of Lompoc IPA—that is, when he wasn’t on stage turning pages for FNM’s executive director (and Bunch’s wife), pianist Monica Ohuchi.

Two student composers from Reed College, Yiyang Wang and Nathan Showell, rounded out a program featuring Cascadian Denis Floyd, University of Oregon’s David Crumb, and Portland State’s legendary Tomas Svoboda, the patron saint (to continue the church analogy) of Cascadia Composers.

Voglar Belgique, Payne and Ives performed Yiyang Wang’s piano trio.

The concert opened with Wang’s Color Studies for piano trio, a perfect bit of chamber music which seemed rather too sophisticated for a college junior. Wang’s opening “Fugue in G” starts with a dark and “Shostakovichianmodal subject; cellist Nancy Ives fittingly evoked Rostropovich’s rich tone while Inés Voglar Belgique’s violin hovered sweetly above, supported by pianist Jeff Payne’s usual restrained, centered touch. Extended techniques characterized the second movement, “Steel,”with Payne plucking high glockenspielisch harmonics, strumming Cowell-esque chords, and brushing the low strings for a sound like sizzling power lines; meanwhile, Voglar Belgique and Ives passed the theme around with bouncy pizzicato glissandi. The final movement, “Racing”, used an erhu-inspired melody to pit the instruments against each other in a mad bitonal dash towards an inconclusive climax on a genuinely nutty (and well-voiced) cluster chord. If this is what Wang is capable of as an undergrad, I can’t wait to hear what she does after she finishes her studies.

Another of the composers I always see around is Denis Floyd. He seems so unassuming, even shy, that the intellect and passion of his music can catch you off guard. His themes often veer towards serialism before turning back after eight or nine notes (reminding me of Portland native Lou Harrison’s attitude towards twelve-tone technique: “What do you want with those four extra notes that don’t sound right?”), and the melodies remain singable as well as challenging. Complex harmonies suggest academic set theory but contain elements that defy easy categorization, and his rhythms are never too straightforward nor excessively complicated (I’m looking at you, Brian Ferneyhough).

Floyd’s Andante Cantabile, a set of sonatafied theme-and-variations, was as accessibly enigmatic as I hoped. Passages of nonchalant neo-classicism a la Copland and Prokofiev were punctuated by friendly Gershwin and Brahms on one side, complex and mysterious Schoenberg and Ligeti on the other. It often seems to me that 21st-century “classical” music (from around 1984 to the present) is inherently syncretic; even in so short a piece as this, Floyd exemplifies this syncretism well with his strange, charming style.

Mood Swings

The first half closed with University of Oregon professor David Crumb’s Mood Sequences, a “series of stark juxtapositions between subtle, delicate music…and bold, forceful music” as the composer describes it. It was hard not to think of Debussy when FNM’s newest member, flutist Amelia Lukas, reeled out a long, minor-third-rich melody over the increasingly complex tonal atmosphere emerging from Monica Ohuchi’s piano. As the piece progressed, though, Debussy gave way to Messiaen with the appearance of synthetic scales, suggestions of bird song, and a lot of what I consider the oldest trick in the “tonal dissonance” book: long, sustained tones projecting a tonal center while the melodies and harmonies explore distant polytonal and atonal regions.

David Crumb.

(In the finest Hindustani classical music, a singer performing one of the more difficult ragas—Todi or Marwa, for instance—might only return to the “tonic” note once every several minutes, effecting a bitonality that would make Stravinsky jealous—all while the key center remains stable thanks to the ever-present drone instruments. To hear what I’m talking about in a Western Classical context, take another listen to Shostakovich’s Eighth String Quartet, especially the slower movements).

After intermission, FNM’s new percussionist Michael Roberts stepped up to the marimba for Nathan Showell’s Dissipation. Showell, who graduated from Reed College last year, must have had The Old Church (or a venue like it) in mind when he composed the piece; instead of the rhythmic and harmonic density I usually associate with modern classical marimba music, Showell distributed distant notes across the marimba, leaving tons of emptiness between them and directing attention to how the notes dissipated in time and space (hence the title). It’s not too often I hear music so well defined by the shape of the instrument’s natural decay and the precise contours of subtle dynamics interacting with sculpted slices of silence and the intricacies of an acoustically interesting space.

FearNoMusic percussionist Michael Roberts. Photo: Jason Quigley.

But it takes more than good acoustics and the right mallets to really pull off this type of unadorned, delicate music. Roberts, for all his breezy virtuosity, seemed to be concentrating quite intently on executing just the right dynamics to make each of the marimba’s wooden keys sing to the rafters through Showell’s relatively sparse harmonies. At a certain point, the exact notes and rhythms almost stopped mattering. It helped that Showell used more static musical material (lots of whole-tone scales), but more than anything the composer attended carefully to the diverse character of the marimba’s different registers. As with Wang, I was surprised to see just how young Showell is. When I was their age I was still farting around with Piston and Satie.

Spirits Soaring

Tomas Svoboda is quite rightly revered, both in the broader classical community and particularly in Portland. His music touches something at once reverently traditional, hauntingly timeless, and as freshly contemporary as any other living composer’s.

Jana Demartini and Tomas Svoboda at their Portland home in October 2016.

Svoboda’s String Quartet No. 12, Op. 202 (Post Scriptum), originally commissioned for the 2011 Chintimini Chamber Music Festival in Corvallis, sounds equally like it was composed yesterday and like it was composed exactly halfway between Beethoven’s quartets and Bartók’s—echoes especially of Ludwig van’s last and Béla’s first (together with shades of Ravel) permeate the work, but the compositional voice is entirely Svoboda’s own. The third and final movement sounded to me like spirits soaring out of conflict and despair to ever higher peaks of vital ecstasy. In the composer’s words, this quartet expresses “a hidden appreciation that I am still alive even as I have experienced so much pain and sadness about perished souls.” Perhaps this is why I can’t help think of Beethoven and Bartók, composers who knew more than a little about overcoming personal adversity through the cathartic power of difficult, triumphant, beautiful music.

FearNoMusic’s Voglar, Hebert, Ives & Belgique.

Svoboda was in attendance, as he often is when FNM performs his music. After the angel wings of the quartet’s finale, Ives popped up and strutted out into the audience to give Svoboda a big hug—then dashed back up the stage, took up her cello, and tapped the score with her bow. “We have to do it again! Just the end!” Away they went—Ives, violinists Voglar Belgique and Paloma Griffin Hébert, and violist Joël Belgique—this time a bit more restrained and pensive, but no less transcendent. Regular readers will not be surprised that, as usual, this writer burst into tears.

Fear No Music will be back at The Old Church next month, performing a program curated by Portland-born, Juilliard-trained composer Ryan Francis on April 14th. The congregation welcomes members new and old.

Matthew Neil Andrews is a member of Cascadia Composers and a composition student at Portland State University. He and his music can be reached at monogeite.bandcamp.com.

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