by MATTHEW ANDREWS
Joel Bluestone walked onstage to thunderous applause and an immediate standing ovation.
“I haven’t played a note yet!” he demurred with a grin.
The applause at the September 30 show at Portland State university’s Lincoln Recital Hall wasn’t for the notes Bluestone hadn’t played yet, but for all those he had played over the 25 years since he and pianist Jeffrey Payne founded Portland new music ensemble FearNoMusic.
In 1992, new music was “a legitimate entity to be afraid of,” current FNM artistic director Kenji Bunch said in introducing the percussionist. “We wouldn’t be here today if not for Dr. Joel Bluestone,” Bunch continued. “We all owe a huge debt to people like Bluestone, who has shown such generosity, with an open mind and an open heart.”
Although Bluestone will keep his busy schedule as a guest artist, including stints with San Diego experimental ensemble Swarmius and local Cascadia Composers group Crazy Jane, he will be “passing the sticks” to Oregon Symphony percussionist Michael Roberts; Bluestone told ArtsWatch he is retiring as FNM percussionist in order to explore new musical projects.
When Bunch asked him what music he wanted to perform in this, his final concert as a member of the group, Bluestone said, he first thought of all the solo showcase pieces he has played through the years. But, he said, as he thought about FNM’s long history, he reflected on the importance of his relationships in the group: “These are some of my best friends in the world!” He chose his program accordingly, selecting compositions by some of FNM’s composers-in-residence (including Bunch) and featuring personally meaningful collaborations with these musicians who have meant so much to each other. Bluestone’s selections celebrated his colleagues and highlighted his own enduring obsessions with melody, the color of sounds, and the charm of found and constructed instruments.
Bluestone opened his final FNM concert with Flame Head, the first movement of The Waters Bluestone Duel, a duet composed for Bluestone and “DJ Rig” (a tongue-in-cheek reference to the electronic accompaniment) by former PSU music professor Joseph Waters, a onetime Fear No Music composer-in-residence with whom Bluestone performs in Swarmius. Created for the 2001 Percussive Arts Society International Conference, The Waters Bluestone Duel is an homage to the work of Harry Partch, and bears the motto “Get classical music onto the street corners!” Flame Head is — in the words of the composer — a “humble tribute to Chango, the Orisha of thunder and lightning in the Cuban-based Santeria religion.”
Before playing, Bluestone remarked that Waters “likes his music LOUD; if you have fingers, feel free to use em!” A few audience members did just that when the electronics started and Bluestone started wailing on the expressive—but very odd-sounding, at least to Western ears—Chinese opera gongs. The electronic accompaniment roves all over the traditionally adventurous realm of the Gonzo Californian Avant-Garde, from electroacoustic treatments of sampled percussion and Synclavier-like flurries of dissonant polyphony to dense rhythmic counterpoint and undefinable science fiction sounds. Everyone seemed to love it, even the folks with their fingers in their ears. Afterwards, as Bluestone stood breathless from this exhausting signature piece, his PSU students swarmed onto the stage to move equipment around.
The next piece, Osvaldo Golijov’s duet Mariel for marimba and cello, provided a perfect contrast. Written in memory of Golijov’s friend Mariel Stubrin, the piece combines high, bittersweet melodies in the cello with hints of “the Brazilian music that Mariel loved” and delay-type effects in the marimba to explore, in the composer’s memorable phrase, “the short instant before grief.”
Before performing, Bluestone reminisced from the stage about his first rehearsals of the piece with FNM cellist Nancy Ives, whose father had recently passed away, making it especially personal for her; she still refers to it as “our piece.” Mariel is also the favorite of Bluestone’s wife Bonnie Lee, who has been listening to him practice innumerable compositions in their 24 years of sharing a home. Bluestone also recounted playing Mariel at his favorite concert, on the top of Portland’s Mount Tabor, where a team of bicyclists was enlisted to haul his massive five-octave marimba up the mountain and back down again.
Bluestone wanted to perform Bunch’s 1999 Road Trip because FNM commissioned it while Bunch was still a student at Juilliard, years before the composer relocated to Portland and joined the ensemble. As Bluestone told it, Bunch responded with a firm “NO,” claiming conflict of interest and stating that he “shouldn’t use you.” “Use us! use us!” Bluestone insisted —and got the piece in the program.
The percussion set up for Road Trip was massive, including tables full of brake drums, woodblocks, bongos, and assorted other instruments, all gathered around a circle of four timpani and a huge tam-tam. Ives remained on stage, where FNM executive director Monica Ohuchi and Payne completed the quartet on a pair of lidless pianos. Road Trip’s five movements cinematically portray a trip Bunch and his friend and college roommate Mark Horner undertook in the summer of 1995 from Aspen, Colorado to Horner’s grandparents’ house in Elmer, New Jersey. Highlights included: starting up the car and revving its engine, represented by Ives cranking the cello’s low C string; Colorado’s Independence Pass, wonderfully evocative of Ferde Grofé’s Grand Canyon Suite, with plucked piano strings and pizzicato supporting a beautiful pentatonic melody on the glockenspiel; flat tire breakdown and food poisoning in “flat, desolate, Eastern Colorado,” perfectly and almost sickeningly portrayed by Bluestone’s warbling flexatone, timpani glissandi, tick-tocking woodblocks, bowed gong, and other staples of the Looney Tunes sound library; Scooby-Doo bongos for the “blistering 90-mph pace through Kansas; the return of that lovely plucked pentatonic melody for the finale, their hero’s welcome at Mark’s grandparents’ house. Yet for all its whimsy, Road Trip is, like Mariel, a memorial: Horner was tragically killed by gun violence before the piece was completed.
After intermission came Somei Satoh’s Toki No Mon (A Gate Into Infinity). Bluestone was joined again by Jeff Payne on piano, with Paloma Griffin Hébert on violin. Two personal stories accompanied this piece. The first concerned Griffin Hébert: some six months after joining Fear No Music, she happened to mention that she is from California. “Where in California?” asked Bluestone, also from California. “Fresno,” she replied. Bluestone is also from Fresno. The conversation continued until they realized that they had grown up within a few blocks of each other, graduating from the same high school. Griffin Hébert even remembered a marching band picture on the wall at the school, Bluestone’s signature abundant locks already unmistakable.
The second personal story concerned a part of Toki No Mon’s percussion setup. The score calls for tuned gongs (Bluestone later told me he got his set of hanging Thai nipple gongs by faxing the front page of the score to legendary percussionist and instrument collector Steve Weiss) and a pair of steelpans. Bluestone’s steelpans were a 40th birthday gift from his wife; they are a vivid teal color, named for their daughter Teal. Bonnie Lee had custom ordered the steelpans, and it so happened that they arrived during a UPS strike during which only the managers were out making deliveries. When the driver, clearly unaccustomed to such exertions, brought the two massive boxes to the Bluestones’ door, he remarked “you must be reeeeeeaally special!”
Toki No Mon moves at a very slow tempo, reflecting the influence of Zen Buddhist philosophy in Satoh’s work; his use of space and repetition outlines the sort of sparse sonic universe to which Morton Feldman or Arvo Pärt might aspire. In the composer’s words, “time doesn’t simply progress from past to future, but slowly describes a circle” — an appropriate notion for this familial, memorial-tinged retirement concert.
When Bluestone introduced his successor, percussionist Michael Roberts, he joked about their matching red shoes and teased him about having to grow out his hair. When Roberts asked, “what should I wear to this concert?” Bluestone—who is known for wearing red shoes—promised to buy him a pair; it turned out Roberts, a Bostonian, already owned a prized pair of red Pumas, which he proudly waggled for the audience.
Bluestone and Roberts performed Tomáš Svoboda’s Duo for Xylophone and Marimba, which the Paris-born Czech-American composer originally wrote as a study for his Grammy-nominated Concerto for Marimba; the duo was premiered in 1993 by Bluestone and Portland new music ensemble Third Angle. On this evening, Bluestone took the xylophone part while Roberts played marimba. The duo is all sprightly hockets, rolled chords, spooky ostinati, antiphonally imitative counterpoint, and chromatically-inflected pentatonic folk melodies. Bluestone and Roberts were clearly having a wonderful time playing together, and their enthusiasm made the music that much more enjoyable.
Svoboda, who taught composition at Portland State University for 27 years, was another of FNM’s first composers-in-residence. Bluestone lamented that the one memento he had forgotten that evening was a beautiful-sounding slab of stone which Svoboda encountered on one of his long hikes; the composer came across it out on the trail and carried it a mile and half home just because he liked the way it sounded and wanted to give it to Bluestone. Svovoda himself was in attendance at Bluestone’s farewell; as I was seated nearby, I happened to notice his reaction to Bluestone and Roberts’ performance. I have never seen a composer look so joyful.
Bluestone introduced the final work on the program by talking about the copper pipe instrument he would be playing, which was constructed by Bluestone’s student Luke Young. He asked the composer, PSU School of Music chair, Cascadia Composer, and frequent FNM collaborator Bonnie Miksch, to recommend pitches; Miksch then wrote the piece around the instrument. “In a field of golden light” is the final movement from Miksch’s 2015 astral-projection-inspired composition Somewhere I have never travelled, which FNM recently recorded. As the ensemble — Ives, Payne, Griffin Hébert, plus violinist Inés Voglar Belgique and violist Joël Belgique–joined Bluestone on stage, he started to get choked up. He joked about the confusion between his and Joël’s names, referring to himself as “Joël Bluestone”, and talked about his favorite memory of his time with FNM: Inés and Joël’s wedding. He reminisced about the group’s earliest days, when he and Jeff Payne were “like a bunch of teenage boys — hey, you wanna play some music? Let’s play some music!” then turning to Payne and promising “if you need me, I’ll still feed your cats at Christmas.”
Miksch’s music was an exquisite closing number. Strings and piano unfolded elegant classical counterpoint while Bluestone’s copper pipes rang out like Easter morning. During a break in the percussion part, the strings and piano still playing, Bluestone snuck offstage to retrieve several single stem roses, which he laid out on everyone’s music stands. I managed to hold out for awhile, but when Bluestone got to Payne, embracing his old friend at the piano, I burst into tears along with everyone else.
FearNoMusic’s next performance, an all ages afternoon show, New Music in Disguise: Halloween Extravaganza II, happens at Portland’s Mississippi Studios on Sunday, October 30. Families are encouraged to come in costume. FNM will be performing appropriately spooky music by British composer and self-proclaimed “funerary violinist” Rohan Kriwaczek, American new music composers Michael Daugherty, Whitney E. George, Daniel Felsenfeld, and will close with the Portland premiere of Francis Schwartz’s Cannibal Caliban; flutist Amelia Lukas will make her FNM debut performing Kazuo Fukushima’s Mei. Tickets are available here.