Golden Retriever review: Fashion over form

Portland ensemble's large-scale show is heavy on stamina and virtuosity, light on contrast and form


Hell, in all aspects this should have been my thing:

1. I’m a Millennial and Golden Retriever came to their October 20 show at Portland’s Old Church armed with a synthesizer and enough microphones to give the American people a voice.

2. I’m an avant-garde nerd who has equal wet dreams to Kronos Quartet as to Sonic Youth and they hired a classical string quartet and chamber ensemble of improvisers.

So that leaves us with the question: How did the whole night still end up being a clusterfuck of godawful-ry?

Golden Retriever's Sielaff & Carlson.

Golden Retriever’s Sielaff & Carlson.

Culture creates music and music creates culture and culture creates music and music creates culture. . . It’s the chicken and the egg / nurture versus nature / art imitates life therefore life imitates art conundrum, they are impossibly interwoven and you sound a bit foolish bothering to distinguish between them. Music subcultures are as important as the music those subcultures surround, for those people are the human embodiment of the music; they are the living, breathing incarnate aesthetic of their chosen music’s emotional quality. When someone’s walking down the street rocking their Slayer shirt you know what they’re about: metal ass shit.

So, upon arrival I quickly realized I was in for a show that so badly wanted to be cool. Wanted to be cool above anything else, including creating or listening to emotionally engaging music. Walking through the door I had to initiate the transaction with the ticket collector who wouldn’t talk, make eye contact, or confirm or deny that the transaction was over, because being the gatekeeper to this sanctuary of cool he needed complete apathy. . . obviously.

It seemed a majority of the audience members were there to maintain an image. Problematically their image is bought on trust fund money and adorned like an article of clothing from Filson, J. Crew, or Anthropologie with the tags cutout to look thrifted. Never have I seen so many different styles of elegantly disheveled heads of hair tousling around conversing about which music festival or estate they just came from. It’s a sadly common misconception – the poor souls – that cool is an image, something to be purchased when its trendy. Cool has forever been and will forever be about genuineness, a trait very few there wore well.

Performers assemble on stage. Lights go down. Audience shuffles and coughs. And I’m just sitting there rage-coring in a church pew and the music starts.

I’m prepared to hate everything by this point, but I don’t.

I truly enjoyed the first ten minutes, which featured the core duo of synthesizer player Matt Carlson and bass clarinetist Jonathan Sielaff, augmented by a 12-piece chamber ensemble. My problems with the show arose when I couldn’t distinguish those ten minutes from the next 35 of pandiatonic improvising. Pandiatonicism is a musical technique most easily defined by what it’s not: it lacks chromatics or notes outside of the key and it lacks traditional harmonic movement. This leaves a vast array of what qualifies as pandiatonic, but the general sonority of pandiatonicism is dreamy and consonant yet lacks resolution. It’s a very effective sonority for a short piece of music or for a section out of a larger work, but generally lacks the harmonic momentum to sustain a large scale work. See Debussy’s “The Engulfed Cathedral (La cathedral engloutie)” – I just re-listened to this piece and I found my attention waning by its mere six minute duration, although I am a through ‘n through expressionist so my attention is tried by most impressionistic works.

Golden Retriever could have completely sidestepped the issue of maintaining pandiatonicism’s harmonic interest with the contrasting timbral potential available with two bass clarinets, flute, pitched percussion, unpitched percussion, horn, piano, two violins, viola, cello, organ, and synthesizer. There are 479,001,600 (quite literally) different combinations of how those 12 distinct timbres – not accounting for the myriad of different timbres each instrument can produce – could enter to create a sonic canvas of the whole ensemble.

However, if exploring endless orchestration possibilities didn’t interest Golden Retriever, there was the elephant-in-the-room timbral contrast that wasn’t being exploited: the synthesizer-in-the-orchestra. If you’re having the whole ensemble do pandiatonic droning, why in the hell would the synthesizer not be the contrasting timbre? But nope.

Art and pop music both have something to learn from each other. I’ll be the first to admit that and criticize the over-intellectualization of academic music. However, if you’re wanting to expand into larger musical structures as an improvisatory avant-garde pop band, recognize that different musical time structures play by different rules. Form has to be present.

A friend/teacher told me something the great contemporary American composer George Crumb supposedly said:

The only thing we have left is form.

At first glance perhaps a little anecdotal, but Crumb makes a huge aesthetic assessment. The only thing we have left is form: we have done away with the necessity of conforming harmonies to the mathematical chains of the overtone series, we have conquered the confines of perfectly constructed music halls with amplification, rhythm is both not necessary and climbing to new heights of complexity upon the shoulders of electronics, but without an intelligible form, music is a random assortment of noises. Humans crave patterns (or form) as proof that perhaps some of the innumerable events going on simultaneously make sense. However, to have patterns you must also have change. Without change there is no development, without development there is no form, and without form the noises fail to connect emotionally to our species that’s desperately looking for form and patterns amidst chaos.

Perhaps for some there was enough change and contrast within Golden Retriever’s 45-minute jam session to constitute a form, but not for me. It is possible this is just a discrepancy of aesthetic preference, but when listening to the pioneers of long modal improvisation such as John Coltrane, you can hear their consideration of contrasting timbre, harmony, melody, rhythm, the power of silence before the storm, and they sounded genuine while doing it. To be honest though, even those trailblazers dragged it on sometimes.

For the performers: the concert received a standing ovation and I hope you interpreted that as all for you! Maintaining the consistency of sound you achieved is by no means easy. A solidified key with a tonic that never shifted in an ensemble including a plethora of woodwinds and strings, meandering through 45 minutes with no tonal implications and no misplaced notes is an impressive (though boring) feat of performance. However, some of you looked noticeably bored on stage. Assert yourselves! It was a collaborative/improvisatory concert: if the aesthetic wasn’t working, then as a professional musician you have an informed opinion that is worth sharing with your colleagues to try to create an aesthetic product you believe in.

All that to say there was nothing “wrong” with the performance, and to the audience members who attended and genuinely enjoyed the show: congratulations, you recognize there is so much more to music than what is pre-digested for you on the radio and you are seeking it out! You’re what keeps the arts alive. You’re the funder of hopes and dreams. You’re a superhero to all of us kids young and old who think we can survive by the alchemy of sound into emotion. And to the supercool audience members who bought an LP at the end to impress your Tinder date: fuck you.

Tristan Bliss is a music composer currently living in Salem, Oregon. Engaging in all sorts of shenanigans ranging from motorcycle dirtbaggery to navigating his way through the bullshit bureaucracy of earning a Bachelor’s of Music with a focus on modern composition; trust me, it’s not as fancy as it sounds. Also, apparently he is now reviewing concerts he goes to.

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9 Responses.

  1. Cathy Briggs says:

    Telling it like it is. I for one would of resented buying a ticket and find the music bores me.i want the music to move me in some way.

  2. Jack Gabel says:

    I am certain I’m too old to remember if I ever thought this much about “cool” – can remember being asked by an older associate: “What’s the difference between ‘cool’ and ‘hot’?

  3. bob priest says:

    Kronos started out as hot, later became cool & now are mostly luke warm.
    As far as studied hipster hair goes, one has to go a looong way to top Rand Paul.
    OK, OK, all peripheral noodling aside, i wish Golden Retriever well even though i have virtually zero interest in their schtupf if the clip attached here is representative.
    Finally, i, once again, enjoyed Tristan’s punchy prose & look forward to his next review . . .

  4. Jason Traeger says:

    This reads like it was written by a middle schooler who took a music appreciation class over summer break.

  5. Liam says:

    Good to see Oregon Arts Watch adopting the same editorial policies as 4chan.

  6. Grant says:

    Tristan Bliss,
    your opinions would hold a little more weight if you were not yourself what most would consider a hipster: young, married, privileged, leather booted, newsboy capped, with aptly disheveled hair, who enjoys skinny dipping in the ocean… and recently wore a nose ring.
    you were so painfully self aware at this event that before the music even started, you were terribly offended by the crowd… which did not meet your description nearly as much as you do. the attendees were diverse on all levels, a broad spectrum of the Oregon art and music community that was a pleasure to behold.
    a legitimate complaint could have been made had those people behaved in a manner that actually interfered with the performance, during which every single person in the audience was quiet and attentive- it sounds like their only offense was being “cool” in a way that you don’t recognize as being genuine…
    perhaps a look in the mirror and an analysis of your own insecurity is in order.
    it is impossible to take your review seriously, but it did make me laugh, so thanks for that.

  7. Jason says:

    Any review that spends the first hunk of it criticizing the attendees pretty much announces itself as being completely unobjective. The writer clearly had their mind made up before a single note was played.

    Shame this was printed.

  8. Michael says:

    It’s funny that with all Tristan Bliss’s grandstanding and hyperbole elsewhere about how the local classical music scene doesn’t showcase new music or attract young audiences, here he attends a concert of new music written and performed by young Portland composers, with an audience full of young people, (all ages really, I saw kids, older folks, etc.) and he just complains about how the audience was a bunch of hipsters that made him feel uncomfortable. Then he can’t even write anything evocative about the music other than a banal definition of its harmonic language. It seems he has some very closed-minded ideas about what constitutes “the right” audience for classical music: not too old, but if young not too cool, etc. In short: himself.

  9. crumbs says:

    Tristan Bliss, you’ve proven once again that music criticism truly is the lowest form of art.

    Rilke once wrote to a friend “Works of art are of an unlimited solitude, and can be reached by nothing so little as criticism. Only love can grasp and hold them, and can face them justly.”

    I find it funny that you name drop Crumb, only to paraphrase something he might have said at some point about who knows what regarding the importance of form. You mention Debussy and some pedantic gibberish about pandiatonicism and modal music that goes nowhere and relates to absolutely nothing in the music you are reviewing. Perhaps you should consider applying some form in your writing instead of focusing on the bitter frustrations born in academia of music in the real world not meeting up to the greatness of what your teachers told you is important modern music from the late 19th and 20th centuries, that for some insane reason things must adhere to some prescribed (conservative) notions of authenticity in order to be successfully avant garde.

    Ever read a movie review that focuses on how idiotic the audience “seems” to the reviewer? Probably not many, because it would a) be easier than taking candy from a sleeping baby, and b) more than likely have nothing in the least to do with the film. It seems you’re more concerned with your own insecurities regarding your own place in the audience than the music itself.

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