Music of Darkness: a Revolutionary Halloween for the Classically Minded

Classical Revolution PDX regular Grace Young plays viola on several works at Sunday's Decomposers Night.

Classical Revolution PDX regular Grace Young plays viola on several works at Sunday’s Decomposers Night.

By JANA HANCHETT

“We delved in this ghoul’s grave with our spades, and how we thrilled at the picture of ourselves, the grave, the pale watching moon, the horrible shadows, the grotesque trees, the titanic bats, the antique church, the dancing death-fires, the sickening odours, the gently moaning night-wind, and the strange, half-heard, directionless baying, of whose objective existence we could scarcely be sure.

—H.P. Lovecraft, “The Hound.

That horridly thrilling tale of grave robbery was the inspiration for this Sunday’s Decomposers Night, a classical-bending, genre-crossing musical production that explores the macabre with intellectual passion.

“We’ve gone a bit darker this year by including music based on both H. P. Lovecraft and Edgar Allen Poe,” says Christopher Corbell, executive director of Classical Revolution PDX, which is presenting the show at downtown Portland’s Star Theater.

“My first exposure to H. P. Lovecraft was an audiobook of short stories when I was on a road trip,” Corbell recalls. “Experiencing ‘The Hound’ in an audio reading was a wonderful introduction to the best of his writing — it’s a conventional horror piece in many ways, but with this wonderful layer of erudition and attention to aesthetics.”

With an eye towards Portland’s 2014 H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival, CRPDX organized a call for scores inspired by Lovecraft’s creepy tale. Out of 14 compositions submitted from all over the world, Nathan Showell’s score for violin, viola, cello, and clarinet led the pack. The premiere of the nineteen-year-old Reed College student’s composition at Decomposers Night will accompany voice actor Sam Mowry’s reading of “The Hound.” CRPDX hopes to submit a film incorporating Showell’s score and Mowry’s reading to next year’s Lovecraft Festival.

Inspired by Poe’s “The Mask of the Red Death,” the centerpiece of Decomposers Night is Andre Caplet’s 1924 “Conte Fantastique,” which musically illustrates the dramatic irony of unwittingly chasing your own bloody killer. To add to the exotic tone, Caplet (a prize-winning French composer probably best known today for his arrangements of the music of his colleague, Claude Debussy) throws the harp into the midst of a broiling string quartet.

This piece was pivotal in liberating the harp from its traditional role of being a virtuosic but shallow parlor instrument,” explains Kate Petak, the harpist for this concert. “Caplet shows that the harp can successfully convey the darkness, intensity, and mysteriousness needed to set the tone for Poe’s eerie story. It is my hope that modern composers will continue Caplet’s legacy by using the full range of expressions possible on the harp. There’s so much more room for exploration.”

The evening’s revolutionary nature also resounds in collaborations with musical forces outside the classical genre. The concert itself is a prelude to a performance by Church of Hive, a mainstay of Portland’s Goth/Industrial community. In addition, Myrrh Lars, curator of Someday:Incubator and classical musician-turned-dark-wave /rockstar impresario, is teaming up with CRPDX musicians.

“Classical music demonstrates how great passion can be expressed within, and even amplified by, structural constraints,” Larsen says. “Because my own band often incorporates video projections and movement in our rock shows, we also take a very deliberate approach to composition to make sure that all the different aspects of the show come together into something really powerful. It’s awesome to be part of an artistic community in which modern classical music is alive, part of the dialogue of the dark and complicated times we live in.”

Patrick McCulley premiers a new composition at Decomposers Night.

Patrick McCulley premiers a new composition at Decomposers Night.

Three other Oregon music premieres complement Showell and Larsen’s contributions. Created specifically for this Halloween concert by The Waking Guild’s Jason O’Neill-Butler, “Sandman” features one of Petra Delarocha’s gravity-defying aerial performances. Portland pianist and film composer Beth Karp, also a member of The Waking Guild, composed “Things that Go Bump in the Night” for violin, viola, cello, bass, and soprano for Decomposers Night.

Saxophonist Patrick McCulley’s composition “Chaining the Leviathan” draws on classical, jazz, indie rock and experimental music. “My inspiration for this piece came from an excerpt from [J.R.R.] Tolkien’s “Silmarillion” about the chaining of a satanic god figure, Melkor,” says McCulley, whose performance will be accompanied by John C. Worsley’s live illustrations.
“A visual artist uses a drawing program on a laptop and creates an illustration while music is being performed on stage,” explains Corbell. “The whole illustration process is projected live onto a screen behind the performer, often evolving in unexpected ways along with the music. It’s a cool artistic collaboration and often pretty mesmerizing, especially with a talented illustrator like John C. Worsley.

The concert concludes with Portland composer and violinist Mike Hsu’s arrangement of The Cure’s “Lullaby.”

The psychological exploration of darkness is not always easy or welcome, but CRPDX capitalizes on this Halloween season to make this particular concert an anticipated event. “With everything going on in the world, it’s hard to deny that we live in dark times,” says Larsen. “Dark art is a way to acknowledge that, express some of the fear and frustration that goes alongside it, but also to have a little catharsis. In every dark song we play, there’s a glimmer of hope in it, and a punk rock spirit of resistance and defiance that shines through the angst.”

***

CRPDX presents Decomposers Night at the Star Theater, 13 NW 6th Avenue, Portland, on Sunday, October 27 at 8 pm. 21+, $10 suggested donation.

Jana Hanchett is a pianist in Portland.

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