As far as I can tell, this world and our lives are terrifyingly shaped by things completely outside of our control or comprehension. Think I’m full of shit? Then why art? Why music? Why do we dedicate hours, weeks, years, and decades of our lives to jotting down specks of black ink onto five lines for someone else who has gone and dedicated the same goddamn amount of time to interpreting those black specks?
Composing and performing are standing on the precipice of existence, screaming into the void that amidst chaos your insignificant little self created something coherent, and that’s beautiful. Not that music shouldn’t be chaotic – it often needs to be chaotic! — but it should offer a humanistic insight into the chaos. Its creation must be propelled forward by emotion, for what else understands the daily human condition? Without emotion there is no philosophical human condition; it just is what it is what it is what it is what it is what it is. . . just cold chaotic reality. When the predominant motivation for a work of art or music is not emotion, but something secondary such as the technicality of recording, form, or physical performance, only the physical reality of music is being realized: sound.
I have nothing but respect for the logistical capabilities of Jennifer Wright and Agnieszka Laska Dancers putting together Skeleton Piano Dances and furthermore effectively marketing the show, which happened at Portland’s BodyVox Studios October 3 and 4. As far as I could tell the first show was sold out, AND with an average age that has relatively low personal experience with colostomy bags! Not a small achievement in the “art” music world. The venue was hip or whatever – seriously though, having chamber music presented outside of academies and churches is refreshing. Odd as it may be, I also think the program book deserves an honorable mention: thick card stock, quality color printing, and creative design may seem like trivial details, but they go a long way for the perception of professionalism.
All this to say: great planning and professionalism, but for me, there was no emotional communication.
Looking Back by Dan Senn opened the show with some very intriguing timbres. However for a composition to hold my undivided attention, it must engage me rhythmically, melodically, texturally, contrasting presentations of the aforementioned, and the forever-impossible-to-quantify emotionally. My timbral attention was certainly caught, but only to wither and die for lack of further material for the imagination. I don’t know, blame it on the ADD, but the piece felt like an etude for recording, withlittle development musically or emotionally. When the whole goal is to record pot lids ringing like Tibetan prayer bowls, that’s about the emotional evocation I get out of it: “Huh, that’s what pot lids sound like.” Is that really all there is to say about existence?
Sounding the Furies by Portland composer Jack Gabel was a strong exploration of the saxophone’s possibilities, achieved beautifully by Tom Bergeron. The electro-acoustic and visual conglomeration was engaging to witness in a variety of creative aspects, my personal favorite being the presentation of the score laid out on the floor with Bergeron walking to follow along. I just get so used to chamber musicians being stale on stage that even slight deviations towards activity is stimulating, but it was just too damn long with too little to say. I can’t quantify why Sounding the Furies didn’t emotionally communicate with me, but it didn’t. The burden of proof is not on the reviewer to explain the lack of communication; it is on the one who is wishing to communicate, the composer.
It would be easy to gloss over the fact that Jennifer Wright reinvented the piano, to Western musicians the same analogy as reinventing the wheel, but still wasn’t satisfied. Dedicating tremendous amounts of time to become agile on this new creation, Wright does not just own the Skeleton piano: she possesses it, bends it to her will. The Portland composer’s talent and dedication are what made the actual performance of the final work on the program, her Obscure Terrain, all the more disappointing for me. Each movement was an etude for a different effect/affect on the Skeleton piano without a unifying theme. Wright’s own program notes support this interpretation as each movement’s short snippet predominantly discusses which extended (very extended) technique of piano performance she employed to create the sound.
This is not to say Obscure Terrain doesn’t have some devastatingly poignant music buried under a little sound. Wright is a born performer who couldn’t give a performance devoid of emotion if her life depended on it. It doesn’t matter what else is on stage – including choreographed dance – all eyes are instinctively on her. The only thing left is for her to decide what she wants to communicate to those watchers: the virtuosity of her pianism or the depth of her soul?
My wish for her future presentations of Obscure Terrain and creative endeavors in general (to borrow some imagery from the program) is to be unfettered by external trappings, including technical display; to not just show us metaphors for the universal human experience, but to let us into her experiences; to systematically demolish not just barriers of music tradition, but of emotional generalization – so often found within the arts – preventing non-generalized specific discussions of our individual human experience. There is not and can never be a list of what does or doesn’t achieve this experience. It’s just exactly that, an experience: something to be felt, not intellectualized.
Don’t be so shy Jennifer. Oregon is listening.
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 Bachelors 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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