Spontaneous Combustion reviews 2: sublime solos, dynamic duo

Editor’s note: ArtsWatch deployed a small squadron of reviewers to most of the Spontaneous Combustion Festival’s seven programs of new music spread over 17 concerts in three cities. Here are some of the highlights of the first edition of this valuable new addition to Oregon’s music scene. Read part one here.

Iktus Duo

Tap tap tap on the small of my back.
Fingers scratch and thrum.
Across taut skin, invisible hairs tickle.
My ears drum.

Visceral and sensual, Iktus Duo ignited the Spontaneous Combustion concert at Portland’s Classic Pianos with Joseph Pereira’s oriental Echi Dromi for doumbek and flute. James Romig’s Pynes moved percussionist Christopher Graham to the piano to play slow tag with flutist Hristina Blagoeva. Chasing each other around pitches C, D, E-flat and F, they frequently caught and held each other on unison pitches, eventually adding A, C-sharp and ending on B. Conceptual and very flirty.

Enough foreplay! James Tenney’s Having Never Written a Note for Percussion banged a gong for ten minutes. Well, actually tickled it, coaxing an unrelenting crescendo toward a thundering climax. Forget about rolling over and going to sleep, Tenney and Graham milked ten more minutes of slow decrescendo shudders before allowing us to collapse into intermission.

Iktus Duo

After the sensuality and sexuality of the conceptual first half, Eric Moe’s cute Gong Tormented felt as cartoonish as 50 Shades of Grey following the Marquis de Sade’s acute Juliette. But the closer, Lou Harrison’s First Concerto for Flute and Percussion, redeemed itself to me. I heard the 21-year-old Portland-born composer’s 1939 piece live at last summer’s CeLOUbration and thought it was lame, not realizing it was a lame performance. Here, Iktus Duo, like everyone I saw and heard at all five Spontaneous Combustion concerts I attended, not only exuded confidence with solid performances, they also imbued them with tons of personality. — Maria Choban

Portland pianist Maria Choban, ArtsWatch’s Oregon ArtsBitch, blogs at CatScratch.

Orlando Cela

A whole concert featuring a single wind instrument might sound sparse. But in Orlando Cela’s able hands and imagination, a flute becomes a world orchestra. In his mesmerizing Indian-flavored 2016 composition Rag Lalit, which opened Cela’s solo recital at Portland’s Old Church, the Boston flutist used his right hand to tap out percussion patterns on the barrel while fingering the melody with his left; a shruti box provided a drone harmony. Kyle Rowan’s 2015 Komorebi used a shakuhachi sonority in a completely contemporary and American style, the spare flute phrases dappling the space like sunlight filtered through a leafy canopy. The Old Church acoustic provided the ideal sonic space between sparse notes.

Here and elsewhere, Cela displayed complete command of multi phonics, overblowing, overtones, and other extended techniques, but in each case, they served the music rather than, as is too often the case, the reverse. I’ve heard some fab flutists, but none with his subtle dynamic control and expressive range.

Cela’s relaxed stage presence and conversational remarks between pieces added to the intimacy. He explained how Spontaneous Combustion festival founder and Portland composer Scott Shell had suggested the score call that produced two of the show’s selections. Cela asked composers to submit scores on condition they didn’t use “normal” flute sounds, and in return, he’d record them and give the composers a CD. Submissions streamed in from around the world, and some composers, he said, used their recordings to get into graduate school, obtain grants etc.

In 2015, one young composer, Dana Kaufman, wrote a series of variations on the American folk song “Tom Dooley” called Hang Your Head in which Cela whispered through the flute, emitted growls, and piercing whistles — yet never lost the thread of the original tune.

Orlando Cela performed at Spontaneous Combustion Festival of New Music.

The closest I’ve heard to Cela’s range is the great flutist Robert Dick, the Jimi Hendrix of the flute, and Cela played Dick’s atmospheric 1980 Flames Must Not Encircle Sides, unleashing a full arsenal of circular breathing, flutter tonguing, slides, chirps. The moods varied as much as the techniques — not all fast and loud. By contrast, another score call submission, Greek composer George Christofi’s thrilling 2009 Diplophinia, used its vocalizations and whooshes in a more dramatic way, telling a story in music.

Astor Piazzolla’s closing 1987 Three Tango Etudes, usually played on violin, demonstrated that current music doesn’t have to sound outré. Bach-style contrapuntal passages whisked alongside danceable, even galloping sections before a pensive interlude and a final flourish. Cela’s firm, rounded tone suited the music Baroque tone as snugly as his earlier, more outlandish techniques fit their respective compositions.

One of the most absorbing solo recitals on any instrument I’ve ever heard wouldn’t have happened without the Spontaneous Combustion festival, because the young flute phenom’s reputation is for now mostly confined to his east coast home. I’m confident that will change very soon.

Though the music wasn’t sparse, the rainy Monday night audience was. What a missed opportunity for flute students at next-door Portland State (and other schools) and the other fine flutists in this city to see just what an astonishing variety of sounds the flute can create — in the right hands.

And it was even more disappointing not to see anyone from Cascadia Composers (except our own Matthew Andrews) or Oregon contemporary classical ensembles at any of the three festival concerts I attended. Maybe they were at the others. With the conspicuous exception of Eugene’s world-class Delgani Quartet, they all could have learned from these brilliant musicians what a difference it makes for the audience to hear performances of contemporary music that have been developed over years of practice and thoughtful rehearsal, rather than a couple of sight-readings. Along with alerting us to new music and new performers, I hope Scott Anthony Shell’s valuable Spontaneous Combustion Festival of New Music raises the bar for conscientious new music performance in Oregon.   — Brett Campbell.

Ashley Bathgate

What is it about cellists and electronics? I’m thinking Zoë Keating, Julia Kent, Giovanni Sollima, Matthew Barley, Jeffrey Krieger, even Portlanders like Marilyn de Oliveira and Hannah Hillebrand. Is it because they’re seated already, making pedals easier to navigate? A laptop on an adjacent piano bench is sturdier than a music stand, and Ashley Bathgate’s rig was already set up, an audio interface connecting mics and pedals to a MacBook running Ableton Live.

Ashley Bathgate plugged in in Eugene as well as Seattle and Portland.

In the opener, Martin Bresnick’s Parisot, the electronics started in earnest right away, first with sustained tones and then with all manner of overlapping patterns and harmonized melodies. At first I thought it was just cunning use of delay; then I figured it for long, layered loops; then I suspected simple pre-recorded backing tracks; finally I decided it was some indecipherable combination thereof. Such detective work is part of the fun of watching an electronically enhanced performance.

Bathgate started with a hearty, vigorous low note, and proceeded to explore the tonal implications of the octatonic scale before laying out a vast acreage of drones, pizzicato ostinati, rushing scalar figures, and the always popular Shostakovian melodic world all fraught with passion and despair.

After a deep breath, Bathgate confessed to being a first timer in Portland, finding our characteristically chaotic February “significantly warmer than New York City.” (If only she’d been here two weeks later!) Parisot was named for Bathgate’s cello teacher Aldo Parisot and dedicated by its composer—another Yale teacher—to the Yale Cellos. Bathgate loved it so much she asked him for a touring version, performable by a solo cellist with multi-tracked recording (so much for detective work), and he obliged. This is the version you can hear right here, performed by “The Ashley Bathgate Philharmonic.”

Next up was the “third ever performance” of Randall Woolf’s It’s Not a City, the accompanying part consisting not of overdubbed cellos as in the Bresnick piece but constructed with samplers and synthesizers and the words of the San Francisco poet and human rights activist Tongo Eisen-Martin. The live cello part was mostly single-line stuff, a wise compositional choice (if nothing else than for textural clarity’s sake), with a couple of angular riffs and a handful of synchrotextual moments a la Different Trains. The electronic component was spare and synthy and inoffensive, aside from some scattered and inchoate Casio drum sounds (I can’t call them beats; beats would have been an improvement). What really sold me, though, was the poetry, read by the man himself in his inimitable style.

A few recurring lines popped out of the dense sonic network and stayed with me:

The start of mass destruction
Begins and ends
In restaurant bathrooms
That some people use
And other people clean


My dear, if it is not a city, it is a prison.
If it has a prison, it is a prison. Not a city.

The remainder of the recital featured two Reich-ish multitrack pieces by Bathgate’s friends Emily Cooley and Alex Weiser alongside Reich’s Cello Counterpoint.

In Cooley’s Assemble, Bathgate spun quick little gliding melodies over curt, insistent, mid-tempo chord changes in the jazz-inspired, quasi-tonal, pandiatonic-type harmonic regions the downtown crowd “rediscovered” in the shadow of sixties East Coast academicism. (I’m thinking especially of Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians and Adams’ Shaker Loops) Eventually the chugging dissolved into long, sustained notes and a melodically gratifying conclusion.

Bathgate performed at Eugene’s Saraha Nyingma Buddhist Temple.

Bathgate described Weiser’s Willow & Shimmer as “a canon of sorts” in which eight cello parts enter gradually, building to a “huge tone cloud” which then slows down so you can hear the shimmering process at work. The aptly titled fantasia weaves a tapestry of ascending scales into a web of indistinguishable lines, over which yet another high melody floats like the bird song it’s based on.

Closing out the concert: one of the new masterpieces from one of the new masters, Steve Reich’s Pulitzer finalist Cello Counterpoint. All three of these pieces had lovely moments, actually, mounds of lovely moments strung together into a lovely flow of lovely music. (I have to confess that I might be getting really tired of this sort of thing.)

Of course, “moments” is all you get in most Reich pieces, layers of moments shifting all over each other (here comes that tapestry metaphor again). Bathgate sold the hell out of all the intricate interlocking parts the old bebop drummer always delights in throwing at “normal” classical musicians; more important, she nailed those high singing lines he tends to sculpt on top of all the busyness, belying the tired old “minimalist” tag and demonstrating (as Glass did with his Sextet) just how profound the Old Guard of American Minimalists can sound when they put their minds to it. Bathgate’s confident, expressive portamento scattered bliss into the Old Church’s ornate rafters and reminded me forcefully of why we still bother putting on shoes and going out to hear humans perform live music.

That was supposed to be it, but the Power of the Press compelled Bathgate to close SCNMF’s Portland stop with, of all things, a request from the Fifth Estate. “So…I’d like to play one more for you,” she said. “Since the paper said I’d be playing some Andrew Norman, I’ll be playing some Andrew Norman!”

“Can we go acoustic?” Bathgate called back to the soundboard, where the engineer obligingly turned everything off.

Norman composed Sabina as a sort of companion to a companion: the piece shares musical material with the last movement of his Pulitzer finalist, the string trio Companion Guide to Rome. Both came out of Norman’s experiences touring (what else?) churches in Rome, and both take their inspiration from the light filtering into the Basilica of Saint Sabina on Rome’s Aventine Hill (site of various acts of political protest, ancient and modern).

The opening notes, with their quiet-nasty behind-the-bridge bowing, gave way to overpressure sul ponticello susurration just as the familiar Portland Streetcar glided noisily by, clanging its clang at the stop across the street. Out of all this, a raga-like melody emerged and transformed and evolved, in the manner of an alap progressing inexorably to jod and jhala, from slow melody to cross-stringed flurries to a high, fruity-sweet, majory altissimo tone way up on the upper end of the cello’s high A string.

Thus did SCNMF go out, quite literally, on a high note.

Matthew Neil Andrews is a composer, singer, percussionist, and editor at Portland State University, and serves on the board of Cascadia Composers. He and his music can be reached at monogeite.bandcamp.com.

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