cascadia composers

Let’s see, now, where were we? Big inauguration, American carnage, big threats, bellicose speech. Bigger protest, millions of women, pink hats, sea to shining sea. Twitter wars unabated. Health care on the skids. War on reporters. Alternative facts.

And, oh, yes, tucked away there in the corner: a vow to kill the National Endowment for the Arts. And kill the National Endowment for the Humanities. And “privatize” the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which has mostly been privatized already, anyway. Cost-cutting. Getting tough on the budget. Victory for the taxpayers. (NEA 2016 budget: $148 million. NEH 2016 budget: $148 million. Percentage of total federal budget, each: 0.003. CPB 2016 funding via federal government: $445 million. Percentage of total federal budget, all three agencies: less than 0.02. Federal budget 2015 for military marching bands, $437 million. Taxpayer expense to build or renovate National Football League stadiums, past 20 years, mostly through local and regional taxes: more than $7 billion.)

A fiscal conservative or libertarian can make an honest argument for eliminating the NEA and NEH on grounds that they’re simply not an appropriate use of taxpayer funding; culture should be funded privately. Here at ArtsWatch we don’t agree with that analysis. We believe there are many valid reasons for government financial aid to culture, and that the payoffs to taxpayers are many, from economic – in healthy cities, the arts are job and money multipliers – to educational and much more. Historically, consider the continuing dividends of the WPA and other cultural projects underwritten by the federal government during the Great Depression of the 1930s: In Oregon, for instance, Timberline Lodge.

But there’s much more to this move than a courteous philosophical/economic disagreement. The move to defund the NEA has a long and embattled history, dating at least to the so-called “culture wars” of the 1980s and ’90s, when a resurgent right-wing political movement convinced that artists were mostly a pack of degenerate liberals discovered that attacking the arts was a splendid red-meat issue for its base. They didn’t succeed in killing off the national endowments, but they did weaken them. The new administration seems to think it can finally finish them off. That would weaken state agencies such as the Oregon Arts Commission, which gets funding from the NEA, and in turn weaken arts organizations across the state, which get money from the OAC and, often more importantly, a stamp of approval that helps them raise private donations. Killing the endowments would be a rash move that would save hardly anything in the national budget and cause deep mischief to the nation’s well-being. It strikes us as petty and vindictive and, frankly, foolish.

It’s also a reach that might fail. Republicans like culture, too, and understand its value, and often support it generously. Traditionally, that has included Republican politicians. Will they fall in line with the new administration, or will they quietly scuttle its gambit? Keep your eye on this thing. We will, too.



Duffy Epstein and Dana Green in the premiere of the D.B. Cooper play “db.” Photo: Owen Carey

THE FERTILE GROUND FESTIVAL, Portland’s sprawling celebration of new works in theater, dance, solo performance, circus arts, musical theater, comedy, and other things that ordinarily happen on a stage, continues through January 29. ArtsWatch writers have been out and about, writing their impressions. You can catch up with some of them below:


Cascadia Composers fall concerts: Spanning the spectrum

Quartet of concerts reveals rich diversity in contemporary Oregon classical — or is that 'classical' ? — music

Cascadia Composers can’t put on a boring concert. The organization of composers based primarily in the Northwest is only halfway through its 2016-17 season and already I’ve seen:

  • e-bow-generated harpsichord drones played on a dark stage, with the composer draped in blue LED lights and projections of cymatically stimulated beads of blue water dancing in time to the music;
  • a stack of toy pianos played by five composers crammed all together, music clutched in their hands or squinched in between the tiny wooden legs;
  • duets between cello and doumbek, between clarinet and electronics, between pianists wearing flamboyant wigs and chasing each other around their instrument, screeching like wild cats;
  • a simple pastoral song about barnyard animals turn into a horrifying depiction of slaughter;
  • a choir imitating an alarm clock, a forest, a goddess, a rose.

Jennifer Wright performs her ‘You Cannot LIberate Me…’ Photo: Matias Brecher.

This is what happens when Oregon composers get together and make music. Taken together, the concerts presented a snapshot of contemporary Oregon’s surprisingly rich and diverse contemporary classical music scene.

A Cuba con Amor

The first Cascadia concert of the season, October’s A Cuba con Amor, featured works written for the group’s first-ever composer exchange: the concert’s six composers traveled to Cuba the following month to have their works performed there by local musicians in the 29th Annual Festival de La Habana. This was the concert with the toy pianos (Jennifer Wright’s semi-aleatoric X Chromosome), the doumbek and cello (Paul Safar’s Cat on a Wire), the clarinet and electronics (“synth wizard” Daniel Brugh’s Fantasia), and an evening’s worth of lovely music. I was especially pleased to hear so much music written for strings, including Brugh’s Reticulum for tenor and string quartet and no less than three pieces for piano trio (Safar’s A Trio of Dances, Art Resnick’s Images of a Trip, and Cascadia co-founder David Bernstein’s Late Autumn Moods and Images).

Wright, Brugh, Clifford, Safar, and Max Weisenbloom play with toys on Wright’s ‘X-Chromosome’ at Cascadia Composers’ Cuba concert.

One particularly memorable moment was Ted Clifford’s melodica solo during the middle movement of his composition Child’s Play. As the newest composer in the Cascadia stable, seeing this family of composers at work on and off stage (and afterward at a nearby watering hole) made me feel fantastic about joining up.


Landscape Music

The environment inspires today’s composers who write music advocating its protection 


Places, and increasingly wild landscapes, are inspiring, even compelling today’s composers to create a diverse array of new music in a wide breadth of styles. From chamber music to inter-media pieces, from major orchestral works to sound art installations, new music is engaging audiences in compelling ways as composers seek to connect with the world around us — not by replicating the sounds of nature, but by interpreting the landscape and expressing it through sound.

Composers Justin Ralls, Nayla Mehdi, and Andrew Stiefel collect soundscape field recordings. Photo: Afield Composers.

Composers Justin Ralls, Nayla Mehdi, and Andrew Stiefel collect soundscape field recordings. Photo: Afield Composers.

Landscape music has lately been a growing part of Oregon’s musical landscape. For example, Third Angle New Music has showcased sounds of nature in recent shows, including last year’s “Afield” concert featuring composers Justin Ralls, Andrew Stiefel and Nayla Mehdi; a 2013 concert featuring Northwest composer John Luther Adams’s Earth and the Great Weather; and another show with Cappella Romana in A Time for Life, University of Oregon composer Robert Kyr’s “environmental oratorio.” Crazy Jane Composers have often featured environmentally oriented works, including an entire “Inner Nature” concert in 2014. Many Cascadia Composers concerts have featured music celebrating the Northwest’s natural beauty. You’ll find plentiful other recent examples in the ArtsWatch archives.

Other works celebrate our national environmental treasures. Stephen Lias’s orchestral work transports me to the gates of the Arctic. I can feel the cold tidal waters through Northwest composer Alex Shapiro’s string quintet, Current Events.  Michael Gordon’s Natural History, premiered in July 2016, immerses us into Crater Lake’s multilayered geological and cultural landscape. On September 14 at Portland’s Old Church Concert Hall, Eugene composer Justin Ralls will present a reading of Two Yosemites: An Environmental Chamber Opera that he says explores “a pivotal moment in the history of the American environmental movement.”

Crater Lake, during the July 2016performance of Michael Gordon's "Natural History." Photo: Christina Rusnak.

Crater Lake, during the July 2016 performance of Michael Gordon’s “Natural History.” Photo: Christina Rusnak.

By creating works that look to the diverse landscapes in which we live as a foundation, composers expand our musical palette. Today’s composers are innovative—not merely in musical practice but also in exploring different approaches to new music, by examining the roles in our society, civic engagement, our connection to nature, and in celebration of heritage. They are connecting with audiences in musically new ways.

Perpetual Transition

Our environment — the physical landscape — has influenced musical creation for eons. For centuries, people have orchestrated their lives by the chaotic and transitory nature of the sea, the landscape, and its arteries. The environment is not a merely a rigid, static location, but a highly nuanced layering of shifting, transitory elements: buildings, natural spaces, waterways, transportation and commercial systems, and our shared human experiences. Whether we are walking, biking, floating, or driving, the nature of experiencing place is also transitory.


Music in Small Spaces

Small-scale series bring new sounds closer to audiences

In the music world, most of the attention goes to the mega-venues: Keller Auditorium, Moda Center, Schnitzer Concert Hall, arena shows. Yet most of the creativity seems to happen in more intimate confines. Maybe it’s something to do with focus or informality or even lower ticket prices, but for me, cozy clubs, chapels, galleries, small auditoriums somehow make it easier to connect to what’s happening onstage.

That’s why I’ve cherished Music in Small Spaces, which for the past six years has presented new and unusual music in Beaverton and other towns on the west side of Portland’s West Hills (Tualatin Mountains), and Third Angle New Music’s Studio Series and Porch Music, which bring mostly new sounds to inner Southeast Portland’s Zoomtopia studios and the front porches of homes in a leafy old Northeast Portland neighborhood.


Alas, MiSS’s indefatigable majordomo, Judy Castle, has announced that last week’s concert, at Portland’s ironically not-so-small Village Baptist Church, will be the last in the series — a big loss for the West Side and for Oregon music in general. The final two performances, as well as Third Angle’s season-ending (but thankfully not series-ending) show last week show just why these spaces are so valuable. And while it won’t be in a small space, you will have the chance to see a reprise of the final MiSS show this Sunday in downtown Portland.


Cascadia Composers and Northwest Piano Trio reviews: The Color of Magic

Two concerts featured contemporary Oregon classical music. One succeeded.


Lights out. In a dark cavernous church, twinkling blue Christmas lights bob their way to a harpsichord. They tilt over it, no doubt praying. They un-tilt and lower onto a bench. The instrument emits a long sustaining moan.

THE HARPSICHORD SUSTAINS??!!??? What spell has been cast?


Jennifer Wright.

No time to think, the blue lights are driving the instrument to react. Like T-cells attacking an infection, the notes bombard the drone. Above, a screen displays the sound waves — oscillating, colliding, and my growing anxiety isn’t “How did composer, Jennifer Wright, achieve this?” It’s “OMG, Who or What is going to Win? How will this play out?” In You Cannot Liberate Me, Only I Can Do That for Myself, the composer/performer has managed to translate a creative concept/challenge (how to sustain a percussive sound) into a universal dilemma (how to deal with the new: fight it, ward it off, accept?). To be fair, I figured this out long after the performance, but only because the gnawing anxiety pestered me to work through it, to come to closure.

Science transcends process. Houston, we have Magic.

Lately more and more Oregon indie classical and even establishment classical groups are starting to realize the value of programming new and locavore music. It’s a really good sign of a developing homegrown alt.classical scene that’s not depending on dead Europeans and insular New Yorkers. I want all these groups who are playing homegrown 21st century music to succeed because Oregon draws outlaws, visionary DIYers who don’t just want to make it in New York and LA—they have something to say to today’s audiences. Oregon can be the role model for LA, New York, Paris.

But new and local are only the beginning, necessary but not sufficient if classical music is to (re)connect with broader Oregon audiences. The events need to appeal broadly, unless you just want a niche audience. And niches won’t sustain new classical music.

Multimedia helps. Taking the performances out of churches and auditoriums and staging them in bars and black box theaters helps. Dressing down or up (anything but black nightgowns) helps. Choosing a program that takes the audience on a ride helps.

Alas, even these ingredients are necessary but still not sufficient. To draw broad audiences, the essential element that must be cultivated is Magic.

Magic is not learned; it is omnipresent — there for the taking. It is the thing we often discount, the first feeling that comes up, the first glib utterance out of our mouths when throwing around ideas. Magic can only be welcomed in when she subtly drops a bomb in your ear. Or not; one can opt out, thinking the voice is too crazy, will offend too many people or the wrong person, and do the safe, sane, currently-in-mode thing and hope it’s enough to generate ticket revenue to cover what the RACC grant doesn’t. And the creative concept itself is only a start — much more Magic, courage to support the magic inspirations and lots of grunt work (including practice/rehearsal hours) are needed on this yellow brick road to the Emerald City.

Two concerts featuring new music by Oregon composers showed what can happen when presenters listen for Magic and then vest themselves in the quest of fulfilling that inspiration … and what happens when they don’t.


Dianne Davies preview: Attachments and Detachments

Portland pianist uses Cascadia Composers music, dance, and visual art to tell life stories

Portland pianist Dianne Davies was looking at scores that she might want to play in an upcoming Cascadia Composers program when she picked up Ghosts and Machines by Jeff Winslow. After she played through the fourth movement, she realized that the Portland composer and ArtsWatch contributor’s solo piano piece, which he began in the wake of his older brother’s death years earlier, “fit perfectly into unresolved deep grief issues I’d had for years,” Davies remembers. “It speaks to a part of me, and says in music what I feel but can’t articulate. I think it’s incredible that people like Jeff can write such music out of deep places of pain.”

Davies knew about pain. Although Winslow’s composition was purely instrumental, she felt the composer’s loss. Davies had also lost a sibling, her beloved older sister, when Dianne was 11. “When my sister died, I couldn’t speak about what I was feeling inside, but it had to come out,” she recalls. “When I went to the piano and played and I could let myself cry, it made me feel better. It helped console me.”

Dianne Davies will perform and off her bench Sunday.

Like most of us, Davies suffered other losses — parents, a child leaving the nest — but at one point, she also almost lost the thing she loved most: music itself. Ultimately, she’d find solace in performing music from her own time and place.

Ghosts and Machines, which anchors Davies’s free show Attachments and Detachments at 3 pm this Sunday, Feb. 28, at Portland State University’s Lincoln Recital Hall, is one of seven works by members of Cascadia Composers that Davies will play in a show unlike any other in memory: a cycle of contemporary compositions, augmented by dance, visual art, humor and narration, that represent turning points in the performer’s own life.



Listening to music under a darkened parabolic dome with flickering colored lights and choreographed projected video images isn’t commonly associated with the chamber music tradition. Yet that’s exactly what audiences will experience when listening becomes the melding of new music with modern performance techniques in a Cascadia Composers concert at Eugene’s historic First Christian Church on January 30.

Perceptions of Sound is designed to engage the ears and mind with a variety of acoustic and electroacoustic works presented in surprising and enlightening ways “that both challenges yet entertains,” according to concert organizer Daniel Brugh. “There’s gonna be a few lights of a variety of colors, video, some sound-induced visuals and lots and lots of darkness! This is music experienced in an alternative way.”

John Berendzen plays Robohorn at Cascadia Composers' Perceptions of Sound concert.

John Berendzen plays Robohorn at Cascadia Composers’ Perceptions of Sound concert.

Showcasing the talents and creativity of a host of local and regional composers and performing professionals, this multimedia experience draws connections between different artistic media elevating the act of listening. Several of the works have been adapted for or written specifically to take advantage of the unique space and special acoustic properties of First Christian Church’s parabolic dome.

The program will feature Eugene’s Delgani String Quartet, pianist Alexander Schwarzkopf, soprano Nancy Wood and percussionist Todd Bills among many professional musicians from Eugene and Portland. The ten contributing composers include Eugene’s Paul Safar and Alexander Schwarzkopf along with Portlanders Daniel Brugh, Jennifer Wright, Jeff Winslow, Nicholas Yandell, Susan Alexjander, Ted Clifford, Lisa Ann Marsh, and Vancouver Washington’s Brandon Stewart.

Listen Up!

The evening’s event will open with a musical interlude courtesy of Portland composer and musician John Berendzen and his “Robohorn,” a hybrid electroacoustic instrument developed around a marching mellophone. This unusual DYI horn is fully mobile, self-powered, and allows Berendzen to stroll freely throughout the performance venue with the sound of the instrument being modified by reverberation within the acoustic space. (See: 3 Sisters, a film by Ani Asuncion with Robohorn soundtrack by John Berendzen.)

The concert continues with a diversity of music by Northwest composers who are actively involved in composing today’s classical music. Click the “Hear/Here” links for samples of recent work by each composer.

First Christian Church's parabolic dome provided inspiration for several of the works to be performed there at Cascadia Composers' January 30 concert.

First Christian Church’s parabolic dome provided inspiration for several of the works to be performed there at Cascadia Composers’ January 30 concert.

Elkos by Susan Alexjander uses unusual microtonal tunings derived from vibrations of the infrared world of the DNA molecule. These original light frequencies, when translated into pitches, create a sonic ‘map’ of this molecular world for the human ear…what one author called “the invisible whispers within,” she writes in a program note. It is a watery and intimate piece that flows in flexible time between a violinist and synthesizer player. The violinist must match the synthesizer’s tunings as best he or she can, but often the rub, or clash, results in interesting vibratory events which take on a life of their own. (Hear/Here)

Inspired by a Deborah Buchanan poem, Lisa Ann Marsh’s Counting Again, Beginning at One will resonate with an array of percussion sounds (vibraphone, orchestral bells, cymbal, wind chimes), piano and soprano. Lighting effects and spatial arrangement and movement of the performers augment the mystery and poignancy of the piece. (Hear/ Here)

Eugene composer and videographer Daniel Heila filmed moving imagery that inspired him based upon the abstract title White Canvas, a piece for piano, bass clarinet and alto flute by Paul Safar. Both Safar’s music and Heila’s accompanying video were purposely composed in isolation from each other, resulting in a “project of chance.” (Hear/Here)