The Mousai review: The importance of now

Portland chamber ensemble’s concert of music by living American composers delivers emotional excitement

by TRISTAN BLISS

… enter the stillness of Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall on December 4, escaping the incessant drizzle and oil-slicked roads of Portland nights stretching the city’s west side, much of which I had just walked with my companions – having just escaped the daily salt mines – trying to smoke and be punctual: being young and alive in Portland is a gift of time and place. The Mousai (Janet Bebb, flute, Ann van Bever, oboe, Chris Cox, clarinet, ArtsWatch contributor Maria Choban, piano) programmed and performed the rare concert that doesn’t coerce nostalgia for a time gone-by that none of us have known, but sounds with torrential excitement to be alive now. Propelling the tornadic relationship of art imitating life forward new music, young and young-at-heart American composers, the Mousai reminded us on a murky Oregon Friday why life should imitate art.

No announcement, no pre-show pretense or sales pitch — City Vignettes (composed 2014) by Los Angeles composer George N. Gianopoulos kicked off the show, like much of life, without warning. Cox sauntered on stage as if “we’ll always have [Portland]” to Choban’s piano ramblings to a woolgathering audience, myself included, and, with no Now-Art-Begins pomp, began reciting a Sara Teasdale poem, catching the audience vulnerable to actual emotional involvement and holding them rapt. Gianopoulos’s City Vignettes for flute, piano, and narrator successfully borrowed noir sounds – deep unresolved existential piano arpeggiations with melancholy flute melodies – without sounding pastiche. Embracing Teasdale’s challenge to live life — “The dreams wear thin, men turn upon their beds, And hear the milk cart jangle by alone” — Gianopoulos audiated a somber acknowledgment that the dream of past music is wearing thin, and if composers don’t turn upon their beds, we’ll hear music history jangle by alone with nothing to say of our time or place.

The Mousai's happy ending to Schlosberg's premiere.

The Mousai’s happy ending to Schlosberg’s premiere.

Unwilling to accept that our time is mute, Daniel Schlosberg, a Brooklyn-based composer dissatisfied with the passivity of merely tossing his two cents onto the music history cart, composed pandemonium and quiescence intoxicated by life. Opening with an eclectic ragtime meets Dixieland Buster Keaton-esque free-for-all where the intentionality of everything is questionable yet brilliantly executed, including three butt-cluster chords perpetrated by Choban, Schlosberg dissolved our emotional defenses with laughter and took them captive. Dividing his Two Remarks (2015) into the “Clarinet Remoulade,” described above, and the quiescent timbral modulations and unaccompanied high pitched piano pedal tone of the second movement, “Bated Breath,” Chamber Music Northwest’s 2014 Protege Project composer enchanted the auditorium by the drama of contrast. Night and day, summer/winter, love/indifference etc. … life is dependent upon contrast for comprehension: contrast is as necessary to art as it is to life and Two Remarks, commissioned by the Mousai, made me feel alive.

Ann van Bever introduced popular Washington DC composer Scott Pender’s Variations as the Hollywood piece of the concert, and bad-news-Babbitt it was, and that’s not bad! While not my personal aesthetic preference, it was music to share a strawberry milkshake with a pretty girl to, and engage new audience members with music composed in 2010 that doesn’t demand fluency in 20th century compositional practices.

Modern composers have too often aurally shamed listeners: constructing impenetrable walls of various dissonant techniques composed upon numerical relations is not Willy Wonka’s golden ticket to music history. Audience members remember how the music made them feel, not some abstract conceptualization. Furthermore, placing the blame upon the audience for not possessing the correct graduate degree to understand the music is bullshit! If you can’t compose using dissonant techniques from a place of emotion, go back to engineering.

Not to throw stones at difficult music (token Xenakis reference here); Chongos Morongos (I just keep getting started and then started again) (2013) by California’s Antonio Celaya was a good example of dissonant techniques used for emotional ends. Swinging impromptu-sounding builds with sharp cuts to restarts with each build more intense than the last, it swallowed the audience, dissonance lovers and detractors, into a sprawling emotional world unconcerned with what theoretical techniques built it, but consumed with emotions.

Emotions are the only reason any of this matters. Music without emotion is the engineered relation between various sound frequencies and how they interact, or just another class I would’ve skipped, which is why new music matters. New music is speaking to us from our own insignificant minute portion of history, but it’s ours, no translation or context needed. Notated music is often misconstrued as offering immortality to the composer, which is just a cheap Ponzi scheme played by fear: we’ll never know what it was like to hear the vitality of Debussy alive as a direct opposition to the increasingly chromatic Germanic school. That is not to disparage his music — of course it is still beautiful — but we hear it in a completely different culture, not the social climate it was written for, thereby altering how it emotionally affects us and ultimately sealing Debussy’s death.

Portland composer Thomas DeNicola.

Portland composer Thomas DeNicola.

In this way even notated music is impermanent, and heightens the importance of now. From the mournful opening oboe line of Memories (2015), Portland State University student Thomas DeNicola‘s commission from the Mousai, contrapuntal woodwind builds squelched with piano clusters, and intertwined melodies moving freely from distraught dissonances to lamenting consonances gave voice to how memories, under the guise of preservation, steal from the present and create fractured impermanent impressions now. DeNicola was speaking a musical language that needed no translation; it existed in the present as a beautiful work of communication to be alive in every moment, an artistic expression worthy of imitation in our lives.

Jazz is a perfect example of how fast culture can shift and change our perception of sound. Colorado composer Bill Douglas’s chamber jazz piece Quartet (2009) polished the evening off, and I always want to enjoy jazz because I love the history of this raucous in-your-face, seedy, don’t-tell-your-mom sort of genre, but I just don’t. I just don’t hear any of that sort of mentality left in jazz, but Douglas would probably disagree because although we’re listening to the same literal sounds we’re hearing different cultural implications. Kaleb Davies joined the Mousai core quartet on drum kit and gave what I heard as a meandering composition a sense of direction.

Dispersed back to their respective cities, jobs, and lives, the audience received the gift of direction from the Mousai and the power of new music to go live. Go live with the thoughtfulness of Gianopoulos and DeNicola, uncontainable rowdy joy of Schlosberg, beauty and intellect of Pender and Celaya (and if jazz speaks to you, whatever jazz says), but just go be excited to be alive. I am.

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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2 Responses.

  1. Nancy Mitchell says:

    Nick – Congratulations on your success. You should do a blog on getting your music heard. Keep the music flowing and please continue sharing with us.
    Nancy Mitchell

  2. flora says:

    “Modern composers have too often aurally shamed listeners: constructing impenetrable walls of various dissonant techniques composed upon numerical relations is not Willy Wonka’s golden ticket to music history. Audience members remember how the music made them feel, not some abstract conceptualization. Furthermore, placing the blame upon the audience for not possessing the correct graduate degree to understand the music is bullshit! If you can’t compose using dissonant techniques from a place of emotion, go back to engineering.” RIGHT ON.

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