The Radically Mused: Improvisation Summit of Portland

Creative Music Guild's annual convocation presents a broad spectrum of spontaneous creativity

by MATT MARBLE

No one comes to a Creative Music Guild show to hear a familiar tune or a classic work. CMG concerts are places where joyful noises erupt and drone on, where genres are fused and exploded, where everyday objects become artistic tools, where risks are taken—a space is made in which anything and everything is welcome. And if you step into this space and join the performers, attending to the free flow of their intuitions, then you might just find some revelations—artistic, personal or otherwise. The first night’s performance of this year’s edition of the organizations’s annual Improvisation Summit of Portland exemplified CMG’s mission and what it continues to offer the Portland community.

Pure Surface Collective at Improvisation Summit of Portland

Pure Surface Collective at Improvisation Summit of Portland

For over 20 years CMG has championed spontaneous creativity and experimentalism through concerts bringing together local and international artists. A non-profit, volunteer organization currently directed by Alyssa Reed-Stuewe, Brandon Conway, Ben Kates, and John Savage, CMG is one of the greatest and longer-standing landmarks in Portland’s artscape, though it seldom gets the attention it deserves. CMG’S annual Improvisation Summit is not only a good introduction to the organization, but also to Portland’s more radically mused artists. The 2016 ISP took place on June 2, 3, and 4 at Disjecta Contemporary Art Center in the Kenton neighborhood of NE Portland.

Though it got off to a late start, Thursday’s show was pleasantly packed and diverse, moving from the abstract and chaotic to the mathematically minimalist, from more traditional jazz forms  to experimental psychedelia. Through these various aesthetic perspectives, the audience was treated to the breadth and depth of Portland’s experimental community.

Motions of Chaos and Purity: Pure Surface collective, Jesse Mejia and Taka Yamamoto

The evening began with a collective of poets and dancers each independently repeating de-contextualized phrases and movements. This collective was hosted by Pure Surface, a multi-media series of collaborative performances directed by Danielle Ross and Stacey Tran. Weaving together repeated speech and movement, the collective (at least 10 or so) writhed around like patients in an abandoned psychiatric unit. While one performer walked around and somewhat belligerently pointed to other performers, proclaiming them “Soft!”, another repeatedly recited and sang the name “La Selva.” My attention, however, was drawn to the repeating phrases of local rapper Tron (a.k.a. “Grape God”), whose humor and realness pierced through whatever high art concerns might pass through CMG or Disjecta. “I’m a rapper,” Tron said as he took large, slow, unbalanced steps, “They never should have let me in here. Cuz I might fall in love with a place I can’t be.”

Taka Yamamoto

Taka Yamamoto

Jesse Mejia (synth) and Taka Yamamoto (dance) offered the most minimalist set of the night. Using a score of additive rhythms, a la Terry Riley, the duo embarked on a counterpoint of slowly shifting patterns—Mejia with tones and rhythms, Yamamoto with rhythmic movements and the accent of his hands slapping the floor. For a second I felt like I was at NYC’s The Kitchen in the early 1970s. If some audience members struggled with the music’s pared-down repetitions, they might have felt relief when, after some technical difficulties, Mejia pre-emptively halted the performance by applauding, though Yamamoto danced on for a while. This flaw, however, gave their piece a nice ellipsis, alluding to the endlessness of their efforts.

While other performers offered a glimpse into their ongoing practices, Golden Retriever with percussionist Matt Hannafin and a saxophone quartet, and Holland Andrews with the Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble clearly viewed the concert as an opportunity to challenge their normal operations and to present more singular works with collaborative ensembles, expanding their already unique sound.

An Encyclopedia of Experimentalism and Madness: Holland Andrews and the Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble

Seems like Holland Andrews is everywhere lately. And each time I have seen her it has been completely different. From her solo show, as Like a Villain, last month at Mississippi Studios, Andrews came to CMG’s Summit joined by the Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble (Douglas Detrick, Reed Wallsmith, Ian Christensen, Lars Campbell, Jon Shaw, and Ken Ollis). Andrews composed a set of musical notations as well as text and graphic scores that the group collectively interpreted. Their set started with a red herring — a jazz ballad, traditionally played, which Andrews sang like a seasoned crooner. The reed section began inserting noisy textures, more and more violently interrupting Andrew’s singing.

Holland Andews with Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble.

Holland Andews with Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble.

And then we entered the rabbit hole through a dense racket. Andrews steered us through the chaos into an ominously imploring aria, “Why did it have to be me?” before leading the group through some simple conducting, cueing sounds from each musician by succession and in various patterns. Here the simplicity of the tonal palette and its gentle rocking back and forth shared the pulsing mystique of Morton Feldman’s music for film, Something Wild in the City. It was clear when the graphic scores were being used, as they were projected upon the wall. A series of abstract images, made hand-drawn dots and lines, were successively interpreted into sound and the set concluded in a swell of lyrical emotion.

Perhaps overly ambitious in the “encyclopedia” of scored-improv techniques employed, there were nevertheless some stellar moments. Or perhaps this erratic switching of approaches reflected Andrews’ guiding idea, for a piece “inspired by her work in the mental health field,” as CMG quotes her on its website. The music “focuses on trauma—it’s an opportunity to feel the emotions brought on by the hardest times in our lives, and to find healing through music.” Like almost all of her work, this performance was powerful and cathartically driven. The well-rehearsed ensemble fluidly connected to one another in the moment. Andrew’s voice was riveting, bringing some audience members to tears.

Flowing Like a Storm: The Pebble Trio

I’ve known Tim Duroche for years from his constant activity in Portland’s improvised music scene, but this was my first time hearing him in the Pebble Trio. Duroche (drums), Andre St. James (bass), and Thollem McDonas (piano) offered a passionately frenetic performance in the “free jazz” language. All three musicians have played with the best in their field and are highly virtuosic in their own right.

Pebble Trio at Improvisation Summit of Portland

Pebble Trio at Improvisation Summit of Portland

Duroche’s drumming was like rainfall that fell in love with gravity, at times almost violent with intensity. He disappeared into the dance of his instrument. The same could be said of St. James and McDonas. And the three had a wonderful synergy that churned and flowed like a storm or a Jackson Pollock painting. The lyrical melodiousness of St. James’ playing contrasted nicely with the more rabid styles of Duroche and McDonas, whose piano playing was some of the more intense I’ve heard. I couldn’t help but think of the “spider fingers” of New Orleans wild man James Booker, while, in terms of his tonal palette, I also thought of spectralist composers like Claude Vivier. McDonas’ “out” notes always seem to create a sensible halo or ambiance to whatever might be “in” at the moment.

The last third of the set embraced slower, more reflective playing, though still with an edge to it. It felt like a caffeinated Paul Bley, Evan Parker, and Barre Phillips, but nevertheless on par with that power trio.

An Old Dog’s New Tricks: Golden Retriever, Expanded

Jonathan Sielaff (amplified bass clarinet) and Matt Carlson (modular synth) of Golden Retriever are known for their millennial minimalism, inspired by 1960s music pioneers Terry Riley, Alvin Curran, Eliane Radigue, and free jazz. I have known both musicians for years. They are good friends, and I always follow their work with a keen ear. Their last two albums, Seer (2014) and Occupied with the Unspoken (2012) were released on the Thrill Jockey label to some notable acclaim. They perform semi-regularly, while over the last few years their concerts have become more like singular symphonic works as they have been composing and collaborating with ad hoc chamber ensembles, including a show last September with a large chamber ensemble.

Golden Retriever & friends at ISP

Golden Retriever & friends at ISP

During Thursday’s set, Sielaff had his back to the audience, which only made the fusion of his amplified clarinet and Carlson’s synth all the more opaque. For this performance Carlson and Sielaff had scored parts for Hannafin and a sax quartet (Reed Wallsmith and Joe Cunningham of Blue Cranes, John Savage, and Andy Rayborn). Using different aspects of the unique sonic texture of the sax quartet, their arrangements included lush and confident chords, dense clusters sounding like bees, squeals, whispers, and seering melodic lines. The most memorable point occurred when, after prolonged atonal chordal textures, Hannafin hit a two-beat cue and suddenly the entire ensemble fell into a beautifully loud minor chord. Sielaff’s clarinet then offered a bass line progression through which the sax quartet snaked around like fast-forwarded kudzu over an old barn.

At one point towards the end of the set, a ricochet of melodies, or the acoustic phenomenon of combination tones, produced the auditory illusion of a human voice singing—I confirmed that others heard this after the show—just a little magical moment. As with Andrews’ performance, the composition  was a little over-ambitious, cramming a lot compositional and performative strategies into a single work, but the best moments were easily highlighted in this performance. The group found nothing but praise, from performers and audience alike, when they came off the stage. I had to leave before witnessing the final act of Ava Mendoza with Mike Gamble & Andrew Jones. And while I may have missed out, I couldn’t help but thinking that Golden Retriever was the perfect end to Thursday’s concert.

If you didn’t make it to this year’s ISP Festival, check out CMG’s schedule for the remainder of the year and plan ahead for the next Summit. CMG’s Outset Series features local improvisers and experimental musicians performing live in non-commercial venues, currently hosted by the venue Turn! Turn! Turn! in NE Portland. The Confluence Series is CMG’s monthly curation (September—June) of international visiting artists.

Upcoming CMG shows (all in North Portland):

CONFLUENCE
June 21, 8pm • The Thing & the Crenshaw • @Disjecta ($12)

OUTSET
July 6, 8pm • Dan Phelps & Cerberus • @Turn! Turn! Turn! ($5-15 sliding scale)
July 20, 8pm • Tony Barba • @Turn! Turn! Turn! ($5-15 sliding scale)

Matt Marble (1979, MS, Scorpio) lives in Portland, Oregon. He works with text, image, sound, and spirit. Matt received his B.A. in Speech & Hearing Sciences from Portland State University, and he recently received his Ph.D. in music composition from Princeton University. Matt’s writings have been published by Abraxas Journal, The Open Space, Leonardo Music Journal, Ear|Wave|Event, and FOARM Magazine.

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