Oregon is all about stories. Maybe the rain helps, but for whatever reason, we’re known as one of the most literary states in the union. Check Portland’s downtown Powell’s bookstore even on a Friday or Saturday night and you’ll find it teeming with people seeking stories.
Of course stories appear in other art forms besides books — films, operas, songs. Not so much in instrumental music, however. Yet lately, we’ve seen a slew of contemporary music performances that explicitly connect new music to storytelling in various ways, including just in recent weeks:
- Seattle composer/pianist Wayne Horvitz’s Richard Hugo project, Some Places Are Forever Afternoon
- Third Angle New Music’s Hearing Voices and Radio Happenings concerts
- Eugene Vocal Arts’s upcoming Shadow and Voices premiere
- Portland pianist/composer David Haney’s ongoing Jazz Stories project, which combines improvised music and storytelling
- Delgani Quartet’s Man of Words performance that paired new music by Eugene composer Paul Safar with a theater artist reading selections from classic stories
- The Territory, a multi movement composition that mingled stories of Oregon history with Portland composer/pianist Darrell Grant’s dazzling score.
- Opera Theater Oregon’s new Opera Lab to incubate projects that use music to tell stories.
I’m sure I’m leaving out plenty of others, but it’s clear that there’s a trend toward connecting storytelling to new classical and jazz music in Oregon these days. Why?
Both jazz and contemporary classical music have gone from being relatively mainstream art forms to niche interests over the past half century or so, and one reason is their emphasis on art for art’s sake, too often privileging artistic process and innovation over audience connection. It’s not necessarily an either/or proposition — much of the greatest music both innovates and connects — but maybe this craving for story represents a desire to re-connect new music to lived human experience rather than indulge in abstract soundscapes, abstruse musical processes, and concept-dominated art.
Yet when performers add words to music in unfamiliar ways (not opera, not songs), they enter a different realm than the usual music concert. Even the most compelling words and music don’t necessarily compel interest without some sense of how they work together dramatically on stage. Three recent Oregon performances showed the risks and rewards of mixing stories with sounds.
Attachments & Detachments: Music as autobiography
“My latest detachment,” announced Portland pianist Dianne Davies, clutching a blue mask, at the outset of Attachments & Detachments. “My oldest leaving the nest.” If the pre-show no-clapping request hadn’t already explicitly informed the audience that we were in for an afternoon of theater as well as music, her entrance made it obvious.
Davies’s Feb. 28 show at Portland State University’s Lincoln Recital Hall crossed over into theatrical territory, combining contemporary Oregon music (written by members of co-sponsor Cascadia Composers) with onstage sketches somewhat reminiscent of The Mousai’s show last year, but more elaborately.
Like that performance, Davies/Cascadia’s show gained enormous appeal from the degree of thought applied to integrating music and theater — and into the added rehearsal and audience consideration so necessary to make theater work, yet so lacking in most classical music performances. Rather than just slapping a projection behind, or a dance in front of, an inadequately rehearsed run-through, Davies had clearly thought hard about how the non musical elements would combine synergistically with music to make a performance more compelling than the sum of its many parts.
Those parts included her family. In that opening piece, Davies’ oldest child, Kaleb, sat down on the piano bench next to his mom, touching her affectionately as she played Sunnyview and Lancaster by Salem composer Tristan Bliss. Then as the music grew darker and more intense — adolescence? — the 19-year-old rose, shaking his head, and stalked off, returning briefly toward the end, waving goodbye as she reached for him. Along with that mask, created by Washington artist Vicki Stickney, the performance included projected live art by Margaret Parsons, drawing a scene in blacks and blues.
Parsons continued drawing through Davies’s performance of Portland composer Art Resnick’s stony Phases 3 & 4, preceded by Davies’s brief remembrance of another detachment, her father’s death. While the live drawing didn’t really add much to the experience, dance entered the picture and the stage in the third segment, ArtsWatch contributor Jeff Winslow’s near-epic Ghosts and Machines, inspired by his older brother’s death. Davies connected the music to her older sister’s death when Dianne was 11, and dancers Jonalyn Salzano (who also contributed striking choreography) and Samantha Barth enacted poignant scenes involving a memorial service, scrapbook memories, and more. The closing scene suggested (to me at least) that Davies was moving on after the devastating tragedy, still accompanied in her heart by her sister’s spirit. It perfectly matched the music.
Anything that followed would have been anticlimactic, so Davies wisely chose something completely different, “Laughter,” the first movement of Beaverton composer Jan Mittelstaedt’s Masks, which also brought back Stickney, Parsons and Salzano. Davies introduced the third movement, “Anger,” by snarling, “Why me? Everything was going my way! Why me?!” It was really all we needed to know, and Salzano’s bravura dance matched Davies’s committed playing.
Although she was also involved in much of the non musical action, Davies’ skill and expressivity never flagged during the final two pieces by a pair of young Oregon composers, Nicholas Yandell’s Burnside Sketches (which included Kaleb on drums and her other son Josh on bass) and Michael Rudolph’s jazzy Lisette’s Blues, but they felt like afterthoughts, somehow less personal, awkwardly tied to the theme via narration rather than action or emotion. Despite superb playing and generally attractive music, much of the show’s second half felt anticlimactic after the emotional fireworks of the first. While its musical arc made sense, its dramatic progression wasn’t so clear.
While parts of Attachments and Detachments might have fallen victim to its admirably lofty ambitions — staging a sort of autobiographical “concept album” comprising contemporary Oregon music, art, dance and theater — it’s hard to feel disappointed that the show wound up being “only” one of the most musically satisfying performances I’ve seen all year, augmented by non musical elements that miraculously didn’t distract from the often powerful music. But Davies set a high standard: I expected the whole show to pack the kind of cohesive, musical/theatrical punch of the first half.
For all its flaws, I’d see a dozen more qualified successes like this one than another predictable performance of an often-retreaded classic. Davies’s secure, often inspired playing, and the tingling “what’s going to happen next” vibe made this a show I’ll remember long after another run of the mill chamber music performance. It sets an admirably lofty new standard for Davies and others who want to combine new music with theatrical storytelling.
Boldly Launched: Weaving stories and music
Portland composer/trumpeter Douglas Detrick and Chicago violinist/singer/composer Ellen McSweeney’s new Boldly Launched Upon the Deep crosses contemporary chamber jazz with words — specifically, Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick and prose “riffs” written in response to Melville’s novel — one of several white whale tales surfacing in Portland this season. This one, part of Portland First Presbyterian Church’s Celebration Works program even started off a little like one of the others, Bag & Baggage Productions’ Moby Dick, Rehearsed, with what sounded like a recorded excerpt of a rehearsal take, which gradually morphed into a gently loping groove piece led by Detrick and McSweeney’s trumpet and fiddle.
Instead of a “rehearsal,” though, this production was framed by a talk show format in which the co-creators did their best to Cliff-Notes the novel’s plot (for the many audience members who probably never got past the whaling-tech chapters) and how the text excerpts related to it. Contextualizing the very personal responses (written by poet and former University of Oregon prof Terry Hummer, Portland musician and Classical Revolution PDX chair Nora Ryan, award winning New York poet Anthony Carelli, and the two co-creators) makes sense. But presenting this kind of program note material as live exposition rarely works theatrically, and here, their somewhat contrived dialogue failed to find a convincing balance between informal conversation and explanation. The price paid in pacing wasn’t worth the added understanding. (Even the master of this sort of thing, Portland performer Leo Daedalus, can only get away with it, when he does, because of his rare combo of humor and charisma.) One alternative I saw last year: tell the audience to read the explanations in their program at the outset, then dim the lights so they can focus fully on the performance.
Several of the varied and concise texts and well-played, supportive music (ably provided by Detrick’s AnyWhen Ensemble) stood pretty well on their own, anyway. Unlike Davies’s show, which mostly re-purposed existing music, Detrick and McSweeney composed new music for this show. Hummer has long been interested in the intersection of words and music; in a class I took with him at the University of Oregon, he played a recording of Steve Reich’s masterpiece, Different Trains, as an illustration of some of the possibilities. Here, the interweaving of his “Rat of God” (about his daughter), Melville’s text that inspired it, and Detrick’s evocative music added up to a moving composite.
So did the combination of Ryan’s recorded narration, alternating with McSweneey’s sung verses, of how agonizing endometriosis ended her intended singing career, cost her the chance for motherhood, and began another course — quite a different response to disability than the course the obsessively vengeful Ahab chose. Detrick’s rich, surprisingly upbeat music (highlighted by New York saxophonist and Detrick’s fellow UO alum Hashem Assadullahi’s soprano sax) reflected Ryan’s determined attitude toward her medical challenges, not just the pain she experienced.
McSweeney’s “Starbuck’s Wife” had its moments, but her text sometimes sounded stilted, and her music didn’t reach the depths of Detrick’s. Accompanied by bassoon (University of Oregon prof Steve Vacchi), cello (John Hubbard), and plucked violin, Detrick read his own “The Chart,” a charming magical realist story about birdsong understood by lonely people, very loosely connected to Ahab’s scenes in his cabin, poring over navigational charts. McSweeney also composed and sang the music for Carelli’s “The Crucifixion,” which took off from the famous story of Oregon’s exploding beached whale and her own nicely detailed “In a Past Life,” the convincing closing selection that (very tangentially) played off the diverging courses of two ships in the book, the Pequod and the Rachel, to chronicle how a silent retreat helped her let go of her sinking marriage.
The show ratified Detrick’s notion of combining poetic or prose responses to literature with music; I could even imagine it as a continuing series with new segments worked in over time. Shorn of the talk-show frame and a couple of the weaker numbers, Boldly Launched would make an effective hour-long, no intermission show — particularly if performed in a cozier venue (like Portland’s The Waypost, for example) that didn’t swallow its intimate subject matter and subtly shaded music like the ocean did the Pequod.
Oregon Stories: Mixing music and history
Three years ago, Detrick moved back to his old hometown of Portland after years away in school and then in New York’s jazz scene. With his family deciding to make their home in Portland, he headed for downtown Portland’s Powell’s Books to dive deep into his old/new home’s history — and was surprised and appalled to discover critical facts that he hadn’t learned in school, like Oregon’s early constitutional prohibition on African Americans moving here and other racist, even apartheid city and state policies whose legacy still affects the state today. “I wanted to make sure those under-heard stories were heard,” he explained to a concert audience from the stage of Astoria’s Liberty Theater last Saturday.
His megaphone: one of Oregon’s most fascinating new music projects, Oregon Stories, a series of audio documentaries about historically important Oregonians that mixes narration (recorded by KMHD jazz radio’s Jessica Hansberry) with original Oregon music performed by the ever-intriguing, dozen-member Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble, which Detrick directs. This month’s debut performances happen in the home cities of the three Oregonians featured: Hood River (April 1), Astoria (April 2), and, coming this Saturday, Portland’s Old Church. They’ll be recorded for radio broadcast and eventual release.
The Astoria performance almost stumbled out of the gate with the discovery (at sound check) that the Liberty’s acoustic might occasionally prevent listeners from hearing the recorded voices over the underscoring. (Ambitious musicians who want to try this please note: music with recorded audio poses challenges that change at each venue, one reason Kronos Quartet and other performers that do it tour with their own sound engineers.) Fortunately, composer Mark Orton, on hand to run sound on his own piece, is a former sound engineer at New York’s legendary Knitting Factory, runs his own recording studio outside Portland, and has worked with luminaries like Bill Frisell. His solution: run the recorded audio only at the outset, followed by the performance of music integrated with the audio. As it turned out, they solved the problem — but the solution still, providentially, proved instructive: it really helped to hear the unmediated voices first, the better to appreciate the following music without simultaneously trying to follow the story. Multimedia = multitasking.
That’s the potential risk and reward of trying something different. But experimental performers can always learn even from negative results. In this case, two of the three Oregon stories suffered from violating classical drama’s rule of unities, by attempting an overview of the life stories of two important Oregonians: Hood River World War II veteran George Akiyama and Portland physician DeNorval Unthank. Of course, plenty of successful dramas have ignored Aristotle’s injunction, too, and these Oregon stories surely demand re-telling, but simply recounted second hand (by historian Linda Tamura and Dr. Unthank’s daughter Lesley, respectively), they lacked the narrative drive of the middle segment — the only one voiced by the protagonist, an unusually gifted narrator herself — that focused on a single dramatic incident.
In that most successful of the three stories, Detrick’s evocative music for pioneering Columbia River bar pilot Capt. Deborah Dempsey’s near-fatal plunge into icy waters started as placid as the weather on that ultimately harrowing evening, growing dissonant at a crucial “moment of indecision,” and continuing to reflect the events that followed, including Mike Gamble’s shivering guitar solo at a hypothermic moment. (Spoiler alert: Capt. Dempsey, who retired just days ago, attended the show, so you know the outcome.) Dempsey’s gritty, matter-of-fact narration was as strong as her native sense of storytelling, and naturally glowed with an authenticity that no second-hand recounting could match.
Portland film composer and Tin Hat guitarist Mark Orton knows how to craft music that supports a story, having composed dozens of scores for film, experimental radio, theater, dance and more. He began the music for George Akiyama’s story of resisting racism after World War II with a flute imitating that quintessential Japanese instrument, the shakuhachi, and the colorful score ably complemented the parade of emotions — regret, danger, outrage, courage, triumph — that followed. But it couldn’t compensate for the relatively flat expository text that trudged through Akiyama’s career, which might have worked better had it been built around a single incident (like Dempsey’s story) involving a razor-wielding racist barber that was the dramatic high point of the story.
By far the most eventful score, Portland pianist/composer Darrell Grant’s colorful music for Dr. Unthank’s story, jolted the closing segment with the electricity the dutiful resumé recounting lacked. Although Dr. Unthank dealt courageously and gracefully with vile incidents of discrimination in segregated midcentury Portland, this version of his story presented him as a quiet community leader who earned widespread respect from a lifetime of diligent civil rights work — not, as told here, inherently dramatic material.
Grant compensated by turning the orchestra loose between the narrative segments, from a wry near quote of “My Country ’Tis of Thee” through Jumptown swing (though viewed through a modern lens) that drew more on midcentury Portland’s jazz scene than on Dr. Unthank’s life story, through a dissonant crashing passage after a racist mob threw rocks through the Unthanks’ windows. The band, tentative earlier, played this more conventionally jazzy material like it was relieved to at last be unleashed. Because of the acoustical issues, they had been instructed to play as softly as possible under the narratives, but Grant’s sunny, dynamic non-soundtrack relied less on underscored scene painting than the others, more on dramatic musical interludes; it was really the only music that could stand on its own (not that the others were intended to) and was alone worth the price of admission.
While this maiden voyage of Oregon Stories encountered some rough waters, it also offers lessons; like parts of the other two shows here, the first and third stories really could profit from a complete reworking by someone who really understands drama. Not all stories have to be literal or linear, but just juxtaposing impressive words (or dance, or film, or whatever multimedia element) alongside or on top of music, however compelling, isn’t always enough to sustain dramatic interest out there in the seats. In other words, if you’re going to tell stories, tell stories.
Another lesson from theater: you rarely get it right the first time. Most successful productions, even some of the most famous, require a long evolutionary process of repeated workshopping — the now common cycle of table reading, staged reading, semi-staged workshop, out-of-town tryouts, full premiere performance — seen in fostered development programs like Portland Center Stage’s Just Add Water and Portland Area Theater Alliance’s Fertile Ground. Only in that audience-testing process can creators figure out which pieces really work; every line has to be there for a reason. I hope all these projects will continue development. (Perhaps Opera Theater Oregon’s newly announced Opera Lab, which aims to “benefit artists developing creative new work that uses music to tell a story,” could help?) And other kinds of combinations are already on the horizon, like Portland Center Stage’s upcoming The Pianist of Willesden Lane, which combines live classical music and a true story of the Holocaust.
It’s no surprise that these ambitious shows still could benefit from some reworking. Anytime an artist boldly launches into uncharted territory, some necessary meanderings ensue before the best course appears. Even when a particular iteration feels incomplete, it’s easy to forgive when the content is as strong and well prepared as the best moments in these three, which despite their occasional lapses were still more compelling than the usual run-of-the-mill recitals, however well performed. I can’t wait to see the next chapter of this Oregon story: where these and other bold artistic innovators take us next in their journeys between music and stories.