Meaning and quality on a shoestring

Opera Theater Oregon's tribute to Guthrie and Hill features expressive performances and timely message

By ANGELA ALLEN

We all know a bit about Woody Guthrie, the 20th-century American social-justice troubadour. Apostles and adopters like Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen and Johnny Cash embraced and copied his music ad infinitum. During these 21st-century trying times, when social justice is taking a far back seat to greed and power-grabbing, why not celebrate Guthrie again?

Opera Theater Oregon’s This Land Sings: Songs of Wandering, Love and Protest took up the cause with an engaging production built on Michael Daugherty’s radio-show-style chamber opera Aug. 24 at Alberta Rose Theater. The house wasn’t sold out, but close enough. Scenery was spare, other than big-screen slides of the Dust Bowl and other Depression horrors, and costumes were non-existent—though conductor/OTO co-creative director/composer Justin Ralls wore suspenders. The outfits leaned toward muted country-folksy with a touch of  frontier vibe rather than showy or elaborate.

Opera Theater Oregon's 'This Land Sings.' Left to right: Daniel Mobbs, Lisa Neher, suspendered Justin Ralls, announcer Thom Hartmann. Photo by Michael Daugherty.
Opera Theater Oregon’s ‘This Land Sings.’ Left to right: singers Daniel Mobbs and Lisa Neher, suspendered conductor Justin Ralls, announcer Thom Hartmann. Photo by Michael Daugherty.

But the music? The singing? The conducting? The ensemble-playing? They were terrific and made up for any deficits in visual design. With this piece, OTO continues to fulfill its mission of presenting contemporary English-language works that shine a bright and piercing light on social, political and environmental issues. If you saw OTO’s 2017 Two Yosemites, composed by Ralls, then you know the group set a high bar for its mission and continues to pursue it with utter sincerity. (Read Arts Watch’s interview with Ralls here).

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MusicWatch Weekly: This music kills fascists and opera

Folksy chamber operas, locavore choral music, doom and psych and loops, pairs of pairs of pairs

Well folks, basically everything is happening this weekend. You want modern chamber operas based on Woody Guthrie and Joe Hill? Justin Ralls and Opera Theater Oregon have got your back. You want doom metal and/or psychedelic stoner rock? Hippie Death Cult and Queen Chief will melt your mind. Or maybe live Spaghetti Western music is your cup o’ joe: check out local supergroup Federale. Electronics abound at 2019 NW Loopfest, but if you want to go the other direction, check out Portland’s newest local-composer-friendly singing group, Foris Choir. You could even pack a sandwich and a thermos of green tea and get your voice down to Bach Cantata Choir’s madrigal sing-along.

I know you’re all chomping at the bit for your next music theory lesson, but all this lovely stuff is happening tonight and this weekend–so let’s dive right into what I’m missing right now.

Opera must die

Olivia Giovetti recently made a compelling case for why opera must die, and although I agree with her conclusion I must quibble with her timeline–opera is already long dead. Moreover, while its sloppily shellacked corpse has been slowly decomposing for the last few decades, wonderful new forms of opera have been springing up everywhere. Have a listen to some of my recent favorites: Laura Kaminsky’s As One, Missy Mazzoli’s Breaking the Waves, David Lang’s Little Match Girl Passion, Kevin Puts’s Silent Night (could throw Du Yun’s Pulitzer-winning Angel’s Bone, but honestly I’m not crazy about that one; can’t win em all, which is sort of the point). Patient Zero in this rebirth of the opera is probably Philip Glass, whose brilliant 1979 opera Satyagraha is quite possibly his greatest work and almost surely the likeliest to live beyond him.

These modern operas all still have compelling narratives and the harmonic sensibilities to support them; beautiful, singable, memorable melodies; well-drawn characters; and a sense of the mythopoeic that connects the mundane lives of individual characters to the grand archetypes which illuminate the human psyche.

In other words, opera is alive and well. The trouble is that opera companies (as Giovetti points out) program way too much of the safe conservative stuff and way too little of the new stuff. I’m not saying stop doing Mozart and Puccini–Mozart and Puccini are awesome. But what if we just flip the ratio of new to old? Instead of a season of Vivaldi and Leoncavallo with one or two token new operas, what if it was a whole season of new stuff with a token Wagner or Rossini? Portland Opera is gradually catching up–they’ve recently performed Lang, Kaminsky, and Glass, and their upcoming season features Jake Heggie’s Three Decembers and An American Quartet of short operas by Menotti, Barber, Douglas Moore, and Lee Hoiby.

But, for now at least, nobody in town is doing as much to promote new opera as Opera Theater Oregon under the co-directorship of composer Justin Ralls and singer Nicholas Meyer. A couple summers back, it was Ralls’s lovely, mythic Two Yosemites; last year it was Rachel Portman’s The Little Prince. When I interviewed Ralls for Arts Watch last summer, he said two things that rang a big pair of Balinese gongs in my brain:

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Exquisite Gorge 10: The Truth-Teller

As Saturday's finale of Maryhill Museum's Columbia Gorge print project approaches, artist and veteran Drew Cameron talks about art and war.


STORY AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY FRIDERIKE HEUER


“Truth-telling is often very unpleasant when it contradicts the opinion of the majority. Telling the truth can easily lead to a minority position and exposes the truth-teller to the pressure of the majority. To resist this pressure demands courage. Therefore, courage is not only the virtue of political action par excellence, but also quite evidently the virtue of truth-telling. To tell an inconvenient truth is not only a statement, but also an action.”

From: When Telling the Truth Demands Courage Volume 1 of HA: The Journal of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities at Bard College. (2018)

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Courage was visible all around me during my recent visit to the Columbia Gorge Veterans Museum in The Dalles, right next to American Legion Post 19. It was documented in displays about those who have served our country, both on active duty and back home supporting the soldiers during the many wars in recent history, displays that recalled stories of loyalty and sacrifice.

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PHAME and friends rock out

PHAME Academy and Portland Opera collaborate on original rock opera

Photos by Friderike Heuer

Two summers ago, Portland Opera Manager of Education and Outreach Alexis Hamilton attended an original musical performed by artists from Portland’s PHAME Academy, which serves adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities. She hoped the 35-year-old organization might help her make the Portland Opera To Go program more accessible to people with disabilities. But she was so impressed by PHAME’s 2017 production that she imagined a bigger project.

“After I saw that,” Hamilton recalled, “I was really on fire” to collaborate with PHAME.

PHAME dancers in rehearsal.
PHAME “movers” in rehearsal.

That production coincided with the arrival of PHAME’s new executive director, Jenny Stadler, who was looking for ways “to overcome the invisibility” that separated many people with disabilities from the rest of society. One method: give PHAME students opportunities to tell their own stories to the larger public. After Hamilton approached her about collaborating, Stadler woke up with a “middle-of-the-night epiphany: we help them become inclusive, and they teach our students how to create an opera.” 

This weekend and next, 18 months of groundbreaking work by PHAME and Portland Opera staff — and above all the students themselves — culminate in what Stadler calls ‘the biggest project we’ve ever done.” PHAME’s original new rock opera, The Poet’s Shadow, runs for seven performances this weekend and next at Portland Opera’s Hampton Opera Center. 

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Art as ‘telling your own story’

Artist Samyak Yamauchi, whose work is displayed in Manzanita's Hoffman Gallery, says painting can be as simple as playing with paint on a surface

I’ve been saying for years that I’m going to take a painting class, but no sooner do I check out my options than I am reminded of the litany of doubts. And, of course, I never do enroll in a class.

So when I read the description of Samyak Yamauchi’s upcoming class at the Hoffman Center for the Arts in Manzanita, it was like someone calling my name. She got it. Lack of experience, of formal education, of thinking there was a right way – none of it mattered.

Yamauchi’s workshop is full, but her paintings are on display in the Hoffman Gallery through Sept. 1. The Portland artist has a second home on the Nehalem River, so don’t be surprised if she offers the workshop on the Coast again.

I talked with Yamauchi about her process and those things that hold us back. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Neahkahnie Mountain is the backdrop for “Meet Me at the Beach in Manzanita,” by Samyak Yamauchi (acrylic on wood, 24 by 24 inches), on display at the Hoffman Gallery in Manzanita.
“Meet Me at the Beach in Manzanita,” by Samyak Yamauchi (acrylic on wood, 24 x 24 inches), is part of a show in Manzanita’s Hoffman Gallery. Yamauchi’s advice to aspiring painters: Just do it.

What is your medium?

Yamauchi:  Acrylic and mixed-media painting. I started painting in 2013. I’d been a glass-mosaic artist; I’d always wanted to paint, but I was always afraid, because I wouldn’t know how to do it. So I went to a Portland Open Studios tour and saw what Jesse Reno was doing, and I was like, oh my gosh, this all you need to do. I realized that painting could be about telling your own story.

What exactly was he doing?

He was painting these really big, kind of narrative, sort of symbolic, dream-like paintings. He showed how he keeps transforming his painting. He changes them. What I saw was, there was just this real intuitive way of painting that didn’t depend on having a formal background in technique. A light went on. I was like, I could do this.

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Technology is the bridge

CMNW 2019 performer-composer Boja Kragulj talks technology, creativity, education, and making connections.

By CHARLES ROSE

As a freshly graduated composer, I don’t feel a particular attachment to the classical music canon. Of course there are composers and works I have a strong attachment to—Ravel’s La Valse, Beethoven’s late string quartets, Mahler’s Symphony No. 9, Ligeti’s Atmospheres, anything Webern wrote—but I don’t feel the need to listen to something just because our culture deems it important. And it sounds silly to say that I “discovered” classical music—but I didn’t grow up listening to it outside Looney Tunes and movie soundtracks. So when I began listening to Bach, Mozart and Beethoven, I was also listening for the first time to Radiohead, Aphex Twin, Miles Davis, Stockhausen, Björk, Flying Lotus, and so on.

I’ve been perpetually disappointed by how little music education engages with music beyond a tiny corpus of “dead white men.” These guys may present us with valuable techniques and perspectives, but teaching them exclusively while ignoring many other important musical traditions and perspectives is naive at best. Much as we value diversity, I question the value of teaching the same things we’ve always taught, only with a more diverse set of mouth pieces.

What’s the point of allowing more people at the table if we won’t let them speak? Reading the unique perspectives of Pauline Oliveros and Kofi Agawu has been incredibly eye-opening, but I had to discover them outside of the classroom. The onus is on us millennial and zoomer composers to expand our musical minds and build a new musical culture.

Composer, clarinetist, and teacher Boja Kragulj.

What I admire about clarinetist-composer-teacher Boja Kragulj’s music is her dedication to expanding the horizons of music, looking for inspiration from Turkish music, music technology, and her students’ tastes. On June 28th, Kragulj opened this year’s Chamber Music Northwest New@Noon series with an untitled work for clarinet and laptop, creating a haunting and beautiful tapestry of loops, echoes and stretched-out tones. The rest of that first noon program celebrated the clarinet by focusing on its agility and the performer’s skill with extreme ranges and extended techniques, while Kragulj’s work brought forth the instrument’s beautiful resonance and subtle dynamics.

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What are you after, after all this time?

A conversation with Caroline Shaw, composer of string quartets performed this summer at CMNW and WVCMF

When I read that Pulitzer-winning composer-violinist-vocalist Caroline Shaw used to accompany dancers—improvising on the piano, percussion, and violin for dancers, three hours a rehearsal—I immediately thought of Lou Harrison. If you’ve read Senior Editor Brett Campbell’s Harrison biography (written with composer Bill Alves), you know all about one of Lou’s first music jobs, and one of the most formative: in 1937 Mills College hired him to accompany their dance classes. It was one of the major starting points on his path to greatness.

So if Shaw starts making her own instruments, that’ll practically make her the Harrison of the 21st century, because she already has the same knack for treating genre lines as suggestions, synthesizing old and new musical traditions, performing her own music, making friends all over the place, and crafting gorgeous melodies to weave into strange sounds and ear-tingling textures.

Chamber Music Northwest programmed a fair amount of her music this year (though not as much as Mozart or Meyer, unfortunately). We got repeat Northwest performances of her string quartet Entr’acte (last year it was Calidore, this year Rolston—and oenophiles just heard it at Willamette Valley Chamber Music Festival). We also got the co-commissioned Northwest premiere of her new quartet Three Essays. CMNW even gave us two chances to hear Calidore playing the new one: once on a Fourth of July concert at Reed College (alongside equal helpings of great Copland and boring Copland), and the next day on a New@Noon concert (alongside works by Shulamit Ran and Jacob TV).

Entr’acte was a major highlight of CMNW 2017, holding its own alongside music by Joan Tower and Gabriella Smith, and it was lovely to hear it again. The three movements of Three Essays—”Nimrod,” “Echo,” and “Ruby”—take their inspiration from various extramusical sources, but their strength is that they stand on their own eight feet as pure string quartet music. My ear was delighted right from the opening of the first movement, named for the Tower of Babel’s legendary overseer. Noisy, gritty, overpressured bowing effects color subtle harmonies which shift around and resolve in unexpected ways, like Radiohead playing around with Haydn.

It was twenty minutes of pure bliss, dear reader, some of the sweetest, most satisfying string writing I’ve ever heard from a modern composer. It’s not quite Béla Bartók (whose six quartets are solidly in the same “will never, ever be topped” category as The Empire Strikes Back), but it’s certainly on par with the finest of what we might as well call Accessible Modern Classical Music.

Now, I’m not talking about bullshit Lite Classical. I’m talking about the good stuff, the stuff that’s intellectually and emotionally satisfying, novel and traditional, and challenging enough to hold your interest while still being conventionally tonal enough that when you’re done listening to it you feel satisfied instead of drained. In other words, Three Essays—like most of Shaw’s music—is much closer to Tower and Riley than Carter and Crumb.

And that’s a very good thing, because now that it’s been a full four decades since Minimalism Rescued Tonality From Serialism, we need more composers like Shaw (and Andy Akiho, and Nokuthula Ngwenyama, and Jessie Montgomery, and so on) who can embrace the strangeness unleashed by a century of experimentation while still working in the “classical” tradition and writing engaging harmonies and melodies that audiences can put in their pockets and take home with them.

Take a minute or twenty-four to listen through Shaw’s prizewinner, Partita for 8 Voices. The vocal effects are all over the place—sometimes reaching nearly Meredith Monk levels of weird—but the actual pitch content is considerably more pop-oriented than you initially realize. Same goes for Orange, an album of Shaw’s music released this April by the Attacca Quartet. The only force powerful enough to get Orange off my headphones and out of my head this spring was Danny Elfman’s Violin Concerto, released around the same time. And, weighing Shaw by pop-rock standards, she’s essentially just released her first album (we’ll consider Roomful of Teeth’s recording of Partita an early EP in this extended metaphor).

It would be all too easy to compare Shaw to the majestic Icelandic singer-composer-producer Björk. But honestly I’m not sure a more obscure comparison would be more suitable, so let’s just call Orange Shaw’s Debut—and then proceed to get all excited for her Post, her Homogenic, her Vespertine, her Medúlla. She’s just getting started, in other words, despite already having a pretty extensive career behind her, and we can’t wait to hear what she goes after next.


Arts Watch spoke with Caroline Shaw by phone in July. Her answers have been condensed and edited for flow and clarity.

On accompanying dancers

I improvised most of it, especially if I had a piano, cause I’m a terrible pianist. And I had my shortcuts and things I felt comfortable with—certain notes. And then on the violin or viola I would play in a Bach style, I might hint at some of the Bach Cello Suites and kind of go off on my own. But I’d say 90% of it was improvised, and it was a really great experience for a lot of reasons.

One is the experience of making that much music everyday is really good for my compositional chops, but also a way of figuring out what I like musically. And the feeling of understanding that music is not the most important thing in the room. It is not the focus. It should just be to serve the dancers. If I was doing the best job as an accompanist, no one would notice. They’d only look over if I was doing something really wrong. Or if you do something really incredible, but it’s rare. I tried to just maintain a presence that was supportive and quiet, which is a good lesson for young composers.

You’re always inspired by the best movers in the room; you always catch them, in a musical sense. But sometimes it needed to be ,“just give us 32 bars in this tempo in 3 with this kind of feel,” and those are good challenges too.

On composing and performing

I think there are many different ways to be mostly just a performer or just a composer. For a lot of big performers who haven’t felt empowered to be creative in the room, I think there are a lot more who are feeling able to write and try their hand at a new work, which is really exciting.

It was the generosity of Brad Wells, who started [Roomful of Teeth]. He encouraged the singers: if there was anything you wanted to try writing, anyone can write for the group, not just the two commissioned composers. So I saw this fun opportunity to make something new and to have a little time to try it out. And that’s how it started.

You can’t do that with an orchestra. It’s really hard. I’m also really lucky to have gotten to spend as much time in the group as I have. And it’s weird—I’m finding now I do a lot less trying things in the room. I should finish my pieces earlier, so that we can try things in the room.

Certain ensembles—like string quartet—I know how all the instruments work, and I’ve played all of them, and there is a deep familiarity with strings, so I don’t necessarily need to try things out. Same with the voice. But other things, like winds, or particular singers, it is really important to discuss things rather than just deliver a set score. 

On string technique, harmony and technology, and Calidore celllist Estelle Choi

I think most of it is muscle memory, where I know what it is going to feel like or what it would sound like. But certain logistical things, especially with strings, even violin—which I’ve played my entire life and do better than speaking—I will bring it out just to check a passage, to see if realistically it can be this fast or this awkward. That little grit sound that goes into the chord—that came from a vocal idea. It was trying to translate the sound of a vocal fry going into a chord. The beginning of writing Partita was that sound, and the analog of it felt like that over-pressure into a chord.

To generate harmony, I always do that at some sort of keyboard, or midi keyboard or piano. I have to sit down. My inner ear is ok, but I feel like the music doesn’t flow if I’m trying to imagine the harmonies. Sometimes audience members think they’re asking a question, but they’re actually making a comment. They’re saying, basically, “you have it so easy. Beethoven and Mozart couldn’t hear anything. Mozart didn’t have Sibelius. You used a program. You’re nothing.” I’m like, oh! It’s funny. Schumann totally sat down at the piano. He could not hear it all.

I hope that Estelle one day writes music! I think she has some secret quartet pieces in her that would be really fun. But we played a Mozart quartet pretty early on, and she’s amazing. She’s way better than I ever was. And she’s a really great colleague. She’s open and so confident in her musicianship that I hope to get to keep doing more things with them.

On Marilynne Robinson and music as language

I do find that there is something very related between speaking and writing music, and when I am writing I try to pace it like I would want to pace a conversation with somebody, or hearing a story. Where there are large scale pauses and small-scale pauses.

I just happened to start with Suzuki violin, in which the theory and method is based on “anyone can learn music.” Because anyone can learn to speak. So the ideas are tied together, which is a really nice idea. It acknowledges the genius and brilliance and talent of every single person on this earth. What we do when we are speaking is so much more complex than singing, really. I’m always surprised when people say they don’t sing. Well, you actually just did something amazingly complex by telling me that.

I could definitely qualify [Robinson] as a starting point for [Three Essays]. Ultimately it had to be a piece of music, to work as a piece of music.  But before I wrote anything, I just listened to a lot of recordings of her speaking. I liked her writing because there is a certain pace to her sentences, even in her novels and written work, that you can hear when she is reading her essays. It is a very spiritual, old-fashioned kind of sound.

When I was writing that piece, she had just done an interview with Obama. They took a walk, speaking about morality and American issues, and [Nimrod] also started to become tied to this feeling of breakdown of the country. It was 2016 when I was writing it, so there was some really tough stuff happening, and the movement started out with this gentle, comfortable lilt that hints at the Copland Americana, but pretty soon after twists out of that.

I’m also interested in the structure of essays. You hear a really good writer and they present one idea in the beginning and talk about all the details of it, and by the end you realize it was about something completely different. So there was a sense of reveal. I don’t know if any of that really translated to the piece, but it was a fun way of trying to think about music, and it was a wonderful guide as I was writing the piece. I definitely wouldn’t claim that that piece exactly latched on to those particular elements of the essay, because I just didn’t find that a very satisfying way of making music in the end. It had to write itself, but there was a guide alongside. A conceptual touchstone.

It could be a totally bullshit composition concept. A lot of time when you are talking about new music, it comes very close to bullshit very quickly, so I’m trying to avoid that. I feel very secure in what I just said, but I feel like if I keep talking it would be very terrible!

On boundaries and openness

I definitely wouldn’t say that [boundaries] don’t matter, that the borders aren’t there. I see them all the time and they shape things in ways we don’t quite realize. If I’m writing a piece for orchestra, it’s not all going to sound like the production I do for Kanye. They might be conceptually related in the back of my mind, but I think my career gets put into that narrative pretty quickly because I do a lot of different things.

And I’m very pro breaking down the walls between these things. I’d love to throw out genre, I’d love to throw out gender, I’d love to throw out borders—but I understand how these things have developed. Ultimately, you just want to make the music that is right for you, that works for you, that sounds and feels good to you, and also is ethical and is for people who are making the music.

If someone asks me to do something that I’ve never done or don’t know how to do, I’ll probably say yes, just because I want to learn about it, and that was what it was like working with Kanye and in the hip-hop world. It was something I absolutely don’t know how to do, but I’m going to be myself and be honest in this and see what comes out. So far, that’s still a very interesting way of thinking about music for me. But I would love to see a world where everyone feels empowered to be creative. However we need to get there, I support that.

The poet Anne Carson wrote this thing in a program note I saw recently that I keep thinking about. She talks about genre and says, “genre is basically a matter of occasion, e.g. if you’re invited to a wedding you write a wedding song.” And I like that. It means there is an imprint of the occasion, or the people, or the instruments.

“What are you after, after all this time?”

[Editor: our favorite closing question is “if you were me, what would you ask you?” Shaw delivered this challenge.]

I’d ask myself the same thing I asked myself about six years ago when I wrote a little song. And that was: “what are you after, after all this time?” And I will keep asking myself that as I keep getting older.

It’s a different answer every day. Today, in this moment—I don’t have an answer for that right now. I don’t. Speechless. That’s an important question to be asked. What would you answer? What are you after?

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