Percussion’s vast instrumentarium

Portland Percussion Group expands percussion world with concert of score-call winners

By CHARLES ROSE

The world of contemporary percussion music is strange. While many composers we think of as “classical” wrote great percussion music—Varese, Xenakis, and Stockhausen among them—contemporary concert percussion music has a much broader scope of influences than most other fields. By their nature percussionists are extremely flexible, learning the nuances of playing dozens of different instruments that span the whole world of cultures, eras and aesthetics, united by a shared emphasis on rhythm, performance and dance. If there’s any genre of contemporary classical music that lovingly embraces the music of West Africa, Indonesia, Japan and Turkey as much as Western Europe, it is concert percussion.

The percussion scene of Portland is equally vast and colorful, even if on a smaller scale. High school marching bands, a world-class drum corps, some great shops, PSU’s massive percussion department, the Portland Percussion Group, and dozens of private teachers hanging posters in coffee shops around town all play their part in the fertile culture here. The Portland Percussion Group is among the most prestigious performing groups in town: the quartet of veteran performers Brian Gardiner, Paul Owen, Brett Paschal and Chris Whyte have been together since 2011, playing classics and constantly commissioning new works. Their concert Fixtures on October 21 consisted of Threads by composer and recently-retired Princeton professor Paul Lansky and three premieres from their recent call for scores.

In performance, Gardiner, Owen, Paschal and Whyte operate as a single unit, and perfectly locked together throughout the concert. That is a testament both to their individual skills and their cohesion: even through the heaviest fields of noise they emerged right back in tempo. I tend not to discuss performance in my reviews, mostly because I am a composer and spend most of my listening time analysing the music on the fly. At Fixtures, however, I couldn’t help but be enthralled with their precision and dynamic control.

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ArtsWatch Weekly: dark & stormy nights

Frankenstein, Día de Muertos, tribute bands, dinosaurs, warps & wefts, and a Dope Elf: Welcome to the art week.

TODAY IS BOTH HALLOWEEN AND THE BEGINNING OF DÍA DE MUERTOS, two holidays that have distinct backgrounds and meanings but are often linked in the public mind, because they occur each year at about the same time and because they deal, in their own ways, with the souls of the dead. Día de Muertos, or Day of the Dead, which begins today and continues through Saturday, is a celebration that began in central and southern Mexico and has spread broadly from there. It’s a time for remembering friends and family who have died, and helping them along their spiritual journey.

Carlos Manzano as Bombón in the Día de Muertos-inspired play Amor Añejo, at Milagro Theatre through November 10. Photo © Russell J Young 

Milagro Theatre’s current show, Amor Añejo, gives you a good sense of the spirit of Día de Muertos. Bennett Campbell Ferguson, in his review for ArtsWatch, Into the Beyond, with Pain and Laughter, calls it a “tale of bereavement and rebirth.” “It’s an elegy—and more,” he continues. “The story flows from a single death that leaves everything from pain to joy to absurdity in its wake. Amor Añejo’s fullness of spirit makes it an unmissable play. At once profoundly soulful and gloriously silly, it invites us to touch the life of Hector, a painter who refuses to accept the death of his wife, Rosalita.” Naturally, that’s only the beginning.

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DanceWatch: a big yes to November

As a new season settles in, Oregon's dance calendar overflows with opportunities

“No fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds! – November!” This line begins the chapter on November in my favorite childhood book, A Time to Keep, the Tasha Tudor Book of Holidays, and is also the last line of a poem by poet and humorist Thomas Hood (1799 -1845) called NO!

The story line of  A Time to Keep is prompted by a little girl asking her mother, “What was it like when mommy was me?” Tudor lovingly illustrates each month of the year and that family’s holidays and traditions for each of them.

Tudor (1915-2008) was an American author and illustrator whose stories and beautifully detailed illustrations created whimsical, magical worlds for children of all ages to enter. 

I particularly liked November in A Time to Keep, because it describes a family coming together from all around and celebrating the holiday with food and impromptu performances as entertainment. I like to imagine that this is what we are doing here in Portland in the winter, gathering together in warm, cozy spaces, eating, drinking, and watching dance.

And this November has no shortage of dance: twenty performances, from a few Halloween carryovers to important anniversary celebration performances, circus performances with a social justice bent, Shakespeare, ballet, and much more. Scroll down to see it all! 

Dance Performances in November

Week 1: November 1-3

Members of the cast of Redwood by Playwright Brittany K. Allen that runs November 1-17 at Portland Center Stage at The Armory.
Photo by Russell J. Young/Courtesy of Portland Center Stage.

Redwood (World Premiere)
Playwright Brittany K. Allen 
Directed by Chip Miller
Choreography by Darrell Grand Moultrie
November 1-17
Portland Center Stage at The Armory, 128 N.W. 11th Ave.

A young Black woman’s relationship with her white boyfriend is upended when her uncle’s exploration of their family’s lineage reveals that her ancestors were enslaved by her boyfriend’s ancestors. Guided by a hip-hop dance class chorus, choreographed by Darrell Grand Moultrie (choreographer of Instinctual Confidence and Fluidity Of Steel for Oregon Ballet Theater), this American family learns to live and love in a present that’s overpopulated with ghosts.

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The homesick and the haunted

CoHo Productions' "The Brothers Paranormal" tracks the spirits of the displaced, delivering a masterly blend of social commentary and supernatural horror.

A woman in white appears out of thin air, staring accusingly through her dark bangs. Books break free from a shelf, blasting through the air like missiles. A pillow moves by itself, becoming a silent weapon. Are these occurrences the stuff of delusion? Or is something genuinely spooky afoot?

That’s the mystery of Prince Gomolvilas’ The Brothers Paranormal, which has been brought to creepy and poignant life by director Catherine Ming T’ien Duffly, Coho Productions and MediaRites’ Theatre Diaspora. With captivating characters and fantastically scary supernatural effects, the play grips you like a great horror film, but it succeeds because it cares about both the earthly and the unearthly—the anguish of the living and the dead.

Spooky truth: Thai-American ghostbusters Visarut (Lidet Viravong, foreground) and Max (Samson Syharath) delve into dark realities as The Brothers Paranormal. Photo: Owen Carey.

The titular brothers are Max (Samson Syharath) and Visarut (Lidet Viravong). While Max was born in the United States and Visarut was born in Thailand, they are united in their profession: ghost hunting. Max approaches the job with sneering skepticism, but he sticks with it so he can spend time with his brother and fulfill his credo: “Fake it till you make it.”

The pair’s dubious spirit-detecting abilities are put to the test by Delia (Andrea White) and Felix (Jasper Howard), a couple convinced that their apartment is haunted by a ghost who may be speaking Thai. The brothers sell Delia and Felix a “full-investigation package,” but after they learn that Delia’s family has a history of schizophrenia, Max is convinced that they will find evidence of nothing more than hallucinations.

Yet the apartment is a hotbed of eeriness, a place where sinister white lights abruptly turn on and the fingers of an unseen figure attempt to claw their way through a screen. Some playgoers may try to explain away these images, but The Brothers Paranormal seems to truly believe that ghosts walk among us and that skeptics like Max are fooling themselves (an idea enforced by the revelation that Max’s relationship to the paranormal is more complicated than he claims).

CoHo by candlelight: Delia (Andrea White) and Felix (Jasper Howard) await their fate in The Brothers Paranormal. Photo: Owen Carey.

The Brothers Paranormal is a multifaceted collage of moods and genres. An early scene begins with Felix cheerily telling the story of how Ella Fitzgerald improvised new lyrics for “Mack the Knife” and climaxes with him and Delia fearfully awaiting the ghost’s arrival by candlelight while Max and Visarut catalogue the sounds of the neighborhood (a passing car, a barking dog) in the hope of uncovering traces of a spectral presence. It’s the most frightening moment of the story because it allows you to bask in the glow of anticipation, imagining what horrors may come.

But the play has more to offer than sublime terror. Max, Visarut, Delia and Felix share a sense of profound displacement—the brothers because their family emigrated from Thailand, the couple because Hurricane Katrina forced them to leave New Orleans. Whether or not the ghost is real is beside the point. It symbolizes the isolation each character experiences, the feeling of ghostliness that comes from being away from your homeland.

There’s something deeply moving about seeing this story through the eyes of the two siblings and an African-American wife and husband. The Brothers Paranormal is about being Thai in America (Theatre Diaspora describes itself as Oregon’s only Asian and Pacific Islander theatre company) and the yearnings that transcend cultural boundaries, particularly the hunger to return home (in Max’s case, to a home he has never seen).

The Brothers Paranormal’s greatest strength is the way that it clearly and compassionately lays bare the needs and desires of its characters, which are communicated by everything from Felix’s desperate paean to the apartment (“This is it. This is all we got. This is everything”) to the moment near the end of the play when Max tearfully collapses, overwhelmed by all that he has experienced and lost. As The Brothers Paranormal reminds us, his pain is the pain of many.


‘Dinosaurs are the gateway drug to science’

Fossil fanatics Ray Troll and Kirk Johnson will visit Salishan Resort to talk about their latest book, "Cruisin' the Fossil Coastline"

Like many, I always associated Ketchikan-based artist Ray Troll with the crazy T-shirts sporting colorful fish or other wildlife and lines like “Ain’t No Nookie Like Chinookie” or “There’s No Ho Like Coho.” Troll’s art — irreverent, funny, sometimes dark — is an icon of Alaska, and likewise big, bold, and unique.

What I didn’t know was that as much as Troll is known for his wildlife and Alaskan-lifestyle art, he’s also equally well known — at least by some — for his love of fossils.

“It’s a lifelong thing,” Troll told me when we talked by phone this week. “I’ve been drawing dinosaurs since I was 4 years old. People know me for my fishing T-shirts, but my love of prehistoric things has been lifelong. Dinosaurs are the gateway drug to science. I was an early paleo enthusiast. I was using crayons; I still use crayons, but they are professional.”

Paleontologist Kirk R. Johnson (left) and artist Ray Troll have collaborated on a second fossil-filled book, "Cruisin' the Fossil Coastline."  Art by: Ray Troll
Paleontologist Kirk Johnson (left) and artist Ray Troll have collaborated on a second fossil-filled book, “Cruisin’ the Fossil Coastline.” Illustrations by: Ray Troll

Troll and fellow fossil expert Kirk Johnson are bringing their latest book, Cruisin’ the Fossil Coastline, to the Oregon Coast. The pair will give a free talk and sign books Nov. 13 at Salishan Resort in Gleneden Beach. The talk is presented by the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology, where Troll and Johnson, a paleontologist and director of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, collaborated on the book, a sequel to Cruisin’ the Fossil Freeway. The project took them nearly 10 years to complete, earning them a Guggenheim Fellowship and taking them from San Diego to the northern reaches of Alaska.

“He’s the word guy,” Troll said of Johnson. “I’m the picture guy.”

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MusicWatch Halloween III: The Unveiling

The dead rise in Portland with a feast of tribute bands and other spooks

The world is already a haunted house. Killer clowns, mercenary robots, dystopian surveillance states, wildfires galore–what do you need a haunted house for? Instead, go lurk in the shadows with some dark music and costumed fun. There are dozens of tribute shows and other appropriately spooky concerts happening tonight (All Hallow’s Eve Eve), tomorrow (All Hallow’s Eve), Friday (Samhain), and through the weekend.

Hiding under the covers

Bands these days tend to turn their snotty punk rock noses up at the reviled “cover”–who wants to play someone else’s dead old music, when you could be creating your own new frankenstuff? Normally I heartily approve of this virtuous sentiment, as anyone who’s heard me ask “who the fuck cares about Brahms?” can attest. Local bands are your best source of folk-based contemporary composition, and even the worst among them have a creative joy that even established cover bands like the Oregon Symphony can only rarely match.

But every now and then, these folks like to turn their noses down and play dress up. And by “every now and then,” I mean Halloween season, when the veil between worlds thins to a viscous membrane and musicians reveal their secret hearts–this is the one time of year when it’s not only acceptable but downright Cool to learn Other People’s Music and play it for all your friends. Some bands do this sort of thing full time (Portland’s very busy Talking Heads tribute band Life During Wartime comes to mind), but Halloween season is when basically everybody gets in on the tribute game. Some of these bands are even making the rounds, trick-or-treating around various local venues over the next few days. Here are some of this year’s most exciting costumes.

A Bunk Halloween at Bunk Bar down on Water Avenue features Hell Beside You as Seattle ghouls Alice In Chains, New York Kids as aughts moodsters Interpol, and Victoria as dreamy duo Beach House. Up at North Portland’s stabby Kenton Club, Lobotomen does The Ramones, Danzig Fever does Misfits, Chippunks play “Rodent Punk Classics,” and The Hauer Things plays songs from the Nuggets crypt.

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Warp, weft, in between and beyond

Martha Daghlian reports on the Textile Connections Symposium “Textiles & Culture: Past, Present, and Future”

As Portland Textile Month wrapped up its second year, the Textile Connections Symposium made its debut on October 26th and 27th 2019. The Symposium was a weekend-long gathering held at Pacific Northwest College of Art (PNCA) that consisted of artist lectures and discussions on Saturday and a “makers’ marketplace” on Sunday all of which aimed to spark critical conversation and networking amongst a broad range of artists and craftspeople in the metro area. The Symposium was independently produced by a team of dedicated volunteers with support from Columbia FiberArts Guild, PNCA, Oregon Community Foundation, Portland Textile Month, and Regional Arts and Culture Council. The inaugural theme of “Textiles & Culture: Past, Present, and Future” was an apt focus for an art medium that spans generations and cultures, albeit not always continuously or comfortably. 

I attended the speakers’ day with two companions from the fiber/textile arts community. We  encountered a diverse group with a shared interest in developing community and finding ways for fiber art to assert its relevance into the twenty-first century. Nearly a dozen artists spoke about their work to an enthusiastic audience, reflecting both on the craft legacies they had inherited and on their individual efforts to innovate and bring their practices forward aesthetically and conceptually. This tension between respect for the past and anticipation of the future provoked much open-ended and considerate discussion regarding the complex relationships between art, craft, identity, sustainability, and pedagogy that proved the Symposium’s success in forging connections and inspiring critical engagement within the fiber arts community.

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