Virtual and vital: Strike up the band

Caught short by the pandemic, the Metropolitan Youth Orchestra takes to technology and shows that shutdown doesn't have to mean shut up

On that dark day in March when Oregon began to shut down, Metropolitan Youth Symphony’s leaders knew they had to move fast. “As soon as we knew we were going into lockdown, we tried as quickly as possible to transition to what’s next,” recalls music director Raúl Gómez. The Portland organization had to cancel not only its four upcoming spring concerts, but also its weekly Saturday rehearsals and its classes, affecting more than 500 students in 14 orchestra, band, string and jazz ensembles, including the 90-member Symphony Orchestra, and in beginning strings and theory classes. MYS leaders knew nothing could fully replace the lost programming, but they were determined not to leave a musical void in their teenage students’ lives.

“We had to find a way to keep the students engaged,” Gómez says, “to keep making music in some way.” 

Raúl Gómez conducts MYS way back in the days when they could all play together on stage.

But how? Governor Kate Brown’s emergency announcement prohibited gatherings required to put on a concert or a group rehearsal in the band rooms at its regular Northeast Portland and Hillsboro high schools. Nevertheless, MYS found a way to rethink — if not entirely replace — its major programs, including its crown jewel season closing concert. ArtsWatch readers, and everyone else, can see the result on their own screens this Saturday.

Virtual Hangouts

The closing concert represents only the most publicly visible of MYS’s many offerings. Still, other changes were quickly adoptable. Like other educational institutions, MYS could move its educational efforts online without much change in content, including the weekly Saturday sessions and tuition-free Beginning Strings Program, says MYS executive director Diana Scoggins, albeit with all the drawbacks that come with the inability to offer hands-on instruction. 

And they immediately scrambled to switch their upcoming annual fundraising gala, just two weeks away, to an online platform. The staff worked remotely, with only Scoggins occasionally coming into the office. So far, the organization hasn’t had to lay off anyone.

“Because our year was already in place, we adapted,” Scoggins says. “The challenge was getting the tech arranged and communicating to let people know.” Unlike many other arts organizations that depend on ticket sales for funding, “we’re tuition-based, so we had the freedom to tackle the transition as best we could. We just kept going.”

MYS Executive Director Diana Scoggins

But those stopgaps still left an absence for many MYS musicians, who, Gómez knew, relied on the organization for more than just music lessons and performances. They were already missing much of the interaction and community provided by their regular schools as well as MYS.

“To not be able to make music together has made us very aware of the value of being a community that comes together once a week to do something together,” Gómez explains. “For any musician, the social aspect of it we all miss — to be there with others to do something  you love — is the biggest drawback.”

 How could MYS help keep them engaged in music? To maintain a sense of structure in students’ lives, Gómez didn’t want to let even the first canceled Saturday rehearsal period go unfilled. “Here’s this free time we suddenly have, and how do you take advantage of the time?” Gómez asked himself.


THE ART OF LEARNING: An Occasional Series


He decided to set up a livestreamed program for the students, featuring recordings of all the pieces intended for the now-canceled concert program, as he’d seen a few other organizations do. One problem: “I didn’t know how to do it,” he says. Being a bit of a tech geek himself, Gómez plunged into research, eventually settling on a platform normally used for multiplayer online gaming. They notified the orchestra members, he set up the recordings, and off they went.

“It was super fun,” Gómez remembers of that first, test-run stream. “The kids were asking questions and typing in lots of comments. They were really engaged and interactive, so after we got through that first session, I talked with Diana and [MYS operations director] Chris [Whittemore] and said, why didn’t we try doing a daily live stream, where I talk with some cool people and see what happens?” 

Go for it, they said. “I went to Best Buy and bought a computer powerful enough to edit and stream video, and the very next day, we had a session with Sarah Tiedemann from Third Angle,” Gómez remembers. “By Monday everything was pretty much in place.” 

Since then, MYS Virtual Hangouts has been running from Tuesday-Friday at 4 p.m. on the MYS YouTube Channel, with Gómez hosting from his home studio. Guests in the more than 40 sessions have included Oregon Symphony principal cellist Nancy Ives and fellow cellist and OSO artist-in-residence Johannes Moser, prize-winning composers Caroline Shaw and Gabriela Lena Frank, composer/ teacher/ FearNoMusic artistic director and one-time Portland Youth Philharmonic violist Kenji Bunch, answering student questions, sharing life stories, musical advice and even world premiere collaborations with local musicians. 

 “For us as an educational institution, it’s been such a gold mine,” Gómez says. “It’s been so encouraging for the kids, such a community builder, with a vast array of families involved.” Parents like it, too. “I’ve seen fantastic feedback from parents,” Scoggins reports, citing emails expressing “deep appreciation for  how we’ve been able to continue the educational process, to keep the sense of community going when kids don’t have school.”

Virtual Concert

As valuable as those efforts proved to both students and parents, something was still missing. Scrapping the closing May concert especially hurt, as it represented the culmination of a year’s worth of hard work for nearly 100 students. For the graduating seniors, it annually provided a sense of closure, their final chance to make music with their friends. What could replace it?

On May 19-21, Eugene Springfield Youth Orchestras, facing a similar challenge, streamed a kind of sequential recital, featuring its members playing solo pieces. (See all three streams here.) But Gómez wanted an actual orchestral concert. Not in person, of course. But how to create a virtual performance with 14 ensembles and 90 musicians playing separately?

Now equipped with video and audio editing skills and equipment, Gómez thought he could make it happen. The students would each record their own part for every piece at home, send it to Gómez — and then he’d painstakingly weave each audio track, supplied by as many different digital devices as there were members of the orchestra, into a completed tapestry: a complete orchestral piece. 

Or rather, pieces. Because MYS’s closing concert celebrating the end of spring term featured a work by each of the organization’s 14 ensembles, including jazz, strings, and orchestras. To make the May 30 livestream deadline, every player would need to send her or his recorded part to Gómez by May 15. First, he (remotely) met with each of the conductors to select a piece for their respective ensembles to play in the closing virtual concert. 

But how would they play together without a conductor to keep everyone in tempo? The answer: click tracks, a metronomic beat played in headphones that studio musicians often use when recording. Gómez and the conductors recorded appropriate click tracks for each part on each piece and emailed them to the students. Over the next month, the students practiced their individual parts with those beats clicking in their ears. They’d record themselves playing and send the recordings to their conductors, who coached the students online via Zoom sessions.

“For students to have to challenge themselves to record these tracks was a big learning opportunity,” Gómez said. The students needed two devices each: one to play the click track, another to record them playing their part and send it to the conductors. 

Image from an MYS Virtual Hangout

Surprisingly, access to the needed technology didn’t pose a barrier to even the most impoverished students. “Everybody has a phone and the kids often have better technology than their parents,” Gómez says. They did have to help some people with the upload process, and a helpful MYS parent made an instructional video showing students and parents how to record video of themselves playing their parts.

But technology itself wasn’t the major obstacle. Keeping their playing in sync to the click tracks proved to be “a real challenge for many of our students,” Gómez acknowledges. In effect, they’re like a metronome, and “the metronome doesn’t lie. I tell them, it’s your best friend and your worst enemy. It tells the truth — and sometimes the truth hurts. It was a challenge, especially for the younger kids.” But ultimately it pushed them to firm up their playing, possibly even more than they would have in the past, without so much time to practice alone with their click tracks. “And by the end, on the 15th we had all these videos in,” Gómez says. 

Then Gómez’s real work began: with help from Whittemore, he embarked on a two-week binge of compiling, editing (including employing noise reduction and other techniques), mixing and balancing dozens of tracks recorded from very different audio sources, and amalgamating them into cohesive band, ensemble and orchestral pieces. And then also constructing videos showing the students performing them, using panning, zooms, transitions, multiple square images….  

MYS music director Raúl Gómez. Photo: Richard Kolbell.

“I am currently a full-time audio and video editor and part time interviewer,” he laughs. “I have two large computer monitors in front of me and I’m looking at a whole bunch of video and audio tracks. Just making one of these is a challenge. But fourteen! It’s pretty labor-intensive but I’m really enjoying doing this. It was hard work for all of us, but it’s going to pay off on May 30th; we’re all going to get to enjoy the videos with kids and families and everybody else watching around the world.” 

Live from his home studio, Gómez will host the livestream on MYS’s YouTube and Facebook pages. Each MYS conductor will introduce their group’s virtual performance made from the students’ home recordings, including music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, Miles Davis, Tchaikovsky and much more. 

Silver Linings

MYS has made a virtue of necessity, actively adapting to the pandemic challenge to derive surprising benefits from what could have been a disappointing end to spring term. 

• The Virtual Concert will make the students’ performances much more accessible to distant or homebound family members than they ever could be live. 

• For the students, playing to click tracks has sharpened their musical chops, and learning how to make videos will benefit many in future if they need to record audition videos, for example, for school or job applications.

• Gómez and his fellow MYS conductors have learned valuable video and audio editing and remote teaching techniques.

• The weekly rehearsals and hangouts have also helped students sustain their community of fellow young musicians. 

• The Virtual Hangouts have given students and parents a creative way to fill the enforced home-together time and helped sustain their community of music makers. And they’ve afforded Gómez much more time “to do things during normal rehearsals we don’t have time to do,” he explains. “I always wish I had more time to talk about the music we’re playing and to spend time learning about the composers or world events around a piece of music, but normally with our deadlines and concerts we don’t have that luxury. We have been doing that through blog posts and our newsletter, but using YouTube or Zoom, now we have the time to play students three different recordings of the same section of a piece, and discuss why those choices were made. It’s a chance to address our music making from different perspectives. That whole element was an enriching experience for me and each conductor. I learned a lot from them.”

• The hangouts have also inspired Gómez to think differently about teaching. “Honestly I enjoy it so much,” he says. “On a personal level that has given me a lot of inspiration and motivation to keep finding ways to connect and try and innovate and continue to keep the students engaged.”

Lasting Impact

It’s hard for MYS or any other arts organization to predict how things will change after the crisis finally subsides. They’re planning for different scenarios for the fall, and about to make a decision on whether to go forward with their Portland Summer Ensembles music camp. Some things will definitely change; for example, students who want to participate in MYS will audition by video. (See instructions on the website.) 

But Scoggins hopes to put what they’ve learned this spring to good use going forward. “On the upside, some tremendous energy is gained by moving online so we’ll want to look at how to use online events or sessions or classes to deepen the experience,” she says. “In terms of access, there’s a lot we’re learning having to do this and we’ll definitely look at incorporating that in the future, and to use the online capacity make it even more of a substantial program, to reach more kids, to spend more time on learning.”

Raúl Gómez conducts Metropolitan Youth Symphony. Photo: Richard Kolbell.

Gómez suspects the imaginative attitude the crisis has forced on MYS and other organizations will pay dividends after it abates. “We’re forced to be creative and learn a bunch of new skills. My hope is that going into next season, we can apply some of the lessons we’ve learned over the last couple of months in our regular programming,” he says, “to find ways to enrich our students’ experience next season through these new vehicles.”

 That goes for more than MYS. “Since we were all forced to go into this parallel universe, this has forced all of us in the Portland performing arts community to really be creative and think outside the box in the ways we present our art and the ways we educate our young musicians,” Gómez says. “We all need to stay positive and remain optimistic about the short term and mid term future of what we’re doing. I realize that’s an extremely hard thing to do, especially for artists who’ve lost income and are experiencing very real concerns about their financial stability and livelihood. But it’s important for all of us as a community and as professional artists to think about how can we strengthen our profession and re-evaluate our business models. How can organizations plan for a future where this could happen again? How do we create structures and programs that reach our audiences and generate income for all of us going forward? 

“I don’t have the answers to these questions, but I think as we try to remain positive and optimistic, we also need to take a hard look at the future and shape how we’re going to continue to exist in this twilight zone we’re living in right now. It will have a lasting impact on what we do — and it should.”

***

Metropolitan Youth Symphony’s Virtual Concert Finale streams Saturday at 7 pm on MYS’s YouTube and Facebook pages.

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In Grants Pass, the show goes on

ArtsWatch Weekly: In spite a Covid-19 museum shutdown, a Southern Oregon showcase of student art finds a way to get out into the world

WE TEND TO THINK OF “CULTURE” AS SOMETHING THAT HAPPENS IN BIG SPACES in big metropolitan areas, places like the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Metropolitan Opera, or the Portland Art Museum and the Portland Opera. But every corner of the country, and every region of Oregon, has a culture of its own, and the drive to express it, in spaces that may be much smaller but are equally important in their communities. They might be cultural centers, like the Pendleton Center for the Arts, or small museums, like the Favell Museum in Klamath Falls, or historic small theater spaces, like the Elgin Opera House in the far stretches of Northeastern Oregon. In an age of freely flowing information around the globe, sometimes smaller places bring the outside world in. Sometimes they highlight their own local culture, the things that make their communities specifically what they are.
 

Upstairs, downstairs: The Grants Pass Museum of Art occupies the 4,000-square-foot second floor of a historic downtown building at 229 Southwest “G” Street.

Like most museums and performance spaces across the United States, the Grants Pass Museum of Art in Southern Oregon is shut down for the duration. The museum isn’t very big – it’s on the second floor of a historic building in downtown Grants Pass – but it’s a crucial part of its community, with a permanent collection, a small retail gallery, workshops for kids and adults, music, poetry readings, and an ordinarily full schedule of special exhibitions. Just when it might reopen is up in the air: The museum’s two large open galleries would allow ample space for social distancing, but traffic on the stairway from the building’s first floor would need to be strictly controlled. It’s the sort of logistical issue that most cultural organizations, from the biggest to the smallest, are grappling with as they wait for the go-ahead to reopen.

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Final call for a Newport original

Art by the late Juergen Eckstein is included in an online sale and show at the Newport Visual Arts Center

A three-month online art exhibit at the Newport Visual Arts Center will showcase Oregon artists and raise money for the artists and the center. It also is likely to be one of the last opportunities to buy a piece of art by the late Juergen Eckstein, who died Oct. 31 at age 77, following a stroke.

“Juergen’s art is just stacked downstairs,” said his wife, Dianne Eckstein. “He has so much work. It seems to me it should be in a good place.”

Juergen Eckstein invited all of Newport to join “The Yellow Umbrella Project” in 2004. “First individuals, forming trickles as others join creating streams of yellow umbrellas as they move closer towards the center of Nye Beach where they gather as a sea of yellow,” he wrote on his website. Photo courtesy: Gary Lahman
Juergen Eckstein invited all of Newport to join “The Yellow Umbrella Project” in 2004. “First individuals, forming trickles as others join creating streams of yellow umbrellas as they move closer towards the center of Nye Beach where they gather as a sea of yellow,” he wrote on his website. Photo courtesy: Gary Lahman

Eckstein, who is considering a move, gave two paintings and one sculpture to the city to be displayed in Newport City Hall.

Juergen Eckstein was a German native who traveled the world before settling with Dianne in Newport in 2000. A familiar presence around Newport, he co-founded the For ArtSake artist co-op and created the driftwood sculptures that stand outside the Newport Performing Arts Center and the Visual Arts Center. He was self-taught and worked in almost all mediums, including oil wash, wood, and pottery, his wife said.

“If he found a stone or piece of wood, he’d see something in it and go from there. He’d find something on the beach and make something of it,” she said. “He was always seeing something in an object that I wouldn’t. I think he just had a very wonderful imagination.”

The Oregon Coast Online Art Show, open to artists who have shown previously at the center, who live on the coast, or who are members of the Oregon Coast Council for the Arts (OCCA), received more than 120 submissions. All of the work has been organized and presented remotely. The show goes live Friday, May 29, and continues through Sept. 7.

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Accounts to follow: Natural refreshment

The Instagram accounts of artists Katy Abraham, Stirling Gorsuch and Aimée Brewer offer viewers the chance to engage with Oregon's natural beauty from anywhere

This is the first in a series of stories about outstanding Oregon-based artists to follow on Instagram. The series focuses on accounts that are regularly updated with engaging content and high-quality images that allow followers to enjoy artwork regardless of location. Curated by the artists themselves, Instagram accounts offer a relaxed opportunity to view completed and in-progress artwork and to get a glimpse into the artists’ ideas, process, and studio practices.

Georgia O’Keeffe knew a thing or two about nature. Among American artists, no one is as closely associated with capturing the vitality and brilliance of the natural world as O’Keeffe. In 1937, she said of her work, “I had to create an equivalent for what I felt about what I was looking at—not copy it.” I was thinking of O’Keeffe while thumbing through Mark Getlein’s Living With Art, in which the author outlines six functions artists perform. The last of these is “artists refresh our vision and help us see the world in new ways.” It is by no means a new idea, but the language is still striking; that art could “refresh” us seems to capture so many possibilities at once. It could imbue us with energy, capture the feeling of a specific place or moment, maybe even help us see as if through someone else’s eyes. As O’Keeffe understood, artistic explorations of the natural world can help us rediscover what is already there, and to feel what we cannot always articulate.

Katy Abraham, Stirling Gorsuch, and Aimée Brewer explore the beauty and wonder of the natural world, reimagining it in watercolor, ink, and porcelain. They do not just capture the image of nature, but the feeling of a particular landscape, the character of a flower, animal, or tree, and the sense of how we are part of the Earth’s rhythms. Their Instagram accounts capture both the teeming energy and quiet strength of nature and allow us to experience a sense of the outdoors wherever we may be.

watercolor sea and sky with birds
Katy Abraham. Where You Left Me. Watercolor on paper. 9” x 12.” Image courtesy of the artist. Instagram account: @cascadiaartproject.

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Barra Brown: Sense of Urgency

Portland musician’s diverse projects embrace his expansive creative mentality

On the day Portland drummer/composer Barra Brown entered the studio to begin recording his second album of original compositions, he got the news: a family friend he’d known all his life was in the hospital. Valeria Ball, a close friend of Brown’s mother who led a Southern Oregon dance company that once included Brown, had a brain tumor, and needed emergency surgery. 

Brown, a Lewis & Clark College alum who’s one of Oregon’s widest-ranging musicians, was devastated, but  “she would want you to make the album,” his mother told him. He forged ahead with  Dreaming Awake,  released in 2015 and dedicated to Ball, who died the following year, and others who have battled cancer. Since then, Brown, now 30, has unleashed a flood of music in varied styles, playing various instruments, as though he needs to try everything now and take it as far as he can — before it’s too late.

Barra Brown. Photo: Reed Ricker.

“I think I have a sense of urgency just because I don’t know when I’m going to die,” he muses. “Maybe that comes from my friend dying. There’s no excuse for not doing what it is that you’re meant to do. There’s this urgency: all these ideas are here. The struggle is having time to get them all out.”

He’s going as fast as he can. Since 2013, Brown has led or appeared on two dozen recordings, most under his own name and via his Korgy & Bass project. His latest, the four-movement song cycle These Souls, which drops this week, was actually written and recorded two years ago as he dealt with grief over Ball’s illness. It marks a creative breakthrough for Brown — but don’t expect it to signal a new artistic direction. The music he’s since made explores multiple paths, with more to come.

Identity Crisis

Brown pursued multiple musical paths from the start. His mother, a ballet teacher who immigrated to Oregon from Ireland, helped persuade the elementary school in Lookingglass, the southern Oregon town outside Roseburg where he grew up, to create a band program, and Barra picked up the flute there. His parents also bravely installed a drum set in the room he shared with his brothers, thereby giving Barra early hands on experience with creating both melody and rhythm. He also danced in the Irish dance school his mother founded, and modern dance in his mother’s friend Ball’s company Traduza.

Brown continued his flute studies at Portland’s Lewis & Clark College — the first member of his family to go to college — and his drumming in the great Portland jazz drummer Alan Jones’s celebrated academy, where he met future collaborators such as the band members in the Wishermen, a young quintet formed in 2010 with Brown as drummer. Even then, though, Brown knew he wanted to create his own music.

Barra Brown

But composing in what style? His early training was classical, he’d written a piece for his high school band, but encountering jazz in college made him eager to play with, and write for, the superlative musicians the genre attracts. 

“I came across jazz way later than everyone else,” Brown remembers. “I thought, ‘This is the epitome of musicianship.’ I wanted to play with them. I’ve always thought of [my music] as compositions with heavy improv sections. I was struggling with, ‘Am I a jazz musician? Am I classical? Am I a flute player?’ It’s always been an identity crisis at every turn.”

His mother helped him sort it out when he raised those questions at his college graduation. “The instruments you’re playing don’t really matter,” she said. “They’re all just different ways of expressing yourself, depending on where you are in your life. You’re always going to be making music.”

Brown took the message to heart, resolving to learn and play whatever he needed to express the sounds he wanted to make — guitar, synths and keyboards, drums, flute, a little bass. “When I was younger I was either/or. Now I’m both/and. I’m all of them: now I’m a flute player, now I’m a drummer, now I’m gonna learn the bass. When you learn the instruments, you write better. It’s all tools to get myself out of my own composing patterns. If I write on a new instrument, these things that stick in my body don’t exist. It’s when you don’t know what’s happening that you stay in that wonderment of music.”

After college, Brown embraced both/and. His drum skills earned him early entry into Portland’s indie rock networks, including gigs and tours with Shook Twins, Old Wave Ages and Ages, Alameda, Morning Ritual. He also put together a crack jazz quintet that released a pair of albums on Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble label, sandwiched around an EP (released by the indie rock Cavity Search records) with his Wishermen friends. While that first PJCE album from 2013, Songs for a Young Heart, leaned on its lead players (saxophonist Nicole Glover, acclaimed trumpeter Thomas Barber, and rock guitarist Adam Brock from Old Wave), it also displayed a compositional assurance and surprising for a debut, and a decided emphasis on song forms rather than extended improv. 

One track, the Bacharachian instrumental “Poem” (derived from Claude Debussy’s gorgeous, ever-popular “Girl with the Flaxen Hair”) inspired an entirely different album. Brock covered it so persuasively — and so differently from his original — that Brown included both versions on Songs for a Young Heart, then wondered: how might other musicians interpret it?

He asked eight musicians from Portland, Austin, LA, and New York (including members of Radiation City, Ages and Ages, and The Westerlies) to create their own versions, with their own lyrics and, in one section, even melodies. Released in 2017, The Poem Project album could have ended up as a mere gimmick or unbearably repetitive, but the mostly gentle, surprisingly varied results — ranging from folky to ethereal to groovy — demonstrate how robust music can beget — not clone — more vital music. 

Brown’s 2015 PJCE quintet release, Dreaming Awake, extended its predecessor’s accessible jazz rock while featuring most of the same core musicians, augmented by guest string players and vocalists. “My brother recently said that the quintet music felt nostalgic,” Brown says. “Like it was when we were kids in Oregon captured in sound: [growing up in the] forest, outside exploration, uninhibited creative time, a sense of the importance of place, and our place in it. That really resonated because my music is often described as cinematic, which I think is fair, and I do think a lot about mountains and pastoral images when writing or hearing things after they are recorded. Like soaring over the Cascades in song.”

After those recording projects, Brown’s touring schedule with his various bands, especially the Shook Twins, accelerated. He performed with nationally known musicians including jazz/hip hop stars Robert Glasper and Makaya McCraven, singers Ani DiFranco and Gregory Alan Isakov, and more. 

After four years of touring, along with starting a new jazz trio with powerhouse lineup of Portland avant guitarist Mike Gamble and bassist John Lakey, a new duo project with Alex Meltzer, and continuing to process his grief over Ball’s death and his musical response to it, Brown was ready to get off the road. By fall 2018, propelled by a pair of new partnerships — one musical, the other marital — the newly married Brown embarked on still another creative path. 

Korgy & Bass: Brevity and Variety

Freed from the demands and distractions of touring, Brown has devoted most of his abundant energy recently to his inventive Korgy & Bass project with Meltzer, whose background is in beatmaking and hip hop. After meeting at a jam session in 2015 while Brown was still touring with Shook Twins, Meltzer invited him over to see what music might emerge. They released their first EP the next year. 

“Four albums just appeared out of nowhere while I was working on something else,” Brown recalls. “I’ve never had an experience like that. It just felt so easy.”

In various EPs and singles that have unceasingly streamed forth since he forsook the road, Brown and Meltzer are compiling an impressive compendium of concise, cogent, and compelling sounds. The first thing you might notice about most recorded K&B tracks is how short they are, most clocking in under three minutes. On record, the duo generate such a wealth of musical ideas that they seem happy to just keep unleashing rather than overcooking them, never allowing them to overstay their welcome or outlast their considerable charm. 

Live, it’s a different story. “Recorded experiences and live music experiences are different and each has strengths that can be highlighted when in those environments,” Brown explains. “ We stretch out and improvise much more in our live shows because it’s a good environment for that.”

Liberated from the standard jazz or rock band configuration, the lineup can adjust to suit the sounds Brown and Meltzer want to create, from the instrumental (and occasionally vocal) hip hop of this year’s Agrocrag  (which featured vocals from rappers Alexander Mackenzie and Oregon poet laureate Anis Mogjani), to near-Aphex Twin-style electronica in 24000​:​4​=​2500 Side​-​A and 2500​=​4​:​26000 Side​-​B. When working on an instrumental track, Brown will often “hear” (in his imagination) another player’s sound that might add a needed dimension that he can’t imagine. “You hit them up and see if they wanna go play on it,” he says. ”We’re constantly bringing in other ears and energy.”

Meltzer & Brown are Korgy & Bass. Photo: Jordan Sowers.

For last year’s LP Remote, New Orleans trumpeter Cyrus Nabipoor sent the duo melodies and textures (tape drums, sampled sounds, phat synths, trumpet, and bass lines from Milo Fultz and Sam Arnold) that they then added to, chopped, and re-sampled.  “It’s kind of a community with Alex and me at the center,” Brown explains. “But the band is what it is depending on the album, with a different set of musicians every time. It’s really expansive, creatively and conceptually. We can do so much more, depending on who we’re working with and what we’re trying. We’re collaborating a lot.” 

Soulful Sounds

Collaboration has been one of the few constants, the compass in Brown’s meandering creative path. “There are all these great musicians and bands in Portland, and I want to work with those people,” Brown says. “Everyone is good at a different thing. Actively releasing music [with guest artists] is beneficial for the whole scene. We can lift each other up. You can widen your umbrella, grow your community and grow yourself creatively.”

On These Souls, Brown’s collaborators include four singers, three guitarists (along with Brown himself, who also played synthesizers and percussion), three string players, two horn players and a pair of bassists.  “I wanted to challenge myself as a composer,” he remembers, “to do some tracks with vocalists, to arrange it like classical music, to take my first step into being a producer.”

 And he wanted to process his grief over Ball’s death through music. 

“She was a huge part of my life and my mom’s bestie for sure,” Brown recalls. “I still remember she helped me significantly with purchasing a laptop for college. Valeria was so passionate, creative, and uncompromising in her creative pursuits and I carry that with me always.”

A friend from Roseburg, Matt Brown (no relation), whose wife had also danced in Ball’s company, sent him a poem that turned into lyrics and a storyline. When composing the music, Brown was listening to the song cycle Penelope by contemporary composer Sarah Kirkland Snider and singer Shara Worden (now Shara Nova), which he admired for “taking elements from Radiohead and indie rock, but with all this classical instrumentation plus production. I connected with how she was bringing all these elements together.”

Brown released These Souls in May 2020.

Another collaborator was the cover artist, Madge Evers, whose work he’d spotted on Instagram. Finding a visual concept was the final key to unlocking the recordings, which had awaited release for two years. With only four songs, so many collaborators involved (and “the music was going to be a pain in the ass to learn live”), Brown wasn’t planning to tour the song cycle, so this spring’s enforced break from live performance provided an opportune moment to release it.

These Souls’ belated release hardly leaves Brown’s capacious cupboard bare. “Being home for the last two or three years has been a really fruitful transition,” he explains. “I have time and have a studio,  shifts that have allowed me to focus on living a creative life.”

The virus-enforced break from live performance has only granted him more creative space. He’s just finished mixing a trio studio recording of “impressionist folk jazz” laid down last summer, which includes a guest appearance from the acclaimed young Seattle/New York ensemble The Westerlies.

He’s cultivating an album of co-written compositions with various jazz musicians, including veteran Portland jazz guitarist Dan Balmer, Noah Simpson and more. He’s cut a couple of “dark classical indie pop” tracks with Portland harpist/singer Sheers, then there’s a collaboration with Portland’s Brown Calculus “I’m working on in the background.”

Next month, Korgy & Bass will release two tracks and videos recorded on a recent trip to New Orleans. And the next full-length Korgy & Bass album is underway, with Brown, in true 21st century collaborative style, sending tracks to musicians he admires to see if they want to sing on it. He recently got back a track with vocals added by London’s Native Dancer. 

And when the pandemic permits, he’ll be back on stage, with K&B and with his trio.  “I consider myself a performer, so that will always be a huge part of what I do,” Brown says. “What has shifted is this desire to be performing nightly as a sideperson [or] oversaturating my audience. I’ve really enjoyed playing about once a month with each project I lead and making each show a unique experience. Having time to plan and promote has opened a lot of possibilities with collaborations and adding visual elements to our shows.” 

Korgy & Bass performing at OMSI planetarium. Photo: DYSK Photography.

The visual dimension, apparent in record covers and videos, expanded to projections in a multi-sensory experience they designed and performed at Oregon Museum of Science & Industry Planetarium last year.

Brown looks forward to “more arranging, co-writing with vocalists, exploring more writing with strings,” he says. “ A ballet or composing for a play would be a big push and an experience I’d like to have at some point. I hope my continued collaborating brings me to unforeseen and challenging new creative spaces.” Like practically every other musician these days, Brown’s live concert calendar may be on hold, but his ideas and his music keep flowing, urgent and unbound.

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Fortepianos and a Misty Lake in the Moonlight

Historically, a keyboard isn't just a keyboard. How you hear Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata can depend on the instrument it's played on.


By JOSEPH ALBERT


When Baroque or earlier music is performed, the question of whether to use period instruments often is at the forefront of the interpretive conception. Organizations like the Oregon Bach Festival and Portland Baroque Orchestra must answer this question for every performance. With keyboard repertoire or keyboard parts of a chamber or orchestral work, this might be a decision of whether to use a piano or a harpsichord. The two instruments have such different sound, however, that asking which is preferred is not unlike asking whether a piece should be played on violin or flute. Thus, while pianists playing solo may choose to play on the piano music that was composed for harpsichord, Baroque and early music ensembles generally will use a harpsichord or organ for keyboard parts to satisfy aesthetic preferences and maintain historical integrity.

During the Classical era, fortepianos (early versions of the piano) began supplanting harpsichords and organs as the keyboard instrument of choice for secular keyboard music. While the earliest keyboard compositions of Haydn were written for the harpsichord, the fortepiano had supplanted the harpsichord by the time of Beethoven and Schubert. Today, keyboard music of the Classical era generally is performed on a modern piano, but the decision of whether to use a period piano (fortepiano) or modern piano can be interesting.

Fortepianist Tom Beghin, in a screen shot from the video below, demonstrating Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata.” From a demonstration at the Orpheus Institute, Ghent, Belgium, March 3, 2015.

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In Brief: Visual Chronicle wants you

Portland's collection of visual history is looking to expand; grants for emerging artists; Chinatown Museum reschedules exhibitions

Time’s running short for Portland artists to throw their hats in the ring to add their work this year to The Visual Chronicle of Portland: Deadline for submission is 5 p.m. Wednesday, May 27. A second, broader opportunity open to artists in Oregon and Southwest Washington, Support Beam, offers a little more breathing room: Its application deadline is 5 p.m. Wednesday, June 3. Information on both is available here from the Regional Arts & Culture Council.

Willow Zheng, “Classical Chinese Garden, Portland, Oregon III,” Chinese watercolor and ink, 2002; collection of the Visual Chronicle of Portland.

Support Beam, with an overall budget of $70,000, is intended to support works of art created by emerging artists over a period of three to six months. Individual grants will be between $3,000 and $5,000. The Visual Chronicle funding is for direct purchase of pieces to add to the City of Portland’s collection of works on paper that chronicle the life and identity of the city. Total budget for this year’s additions is $15,000, and no individual piece can be priced higher than $1,000. Eligible artists may apply for either or both awards.

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