45th Parallel’s real-time music video

An interview with Ron Blessinger

It’s such a weird thrill going to Oregon Symphony concerts, looking down into the string section with its fifty-odd neatly seated performers, and seeing 45th Parallel Universe Executive Director Ron Blessinger, buried in the violins, attentively warming up his bow with the rest of the office. That’s how it goes with this orchestra: scan the rest of that string section and you’ll see local composers Nancy Ives, James Shields, and usually Kenji Bunch. Up in the back, Niel DePonte tightens cymbal stands and organizes mallets. Supergroup!

In 2018, when Blessinger took the reins of local music organization 45th Parallel (founded ten years earlier by his fellow symphony violinist Greg Ewer), he immediately expanded the relatively loose-knit group into a Universe of ensembles drawn mostly from the ranks of Oregon Symphony principal players. The Parallel Universe has exploded all Marvel crossover-like in the last season and a half, with a wide range of classical music concerts all across the Old Versus New abyss. Our personal favorite highlight (so far) was 45||’s double concert last year pairing Mousai Remix’s beautifully economical black composer history lesson with a Pyxis Quartet concert featuring new work by local composers created in collaboration with local poet Micah Fletcher.

Micah Fletcher and Pyxis Quartet at The Old Church in 2018. Photo by Seth Nehill.
Micah Fletcher and Pyxis Quartet at The Old Church in 2019. Photo by Seth Nehill.

Tonight, 45th Parallel presents the latest result of their restless creativity: Les Boréades, an evening of French music performed on a square stage inside the PICA building, two sides open to the audience and a pair of projection screens on the others. We’ve just learned that the concert is down to standing room only, which suits this eternally peripatetic music journalist just fine. Come early for a discussion of The Frame with the concert’s visual/psychological collaborators, and wear comfy shoes for your circumambulatory musical adventure.

We spoke with Blessinger by phone; his answers have been condensed and edited for flow and clarity.

On collaboration and performance space

I go way back with Brad Johnson, the lead artist. He used to be the principal of Second Story Interactive, and I did a project with him where we used existing technology to create what you could call a virtual venue. We did something similar just about 15 years ago. This time around we came up with a musical program–a survey of French music–and then we were thinking of where to perform it.

The subject of venues in Portland is interesting, because there are very few of them. There aren’t that many middle-sized venues, around 400 seats. We didn’t want to be in a church, and I was really fond of the idea that the visual environment affects how we hear music. It’s always been on my mind in the work I’ve done before, and the Oregon Symphony is taking a run with it, turning the Arlene Schintzer concert hall into a visual venue.

The idea of how visuals affect how we hear music is perhaps only interesting to classical music nerds like me, because the rest of the world understands. You go to a rock concert and there’s visuals, there’s nothing new there. Only in classical music have we finally figured out that visual environment makes a difference.

So I started a conversation with Brad Johnson and 45th Parallel asking, “how can we create a visual platform for music performance?” Brad has been working with Glowbox, who has been doing a lot of things with visuals including virtual reality. The idea of a concert in virtual reality is something we threw around a bit. Through our brainstorming we came up with this concert: it’s going to be in a warehouse, basically a blank slate, and we have translucent screens on two sides of the stage through which you can see the performers and the visuals. Or you can sit on the other side and just see the performers. The audience will have that choice. 

As for the art itself, Brad is a wonderful photographer with his own camera and really took seriously his job of creating visuals through photography that complement the music. His piece is beautiful, it’s really amazing what he’s done. It’s not literal images, not like you’re looking at raw film footage. Its been processed through a thing called Point Cloud technology and Brad would have to explain what that means. It basically is like a Van Gogh painting, where its been turned into an artistic rendering of the images that aren’t literal. The idea is that ultimately our performance will be documented in virtual reality after the show, so there is a subsequent phase of this that has yet to be written. It’s not going to happen in this concert–you won’t be wearing VR goggles at this show!

Prototype of 45th Parallel's 'Les Boreades' performance space, designed by Brad Johnson and Glowbox. Photo courtesy of 45th Parallel.
Prototype of 45th Parallel’s ‘Les Boreades’ performance space, designed by Brad Johnson and Glowbox. Photo courtesy of 45th Parallel.

We’re creating a real-time music video. It’s not just a film. They have manual control over the images and are responding to the music in real-time. It’s a whole other ball game visually. We have an amazing creative community here, a community of digital artists and graphic designers, virtual reality artists, a whole emerging field with a lot going on in Portland. It’s really great for us to be part of that conversation.

I’m a big fan of how place or venue affects the music. Over the years I’ve performed pieces of Chinese music in concert halls–but if you do it at the Chinese Garden it’s a different experience. Restaurants know this, that the music determines how the food tastes. The visuals allow us to control these environments.

I was looking up people who were interested in this and I came across Dr. Margulis, who’s published a couple books on this and is the head of the Music Cognition Lab at Princeton. We started talking about what the brain does when we listen to music, and when she decided to come out I was thrilled, because she is exactly the kind of person we need. She literally wrote the book on it. It’s possible that with this kind of control we have over visual environments, that might lend itself well to subsequent research on visual context. The brain is dilated to listen to music based on what you see, and I’m interested in how those two senses affect each other.

Prototype of 45th Parallel’s ‘Les Boreades’ performance space, designed by Brad Johnson and Glowbox. Photo courtesy of 45th Parallel.

I haven’t talked to her about it, but I’d like to do a concert with one background–I could imagine doing a red background, and do it again with a blue background or a green background, and just collect data on how colors affect things. We could have the interior of a concert hall. There could be different ways of being a part of the research project.

One of our partners is an architectural firm in town, PLACE. We built a prototype of the stage and showed it to them, and one of them had the comment that the typical concert hall is not just visual, but social and socio-economic: there are a lot of things that come into play when you go into a formal concert hall. “Do I belong here? What do I wear? How should I behave?” It’s a lot of pressure or unease, and all these things affect your mind before you hear a piece of music. We are attempting to take a careful look at that and how we can control these expectations through technology.

Curating a program of French music

The way we program a chamber orchestra concert is as a group. I’m the Executive Director, and two colleagues–James Shields (principal clarinetist of the Oregon Symphony) and Greg Ewer–took on the role of producers. Two people take the lead, and they produce the concert and are responsible for programming it. We liked the idea of a French theme, and also a dialogue of old and new music.

Rameau would be the odd one out. The Rameau was going to be acting like a transition between the other pieces, and then that evolved into four pieces, like the four movements of a larger piece. I personally love this program for us, because it has a broad range from Baroque to Boulez, and I especially love the Boulez. Everything we admire about him–all the details–is a showcase for our flutist, Oregon Symphony principal Martha Long. The Debussy is the Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, which is the chamber version created by Schoenberg–it’s not the full orchestra, just ten players.

Boulez’s music is very French. I had the opportunity in college to have him conduct an orchestra I was in, and it was an amazing experience. He had the best ears you’d ever encountered as a musician, and in his recordings there’s this detail that you’d never heard before. His Stravinsky performances with the Cleveland Orchestra are just incredible. This piece is the most approachable Boulez I’ve found. It is luminous. It has interesting instrumentation: flute, two french horns, three violins, two violas and a cello. An unusual roster. It’s not spectralist, but it’s like you’re in French wonderland, wandering around in this magical dream-state.

On orchestras, ensembles, and labels

God bless the Oregon Symphony for being here to give people jobs so that we are able to be here in the first place. They are a very generous supporter of our extra-curricular activities. Everybody can speak to the need to be doing extra playing in chamber music, because you have to understand in an orchestra you are an employee. As a member of a section you follow rules, and you follow the tradition of orchestra playing–meaning you don’t stand out, you play the bowings you are told to play, you play how the conductor prescribes you to play. We’re comfortable with that tradition, but there’s a lot more to music than that. So 45th Parallel gives us the opportunity to take music into our own hands. We feel very strongly that chamber music and chamber orchestra is something that we can figure out without a conductor.

It’s a different mindset and responsibility that people are eager to take on. Last night we were rehearsing the Debussy, and all these pent-up ideas that we’ve had after years of playing this piece, we bring all those to the table and apply them in a different way. We have some people who are primary leaders within the group. In the Debussy there’s the flute solo, so Martha becomes the leader for that piece, and for the Boulez. It’s not a free-for-all; we have leadership roles for sure. But this is an opportunity for us to create and have a hand in the interpretation of the music that we don’t normally have as orchestra players.

Ron Blessinger and Saar Ahuvia played music by John Adams at Makrokosmos III.

I get the comfort of getting to play great music in a spot in a great orchestra, sitting down and being led by this great conductor, and it’s a great experience to play with him and my colleagues. It’s also great to take a real chance with this experiment on Friday. We don’t know how it’s really gonna go. It’s a big risk, but it’s worth taking. That kind of excitement is a part of our artistic lives too. Three orchestra concerts this weekend, so it’s a busy week. I don’t think we’d want it any other way.

I was just reading up on Debussy, and I think this is a relevant point: he hated the term Impressionist. But he exemplifies it, and he really cut against the grain of the time. He just went his own way and insisted on it. That’s the kind of thinking that we need. He wasn’t thinking, “oh I’m going to be a great Impressionistic composer.” He said, “this is what interests me about music, this is what my voice is going to be, I’m taking on the challenge of writing great music that is my music, period.” If not pigeonholing into genre classification is good enough for Debussy, it’s good enough for me. 

I’d love to get to a point where we go to a concert and we trust the cook, we trust the chef, we trust the ensemble. We come in with no preconceptions. You’re gonna enjoy the meal, and it’s going to be tantalizing and enriching musically. It’s not going to be a great classical concert. Just a great concert.

Next for the Universe

We choose the program first and then we will work with partners to make the visual environment. Usually you just have the concert hall and only music. Later this year we will be doing a concert of German music at the BMW dealership, making connections between environments. Going forward, that’s going to be one of our calling cards. You know this piece The Protecting Veil by John Tavener about the image of the Virgin Mother Mary, where legend has it that her face protected this city from invasion? Can you imagine that piece with our treatment with Glowbox? That would be amazing.

We have another double concert at the Old Church, with what we’re calling Friends of Greg. I told him when he started 45th Parallel he should call it FOG–thankfully he didn’t listen! He’s doing a FOG concert called Smörgåsbord on March 6th, Scandanavian music with indigenous instruments, plus Carl Nielsen and Grieg. That concert pairs with Arcturus Quintet playing Johan Kvandal, Nielsen, and Esa-Pekka Salonen. May 15th at the Old Church we’re doing Andy Akiho’s Prospects of a Misplaced Year, which is just an unbelievable virtuosic piece with piano, and Gabriella Smith, and then the Gemini Project.

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