Portland Playhouse Passing Strange Portland Oregon

Accomplished fusions: Fear No Music’s “Common Themes, Different Worlds”

The music of Iran and America explored current issues with a concert of music by all women composers.

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Violinist Greg Ewer and violist Amanda Grimm performed Jordyn Davis' "What Have You Done? (Who Are You?)" with Fear No Music. Photo by Monica Ohuchi.
Violinist Greg Ewer and violist Amanda Grimm performed Jordyn Davis’ “What Have You Done? (Who Are You?)” with Fear No Music. Photo by Monica Ohuchi.

Fear No Music has a knack for presenting terrific selections of contemporary music spanning various cultures. In its most recent foray at The Old Church on March 18, the ensemble performed pieces from Iranian and American women composers. Inventive musical ideas abounded, and several numbers tackled current issues, underscoring the concert program, which was entitled “Common Themes, Different Worlds.”

Niloufar Nourbakhsh’s Aid for Sex took listeners on an intense and disturbing journey as a reaction to a report from Syria in 2017 of sexual violence and exploitation by humanitarian works. As per the program notes, Aid for Sex “aims to present the traumatic experience of a Syrian woman who managed to survive.” From a tense opening the piece offered a sequence of unusual sounds that conveyed distress that culminated in a blur of cacophony and finally a sad, solitary melodic line that drifted away. 

Performed by Amelia Lukas, flute, Kirt Peterson, clarinet, Keiko Araki, violin, Nancy Ives, cello, Monica Ohuchi, piano, Michael Robers, percussion, and Nicholas Emerson, electronics, Aid for Sex proved to be an unsettling piece with a lot of disparate sounds. The plaintive line from Araki’s violin and the insistent, repetitive note from Ohuchi’s keyboard at the end of the piece expressed the willingness to live despite tragedy. 

Like a breeze of fresh air, the mood changed with Brittany J. Green’s bluedream for piano and fixed media. Played by Ohuchi, who wore a pair of earbuds that were plugged into click tracks, bluedream started out with bird song and then transitioned to electronic-intergalactic-space-like sounds. Meanwhile, Ohuchi’s fingers began to dance on the keyboard, generating threads of repetitive phrases that were punctuated occasionally by chords. After removing one of the earbuds, the music seemed to slow down but it ended on an ethereal, upward trajectory.

Inspired by the myth of Orpheus, Aida Shirazi’s Vestiges for flute and string trio evoked the legendary story in a figurative way. Fluttery tones from the flute (Lukas) were accompanied by tremolos from the strings (Araki, violin, Amanda Grimm, viola, and Ives, cello). After the ensemble created sounds that careened about, the Lukas’ flute elicited breathy phrases that were followed by gnawing tones from Ives’ cello. Then came a non-tonal sequence from the strings followed by spooky glissandos. The unusual sonic textures deftly implied the bereft Orpheus after death of his beloved Eurydice. 

Commissioned by the Detroit Composers Project in 2018, What Have You Done? (Who Are You?) by Jordyn Davis reflected her response to the gentrification of Detroit. The piece began with a pizzicato exchange that ping-ponged between violinist Greg Ewer and violist Grimm, and then moved to a wistful, bluesy melody. Well-timed lighting enhanced the music as passages continued back and forth between the two musicians until things finally crescendo-ed and then returned to the bluesy pizzicato phrases that began the piece. 

As a piece of performance art, Lukas delivered an intense, strenuous, and thought-provoking performance of Anahita Abbasi’s No, I am not roaming aimlessly. According to the program notes, Abbasi’s piece is based on “Dialogical Self Theory and Sufism” in which a blurring of the “internal and external self” is fused with Sufism’s quest for selflessness. You might think that such concepts would cause a musical mess, but Abbasi actually accomplished this fusion in this piece, thanks to the gifted talent of Lukas. 

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Amelia Lukas performed Anahita Abbasi’s "No, I am not roaming aimlessly" with Fear No Music. Photo by Monica Ohuchi.
Amelia Lukas performed Anahita Abbasi’s “No, I am not roaming aimlessly” with Fear No Music. Photo by Monica Ohuchi.

Alternating between a variety of tricky extended techniques from the flute – including numerous piercing tones – and spoken text, No, I am not roaming aimlessly gradually generated a whirling effect that became – well – sort of timeless – or out of time – and very emotional. Lukas really captured the essence of the piece, and that resonated with the audience, which responded enthusiastically.

Rhythmic clapping, slapping, and stomping – all performers were shoeless and wearing red socks – were an integral part of the music-making in Shelley Washington’s Say. Played by violinists Ewer and Araki, violist Grimm, and cellist Ives, the piece smoothly rotated around passages involving body percussion, spoken words, singing, and the instruments. Sometimes a folk-like style came through. Sometimes I could hear words that were spoken: “What’s it like growing up Black in America, White in America.” But I missed a lot of text along the way, and the singing was just not loud enough to understand the lyrics. If each musician’s voice were amplified, that would have improved matters. The complexity of all the things that the musicians had to do reduced the dynamics of the piece to a mezzo-something. The context of the piece – regarding interracial acceptance – seemed just out of reach this time around, but perhaps FNM will bring it back for a go at another concert.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

James Bash enjoys writing for The Oregonian, The Columbian, Classical Voice North America, Opera, and many other publications. He has also written articles for the Oregon Arts Commission and the Grove Dictionary of American Music, 2nd edition. He received a fellowship to the 2008 NEA Journalism Institute for Classical Music and Opera, and is a member of the Music Critics Association of North America.
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