On Sunday July 9, composer Deena T. Grossman and six exceptional flute players gathered in the Leach Botanical Gardens for a concert of her music titled Flutes in the Garden. A purely functional title–there were indeed flutes in the garden–but still evocative, like the opening line of a haiku.
There may be no better place to hear Grossman’s music. The winding trails and dense foliage of this urban oasis remind me of countless places throughout the city that act as reminders of what this place looked like prior to its conquest by Europeans. Among these are the Hoyt Arboretum (as one of my friends calls it, the “Tree Zoo”), Tryon Creek, Forest Park, The Grotto, and the greener parts of Lewis and Clark College.
On my pre-concert walk around the gardens, I saw two raccoons on the other side of an ambling Johnson Creek, browned from the mud. There were some wild rabbits chomping at the grass in a field behind the tent, the ground covered in sorrel surrounding the rhododendron bushes and our state tree, the Douglas fir. There were downed alder trees for salamander habitats, a rock slope for desert plants, stone pathways and a bench waiting in front of a giant sequoia. This breezy walk set the scene perfectly for the music to come.
One of the things I’ve touched on in my past reviews of outdoor concerts is how the music interacts with its ambient space. Indoor concerts are all-encompassing, hermetically-sealed sonic events. Outdoor concerts, however, sound more interactive within their environments. Whatever sounds are happening “on-stage” are only a part of a broader soundscape of bird calls, buzzing insects, trickling waterfalls, light breezes weaving their way through the leaves above, and the distant din of traffic and airplanes.
In some ways this feels like a return to a time when music served a different role in society. Music today acts as pleasant background noise for basically every social gathering alongside study and writing sessions (I am listening to ambient space rockers Windy and Carl as I write this). Concerts like Flutes in the Garden remind me of a time when music was composed for a specific place and time. It felt purposeful.
A clever symbiotic relationship
The first thing you will see on her website and in any bios is that Grossman is Composer-In-Residence at Columbia Riverkeeper. This probably brings up a few questions: what kind of environmental organization has a composer-in-residence? What does that do for them? And why Grossman?
The arrangement is actually a clever symbiotic relationship. Working with Columbia Riverkeeper provides an outlet for Grossman’s environmentally-conscious music, and her concerts act as fundraisers, raising money and spreading awareness of what the organization does. Keeping the mighty Columbia healthy is something that benefits us all, allowing for not just beautiful vistas from Crown Point, but habitat for bountiful chinook salmon populations and cleaning up the pollution from fossil fuels and the Hanford nuclear site upriver in Washington. As Grossman pointed out in her pre-concert statements, Johnson Creek is only one of thousands of tributaries along the Columbia watershed, meaning that we were still in a space touched by the river and its environs.
Oregon has to be among the most environmentally-conscious states, thanks in part to the policies of governor Tom McCall back in the late sixties and early seventies. Our state contains massive areas of federal land, large state parks, beaches, tundra, mountains and volcanoes, deserts and deciduous rainforests, giving a taste of many of Earth’s incredible biomes within less than a hundred thousand square miles.
The relationship with an environmentalist organization suits Grossman’s music well. Not only for the obvious themes and titles of her pieces, but also in the music’s breadth of influence–from the shakuhachi (Japanese bamboo flute) to her careful use of extended techniques for precise textural effects.
The concert opened with Amelia Lukas playing an older work of Grossman’s for bass flute, snowy egret, january messenger from 1993. She was inspired by hearing her husband practicing the instrument while they were living in Japan, and the subtleties from the shakuhachi (the loose rhythms, pitch bends and super-breathy tone) came through in Lukas’ fantastic performance.
(Lukas performed the piece again later in the month, for Chamber Music Northwest–read Lorin Wilkerson’s review here).
The next piece, Circular Bridge, was the first of two world premieres that made me consider the music’s relationship with space. The program note may be quite abstract and serious, calling it “an extended structured improvisation,” but the performance was immane and playful. As sounds moved slowly between the flute players who stood in an arc around the circular bridge named in the title, the flutes melded with each other and their surroundings, drawing us listeners in, like trying to identify an insect or bird call in the distance.
The word “improvisational” is often a music critic’s buzzword for anything without an obvious structure or logic. It can serve a similar function to calling something “cheesy” or “pretentious,” acting as a thought-terminating phrase indicating that the writer need not think about it any more. (Every musical improvisation is structured and logical, it may just be a higher-order or subconscious logic.) But in the case of Ritual Condition by flutist John C. Savage–the only piece on the program not by Grossman–the music was literally a transcribed improvisation from one of his records.
And what an improvisation it was, using a combination of pitched key clicks, jeté and some gnarly multiphonics. These jazz-influenced techniques should not be surprising, given that Savage is also a great saxophonist. His bio names comparisons with flutists as diverse as Herbie Mann, Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson, and Colin Stetson (who’s collaborated with everyone from Tom Waits and Bon Iver to Cult of Luna). Those comparisons are apt.
The final piece on the program was the second world premiere and a highlight of the night, Thrice Burned Forest. It doesn’t do justice to say that the wildfires around Mt. Adams inspired the piece, because the actual story is so much more gripping. Grossman and a friend were hiking in the area when they heard “these breathy, sorrowful voices” and “wooden, percussive rattling sounds at unpredictable intervals.” The way she tells it, the forest itself spoke to her and gave her the sounds to form into the music we heard. The theme is all the more relevant as we enter wildfire season and we are inured to stories of wet bulbs and record highs.
The music was brilliant, haunting and beautiful. The almost Medieval modal harmonies were often voiced between the two groups of three flutes (piccolo and two flutes followed by two alto flutes and bass flute), occasionally erupting into more stochastic gestures. The ensemble’s collective vibrato was stunning as if they were all breathing as one.
It wasn’t all depressing, however. It looked like flutist and PSU professor Tara Boyle had a great time recreating those wooden rattling sounds, taking a lap around the circular bridge with a wooden mallet smacking against the metal railing. Lukas took a lap as well later on with similar enthusiasm.
The music wasn’t over after that–the experience ended with a set by trio Choro da Alegria. Flutist Gabriela Gimenes (who also performed on the two larger Grossman pieces) joined guitarist Peter Fung and percussionist Esteban Diaz for some classic Brazilian tunes in the classic samba and bossa nova catalog from Joao Gilberto and Antonio Carolos Jobim among others. It was a great set with a pretty casual vibe, with Gimenes taking some tasteful solos over tunes such as Jobim’s “Wave.”
It was a great evening and a reminder of the great talent we have here, both composers and performers. I am looking forward to what Grossman has coming up next and how her music will continue to connect us with our space and time.