Oregon ArtsWatch

 

Singing across the centuries

Excoriated musical Americana lives on with Portland Sacred Harp’s recent shape note singing convention

By DANIEL HEILA

I was running a bit late for my visit to Portland Sacred Harp’s Pacific Northwest Convention at the Laurelhurst Club. The parking options were few on Ankeny Street down along the bottom of Laurelhurst Park, but I found a tight space about a quarter mile up the street from the club and squeezed in. Lucky me, since the stroll down to the event was alongside giant evergreens, quiet pathways, and distant green swards where folks walked or jogged, caught up in the serenity of the place. I admit, I was timid about attending the event. I am a bit of an introvert, and, although I like to sing, I was not sure I wanted to put myself out there in a crowd of strangers.

I shouldn’t have worried. That crowd on this October day was nowhere to be found. Instead, inside the woody confines of the lodge ballroom (complete with crackling fireplace blaze) I found a familiar family of folkways enthusiasts. Someone’s grandpa greeted me at the doorway with a smile (there was a definite edge of interest at my unfamiliar face) and thrust a loaner copy of The Sacred Harp songbook into my empty hands. I filled out a name tag with the dorky tagline “Talk to me about Sacred Harp!”, slapped it on my lapel and headed into my foray.

The singers were on a break and milling about saying hello to friends and being introduced to new faces. Volunteers were going about their duties, one of which was preparing the long banquet table for the potluck lunch to come at noon. The comforting smells issuing from the kitchen piqued my appetite, and I sheepishly considered being late to my next appointment. A glance around the room revealed a demographic that I have considerable experience with via the New England contradancing scene: mostly 30-60ish men and women, a handful of seniors and people of color, a few brave teens and twenty‑somethings, and a marauding flock of tweens, tots, and rug rats of various sizes. I started to relax.

Portland Sacred Harp performed shape note music in October. Photo by Daniel Heila.
Portland Sacred Harp performed shape note music in October.

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‘No Human Involved’: Art by sex workers tells a complex story

The "No Human Involved: The Fifth Annual Sex Workers’ Art Show" turns the tables on a dehumanizing term

By KYLE COHLMIA

“No Human Involved” is a slang term coined by Los Angeles police in the 1980s to signify the murder of sex workers, drug users, gang members and transients, the majority of those from Black and Brown populations. The term, while inherently used to dehumanize the violence inflicted upon these marginalized communities, has been turned around by artists in No Human Involved: The Fifth Annual Sex Workers’ Art Show to bring awareness to specific issues of oppression.

Spearheaded by STROLL PDX, a sex worker-led activist organization, this year’s exhibition is at Portland Institute of Contemporary Art (PICA), running through December 14. The exhibit features work by 16 artists, a selection curated from a competitive international open call by Kat Salas and Matilda Bickers of STROLL PDX and Roya Amirsoleymani, artistic director and curator at PICA.

Installation view of No Human Involved: The Fifth Annual Sex Workers’ Art Show/Photo courtesy of PICA

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A game of reflections

Gaming-themed opera commissioned and staged by Portland State University places women's voices centerstage

By ANGELA ALLEN

Mirror Game, a new opera commissioned by Portland State University’s Opera program, made its world premiere Nov. 29 in PSU’s Lincoln Hall Studio Theater. The opera is an intriguing effort to bring women into the limelight in a male-dominated tech world.

The historically misogynistic world of opera often casts women characters as victims of culture or the times, or dying of some disease or addiction—though opera directors have lately tried to put more positive spins on such characters as Bess in Porgy and Bess, Madama Butterfly’s Cio-Cio-San, and even “gypsy girl” Carmen, in an attempt to lift them out of the limitations of damsels-in-distress roles. And although I don’t play video games, younger generations tell me there aren’t a helluva lot of strong women characters populating that entertainment genre. So opera in general, and this particular opera’s subject matter, reflect one another.

Mirror Game thankfully does not make heroines of women or total pigs of men – and none of the characters is particularly redeemable. Nor does the opera offer solutions to heal the male-controlled, reputedly sexist Silicon Valley world. But it does give women characters a voice. The opera features six characters (three men and three women), and honestly it’s hard to like any of them much. Selfish self-absorbed entitled Millennials caught up in their phones and selfies, strutting around like they own the world in their high-tops and cropped tops! But it’s easy enough to cheer for the cause: Women deserve a voice – creatively and personally.

The opera was written by librettist Amy Punt, who created The Place Where You Started, which PSU Opera staged four years ago, and award-winning composer Celka Ojakangas, who has not yet reached age 30. The 80-minute opera is lively and engaging, even if you don’t know a thing about gaming – which Mirror Game is about (it has a several truncated love stories, too, and of course, power is a theme). It bursts with video graphics and complex projections and lighting that reflect the gaming world. This is an all-hands-on-deck piece by the PSU Opera crew, which consistently creates shows that far outreach most student operas. Kudos as usual go to veteran stage director Kristine McIntyre for bringing it all together. 

PSU Opera staged the new opera "Mirror Game." Photo by Joe Cantrell.
PSU Opera staged the new opera “Mirror Game.” Photo by Joe Cantrell.

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Spaces: At Shop La Familia hip hop digs in

Shop La Familia was started by Swiggle Mandela as an outpost for hip hop in a hostile city

By CHRISTEN McCURDY

It takes some effort to find Shop La Familia.

It’s on a stretch of North Lombard Avenue between the Interstate Fred Meyer and the much-loved King Burrito taqueria. It’s also a few blocks away from the kind of natural grocery store that’s often a harbinger of gentrification.

From the street, the spot looks like a row of quiet office buildings occupied mostly by union locals. But if you walk to the back of the building to the nondescript gravel parking lot, through propped-open industrial doors and and head down the stairs, you’ll find what local rapper Swiggle Mandela has planted underground.

The Art of Space
An occasional series on places and prices in the arts world. In an escalating real estate market, how and where do artists and arts groups find suitable and affordable places to make and show their work?

Shop La Familia is a retail space, an erstwhile music venue and a community space for a loose collective of artists connected with Portland’s hip-hop scene. In a city where rapidly escalating real estate prices have put a squeeze on cultural spaces in Portland, La Familia is creating a space of its own, in a historically black, but rapidly gentrifying part of town.

“Every show, every gathering that we’ve done there, it’s like, I get to say, ‘This is literally underground hip-hop,’” says Michael Gaines, who raps as Figure 8 and usually just goes by Fig. He moved to Portland from Detroit about five years ago.


Swiggle Mandela at his store and art space, Shop La Familia & the Coop, in North Portland/Photo by Christen McCurdy

“We’re doing hip-hop underground in Portland right now and no matter how good or bad this goes, this is what it’s about,” Figure 8 explains. “All those interviews where you see people talking about, ‘I went to every open mic, everything, we had to start our own thing, we had to start our own clubs, we had to give back,’ it just feels very reminiscent of what the good parts of hip-hop are and I think that’s why we keep doing it.”

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Photo First: Profiles in Gender

Photographer Dee Moore shares the stories of 10 artists (including herself) who are outside the binary norm


PHOTOGRAPHS AND STORY BY DEE MOORE


For me it all ended when I was eight years old and screaming that I was a boy and begging to be allowed to go to the boys’ bathroom at a posh restaurant. My mother told me I had to use the girls’ bathroom because I was a girl. I said no, I am going to grow a penis. I am going to be a boy. But I was told in no uncertain terms that day that I was not going to ever grow a penis. I was going to stay a girl.

I never felt comfortable in girls’ clothes. I was happiest in T-shirts, sneakers or boots, short hair, and no makeup. But I had a greater desire to fit in so I learned to apply makeup, to wear women’s clothing, to do my hair and to conform. Though try as I might, this didn’t last long. Like pulling on a costume or plastering up a façade,  it came off or it cracked and I returned to T-shirts, ripped jeans and boots. The only thing that really stuck was the makeup.

Dee Moore

Growing up in Southeast Texas in the ’80s there really weren’t words at the time for the way I felt, the angst and discomfort that gnawed away at me. It was easier to understand that I was bisexual than it was that I was caught somewhere between male and female. But all of those things were shoved into a deep dark closet thanks to culture, environment, religion and hate. It took awhile to unpack it all.

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A Tempest in the Schnitz

With a vivid storm of Shakespeare's words and Sibelius's music, The Oregon Symphony pairs two artists in their twilights for a last hurrah


PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOE CANTRELL
STORY BY BOB HICKS


It was a storm for the ages Saturday night in the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall as the musicians of the Oregon Symphony swept into the swirling seas of The Tempest, the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius’s vivid 1925/26 score for William Shakespeare’s great late romance about an island, a magician, a belly full of betrayals, an awakening of young love, and a resolution of forgiveness. Ah, but first, the storm: blowing, whistling, reeling, slipping and sliding in a chaotic cascade of rhythms and notes – an unsettling of sound that whirls and clatters and destroys and yet also somehow sets the scene for fresh wonders and reawakened hope.

As the orchestra urges the action forward, Caliban (Tobias Greenhalgh), seeing freedom if he switches allegiance from Prospero, cavorts with his new hopes, the drunken butler Stephano (Benjamin Taylor, middle) and jester Trinculo (Andrew Stenson). It’s not Caliban’s wisest decision.

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Composing on this side of complexity

Third Angle “Homecomings” program showcases Oregon-connected composers--but takes too few risks

By DANIEL HEILA

Contemporary classical music composers–whom we might define as “those who look to the classical canon as root”–are frequently self-conscious about the historical and perennial shortcomings of modern art music (“that which seeks to transcend the history of western music”–again, my definition). Hyper abstract structures, gratuitous dissonance, obfuscated rhythmicality, and self-indulgent conceptualism can all alienate the audience and performers–although minus the adjectives these approaches are all fertile ground when used objectively. So it is understandable that a goodly portion of the genre’s repertoire is in opposition to a perceived aesthetic toxicity.

Many composers seek to traverse the morass of complexity to access an elegant simplicity on the far side (tip of the hat to Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.). This journey is deceptively arduous and involves coming to terms with the very complexity to be transcended. Third Angle New Music’s concert Homecomings of October 17th and 18th, held in Studio 2 of New Expressive Works (N.E.W.), evidenced varying degrees of success in this endeavor, with a program of work by composers who have come up in Oregon and then gone out into the world (or stayed local in two cases) to establish themselves in professional careers.

Percussion and audience at Third Angle's "Homecomings" concert at New Expressive Works, October 2017. Photo by Kenton Waltz.
Percussion and audience await Third Angle’s “Homecomings” concert at New Expressive Works, October 2017. Photo by Kenton Waltz.

Over the lengthy, single act evening I became aware of two prominent features of the music. One was a tendency toward reliable structures on which hung thin forms (the shape of the music that fills out the structure) which were in some cases almost anemic. The other feature was, for lack of a deeper analysis, the presence of the above-mentioned self-consciousness, perhaps what could be called risk aversion.

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