Brett Campbell

Brett Campbell has been classical music editor at Willamette Week since 2008, music columnist for Eugene Weekly since 1996, and West Coast performing arts contributing writer for the Wall Street Journal since 2000. He is a frequent contributor to San Francisco Classical Voice, Oregon Quarterly, and Oregon Humanities and has also written for The Oregonian, Portland Monthly, West: The Los Angeles Times Magazine, Salon, Musical America and many other publications. He is a former editor of Oregon Quarterly and The Texas Observer. He is co-author of the biography Lou Harrison: American Musical Maverick (Indiana University Press, 2017) and has taught news and feature writing, editing and magazine publishing at the University of Oregon School of Journalism & Communication and Portland State University.

 

Cultivating Creative Community

Tualatin Valley Creates' Arts & Leadership Incubator helps Washington County artists connect their work to the community

The pandemic struck at an especially tough time for Alicia Moya Mendez, a teaching artist who had just moved to Oregon from North Carolina when everything shut down. Hoping to find teaching opportunities and build a new artistic community, she found herself isolated in a new land. She’d brought with her some preliminary ideas about an ambitious artistic project, a vague idea about setting up interactive installations at playgrounds to give kids hands-on experience with science and art. But she wasn’t sure how to develop that vision into something practical. Where would she even start? How could she prevent a playground company from making it more about commercialism than creativity?

Emily Miller was farther along on her latest project, but she too felt stuck. Her installation Ghost Net Landscape helps collect tons of used and reclaimed fishing gear and brings it into public spaces for community art creation. She’d promoted the first installment as an ocean-saving environmental art project, and invited other artists whose work she knew well to contribute. But Miller worried she wasn’t reaching a broader audience who didn’t already know about the threat human plastic production posed to the oceans. And the problem seemed so vast — what could a few dozen, or even a few hundred people who saw her exhibit really do about it?

2021 Arts and Culture Leadership Incubator participants Joseph Nguyen and Alicia Moya Mendez teamed up on a joint project.

Lindsey Holcomb’s project, #colorsofms, transformed diagnostic Magnetic Resonance Image scans into powerful paintings. But she too felt as though she was addressing a relatively narrow community — other people with Multiple Sclerosis, when the point was to raise broader social awareness of the disability. And though the project involved collaborations in 22 states and nine countries, none were in Oregon. “I didn’t know how I fit in the fabric of Washington County as a leader or mentor to others,” she remembers.


THE ART OF LEARNING: An Occasional Series


All three Washington County artists, along with seven others, found solutions to the challenges inhibiting their art in a new, unique arts and leadership education project. The two-year old Arts and Culture Leadership Incubator program, a project of the Washington County arts organization Tualatin Valley Creates, helps artists in the region find more than artistic answers or even business and leadership skills. It also helps them find community — and contribute to it through their art. This week, the incubator’s second annual cohort of participants released video showcases of their work, which you can see here. 

But the artistic product itself is only part of the incubator’s value to its home. Even more important is the connections it’s fostering among artists and their community.

Once known as Westside Cultural Alliance, the nonprofit Tualatin Valley Creates is Washington County’s primary arts advocacy organization. It hosts development workshops, networking events, an online arts repository, and more. Although Hillsboro and Beaverton are among Oregon’s largest cities and have their own arts departments, TVC is uniquely positioned to stitch together an arts community amid the state’s most geographically and demographically diverse population.

While the region’s rapid growth had boosted the county’s economy and population, a 2018 study showed that the arts hadn’t kept up, leaving residents fewer opportunities to access arts and culture programs than other Oregon urban areas. While institutions like Beaverton Civic Theater, Hillsboro’s Bag n Baggage and the soon-to-open Reser Center for the Arts provide a variety of venues, arts education programs haven’t met the growing demand for skills appropriate to mid-career and emerging artists.

Many artists and arts lovers, says TVC executive director Raziah Roushan, have recently arrived  from the increasingly unaffordable Portland metro area — a phenomenon no doubt accelerated by the pandemic, as has happened in other major metro areas around the country.  “There’s an artistic exodus from Portland proper, with artists migrating either due east or due west,” she explains. “ In surveying our audiences, we’re seeing people move from Portland zip codes to Tigard, Hillsboro, Cedar Mill, Raleigh Hills and other areas.”

From the outset, Roushan explains, TVC wanted to make sure the incubator served the particular needs of its community — not replicate other arts and leadership programs rooted elsewhere. Compared to other areas, “Washington County is very collaborative,” she says. “Each of our cities and unincorporated areas have city-appointed arts council advocates. People want to come together and amplify their own pride districts.” 

Rather than importing big-name events from other arts capitals — a typical response of culturally insecure provincials — TVC decided to invest in its own denizens’ creativity, to build cultural capital from the ground up from native ingredients. After many stakeholder meetings and research into various approaches around the state and the country, then-TVC executive director Cindy Dauer and her TVC team conceived the Arts and Culture Leadership Incubator, “part-leadership development, part-business incubator,” which “supports local artists and cultural advocates in building a thriving, inclusive cultural and creative environment for our community,” TVC’s website proclaims. 

Collaboration and Community

What distinguishes TVC’s Arts Incubator from many other arts education initiatives is its values. Its creators clearly enunciated the principles they sought to advance — and put those into practice through their choices of faculty and participants. Judging by its first two classes this year and last, the pre-eminent values seem to revolve around community and collaboration.

“Washington County arts organizations are very collaborative,” Roushan explains, noting that many of the region’s galleries, cooperative organizations, theaters and more tend to be open to collective ideas, rather than many of those in Portland that seem to follow a singular (often the founder’s) vision. 

Tualatin Valley Creates Executive Director Raziah Roushan

Those values permeated TVC’s calls for incubator faculty and participants (they don’t use the word “students” for the selected learning artists) both this year and last. Naturally, TVC’s request for faculty applications asked about skills and accomplishments. But Roushan said they also wanted to know, “Who are you? What’s your story? What networks are you connected to? What can you hand down to the next generation of arts leaders? What obstacles have you faced in your discipline, and how would you share ways to address them?”

The emphasis on collaboration drew Roberto Gonzalez to apply for the first faculty cohort. A Beaverton-based public broadcast video producer and musician who was one of the first-year cohort faculty, Gonzalez learned about music at neighborhood art centers growing up and going to college in Havana, Cuba. He cherished the way they embedded creativity in the community. “When I saw the project I fell in love with it,” he recalls. “I wanted to share my experience with younger generations but also be collaborative.”

So did one of this year’s faculty members, Kristin Solomon. “They were all learning how to work together, and that’s why I wanted to be part of it,” she says. 

Solomon’s profession of coaching artists on business strategies, marketing, project management and fundraising equipped her to teach those skills in the incubator. Her other job as director of Portland’s Blackfish Gallery, which is run as a cooperative,  accustomed her to assimilating diverse ideas into a common vision. Solomon thought the incubator would also allow her to be not just a coach but also a mentor to emergent artists who wanted to work collaboratively. It would also help her formulate her own startup course.

Faculty members benefited from the collaborative environment as much as the participants.  “Even though I was part of the faculty, I was learning from the other faculty members and artists,” Gonzalez remembers. “They were learning from us and teaching us a lot. We were all collaborating together. It felt more like a community of creators getting together and sharing their experiences” than a traditional one-way educational environment. His mother passed away during the incubator, and it brought him comfort to be able to share that experience with other artists.

Julian Saporiti

Like this year’s other three faculty members, musician Julian Saporiti taught a long workshop via videoconference. Even though it was still a remote experience, he found it life-giving after so many months of artistic isolation. “To hear other people’s ideas, you realize that’s what we lost in the pandemic,” he says. “It provided that lifeline when you really need it. It was so successful because collaboration was allowed to be fostered. The participants are bringing as much to the conversation as the faculty.”

The workshops (which happened this year on six Saturdays in February through April) are free for the selected participants, who can also earn a $500 stipend to advance their work through, say, creating or improving their websites, photography or video to showcase their work, gathering materials, even hiring babysitters to allow the artists some studio time for creation. 

The incubator’s exact curriculum varies with each year’s particular cohort of faculty and students, tailored to their particular needs, experiences and strengths. “It’s about meeting participants wherever they are and navigating curriculum content around them,” Roushan explains. “We wanted to scoop them up like a mama duck and her ducklings,” equipping them with skills that will help them survive a world that can be tough for artists. “We put the faculty members in a room together and said, ‘What basic tools do you want to share that any arts leader or entrepreneur needs? Now you create the curriculum.’ Each year, there’s still a lot of experimentation.”

During its first year, “it felt like the curriculum was being built in every workshop,” says Gonzalez. He emphasized the importance of artists documenting their work and creative process and then using the resulting video and imagery to promote their work in social media and beyond. 

Roberto Gonzalez

Given that artists today have to be their own managers, sessions have so far touched on businessy skills like grant writing, finding donors, marketing, branding, writing press releases, applying for Small Business Administration loans, filling out financial statements, making budgets, crafting project timelines, creating evaluation procedures, and more. Participants learn all of these skills from fellow artists farther along in their careers who know how to apply them to making a sustainable artistic practice. 

“Not everybody can go get a graduate degree,” says Roushan. “Art college degrees aren’t always giving real world experience anyway. The incubator faculty are all working artists. They have their own jobs and clients. So for participants who’ve never met another artist at that level, they get advice they’d otherwise be paying thousands of dollars for — and they might not even get an opportunity like that there.”

The incubator isn’t just about being a better artist — it’s also about helping artists use their creativity and motivation to benefit the community around them. So in choosing participants, incubator faculty and staff prioritized community connection and potential over the insider credentials that sometimes determine which artists get public support.

“We developed this curriculum and these workshops for people to share what they were working on,” Solomon says, “and then learn how to apply what they were learning to their own project, and have somebody else there to help you organize it and connect it to your community. That’s not always the case when it comes to the arts. Some people care more about the outcome and not about the community you’re building. ”

For example, the participants created mind maps to show what communities they belonged to and who they could have an impact on, and also mission statements that encouraged the artists to figure out their own visions and what they had to offer to varied communities.

Kristin Solomon

“Artists don’t do anything in a vacuum,” Solomon says. “If you can really know who you are — your skill set, values, the things you’re passionate about — but you also know your community and what their needs are, you can find that symbiotic relationship where you’re able to serve your community with your skills, your heart and your passion.”

Julian Saporiti drew on his work at the intersection of art, activism, and historical scholarship to show the others ways to bring creativity to a broader community. Though he also had a more conventional music-educational background, having studied at Boston’s famed Berklee School of Music and taught at several universities and high schools, Saporiti admired the incubator’s approach of encouraging conversation and connection with artists’ broader community. 

“That’s different from education programs that focus on individual virtuosity,” he says. “The incubator classes were very much emboldening participants, with the aim being to spread that collaborative approach to the rest of the community.” 

Pandemic Adjustment

Just as the incubator’s first year was winding up, the pandemic struck, shutting down live events everywhere — including the planned showcases for the first-year participants. Like so many other art institutions, the incubator pivoted to a video model. Fortunately, they had Gonzalez — a professional video maker — in the faculty, and he’d already interviewed the artists and filmed parts of the workshops for introductory videos originally intended to promote the live event. He was able to use that material to create the video showcases you see here for both years’ participants.

The pandemic sparked further changes in the incubator’s second year. Workshops went virtual. In choosing faculty and participants for the 2021 class, “we were looking at the world around us,” Roushan recalls, including the national conversation over police violence, race, Covid and its impact on families and more. “So when we looked at seeking faculty members this year, we asked, ‘How do you use your art to communicate with the larger community, to reach beyond yourself and network? How do you translate what’s going on around you?’”

The incubator’s collaborative approach worked for at least three participants. Emily Miller found the incubator’s open collaboration process so enlightening that she’s adapting it to her own design for her Ghost Net Landscape, which she’d initially imagined was primarily about helping save the oceans from plastics. 

“The incubator showed me that that’s not why I’m doing Ghost Net Landscape,” she says. “What I realized during the incubator and looking at it from different perspectives is that I had to keep redirecting conversations away from the same narrative we hear about ocean plastic — whose fault is it? How can we solve it? The incubator helped me get from that point to, ‘OK we understand this problem — now where are we going?’ I want people to focus on creative transformation, and how they can apply it in their own lives — even if they have nothing to do with ocean plastic.” The changes she’s making as a result broaden her project’s relevance to more people.

Miller’s post-incubator version invited classes of Pacific University college students to work collaboratively on their own ideas about the subject. “I gave them a  prompt — make a puppet and tell a story of creative transformation on video — and they created their own goals and processes,” she explains. “I was just giving them space and guidelines and letting them figure out how they wanted to approach it. We got so much more creativity out of it than me telling them what to do.”

For Miller, opening people to creative possibilities can have greater community value than persuading a relatively few people to reduce their plastic use. “This is how we can all make a difference,” she says. “We don’t have to think of ourselves as artists or activists — everybody is capable of creative transformation. Maybe I would have gotten to the same place without the incubator, but even if I did, it would have taken me a lot longer without the framework they provided.” 

The artists also formed their own community, sharing challenges, insecurities, hopes and more in a supportive environment that made it easier for their imaginations to roam. “We chuckled once that we were becoming a therapy group,” Holcomb remembered, as they confessed their mutual feelings of incompetence at non-artistic necessities like taxes, grant-writing, and self-promotion through social media. “It was just the most wonderful experience. Those relationships have lasted. I still stay connected with everyone in it.”

 For Lindsey Holcomb, whose work exists mainly on the internet, it also provided a non-virtual community in her home area, and an audience beyond her fellow MS-affected people. In the incubator, for the first time, she was getting feedback from people who were neither involved in the MS community nor were ink artists like herself. That made her think about how to tell her story clearly to a diverse community with little knowledge of the subject or medium, and to consider how to make it relevant to broader groups.

“I appreciated having people to bounce ideas off of who weren’t within my niche,” she says. “It really just broadened my scope as I came out of it. That’s the value of sharing ideas with people who are not in my discipline. I recognized all these communities I could touch.”

Holcomb expects the broader perspective to persist. “We spent a lot of time on the language of our projects and who our audience was and who is this not reaching, not serving. It’s broadened the matrix of decisions I make about the kind of work I put out.”

She’s not alone. Holcomb remembers one participant, Natalie Davis-Eltahir, who initially felt shy even claiming the mantle of artist because she made wearable art. When the other artists responded enthusiastically to her work, and suggested ways of getting her work out into the community (through holding public “wrap parties” for her head wraps), “you could see a hands-on moment of transformation” in her confidence, Holcomb says. “That kind of moment repeated over and over again with everybody.”

According to faculty member Kristin Solomon, one of this year’s participants, Jamie Cormier,  exemplifies how the incubator’s emphasis on collaboration and community affected the art that emerged. Cormier had initially thought she might want to start a gallery focused on art about mental health. Thanks to the conversations in the incubator, she decided instead to partner with people in the community who were already working in that area, and to focus instead on what she was passionate about: not the administrative work of founding and running a gallery (while raising three children), but instead helping them make art that served mental health. She wound up creating art boxes that would go out to people with mental health issues who could use them to create art.

The welcoming environment encouraged Moya Mendez to bring up her tentative idea about science and art education and playgrounds. Providentially, one of her fellow incubator participants, Joseph Nguyen, is an architect. He saw the opportunity for a collaboration. The other participants helped her figure out how to keep the idea more about creativity than commercialism, connect to educational and other community institutions, and more. The project website goes live later this month.

“This is a safe space. a place where artists can share ideas,” says Moya Mendez. “I put myself out there, and it turned out the person I needed to help me was right here. Everything he’s good at, I’m not; everything I’m good at, he’s not.” It was an ideal example of how diversity and collaboration can inspire creativity.

Moya Mendez believes the diversity and community emphasis baked into the incubator from the outset makes it uniquely valuable. “Sure, you can sign up and take a random class, but being there week after week in this cohort of people learning together provided such a growth opportunity. That diversity of artists promotes so many connections being created. The incubator provided a lot of connection for the artists ourselves in a time when we did not have any.”

Roushan says artist feedback has been positive, with the most common request for more time and space allotted for the artists to connect with each other outside the workshops.  She also reports that after the first showcase, its website received as many visitors in five days as it had in the previous year. Like many arts organizations forced to go virtual, TVC found that putting offerings online instead of requiring audience members to come to a physical event vastly extended its geographical reach. She hopes it will turn more people on to the incubator and other programs like its extensive arts calendar, resource lists and more. And she’d love to expand the incubator, if more community donors will step up to fund it.

Community Contribution

The participants and faculty believe that the community focus that made the incubator so beneficial to the artists also makes it valuable to, well, the community.  “What made [the incubator] feel so different for me from the beginning was the true community focus,” says Miller, “to the point of decentralizing and trying not to have a leader who’s telling everybody what to do. We were all coming at the same community issues from our own perspectives, and figuring out the best way to involve the public in what we do. The common goal we all shared was building the community.”

Miller especially appreciates TVC’s role in bolstering artistic community in a diverse region that’s not one of the urban “superstar cities” that soak up attention and arts resources. “So much investment has gone into city centers,” she says. “There’s lots of people who don’t live in Portland who are equally creative. That’s the challenge of the future: in that environment, how do you create a creative community that’s healthy and supportive?” 

She thinks TVC and the incubator are making that happen.  And she’s putting her mortgage where her mouth is. The organization is one of the reasons she chose to buy a house in Forest Grove. “We are in a moment where people are redefining what an artist has to be and where they have to live. Having a strong organization here really trying to make an art community right here, that’s one of the reasons I felt comfortable staying here.” 

Gonzalez thinks the incubator’s approach springs from TVC’s collaborative values. “Something I’ve learned over the years is you have to work as a team to develop any project and be successful,” he says. “In art, the collaboration has to be not only between artists and cultural institutions but also between local government and cultural institutions, and TVC has that vision of promoting art and culture locally, but also integrating different art and cultural institutions and working with city and county government, creators, small businesses, the whole community.”

Faculty members think that the incubator’s collaborative and community oriented approaches, as well as the practical skills it taught, will also equip artists to get more involved in public discourse — and that will make the community better for everyone.

“What would we have done during this pandemic year without music and art to connect us?” she asks. “Artists should be leaders in our community. They do bring a new perspective and creativity to the table. The incubator is a great model . I’d love to see it replicated in other counties  and on a regional or state level. I hope we’ll see more people take this and apply it to their community.”

Learn more about TVC and the incubator here. Click the names below to check out video showcases from other Incubator participants.

Kendrick Payton

Arturo Villaseñor

 Kameron Messmer

Shelby Silver

Lyndsey Blythe

Justin Rueff

Lynnette Oostmeyer

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Radio Rejuvenation

Portland's All Classical Radio's new initiatives bring more diverse music to more diverse audiences

Classical music radio: dated music for old people, written by dead white European males, out of step with a demographic growing younger and more diverse.

All Classical Portland, the city’s 24-hour classical music radio station, is blowing up that stereotype of contemporary cultural irrelevance. Last month marked the second anniversary of ICAN (International Children’s Arts Network), the station’s new, separate radio station aimed at the very youngest listeners: kids and teens.

Host Christa Wessel with children from BRAVO Youth Orchestra

ICAN is only one aspect of an ongoing reinvention. The station has been offering more sounds from today’s Oregon (for which it recently received an NEA grant) as well as music from film and other contemporary sounds, including shorter, pop-influenced works. And now it’s taking an even stronger leadership role in rejuvenating classical radio. This week, the station announced the first recipients of its new Recording Inclusivity Initiative: commissioning and recording new and older neglected music by composers of color. And it’s planning to take that diversification effort nationwide. 


THE ART OF LEARNING: An Occasional Series


These initiatives show All Classical Portland, established in 1983, serving a higher purpose than entertainment: it’s providing a new and unexpected avenue for arts education for old and new listeners alike. They’re invigorating an institution previously synonymous with “old” with its opposites: “young” and “new.”

ICAN is only the latest All Classical program to focus on young listeners. Begun several years ago, the station’s weekly On Deck with Young Musicians show, created, hosted, and produced by announcer and Communications & Technical Liaison Christa Wessel, profiles young musicians and explores musical opportunities for young people in the Pacific Northwest. It also features new contributing hosts and producers Raúl Gómez-Rojas, Metropolitan Youth Symphony music director, and Amy Faust, an established broadcaster whose career includes nearly two decades of co-hosting the “Mike and Amy” show.

ICAN and RII, the inclusivity initiative, are part of All Classical’s JOY (Joyous Outreach to You/th) program dedicated to promoting equity and inclusivity in the arts, started in 2017 after Suzanne Nance took over as president and CEO. It also includes:

• an Artists in Residence program that provides selected young and professional musicians with access to All Classical Portland’s tech facilities

Where We Live, which spotlights community arts organizations  that explore the intersection of art and social issues

• The Rising Tide Grant, awarded annually to small arts organizations that enrich the artistic landscape and strengthen the community.

 • Youth Roving Reporters arts journalism mentorship program, in which the station’s on-air hosts provide selected teens guidance and insight on what it is to be a broadcaster and arts leader in their community.

Youth Roving Reporter Belise Nishimwe

Some other public radio stations (many affiliated with universities or other large institutions) boast similar programs, but I can’t think of another dedicated primarily to classical music that reaches so far beyond its narrow core mission and audience in so many creative and forward-looking ways.

“I think All Classical Portland has seized the opportunity to influence the future,” Nance told ArtsWatch. “We want to make sure children feel like they have a home in classical music, a place in the concert hall. All our initiatives are aimed at amplifying young voices and encouraging them to tell stories of their communities.”

Audio Playground

In 2018, Nance was looking to further expand the station’s connection to young audiences and realized that “our HD2 channel was just sitting there, silent.” She recognized a need — and an opportunity. They’d discovered through surveys and anecdotal evidence that the station already enjoyed more younger listeners than most classical outlets. “And with arts education resources slimmer than ever,” she recalls, “we wanted to make sure children had access to a safe space, an audio playground where they could listen to and learn about music, poetry, and literature, [and] develop social and emotional literacy and cross cultural awareness.” 

To head the initiative, Nance tapped Sarah Zwinklis, a colleague she’d met in her previous job in Chicago who now serves as ICAN manager, host, and producer. Both were determined to overcome the challenge that seems inherent in connecting young people to old music, especially music that even many adults often say they fear they don’t know enough to listen to. 

“One of the points of building this network was breaking down those barriers,” Zwinklis says, “to open those doors and make kids feel welcome to enjoy classical music, poetry, arts, storytelling. To make them feel it’s a place for them.”

ICAN Program Manager, Host, and Producer Sarah Zwinklis

In devising ICAN’s programming, Zwinklis began by asking: “What does a day feel like?” to a kid. From sleeping to just waking up to eating breakfast and so on, she arranged programs and music into little blocks, including several lullaby-heavy shows for nap and sleep time, plus Dance Break! and Up Beat and Move Your Feet!, which give kids music for moving around and releasing all that kid energy. Nance remembers Zwinklis drawing big charts and posting them and sticky notes all over one of the studio’s walls. The result: a lot more than just a lot of classic tunes. 

Zwinklis approaches programming as much from a kid’s perspective as an educator’s or radio executive’s. “We’re meeting kids where they are,” she explains. Zwinklis and Nance drew extensively on advice from friends with children in the target age group, and from kids and parents who came into record at the station or otherwise got in touch. “We asked for feedback a lot,” Nance says. “‘What did your 10-year-old say? Did they sit and listen?’ We tweaked the programming in real time based on what we were hearing.” 

Nance especially valued input from her sister’s two boys, both under 12. “I would send Sarah a text message: ‘My sister’s listening now and she says this music isn’t working for helping the children get to sleep,’” she remembers. 

Of course, they had access to ideas for musical selections and other programming from the station’s team of veteran announcers. They also invited listeners to recommend pieces — and received plenty of emailed suggestions, from music teachers and other educators, parents and grandparents — and, of course, kids. For a show focused on tales of adventure, they talked to kids, asking them to imagine what an adventure would be like. One 10 year old, Duncan, wanted “an adventure in sound,” Zwinklis remembers. “He’s frightened of spiders. ‘You know what’s scarier than spiders?’ he said. ‘Spiders clumped up in a big snowball, rolling downhill!’” 

ICAN Open House

Such programs show that ICAN is about more than providing a passive soundtrack to days and nights. It also stretches their boundaries by providing ample doses of kid-friendly dance and other music from beyond traditional classical music’s narrow-minded Eurocentric traditions. And it gently teaches kids about the arts — not just music — and inspires their own creativity. Here are some of the station’s offerings so far.

  • Screenshot explores and explains the educational value of digital media, TV, movies and video games through the music written for them. In the 15-minute weekday afternoon program and podcast, kids hear music that they’re already encountering in movies and video games, which Zwinklis (like many of us) consider to be classical music too. ICAN also offers classical arrangements of familiar pop tunes by Lady Gaga and others. The implicit message, she says: “Even though you think classical is stuffy and not cool, you actually hear it all the time in your life.”
  • Audio Book Tour invites young listeners to discover children’s books that help them connect to the world around them.
  • Monthly blog features prompt young listeners to engage online with the monthly theme. April’s National Poetry Month article, for instance, encouraged listeners to submit their original poems, so as to bring more children’s voices to the network.
  • What if World and Adventure Stories stimulate young imaginations with stories, while Colorful Compositions includes music intended to inspire them to create their own art.

I initially worried about the programming coming across as the music-ed equivalent of “eat your peas,” but everything I’ve heard so far has been presented in a concise, non-condescending, and often fun way. In fact, Nance says, more than a few adult listeners have confessed to her that ICAN is now their preferred classical station. That means that ICAN is also helping build an audience for the future. As Looney Tunes was for my generation and several before it, ICAN could become a gateway drug for classical music. 

Diversity and Equity

Like those old cartoons, ICAN is widely accessible. “The station is available to everyone,” says Nance. “It’s free, it’s in the air. You just have to know it’s out there.” Although, like most public radio stations, All Classical depends on donations and grants to pay for programs like this one, any kid or parent can tune in via radio (if in range of one of its seven Oregon transmitters) or internet stream, which reaches a global audience. That means its educational aspects are available to nonprivileged kids who don’t attend affluent private or public schools that can afford strong arts ed programs. And in arts-neglecting 21st century Oregon, that’s a lot of them. 

Moreover, the station has strived to include music, musicians and kids who are “representative of different backgrounds and communities,” says Nance, and to present material “addressing immigration, bullying, race. Sarah has made it a point to have diverse voices telling those stories. As we look to serving and broadening our audience, it’s crucial having that representation on the air.”

All Classical Portland President & CEO Suzanne Nance

ICAN’s educational programming has been especially valuable during the pandemic, which further undermined Oregon’s already underfunded arts education efforts and left kids stuck at home, where they could at least listen to the radio. That impelled Nance to double the program from the initial 12 hours a day to 24. “During the pandemic, we saw a need greater for at-home learning,” she explains. Zwinklis says ICAN benefits even pre-schoolers. “Studies show that brain development during a child’s first five years is faster than at any other time in life,” she explains. “Our 24-hour, commercial-free programming delivers educational content to supplement and support our young listeners’ development, especially when in-person learning experiences remain limited.”

Beyond ICAN’s educational benefits for kids, Nance and Zwinklis believe it will boost future classical music listenership. The environment in which you first learn about it in is important, Zwinklis says: “When you think of learning about classical music in an environment of fun and creativity, it becomes a fun thing,” not just another school requirement. 

The word — and the music — are getting out. Since its first year, the station reports, ICAN’s web traffic has increased 83 percent. Unique web streams on icanradio.org alone have registered more than 1,700 listeners from more than 80 countries every month. And there’s more to come. As part of  the station’s effort to promote the role of the arts in a comprehensive STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, ARTS, Math) curriculum, the team is creating a new program called sARTience that explores “the science of art and art of science,” Zwinklis says. When the show debuts next April, “kids and hosts will talk about how art is process — subjects like how paint is made, how science and art are paired together.”

In future, Nance says, the station might partner with schools and other institutions. “By and large, [ICAN] was created for parents and caregivers,” she says. “As we look to the future of ICAN, we will consider strategic collaborations with schools to take content we created and build out the curriculum so educators can take advantage of it.”

Broadening the Spectrum

All Classical’s interest in broadening its audience and reaching a wider community, so evident in the diversity found throughout ICAN, sparked its latest major project. The Recording Inclusivity Initiative (RII) aims to expand the recorded classical music canon by inviting selected contemporary composers to spend a week-long residency with All Classical Portland and partner N M Bodecker Foundation. During in-studio creative sessions, their compositions will be recorded by a quintet of regional musicians, and the new recordings will be aired on All Classical in the fall, added to the station’s regular playlists (meaning they’ll reach a quarter-million weekly listeners across the Pacific Northwest and millions around the globe), and distributed worldwide by the world’s biggest classical music label, Naxos Records.

Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson

The first-of-its-kind initiative addresses a complaint raised for years on ArtsWatch and around the country: the overwhelming dominance of music on classical airwaves and in concert halls by white and male composers. According to a 2016 study by the League of American Orchestras, African Americans account for less than 3 percent of orchestral musicians and Hispanics for less than 4 percent, while just one in 10 classical musical directors are women. 

Jasmine Barnes

It’s not that there aren’t plenty of women and composers of color writing significant music. A big reason that canon remains so stale and pale is the lack of published scores and readily available recordings for performers and radio stations to deploy. While you can hear literally hundreds of recordings of the same piece by European masters, it can be tough to find even a single widely distributed recording of new music by many contemporary composers of any race, a scarcity compounded for Black composers by systemic racism that has excluded so many from the access channels. 

“If we’re honest with ourselves, we know that classical music as a genre hasn’t always welcomed diverse perspectives or communities, and we see it in the lack of broadcast-ready recordings,” says Nance. 

Lauren McCall

Many have decried this injustice, which deprives not just composers but all music lovers of the opportunity to hear rewarding music. But All Classical Portland is actually doing something about it. This week, the station announced the five inaugural awardees, chosen from nearly 100 nominations.

  • Dallas-based Jasmine Barnes’s Taking Names ”honors women who fought for emancipation, civil rights and the #SayHerName movement.” (Barnes’s Songs for the African Violet was a highlight of Portland Opera’s recent Journeys to Justice program.)
  • Atlanta composer Lauren McCall’s A Spark and a Glimmer was “inspired by visual artist Alison Saar’s sculpture installation Feallan and Fallow, which is based on the Greek myth of Persephone and represents fertility in summer.”
  • Maryland-based Cuban composer Keyla Orozco’s Souvenirs “reflects the music and rhythms of many cities, from Paris and Santiago de Cuba to her ‘inner city.’”
Keyla Orozco. Photo: Gabriel Guerra Bianchini

The three Composers in Residence each receive a $2,500 award and access to the N M Bodecker Foundation’s state-of-the-art recording facilities and its artistic director, Chris Funk, who ArtsWatch readers will recognize from his work with The Decemberists. Along with the recording sessions, expected to wrap up by the end of September, this summer’s residencies include youth outreach opportunities in which the composers will talk to Oregon students about what composers do, panel discussions, and interviews. Oregon Cultural Trust and the Regional Arts & Culture Council (RACC) joined the Bodecker Foundation in investing in the project.

While providing opportunities to today’s composers is probably the most exciting part of RII, I’m happy to see the initiative also including music by past composers of color. Ghettoizing new music not only limits exposure of new composers to listeners who might enjoy them if given the chance, it also deprives fans of older and newer music alike from seeing the connections between them. Fans of Romantic and 20th century sounds can enjoy great music written by composers from those eras whose music never made it onto playlists — or sometimes even publishers’ dockets — thanks to the classical establishment’s systemic racism and sexism. RII this year lifts up piano works by French pianist Mélanie Bonis (1858–1937) and a flute sonata by African American New York composer Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson (1932-2004).

Mélanie Bonis

 “These recipients offer passionate perspectives that will help broaden classical music and the future of musical education,” said Portland flutist Adam Eccleston, All Classical Portland’s 2020-2021 Artist in Residence, who chaired Recording Inclusivity Initiative’s eight-member selection panel. “Together, we can change America’s playlist as their music is recorded, released and played on All Classical Portland and other radio stations throughout the country.” 

Enriching America’s Airwaves

Nance hopes All Classical’s efforts will extend way beyond the Northwest. RII will issue a national challenge to peer radio stations, encouraging them to adopt future regional inclusivity initiatives. As part of that 2022 campaign, All Classical Portland will provide stations with a free how-to playbook complete with a step-by-step guide designed to help them connect with marginalized communities and replicate RII in their respective regions. Stations in Spokane and Kansas City have already expressed interest.

“As an independent public radio station with a global reach and a mission to reflect and serve all communities, we’re uniquely positioned to address this deficit,” Nance says about the paucity of recordings of music by women and composers of color. “The Recording Inclusivity Initiative will elevate and amplify underrepresented composers and their music through the new recordings we produce and distribute together. We hope that the work we do through RII has a ripple effect that inspires others to act.” 

For example, she says most stations don’t track the composer racial composition of their playlists. She hopes that RII will encourage them to start collecting that data, as well as beginning to redress the imbalance between what’s being written by diverse composers and what gets played on radio. 

Regardless of how many other stations take them up on the offer, All Classical’s recent efforts have already shown several ways the field can overcome its long and ignoble legacy of exclusion, and maybe its self-inflicted cultural irrelevance. Granted, for all the welcome changes, the station’s playlists remain dominated by the same old dead white European male rep. But what a welcome surprise to find an Oregon arts institution historically mired in the past beginning to address the issues and listeners of today — and tomorrow.

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All Classical Portland streams worldwide at allclassical.org and broadcasts on KQAC 89.9 in Portland and Vancouver; KQOC 88.1 in Newport and Lincoln City; KQHR 88.1 in Hood River and The Dalles; KQHR 96.3 in the Columbia Gorge; KQMI 88.9 in Manzanita; 95.7 FM in Corvallis; and KSLC 90.3 in McMinnville. Tune into the International Children’s Arts Network at icanradio.org.

Want to support Black lives in Oregon? You can sign Resonance Ensemble’s open letter to the mayor and governor right here, and you can start learning more about racial injustice and police reform with Campaign Zero‘s #8cantwait campaign and the original Black Lives Matter.

BRAVO Youth Orchestras: Social Change through Music

The Oregon affiliate of Venezuela’s famed El Sistema education system gives diverse students access to music education

While Oregon debates defunding the police, it’s already spent the past few decades defunding arts education. Our regressive tax system deprives lower-income students of educational opportunities common in public schools two generations ago. In response, nonprofit organizations have stepped up to at least reduce the opportunity gaps. 

One of them, BRAVO Youth Orchestras, celebrates its eighth birthday this month with the appointment of a new executive director, Alonzo Chadwick, and a virtual fundraiser you can watch beginning this Sunday night. As BRAVO recovers from the pandemic, it’s poised to bring its successful integration of music education and social change to more Oregon students.

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Singing Strings

Composer Stephen Scott created singular music — and a unique instrument to play it

Stephen Scott was all set to become a jazz musician until the day in 1964 his mentor, University of Oregon music professor Homer Keller, brought a cassette to class. “There’s something going on in San Francisco,” he said, “and you should hear it.” The music, premiered only a few months earlier, was one of the seminal works of the 20th century, Terry Riley’s proto-minimalist In C. Mellifluous, repetitive, and easy for even untrained listeners to grasp, it marked a turning point away from the atonal, often dissonant sounds that had dominated classical music since World War II. 

“It grabbed me by the throat,” Scott recalled. “We were all stunned by it.”

Composer Stephen Scott. Photo: Melanie Tutt.

That ear-opening experience led Scott, who died March 10 at age 76, to blaze his own trails during a long and fruitful career on the faculty of Colorado College.  All composers make new music, but few create an entire new instrument to express their musical visions.  In the able hands of Scott and the Bowed Piano Ensemble he founded at the college in 1977, his bowed piano music became far more than a mere gimmick, even though the instrument’s uniqueness unfairly threatened to eclipse in the public mind the mesmerizing, minimalist-influenced music he wrote for it. In Scott’s case, the medium itself helped inspire the muse.

 “Stephen Scott is an inheritor of the mantle of Henry Cowell and Harry Partch and Lou Harrison and John Cage,” the eminent music historian Joseph Horowitz told me in 2008, “that American maverick tradition that had emanated from the West Coast of self invented composers in many cases using self invented instruments. These composers used novel means in a more traditional musical language. It’s an American phenomenon and he’s at the center of it today.”                                 

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A Young Puppet’s Guide to the Orchestra

Portland Columbia Symphony’s ‘Meet the Instruments’ series pairs puppets and players to introduce kids to classical music

Halloween was nigh, and Nicole Buetti thought the kids in her Los Angeles neighborhood might enjoy some scary music. But the creepy tunes she was blasting out at the haunt turned out to be a little too scary for some of the younger children. One friend suggested that Buetti — a composer, music teacher, erstwhile emo band member, and bassoonist — create a slightly less intense children’s CD for Halloween. 

After releasing My Halloween, bubbling with catchy kids’ songs, in 2008, she and her partner–who both worked in the movie trailer business–wanted to make the music even more accessible to children. Like so many nascent songwriters, they realized that the then-new YouTube might be a good place to post the songs–which meant providing a visual element. Some of her own favorite kids music came from Jim Henson’s classic Muppets series. Why not make a puppet who could sing their songs? 

Put together a composer with a post-Halloween idea, a passel of puppets, and the Portland Columbia Symphony. Add YouTube and instruments. Voila!
Nicole Buetti & Nirks

Off to the garage she marched, scrounging for materials. One foam Nerf ball, one feather tuft and an improvised eyeball later, Vincent the cyclopean singing puppet was born. Shortly thereafter, he and his song, written by Buetti, made his YouTube debut. “It kinda spun out of control from there,” she recalls. “My father played a big role. He said, ‘Stop just writing about Halloween.’” 


THE ART OF LEARNING: An Occasional Series


There followed a homegrown production company (In a World Music), a menagerie of fellow puppets called The Nirks (named after the creators, Nicole and Dirk Montapert), a series of science-related videos, a ginormous YouTube following. And, beginning this weekend, a new 16-part series of original videos introduces elementary school-aged children (and kids of all ages) to the instruments of the orchestra through fun songs, stories, and personalities, with Buetti’s original compositions performed by musicians from the Portland Columbia Symphony. The first episode premiered today, with subsequent episodes released weekly through mid-June.

Meet the Instruments is a project I have been wanting to do for a long time,” says Buetti, who now lives across the Columbia River from Oregon in Vancouver. “Thanks to the support of PCSO and a few generous donors, I have the opportunity to combine my love of puppetry with my commitment to music education and my passion for music.”

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Listening back 2020: Oregon recordings from a fraught year

Spotlighting a last batch of 2020 Oregon recordings

I know the last thing many of us want to do is revisit 2020. But we can’t let it slip away without spotlighting one final batch of musical recommendations gleaned from the many recordings Oregon musicians released last year. Some explicitly respond to the crises that plagued what ArtsWatch’s Bob Hicks calls “The Year That Should Not Speak Its Name.” Others were made earlier and released last year. Whether soothing or invigorating, they’re all worth hearing even after the year they appeared.

With most Oregon music happening on our home screens and speakers rather than stages last year, we’ve been devoting more pixels to recordings than ever. This is the last of several recording roundups explicitly devoted to last year’s Oregon sounds, but our antennae are already a-quiver over some stimulating sounds already emanating from 2021, so stay tuned for more roundups. And if you enjoy this music, please help make sure Oregon musicians can continue to create it by buying or gifting it. Bandcamp passes 100 percent of proceeds from purchases made on the first Friday of each month to the artists. 


LISTENING BACK: UNSPEAKABLE 2020


Her Own Wings–The Music Of Gabriela Lena Frank

Although this is California music, it was recorded by Oregon musicians in the lovely acoustic of a wine barrel room during composer Gabriela Lena Frank’s residency at the Willamette Valley Chamber Music Festival. She’s also worked with Portland’s Third Angle New Music. And of course, its title is our state motto.

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Building Resiliency with the Arts

Portland's I Am MORE helps traumatized young people heal by sharing their stories

The Portland-based advocacy organization Stand For Children annually awards $16,000 Beat The Odds scholarships for students who “have overcome obstacles on their path to graduation thanks to great educators & school programs.” In November 2018, three of Portland’s four winners — out of 16 statewide —shared something in common. Each were Black teens who had survived various forms of trauma, including food insecurity, homelessness, bullying, and sexual violence. And all had been mentored by the same teacher.

But S. Renee Mitchell was more than an educator. The poet (she’s poet-in-residence for Portland’s Resonance Ensemble), youth activist, and award-winning former newspaper journalist had been recruited to Roosevelt High School to teach journalism. But she also helped mentor students with their personal issues; brought in fruit, day-old bagels and cream cheese; revived the Black Student Union; created a Black Girl Magic Club, and invited in community members to perform, speak, encourage and share their wisdom with the school’s low-income students. 

Co-founders Jeanette Mmunga, Justice English and Johana Amani 

So when three of Mitchell’s Black Girl Magic mentees – Justice English, Johana Amani and Jeanette Mmunga each received a Beat The Odds scholarship, they decided to help other youth tap into their resiliency. Together, Mitchell and the four students, now all attending college, founded I Am MORE (Making Ourselves Resilient Everyday), a nationally award-winning, creative-and arts-based youth development program. I Am MORE has trained hundreds of students, schools, parents, and educators – statewide and nationally – on culturally relevant trauma-informed and social-emotional practices that “increase hope, healing and a sense of belonging,” according to its mission statement. 


THE ART OF LEARNING: An Occasional Series


Part of I Am MORE’s programming to help youth share their wisdom and creativity with adult audiences involves the arts. The organization’s 2nd Annual “Resiliency in Rhythm” showcase at this year’s 12th Annual Fertile Ground Festival of New Works includes poetry and rap performances, interviews conducted by Mmunga, one of I Am MORE’s three youth co-founders, and a fascinating discussion that allowed three young Black leaders of Portland’s Black Lives Matter protests to publicly discuss – for the first time – challenges they regularly faced attended public schools and, now confronting racism as college students and within society. 

Providing young people of color with an emotionally safe space for personal storytelling about their often-challenging life experiences proved to be a critical part of their healing from trauma and creating success on their own terms. In working with them, Mitchell discovered that unlocking traumatic personal experiences, and connecting those experiences with opportunities to gain insights could help shape one’s sense of purpose. That discovery not only helped her develop wisdom that improved her own life, but also helps others empower and bring joy to others — students and adults. That need is even greater now, Mitchell noted, with the pandemic’s documented rise in youth suicide and depression rates. 

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