Charles Rose

Charles Rose is a composer, writer and sound engineer born and raised in Portland, Oregon. He graduated from Portland State University with a degree in Sonic Arts and Music Production in 2019, while also studying composition, mathematics, philosophy and political theory. His piano trio Contradanza was the 2018 winner of Chamber Music Northwest’s Young Composers Competition. In addition to composing, he is the sound engineer for chamber music group Fear No Music and a contributor to the Portland State music journal Subito. For ArtsWatch, Charles’ writing analyzes the culture of art music in Portland within the context of broader musical trends, hoping to understand where contemporary music is heading into the twenty-first century.

 

I spent the last week in March recovering from the second dose of the Pfizer vaccine. It was the worst I had felt in a very long time: a whole Tuesday either napping, struggling to keep food down or hopelessly trying to read or watch something. It was an unpleasant forty-eight hours, but it’s hard to compare that against the existential dread and depressive ennui of the previous year.

At least there’s something in the future to look forward to, a wild summer where the masks start to come off and the concerts slowly start coming back. I’m personally looking forward to the opportunity to see Rhode Island noise-rock band Lightning Bolt, known for the absurd volume they can pump out of just bass and drums, as well as the return of the Oregon Symphony. Look out for my coverage of their new season, new music director, and new sound system.

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MusicWatch Monthly: March of Progress

Virtual house shows, American composers, a micro-opera festival, and more

I don’t have much experience of the “good old days” of Portland. I was a toddler when Powell’s City of Books renovated in 2002 and barely a teenager when IFC’s Portlandia premiered–two events I have heard heralded as the beginning of the end for our true underground culture. The nineties and early 2000s economy that allowed for our Elliott Smiths and Dandy Warhols among a hundred others to blossom was short-lived, and we can attribute the shift to Portland’s cultural discovery by the rest of the country, gentrification, the boom of the housing market, the influx of tech companies wanting to avoid Seattle and Palo Alto…or some combination of those things. It can sometimes be hard to remain forward-looking all the time.

One of the lesser-thought-of social casualties of this shift–and especially of the last year–has been the world of house shows. Thankfully, KPSU is hosting a virtual house show on March 6th from 6-8 pm, an imitation of what once was but still a welcome chance to hear some young local talent. This includes local experimental synth duo Sea Moss (a pun on the CMOS batteries computers use to keep time), named by Willamette Week as one of Portland’s best new bands of 2020, and Songs for Snow Plow Drivers. Nothing will match the experience of standing in a crowded basement somewhere in Northeast, reeking of mildew and tobacco smoke, listening to great music by your friends, your friends’ friends, the band that friend of yours knows from work.

To some that sounds awful, to others heavenly. You can find their virtual house show online here. There is also a bit of a scavenger hunt: on the days leading up to the show, PSUaffiliated instagram accounts will be giving out clues, leading to letters and eventually leading to a word. Guess the word right and you’ll get entered into a drawing for a $50 gift card.

This month’s installment of Fear No Music’s Tomorrow is My Turn series is its own sort of house show, a livestream featuring flutist Amelia Lukas. The concert is available for forty-eight hours from its premiere at 7:30 pm on Monday the first, so tune in now while you have the chance. The program features Valerie Coleman, Carlos Simon, Allison Loggins-Hull and Joshua Mallard. A friend of mine compared Lukas’ playing to a shredding metal guitarist, which sounds awesome–and after hearing it myself I have to agree.

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MusicWatch Monthly: Frosty Festive February

Festivals, youth music, and a month’s worth of Black composers

In a “normal” year, February would be a month of Portland festivals. After months of seemingly endless overcast skies and (until this week) not-quite-cold-enough-for-snow temperatures, we need a bit of a reprieve before the sunny skies come back in full. With our usual work, school and social schedules all out of whack, it feels comforting to remind ourselves of annual traditions and festivities.

Mardi Gras and Ash Wednesday fall in mid-February this year for the Catholics among us, reformed or otherwise, and it has felt like last year’s Lent self-sacrifices haven’t even ended yet. Portland Foodie favorites like the Seafood and Wine festival are, unsurprisingly, cancelled. Turns out it’s pretty hard to have a socially-distanced food festival. Who knew? Thankfully you can still experience bits of the Winter Lights Festival in various places across the city.

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MusicWatch Monthly: Death and recirculation

Nightlights, soundwalks, and snowed-in traditions

I’ve spent a lot of this last month thinking about the idea of tradition, as year’s end and the various solstice-adjacent holidays bring us back to annual traditions. Whether that be certain films or music, family events, or whatever else, there’s this feeling of recirculation, a point of return necessary to bring in the new year. But this year the holidays take on a more somber tone, as we may have to leave some of our favorite traditions behind.

Winter has long symbolized death. The sun–the celestial body that brings forth all life on Earth, the ur-symbol if there ever was one–reaches its lowest point, and days become shortest (in the Northern Hemisphere) on or around the twenty-first. In Portland, the sky becomes overcast for months on end–the same weather that makes the Brits so stereotypically dour. It seems ironic that humans have for millennia celebrated the nadir of this death season. But the inevitability of rebirth in spring is what gives hope for the future.

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MusicWatch Monthly: A vote for diversity

November concerts initiate reimagined seasons of socially distant, socially relevant new music

After a nice weekend of socially-distanced Halloween shenanigans, the beautiful blue moon and a well-earned extra hour of sleep, November is here. It took a long time, but it feels like Portland’s arts community has settled into a rhythm of live-streamed concerts and occasional outdoor performances. What I appreciate above all is that this new format allows for a bit more experimentation in repertoire as we continue to move on from the hegemony of German dudes in classical music.

We can hear that in how the classical music community expands its focus, as composers and musicians who used to be on the periphery move toward the center. Older composers are rediscovered, newer composers get more attention, and we continue to confront our long history of complicity in racism, sexism and classism in music.

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“Indisputably beautiful”: Taking ‘The Magic Flute’ outdoors

Local singers deliver an unconventional take on Mozart’s classic

The last six months have left us starved for live music, with the country kinda-but-not-really shutting down to handle the pandemic. Luckily for us, last month a cohort of young singers took it upon themselves to stage the first full opera production in Oregon since March. These singers, collectively known as Lark Opera, started with the obvious first task: finding and securing a performance venue. The task became even more complicated when their first scheduled performance, set for September 19th at Utopia Vineyard in Newberg, was smoked out by the fires rampaging through the state that week.

But the smoke cleared, and the second-now-first performance went forward on the 27th at Lady Hill Winery in St. Paul, another of the many small vineyard towns south of Portland. Watching a performance of The Magic Flute lit by the dimming sunset over the Willamette valley, sitting on the lawn and drinking a light, tart, sour-cherry wine seemed a distinctly Oregon way to experience opera. 

Soprano Angelica Hesse, who spearheaded the production, played Pamina, a role she told ArtsWatch she’s wanted to play since her earliest dreams of becoming an opera singer at thirteen. She said that the last few months “have made it clear to me that I can’t go a year without this, that [opera] is something that really matters–and I had the feeling that is the case for audiences too.” 

The eleven singers had earlier taken a Zoom course on The Magic Flute, and like all musicians they were already familiar with the music. With funding from an ongoing Indiegogo campaign and a series of backyard rehearsals (with masks on), they put their new skills to use in an unconventional way. Hesse asked herself, “how do we make this happen?”–and her answer runs through the whole production.

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There’s a man going around

Damien Geter’s An African American Requiem: a three-part interview with the composer

This is the final installment of a three-part interview. Click here for part one, “Black music is the centerpiece of American culture.” Click here for part two, “Tired of having conversations.”

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African-American composers play an important and all too often overlooked role in America’s musical history. William Grant Still and Florence Price were the first major black symphonic composers in America, and Still’s Afro-American Symphony was widely played across the country in the early twentieth century. Ragtime composer Scott Joplin and jazz composers like Fats Waller, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and Miles Davis wrote some of the most popular songs in American history. The late twentieth-century avant-garde music of Anthony Braxton, Julius Eastman, George Lewis, and Pulitzer winner Henry Threadgill explores the limits of musical performance, notation, and improvisation.

As we discuss with Portland composer and singer Damien Geter in our interview below, the relationship between an individual artist’s identity and their musical language is complex and multifaceted. The interaction between the European classical tradition and the American folk traditions of spirituals and the blues is equally complex, and has led to some of the most enduring works of American classical music—including not only the work of Still and Price but also Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess and Copland’s Clarinet Concerto.

The unification of these two musical worlds is apparent in Geter’s An African American Requiem, which was scheduled to have its premiere this spring in an Oregon Symphony concert that has been pushed back by pandemic closures to Jan. 22, 2021. There are clear historical precedents for Geter’s approach to the genre: Penderecki, in his Polish Requiem, combined the usual Latin liturgical texts with other text related to tragedies throughout recent Polish history, including the Holocaust, the Warsaw Uprising, and the Katyn Massacre. On Monday, we discussed how Geter includes contemporary American equivalents, notably the last words of Eric Garner.

In An African American Requiem, the original liturgical texts mostly remain untranslated, with the exception of the “Kyrie” (Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison) which is set in English: “Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy.” Choosing to translate the first movement after the introduction prompts the listener for further use of English in the Requiem and serves to make the meaning of this particular liturgical text clear to the audience. Many of the new texts are interwoven with the liturgical ones through contrapuntal overlaying or juxtaposition.

The “Liber Scriptus” movement is juxtaposed with the spiritual “There’s a Man Goin’ Round Taking Names,” highlighting God’s judgement upon death. The contrast of Ida B. Wells’ speech “Lynching is Color-Line Murder” with the “Libera Me” invokes parallels between the past and the present, showing how the lynchings of black men and women throughout American history continue to this day in a new form. The vengeful words of the “Libera Me,” combined with the desire for retribution at the end of “Lynching,” connect the spiritual and the material costs of violence.

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In part three of three, ArtsWatch talks with Geter about the nature of programmatic music, his new Justice Symphony, and the role of black music in American traditions. The interview was conducted by phone May 20, 2020, and has been condensed and edited for clarity and flow. The complete interview, with musical analysis and score samples, will be published next month in Subito, the student journal of Portland State University’s School of Music and Theater.

Oregon ArtsWatch: What are some of the new challenges, or conversely things that were easy for you, building up a large-scale work?

Damien Geter: It hasn’t been hard. I’ve gotten five commissions since this. I count myself to be very lucky, and I’m thinking that I should’ve done this all along. My path as a composer has been very personal, so when I revealed myself it became something that people were interested in. When people ask me, I say that I’m in the commissioning phase. I have things that I don’t advertise, because I don’t know if they’re good or not. I’m just starting from this point and building on.

AW: How did you approach the work’s technical side, things like combining blue notes with contemporary harmony and counterpoint?

DG: Sometimes I build music off of very specific ideas. For the “Lacrimosa,” I was thinking about how Renaissance composers would use chromaticism to indicate weeping, so I used a lot of chromaticism in that particular piece. That was the guide in that one. Some of these are based on things that already exist, and I kinda play around with those. Like in the “Liber Scriptus” and the “Man Going Round” I play around with the melody a bit.

Sometimes if I’m working on a piece, if I’m singing or at a show, it’s not uncommon for whatever composer that is to creep in. I was listening to a lot of John Adams when writing the “Recordare,” so there’s a lot of minimalism there. I was working on Porgy and Bess while writing the “Ingemisco,” so there’s some Gershwin there too.

The last concert I went to was the Shostakovich Eleventh Symphony, which is one of the best I‘ve been to. And I was writing my symphony at the time, so it sounds just like Shostakovich—but I’m not going to change it! When I’m doing oratorio works, I like to sit in the orchestra to hear all those colors and hear how those instruments work. I got a chance to do that, and it changed the way I was writing.

AW: We were talking about the influences of spirituals and the blues in the musical language, and it does seem like there are very different perspectives on counterpoint and harmony that aren’t intrinsically tied to classical music.

DG: We all go to school and take all these theory classes and ear training and it’s helpful, but when you become a big person you just write what sounds good. I’m not thinking about if it’s a Neapolitan sixth chord that resolves in a particular way. I mean, I have this training that’s innate within me, and I’m not thinking about those things. Sometimes I think about a chord progression to figure out how to get from point A to point B so it has some kind of flow.

I don’t like my music to sound too wonky. I just write whatever I feel like. It goes back to all those influences. If I’m writing something and I flatten the fifth, I mean I got it from somewhere and I probably didn’t get that from school.

AW: Are there any particular artists you grew up with who you have a particular nostalgia for? 

DG: For me it’s Anita Baker, and Luther Vandross. I get very nostalgic and I listen to them all the time. Earth Wind and Fire. I mean those are the folks I remember listening to as a kid, and as I was making my own musical decisions I listened to Janet Jackson, Whitney Houston, Madonna. Remember the band Bush? I used to love them. And remember Poe? I used to love her!

I definitely went through a Nirvana grunge phase, but at the drop of a hat I’d listen to Dr. Dre and Tupac, Snoop Dogg. I’m more of a Biggie than a Tupac person, though. I felt like the East coast was smoother. I really did love Public Enemy. One of my absolute favorite albums is The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. I think my version of hip-hop is in a few of these movements.

AW: American classical music is so indebted to European classical music and American folk music; it seems we’re just taking from these traditions without trying to create a distinctly American music.

DG: Aaron Copland was focused on creating the American sound, and he took from black culture to create his own musical voice. Black music is the centerpiece of American culture. I can think of no form of music that has not been influenced by black music. Maybe groups like GWAR?

AW: Even there. It’s still rock music.

DG: Rock, country, everything. It’s all centered around black music. 

AW: If you were interviewing yourself what would you ask? 

DG: Since there’s such a central topic to this piece, I would ask if all of my music is centered around these kinds of topics.

AW: So is your symphony going to be programmatic?

DG: Well I’m glad you asked! Most everything that I’m writing these days has to do with the black experience. The symphony is called the Justice Symphony, from music of the Civil Rights movement. The first movement is a fantasy on “Eyes on the Prize,” the second is “Precious Lord,” and in the last I used “O Freedom,” “We Shall Not be Moved,” and “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” And everything that I write pulls from the Black Diaspora.

I wouldn’t call the Justice Symphony programmatic, in the sense that there’s not a program or story that goes along with it. Actually I don’t think anything that I write is programmatic.

AW: It raises the question of whether these lines are irrevocably blurred. Even if it’s a Brahms string quartet, then it’s still about something. 

DG: I don’t know if Brahms would say that. I think it depends on the person. It could be based on a memory. I was having a discussion the other day about art. People pay millions of dollars for a piece of art, and there are people who would never pay that much. It just depends on what you value and what you have in your head. So if you create a story around a piece, then sure it can be programmatic, but if that wasn’t the composer’s intent it’s hard to say whether it is.

It would be interesting to see in a hundred years if this thing has any legs, whether we think of this as nationalist music, or programmatic music, or music for music’s sake. Is what I’m doing nationalism? I’m not very patriotic. I think I’m doing the opposite at this point. 

AW: Perhaps dissent is patriotic.

DG: That’s true. 

AW: I’ve heard people say that the history of black liberation is one of taking the principles of freedom and equality our nation was founded on seriously, where it can’t just be for land-owning white men, it has to be for everyone.

DG: I think that’s true absolutely. I do use the national anthem in a minor key, in the “Lacrimosa.” So maybe that’s nationalism.

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.

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