Daniel Heila

Daniel Heila is a composer, flutist, and video artist whose work embraces electroacoustic sound design and projected video as well as traditional format composition, moving image art, sound art, and installation. His efforts are largely in response to memory, the mundane, and the witnessing of environment. In the past, his creativity has been intimately entwined with the ebb and flow of domesticity. As composer, Heila has largely been a student of the American experimental tradition from Ives and Cowell to Cage, Nancorrow, Feldman and beyond to minimalism, postminimalism, and postmodernism. He has also been a composer/performer of rock and folk music as well as free improvisation. His music achieves a balance of realism and abstraction, consonance and dissonance that honors these varied influences.

 

Singing across the centuries

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

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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Composing on this side of complexity

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

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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Claiming culture, marketing emotion

Oregon Mozart Players concert explores new worlds with music by living composers—and raises questions of preparation and appropriated meaning

Beall Hall at the University of Oregon School of Music was almost at capacity on October 12th for the Oregon Mozart PlayersNew Worlds concert–the first of three 2019-2020 season concerts featuring contemporary classical compositions. The progressive program and the exciting young guest artists–Eugene’s Delgani String Quartet–promised a compelling listening experience. Two works by American composers under the age of 50 were the program’s highlights: Teen Murti by Reena Esmail and How Wild the Sea by Pulitzer Prize winner Kevin Puts.

Oregon Music Players performed Reena Esmail and Kevin Puts, October 2019 in Eugene's Beall Hall. Photo by Torrin Riley.
Oregon Mozart Players performed Reena Esmail and Kevin Puts, October 2019 in Eugene’s Beall Hall. Photo by Torrin Riley.

Both pieces featured non-Eurocentric themes, and Esmail’s piece was crafted using materials of a nonwestern musical tradition: the Hindustani music of Northern India. Esmail is Indian-American and has completed significant studies of Hindustani music in India (Fulbright-Nehru scholarship), and brings that pedigree to her writing. For his part, Puts (whose opera Silent Night won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for music) drew inspiration for his string quartet concerto from tragic media images of Japanese victims of the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami.

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The music of our time?

Recent Delgani String Quartet concert featuring living local composers raises questions of tradition and timeliness

It would be hard to come up with a better scenario for listening to new art music than the A2 Productions concert Local Sounds, Local Stories, presented at Springfield’s Wildish Theater September 7th and 8th, featuring the Delgani String Quartet performing works of Eugene composers. Gifted performers, local composers, quality production, state-of-the-art venue–and top-notch local brew, booze, and food just a block or two in any direction. The program was well curated, with varying styles and formats, keeping the appreciative audience engaged throughout the program. A recipe for success. However, I left the venue wondering, “Why was this music written?” “Where did this music come from?” “How does it fit in the now?”

It is fair to say that most of the pieces evoked western classical musical languages from the first half of the twentieth century and earlier, all stylistically anachronistic, with one particular work speaking in a solidly mid-nineteenth century voice. Exceptions were Paul Safar’s Quartet in Red, Black, and Blue and The Walrus and the Carpenter, and Terry McQuilkin’s Invisible Light: Fantasy for String Quartet. Both used musical languages of our time: touches of pop, blues, and jazz in Safar; post-minimal textures in McQuilkin. Their general tonal language was in the western tradition. Even so, as evidenced by the enthusiastic response, the large audience had no problem with that. So, why did I?

A question posed

Having studied the art music of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries in depth and at length, I have an expectation that contemporary art music be a logical continuation–or in some cases perfectly illogical discontinuity–of this history and development, that it be cognizant of this trajectory or at least be responsive to the popular music of our time. I do not think this is an unreasonable expectation since other artistic genres exhibit a similar arc (outsider art being a notable exception). So why would a new music composer write music that does not communicate in a musical language of their time? I am not speaking of quotation but of whole cloth imitation. That is my vexing question, and it is difficult to answer. So I emailed the composers and asked them: “How do you see your music in relation to the music of our time?”

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A synergistic triumph of wills

Eugene Symphony closes a half-season of Tchaikovsky, Verdi, and Adams with popular ruckus Symfest

The five Eugene Symphony concerts I attended in the first half of this year (I was unable to attend the all twentieth-century music Valentine’s Day concert) were of such diverse programming that it is hard to ally them all with one unifying concept. Audiences witnessed world-class virtuosic performances of standards of the classical concerto repertoire; giant assemblages of musicians filling the hall with stunning walls of sound; boundary-pushing, comfort-zone-crashing chromatic works from the late nineteenth century; mid-twentieth-century dance works; twenty-first century ensemble works of consonant complexity; ethereal experiments of light and sound; and an evening of international jazz artists, contemporary ballet performance, pop sonorities, and a knock-out performance by a high-school glee club.

Whew! That sounds like a good season from a selection of arts organizations in a city twice the size of Eugene, let alone the half-season output of one orchestra. Can that one orchestra maintain high standards in such a diverse array of programming?

Yes. And here’s how.

Cognitive dissonance

Pianist Natasha Paremski performed with Eugene Symphony Orchestra.
Pianist Natasha Paremski performed with Eugene Symphony Orchestra.

Natasha Paremski’s performance, in January, of Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto was a synergistic triumph of wills. After the orchestra’s horn-blasting introduction, Paremski muscled her way into the tempo-control seat by pushing the ensemble to meet her slightly faster pace. Maestro Francesco Lecce-Chong and company worked hard to match her, the Maestro single-handedly lifting the orchestra up a notch with powerful gestures that belied his featherweight stature. This man knows how to work hard.

That effort defined the entire performance, with Paremski employing sophisticated nuances of tempo, articulation, and phrasing that stretched time and tension and even the orchestra’s cohesion. The results were a deliciously tense rapport that had everyone on the edge of their seats—musicians, pianist, audience—and a stunningly emotional performance that belonged not just to the virtuoso but to the orchestra and Maestro as well. 

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Future Music Oregon: triangle of artistry

University of Oregon's music technology program shows that instruments aren't the only evolving aspect of music -- so is the composer's role

At first glance, the stage at the University of Oregon’s Thelma Schnitzer Hall looks like any other chamber music recital. A violinist and pianist sit/stand ready to perform Neil Rolnick’s Deal with the Devil. Look closer, though and you’ll see controllers (devices that trigger sound generators) mounted on violinist Jennifer Choi’s violin, resting on her music stand, and at her feet. New York new music star (and Portland native) Kathleen Supové’s piano is wired for treatment, as well. The composer is also on stage, facing a bank of mixers, black boxes, and a laptop.

Neil Rolnick’s Deal with the Devil starts out a lightly swung, jazzy duo with minimal electronic elements, but it swells into an expansive sonic canvas of interchange and interaction between acoustic instruments, their affected sound, and modulated sound samples. It is powerful, engaging music. Ten minutes in, however, I ask myself, “Why is the composer on stage?”

As the instrumentalists dig in to their virtuosity, a warped string orchestra of electroacoustic sounds emerges: a whorling cacophony that whips around the hall’s eight-channel speaker system, causing heads to swivel. In contrast, Rolnick’s performance is mundane. He pushes faders, twists knobs, wiggles his mouse, and peers at the laptop. He makes intermittent, quasi-conducting motions, without ensemble eye contact. Put simply, he appears out of place. Next to the impassioned gestures of the musicians, his presence is a distraction.

Jennifer Choi, Kathleen Supové, and Neil Rolnick perform Rolnick’s ‘Deal with the Devil’ at Future Music Oregon’s fall quarterly concert on November 17, 2018. Photo: Daniel Heila.

Nonetheless, with its crowd-pleasing, whiz-bang ending, the piece is a success. But my question remains: Why is the composer on stage? Luckily, I find answers in the program’s remaining pieces and during a later interview with longtime FMO director Jeffrey Stolet.

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Sver: epic Nordic folk music

Swedish rhythm machine rocks Scandinavian traditional music in Oregon tour

In the front row of Corvallis’s Majestic Theater a flock of fidgety youths — a posse of sjörå on shore leave — hoot and whistle as the string-driven, Swedish rhythm machine Sver cranks out a rousing set of relentless syncopated hooks, exhilarating drops, and odd-metered rollicks. Anders Hall, the band’s fiddle/viola player, prowls the stage (a naughty can of chaw in his front pocket, latent horns pushing against the taut skin of his shaven head), his compact form slightly curved forward, almost as if he is embracing the spirit of this epic music. An old-world strömkarl, he’s here with his partners-in-pulse to enthrall the audience with hypnotic fiddling. And if revelers ask real nice, he’ll teach them how to play…

And that has a lot to do with why he and his bandmates — Olav Luksengård Mjelva on fiddle and Hardanger fiddle, Leif Ingvar Ranøien on two-row accordion, Adam Johansson on guitar, and Jens Linell on drums — are here in exotic Corvallis, Oregon, spreading the happy infection of their rockin’ take on Nordic folk music.

Swedish folk rockers Sver performed at Corvallis’s Majestic Theater. Photo: Daniel Heila.

Back in 2015, the band was in residence at the Alasdair Fraser Sierra Fiddle Camp in Nevada City, California, and so was Cayley Schmid, fiddler with Americana band Polecat, who attended the bands’ workshops and concerts. “I think Sver embodies a perfect combination of reverence for creativity, and musical playfulness,” she says.

A year earlier, Schmid had started the Bellingham Folk Festival winter weekend of folk music workshops and performances for festies of all ages and abilities. Schmid, the festival’s de facto director/booker/volunteer coordinator, realized it would be her dream booking if the Swedes performed in Bellingham. With a decade of touring experience with Polecat, she wound up booking half the shows of SVER’s first US tour in 2018. A successful run of gigs culminated in an appearance at the Bellingham festival and a promise from the Swedes to return.

That promise became reality when Schmid booked a fourteen-show Pacific Northwest tour (from Northern California to Vancouver, BC) in January 2019, with the Majestic Theater show in Corvallis smack dab in the middle of a run from Ashland to Astoria and on to Portland’s Alberta Rose Theater.

A fiddler in the Irish and Scottish traditions for most of her life, Schmid fell for the irresistible buzz and hum of Sver’s music. “They create a sound that is bigger than the sum of its parts,” she explains.

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