As usual, we’d like to begin by whining: Why oh why oh why oh why is it so difficult to get ahold of local composers in an easily sharable format?
Now listen, dear reader: We could name names. We happen to know of at least two major new-music organizations in Oregon that are sitting on hundreds of hours of archived music. Most composers who call themselves “composers” (rather than “songwriters”) have maybe a Soundcloud and maybe a YouTube channel. A few have CDs for sale on their own websites, as do one or two of the very few local ensembles that sometimes record local composers–and some of those are available to stream, too, though not many.
In other cases an old album might still be listed as available, even though all the links are broken. In other cases there’s nothing but a sound sample widget embedded in the website, with no option to take the music away and listen to it at leisure. And certainly in no case is there an option to send the composer any of your money–not even on a Bandcamp Fee Free Friday (today, if you’re reading this on Friday, April 7).
There’s no reason for this. Bandcamp is super user-friendly: All you have to do is upload those tracks, add a little artwork, set a price, et voilà! If it seems too complicated, well, ask one of your students to help. And we can talk about commissioning and performing and recording Oregon composers another time, when we feel like whining at somebody else (yes, Portland Opera, we’re looking meaningfully in your direction).
For now we’re just talking about how Oregon composers present themselves and allow themselves to be represented. We’re talking about making available the music that’s already sitting on a server somewhere gathering digital dust, or scattered willy-nilly around a bunch of different platforms, or making money for YouTube advertisers. We’re talking about letting your kids move out of the house and make their way in the world. Release the tapes, people!
Anyways, end rant. You know we love you, Oregon composers. We only want the best for all of you.
La lucha de la luz contra la oscuridad
Today we’re going to listen to three different groups of albums that are available on Bandcamp, and we’re going to start with a musician who’s either a composer or a singer-songwriter, depending on which angle you’re looking from. If you’re a choir like Resonance Ensemble or the Portland Public Schools Latinx Community Choir, you work primarily with composers–and that means Luz Elena Mendoza is a composer when PPSLCC and Resonance sing selections from her composition El Agua de Mi Ser together at the Portland Art Museum next Tuesday, April 11 (read more about that right here).
Most of us know Mendoza as the singer-guitarist-songwriter behind Y La Bamba, releasing albums with a variety of lineups since 2008’s Alida St. The group’s most recent full-length, 2019’s Mujeres, is pure Latin American psychedelia of the best kind–shimmery guitars, lush vocals, irresistible rhythms, catchy melodies that are half perfect pop chorus and half exuberant protest chant.
Y La Bamba is playing Wonder Ballroom this month, on the 26th, and it’s also an album release show: their new album, Lucha, officially releases on the 28th. You can pre-order that one on vinyl if you don’t want to stand in line at the merch table, and you can also get plenty of their other stuff off Bandcamp. And you might want to hurry, because these physical releases tend to sell out fast, even the cassettes (who knew?)–we were eyeing the vinyl release of Mujeres while back and missed our chance. But you can still get their fourth album, Ojos del Sol, on vinyl, if the present author didn’t snag the last one this morning.
(Update: roughly seven minutes after we published this little Bandcamp roundup, Y La Bamba added a new vinyl edition of Mujeres, in a dazzling green).
A kind of musical sisterhood
No, none of the composers on this multi-composer album is an Oregonian (unless we can lure Caroline Shaw here with our superior moss). What’s notable is that you can hear it performed live by one of the composers, who also sang the work’s forty songs on last year’s recording: soprano Shara Nova. She’ll be joined at The Reser this Saturday, April 8, by members of the Oregon Symphony and conductor Deanna Tham (more info on that right here).
There’s something magical and world-shaking about women talking to each other, isn’t there? There are six here, counting the poet Carolyn Forché, whose “On Earth” (from her 2003 book Blue Hour) provides the entire album’s text. Nova and four other composers–Shaw, Rachel Grimes, Angélica Negrón, and Sarah Kirkland Snider–shared texts and ideas back and forth, creating the work in tandem, and commissioning chamber orchestra A Far Cry recorded it.
Let’s hear from Snider, discussing the creative process:
“As composers, the five of us share an interest in storytelling, communication, mood, and atmosphere. A Far Cry had matchmade us for these reasons, but even they didn’t know the degree to which the five of us had inspired each other over the years. For example, Rachel Grimes was a lodestar for me—I had transcribed some of the music from her band Rachel’s twenty years ago just so I could play through it at the piano—and this music had a profound influence on my first song cycle, which I’d written for Shara Nova, who had also long been a muse for me. I had similarly revelatory experiences encountering the music of Caroline and Angélica; I was deeply inspired by them both.
“When we first gathered to talk about this project, it was a circle of stories just like this, a sharing of deep gratitude for what we had meant to each other on our respective musical journeys. The process of creating the song cycle together reflected this. One of us would share an idea on Dropbox, and the next composer would find a kernel of inspiration within it for another piece, and so on. What I love about this song cycle is that you can hear, musically, what we have meant to each other over the years. It is an embodiment and celebration of a kind of musical sisterhood.”
We can’t move on without mentioning a few vinyl releases from these individual composers. We’re currently spinning (it’s literally actually on the turntable right now) Shaw’s recent collaboration with Sō Percussion, Let the Soil Play Its Simple Part. This one’s pretty sparse, compared to Shaw’s previous work with voices (Partita and Is A Rose & The Listeners) and strings (Orange and Evergreen); it feels a lot like what it is, a companion piece to 2021’s Narrow Sea EP with Sō and soprano extraordinaire Dawn Upshaw. Both feature percussion textures that are a lot more Lou Harrison than Steve Reich, with Shaw’s characteristically perfect vocal melodies woven throughout. Bonus points for including the greatest ABBA song of all time (“Lay All Your Love On Me”)–and then having the audacity to just sing the chorus over and over again.
As mentioned by Snider above, Grimes is best-known for her band (like Mendoza). Her work as a composer fits into a socio-historical aesthetic that’s a bit reminiscent of Julia Wolfe or Harry Partch: her 2019 folk opera The Way Forth is “an experiential, non-linear investigation highlighting perspectives of Kentucky women from 1775 to today.” Quotes from letters and other historical documents are woven into chamber music which is at once Coplandishly folksy and very contemporary.
Snider herself is perhaps best known for her song cycle Penelope, inspired by the Odyssey and the wife of “the man of many devices” (and also reminds us of such “returning warrior” stories as Sommersby and The Return of Martin Guerre and probably also The Hurt Locker). That one’s available on Bandcamp, as is Snider’s terrific 2020 Mass for the Endangered, but the one we’re interested in today is her 2015 album Unremembered, a ghostly, haunting, sometimes downright terrifying “meditation on memory, innocence, and the haunted grandeur of the natural world”–and yes, it’s available on vinyl.
Let’s close this thing with Andy Akiho. We consider Akiho an Oregon composer–in a sense he always was, in spirit anyways, and when he officially settled down here it was simply a matter of us providing refuge to the weary former New York composer.
He’s performing a few times later in April: with Oregon Symphony musicians at Alberta Rose Theatre for Open Music on the 28th, then with the whole orchestra at The Schnitz on the 29th through May 1, when he’ll give the West Coast premiere of his steel pan concerto Beneath Lighted Coffers. So now seems like a good time to consider three albums of his music available on Bandcamp.
The War Below
The two compositions that comprise this 2018 release represent an ideal contrast with Akiho’s prior work, which was all extremely steelpan-and-percussion-centric and overtly colorful in a very Michael Torke kind of way. This album’s austere, creepy, smeary black-and-white-and-grey cover reinforces the contrast implied by the title: This is not joyous party music for a summer evening, this is subterranean conflict music for a cold wintry night.
But it’s not without the usual Akiho humor. The five movements of the hauntingly titled Prospects of a Misplaced Year are named after the five performers: the Friction Quartet and prepared-pianist Jenny Q Chai. The music is playful, because that famous Akiho spirit is too irrepressible to stay gloomy for long, but there’s a chewy darkness to it that nicely balances the island vibes he’d become known for. Septet–performed by Akiho and his buddy Ian Rosenbaum with a string quartet drawn from The Knights collective–kicks that somber classical temper into overdrive.
This is Akiho in his most “contemporary classical” mood, and it’s even available on vinyl. Highly recommended.
We spilled rather a lot of internet ink over this eleven-movement composition for Sandbox Percussion last summer, when Chamber Music Northwest featured it in its summer festival and everyone lost their minds (read that here and here). All we need say at this point is that, although it is not available on vinyl (booooooo), it is available in a handsome CD package with high-def sound and whatever a “unique meander booklet” is.
Here’s where we get really excited. There are three Akiho compositions on this newish album released last September. Deciduous is a nice little duet for violin and steelpan (Kristin Lee and Akiho); Speaking Tree is scored for medium chamber ensemble (brass quintet, string quintet, and percussion–always percussion) reminiscent of the larger moments on Akiho’s first album No One To Know One (particularly “Ki Iro / Yellow” and the title track).
But the big deal here is a magnum opus that stands beside the music on The War Below. Yes, we’re talking about LIgNEouS, a Bartóky work for marimba and string quartet that took Akiho forever to finish and which astounded CMNW audiences two years in a row. Here it’s performed by the people it was written for: Rosenbaum again (Akiho’s Joseph Szigeti) and the Dover Quartet.
No, I’m afraid this one isn’t available on vinyl either. Or anyways, not yet.