Cascadia Composers: crimes against conformity

10th anniversary season-closing concert offers clues to organization’s success

by MARIA CHOBAN

Guess where I am.

A lemon yellow wading pool, aluminum bowls spin bump chime on its blue sparkly surface, kids clang big silver balls at them.

Nope, I’m not sitting in a friend’s backyard.

A drone dancing with a human robot.

Nope, I’m not at Burning Man.

A cider balanced on my belly, lying on floor pillows, watching a wizard wave Wii wands, warding off ghosts.

Nope, I’m not high.

Give up?

Photo: Luciana Pina

I was at Cascadia Composers’ All Wired Up micro-festival of electronic music at downtown Portland’s Old Church Concert Hall on the deliberately chosen date — 4/20. 

Concocted by a Western classical music consortium, I expected . . . well, what do you expect when you read “micro-festival of electronic music?” Instead, It turned out to be the funnest fringe festival I’ve attended in Portland.

We obey Cascadia’s unflappable third president, the forward-looking Ted Clifford, and four more Cascadians wielding hand percussion instruments. The Pied Percussionists lead us outdoors into the bright sun where the gamelan is set up . . .  next to the lemon yellow wading pool . . . delighting even the pedestrians strolling down SW Clay.

Gangstas of Gamelan

Cascadia Composers, with 86 members, mostly from the Pacific Northwest, thrives when breaking classical music’s archaic ‘rules’ with unconventional events and offerings. For example, All Wired Up micro-fest of electronic music included a piece for Balinese gamelan (Indonesian percussion) and no electronics: ArtsWatch editor Matthew Andrews’s Because I Could Not Stop For Death

In May, I attended Cascadia’s monthly presentation (open to all) and spoke to a 30-something composer who recently moved from Dallas, Texas, ninth largest city in the US. His reason for moving to the 29th largest city? Dallas doesn’t support the ideas of burgeoning creators. When he asked a music mentor in Dallas where in Portland he should plug in, the response was Cascadia Composers and Classical Revolution PDX

How did Cascadia gain this notoriety? How did it turn a well behaved niche art enjoyed by a niche few into the rollicking frolic for young and old, newbies and insiders evidenced at All Wired Up? I’ll dust for fingerprints all over this festival. Let’s follow the clues and solve this crime.

Clue #1: Embrace forbidden styles 

I’m flipping through my “All Wired Up” program waiting for the first concert to begin, wondering how much “electronic music” I can stand before I sneak down to the river to check out the cherry blossoms. A young wisp of a sprite strides to the piano and opens the festival with Small Chapel Organ. Composer / performer Timothy Arliss O’Brien duets with his recorded organ part, then weaves his way around a drum set, various keyboards, and music stands to finish his piece at the pipe organ, duetting with the recorded piano part, thanking us with the most tentative, sweet bow I’ve seen from a performer. I am charmed not just by his vulnerability, but with his tender opener. 

Momentarily puzzled when the first of three traditional rock/prog bands takes the stage. I quickly solve it and smile, for this too is electronic music! A couple of pieces remind me of Morton Subotnick’s 1970s arrhythmic bleep-bloop electronic sounds, including Brian Field’s duet for fixed media and piano, Katihisi. Not my favorite, but the toddler sitting behind me giggles gleefully, anticipating each bleep, turning it into a surround-sound trio. I succumb to her delight. 

Jennifer Wright’s design for All Wired Up program cover

All Wired Up busted out of conventional electronic Western classical music with Cascadia composer Nicholas Yandell’s call for scores. He let Cascadians know that all submissions using electronics would be performed. This is my first clue to Cascadia’s success: no culling, no insistence on conforming to a particular style such as the bleep-bloop electronic music that has made me, and I’m sure other GA-ers, (General Audience) shy away from electronic music concerts in the past. 

Herd mentality is supposedly necessary for branding organizations, so that we in the audience know what we’re getting into when deciding whether to attend an event or join a group. New York’s Bang on a Can embraces minimalism and post-minimalism. Portland’s March Music Moderne prefers modernism. And you’re not gonna hear Puccini at Pickathon. All Wired Up probably made an electronica academica nerd’s eyes roll, but it made a GA-er like me stay after intermission, anticipating more surprises in the second half. 

Where did this unusual open-mindedness come from? I resumed my search for clues.

“Busting into” is as nerve wracking as busting out of. Mike Hsu, trained violinist and day-job physiatrist, was 32 when he joined Cascadia Composers in 2011. Being formally untrained as a composer—having, as he writes, “taught myself how to compose by mimicking the sounds of British synthpop bands such as Erasure and Depeche Mode”—he was so nervous his hands shook while giving his first monthly Cascadia presentation. Hsu loosened up the crowd (or tried calming his own nerves) by showing the group how to get single pages of printed music to turn easily by rolling, duct-taping and laying flat so that each sheet sticks out slightly from the one behind. Hard to do when your hands are shaking.

From there, Hsu stumbled through defending synthpop (synthesizer pop), acknowledging that unlike in historical Western classical music, melodies and chord changes were not that interesting. But he loved the syncopation, repetition and happy dancing feet. 

Within ten minutes, every composer in the room was practicing tricky off-set stomps with claps encouraged by Hsu, who finally relaxed. Afterward, ArtsWatch contributor and Cascadia founding board member Jeff Winslow—a composer who loves lush complex chords and chord changes and doesn’t love monochromatic or looped syncopations—flagged me over, blurting “Watch this! I think I got it!” Grinning, he rolled off a series of complicated stomps and claps with the accuracy and aplomb of Bobby McFerrin

Jeff Winslow: Grand Theft: Rock

It’s not enough to love the person and hate their music, or even to accept it with detached good grace. Cascadia actively embraces music that not all of its members like, mostly with the glee of the toddler who giggled behind me at All Wired Up.

Clue #2: Put the audience first

At intermission, I explore the reception room where the second concert will happen. I notice a sliding door on the opposite wall; behind it, a small study. Cascadia composer Susan Alexjander’s soundscape meshes seamlessly with video artist Diana Hobson’s narration and visuals. Their installation Into Being: The River, playing on a continuous loop, soothes with trickling streams and gushing falls. What a refreshing respite for festival fiends! One mesmerized little kid sitting behind me doesn’t want to leave. Another’s pulling daddy to the couch in the front row, curling himself around to watch the screen. 

The bar’s open throughout the entire festival and both installations are constantly accessible, encouraging the audience to mill around inside and out whenever they need a break from the stage action. 

At my first Cascadia concert in 2010, the scene was much different. The OG founder lamented from the stage that no one paid attention to composers. I could see and hear why. I sat on a hard chair in a dark hall, watching set changes that took a full lunar cycle between sloppy performances of pieces that sounded disconnected from my inner emotional world and real world experiences. 

Over the years, though, Cascadia found performers who practice, strategically littered the stage with instruments and stands to avoid the long set up time between pieces and came a long way toward learning how to work, each with their own composing style, in a way that moves their audience. 

With the addition of Dan Brugh, who produced All Wired Up, Cascadia secured not just an engaging composer, but a visionary determined to make magic happen anywhere except in a dark stuffy concert hall. Brugh is responsible for coaxing Cascadia outdoors to play. Last summer, his production Caldera scrambled down into Mt. Tabor’s volcano while spectators bicycled, scootered, walked, and watched from the rim above. Those who ventured into the crater to join the musical melee (which included eight Cascadian compositions) earned a free pet rock.

Volcanic Disruption

In his 2016 Perceptions of Sound show, Brugh collaborated with fellow Cascadian Paul Safar, whose own comfortably pop style integrates well with the haunting, dissonant chords he borrows from western classical music. Brugh and Safar filled a huge church in Eugene with 20- and 30-somethings looking for a cool new experience — a concert featuring eleven Cascadian composers, in the dark. Except for the glo-sticks. 

For All Wired Up, Dan Brugh chose fellow Cascadia Composer Jennifer Wright as his collaborator. The yellow wading pool with chiming silver balls and bowls, beckoning us to play as we entered The Old Church, was Wright’s installation, as was the early-video-game-inspired font on her brightly printed program cover design. 

In too many artistic endeavours where artists pledge allegiance to their own self-expression, Brugh instead pledges allegiance to the audience. And that’s my second clue to Cascadia’s success. With his exuberant, offbeat Cascadia shows, Brugh, whose often whimsical compositions mirror his irrepressible personality, continues pushing himself and the Cascadians to take chances, to think about the broader non-western-classical music audience, to boldly go. 

The irrepressible Dan Brugh

Clue #3: Collaborate with Co-conspirators

A black leathered cyborg with a boxer’s physique muraled in tattoos stop-motion-steps from somewhere in the audience toward the stage. Jennifer Wright’s recorded funk bass intro accompanies him in her dystopian Welcome to the Future, Citizen #2406. The dancer, Conrad Kaczor, hoists himself up church railings to the stage platform. 

To my ears, Wright’s score sounds like Trent Reznor’s electronic beat driven 1990s palette — funky interior rhythms, harsh, propelling. A genre I love. From the front row, Wright, a gifted actor, manipulates a drone, imbues it with stray-kittenish longings for friendship and a home. The opening dystopian implications dissolve as the tiny stray bops for attention around the swatting cyborg. Kaczor’s face softens, mouth curves, limbs round and his rigid metered movement stretches elastic, sentient. 

Along with its timeless boy-meets-drone love story, what made this scene magic was Wright’s choice to work with a popper (street dancer) and new technology. Kaczor’s dancing, acting, costuming combined with Wright’s music and ability to bring a vulnerable little drone to life elicited long, loud appreciative AWWWW’s and applause. 

Li’l Bug and Conrad Kaczor. Photo: Matias Brecher

Aha! My third clue: Such intriguing partnerships have made other Cascadia productions successful. Concert of Remembrance, a 2017 collaboration with Oregon Historical Society, Oregon Nikkei Legacy Center and the Japanese American History Museum, drew an SRO crowd that came to commemorate the 75th anniversary of Executive Order 9066, which evicted Japanese Americans from their homes and imprisoned them in internment camps. 

Clue #4: Corrupt youthful offenders

On the screen, the hoodied protagonist paces forwards, then backwards along the east side Esplanade, bordering the Willamette river. It’s night. He lies down, curls up. Stands. Repeats. Homeless? Street kid? Pulls out his last tab, places it on his tongue. To be? Or not? He takes off. Very high. . . toward the railing. 

Tristan Bliss’s music track escalates from jumpy beats within a square meter, ending with Bliss’s signature: prolonged screaming intensity. Kaleb Davies’s disciplined drum technique unhinges a wilder and wilder dervish while thirty-something Nicholas Yandell ‘s French horn and twenty-something Timothy Arliss O’Brien’s trumpet screech for help. Bliss, himself in his mid-twenties, jacks the amp on his electric guitar to distortion level, vicing the knob until our ears bleed. Exhausted, the numb audience and I recalibrate for a couple of silent seconds then lift arms, applauding Bliss’s Time Wanders like I did the 2017 Academy Award winning film Moonlight —  for me, both instant classics but traumatic journeys.

Time Wanders

Tristan Bliss prefers avant-garde hip-hop and contemporary metal to Brahms. Time Wanders told a whole angry story even without the restless film — Diamanda Galas without the kitsch. Bliss collaborated with fellow Cascadian Yandell to film the tightly edited unsettling late-night journey, both almost getting mugged in the process. 

The age distribution among Cascadia members helps keep things diverse and real. A healthy cabal of twenty to thirty-something Cascadians reminds the group what it takes to draw the twenty- to thirty-something audience. 

Nicholas Yandell pushed for something like All Wired Up for several years. His own piece in the festival, Just Minutes Ago: A Retrospective, was scored for a rock band. Heretical Lunacy for fixed media, composed by one of the newest and youngest Cascadians, Vivian Elliot, immersed me in repetitive tension; compared to the repetitive droning-on-and-on of yesterday’s Minimalism, today’s reiterations sound urgent, emphatic, more Industrial

My fourth clue: embrace the young, because they reflect today with the intensity of those living in it.

Nicholas Yandell, Tristan Bliss, Timothy Arliss O’Brien. Photo: Gary Ferrington

Clue #5: Innovate and entertain

For the second of All Wired Up’s back-to-back concerts, we migrate to the reception room adjacent to the concert hall / sanctuary. I dive for the pillows and blankets strewn on the floor, arranging my nest while my companion heads for the bar. An intimate space, early evening, lying on pillows with my drink, winding down. . . .

“This is a morality story about a little girl unhappy with her family,” Mei-Ling Lee tells us, opening her arms wide, waving her magic Wii wands . . . and beginning a tale about a little girl who wanders down a street at night, opening front doors and eavesdropping on the fraught conversations inside. She’s invisible . . . unless, maybe, she’s dead. 

In the one hour break between the two All Wired Up concerts, those audience geeks and composers willing to skip dinner stayed at the Old Church — and got an on-stage demonstration of data driven instruments by Steve Joslin. He manipulated Brahms’s Lullaby into unrecognition by waving and somersaulting a translucent box he built, which also triggered lights inside the box to turn pretty colors. 

But Cascadia Composer Mei-Ling Lee and intermedia artist Jefferson Goolsby raised goosebumps as they incorporated a data driven instrument into their creation, The Lighted Windows. Too often, composers confuse concept with creation. I’m bored along with the rest of the audience after two minutes of something that sounded and / or looked cool for one. Greg Bartholemew’s No! George! No! stretched to three minutes for All Wired Up. The first minute of spanking our 43rd POtuS was a hoot.

Lee and Goolsby’s The Lighted Windows fused Lee’s recorded narration of a ghostly story with a data driven instrument, using, in this case, two Wiimotes (Nintendo game controllers). Goolsby melded the soundscape with Lee’s recorded voice while Lee danced with a control in each hand, wrists bending, circling, presenting like a lotus flower: she was actually playing the data-driven instrument, heightening the effect of the story with a soundscape.

The fifth clue: Concept + Story + Well Executed Production = Entertainment.

Clue #6: No Gatekeepers

I’m a little sad lying on the floor, listening to the earth. Fittingly, this last piece of the day is Dan Brugh’s. I close my eyes to block out Jennifer Wright’s accompanying video. Kaleidoscoping pictures she snapped at Laurelhurst park refract on the big screen in front. But the style never changes or meshes with any of Listen to the Earth’s clear sound alterations or gentle sweep. Perhaps as background “noise,” maybe projected out of focus on walls far away from us, it could have worked as ambient mood-setting. But front and center on the big screen it only distracts me from Brugh’s poignant, spacious score. 

But that’s not why I’m sad. There were other creations in this festival that either did not move me or I actively hated. However, like an Oregon spring, I just had to wait a couple of minutes for the clouds to blow over and the sun to shine through. I’m sad because when Brugh’s piece is finished, that’s the end of the All Wired Up micro-festival of new electronic music. 

Cascadia’s OG founder sits on the floor off to my left. I’m pretty sure he hasn’t liked every piece on the program — neither have I — but he’s here enjoying himself as much as I’m enjoying myself, and I silently thank him for a festival where anything goes and where the audience demographic more resembles folks hanging out in a public park.

There was no open-to-all composers group in Portland when retired University of Akron music professor David Bernstein migrated to St. Helens, Oregon in 2006. So he called up the one guy he knew in town, Frank Diliberto — principal string bass player in the Oregon Symphony. Diliberto gave Bernstein the one name he knew, Tomas Svoboda, Oregon’s premier composer. Svoboda was happy to meet and to supply Bernstein with names of over thirty composers living in the area. 

On March 15, 2008, after many preliminary meetings, Bernstein invited the composers to Lewis and Clark College to elect a board establishing what he named the Oregon Composers Guild. In the OCG mission statement, Bernstein envisioned

composers [gathering] in a mutually supportive atmosphere … dedicated to providing an environment that encourages the creation and presentation of new and adventuresome work by its members (OCG mission statement).

Did the electrical engineer without a music degree get to be part of this group? How about piano teachers hankering to write? Doctors who brought the kinetic frenzy of 90’s dance music to their scores? Hip-hoppers and Metal heads? Truck drivers? Thirteen year olds? Did they get to have their work performed at concerts? Yes, Bernstein thought, yes yes yes. All Oregon composers could benefit from exchanging music and ideas and support.

Not everyone attending that meeting bought into Bernstein’s vision. After encountering surprising adamance against the formation of such a group from a few prominent composers, Bernstein gave up establishing the Oregon Composers Guild. Instead, he invited seven composers who he’d observed shared his open minded vision — including Tomas Svoboda — and founded Cascadia Composers

“Tomas was critical to [the success of] this endeavor,” said Bernstein, “and it was clear to me that so many other composers had such great respect – if not love – for this guy.”Svoboda still holds an emeritus spot on Cascadia’s board of directors.

Left: David Bernstein, Right: Tomas Svoboda

Another of Bernstein’s magnificent seven, Greg Steinke, suggested Cascadia Composers become an affiliate of the National Association of Composers, USA (NACUSA), founded in 1933. That way they could get some start up cash: $300. A retired music professor from Marylhurst, Steinke joined because he believed in NACUSA’s mission: “Great Music. Made in America.” 

Of NACUSA’s 10 chapters, Cascadia Composers is the largest. Steinke, now chair of the NACUSA mothership in Los Angeles, also sits on the board of Cascadia Composers in Portland.  

The heartbeat of Cascadia, and another Bernstein recruit to Cascadia’s founding board, is Jeff Winslow — an electrical engineer, not a doctor of music. He continues serving on the board as secretary and treasurer. The wise and patient Winslow unruffles feathers when knickers get twisted, deciphering and sensitively negotiating through insecurities so that whatever show Cascadia’s in the midst of producing will go on.

This ain’t no hugbox. Disagreements happen regularly, then are resolved. Cascadia challenges members to evolve, to get outside their own heads, to collaboratively produce and present many events every year — together. Hsu credits Cascadia for his growth as a composer. “[They] helped me see my own self-imposed limitations and move beyond them.” For five years, from 2012 through 2017, Hsu recorded Cascadia’s concerts, posting them to youtube

While Cascadia serves primarily the West Coast, members join from all over because the chapter is constantly scheming new events, open to everything. No imposed conformity: that’s how David Bernstein imprinted the organization. Nicholas Yandell’s no curation score call for All Wired Up, the final event of Cascadia tenth season, represents the ultimate realization of David Bernstein’s original philosophy: No Gatekeepers! And that’s the final and most critical clue to Cascadia’s success.

Cascadia Composers Standing left to right: Daniel Vega, David Bernstein, Jennifer Wright, Dan Brugh, Teresa Koon, Cynthia Gerdes, Ted Clifford. Kneeling left to right: Matthew Andrews, Jeff Winslow. Photo: Matias Brecher

Continue the Criminal Conduct!

After observing, and sometimes performing in, Cascadia projects since the beginning, I think the organization should continue its life of crime against conformity by:

1.  Supporting Dan Brugh’s crazy projects.

2.  Listening to the young ‘uns.

3.  Partnering with Fear No Music, Resonance Ensemble, etc. (the western classical music groups in town).

4. Annually recharging All Wired Up.

5. Building upon the playful approach to the printed programs. A bio is not a resume so help us connect with you by sharing life experiences and beliefs, not awards and positions. Describe your piece with words your mother would understand. Give it a title that makes people want to hear it, unlike Greg Steinke’s fabulous piece with a title as boring as the music is thrilling.

Greg Steinke’s “Diversions and Interactions” at CeLOUbration!

Here’s a non-Cascadian Oregon composer showing how to do it right:

It should also broaden its criminal conspiracy beyond Western classical music by collaborating with:

1.  local animators.

2.  local filmmakers and playwrights.

3.  local street poets like Micah Fletcher, hip-hop poets and others.

4.  local dancers like Conrad Kaczor, Soulsation Academy and others.

5.  Puppets?

6.  Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble. In fact, Cascadia’s current president, Ted Clifford, is not only the best hook writer in Cascadia, but his jazz chops are formidable. I’d like to hear his improv-inflected numbers played by jazz musicians.

7. Fertile Ground Festival of New Works. By presenting shows in the largest new creative works festival in the United States, Cascadia will reach a huge audience eleven years in the making, hungry for good new everything!

Stolen Moments on Hot Property

Crime Wave: The Syndicate’s Successful Spin-offs

In 2011 the women of Cascadia Composers busted loose, creating their own brand, Crazy Jane, with themed concert events that, for the five years they put on shows, consistently outdrew the Cascadia concerts. Burn After Listening spun off from Crazy Jane and produced two sold out shows in 2016 and 2017. 

Cascadia composers now frequently appear on concert programs by other groups. Recent sightings include 45th Parallel Universe, violist Christina Ebersohl’s Music that Binds Us, Camas/Washougal Community Orchestra. The thirteen year old who joined Cascadia in 2015, Matthew Kaminski, now a senior at Mountainside High School in Beaverton, will premier his Hidden Voices for full symphonic orchestra with the Metropolitan Youth Symphony on November 10. 

In 2014 Mike Hsu founded ARCO PDX (Amplified Repertory Chamber Orchestra PDX). Holding concerts in alternative club venues like Holocene, Mississippi Studios, and Refuge PDX, ARCO attracts a young, alternative crowd — half of them standing and whooping with drinks in hand like they’re at a Janelle Monae show while Hsu dances, emcees, and wields his ax. ARCO reinvigorates older classics but also includes Hsu’s own music plus music of other contemporaries. The composers who spun off these successful projects also remain members in Cascadia, bringing what they learn in their own endeavours back to Cascadia.

While Cascadia is off for the summer, go mosh in the pit at ARCO’s next shows on Friday, July 26 and Saturday, July 27 and join the band in celebrating their fifth anniversary. 

ARCO PDX: Frontline, dropped on July 3, 2019

Portland pianist Maria Choban, ArtsWatch’s Oregon ArtsBitch, blogs at CatScratch.

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