Cascadia Composers review: Strange Brew

Ingredients for a full fun house

by MARIA CHOBAN

The impresario ushers me in. “It’s chaos in there,” he twitches. “Of course it is,” I smile. Dan Brugh, mad scientist of concert presenting for Cascadia Composers, isn’t smiling. He turns and chases someone I’ve never seen in this organization, holding a wastepaper basket full of white sausage-like stuffed alien animals I’ve also never seen in this organization. Composers At Play: New Art Music That Has Some Serious Fun with Improvisation is the title of tonight’s event. If it were going smoothly and everything was under control, it wouldn’t be improv now, would it?

 

He’s a witch of trouble in electric blue

In his own mad mind he’s in love with you, with you

[The Audience!]

(“Strange Brew” – Cream) 

For this show, Brugh (pronounced “brew”), like any smart presenter targeting a general audience, set the scene for a family friendly concert with the venue he chose, southeast Portland’s Community Music Center in the middle of a family friendly neighborhood, and the playful graphic design he delegated to Cascadia composer and performer Jennifer Wright.

 

Jennifer Wright’s program designed for Cascadia Composers At Play concert.

Jennifer Wright’s program designed for Cascadia Composers At Play concert.

But that alone doesn’t account for the bewitched behavior of the evening: Composers laughed and played and gushed over fussing kids, performers loosened up and showed spontaneous comedic sides and toddlers danced. Brugh’s uncanny instincts for figuring out what audiences — not just performers — need is what makes his Cascadia shows so successful.

Not every concert — not any concert – can be like this one. But anyone can learn from it some things that make concerts of original music more likely to please even the youngest, toughest critics. What was Brugh’s secret love potion #9?

Unlike the actual chaos I see at under-rehearsed concerts or the controlled sterility I hear at (barely) rehearsed concerts, Brugh’s apparent chaos is a necessary prop. His myriad short brush strokes, like Impressionist paintings up close, his drive so urgent to put every brush stroke in place for the whole picture, results in a mania masquerading as chaos. He’s juggling 100 times more elements per concert than any other presenter I’ve known, yet he pulls it all together by the time the audience enters. Below are four categories of ingredients I’ve distilled from experiencing his concerts.

Ingredient 1: Entice other talents to help — and let them run

To be involved in a Dan Brugh production is to be in the midst of a tempest. Instinctively choosing capable and gifted people to aid with specifics in his productions, Brugh casts his spell, everyone toiling ‘round the bubbling cauldron putting on shows with a cast of thousands like last July’s In Good Hands concert, capably organized with folks like Dianne Davies pitching in. Or booking developed acts like the crazy seductive Nancy Wood, her voice slinking across an invisible, dark stage in another Brugh production for Cascadia (CC concerts are organized by different members): the Black Out concert last January. Or serendipitously securing stagehands with cat-eye night vision to shepherd nervous performers on and off the blacked-out stage — without losing even one!

At Composers at Play, Brugh’s Wright choice to design the promotional posters/fliers (an inspired primary color mash-up of weebles, lime green and balloons) and programs captured our attention and tickled our funny bones. He wanted Santa’s elves as stage hands and Cascadia Composers Nick Yandell and Tristan Bliss  — young and strong enough to tussle with unwieldy stage sets and adorable in their holiday get-up — pushed pianos around decked in green scarves and red stocking hats.

Curiously, although the interval between pieces was still long, the kids didn’t fuss and the parents didn’t seem to mind as I saw heads bowed and locked in conversation – parents with children – during these interludes. Perhaps it provided a welcome respite and a chance for some personal attention for the little ones?

Paul Safar‘s Card Games occupied Mediterranean Avenue on the program. The Eugene composer, attired for Vegas in a magician’s top hat and a splashy metallic red jacket imprinted with jacks, queens and kings, trolled the audience with his able assistant, Seattle pianist Terry Wergeland, inviting some to pick a card, any card, from an oversized deck. All chosen cards were then shuffled and Safar and Wergeland improvised piano duets according to the five card card draw while Eugene dancer Susanna Joy Meyer interpreted their sonic creations.

Musically, this was my favorite piece in the show, probably due to Safar’s ear for the general audience experience. He paints with an enormous palette of rhythmic patterns and melodic phrases – creating hooks, eliding slyly from one to another, entertaining us with modal dramatic tangos, sudden trills which bring the dancer to a spider skitter across the stage in Twister-game-posture,followed by flurryous arpeggiated leaps. Wergeland’s skills as a conspirator lay in his astute ear and cheetah quickness adapting to each new hand dealt — not to mention his accordion skills.

But this concert wasn’t just about music. Because they were improvising, the composers didn’t have the time to distill their best ideas and most moving phrases into short unified works. As with any improvisation, some moments worked and some didn’t. This concert was about entertaining on all fronts and music was only one of the variables, which is probably why Brugh required short (eight minute) lengths for each act.

Ingredient 2: put the audience at ease: go into their world

I thumbed Wright’s full color 8 1/2 X 14 Monopoly-board-masquerading-as-a-program (see above) from the top of a stack at the entrance to the hall, at first thinking it was either a prop for audience participation or a fast food placemat. Then I started giggling, making my way from musical selection to musical selection through the “do not pass go” advert for CC to what should have been Boardwalk, goofy composer pics (no doubt specially shot for this show) and the final payoff — “have a cookie” at The End. The flip side descriptions were short — sometimes as laconic as Art Resnick’s note for his Untitled Impressions: “This music happens in the moment and then it’s gone forever.” There were no endless boring curricula vitae following each composer and performer’s names.

These amiable touches left audience members easy targets for further seduction, and provide a template to help other presenters, like me, avoid habits like using offputting art-speak I’m not even aware of when I write program notes.

Charmed as I was by the music, I quickly gauged that this was not going to be a kids concert. Safar played with adult dances, not children’s songs. Fear crept in and I became hyper vigilant to the audience reaction — an audience, by the way, that spanned every age range with equal proportion from toddlers to seniors and filled the hall. Kids are tough critics. They’ll let you know when they’re bored — and they won’t assume it’s their fault. Would they get restless? Who would get restless? Would we all tighten up if the kids got fussy?

 

On a boat in the middle of a raging sea

He would make a scene

for it all to be ignored

And wouldn’t you be bored?

 

Yes, the kids got restless – the most vocal critics being the pre-speaking toddlers. They squirmed in their parents’ arms (many were standing against the back wall or the side of the hall holding their offspring) or yelped and yawped with loud foreign-toddler-language adjectives I didn’t understand. And by the second piece — Ted Clifford’s deconstruction of a Christmas carol titled Carols, Bells and Whistles for two pianos, performed by the Portland composer himself and Jennifer Wright — the critics were divided. The young and the restless whose parents had to exit the hall for a time-out showed another facet of the brilliant improvisation of this event: Initially embarrassed apologetic parents were ushered out and in and out and in and . . . by a grinning Cascadia Composer who offered a simple “no worries.”

Over the course of the evening, the usher’s beaming smile remained but the worried fret lines on the foreheads of the parents soon relaxed into “here-we-go-again” smile lines as they exited for yet another time-out, now clearly enjoying themselves guilt-free. The Cascadia usher whispered to me that when we don’t allow kids into (kid-accepting/tolerant) concerts, we also ghettoize the poor parents who are left with Disney films and Barney shows on ice.

Among the toddlers countering the critics in Clifford’s fractured rendition of Carol of the Bells was a future improvisor jamming from the audience with Wright and Clifford by adding loud tongue clicks, rhythmically anchoring those last wafting bell-like treble tinkles at the end of the piece.

And it was at this point that I finally got it. Dan Brugh manufactured a fun concert for parents, not for kids! What made it fun for kids was that they were able to be themselves – fussy, exuberant, improvisatory, cookie eating! What made it fun for parents was the smart entertaining content that also worked for their kids in doses (kind of the reverse philosophy of the film Toy Story which was aimed at kids with underlying adult wit) and the freedom for the parents to relax and continue parenting while enjoying the show without feeling that they were disturbing the attentive listeners around them. For once, it was about the parents.

For the rest of us, there without children, mid-twenties to seniors, I can only speak for myself. The presence of the parents and kids at this concert concocted for the pleasure of adults with kids in tow, made it feel more whole, more community-oriented, more enjoyable. It’s hard to take myself and my listening overly seriously when a toddler is upstaging my insights with much more entertaining critique.

Ingredient 3: Embrace the Chaos! Avoid predictability. Allow surprise.

“Are you ready?”

“Not yet!”

“Now??”

“No!!”

Resnick and Schwarzwald in action. Photo:

Resnick and Schwarzwald in action.
Photo: Matias Brecher.

Entertaining comedic banter — both physical and vocal — between the charismatics Art Resnick and painter Lang Schwarzwald combusted spontaneously from the beginning of their set, with both artists looking like gunslingers wondering who was going to draw first. Their surprising addition of unprogrammed stage antics to the Portland composer’s Untitled Impressions nearly upstaged this improv collaboration between composer/pianist and painter, taking a nice idea into the realm of memorable. The entire audience laughed in relief along with Schwarzwald as he mimed chamber musicians, exaggeratedly swinging his head from easel/music stand to pianist several times, unsuccessfully trying to place his final brush stroke or bow strokes with Resnick’s several false endings, finally giving up and gesturing with both arms to his finished artwork – an orange yellow swirling sun rising above blue ocean waves tinged with metallic pink froth.

But Resnick continued improvising. So Schwarzwald pivoted 180 degrees and gestured with both arms toward Resnick, eliciting louder laughter from the audience and finally getting Resnick’s attention who then looked up and muttered “Wait! I have one more plucked bass string to add!” Uproarious laughter from the audience followed by thunderous applause for their performance.

It set the stage for Dan Brugh making his way to the pianos through the audience in full duck-head attire, pianist Colleen Adent on his arm wearing a long purple coat and a Mad Hatter hat. Brugh’s piece (yes, he’s a composer too!) The Kangaroo and the Duck  based on Edward Lear’s poem, is scored for electronics, two pianos (yes, Brugh’s a pianist too!) and singer Beth Madsen Bradford. But like everything else on this program, many of the actual choices were left for the performers to improvise. The electronica was like something out of a BBC sci-fi series and Bradford made up her part, swooping dramatically like a loud siren — playing right to the kids, or finding a lovely melody to lay atop Adent’s improvised tonal accompaniment near the end – making the adults murmur appreciatively, or waggling her ducky tail eliciting giggles from the little ones.

Ingredient 4: Put the audience first — not the artists

By the time we got through Brugh’s piece, it was 8 pm. Scheduled to last for one hour, the concert started late because several of us asked that it be delayed to account for the traffic which had a quarter of the full house showing up well into the second piece. Brugh allotted each of the six composers eight minutes for their pieces. Most observed the time limit. After enduring 20 minutes of Gary Noland’s Vain and Able, I decided to go to the bathroom.

When I came back to re-enter the hall, folks were leaving. I tried to talk a middle-aged couple into staying for Jennifer Wright’s piece, but they had had enough. Walking back to my seat, I noticed the entire back row of chairs was now empty. The vociferous critics turned thumbs down and impatient squeals up during Noland’s tedious piece for two pianos, theremin, narration (not improvised) and squeaky toys (so THAT’S what was in the wastebasket Brugh was holding when I arrived). The mono-intoned dry wordplay was too much for tired toddlers, for me, and for the folks fleeing the hall — thus sadly proving the wisdom of Brugh’s original instinct to keep the piece short. As composers and performers we don’t necessarily hold the needs of the audience foremost. This is why top-notch impresarios like David Geffen succeed. They think only of the win-win success that comes from nurturing an audience even as they promote and nurture smart, audience-accessible performers. They must wield the vaudeville hook when we can’t be trusted to stick to their successful formulas.

It’s too bad that disregard for Brugh’s wisdom deprived some of those impatient audience members from hearing Jennifer Wright’s concert-closing X Chromosome for five brightly colored toy pianos with Wright starting an infectious riff leading the others to join at different speeds. In fact, it was clearly the favorite among the younger crowd and left the critics happily speechless. I pointed this out to the Cascadia usher, who grinned and pointed to the far wall, where a little girl was doing the twist-and-shout, dancing in her daddy’s arms, as piano pandamonium was breaking out onstage.

 

He’s some kind of demon messing in the glue

If you don’t watch out it’ll stick to you

 

The reason this evening happened ultimately goes back to the founder of Cascadia Composers, David Bernstein, who imprinted this organization with an emphatic “NO!” to gatekeeping by not allowing academic hermetic clubbiness to define an organization made up of what we traditionally think of as introverted, geeky nerds looking for a place to belong. Raise your glass to David Bernstein.

Now refill and again raise your glass of strange brew to Dan Brugh, who like the Looney Tunes tasmanian devil whirled through the opening Bernstein created and with one of the cleanest internal intuitive conduits I’ve experienced, chaotically creates concerts that bypass the obstacles of elite-ness and conventional thinking that block contemporary local composers from non-insider audiences.

His program’s closing Thanks (the bottom border, bright red and pink on neon lime green) embraced the sincere and casual tone of the real world:

“BiG tHanKs to: Cascadia composers for financial & operational support: Daniel Brugh for financial support and a whole mess of stuff: Jennifer Wright for designing the supercool posters & Programs: Lang Schwartzwald for donating his still-wet live painting to our silent auction in support of Cascadia Composers: Tim O’Brien for stage managing: Tristan Bliss Nick Yandell & Jeff Winslow for Lending a hand.”

Bottoms up!

Portland pianist and teacher Maria Choban is OAW’s Oregon ArtsBitch.

Composers at Play programs

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8 Responses.

  1. Jennifer Wright says:

    Thanks for the in-depth review, Maria! The artistic community is lucky to have a critic who is willing to spend such time and energy to fully dissect what works and what doesn’t in a performance: a learning experience for us all, every time.

    I also want to say that I’m glad someone is giving Dan Brugh the big shout-out he deserves. His particular kind of mad genius is often underestimated and your detailed observations bring to light all that he has to offer in bringing the new face of modern classical music into focus in PDX – thank you! Dan, I love working with you! And kudos to all the other talented composers and performers on this program. Let’s do it again soon!

  2. Art Resnick says:

    Most excellent review and article. Bravo Maria for not only the review but passing along your personal desire to de-stiffen modern classical inherent in this message.
    As is well known in this musical community, you are a rock star of modern music.
    Thanks!

  3. Art Resnick says:

    In answer to your “request”:

    Great work Crazy Bitch! I still love you.

  4. bob priest says:

    Yo MC!

    Having missed this concert, i appreciate the colorfully vivid & in-depth account you provide. Whether one agrees or not with your well-seasoned stance here &/or elsewhere, it’s great to be able to count on you to reveal what you truly believe to be the good, the bad & the ugly @ any given performance.

  5. Jack Gabel says:

    what would our cherished new music scene be without at least one contrarian weighing in? – in this case that would be me – in particular in defense of my colleague of 20 years, Gary Noland

    Gary is perhaps the most misunderstood composer/performer amongst us – simply put: his music is not for children – so, for some, fear always creeps in though rarely takes hold, because his stories are so rife with ironic, sardonic, self-effacing humor – so, in that sense, his Vain and Able (allegory) was probably out of place here – curious though that he’s singled out, over the other 20-min. offering, for overstaying his welcome – even more curious that Noland takes the only glancing blow for reading from a pre-authored (not improvised) script – the program’s only song was also sung from a pre-authored poem – moreover, no mention of Noland’s colleague of many decades, Terry Wergeland, who contributed brilliant improvisations on both piano and theremin with Noland, and on piano and accordion with Paul Safar, in his piece

    I am probably as often not as I am in agreement with Gary about his artistic choices – but, I could easily say that of many of my colleagues, as doubtless they’d say the same of me – but, that’s neither here nor there – plus, how boring if we were all in aesthetic agreement

    had I been asked, I’d have recommended to my beloved colleague that for Composers at Play he not do Vain and Able, rather improvise a redux of a gloriously riotous slapstick performance he gave some 15 years ago in Eugene: to his diskclavier score Grand Rag Brilliant, Gary improvised a cooking demonstration with ingredients ranging from breakfast cereal to toilet bowl cleaner – memorable vaudeville to the perfect score – none longed for the hook, not even the pre-adolescents in the audience, nor children of any age, even those incapable of grasping the irony of mixing ground coffee with raw eggs, bleach and macaroni, whilst gesturing and beaming like Wolfgang Puk

  6. I asked my grandson, Ian (16), if Gary’s piece were too long. “No,” Ian replied. “If it had been shorter, I wouldn’t have been able to really get into it.” Ian loved Gary’s piece just as it was.

  7. Jennifer Wright says:

    I would have loved to see/hear that cooking piece!
    Several of my piano students, ages 7-14, mentioned to me independently that Gary’s piece was their favorite on the program. I wasn’t sure at the time if the language or the story with its macabre details might appeal to all kids, but clearly they found it to be universally appealing! I myself very much appreciate Gary’s refined sense of humor and, on a more visceral level, am still laughing about the effect of the squeaky toys chiming in with certain raucous musical outbursts.

  8. bob priest says:

    Whether it be the frolicsome funsters @ the Oregon Symphony or CCascadian members, it’s always charming to witness a closing of ranks whenever one of their own is called out (rightly &/or wrongly).

    That said, as a concert producer mmmyself, i can tell you straight-up that if i clearly stated an 8 minute max for someone’s performance & they ran their nickel to the tune of 20, they would NEVER grace one of my stages again.

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