ArtsWatch’s new series “Catching Up With” asks the long-running local music groups: how the hell have you been doing? …how have you gotten through the last Year of Weirdness? …and what’s next?
In the months ahead, we’ll be sharing conversations with the usual suspects–all your Oregon favorites. For our first installment we tracked down a quiet married couple who happen to run one of the most daring new music groups in Oregon.
We’ll be date-stamping the entries in this series, because in a sense they are time capsules. The following interview was conducted by phone at two in the afternoon on Wednesday, February 3rd. Follow-up answers arrived by email Friday, April 23nd, just as the FNM folks were finishing preparations for the final “headliner” concert of their online 2020-21 season featuring all Black composers.
The headliner concert–starring Inés Voglar-Belgique, Nancy Ives, Michael Roberts, and musicians from BRAVO!–premieres online this Monday, April 26th, and will remain available until Wednesday. The concert includes music by Marcos Balter, James Lee III, Jessie Montgomery, Daniel Bernard Roumain, and a new piece by the BRAVO! Composition Collective.
All answers have been condensed and edited for clarity and flow.
Oregon ArtsWatch: And how have you two been?
Monica Ohuchi (Executive Director, pianist): Great! I mean…
Kenji Bunch (Artistic Director, violist): …these days we always have to add the qualifiers. “As well as can be expected.”
ArtsWatch: Let’s start with the usual first question. Tell us about your “a-ha” moment, the thing that changed music from something that was just there into something that really mattered to you.
Ohuchi: I was one those kids who started playing piano as a really young child, and it was something I always did growing up. My mom was my teacher and it was this special thing she and I shared. There was never a question: I eat, I sleep, I practice. So, I think it was always assumed I would go into music, and growing up I enjoyed having that thing that set me apart from everyone else. I moved from Seattle to New York to go to conservatory and went from my undergrad into my graduate degree without ever really questioning my life path.
I don’t think I had a real “a-ha” moment until I was a year into grad school and I injured myself— playing Albeniz’s Iberia of all things. I had to take a whole year off of playing and that was when it really struck me that I actually loved playing. I spent that year doing a lot of teaching, and found that I had a real affinity for teaching. I remember going to a lot of concerts that year, and hearing all of my favorite “greats”–Schiff, Perahia, Argerich–and feeling a desperate yearning to get back to playing.
Going from being a bigger fish in a small pond to being a nobody–like an absolute nobody in the big city–was definitely something that challenged my identity, and I think that had something to do with my lag time. “Oh wait do I really want to still be doing this? Because I don’t know if I’m good enough to be a musician. Is this really my calling? Or have I just been doing this just because I’ve just been doing it my whole life, and I’ve just had my blinders on?” And then when I couldn’t play, I was like, “yep, I actually I actually love it.”
Luckily, I was still in the middle of my grad program at Juilliard, so I was quickly fed back into having to prepare programs and meet goals to finish my degree. Ever since then, I’ve never questioned if this was what I wanted to be doing.
My musical life took an unexpected turn for various reasons after meeting Kenji. Growing up, I was definitely a student of the European classical tradition, and grew up on a healthy diet of Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, with the occasional sprinkling of Bartok and Prokofiev. It should surprise no one that after meeting Kenji, my whole world opened up, musically, emotionally, educationally.
Bunch: Looking back, I have to single out one unusual experience. My parents took our family to a ton of concerts when we were kids. From a really young age, concerts and theater and opera. That was always a really comfortable place for me. I just always felt at home in an audience, attending a concert.
We grew up here in town, but we moved to Waterville, Maine for two years. My mom was teaching at Colby College, and so we all moved there for a little bit. My dad would always scan newsletters and announcements for whatever concert was coming up, and he would just take us without really knowing much about it.
When I was nine there was a concert, and I always remember this name: the pianist was Anthony di Bonaventura. He played some prepared piano pieces of John Cage, and it blew my mind as a nine-year-old kid. Like, that’s the coolest thing ever. “How did you get the piano to sound like that? And who is this John Cage? And what’s going on?” That really got me hooked. I just loved that it was so unexpected. And not just for me as this little kid–everyone around me seemed really surprised and intrigued. That’s what I want to have happen in concerts. I wanted unexpected things. I wanted discoveries and weirdness. So that was the gateway for me.
Ohuchi: That’s fun! That’s a story I didn’t know about you.
ArtsWatch: Was anyone upset?
Bunch: I’m sure! I don’t even know if my parents were that into it. I bet there were people who were not into it–and probably concerned for the pianos’ welfare! I’ve always gravitated toward whatever the new piece was on the program. Because I get bored sometimes just listening to classical repertoire. I liked it, but sometimes I wanted to hear something I never heard before, by someone I’d never heard of.
ArtsWatch: In your work now, how do you see the interplay between tradition and innovation?
Bunch: I think there always has to be a radical wing of what people are doing now. It’s like research and development, right? Some things might not work at all, but it’s important to experiment, and consider new ideas, and try new things. That keeps all our imaginations fertile, and it keeps the art form moving forward.
Ohuchi: I think I have a really different reaction or approach depending on if I’m the one playing, or if I’m just listening. When I’m the one that’s learning either kind of repertoire, I have to love it. Even if it’s not great, in order to play anything, in order to sell anything, I have to find this way of falling in love with whatever I’m doing. And I definitely don’t have that reaction when I’m listening to things all the time.
People often ask me, “what’s your favorite piece?” or “who’s your favorite composer?” And I’m like, “I don’t know, whatever I’m working on right now!” Because I have to, and also sometimes because I actually do. And then I move on.
Bunch: There are some pieces that are incredibly fun to play, and rewarding in some way, but I wouldn’t want to sit there and listen to them. It allows you to get outside of yourself and play a character doing something that, in the moment of the performance is super fun, but maybe not what you wanna do on your own time.
ArtsWatch: Let’s talk about this season. How did you go about finding and choosing music for this season?
Bunch: The only two pretty rigid parts of the criteria were they had to be Black composers, and because of the logistics of doing solo recitals they had to be solo works. Except for our concert at the end of the season, which will be multiple players, and our concert–we live together, so we could play duos.
Beyond that, what I quickly found was that there was enough music that the problem wasn’t finding enough, it was deciding what to pick out of the vast amount of music available. On the one hand, it was partly embarrassing to realize how this stuff has been hiding in plain sight this whole time–and unacceptable that it would take a year of this historic social unrest and upheaval for me to get off my ass and do something about it like this. I think it’s important to feel some accountability there.
We’re gatekeepers, and if we’re going to move the needle in terms of equity and representation, it’s got to start with some real steps. Not just the platitudes–let’s actually do the work and do something meaningful. Beyond, you know, playing that one Florence Price piece or something. So I hold myself accountable to that, and it was frustrating to realize how much music is there.
And it just shoots holes in the usual resistance to this kind of programming, “it has to be music driven,” and, you know, “it’s the quality of the work that matters, not who wrote it.” Because there’s this wealth of material, you can easily pick through it and pick the best stuff. You can still come up with quality programming with these parameters.
Bunch: And then I wanted to have a generational spread. Some established older composers, some mid-career composers, and some young composers. We had that for James’s concert. Ed Bland is one of the few composers who’s not still living–he died about eight years ago. Nicole Mitchell is an established mid-career composer, and then Derek Carter’s an emerging composer.
That’s what I mean about the gatekeeper thing. For too long there’s been these unwritten criteria, like you have to check certain boxes in order to even be considered to have a piece on a program. You have to have already had some kind of exposure, with a certain level of performing history. You have to have attended certain schools, and studied with certain people, and gone to festivals. All that kind of thing.
And that’s less relevant today. Technology has really leveled the playing field: you can just set up a website and put your stuff on Soundcloud and have it easily accessible for people like me who are trying to listen to stuff and find music that we want to play. So it’s a fun process, just sitting here diving into the internet and seeing where it takes me to find these composers and then track them down and get their music.
There are a few who I know personally who I wanted to include, like Daniel Roumain. I’ve known him for years. As a violist, I had heard of Augustus Hailstork’s Sanctum Rhapsody, and he’s written a couple other viola works. And so I knew that I had some Hailstork to draw from.
Bunch: It was also important to keep the gender split, which we were able to do. We’ve got it right at 50/50. I knew a couple female composers who I wanted to include. It’s so much easier with new music. If we were just a straight classical traditional group, it’d be hard sometimes–even if there are composers you identify who have written work–to get ahold of the music. It speaks to the amount of bias that they faced in their lifetime with publishers. That’s something that we don’t hear a lot about, how incredibly racist the publishing industry was.
Ohuchi: And sexist.
Bunch: So then there’s the double bind. I mentioned Florence Price, a wonderful composer. It’s actually pretty hard to get her scores, because she was a Black woman. It’s hard to get that stuff published.
Ohuchi: Or you get stuck in a compilation. “And this is the book of Black women.”
Focusing on myself and the things that I have played in Fear No Music, there are a couple of things that really stick out. I really loved this last piece that you programmed for me, by Regina Baiocchi. I thought it was beautiful. I loved her harmonies, and the simplicity. The more simple something is, the more challenging it can be–because it leaves so much room for, you know, everything. I loved learning it because I had to, but I loved learning it because it’s just beautiful.
Bunch: That’s another point with regard to the programming of this season. It was important that the work was varied in terms of what was being expressed, and to have some works that are just plain beautiful, and lyrical, and joyful. And that’s another trap we can fall into when we think about representation–if we’re going to include Black American voices, not every piece needs to be about Black trauma. Right? So there’s a richness there that we were able to define. I thought that was a really lovely piece.
Ohuchi: We work with local composers, local living composers, and I love talking to the composers about their pieces. It’s such an important dimension. So if I don’t like a piece upon first learning the notes, or opening up the score, as soon as I talk to the composer and I understand what they’re going for, it totally changes the landscape for me. That’s a really important part of liking something and wanting to do it again, and wanting to do a really good job.
ArtsWatch: What are you both working on now? How have you been getting through this last Year of Weirdness?
Ohuchi: Well I’m working on the Goldberg Variations right now, which is totally a different meaning of “fear no music.” It’s been like a bucket-list kind of piece, and it’s funny because we talk a lot about how this year has been so illuminating, and when I thought of the one project that I wanted to do, I wanted to learn that piece. I don’t want to say it’s like going backwards, but I feel like I’m going back to my roots a little bit. It’s been really enjoyable, and I’ll play it at a Thursdays@Three in May. He tells me that I play in my sleep. There’s sooooo many notes!
Bunch: I’m finishing up a work for string orchestra and harp, written for a consortium of high school orchestras in Texas. That’s been a neat project. It’s something that got kind of delayed, partly because–you know, deadlines, what are deadlines now, right?–and because of all the changing logistics of school, and the ability of orchestras to meet and all that.
But it gave me time to reconsider some ideas for the piece, and what I am doing now is so different from what I had originally thought back in the spring, when I started it. At this point, I’m ready again to write something ultimately triumphant, or positive. I wasn’t really feeling that so much, earlier on. It’s called An Invincible Summer, from a Camus quote, something like “in the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer.”
Like Monica was saying, as performers we’ve all had this strange forced reckoning of what we’re doing with our lives. When it’s not available to you, you start to think more existentially about it. She realized she wanted to play the Goldberg, I realized I wanted to play goofy pop tunes on the viola, and put on a fake mustache and make kids laugh.
Bunch: As a composer, and as an arts leader, it’s a similar kind of reckoning. We have to think, “what are we doing and why?” In Fear No Music we haven’t shied away from taking stands on certain issues in the last few years. I mean the last four years we’ve taken it pretty much head-on. This has made me want to double down on that and really stand for something, and use the art as activism.
I think more about that in my composing too. Learning more about myself this year, I am realizing a big motivation for me as a composer is to try to facilitate healing, specifically the healing of transgenerational trauma. In the case of Minidoka, I thought of trying to heal the physical space where that trauma occurred. A couple years ago when I was working with Greg Ewer and 45th Parallel on that project with Micah Fletcher, that was also a project where I wanted to do what I could to try to help heal that trauma that we all felt here about that incident.
Bunch: This year has clarified for me why I’m doing what I’m doing, and I would distill it down to three basic bullet points:
- trying to heal transgenerational trauma;
- trying to inspire, specifically through education and helping inspire creativity in children and young students;
- and lastly, it’s simply to entertain, and make people laugh, make people enjoy stuff.
I think entertainment is this kind of misunderstood concept. The further you get into art music, there’s this sense of “pandering to people” if you’re trying to entertain them. I’ve never understood that, and I’ve always sort of considered myself almost in the service industry. When you play with bands, it’s like you’re more aligned with the staff. You know, on wedding gigs you bond with the caterers. I like that. I feel more comfortable with that element, because I feel like I’m trying to also provide something for people that’s going to in some small way make them happy or do something for somebody.
ArtsWatch: Last question. Do you miss New York City?
Bunch: Yes, I do. I mean, moving out here was probably the best decision we’ve ever made, and I don’t regret it at all. It’s been really good to be back here for a lot of reasons, both professionally and personally, raising our kids here and being closer physically to my parents. What I didn’t expect was to maybe mature a little bit, and think about things. All this stuff I’m talking about, I didn’t used to think about these issues back in New York. There’s so much going on, you’re just always busy doing stuff. I didn’t really stop to think too deeply about anything.
And that’s been surprising, to maybe be more insightful than I used to be, particularly about racial matters. I was never that sensitive to it, but coming back in this overwhelmingly white space with kids who are not white, and trying to navigate how we deal with that, made us talk about this a lot. And New York City is a multicultural theme park, and you don’t really have to face these issues so much going to the school where we did. It’s such a large Asian population it really felt comfortable. It wasn’t until we came back here that we realized, it’s different.
And also we realized that when we were growing up here, we pushed a lot away. We didn’t deal with a lot of stuff. We just sort of imagined we were the same as our white friends–and you can go pretty far with that, but you can’t go far enough. So that’s been an interesting development we didn’t really see coming. But ultimately has been good for a lot of reasons.
Ohuchi: I love New York, and a part of me will always be a city girl. However, like Kenji said, I have no regrets moving out here either. I think the things I miss most are directly tied to who Kenji and I were at that time in our lives— back when we were child-less and yet thought we were so busy, but still had the time to run the Brooklyn Bridge every morning, and shop at boutique cheese and wine stores. We had a great butcher right across the street from the brownstone where we lived, and a specialty fish market up the block.
I’ve been utterly grateful this past year to be on this coast and closer to our families. But, I think about New York a lot these days, especially having lots of Asian friends still living there. I know how they fear the rise in anti-Asian hate crimes, and I can’t help but think of what it would be like to raise our kids there now. Kenji and I have found ourselves a nice little bubble to raise our family, and I have grown to love my community. I’m also acutely aware, more than ever, of how racially homogenous it is here, and that definitely makes me ache for the city from time to time.
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