MUSIC

MusicWatch Weekly: The Apocalypse will be livestreamed

As world ends in slow motion, musicians struggle in solidarity

First of all, how are you? Eating enough? Staying inside and entertained? Called your friends and/or family lately? Good.

Let’s start by collectively admitting that we’re Not Doing Alright. It’s been a busy two weeks since last we spoke, dear reader: schools closed, concerts canceled, tours derailed, musicians laid off, stay-home orders issued, force majeure clauses invoked. We’ve been comparing notes with our fellow Gen X-ers and other overthirties, folks who experienced 9/11 and its aftermath as adults, and we’ve all reached the same conclusion–this is weirder by far.

Nobody knows what the hell is going to happen next, and as we scramble to make sense of it all we find ourselves grasping for new definitions of “musical activity” in general and “music journalism” in particular. We’d like to quote words from Oregon ArtsWatch Executive Editor Barry Johnson’s Mission Statement, which have recently comforted us:

The arts remind us that we are in this together. That we aren’t alone in our particular thoughts and feelings. That things can be made right and whole, if just for a moment. They remind us that the individual can do great things, and so can individuals acting together. And somehow, they resolve the great tension of American life, that between the rightful autonomy of the individual and the responsibilities that come with belonging to a group. We can’t imagine a good outcome to our dire problems—as a community, a nation, a planet—without the complex lessons the arts teach us.

We believe that the processes of discovery, explanation and discussion of journalism have an important role to play in all of this. An “informed citizenry” extends to cultural matters, and that is the mission of Oregon ArtsWatch—to help those of us in this particular culture share support and create arts and culture that respond to our needs.

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Making music in a time of isolation

As the world shuts down and the Oregon Symphony faces a stark financial crisis, musicians create a series of mini-concerts from home


PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOE CANTRELL
STORY BY BOB HICKS


AS AN ODD AND NERVOUS QUIET SETTLED over greater Portland and most other places from coast to coast in the past several days, small islands of sound broke the spell, scattered here and there like grace notes or staccato exclamations. They were counter-ripples against a tide of silence, little bursts of defiant pleasure, sounding carefully yet emphatically: Even in a time of plague, the music would not die.

These small musical uprisings were especially compelling considering the Oregon Symphony Orchestra’s announcement last Friday that it was suspending its current season, which was to run into June, and laying off its 76 contracted musicians, along with 19 staff members and two conductors. The situation, symphony President and CEO Scott Showalter told The Oregonian/Oregon Live, is dire. “We need emergency funds now,” he told reporter Nathan Rizzo. “What we’re staring down between now and the end of June is a $5 million loss.” Showalter had written to Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, Rizzo added, urging state economic support for the orchestra as the coronavirus crisis takes its toll, and the symphony is actively seeking private funds as well. The danger of collapse, it seems, is very real. And the orchestra is not alone. Across Oregon and the nation, cultural groups of all sorts are staring nervously into what seems a daunting economic abyss.

An invitation to the neighborhood: come close, stay apart, join us at a distance as we make some music.

So on Friday through Sunday, in what was not quite a coincidence, a large handful of those recently furloughed symphony musicians went small. In Portland and its surrounds, seven musical mini-events took place, on musicians’ porches and in their yards, at neutral neighborhood gathering spots where listeners and players alike could keep their social distance and yet also be together, sharing something both sophisticated and elemental: the joy of music.

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Eine Kleine Strassemusik

A Little Street Music (or, Remembering Portland as It So Recently Was)


TEXT AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY K.B. DIXON


In Austria the hills are alive with the sound of music. In Portland—in normal times—the streets are. The photographs here are a look at the recent past. They are excerpted from an archive of “musicians without borders”—the street performers who have provided the soundtrack to everyday life in this city. On a good day even a dabbler with a dulcimer could make a living wage. As an audience member I might have petitioned for fewer brain-cleaving trumpets and more gut-massaging cellos, but that was just me. When it came to guitars, the numbers always seemed just right. This year, with the COVID-19 contretemps, those numbers will not be what they used to be. I will, however, be thankful for whatever they are. Right now, when it comes to a live performance, I would be happy with a chorus of kazoos on the corner of Fourth and Couch.


TRIO, 2013

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Open Wide

Big Mouth Society embraces inclusivity, high artistic standards, and socially engaged art

A shipwreck brought musician Emily Lau to Portland. It didn’t happen in Oregon but off the Italian coast, where in 2012 the cruise ship Costa Concordia ran aground, capsized and killed 32 people. Lau was on her honeymoon, and though she and her husband weren’t injured, the Mediterranean disaster changed her life. A virtuoso musician and composer, the perfectionist Hong Kong native was then stressing out trying to make it in Boston’s highly competitive early music scene.

Big Mouth’s Emily Lan.

“I’m a classical musician, and my whole life I’ve been trying to… perfect something,” she told CBS News at the time. “And fear comes with being a perfectionist. And I think the emotional take for me, after being almost dead, was that I don’t have to be so scared any more.”

Seeing dead bodies and wondering for hours whether they’d survive clarified Lau’s priorities. 

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MusicWatch Weekly: Stay home!

Cancellations, confirmations, and quarantine playlists

Bad news, everyone! No, it’s not quite the end of the world, at least not yet–and that’s probably the scariest thing of all. It seems we never quite hit Full Disaster, and if the Great Malthusian Dieoff really is underway it’s apparently content with taking its sweet time with us. Instead of a full-blown crisis, we get a series of morally debilitating crises which drain us but don’t ever amount to much (except for the people directly impacted by these subapocalyptic crises, of course, but they’re usually poor, old, foreign, or some other shade of invisible).

Not that we’re wishing for a full-blown crisis: but our minds sure go there in a hurry, don’t they? You’ve seen all the memes by now: on some level of our social psyche we find it easier to hoard toilet paper than to wash our hands more often. We don’t like the small, rational fixes. We like to dream big, and we like to nightmare big too. We like to panic. We like to ostrich.

That, paradoxically, is why the present author has been so gratified to see the concert cancellation notices pouring in. Denial and panic are two sides of the same apocalyptic coin, a rejection of measured responses in favor of whichever easy option is more comfortable (note that neither denial nor panic require much effort). Instead, everybody’s actually talking about it, weighing options and doing their own research, grappling with their social responsibilities, and coming to their own conclusions in the old contest between “safety is job one” and “the show must go on.”

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The symphony animated and illuminated

A collaboration between artist Rose Bond and the Oregon Symphony in a SoundSights performance of Luciano Berio's 1968 work "Sinfonia"

Tucked away in a Northwest Portland apartment is a tiny doppelgänger of the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. Made of foam core and photographic prints, the model faithfully captures every facet of the theater’s rococo stage. The owner of this mini-Schnitz is Portland artist Rose Bond, who had the model built in order to rehearse her new work, a live-projected, multi-channel animation created to be shown with the Oregon Symphony’s performance of Luciano Berio’s 1968 composition for orchestra and eight amplified voices, titled Sinfonia. The performances will be March 14, 15, and 16.

Artist Rose Bond seated in front of a scale model of the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, Bond wears black athletic gear, black-rimmed glasses, and close cropped light gray hair, the model concert hall sits on a folding table in the gray room
Rose Bond in her studio, image courtesy the artist

The event is part of the SoundSights series, which pairs visual artists with orchestral performances. Past performances in the series have featured artists like Michael Curry and Dale Chihuly, as well as Bond herself, who returns to the series four years after creating visuals for Olivier Messiaen’s romantic Turangalîla. For Sinfonia, Bond has worked for over a year to produce a series of hand-drawn passages that mine the visual history of the 1960s in a dreamlike interpretation of Berio’s avant garde masterpiece. The performance will also feature the renowned vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth and Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Caroline Shaw performing the vocal portion of the composition. The collaboration promises to be intensely immersive, and Bond hopes that it will allow both new and returning audiences to connect with the music at a visceral level. I visited her studio to discuss her work on Sinfonia and how the now fifty year-old composition fits with her decidedly contemporary visual art practice.

Bond has been developing her distinctive visual language since the early 1980s when she began using a technique called direct animation, in which individual frames are hand-drawn onto film strips. The result is organic-looking motion that trembles and pulsates as the reel unspools. “I think I fall somewhere between art and film,” she explained, neither fully narrative like a movie nor as abstract as some video art. Some of Bond’s early works explored various folk traditions viewed through a feminist lens. Bond’s The Celtic Trilogy reimagined traditional Irish mythology from the perspective of the witches and goddesses. This interest in the overlaps between collective culture and political consciousness has expanded as her work has evolved. 

A mock up of projected animations at the Arlene Schnitzer concert hall, depicting stylized representations of 1960s era protests in France, the orchestra performs below.
A still from Rose Bond’s Sinfonia, image courtesy the artist

In 2002, Bond produced her first site-specific animation installation, Illumination #1, which highlighted the historical inhabitants of Portland’s Old Town neighborhood with a series of silhouetted figures projected in the second-floor windows of the historic Seamen’s Bethel Building. The project was received with glowing reviews (and was even re-installed in 2014 as part of the Old Town History Project), and since then, Bond has made large-scale and site-specific works across the globe that bring local histories to life and shine a light on stories not often told. Although she now uses contemporary video and animation technologies and works with a professional studio assistant, her works are still grounded in her hand-drawn animation methods which lends an intimate quality even at a monumental scale. 

Image of the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall during performance, symphony plays onstage while colorful animations are projected on theater facade surrounding musicians
Still from Bond’s Turangalïla, performed with the Oregon Symphony in 2016, image courtesy Oregon Symphony

Monumental is an apt descriptor for both the symphony and the location of this multimedia event — the three-part orchestral composition will be performed by the Oregon Symphony in one of Portland’s most elegant venues, the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. The warmth and directness of Bond’s simple line drawings of people and architecture provide a satisfying counterpoint to any potential grandiosity. Her open-minded curiosity is especially evident in conversation: “I didn’t know anything about symphonies but I’ve learned a whole lot (through this process).” Bond explained her research process in detail: she has taken a year-long sabbatical from teaching at PNCA and now has an entire filing cabinet stuffed with notes on the composition, historical references, and vast quantities of storyboard drafts and sketches. 

Hand drawn animation still depicting young man about to throw a rock or other object during protest in gritty urban environment
Still from Bond’s Sinfonia, image courtesy the artist

In 1968, the year Berio composed Sinfonia, social upheaval and civil unrest were erupting all over the world. The assasination of Martin Luther King, Jr. on April 4 of that year inspired the second movement of the symphony, titled O King. Berio built the first and third movements around this a deeply moving centerpiece. Excerpts of writing by Claude Levi-Strauss, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, and others, along with phrases from graffiti and slogans used during the contemporaneous protests in France, are scattered throughout the piece, each syllable dragged out into abstraction by the eight singers in Roomful of Teeth. The third movement appropriates portions of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, and also includes snippets from works by well known composers like Debussy, Ravel, and Stravinsky. 


Berio referred to his compositional strategy as “quotations,” and Bond sees them as analogous to sampling in contemporary music. It was a radical creative approach at the time of Sinfonia’s creation, but was entirely in keeping with Berio’s experimental tastes, which later led him to work in the newly emerging category of electronic music. Bond calls Berio “one of the first pre-post-modernists,” in reference to this blending of text and music quotations.

Bond’s animations share this patchwork approach, as she collages together images derived from archival sources like newspaper photographs and television footage. “I chose to respect the quotation form… by sampling well known pictures,” she explained. The title Sinfonia alludes to the literal meaning of the word symphony, “sounding together,” both in the sense of the many instruments and voices playing in harmony, and in the sense of bringing together disparate fragments to form a unified picture. Bond’s visuals act as another set of fragments contributing to the whole experience.

View of artist's studio, with computers on a desk, many projectors, stands, and wires, and a scale model of the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall in the far corner
A view of Bond’s studio, image courtesy the artist

Bond’s suite of three movements will be projected onto the multi-planar proscenium arch of the Schnitzer live during each performance. The cueing of her piece will occur simultaneously with that of the musicians and vocalists, hence the scale model of the theater — Bond and her technicians will need to have their timing just right in order to match the music. But this is not a literal illustration of the words being sung or the notes being played. Instead, Bond says, “the visuals are sort of like a dancer who sometimes takes the lead and sometimes backs off,” in other words, a collaborative performance. “The music has an unpredictability, and likewise, the visuals hold the potential for surprise.”

Bond let me sit at her studio monitor to preview a digital mockup of the work as it will look in the theater. The animations are projected onto darkened walls as opposed to the typical bright white screen. This has the effect of collapsing visual depth, while creating unexpected illusions of ambiguous three-dimensional space that contradict Bond’s assertively two-dimensional drawing style in a transfixing manner. Certain passages commandeer the theater’s architecture for their own purposes. During the second movement, the arched space above the stage transforms into the trusses of the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma, Alabama, the site of the infamous Bloody Sunday attack by police against Civil Rights protesters. At other times, the entire space becomes an endless void, brightened by ethereal apparitions dancing on either side of the orchestra pit. 

Black and white hand drawn animation still featuring two silhouetted figures standing at night under an umbrella, a Parisian "Metro" sign is illuminated by a streetlamp in the foreground
Still from Bond’s Sinfonia, image courtesy the artist

Although the visuals unfolding before me were on a screen a fraction of the size of their destined venue, they somehow managed to feel immersive, sometimes almost overwhelming, in their emotional intensity. Even the most ubiquitous images of the era felt new as they moved through Bond’s dream-like world of delicate lines and muted colors, in time with the haunting sounds of Berio’s composition. I understood what Bond meant when she said that at times during the piece “it feels like the whole room is spinning.”

Bond hopes that her work with the Oregon Symphony will entice new audiences to take an interest in such performances. She acknowledges that, like the opera and the ballet, the symphony is an older institution that is in some ways defined by tradition, and whose challenge now is to make itself relevant to younger people who are constantly immersed in the present moment through streaming platforms and social networks. 

Sinfonia may have been on the cutting edge of culture when it debuted in 1968, but to some, Berio’s work might seem as old as orchestral music itself. Through her ingenious use of popular imagery and her deft fusion of digital and analog media, Bond’s visuals revivify the qualities that made Sinfonia famous and offer both an entry point for newcomers and a fresh take for connoisseurs. Furthermore, she has made the work’s political nature more accessible to concert-goers through her rigorous research and smart visual references. The resulting experience of intermingling pictures, words, and music promises to be a powerful tribute to the ability and the responsibility that art has to reflect upon the culture of its time — both in Berio’s time and in our own. 

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There will be three performances of this multimedia concert event at the Arlene Schnitzer Concern Hall: 7:30 PM on Saturday, March 14th; 2:00 PM on Sunday, March 15th; and 7:30 PM on Monday, March 16th. Tickets start at $24 and are available here.

*** Due to the restriction of all public gatherings over 250 people as part of COVID-19 containment efforts, these performances have been cancelled.

Living Traditions, Part One: American symphonica

Keeping the American orchestra alive with Portland Youth Philharmonic, Metropolitan Youth Symphony, and Portland Columbia Symphony Orchestra

A couple years back, during the Bernstein Centennial, Portland Youth Philharmonic conductor David Hattner said something that stuck with us: “if American orchestras don’t play music by American composers, no one will.” He meant it, too; that concert, with a deeply moving performance of Bernstein’s Jeremiah Symphony as its centerpiece, was one of only two really worthwhile Bernstein concerts that season (the other was PSU Chamber Choir’s Chichester Psalms). Jeremiah soloist Laura Beckel Thoreson, plus superb performances of Jacob Avshalomov’s The Taking of T’ung Kuan and Ernst Bloch’s Schelomo (with dazzling solo cello from Kira Wang), only sweetened the deal.

We’ve noticed that PYP, Metropolitan Youth Symphony, and Portland Columbia Symphony Orchestra all do their fair share to keep the American Symphonic Tradition alive in Portland. In fact, from an aesthetic point of view they often do better than bigger institutions like the Oregon Symphony. (The same holds true, mutatis mutandis, for the contrasting American composer relations of the conservative but modern-friendly Portland Opera and the living-composer-obsessed Opera Theater Oregon–which is, to be fair, co-directed by a living, local, American composer).

This month, all three orchestras have concerts that enrich and enliven the American Symphonic Tradition: PYP and MYS this weekend, PCSO the following. We’ve been to most of these three orchestras’ recent concerts, and each one was a perfectly flawed contribution to the tradition’s vitality. That is, they were enjoyable as symphonic concerts and laudable as concerts of music by American composers, but each made (lucky for this music critic) a few critical mistakes.

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