MUSIC

There is a value in simple things

An interview with composer-singer-violinist Caroline Shaw, performing next week with Third Angle

Whenever composers get together and talk about other composers, the topic inevitably drifts to Who’s The Most Important, a typical domesticated primate behavior which normally results in lists and fights (for the record, Pärt and Saariaho remain verifiably at the top). In terms of living U.S. composers, the question for us often takes the form, “who will be in future music history books?” The really big living names–the Adamses, Crumb, Elfman, Glass, Gordon, Higdon, Lang, Mackey, Monk, Reich, Riley, Tower, Whitacre, Williams, Wolfe, Zwilich–are already in the history books, so for this exercise we’d like to really dig down and focus on the rising generation of composers, the ones who are (let’s be generous) underfortyish.

Prediction’s a messy business, laden with personal biases and all the customary cultural baggage, but the present author would like to report that, in our experience, a handful of names nearly always make the speculative Future Music History Book list: Andy Akiho, Gabriela Lena Frank, Gabriel Kahane, Missy Mazzoli, Andrew Norman, and Caroline Shaw. My money’s on Frank and Shaw, who I think will be remembered as the Bartók and Stravinsky of this era. Frank as Bartók is an easy one, but don’t take our Shaw=Stravinsky equation too literally (sonically Norman is much closer). However we must note that if, as David Lang suggests, Riley’s In C premiere was his generation’s Rite of Spring premiere, then Shaw’s Pulitzer win for Partita for Eight Voices was quite likely ours.

In an important sense there has never been a composer like Caroline Shaw, who will be in town twice next month, starting with Third Angle’s “Caroline in the City” concerts March 5th and 6th. Brahms needed Joachim, Britten needed Pears, the Three Brothers of Minimalism (Phil and Steve and Terry) never could have existed without each other, ditto Bang on a Can’s Bizarre Love Triangle. But as near as I can tell, Shaw (like, say, Laurie Anderson) doesn’t actually need anyone else–and (again like Anderson) she has the generosity and collaborative spirit characteristic of such autonomous artists. We’re talking about a classical composer who can go on stage with a megastar like Kanye West and she makes him look cool. Suddenly Barbara Strozzi comes to mind.

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Storming Viking Pavilion

PSU brings choral music’s first ‘rock star’ and 500 singers to campus basketball arena

One night in 1999, Ethan Sperry heard five minutes of music that changed his life. At choral music’s biggest annual event, the American Choral Directors Association conference, the 28-year-old choral director was transfixed by Minnesota’s famed St. Olaf Choir’s performance of Eric Whitacre’s Water Night, a setting of a poem by Nobel Prize winning Mexican poet Octavio Paz.

“It changed my life and the life of all the thousands of choir directors at that conference,” recalled Sperry, who has directed Portland State University’s choral programs for the past decade. “We were all talking about it. Here was a new language in writing for choir, and a new way of setting poetry. Not only was there a new voice in choral music, but also somebody bringing new secular poetry into the realm of choral music,” which typically relied on Latin or other dead poets’ texts. Sperry, only a year younger than the then little-known Nevada-born composer, heard “something extremely profound about what he was doing at a young age,” he said. “It was the first time I’d been moved so much by music written by someone my own age.”

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Breathing fresh air

Portland Opera’s ‘American Quartet’ of one-act operas

An American Quartet sold out–and for good reasons. Portland Opera’s seven-performance black-box show, which opened Feb. 9 at Hampton Opera Center and closed Feb. 22, was witty, short, well performed, utterly charming, and for once the spotlight shone on American opera composers. The entire program, sung in English with projected captions, lasted about 95 minutes along with a 15-minute intermission. That’s a long way from a four-hour night with Wagner.

Emilie Faiella as Lucy and Geoffrey Schellenberg as Ben in The Telephone. Photo by Kate Szrom/Portland Opera.
Emilie Faiella as Lucy and Geoffrey Schellenberg as Ben in Gian Carlo Menotti’s ‘The Telephone.’ Photo by Kate Szrom/Portland Opera.

These four one-acts, ranging in length from 10 to 26 minutes, provided a sharply tuned showcase for the up-and-coming Portland Opera Resident Artists, each of whom sang multiple parts.

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From Jazz to Minimalism to India and back

A profile of pioneering composer Terry Riley, performing with son Gyan in Portland tonight

What’s one of the 20th century’s most influential and widely accessible contemporary classical composers doing at a jazz festival? Terry Riley’s jazz roots and cred might surprise classical fans who know him as the principal pioneer of minimalism, the dominant contemporary music of the past half century or more, or even as one of the first so-called “world music” figures or as an influence on psychedelic rock. In fact, jazz lies at the heart of all those innovations, and Riley has continued throughout his long and starry career to play the kind of improvised piano he’ll perform in Portland.

Composer Terry Riley at the keyboard. Photo courtesy of the composer.

Jazz Roots

Growing up in California’s Sierra Nevada foothills during World War II, Riley naturally imbibed the jazz and crooner pop of the time, and taught himself to play piano by picking out the tunes he heard on the radio. He helped pay the bills at the University of California by playing ragtime piano in a San Francisco bar.

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MusicWatch Weekly: Streams & tributaries

Electronica, Celtica, Symphonica, Jazz, and Ladysmith Black Mambazo

Last week, when we started talking about “living traditions,” we found that problematizing “world music” opened up the possibility that all genres are a form of tradition–a vast world of traditions within traditions, interacting with each other, ever-evolving, world without end, amen. We’ll be getting into all that in due course. For now, dear reader, we have more homework for you: another week’s worth of concerts, all geared toward your tradition-loving enjoyment and edification.

We’ll start with Japanese composer Takako Minekawa, who doesn’t make “world music.”

Minekawa is performing twice in Portland this week. She works in what we might call the Krautrock tradition: she’s spent the last thirty-odd years crafting vintage synth-laden pop music inspired by the legendary ‘70s Japanese electronic band Yellow Magic Orchestra and the Robots of Düsseldorf Themselves. Minekawa performs a solo set Thursday (tonight!) at tone poem in Southeast Portland, so grab your bus pass and get moving. The next evening, she’s at the charming Leaven Community Center on Northeast Killingsworth for a quadraphonic concert presented in conjunction with Portland Community College’s Music & Sonic Arts Program.

Let’s circle back to “quadraphonic.” Music audio systems generally come in three varieties: the old-fashioned mono (one speaker channel), reigning champion stereo (left and right), and newishfangled quadraphonic (four channels). It’s one of those things you just have to experience live, and this concert gives you a chance to hear four masters at work on a “multi channel quad performance.” Minekawa joins Francisco Botello, Visible Cloaks, and Carl Stone (a student of Morton Subotnick, which is all you need to know).

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Falling for flamenco

Laura Onizuka first encountered the art form in a video in Spanish class. Now she teaches the dance, including at an upcoming Lincoln City retreat

People come to the Oregon Coast for all sorts of reasons – the beach, the views, the seafood, the sea life. At the end of the month, they’ll come for a reason that may seem as foreign as the country that inspired it: to dance the flamenco. Portland dancer and instructor Laura Onizuka will share her talent and knowledge during the Flamenco Retreat at the Oregon Coast, Feb. 28 through March 1 in Lincoln City. We talked with Onizuka about the art form – a combination of dance, song, and instrumental music from southern Spain. Her comments have been edited for length and clarity.

Flamenco instructor Laura Onizuka describes flamenco as “celebratory, passionate, melancholy.” Photo by: Chris Leck

What is flamenco?

Onizuka: It’s an art form and it’s music, dance, rhythm, language, communication. There are different facets: singing, guitar, dancing. It’s categorized by singing styles, based on the regions they come from and the influences from other parts of the world. For flamenco as we know it today, the place you want to go is Andalucía, Spain. That’s where great flamenco is being born. Madrid would be the hub. A lot of people go there to collaborate and just grow.

What can you tell us about its history?

It’s so complex. Some people say it comes from Gypsies in India originally. Some say that’s not true. It has influence from the Gypsies, Spanish folklore, musical influences from South America and Africa. So much of it was in the oral tradition, so there are not necessarily records of this art form until more recently. There’s a lot of romanticizing the Gypsy culture, but it’s about a lot more than that. People are still arguing about it and figuring it out. Where did it become the flamenco art form? In southern Spain. That’s not disputed.

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MusicWatch Weekly: Living traditions

A week of “world music” concerts

In the coming weeks, we’ll be running a series of essays exploring “living traditions” through the lens of several recent and upcoming concerts across a handful of genres and subgenres, most of which stray into the phantom zone of “world music.” To get you primed for that, we’d like to discuss what we mean by “living traditions”–and direct you to some upcoming concerts that will demonstrate our meaning while keeping your mind limber.

We love problematizing genre, and “world music” is one of our favorites–it’s one of those genre terms that means everything and nothing, like “classical.” You know exactly what I mean by “world music” (no doubt you’re already imagining sitars and gongs), but you probably also realize the contradiction in the term: which “world” are we talking about? Are Mozart and The Beatles not part of “the world?” Are Irish fiddle tunes “world music” or “folk music”–and why? And what makes Ravi Shankar and A.R. Rahman “world music,” exactly?

The label makes life easier for record stores, which have to put that stuff somewhere, and the truth is that “the west” does have quite an appetite for these global musics. But we westerners tend to fetishize these global musics as something other, something from elsewhere, perhaps something we’ve lost or forgotten in “our” musics. In some ways, we define “our” musics by their differences with musics from “other” cultures; such “exotic” features raise questions about what western music doesn’t do and generally isn’t comfortable with. Music theory nerds might consider the abolition of the augmented second and the centuries-long disintegration of tonality; all others might consider the relationship between “dance” and “folk” and “classical” and “popular” musics within the western tradition, and why they all seem so uneasy around each other.

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