MusicWatch Weekly: A song and a dance

Irish songs, Latinx bienestar, Balkan Brass, Viking musicians, and the return of Federale

As the great Pacific singer, dancer, composer, percussionist, instrument builder, and calligraphist Lou Harrison loved reminding us, “music is basically a song and a dance.” This week’s selections might be all over the genre map–cumbia psicodélica; twisty Balkan brass; rowdy cinematic rock and other local uncategorizables; clarinets and percussion and laptops; songs from Ireland and World War I; a siege catapult’s worth of jazz–but all of it hews to this basic formula. Sing. Dance. Repeat.

You’re probably going to get snowed in with the cats and the chessboard next week, so now’s your chance to clear your throat, lace up your red shoes, and get into some music.

Tonight, tonight, tonight

We already talked about Blue Cranes and the Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble in November’s monthly column, so hopefully you’ve already bought tickets and hired a babysitter. In case you haven’t, this is your reminder that their Siege of Cranes concert, featuring the tight-knit BC quintet and PJCE’s eight-piece horn section, is happening tonight at Holocene. Get on it, Portland.

You could go up to T.C. O’Leary’s on Northeast Alberta to hear Irish folk songs–and even sing along if the mood strikes you–every month. But the special guests on tonight’s Oíche na namhrán (“night of song”) deserve a mention: Uilleann piper Preston Howard Wilde and harpist Elizabeth Nicholson will join regular host Michael Steen-Orr for tonight’s shindig. No doubt the harp in question is the lovely diatonic variety used by Taliesen and Dolphin Midwives, and that’ll be sweet–but it’s those pipes we’re curious about. You’re probably picturing the noisy bagpipes of countless cheap jokes, but these are different; sweeter, gentler, more Irish. Have a listen to Wilde right now and tell me you don’t want to go order up a Jameson’s and sing along.


An intersection of people, ideas, and music

Nexus Vocal Ensemble premiere concert brings impressive technique, emotional and spiritual power to Shaw, Buxtehude, and Barnwell


The Nexus Vocal Ensemble, founded and directed by singer-conductor Lennie Cottrell, presented its debut concert To the Hands on Saturday, November 16 at St. Mark’s Parish in Northwest Portland. This is an ensemble to watch. In a day when new groups come and go, I hope this one will stick. Its young singers (“no one is over 35,” said one of them to me at the reception) primarily make their livings as choral leaders, directing choral activities in schools, singing professionally, or both.

It shows. Singing of the highest caliber was on full display, with only a few intonation lapses that the fairly dry acoustics of St. Mark’s Parish might have heightened. Ensemble Esprit, a string group featuring some of the region’s best players, joined forces with Nexus in the two primary works of this no-intermission program. Nexus helpfully provided a beautifully presented program book with all the original texts and translations.

Rather than performing choral music of every style and every era and every tradition at the highest standard—an all-too-common and frankly boring approach—this ensemble clearly has a “why” for their work. They state in their biography: “This is what Nexus is: a meeting point; a connection between things; an intersection of people, ideas, and music.”


Finding hope through music

Southern Oregon’s Anima Mundi Productions continues to challenge audiences about cultural and social issues through music


A new concert series dedicated to bringing world-class musicians and composers to southern Oregon with the purpose of musicially addressing challenging social issues was inaugurated this October when Anima Mundi Productions co-founders, composer Ethan Gans-Morse and poet Tiziana DellaRovere, launched The Heart of Humanity program. This annual series of three concerts per year (fall, winter, and spring), often programed with “extra-musical” and “beyond the concert hall” elements that proactively engage the wider community, is focused on giving a compassionate voice to marginalized people and turning the concert hall into a venue for renewed hope, mutual understanding, and communal healing.

Malek Jandali Trio opens Ashland’s The Heart of Humanity series. Photo by Chava Florendo, courtesy Anima Mundi Productions.
Malek Jandali Trio opens Ashland’s The Heart of Humanity series. Photo by Chava Florendo, courtesy Anima Mundi Productions.

The Heart of Humanity is the fourth Anima Mundi project in which Gans-Morse and DellaRovere have focused on the mission of creating musical performances that inspire the soul, inform the mind, and foster community.

Their first production, The Canticle of the Black Madonna (2014), was a fully staged, Portland-premiered event about combat PTSD and the environment. A chamber opera,Tango of the White Gardenia (2018), addressed issues of bullying and body perception and went on tour around the state.The Rogue Valley Symphony commissioned Anima Mundi’s third and most recent collaborative effort, How Can You Own The Sky? (2018), a symphonic poem exploring the Native American legacy of Southern Oregon through poetry and orchestral music with indigenous musical influences.


MusicWatch Weekly: The magic is in the middle

Prog, Shaw, Wolfe, African funk, Indian classical, and an Austro-Bohemian tribute band

There are a handful of things that make a city’s musical culture feel complete. You need several symphony orchestras and large choirs, and they all have to be pretty damn good. You also need several smaller choral and instrumental ensembles overlapping with and supplementing the larger bands; ideally, these smaller units will be a little more adventurous, and probably a lot more stylish.

You need an ecosystem of local and touring bands across the various spectra of genre and heft, not just the big names and your friend’s solo noise-pop project but a solid middle-register balance of lesser-known but high-quality musical acts. This middle ground principle applies equally to rock, jazz, classical, and all the rest: the magic is in the middle.

Finally, you need a diverse assortment of music from a variety of cultures. After arriving here from the sprawling metropolis of [redacted] in 2001, I knew Portland was a Serious Musical City when I saw just how easy it is to hear Indian classical music here–to say nothing of the broad assortment of groups playing music rooted in traditions from Africa, Eastern Europe, Indonesia, Japan, Latin America, Russia, and so on. Touring acts come from all over, which is nice, but it’s the abundance of local-international musicians that’s really impressive.

We’ll talk about all of that in a minute. First, let’s talk about the Big Fish and its Favorite Bohemian.


From Hate to Healing

FearNoMusic’s “The F Word” commemorates the Portland murder of Ethiopian immigrant Mulugeta Seraw by white supremacists

Note: throughout this article, Mulugeta Seraw is referred to by his personal name, “Mulugeta,” instead of the patronymic “Seraw.”

On November 12, 1988, three racist skinhead gang members descended on 28 year old Mulugeta Seraw as friends dropped him off at his Southeast Portland apartment after dinner. The trio, who’d recently attacked other minority Portlanders, beat Mulugeta to death with a baseball bat. The Portland State University graduate student, who came to Oregon from Ethiopia to go to college, left behind an eight-year-old son.

A Portland jury sent Mulugeta’s killers, who were part of an organized Northwest white supremacist movement, to prison. A jury also imposed a civil judgment against a California white supremacist for inciting Mulugeta’s killing.

Ethiopian-born Portlander Mulugeta Seraw.

Kenji Bunch was a Southwest Portland high school student when Mulugeta was murdered. “It really stuck with me,” he remembered. “It was really jarring for a kid living in this sheltered suburban life and realizing these issues were present in my hometown.” 


Claiming culture, marketing emotion

Oregon Mozart Players concert explores new worlds with music by living composers—and raises questions of preparation and appropriated meaning


Beall Hall at the University of Oregon School of Music was almost at capacity on October 12th for the Oregon Mozart PlayersNew Worlds concert–the first of three 2019-2020 season concerts featuring contemporary classical compositions. The progressive program and the exciting young guest artists–Eugene’s Delgani String Quartet–promised a compelling listening experience. Two works by American composers under the age of 50 were the program’s highlights: Teen Murti by Reena Esmail and How Wild the Sea by Pulitzer Prize winner Kevin Puts.

Oregon Music Players performed Reena Esmail and Kevin Puts, October 2019 in Eugene's Beall Hall. Photo by Torrin Riley.
Oregon Mozart Players performed Reena Esmail and Kevin Puts, October 2019 in Eugene’s Beall Hall. Photo by Torrin Riley.

Both pieces featured non-Eurocentric themes, and Esmail’s piece was crafted using materials of a nonwestern musical tradition: the Hindustani music of Northern India. Esmail is Indian-American and has completed significant studies of Hindustani music in India (Fulbright-Nehru scholarship), and brings that pedigree to her writing. For his part, Puts (whose opera Silent Night won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for music) drew inspiration for his string quartet concerto from tragic media images of Japanese victims of the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami.

The two works were masterfully crafted, rewarding attentive listeners with multi-textured soundscapes, harmonic excursions into unfamiliar territory, and bravura ensemble and solo passages that highlighted the virtuosity of both the ensemble and the guest artists. So it was with a sinking heart–just a few bars into Esmail’s sensitive treatment of Hindustani music–that I realized the Oregon Mozart Players had bitten off more than they could chew with Teen Murti.

The piece opened with layered melismatic lines over a drone: a quintessential Indian music structure. The texture was thick with “blue” notes (microtones achieved by fingering a touch higher or lower on the neck and via glissandi) and meaty low-register trills in the first violins. My ears were primed. But then there was a spate of stuttering pizzicato. The string players were hesitant, not wanting to be the one to plink out of place, thereby rendering their entrance scattershot. A growing sense of ill ease permeated the performance from that point on, the players struggling to get through the piece without a train wreck.

In an effective, coloristic section of ad lib, portamento-laden phrases in the violins held aloft what could have been a languid, sensuous cello obligato from within the orchestral section. Unfortunately, the cellist was so focused on the page that her performance was lackluster. To be fair, rehearsal time is at a premium even for the more regularly programmed works from the classical canon, let alone unfamiliar new works that may present challenges the ensemble has not faced before. 

The ensemble continued their unsteady way through the lovely piece, doing their best to execute the freely metered, elastic rhythms. A final return to the opening liquid microtone textures brought the structure to a satisfying conclusion, capped off with an inspired melismatic solo statement from concertmaster Alice Blankenship. The piece had desperately needed that kind of emotional commitment from the beginning.

This is music that goes against the grain of western music in so many ways, and to ask an ensemble that specializes in the most western of western music to embrace it was perhaps poor judgement. It is hard to see an ensemble struggle, especially one with such high standards. But salt was rubbed into the wound when artistic director/conductor Kelly Kuo made awkward excuses for the subpar performance, mentioning the challenging rhythmical elements. Perhaps it would have been better to sing the praises of the work and move on to the next piece instead of acknowledging the weakness of the performance.

Oregon Music Players performed Reena Esmail and Kevin Puts, October 2019 in Eugene's Beall Hall. Photo by Torrin Riley.
Oregon Mozart Players performed Reena Esmail and Kevin Puts, October 2019 in Eugene’s Beall Hall. Photo by Torrin Riley.

Processing tragedy

On his well-crafted website, Kevin Puts writes about having written music associated with tragedy: “It seems I am always making memorials, or trying to process tragedy through my writing.” Often these works are inspired by images the composer has seen. Falling Dream: a couple leaping together from one of the burning towers during the 9/11 attacks. His Clarinet Concerto: images from a documentary of families mourning at the graves of fallen soldiers of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. The impetus for How Wild the Sea was televised imagery of an elderly man, trapped on the roof of his home, being swept along on the violent Tōhoku tsunami tide, having just lost his wife to the tumult.

Delgani Quartet opened the piece, with a gentle to-and-fro motion of arpeggios and running scales that evoked an undulating sea, consonant intervals projecting a deceptive benevolence. After an abrupt shift to dissonance, the to-and-froing morphed into an ominous swelling and contracting as the orchestra washed over the solo ensemble. This morass of portent gradually coalesced into a clearly metered rhythmic section that highlighted declamatory, unison orchestral statements.

The concerto continued in this manner, exploiting the protagonist role of the quartet against the “forces of nature” portrayed in the orchestra. Puts’s brilliant orchestration had the quartet sending phrases off into the brass and percussion sections, creating motivic currents which gave the work tremendous sonic depth. Despite the predictable tolling chimes and woodwind intonation issues, OMP delivered a much more energetic performance than with Esmail’s work, including an outstanding contribution by the french horn section.

Puts’s treatment of the quartet as a single voice–shared rhythmic and melodic material activated, agitated, and modulated from within by the separate instruments–created a powerful counter to the orchestra’s aural dominance. Delgani was in their element, their tight ensemble rapport executing dense contrapuntal and rapid scalar sections with enthusiastic synergy.

A return to the oceanic textures of the opening–this time the underlying anxiety retreating in dark brass reverberations–signaled the conclusion of the work. A few errant currents of phrases and motifs passed between sections, and a tic-toc brass-and-percussion figure guided the orchestra to a textural cadence and a unison solo statement by the quartet: a spine tingling conclusion that was unfortunately marred by two full orchestra hits that seemed counterintuitive and awkwardly self-conscious.

Creative impetus, or mere marketing?

I feel compelled, in today’s atmosphere of transparency of intent and growing respect for difference (cultural, sexual, religious or otherwise), to mention a criticism I have for Puts’s work. With regard to the two previously mentioned tragedy-inspired works (Falling Dream, Clarinet Concerto), I understand the impetus. These are issues close to home, events that affected and continue to affect Americans viscerally. But I have observed a tendency (especially in more conservative contemporary classical communities) for composers to jump at monumental events as impetus for composition. I feel that this practice can be a minefield of unintended effrontery to victims of these tragedies or members of the cultures that have been afflicted, especially if the events happened at a significant distance to the composer’s life, lifestyle, and culture. 

So, I wonder about the respectfulness of writing pieces inspired by a kind of media-driven voyeurism. I can understand using the Japanese tragedy as impetus if the composer had a direct connection to the Japanese disaster; Puts did have a piece performed in a Japanese town damaged by an earthquake in the 90s, but that seems a distant relationship to the Tōhoku earthquake. Simply appropriating the meaning in a Japanese man’s suffering without any deliberate, respectful reference to his culture seems a particularly good example of cultural hubris. How Wild the Sea used no elements of Japan’s rich musical culture, historical or contemporary. I can imagine there were many touch points for creativity in the aftermath of the disaster: favorite community songs and folksongs of the region, to name just two. Why were these not explored?

Remove the program note’s mention of the impetus and the composer’s explanation on his website, and the piece bears no connection to Japanese culture. So why just a textual reference to a tragedy that captured the world’s attention? Could this be marketing? Is this a composer seeding his work with imagery to engage the morbid fascination and pity the observer feels for the suffering? I certainly hope not. But, I feel that there just wasn’t enough relevant content in How Wild the Sea to comfortably support the composer’s decision to apply the tragic imagery of a doomed man’s suffering to his music.

Oregon Music Players performed Reena Esmail and Kevin Puts, October 2019 in Eugene's Beall Hall. Photo by Clarissa Parker.
Oregon Mozart Players performed Reena Esmail and Kevin Puts, October 2019 in Eugene’s Beall Hall. Photo by Clarissa Parker.

The Oregon Mozart Players are to be commended for their programming of living American composers. They are participating in a rising tide of performing organizations discovering the amazing variety, accessibility, and artistry of American contemporary classical music. Perhaps they might find a more copacetic rapport with the more pulse-oriented pieces of the minimalists (Philip Glass’ symphonies, for instance) and post-minimalists (John Adams’s lighter orchestral works) or the abstracted tonality of the current roster of young Brooklynites (Andrew Norman, Missy Mazzoli).

However the orchestra’s programming develops, Oregon Mozart Players have established themselves as committed champions of contemporary classical music, willing to take risks and create memorable music of our time.

Oregon Mozart Players will feature music of Frederik Magle on December 6 and 7 and of Michael Torke on March 28, 2020.

Daniel Heila writes music, loves words, and plays flute in Eugene, OR.

Want to read more music news in Oregon? Support Oregon ArtsWatch

MusicWatch Weekly: Big and small

Big bands, big choirs, chamber classical, and hybrid music from Indonesia and the British Isles

Well, I just got back from hearing Third Angle play Eve Beglarian, Lee Hyla, David Lang, and a bunch of other sweet stuff down in the cozy Jack London Revue basement underneath the billiard tables. You know how sometimes when you’re watching a big band play a long set there’ll be a few players in the corps who have some classical tricks up their sleeves, and when the rest of the band takes a break one of those soloists might come downstage and rip out a crazy impressive solo, maybe a bit of Bach or Wuorinen, the sort of stuff they don’t usually get to play in jazz clubs? 3A’s Back in the Groove was exactly like that. A whole evening of it.

Artistic Director Sarah Tiedemann saved the best, grooviest, flashiest music for herself, like a boss–but like a good boss, you know? The rare type of boss who approves all your sick days, keeps meetings on topic, knows how to use Excel, and not only can fix the copier but actually does. Clarinetist James Shields and saxophonist Sean Fredenburg both killed it–the latter tearing his way through Shelley Washington’s Mo’ingus, the former playing Reich’s New York Counterpoint along with his own fifteen-year-old undergrad backing tracks, the pair of ’em barking at each other in Lee Hyla’s gnarly, groovy, gloriously incomprehensible We Speak Etruscan–but it was Tiedemann’s graceful performance of the fiendishly difficult (but oh so melodic!) music of Jacob TV and Eve Beglarian that had us shooting coffee out our noses in shocked delight.

Anyways, you’ll hear all about the rest of this lovely show from me soon enough. Right now you’ve got new concerts to read about–big bands and small bands and sludgey bands and tribes of singers and song collectors–and I can’t wait to tell you all about it.

Tonight! and other reminders

It starts tonight, the seventh of November (remember, remember–this is the day they finally broke him). This evening at Goodfoot Lounge in Southeast Portland, Rattlesnake Organ Trio performs with Greaterkind, doing their funky organ trio thing. Also tonight, up at North Portland’s Kenton Club, local scifi doom metal wizards Usnea sludge it up with Ugly, At the Heart of the World, and Burials (as themselves this time–no Slayer covers). And tonight at Turn Turn Turn (where North Killingsworth meets the corpse of North Williams) it’s psych-folk madman Ben Chasny’s Six Organs of Admittance.

You can read about some of November’s other offerings in our monthly roundup, but we figured a few reminders of shows happening PDQ might be order. This weekend at The Old Church, you’ve got a pair of hour-long 45th Parallel Universe concerts: Ruth Crawford Seeger, Amy Beach, and Rebecca Clarke on the first half; Martinů, von Dohnányi, and Reza Vali on the second. Monday at TOC, Fear No Music plays Ryan Francis and David Bruce; the Mulugeta Seraw exhibit that accompanies (and lends its title to) this concert is already on display in the venue’s homey antechamber.

If you want to go big with your classical weekend, a pair of youth orchestras have their American-composer-friendly fall concerts at The Schnitz. Saturday, Portland Youth Philharmonic plays Gershwin and Beach; Sunday, Metropolitan Youth Symphony plays Tower, Beethoven, and local composer Matthew Kaminski.

If you want to go chorally big, pick one of Cappella Romana’s Oregon performances of Kastalsky’s Requiem: Saturday in Portland, Sunday in Lake Oswego, Monday out at the coast in Lincoln City. If you’d rather go small and local, head to Valentine’s for local composer Christopher “Cult of Orpheus” Corbell’s local poet collaboration Rose City Art Song Project on Friday.

Keep singing!

On Friday and Sunday, the combined forces of Portland State’s magnificent choral tribe head to their usual off-campus haunt–Goose Hollow’s First United Methodist Church–for their ninth annual Global Rhythms concert. This mob is like a larger, more studenty version of Resonance Ensemble–technically excellent and ever-curious, with a deep devotion to craft and diversity across genres and social strata, utterly appropriate for an urban university in a socially-conscious city so suffused with the sound of singing.

These award-winning choirs bounce around between contemporary classical stuff (Ēriks Ešenvalds, Eric Whitacre), classical classical stuff (Mozart, Ravel, Sibelius), and various popular musicks, with these annual Global Rhythms concerts putting a focus on both international stylistic cross-pollination and the pure joy of bringing rhythm and percussion into the often stuffy choral ecosystem.

Portland is always birthing new choirs, springing Athena-like from the city’s vast, Zeus-headed choral community. One of the newest, In Medio, performs its premiere concert Autumna this Friday at Augustana Lutheran Church in Northeast Portland, with old and new classics by Renaissance composers Tomás Luis de Victoria and Orlando di Lasso, youngsters Jaakko Mäntyjärvi and Caroline Shaw, and local composer Judy Rose.

It’s not just Portland though–Senior Editor Brett Campbell has the word on two singy shows happening in Eugene this weekend:

Eugene Concert Choir’s November 8 concert at the UO’s Beall Concert Hall features a moving new work by New York composer Michael Bussewitz-Quarm, The Unarmed Child, that commemorates children lost to gun violence in a country whose leaders—though definitely not the vast majority of its citizens—evidently prioritize the latter, and their political power, over the former. The show also includes Benjamin Britten’s gravely beautiful 1963 tribute to the Red Cross, Cantata Misericordium (Merciful Heart) and more, with guest stars Eugene’s Delgani Quartet.

Oregon Bach Collegium‘s November 10 concert at United Lutheran Church in Eugene includes 17th-century love songs and Shakespearean sonnets, the latter intoned by Geoff Ridden from Ashland’s Classic Readings Theater Company, the former sung by soprano Emma Rose Lynn accompanied by baroque cellist Alex Abrams and harpsichordist Margret Gries

Thanks, boss! Back in Portland, at The Old Church on Friday, singer and “song collector” Peia Luzzi presents Oíche Na nAmhrán (The Night Of Song)–the sonic results of her globe-spanning research into Celtic folk music and other Old World folk. Come for the Child Ballads, stay for the waulking songs.

Big bands

If you like big bands and cannot lie, get ready for a run of local jazz orchestras doing their thing around town. Friday night at Jack London Revue, it’s The Funky Knuckles, who cheekily refer to themselves as ”a world class jazz orchestra made up of genetically enhanced cybernetic super men.” They’re only a sextet, though, so they’ll have to really work it if they want to earn that “orchestra” moniker.

Now take a peek at the considerably bigger lineup for Marilyn Keller’s Sunday show with Ezra Weiss Big Band (also at Augustana Lutheran): you’ve got Keller and Weiss, a winning pair at all times; you’ve got a sax corps that includes John Nastos and Quadraphonnes chief Mary-Sue Tobin; you’ve got Douglas Detrick and Noah Simpson lurking in trumpet ranks; and for your rhythm section you’ve got bassist Jon Lakey, guitarist Ryan Meagher, nimble madman Alan Jones on drums, and composer Darrell Grant doing his dazzling thing on the piano.

Mr. Campbell has something to say about this lot too:

Portland pianist and composer Ezra Weiss, a first-rate arranger and band leader who frequently lends his multifarious talents to progressive causes, has arranged classic gospel tunes (“How Great Thou Art,” “Just a Closer Walk with Thee,” “Wade in the Water” and more) for one of Portland’s most revered singers, Marilyn Keller, backed by a dozen and a half local jazz stalwarts including John Nastos, Mary-Sue Tobin, Douglas Detrick, Stan Bock, Ryan Meagher, Darrell Grant, and Alan Jones. All proceeds benefit Immigrant Families Together, an organization that works to reunite and support immigrant families separated at the US/Mexico border.

Monday night, back at Jack London Revue, it’s a whole other big band: NoPo Big Band. Something about PDX’s mysterious fifth quadrant makes musicians all edgy–maybe it’s the rail yards, or the big statue of Paul Bunyan that presides over the Kenton neighborhood like a burly Northwest Colossus. In any case, these swingers tend to be a little rougher than your “proper” Portlanders–and when it comes to big band, that’s just how we like it.

But if you want just a little demitasse of tempestuous jazz, on Tuesday night you can go hear the inexhaustible local guitarist Mike Gamble–apparently still fresh, somehow, after Creative Music Guild’s six-day Improvisation Summit and a recent stint with Michelle Alany and The Mystics opening for Saloon Ensemble’s rowdy Nitemare B4 Xmas–playing a trio show at No Fun on Hawthorne with bassist Andrew Jones and drummer Michael Timothy Lockwood. Also on the bill: DoubleDash, with local producer/multi-instrumentalist Machado Mijiga on drums and Dario LaPoma on the keyboards.


It’s fairly rare for composers to put on concerts of just their own music–usually it’s pairings and collaborations, a fanfare before the Beethoven, or a commission for a specific performing group. Students do their own showcase concerts all the time, of course–we call them “recitals”–but it’s unusual for these to have any sort of thematic coherence.

One exception is Indonesian-American pianist-composer Lifia Teguh, a Portland State student of Kenji Bunch and Darrell Grant; her INDspire concert this Friday at PSU’s Lincoln Recital Hall (the one in the basement, where CMNW’s New@Noon happens) features chamber music for strings, percussion, piano, and voice, combining influences from the Western classical tradition with the popular folk music of Teguh’s native Java. One piece imitates gamelan with prepared piano, and another has some audience interaction–an angklung-along, in which the audience gets to play funky handheld bamboo instruments.

Naturally we wanted to know more about Teguh’s cross-cultural music–we’re more accustomed to hearing her play Lizst and Ravel, and apparently we just missed each other this summer while she was up in Java and your intrepid music editor was down in Bali. So we slung a few questions her way.

Teguh’s answers have been condensed and edited for clarity and flow.

Oregon Arts Watch: Tell us about the music on this program, and how you combine Indonesian and western influences.

Lifia Teguh: Dendang Gado-Gado for piano & percussion (cajon, cowbells, crotales, glockenspiel) is based on an Indonesian folk tune called Gundul Gundul Pacul. It’s a mixture of different genres: folk, classical music, jazz, blues, and pop.

The three movements of A Traveler’s Journey (for string quintet, percussion, and piano) represent my journey migrating from Indonesia to the US, which turns out to be full of life lessons and is not always happy. Some parts reflect the excitement, the struggles, and how God helps me throughout the journey. “Halo!” has a dual meaning. It means “hello” in Indonesian–the pop-like tune in the beginning–and also “glory” or “majestic,” which is in the middle section. “Rescued” is slow, with an inner-reflective mood. “Fiesta” has a tango-like tune and the influence of dangdut, a famous genre in Java. It is in a minor key, and represents how triumph happens after struggles, but sometimes without us even realizing it.

Tarian Jawa features prepared piano tuned to the sound of gamelan. It was my first ever composition, world premiered in Italy for a piano festival that I attended with full scholarship because I won a national competition back home. I was in middle school at that time and my piano teachers helped me notate. Liber Dangdut (piano and string trio) was my first ever chamber music composition, written when I was an undergraduate. It’s a mixture of dangdut, Piazzolla, and film scoring: dancey, majestic, fun, sassy, and triumphant.

My music combines dangdut, gamelan, and pop–which I can hear almost everyday in public places, like on the weekends when your neighbors have parties and they close the street to have an overnight dangdut concert. When I came to the US I learned more of Latin American music and heard how some rhythms are similar. I grew up playing classical piano and keyboard at church, but I know that as much as I love the great composers I sometimes cannot fully express myself.

But the virtuosic aspects and the depth of classical music appealed to me a lot. The ending of Dendang Gado Gado was inspired by a Beethoven violin sonata I played as an undergraduate. “Rescued” was inspired by the 2nd movement of Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G Major, a piece so dear to me when I worked on it so hard for the PSU concerto competition–which I won last Winter.

Arts Watch: We always like to know about everyone’s first “a-ha” moment with music. Was there a recording, a performance, or other experience that first made you think “this music thing is not just some neutral thing, but something special that I want to do for real?”

Teguh: I was not sure whether I would go for a musical career; I was battling whether I was “good enough” to be a musician and decided to take a gap year, since I thought I might go for a business degree. In my senior year of high school the a-ha moment happened. I entered one of the most prestigious national piano competitions in Indonesia (Jakarta Conservatory of Music National Piano Competition), and before I played my pieces in those rounds of competitions I asked God to show me if I can enjoy this experience of performing, maybe have a career here.

I was one of only two finalists from my hometown. When they announced the winners, the third runner-up had already been accepted to Manhattan School of Music; I thought to myself, “there is no way that I have a chance of winning this.” I was the second runner up, and there was no first runner up–they had two first-place winners, one was going to Juilliard and the other to Oberlin. So I thought, “actually I might have a chance!” During my gap year I travelled a bit and realized that I missed playing the piano during those times. I know that music cannot just be a hobby, but what I enjoy doing. Here I am now.

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