MUSIC

Building and rebuilding

An interview with British-American composer Oscar Bettison, commissioned and premiered on this weekend's Oregon Symphony season-opening concerts

This weekend, the Oregon Symphony Orchestra officially opens its season with an old Mozart concerto, an old Brahms symphony, a new series of Friday concerts in Salem, a two-hour party on Main Street–and a brand new commission from a living U.S. composer. Parties and Salem shows and ancient Austrians are nice and all, but it’s the living composers that get us new music nuts all excited, so we invited the composer in question–Peabody Institute chair of composition Oscar Bettison–to join us at a noisy coffee shop around the corner from the Schnitz for a latte and a chat about his music, building and rebuilding, the nature of nature, and the thing he hates the most.

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

From six to nine to five

I started playing violin when I was six. My dad played violin, and his dad played violin. It was a family violin. My dad wanted to start learning again, so he got lessons, and I’m a six-year-old kid so I wanted to do whatever my dad did, and I started playing the violin. So music is something that I’ve always wanted to do. I have so many friends who have really interesting career trajectories, and mine is like, “nope.” God knows what would have happened if I hadn’t been any good at it! What would I have ended up doing? Maybe law or something.

I like to work slowly and steadily. I don’t like working in a rush, I don’t like looming deadlines, I need to work ahead. Because I need to make mistakes, and I need to go down the wrong track–and know that it’s the wrong track. But I have to go down it to know that.

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Hearing injustice

Monday’s FearNoMusic concert features new music composed in response to last year’s Supreme Court confirmation battle over alleged sexual harassment

As Portland composer Kenji Bunch watched last year’s confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice nominee Brett Kavanaugh, which included accusations of sexual assault, he “had this weird idea of a concert” based on the hearings.

“It was such a fraught moment, a watershed event,” Bunch recalled. “Something about the theatricality of that hearing just seemed to me that it could work for this kind of artistic exploration.”

Violinist and composer Kenji Bunch. Photo: Bob Keefer.

Bunch, artistic director of Portland new music ensemble Fear No Music, mused about the notion on Facebook. Immediately, New York composer Daniel Felsenfeld endorsed the idea. So did others, including fellow Oregon composer Andrea Reinkemeyer.

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MusicWatch Weekly: How to decide

Your guide to choosing a balanced musical diet

I know what you’re thinking. “Hey Mr. Music Editor Guy, how the [redacted] am I supposed to pick one of these million shows you’re always telling us about?” Good question, dear foul-mouthed reader. The short answer, as always, is: follow your bliss!

But you want a real answer, don’t you? Normally, you might use genre as a guideline. But genre is dead and can’t help you anymore. Instead, I have three recommended methods for picking a weekend of concerts. First: rely on institutions. Second: use this newfangled interweb thingy to listen ahead of time to whatever’s happening on whichever morning/afternoon/evening you happen to be free. Third: ask your friends!

Rely on institutions

It may sound strange to hear a certified Discordian Pope telling you to rely on institutions, since any organization stuffy enough to earn the name “institution” is pretty reliably unreliable. But Oregon is blessed with several well-established music organizations that have earned our Trust in such matters.

Two of these are Cascadia Composers and Fear No Music, both of whom celebrate contemporary “classical” music and the (usually living) composers who create it, both of whom have concerts at The Old Church in the next week (Cascadia Saturday, FNM Monday). Stay tuned for Senior Editor Brett Campbell’s FNM Hearings preview tomorrow, and he’ll have something to say about Cascadia in just a moment. For now, I’d like to tell you about two other Portland institutions with shows coming up: School of Rock and Creative Music Guild.

Yes.

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Temporary balms for darker times

Brian Wilson and The Zombies make America '68 again

In 1968, the world seemed to be coming apart. A bloody, increasingly unpopular war in Vietnam, political assassinations, urban riots, generation gap, conservative backlash against civil rights and other progressive movements…. Even pop music grew darker than the sunny Summer of Love psychedelia of a year earlier, from the Beatles’ so-called White Album to grittier turns by stars like the Rolling Stones and various Motowners, to the rise of Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Cream, and other heavier sounds supplanting the gentler flower-powered folk and classical music influenced pop of the preceding two years.

In that fraught year, several pop bands released new music overlooked at the time. Then regarded as flops, they later came to be recognized as masterpieces. Two are came to Portland Tuesday, Sept. 17, under the misleading banner “Something Great from ‘68.” For while the music that Brian Wilson and The Zombies released that year has outlasted much of its dated-sounding contemporaries, it was utterly out of step with the spirit of the new, dark age.

In 1968, the Zombies and the Beach Boys were also falling apart. Both had been hitmakers earlier, with the Zombies British Invasion pop and the BBs multiple hits mostly (at least superficially) about surf, cars, and ‘girls.’ Musically, Wilson’s family band was making music as radiant as anything after WWII, but by 1968, their tours featuring surfin’ sounds with striped shirts and white pants seemed increasingly tone deaf in a world coming apart. While psychedelia soared and violence raged, songs about surfing and cruising seemed passe, and the Beach Boys plummeted from pop hitmakers to culturally irrelevant.

Ironically, the band members’ non-musical lives actually represented what was going down in America as much as any other: Carl Wilson was a draft dodger (his status kept them from what would have been a culturally significant appearance at 1967’s Monterey Pop Festival), Mike Love had accompanied the Beatles to study with TM guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and became a lifelong devotee of the mind-expanding practice, Dennis Wilson indulged in abundant free love and drugs. And songwriter Brian Wilson‘s own mind expansion with psychedelics had fueled transcendent visions in their long gestating album Smile — as well as his own pre-existing emotional instability.

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MusicWatch Weekly: Everything is popular to someone

"Popular" and "classical" music, from Third Angle to School of Rock

This weekend’s concerts are pretty evenly split between “classical” music and “popular” music, so I think it’s time we talk about how you can tell the difference between them.

Humorist and Florida man Dave Barry discovered a pretty good definition in his son’s encyclopedia:

But we also need to define “classical music.” A little farther on in the World Book, we come to the section on music, which states: “There are two chief kinds of Western music, classical and popular.” Thus we see that “classical music” is defined, technically, as “music that is not popular.” This could be one reason why the “average Joe” does not care for it.

He has a point, sort of, but let’s break this down for real. First let’s dispose of some common half-assed theories. To start, “classical” music isn’t necessarily any more “intelligent” or “sophisticated” or “difficult” than “popular” music, and vice versa for ostensibly poppy characteristics like “accessible” and “simplistic” and “folk-based” and “relevant.” Consider Duke Ellington, Carla Bley, Björk, tUnE-yArDs, Brian Wilson, Imogen Heap, and the damn Beatles for “pop” (this is just off the top of my head–I’m sure you have your own favorites). Consider this bit of inspired Mazzolia and this bit of insipid Mozartiana for the rest.

Consider Caroline Shaw.

The one common charge that comes pretty close to sticking is the one about “elitism.” Musical education, access to “classical” performances, spare time for lessons, money for instruments, etc.–these are all earmarks of privilege. Many of the best classicists of the modern era (from Bartók’s Mikrokosmos to Frank’s Academy of Creative Music to Oregon’s BRAVO Youth Orchestras) have tried to break down those walls, and it’s one of the few things the internet has ameliorated. Yet “classical” at large remains a fairily conservative and meritocratic world.

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To freely and fully embrace all possibilities

Questions for Queer Opera singers and stage director Rebecca Herman

Queer Opera is nearly upon us. This weekend’s trio of concerts at Portland State’s Lincoln Hall Studio Theater feature opera scenes and art songs, all given the QO twist, and if you can manage to escape from The Empire these shows’ll rock your socks right off. Queer Opera: Experience is two nights of opera scenes, this Saturday and Sunday; Queer Opera: Song is a Sunday afternoon’s worth of English art songs.

You’ve heard enough from me already, so I thought it was time to let the gang speak for themselves. We spoke by email with stage director Rebecca Herman and four of the singers performing this weekend; their answers have been condensed and edited for clarity and flow.

Today’s guests:

  • Rebecca Herman, Opera Stage Director and Producer, she/her.
  • Sam Peters, soprano, they/she. Performing as The Count in Le Nozze di Figaro, Alcindoro in La Bohème, and Mercedes in Carmen.
  • Lisa Neher, mezzo-soprano, she/her. Performing as Idamante in Idomeneo and as Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier.
  • Lydia O’Brien, mezzo-soprano, she/her. Performing title role in Carmen and Colline in La Bohème; singing “Let Beauty Awake” from Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Songs of Travel.
  • Madeline Ross, soprano, she/her. Performing as Sophie in Der Rosenkavalier and Susanna in Le Nozze di Figaro. Singing William Walton’s “Daphne.”

Arts Watch: What is the earliest musical “a-ha” moment you can remember? A song, an album, a concert, a class, a performance, etc. The thing that caught your ear and made you stop and say, “wait a minute, this music thing, I want to do that for real.”

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MusicWatch Weekly: Noise, searching for its voice

Monster surf, homebrewed string quartets, double drumming, and the musical tyranny of evil men

You may have noticed I’ve been putting genre labels in scare quotes lately. That’s because “genre” is as “dead” as “opera.”

“Rock,” like “Protestantism,” has split off into factions as diverse as metal, surf, psych, punk, post-punk, prog, pronk–all represented in the coming week’s musical picks. Same goes for “classical,” a marbled old word from which we chisel a wide variety of music, from pious Bach to the dreamy Rachmaninoff you’ll get two chances to hear in the next week.

Then you’ve got things that are truly ineffable–and we’ve got some of that this week too.

“Rock” Music

For your first post-genre concert of the weekend, allow me to introduce a Portland duo that describes itself as “FreneticSynthBeatFemmePoetScreamPop for the Apocalypse.” Xibling (technically pronounced “sibling,” but “disobedience was humanity’s Original Virtue”) performs Friday night at Southeast Portland’s Lovecraft Bar, and the show doubles as release party for their new Yesbody EP and tour send-off shindig. Last chance to get tapes (!) and seedies before they sell em all to The Californians.

“History excludes every night’s revolution.”

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