MusicWatch Monthly: Mayday!

Strikes, unions, and the unpaid labors of love

Today we’re going to talk about one of the oldest musical traditions in the world: getting screwed. But first, we’d like to invite you to open a new tab and go cancel your account with Online Shopping for Electronics, Apparel, Computers, Books, DVDs & more, Inc. If you can’t bring yourself to do that (but why not?), you should at least boycott them today, along with all the other government-sized corporations that can’t be bothered to attend to their employees’ needs. The virtual picket line is the easiest to cross–don’t give in, dear reader.

And now, here’s Oregon Symphony principal cellist Nancy Ives with a Sarabande:

Alrighty, let’s talk about Music and Labor. We’ll start with Portland Musicians Union Local 99 and their page of resources for musicians. These folks (led by trombonist Bruce Fife) are a part of the American Federation of Musicians, who in 1942-44 prosecuted the longest entertainment strike in modern history. The strike itself is worth looking into, and you can do that right here (and read about the 1948 follow-up here), but there’s one specific part of the story we’d like to call attention to on this unusually bizarre International Workers’ Day: the divide-and-conquer part.


‘A world of uncertainty’

Voices from the front: Arts philanthropist Ronni Lacroute says COVID-19 is forcing arts groups to think in new ways. Her role? “I just calm people down a lot.”

If you’ve attended plays or concerts in Portland or visited the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland with any regularity over the past decade, chances are good you owe at least one afternoon or evening of cultural enrichment to philanthropist Ronni Lacroute.

Lacroute lives in Yamhill County, where in 1991 she co-founded a vineyard and world-class winery on property that had been a cattle farm. As co-owner with her former husband of WillaKenzie Estate, she immersed herself in the wine business for a quarter century, until the winery was sold in 2016.

Lacroute, whose father was in the foreign service, had traveled extensively abroad in her youth. She studied romance languages and literature and has degrees from Cornell University, the University of Michigan, and both the licence ès lettres and the maîtrise ès lettres in North American literature from the Paris-Sorbonne University. She was a college professor and taught French language and culture in high school in Massachusetts in the 1970s and 1980s.


Along the way, she became a patron of the arts and for years has given widely to a variety of Oregon arts organizations. She’s a generous donor to arts programs at Linfield College in McMinnville, where she’s a member of the Board of Trustees. (From the Department of Full Disclosure: She’s also a donor to Oregon ArtsWatch, and earlier this year I appeared in a play at Gallery Theater in McMinnville that she sponsored.)

Ronni Lacroute says arts organizations hardest hit by the coronavirus shutdown are those locked into a venue, like a symphony hall or a theater that doesn’t allow flexible spacing. Smaller, project-based companies are better able to look at alternatives. Photo by: Carolyn Wells-Kramer
Ronni Lacroute says smaller and project-based arts organizations that have flexibility in terms of venue are coming up with creative alternative ways of connecting with audiences. Photo by: Carolyn Wells-Kramer

She now is involved full time in individual philanthropy, holding nonstop meetings with the nonprofit community. She’s particularly interested in artistic projects and groups that promote important conversations across social, economic, and political divides and that effect social change.

Because Lacroute is so connected with the region’s artistic life, we thought it would be enlightening to find out what she’s hearing in the wake of COVID-19. A lot, it turns out. And she was more than happy to share. The following interview was conducted via Facetime and has been edited for length and clarity.

Tell me what it was like for you, when this really hit, as far as your meetings and contacts.

Lacroute: Well really, the only thing in my life that’s changed is no live meetings. I used to have people here every single day for meetings. The structure of my work life was to meet live and spend a couple of hours brainstorming ideas. It’s really hard to do that when you just have a phone call. You don’t do that for two hours. We exchange ideas, but how much can you put into an email or a 10-minute phone conversation? I’m missing the depth of exploration that we had before, where people were expecting that we’re going to hang out until we have some plans.

How did those conversations change once everyone really understood what was happening?


MusicWatch Weekly: La dérive symphonique

Examining the New Flesh; staying home and slaying dragons; running on a treadmill

Well, the good news this week is that beloved Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki is still alive. See, here he is conducting his Violin Concerto No.2 ‘Metamorphosen’:

Put down your pitchfork, dear reader: this isn’t a tasteless joke but yet another complicated philosophical point. Penderecki has indeed left this vale of tears in order to go do whatever composers do when they’re done with their bodies, and you can mosey over here to read Arts Watch contributor Charles Rose’s assessment of Krzysztof’s time on this plane. But Penderecki did, before departing, leave many copies of himself scattered about this realm, and I don’t just mean the usual copies: written musical scores (we’ve had that form of immortality since Gutenberg) and the fond memories of his students and colleagues (that road to heaven has always been open to us all).

No, I’m mainly talking about the New Flesh, the digital ghost realm Penderecki now inhabits via the audio and video recordings he made while inhabiting the Old Flesh–these myriad recordings of Penderecki conducting his own work over the years make especially good company right now, here in the vale of tears. As more artists follow Penderecki (and Prince, Bowie, Lemmy, et alia) along the via dolorosa into virtual immortality, that famous old “giants walking behind you” problem becomes more acute than ever.


Tragedy and loss

Mourning the passing of Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki, whose music processes trauma

It’s only been a month since we woke up to the unfortunate news of Krzysztof Penderecki’s death on March 29th. Penderecki’s musical preoccupation with tragedy and global trauma makes his passing seem especially relevant to the current global COVID-19 pandemic. Since his 1960 breakout piece Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima, he continued to write music meant for public grieving: the terrifying Dies Irae, the massive Polish Requiem and dozens of other works from the late 1950s until his death. And he was especially familiar to Oregon audiences, thanks to his long association with the Oregon Bach Festival, including a stint as composer in residence and a 2001 Grammy award for Best Choral Performance for the Festival’s world première recording of his Credo (you can read their homage here).

It’s difficult for us not to correlate the death of Penderecki to the masses of tragic deaths happening during the pandemic: so far we’ve lost composer Charles Wuorinen, soul legend Bill Withers, experimental music legend Genesis P-Orridge, giants of jazz McCoy Tyner and Ellis Marsalis, architects Michael Sorkin and Michael McKinnell, stage director Gerald Freedman, and thousands of others. We also lost a local philanthropist and woman whose name adorns our concert hall, Arlene Schnitzer.

While not all of these deaths can be attributed to COVID-19 (and there are, of course, thousands of other tragic deaths not named), their coinciding with the current health crisis will be solidified in future generations’ memories–victims of the same faltering healthcare system that will lead to even more needless loss of life. I am also reminded of composer Lili Boulanger, who died at the age of twenty-four during the Spanish Flu pandemic and could have become as emblematic of French music as Debussy and Ravel. 

Like so many others, I’ve been stuck inside my neighborhood for the last two months. In such a short time, COVID-19 has seemingly reoriented all of society around itself. As Oregonians we have been lucky that Governor Brown took decisive action, as Oregon has one of the lowest rates of infection in the country. But we still have lost over 50,000 Americans, and recently surpassed a million infections. The social impact takes its toll on us as individuals. As the cabin fever sets in, I have little to do right now except compose, read, write and reflect upon life, death and tragedy. Sadly it took his passing for me to reacquaint myself with Penderecki’s music, and (to quote Keats), now more than ever it seems rich for him to die.


Safe distance sounds

A roundup of recent recommended Oregon jazz for your stay-at-home enjoyment

April is really the cruelest month this year. We haven’t gotten to appreciate jazz during this plague-plagued Jazz Appreciation Month in the way we should: by personally observing the spontaneous creation of the “sound of surprise” in a club or theater. So we indulged in the next best thing: listening to recent releases by Oregon jazz — and jazz-ish — musicians. You can do the same with any of the recommended recordings below by following the links.

Much of the music listed here involves at least some improvisation, making it ideal for this moment where we’re all making it up as we go. If you like what you hear, be sure to tip your servers — by paying for a download, supporting your neighbors who created that beauty, and thereby equipping your digital device with a musical survival kit for the next pandemic.

Vol. 2: Into the Flow

Saxophonist, flutist and composer Hailey Niswanger’s wanderings have taken her from her native Portland to New England’s prestigious Berklee School to Brooklyn and, now, Los Angeles. Her artistry has also found new territories, most recently in her electric band MAE.SUN, whose sunny, spacy new album, Vol. 2: Into the Flow, advances its predecessor, Inter-Be’s creative jazz/pop fusion/electronica and 2015’s groovy PDX Soul and joins the other pop-tinged LA-based bands bringing jazz into the 21st century. Still under 30, Niswanger always sounded fine in more straightahead jazz, winning praise from venerable jazz writer Nat Hentoff in the Wall Street Journal among others, but she’s really found an original voice in MAE.SUN.

Make that voices, because some of these tracks feature vocals, Niswanger’s own as well as guest singers Amber Navran (of Los Angeles-based soul trio Moonchild) and Australian-born, Brooklyn-based Kate K-S. The album also showcases vibraphonist Nikara Warren, guitarist Andrew Renfroe, keyboardist Axel Laugart, bassist Aaron Liao, drummer David Frazier Jr, synthist Jake Sherman and producer Drew Ofthe Drew. Fans of synthy fusion like Herbie Hancock and Charles Lloyd’s 1960s-‘70s forays, jazztronica explorations and even Esperanza Spalding’s more recent efforts will find plenty to enjoy in both volumes’ neo-hippie spirit. 


MusicWatch Weekly: Don’t just do something, sit there!

Turn off the web, put on an album, close your eyes, and listen

You can thank American Buddhist teacher Sylvia Boorstein for this week’s title: we lifted it from her popular 1996 book about creating your own mindfulness meditation retreat. It took us a moment to track down the provenance of that memorable phrase and its author (whom we only dimly remembered from a version of Powell’s which no longer exists), and in the process we saw a cartoon and commentary that unpacks it all wonderfully. You can read that right here, so for now we simply wish to quote Boorstein’s later clarification of her witticism:

I think the phrase needs notation, like music, to let the reader know where the accent goes: Don’t JUST do something (i.e. impulsively respond) — Think It Over!”

And that’s what we really want to talk about this week, dear reader, as our global pause continues and many of us remain confined to quarters, sitting and doing nothing. Because there’s a problem there: you’re not really sitting there doing nothing, and neither am I. We’re sitting here using the internet.


A decade on Broadway

Eugene’s intimate Broadway House Series celebrates ten years bringing jazz and more to an intimate downtown bungalow

After retiring from his last teaching job, at Eugene’s Spencer Butte Middle School, Paul Bodin “wanted to see what it was like to be a student again.” And he wanted to explore the music that had enchanted him since childhood but had been put on a thirty-year back burner — jazz. Enrolling in the University’s jazz studies program in 2005, Bodin took composition courses from well-known teacher-performers Mike Denny and Steve Owen, and played saxophone in a student jazz combo. He and his wife Peggy “started meeting wonderful young undergrads and grads in the program,” and occasionally invited the hungry students over to dinner at their bungalow at the corner of Broadway and Monroe Streets near downtown Eugene.

Teacher and musician Paul Bodin.
Teacher and musician Paul Bodin.

“We have this table that expands out, and started having these epic dinners for eight, nine, ten people,” he recalls. Some of them suggested that they bring instruments and jam.

Those informal gatherings grew into a recurring series of intimate living-room concerts open to the public. Since the Broadway House series began in June 2010 with Bodin’s classmate keyboardist/singer/songwriter Ben Darwish’s quartet, Broadway House has presented more than 60 concerts, most but not all jazz. The series is celebrating its tenth anniversary season this year with eight concerts, but the last five have been suspended because you-know-what.