MUSIC

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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MusicWatch Monthly: American mestizaje

Caroline Shaw, nyckelharpa and hardanger fiddle, Carnatic voice and violin, harps and drums, and American gothick

As we said a few weeks ago, American musical culture–whether we define “American” as USA, North America, or the entire New World–is above all immigrant musical culture. This seems to hold true for a broad interpretation of “immigrant” which includes, at the very minimum: Puritans and other English-speaking immigrants, with their blend of English, Irish, Scottish, and European traditions; abducted Africans with their own blend of classical and folk traditions; indigenous Peoples across North and South America who found their musical cultures decimated, consumed, and alienated by the arrival of Wendigo; and the successive waves of cultures pouring out of war-torn regions across the world, from Italy and Russia to India and Japan, all bringing their cultures with them and adding to the great and glorious New World Melting Pot.

To be fair, there’s another word that covers all this melting pottedness, and we’d like to follow Gabriela Lena Frank’s lead and adopt a term she borrowed from Peruvian anthropologist José María Arguedas: mestizaje. So let’s go all out and say that American culture is mestizaje culture. Sound good? Great!

The week ahead

Of all the living traditions that thrive in fair Oregon, the one we most enjoy paying attention to is the Contemporary Classical Tradition. We just love the way contemporary composers–like Portland’s David Schiff and this month’s guest star Caroline Shaw–tend the gardens of American Classical Music by embracing both the musicks of their predecessors and the distinctly mestizaje aspect of American culture. (Read more about Shaw and Schiff here and here).

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Keeping the winter alive

Yardbird, Onegin and Portland jazz festival stir up the Northwest

In a 1954 radio interview, jazz saxophonist and bebop shaper Charlie Parker said that he wanted to play music that was “clean, precise, something that was beautiful, has a story to tell.” He insisted humbly that “my prime interest is in learning to play music. I never want to lose my horn.” Parker said that around the time he played Seattle’s Civic Auditorium, now McCaw Hall. That was one year before he died at 34 in New York City.

Charlie Parker’s Yardbird, the five-year-old 90-minute opera playing at Seattle Opera’s McCaw Hall through March 7, is more about Parker’s life than about his music. A saxophone appears only in the second act—through the radio. (An alto flute and regular flute are part of the orchestration, primarily to represent birds.) The opera is symphonic, in European style, rather than written or improvised as jazz in the American idiom, but several jazz jewels glitter throughout, including bits of Parker’s “Ornithology” and some first-act scatting. There are moments of Stravinsky and Beethoven, whose music Parker admired. The tenor, Joshua Stewart, who sang Parker’s part on Feb. 22, stands in for Charlie Parker’s tunefully relentless tenor saxophone. Stewart alternated performances with Frederick Ballantine as Parker for the run of the show.

Seattle Opera staged the new opera 'Charlie Parker’s Yardbird.' Photo by Sunny Martini.
Tenor Joshua Stewart as Charlie Parker in Seattle Opera’s production of ‘Charlie Parker’s Yardbird.’ Photo by Sunny Martini.

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MusicWatch Weekly: Look before you leap day

A weekend of concerts and a Portland Weird undectet

Fry Day

As usual, we’d like to start by bringing you last minute news of a few shows happening tonight, tonight, tonight. As you read this, Mike Dillon and Band are packing up their road bags, leaving Eugene (where they played at Whirled Pies last night), and trekking up I-5 to Portland, where they’ll head straight down to the Jack London Revue subterraenan social club for an evening of what we can only call “gonzo punk jazz.”

See, from a technique perspective these dudes are all basically just avant-garde jazz musicians (bandleader Dillon is in wide demand as a vibraphonist and all-around killer percussionist), but–like so many others over this last half-century of escalating strangeness–they’ve found the grittiest, truest expression of both “avant-garde” and “jazz” not in the relatively staid traditional world of characters like Henry Threadgill and Branford Marsalis (who are, of course, total badasses and not to be trifled with except for purposes of this strained comparison), but instead have seen the true face of “jazz” and “avant-garde” in the wooly realm of punk, metal, and other folk musicks of the rough and ragged variety. If that’s your bag, dear reader, get on it!

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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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