The race is on. Ready for live events?

ArtsWatch Weekly: Ready or not, things are opening. Plus Lillian Pitt & Friends, opera breaks the mold, movie time, poetry all over

THE RACE IS ON, as George Jones famously crooned, and if it’s not pride up the backstretch and heartaches goin’ to the inside, as the song’s lyrics breathlessly declare, the stakes may be higher: Can we get the nation and world successfully vaccinated before relaxed safety standards and unchecked viral variants send us back to the starting gate? As warmer months approach, and vaccination rates improve, and people become more restless after more than a year in shutdown, the urge to get out and do things grows stronger – but is it jumping the gun? This week the state reclassified Multnomah and Clackamas counties, with a combined population of more than 1.2 million, from “moderate” to “high risk” for coronavirus. (Washington County, with a population of almost 600,000, maintained its “moderate” status.) The question is vital and controversial, and it goes beyond schools and workplaces and houses of worship and even a weekend at the coast. It has a deep and direct impact on cultural life, too.

Young blues phenom Christone “Kingfish” Ingram, from Clarksdale, Mississippi, had the crowd roaring at the 2019 Waterfront Blues Festival. The festival, a Portland July 4 Weekend tradition, was canceled in 2020 because of coronavirus restrictions but will return in July 2021 at the new Lot at Zidell Yards, south of its usual sprawling location on the downtown waterfront. This year’s acts have not yet been announced, and crowd size will be controlled. Photo: Joe Cantrell

Things are stirring. Restaurants have opened for indoor dining. Even theater, beyond the Covid-special videotaped virtual version, is taking tentative steps. Portland’s Triangle Productions has just gone into rehearsal for Joe DiPietro’s four-performer throwback comedy Clever Little Lies, with plans to open to a live audience on May 6, and it could be just the sort of nostalgic escapism that cooped-up audiences will be craving. Movie theaters are reopening (see Marc Mohan’s “Streamers” column, linked below). A consortium of Oregon large-event venues, meanwhile, has written Gov. Kate Brown pushing for guidelines and permission to reopen, arguing that they know how to control crowds and should be part of the decision-making process. The letter includes about fifty signees, ranging from the Pendleton Round-Up to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, the Sisters Folk Festival, and the Portland and Eugene symphonic orchestras.


In praise of Ramona & ‘Lonesome Dove’

ArtsWatch Weekly: Remembering Beverly Cleary, Larry McMurtry, and composer Stephen Scott; revolutions & the way things change

HERE AT ARTSWATCH WE LIKE TO LOOK FORWARD: Where are our culture and its art taking us? But culture is a cumulative thing, and every present and future is built upon a past – on the people and beliefs and events and achievements that have shaped us. They amplify us and help explain us to ourselves. So today we pause to honor three storytellers who have left us recently, but whose memories and achievements remain a part of us: the children’s novelist and memoirist Beverly Cleary; the novelist of Western life and culture Larry McMurtry; and the musical innovator Stephen Scott, known for his “bowed piano” compositions.

Author Beverly Cleary with her tabby cat, Kitty, in 1955. Photo: Cleary Family Archive

BEVERLY CLEARY, CREATOR of the wonderful world of Ramona Quimby and Henry Huggins and the scintillating cast of extraordinarily ordinary kids living extraordinarily ordinary lives in a somewhat antique yet eventful-in-an-everyday-sort-of-way Northeast Portland neighborhood, died last Thursday at the almost biblical age of 104 (she would’ve been 105 on April 12). Her loss is felt not just in her native Oregon but anywhere and everywhere you might bump into a gang of kids, a teacher, a librarian, or a couple of parents happy to see their kids absorbed in the mysteries and delights of a good book. Cleary was born in McMinnville and spent her early years on a farm near Yamhill and then moved with her family to the Portland neighborhood that became the epicenter of action in a string of children’s novels that for verve and wit and imagination beat the pants off most anything assigned in class.


Singing Strings

Composer Stephen Scott created singular music — and a unique instrument to play it

Stephen Scott was all set to become a jazz musician until the day in 1964 his mentor, University of Oregon music professor Homer Keller, brought a cassette to class. “There’s something going on in San Francisco,” he said, “and you should hear it.” The music, premiered only a few months earlier, was one of the seminal works of the 20th century, Terry Riley’s proto-minimalist In C. Mellifluous, repetitive, and easy for even untrained listeners to grasp, it marked a turning point away from the atonal, often dissonant sounds that had dominated classical music since World War II. 

“It grabbed me by the throat,” Scott recalled. “We were all stunned by it.”

Composer Stephen Scott. Photo: Melanie Tutt.

That ear-opening experience led Scott, who died March 10 at age 76, to blaze his own trails during a long and fruitful career on the faculty of Colorado College.  All composers make new music, but few create an entire new instrument to express their musical visions.  In the able hands of Scott and the Bowed Piano Ensemble he founded at the college in 1977, his bowed piano music became far more than a mere gimmick, even though the instrument’s uniqueness unfairly threatened to eclipse in the public mind the mesmerizing, minimalist-influenced music he wrote for it. In Scott’s case, the medium itself helped inspire the muse.

 “Stephen Scott is an inheritor of the mantle of Henry Cowell and Harry Partch and Lou Harrison and John Cage,” the eminent music historian Joseph Horowitz told me in 2008, “that American maverick tradition that had emanated from the West Coast of self invented composers in many cases using self invented instruments. These composers used novel means in a more traditional musical language. It’s an American phenomenon and he’s at the center of it today.”                                 

From Miles & Monk to Minimalism

Scott’s inventiveness blossomed at UO. After falling under jazz’s spell in his native Corvallis, where his parents were both musicians and scientists, he gigged on saxophone in Eugene with such renowned older students as Ralph Towner and Glen Moore, who would later form the esteemed jazz/world music group Oregon. Although he knew jazz’s legends only through their records, “I came to realize that Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis were my composition teachers, and then Bill Evans and Gil Evans,” he told NewMusicBox. 

Then came his In C epiphany. Because Riley’s masterpiece wouldn’t be released on an album for several years, hardly anyone had heard it when Scott did. But the UO music school was even then one of the country’s most open-minded, one of the few that allowed world music and new sounds into the curriculum. And here were sounds no one else was making.

 “I think very fondly of my years at the UO,” said Scott, who graduated in 1967. “It opened up worlds.” 

In graduate school at Brown University, Scott tried composing for the then-nascent medium electronic music. But he missed the rich resonances of the acoustic piano. And he was “floundering” by writing conventional pieces like string quartets. So, like other Western composers of the time such as Lou Harrison, Riley and Philip Glass, he looked beyond European sources. He flew to Ghana to study the amazing polyrhythmic sounds of that country’s master drummers. One mentioned that another American musician named Steve was also studying nearby; it turned out to be Steve Reich, that other pioneer of minimalism who, like Riley (whom he also later collaborated with) became a mentor to the younger composer. 

After taking a teaching job at Colorado College (where he established the school’s first electronic music studio and created new courses in world music, experimental music and jazz) in 1969, Scott encountered the final ingredient in his compositional recipe. In 1976, Scott heard a performance that required the player to stroke and pluck the strings inside a piano lid with a variety of objects, including nylon fishing line. (West Coast vanguard composers Cowell and Cage had pioneered the so-called “prepared piano” back in the 1930s, and the bowed piano technique itself was devised by C. Curtis Smith in 1972.) The resulting otherworldly sound enraptured Scott as nothing had since that tape of In C. “I instantly started composing for it in my head,” he remembers.

Community Experience

And he never stopped. Over the years, using fishing line, horsehair mounted on popsicle sticks, and eventually guitar picks, fingernails, mutes, piano hammers and other unconventional items, Scott produced beautiful, almost orchestral textures, rooted in minimalism and jazz harmonies, that mesmerized listeners. The instrument’s surprisingly spacious range of timbres could shift from percussive and focused to singing and shimmering, now sounding like an early Baroque viol consort, now an accordion band, a jazz combo (though his work allowed only a little improvisation), sometimes even a chamber orchestra.

It takes up to a dozen players to produce the rich sound of Scott’s compositions, so at Colorado College, he re-created “the community experience of music making in Africa, where there’s no division between performer and audience” by forming an ensemble of students who take a course in which they learn to perform bowed piano music. It’s a carefully choreographed operation — “traffic control” he called it — with the players moving constantly around the piano in order to hit the right note with the right object at the right time, a tableau that viewers often compare to an operating room table. The visual component of the coordinated players enchanted concert audiences beyond the sounds they produced. 

Scott chose the players, many of them non-music-majors, in part based on how well they could memorize their parts (no time to read scores on the move) and work together under pressure in very close quarters, where arms and egos can easily be bruised. They’re careful never to damage the pianos they use. Composition can be a lonely profession, and Scott really cherished the social aspect of performing in the bowed piano ensemble. It also afforded him the opportunity to try out elaborate new ideas and get instant feedback, a luxury few composers besides, say, Haydn or Duke Ellington enjoyed. Although other composers also wrote for the ensemble, it was primarily Scott’s expressive vehicle. 

After his sonorous first album came out in 1981, word spread, resulting in invitations to bring the new sounds to people and pianos beyond Colorado. The ensemble became one of the very few undergraduate student groups invited to international professional music festivals, touring once or twice per year, performing across Europe and in Australia. Their skills evolved to the point that the players (who often suggested techniques and ideas) could handle Scott’s increasingly sophisticated music — more complex rhythms and harmonies, faster tempos, larger structures, wider influences, ambitious themes, additional instruments like electronic keyboards, chamber orchestra, vocalists. He even coaxed ensemble members to sing occasionally. During Scott’s tenure at the college, which ended with his retirement in 2014, the BPE released six albums on several record labels, culminating in 2013’s Ice and Fire. 

A prominent voice on later recordings, soprano Victoria Hansen, became Scott’s wife. And his Oregon upbringing no doubt influenced his love for outdoor recreation like mountain climbing, sailing, hiking. He also received numerous fellowships, residencies, awards and commissions from various universities, conservatories and festivals.

Scott and the Bowed Piano Ensemble performing at Orange County’s Segerstrom Hall. Photo: Pacific Symphony.

In February 2008, I met Scott when his music was featured in the Pacific Symphony’s acclaimed American Composers Series. The concert, at the glittering Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall in Costa Mesa, California, included two of his most ambitious works: the hour-long 1995 composition Vikings of the Sunrise, inspired by voyages of Magellan, James Cook, and early Polynesian sailors; and the world premiere of Pacific Crossroads, which paired his ensemble with the orchestra. A video camera mounted inside the keyboard captured live images, projected on a giant screen, that demonstrated the intricate interplay of 24 hands. Along with the rapid but exquisitely controlled movements of the black-clad ensemble, the projections added a mesmerizing visual complement to the magical sounds.

Although he wrote a few pieces for other combinations, Scott’s compositional focus primarily remained on his unique instrument, sometimes accompanied by more conventional forces, like the English horn that blends so beautifully with the bowed piano on his final composition from 2011, Lyric Suite. “I think you have to go where your mind leads you,“ he told me. “This medium still has so much in it that I haven’t discovered.” 

Scott never stopped exploring, and in the wake of his passing this month, the ensemble announced intentions  to find a new home for the bowed piano and its legacy. I hope more discoveries lie ahead, from his students and other composers inspired by the beautifully resonant sonic textures that Stephen Scott pioneered. Both his instrument and his music deserve to endure. 

An earlier version of this story appeared in Oregon Quarterly.

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On belonging: The art of remembering

ArtsWatch Weekly: Amid a time of violence in America, art that remembers its roots and looks beyond

YOU CAN FEEL THE FORCE IN ALL-AMERICAN, Portland artist Roberta Wong’s blunt and extraordinarily effective 2003 piece consisting of a thick wooden cutting board, a cleaver, and a length of dark braided hair, severed with a swift swing of the blade from the head it once adorned. Wong’s carefully arranged tableau of the imagination isn’t just a haircut, but a banishment – a denial. The piece implies an amputation of the self, a separation of roots and history and identity in the name of assimilation, of fitting in: Where, then, is the “Chinese” in “Chinese American,” or the “All” in the all too ironically aspirational “All-American”?

Roberta Wong, “All-American,” 2003.

THE FEELING INSIDE THE CAGE that was the downtown Portland prison cell of Minoru Yasui in 1942 and ’43 is different: not a severance, but an entrapment. Yet it also feels very much like the other side of the same coin. Yasui, a second-generation Japanese American born in Hood River in 1916, landed in solitary confinement for his dissent against President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s infamous Executive Order 9066, which authorized the wartime evacuation and incarceration of Japanese American citizens in detention/concentration camps across the West: Once his prison sentence had ended, Yasui was sent to the Minidoka War Relocation Center in Idaho for the duration of the war. 


Resistance: Relocating Minoru Yasui’s prison cell

Civil rights hero Minoru Yasui’s former jail cell, relocated to the Japanese American Museum of Oregon, bears witness to an ongoing struggle

As the only Oregon native to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, Minoru Yasui arguably should be a household name in the state already. Yet only recently—nearly eight decades after Yasui’s most heroic act—has his journey become known to a wider audience. 

“Many people don’t know his story,” says Lynn Fuchigami Parks, executive director of the Japanese American Museum of Oregon. “But he really is a civil rights hero.”

Minoru Yasui in 1946/Image courtesy of the Minoru Yasui Legacy Project

Anyone who encounters Yasui’s former jail cell, which has been relocated to the Japanese American Museum of Oregon and restored over several months by artist Brian Borrello, will find his story hard to forget. The museum has been in the process of relocating from its longtime home on Second Avenue to the Old Town Lofts building at NW Fourth and Flanders. It’s set for a by-appointment reopening on May 7. Once it does reopen, visitors can get a vivid sense of life in Portland’s Japantown—or Nihonmachi—through a collection of artifacts and photographs from the museum’s permanent collection. Yet nothing can quite compare to the arresting power of this eight-by-eight-foot steel cell, where Yasui spent nine months in solitary confinement in 1942 and ’43.


Dramatic? It’s like an opera out there

ArtsWatch Weekly: Where's Frida; how to (maybe) reopen; farewell to Ross McKeen; puppets; comics; art that tells stories & more

AS WE ZOOM PAST THE ONE-YEAR MARK IN ENFORCED ISOLATION, shutdowns have caused havoc everywhere, sometimes straining well-run organizations and sometimes exposing structural weaknesses that pre-existed the pandemic. Being big can be a problem in itself: You might begin with a bigger bankroll, but the larger a group’s budget, the harder it is to shift direction, and the more a shutdown stands to imperil the entire operation. Being small can mean you’re nimble, but it can also make it tough to scrape up the wherewithall to hunker in and just survive for a while.

Portland Opera’s “Frida”: heading to the great outdoors? Photo: Keith Blakoff/Long Beach Opera

How’s that playing out in the world of opera? Herein ArtsWatch presents a new three-act contemporary work, which we’ll refrain from calling Stayin’ Alive:

ACT ONE: New York’s Metropolitan Opera is undergoing monumental convulsions, as Julia Jacobs reports in The New York Times, with 40 percent of its laid-off musicians leaving the expensive New York area, and abrasive battles being waged between management and unions. Massive debt is being piled up, veteran musicians are choosing to retire, and shop work is being farmed out to non-union companies as management pushes for big salary cuts. (Subtheme: Conductor and music director James Levine, the leading artistic force at the Met for almost a half-century until being fired in 2018 over multiple allegations of sex abuse and harassment, died at age 77 on March 9, it was reported Wednesday.)


Ross McKeen, beloved arts leader, dies

McKeen, who helped lead Oregon Children's Theatre to national prominence and helped launch the Oregon Cultural Trust, dies of pancreatic cancer

THE PORTLAND ARTS SCENE LOST A MAJOR CONTRIBUTOR AND A GREAT FRIEND on Tuesday when Ross McKeen, the longtime managing director of Oregon Children’s Theatre, died. “My beloved husband and best friend, Ross McKeen, passed away yesterday morning, six months after receiving a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer,” his wife, Robin Remmick, wrote Wednesday on Facebook. “He was a cherished son, father, brother, and uncle, and he was the kindest, gentlest, smartest and funniest person I have ever known. I can’t even begin to fathom how much I will miss him. He died with his best dog Kid by his side, with a serene and full heart.”

Ross McKeen, who died Tuesday of cancer. Photo: Rebekah Johnson, via Facebook

McKeen, in partnership with recently retired artistic director Stan Foote, built OCT to national prominence, and was known in Oregon arts circles as a smart and capable administrator, an excellent and generous mentor, and a man of keen humor. Before joining OCT in 2008 he had spent several years as a grant writer and fundraising consultant for several Portland arts organizations, served a year as the first manager of the Oregon Cultural Trust, and spent three years as general manager of Portland Center Stage. Ross understood the artistic side of the business (he was also a musician in a “swell cowboy band” called Bourbon Jockey), which helped him greatly as an administrator. He was a writer of great wit and erudition, as he revealed a dozen or so years ago, during the heyday of blogging, on the sites Mighty Toy Cannon and Culture Shock. McKeen and Oregon Children’s Theatre controversially parted ways last November. The company has not announced a replacement for him.