About a decade ago, after his last band finally called it a day, Christopher Corbell, who’d played punk, folk, and other pop music for a couple of decades, faced a turning point. “I finally got to the point that I felt too constrained by the verse-chorus format,” the Portland singer/songwriter/guitarist remembers, “and once that group wound down, I decided I’d had this notion in my head for awhile that I wanted to write an opera.”
In 2015, he did. Corbell’s one-act opera Viva’s Holiday, which set to music a scene from the memoir of famed Portland stripper/author Viva Las Vegas, drew enthusiastic crowds to Old Town’s decidedly non-operatic Star Theater. It was one of many projects emerging from Cult of Orpheus, a production vehicle Corbell created to bring his new, poetically focused music to Portland audiences, which staged its first concert at northeast Portland’s The Waypost club in 2013.
On Saturday, Corbell and various local classical musicians and singers celebrate the Cult’s fifth anniversary with a retrospective concert featuring music from Viva’s Holiday and other poetic songs he’s composed over this five-year stretch.
Even while creating non-classical music, “There was never a time I wasn’t doing something with notated music on the side, [like] writing classical guitar pieces,” Corbell remembers, “but it was never my main focus.” Now he wanted to make music in which the words shaped the musical form. “I was really drawn to the lyrical architecture of music that flows out of poetic utterance,” Corbell explains. “I wanted to start with art song as kind of a training ground” before embarking on an opera.
But he felt stymied — not by classical music itself but by the apparatus around it. Corbell had studied music in college but, coming from a lower-income background, felt he didn’t fit in what seemed to him the classical establishment’s elitist, hierarchical system. “Classical music has a tendency to still be a white supremacist patriarchal institution,” he says.
Not that classical music is unique in that respect. The music-industrial complex in Nashville, where Corbell spent his adolescence and began performing music, he discovered, had its own hierarchies and gatekeepers that seemed more oriented toward commercial success than non-standardized personal expression or social concerns.
“Studies of social dominance show that every culture that’s ever had an economic surplus has established social dominance groups based on [factors like] gender, race, national origin,” he explains. Those hierarchies, Corbell believes, have produced competitive, cynical social structures that suppress the universal artistic urge to make something beautiful and share it.
“There’s this notion that art is either about selling stuff or a hierarchy of credentials and achievement,” he says. “That’s not why I do art. I do it to grow, to share meaning, to be part of a community.”
When he arrived in Portland 2000, Corbell, like others before him, cherished the cooperative nature of its noncommercial underground culture that he celebrated in Viva’s Holiday. He was naturally drawn to the non- hierarchical philosophy (“classical music for everyone”) of Classical Revolution PDX, which he headed for a few years before forming Cult of Orpheus. But the rest of the city’s classical music scene posed obstacles to original composition, he explains, offering a metaphor.
“Portland has this awesome creative restaurant scene, right? Imagine you’re a chef and you spend a couple decades working in various odd jobs and finally you have all these great original recipes that you want people to taste. But imagine a bizarro Portland where the restaurants only use recipes from between 100 and 150 years ago, or only from one or two super famous Michelin chefs. Maybe there’s a local chef’s club, but you have to pay money to be in it, it only serves four meals a year and you only get to make one course, and they tell you what ingredients you can use.” Given these limitations, Corbell decided to start his own musical restaurant to serve his original compositional recipes.
That’s Cult of Orpheus, “an eclectic Artistic Religion chiefly focused on the manifestation lyrical music, poetry, opera, and creative mythology,” named for the mythological poet/musician/singer also reputed to have created mystery cults in ancient Greece. But unlike its namesake, Corbell hasn’t let doubts disrupt his recent creative journey. “Lyrical music has always provided a path of redemption,” he says. “Even when life is really crappy, I can retreat to writing a poem or a song.”
An autodidact who makes his living as a self-taught computer software engineer, Corbell applied that same entrepreneurial self-motivation to independently studying composition as well as the non-musical sides of making music like marketing, fundraising and organizational strategy. Drawing musicians from sources such as CRPDX and Portland Opera’s resident artist program, he built a troupe of regulars and staged concerts, recorded an album, crowdsourced funding and scored grants (including a Career Opportunity Grant from the Oregon Arts Commission and Oregon Community Foundation), created a podcast and YouTube channel, like other 21st century indie creators.
Corbell’s new music drew its structure not from stories or conventional chord progressions, but from the poetic lyrics (including Edna St. Vincent Millay, Sufi poets and more) themselves, in the tradition of classical so-called “art songs” by composers such as Schubert and even Renaissance troubadours — but with a modern American sensibility and melodicism enriched by Corbell’s earlier songwriting.
“All of our music has a lyrical architecture, where the meaning of the text and crafted structure of the melodies and harmonic palette reinforce each other in a way that the audience can perceive and feel,” Corbell explains. “I always start with the text, setting it to a melody and letting the text create a universe in my head and then searching for the musical palette that fits that.”
It’s no surprise that many of those texts involve themes of overcoming repressive hierarchies like those plaguing so many of our institutions, including classical music. It’s part of the Cult’s credo.
Reinvention in Retrospect
Some results of Corbell’s half-decade of creative reinvention can be heard at Saturday’s concert, which also includes the local early music trio Bergerette (for whom Corbell composed settings of Baudelaire poems), plus his haiku cycle Insect Songs, his 2017 mini-opera Daphne, Cult of Orpheus’s new album Sacred Works I: The Emerald Tablet, and more, still only a fraction of what he’s created since embarking on his new creative path.
Then he’ll return to recording and reprising Viva’s Holiday, and composing a second opera based on the Antigone myth, as well as a “barfly opera” using texts by local poets, and more poetic songs. Now that he’s found the vehicle for his creative spirit, Corbell can’t stop creating. “At the end of that first Cult of Orpheus concert at The Waypost, I remember thinking ‘This is what I’m supposed to be doing,’ that I’d found my voice and the community that would support it. The last five years I’ve been running with it. That’s a beautiful feeling.”
Cult of Orpheus Fifth Anniversary Concert with Bergerette, 8 pm Saturday, August 25, Alberta Rose Theatre, 3000 NE Alberta St. Tickets online or at the door. $10-$25. A shorter version of this story appears in The Oregonian/Oregon Live.