by MATTHEW ANDREWS
Portland contemporary classical music organization Fear No Music is a civic treasure. It cultivates audiences, artists, and composers through outreach and education programs. It keeps the classical tradition alive, performing select works from the contemporary classical canon while spending most of their energy on the next generation of composers. FNM’s ongoing efforts to diversify the repertoire have done more than just make the group socially relevant in a town that doesn’t always live up to its progressive values — it’s also commissioned and performed more living and contemporary composers than probably any other classical group in Portland (except, of course, for Cascadia Composers). And, with a stable of Oregon Symphony players in their ranks and Portland’s most popular composer at the helm, FNM generally puts on one hell of concert.
FNM opened its 2018-19 season with a pair of September shows collectively titled Shared Paths: The Music of Migration. The first was something of a teaser, a solo piano recital at Steel Gallery in Northwest Portland, the second a full concert the next day at their familiar haunt, The Old Church down by Portland State University, featuring the usual FNM crew.
This season’s title, Worldwide Welcome, a quote from the oh-so-right-now Lazarus poem (“From her beacon-hand / Glows world-wide welcome”) makes it clear that FNM intends to continue developing the themes they’d already explored so thoroughly in last season’s dozen-odd Hope in the Dark concert. It shows dedication, for one thing, a hot commodity in an age of distraction and disintegration.
New York new music piano superstar Kathleen Supové opened the shows with Randall Woolf’s piano-and-electronics tone poem A Face in the Crowd, the first of three works she commissioned to commemorate the annual migration of the Vaux’s Swifts to Chapman Chimney. The day before, Supové had performed all three at the Steel Door Gallery down the street from Chapman Chimney, and it was a joy hearing them a second time at The Old Church. I don’t believe it’s possible to fully appreciate contemporary music except in repeated live performance: live because you need full spectrum acoustics and the theatrical, human element; repeated because modern music tends to be enigmatic (compared to, say, a nice Mozart bauble) and generally has to grow on you.
Woolf’s music unfolded in cross-cut layers, like a film jumping between shots of birds and shots of people—a little like, well, The Birds. Crazy stacks of Cowell clusters would suddenly, seamlessly interrupt skittering white-key glissandi and placid, somber, moonlit arpeggios, Supové pouncing and pounding and pedaling back and forth with nimble, aggressive precision; if it weren’t for her deft and decisive playing, the effect would certainly not have worked (and those snappy sound cuts made me think of Marcia Lucas).
After the gallery concert, Supové, a Portland native, told me that the gallery owner initially thought the composition was about the hawks that prey upon the swifts, noting that some Portlanders even root for the hawks—all of which amused her husband, the composer, considerably. The next evening, in the Old Church’s more resonant space, it was easy to hear the battle between prey and predator, hawks’ low rumbles assaulting swifts’ high twinkles, contending forces clashing in the middle where all the melancholy and sentimental human-gaze romanticism was happening.
At the gallery recital, Supové performed the whole Swifts trilogy in one shot, but at The Old Church the other two pieces came later in the evening. Paula Matthusen’s …by the inexplicabilities we call coincidence, ostensibly for piano and electronics, was performed primarily on a small zither placed inside the piano. In an especially quirky twist, Supové played the zither with a hand-held electric fan, buzzing the spinning plastic blades across the metal strings, playing a technically-pentatonic scale that the fan’s whirling vibrations warped into chromatic, santoor-like bentatonics. The music itself wandered, but not in a bad way, bits of melody echoing through the piano’s cavernous interior and out through the resonant space, more like birds huddling inside a chimney than soaring around it.
…coincidence was a lot more entertaining in the tight little gallery space, where you could hear every little stroke of the whirring fan-blade on the zither strings. But everything sounds great in the Old Church, and Matthusen’s music got a nice warming boost from the room’s atmospherics.
Cascadia Composer Jay Derderian called his contribution to the Swifts trilogy, The People They Think We Are, “introverted and bleak, outgoing and fiery.” He told the Steel Gallery audience that while he was working on his commision commemorating the migration of birds, conflict with ICE was escalating, which became “an apt metaphor for a piece like this, a dedicated prayer for the children who have been separated from their families.”
While Supové’s piano laid out a mournful flow of jazzy fourths and sevenths, whirling electronic sounds (Abletonized electric guitars, Derderian later told me) spooked around the speakers, evoking invisible interstellar monsters, like something out of Éliane Radigue or Morton Subotnick. The electronics, here as in the Woolf and Matthusen pieces, sounded a lot better in the Old Church than in the gallery—richer, more three-dimensional—but the physical presence of a few crying babies (including Derderian’s own) in the gallery audience added a layer of poignant immediacy.
Critical Mass of Diversity
The rest of the Old Church concert featured compositions by Katie Palka, Kaija Saariaho, Michi Wiancko, and Takashi Yoshimatsu. Another aspect of the group’s dedication is its programmatic diversity—and I don’t just mean the timely social issues and general inclusivity. No, it’s the sheer volume of compositional voices that really impresses me. With so many different composers in the mix, we get to experience a critical mass of musical diversity.
The West Coast premiere of Wiancko’s Lullaby for the Transient featured the current FNM string quartet—Inés Voglar Belgique, Keiko Araki (subbing for Paloma Griffin Hébert), Joël Belgique, Nancy Ives—plus OSO principal clarinetist James Shields. Right from its opening of fleeting thirds and a slow, lonely melody interrupted by harsh pizzicato chords and wild flailing clarinet, Lullaby alternated lovely and gnarly, sweet and sour, hope and crisis, dream and nightmare. At the end, those sweet thirds came back, Voglar-Belgique sawing madly on screwy high noisy scratchy craziness, a caged bird flailing its wings—portraying, in the composer’s words, “the persistence of unrest.”
Finnish composer Saariaho, born in 1952, was the oldest composer on the program, and that’s another thing I love about Fear No Music: alongside all the premieres of works by living composers, it regularly programs older works by relatively modern composers like Shostakovich, Liszt, Pärt, and Saariaho, who is thankfully still living but (like Pärt) has already earned her place in the modern canon. Her 1982 solo flute composition Laconisme de L’aile (The Essence of the Wing) was a worthy addition to the concert, a spectralist union of fancy flute work and bird-themed poetry by Saint-John Perse.
Amelia Lukas is one of several extraordinary flutists who grace Portland’s musical world (see also: Martha Long, Sarah Tiedemann, Sarah Pyle, Dawn Weiss, PSU’s Sydney Carlson). Lukas intoned the work’s opening French recitation, speaking the last few words directly into the flute and refracting them into syllables and a flurry of notes, like Dracula turning into a swarm of bats. Lukas has a deceptively commanding stage presence, and excels at bringing drama and fire to hyper-modernist works with challenging extended techniques, the type of stuff that can all too often degenerate into exercises in meaninglessly noisy virtuosity. In Laconisme we heard spectralist intonations and tessellated layers of unpitched sound hewn from the dense acoustic quarry traditionally labelled “noise.” All kinds of weird overtones, faint whistling, and more of that eerie avian chanting—and it was all done in service of an engaging performance, a story told in sound and gesture, a twisted and beautiful narrative of birds in flight—in Saariaho’s words, “fighting gravity, flying away, secret and immortal.”
These solo pieces are always an exciting part of FNM concerts, an opportunity for the performers to show off their technique, and for the audience to get acquainted with the individual players over time. Lukas is one good example, having last year dazzled us with Eve Beglarian’s I Will Not Be Sad in This World and Shulamit Ran’s East Wind. Griffin Hébert has always brought a level of avant-pop vitality to her solo violin performances, from Jayanthi Joseph’s Synthesis on last January’s Locally Sourced Sounds IV concert to her show-stealing performance of Kinan Azmeh’s How Many Would It Take last year.
Another solo spot on that same concert, Ives’s solo performance of Bahaa Al-Ansary’s Circles, was impressive but musically disappointing (for reasons I discussed at the time), but her solo piece on May’s Hope in the Dark concert—Chinary Ung’s Khse Buon—more than made up for it. Ives brought a keen sense of melody and intonation to Ung’s microtonal dissonances, rough open fifths, and pizzicato quadruple stops, bringing the work’s weird folky tunes to the foreground and demonstrating with attentive grace that technically challenging and sonically difficult music can still be beautiful.
FNM Artistic Director Kenji Bunch, at a noontime Old Church concert in October last year, performed his solo viola piece Minidoka (he played it again this year with Portland Taiko). It’s a sweet, ghostly piece, named after the Japanese internment camp in Idaho. “It’s a fascinating place to visit,” Bunch told the audience, describing a trip he had taken two summers earlier. “It was not lost on me that if Monica and I were alive seventy years ago, we’d be raising our kids in a place like this.” Ricocheting violin chords traced out lines of barbed wire while a simple sliding melodic motif evoked a nearby stream, emotional Americana of the type that Bunch does so well. At one point, the composer-violist wordlessly sang along with his melancholy melody, and it was the best thing about not only that show but all FNM shows. More singing Kenji Bunch, please!
FNM also has a very nice habit of cultivating its own flock of composers, via their Young Composers Project. September’s Worldwide Welcome concert featured a string quartet by one of those young composers, Katie Palka. Read ArtsWatch’s profile.
Palka, who has written for Metropolitan Youth Symphony, composed Stolen Flight in memory of her late father; its four movements correspond to four Oregon birds. The music took its time coalescing, busy trills and fragmented snippets of harmony overlapping towards coherence but never quite resolving. As an homage to her father, it was a compelling representation of loss and determination; as music, most of it didn’t really connect, although several of my fellow composers told me afterwards how much they liked it.
But that really is another of FNM’s strengths: it takes so many risks, with so many different types of composers, that not every piece of music will work every time for every audient. There’s at least one on every concert that I just can’t get into (e.g. Circles), although there are always redeeming moments. In the Palka quartet, that came at the very end, in the “White Gulls” movement (named for a line out of “Into the West,” from the last Lord of the Rings movie), when a gorgeously conflicted melody in the first violin soared over stirring chords and a yearning countermelody in the cello, which eventually took over as the main closing theme, high up on the A string, taking us home. It was a lot like the “five minutes of sitting and doing something” in Andrew Norman’s Split, except that in this case the “something” was well worth the journey it took to get there.
This was neither the first nor the best Palka composition I’d heard FNM perform. At the YCP’s Hearing the Future concerts in April, Palka’s composition for viola and piano was the standout work in a lineup of a couple dozen young composers. Belgique’s viola and co-founder Jeff Payne’s piano bounced time-changing tango rhythms across shifting harmonies in the vibrant, tragic manner of Rachmaninoff, Elfman, Weill, Piazzolla. Angry, melodic music, with a clear thematic character and a fine sense of narrative development—a feat many fully grown composers can’t manage! I was thrilled with all the composers on that show, but Palka was one of the very best. It was exciting to hear more of her work this September, and I look forward to whatever she’s got cooking next.
FNM has featured other YCP composers on its regular season concerts, so Palka isn’t the only one we’ve heard multiple times. At the Hearing the Future concert, Sylvan Talavera’s The Lottery—from the Shirley Jackson story, natch—was a muted-marimba-rich, aggressively sparse, pointillistic miniature riff on an Americana Rite of Spring; it was well-crafted and interesting enough, but frankly not much to write home about. Talavera’s piece on January’s Locally Sourced Sounds concert, though—yowza! On a program which also featured compositions by All Classical’s Robert McBride and Lewis & Clark College Music Department Chair Michael Johanson, Talavera’s The Peaceful and Mask of Sanity took the prize for most astonishingly original and compelling new work.
It’s not that I didn’t know that “the kids these days” were familiar with the post-1950 classical idiom of Messiaen, et al; the kids these days are familiar with everything. But I wasn’t expecting to hear a high school junior respond to the 2016 election with an exquisitely crafted and vehement slice of post-modern chromaticism straight out of the Boulez playbook. The quintet—Hébert and Ives on violin and cello, Payne on the piano, Kirt Peterson on saxophone, and percussionist Michael Roberts on a vibraphone-centric array—was up to the challenge, giving Talavera’s difficult music the careful excessiveness it deserved.
Like Palka’s work, this music sounded good. It sounded like music. There was a deep emotional layer running through Talavera’s dense dissonances, a human factor missing from so much modernistic stuff, subduing the noisy and inchoate elements and bending them to its humanizing will. In fact, it was a lot more like that next generation of modernists, ‘70s composers like George Crumb and especially Joan Tower, composers who made complicated music that nevertheless sounded good and meant something, and was thus capable of connecting to an audience. We’ll be listening for Talavera’s next moves, too.
And, yes, that’s yet another thing I love about Fear No Music: as with its dedication to relevant programming, diversity, and inclusion, the group takes a long view of artistic development. The YCP doubles as a cunningly sustainable way of not only developing a creative base but also growing an audience: the kids learning how to create this type of music will enjoy listening to it, and the family audiences I saw the YCP shows have been making appearances at FNM’s regular concerts. Lots of contemporary classical music can be hard work for the listener (there’s plenty of easy stuff too, of course), and the best way to develop an appreciation for the difficult stuff is through early education and repeated, varied exposure; you’ve got to listen to a lot of classical music over time to really train your ear how to translate the idiom’s complexities into the language of the heart.
After the rest of the Swifts music (Matthusen and Derderian), Shields and his clarinet returned, with pianist Monica Ohuchi, for the Worldwide Welcome closer. Japanese composer Takashi Yoshimatsu, best known for his jazzy, neo-Romantic concertos and his Astro Boy music, originally composed Fuzzy Bird Sonata for saxophonist Nobuya Sugawa. The music was busy and urbane, a lunchtime-crowded street, a lot like the Asian-inflected European-style jazz you hear all over San Francisco. Video bubbles burbled on the ceiling courtesy of the intermittently blinding Old Church light show, reflecting the music’s effervescence, cascading piano ripples under a raga-like stretch of long-winded birdsong clarinetery, mad trills and involuted polyphony, returning always to that sweet blue rhapsodic refrain. The bouncy, lighthearted music finally crashed toward its hoary conclusion, the clarinet bendy and vigorous, the piano veering toward ragtime, a dazzling display of Coltraney flourishes and virtuosic runs. It was a great closer, a jolly dab of ointment after the evening’s emotional excursion.
Music is one of the few art forms able to fuse individualism and universality—the music of a particular culture, nationality, religion, or region is intimately connected to its people, but music is also the best medium for encoding and expressing transcendence and universality in the human plane (sorry, literature), and as such is an ideal art form for finding unity in diversity. FNM’s many concerts featuring works by young composers, women composers, composers from ‘shithole’ countries, and so on, cultivate a very Portland sense of civic art. “Think globally, act locally,” as the bumper stickers used to say.
To hop on board the #resistance train is a good thing (can’t be neutral, after all), but it’s all too easy to slap a bunch of hip hashtags on your concerts or your performance art or your film essay or whatever and wait for that sweet grant money. To make it really good, though, takes care, craft, effort, and above all dedication. It’s the same reason Resonance and Cappella Romana are my favorite choirs in town right now: like those groups, Fear No Music has chosen the values they want to express with their musicianship, and they’ve applied themselves to it with charming consistency.
Your next chance to hear Fear No Music in action is RIGHT NOW. Their next concert, All of the Future, is going on at The Old Church tonight, Monday December 10, at 7:30. The concert celebrates children (“one-third of the population and all of the future”) with works by Larry Bell, David Del Tredici, Mary Kouyoumdjian, Nadir Vassena, and the BRAVO composers collective.
Matthew Neil Andrews is a composer, singer, percussionist, and editor of Subito at Portland State University, and serves on the board of Cascadia Composers. He and his music can be reached at monogeite.bandcamp.com.