Kenji Bunch is either an oenophile or he’s been reading Jeff VanderMeer. The Fear No Music artistic director introduced the ensemble’s fifth annual Locally Sourced Sounds concert post-concert Q&A with a discussion of the somewhat esoteric term terroir, used to describe the interlinked ways in which wines, cheeses, cannabis, and other such creations are influenced by the myriad regional factors that help condition their development. Bunch defined terroir (actually it seems likely he got the term from Darrell Grant) as “the taste of a place” and asked the gathered composers, “is there a sound to composers living in the Northwest?”
The January 21 concert at Portland’s Old Church Concert Hall gave us a chance to find out, with a tasting menu of six Pacific Northwest composers.
Kids these days
FNM’s artistic and executive leadership team of Bunch and Monica Ohuchi opened the concert with the world premiere of recent Reed College graduate Yiyang Wang’s Converse, a sparse and cloudy mood piece, awash with open strings and rhythmic tappings on Bunch’s viola over tinkly jazz arpeggios and Liszty swirls on Ohuchi’s piano. At one point Bunch carefully set down the viola to sneak around to the piano’s low end, hiding behind Ohuchi’s arched shoulders, where he pounded out a few bass tones. FNM usually likes a slow start, and although Converse didn’t command my rapt attention the way Wang’s piano trio Color Studies did in 2017, her atmospheric little duet opened the show on a pleasantly conversational note.
Next up was another duet, Music for Four Hands by Ryan Francis, a youngish Juilliard-trained composer whom we have seen around the halls at Portland State University, where he’s been teaching theory. Ohuchi and Jeff Payne provided the titular hands, spinning out polyrhythms in wistfully melancholy Glass–Guaraldi harmonic language similar to Portland composer Jay Derderian’s The People They Think We Are (performed on this same piano a few months back by Kathleen Supové). And because this was Ohuchi and Payne—one of the finest piano duos in Portland — the polymeters and the wistful melancholy were uncommonly graceful, immersing the audience in elegant waves of auditory bliss the way John Luther Adams is supposed to.
I’ve been following Julia Kinzler for a few years now, having first met the composer in a Portland State University theory class taught by Texu Kim, another local we’ve heard on this stage more than once. Kinzler’s music seems to usually have two distinct layers: one layer of academic complexity and dissonance, hidden under a layer of Coplandy breeziness and rhythmic sparkle.
The concert’s first half closed with her trio Swirls, Payne back at the piano accompanied by violist Joël Belgique and alto saxophonist Kirt Peterson. An opening canvas of vaguely inchoate pastorale flourishes gave way quickly to some honest-to-goddess melodic profusion, sax echoed by viola, a lovely and wandering story-like tune. The music neither plumbed the depths nor ascended the peaks, but simply reflected the rushing peaceful flow of the Columbia Gorge waterfalls that were its inspiration.
Music fans like me who recognize Nancy Ives as Oregon Symphony principal cellist and long-time FNM performer might have been surprised to see her name on the program as a composer. Her Suite was partially modeled on J.S. Bach’s genre-defining cello suites: six movements, including a prelude and five stylized dances. The purpose of a prelude is to establish key, mood, and so on; from a practical point of view, it’s also a good way of warming up the instrument and making sure it’s in tune. But Ives’s case, she had two instruments to warm up: her cello and her voice. She sings, too?
According to Ives’s program note, singer-violist-composer Bunch “played a big part in reawakening my interest to cultivate this particular skill.” That’s a Bunch tradition, by the way; he not only sings along with his own viola (on pieces like his Minidoka), he’s included singing on his commissions for other performers. The most memorable (to date) was his Adventure Awaits, composed for Pyxis Quartet cellist Marilyn de Oliveira and her husband Trevor Kirkpatrick; the marvelously Bunchy duet concludes with a passage calling for both cellists to sing while playing.
Ives, like Bunch and Oliveros and Kirkpatrick, didn’t sing like a professional vocalist; by the same token, you certainly wouldn’t mistake any of these string players for Hannah Penn. But that informal quality makes the singing in such compositions all the more compelling, breaking that alienating barrier theater people always talk about, inviting us to hear the human voice not just as a trained musical instrument but also as an immediate and humanizing means of interpersonal connection. The raw vulnerability of the naked singing voice is a powerful thing in any context, and here it becomes a bridge across the historically impermeable barrier between vocalists and instrumentalists. In other words, it’s not just music the FNM gang isn’t afraid of: I’m pretty sure these people aren’t afraid of anything.
Ives’s compositional voice was equally uncharted territory. Her Suite had a refreshing musical breadth, a diverse but integrated approach that bounced around from Bach to Prokofiev to Copland and back without ever sounding like anything other than one composer’s uniquely personal voice. In the prelude, the cello’s open strings and widely spaced gestures warmed up the whole instrument, while echoes of the same gestures warmed up Ives’s voice. The Suite had its genesis in Ives’s mysterious Allemandes commissioning project, and her allemande was suitably somber and Bachisch and undanceable, with prickly flashes of Prokofiev and Khachaturian. In the sarabande, long sung notes became dissonant across shifting cello lines before resolving fleetingly into Harrisonesque pentatonics. The pair of waltzes featured masterful pizzicato double stops, a lot of shosty sardonics, more singing low and high, lots of quick arpeggios, and a lilting Straussich melody. Throughout, I was struck by Ives’s subtle harmonic sense and well-constructed counterpoint—modernistic but melodic and compelling—and thought, perversely, “Damn, I almost wish OSO would fire Nancy so she can do this full time.”
Belgique and Inés Voglar Belgique performed one of the various duets they’ve commissioned for each other over the years, this one a birthday present for Belgique’s 50th composed by John Peel—not the legendary BBC radio host, but a student of Babbitt and Wuorinen who currently teaches at Willamette University in Salem. Voglar Belgique’s commission came with a poem: Pablo Neruda’s Me Gustas Cuanda Callas (“I like it when you are silent”), which provided a structure for Peel’s conversational duet, the music translating Neruda’s ironic and tender words into a Bartóky braid of flowing, expressive counterpoint, intimate melodies interwoven into a dense and luxuriant conversation.
James Shields, as principal clarinetist for the OSO, has another of the best seats in the Schnitz—just a few feet from Ives’s—and his music has the same polyvalent quality. Much of his Lost Man Loop for string quartet (Voglar Belgique, Paloma Griffin Hébert, Belgique, Ives) sits in the familiar post-minimalist interzone of complex harmonic stasis and pulsing rhythmic dissonance; it was closer to Reich than Glass, and closer to Michael Torke than either. But all through Shields’s post-minimalism runs a thread of melody, an ingredient missing from so much of the more stripped-down music you hear in the popular New York composers. In one slow passage, the violins explored the piece’s weird tonal regions with wide, strange melodies straight out of Copland’s under–appreciated stuff; and, glory of glories, those melodies came back again for a nice hushed ending.
A Spacious Musical Landscape
So, is there a sound to musicians living in the Northwest? At the post-concert discussion, Ives mentioned the terroir she and Shields share not as Oregonians but as OSO musicians. “Because I take so much music in, something has to come out — or I feel musically constipated,” Ives laughed. Francis described himself as “a native Oregonian,” and said, “the Pacific Northwest has a real sense of identity, but people also come here from all over. I almost feel like I grew up at the end of the earth, all sorts of different ideas bumping up against each other.” Kinzler agreed. “The West Coast is a place of diversity, a place of inclusion [where] people really care about what’s going on in their community,” she said.
For Peel, inspiration comes from the “forbidding grandeur” he encounters on the long drive out Interstate 84 to his ranch in Eastern Oregon. “It makes you want to be a part of it, but it appears unattainable,” he said. The oldest composer in a relatively young line-up, he sees the PNW as a reflection of the “huge landscape” that characterizes the United States as a whole, a reflection which he heard in the music. “I heard a spaciousness tonight,” Peel said. “I think that’s the terroir Kenji’s talking about.”
Music for Poets
On Monday, FearNoMusic returns to the Old Church for Because Of Her, We Make Songs: Music for Female Poets, featuring music by Florence Price, Joelle Wallach, Alex Shapiro, Jenni Pinnock, Lori Laitman, Ricky Ian Gordon, Zeca Baleiro, Lee Hoiby, Vincent Persichetti, Jake Heggie, and Jennifer Higdon. The concert also, naturally, features a ton of poetry by women, including Emily Dickinson, Emma Lazarus, Georgia Douglas Johnson, Elinor Wylie, Amy Lowell, and Gabriela Mistral. Two local poets will recite: Belise Nishimwe and Nicole Coronado, champion and runner-up of this year’s state-wide Poetry Out Loud competition.
Matthew Neil Andrews is a composer, singer, percussionist, and editor at Portland State University, and serves on the board of Cascadia Composers. He and his music can be reached at monogeite.bandcamp.com.
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