Flutes and strings and weirdos

Chamber Music Northwest plays Caroline Shaw and Jacob TV. We are Kulululu.

Chamber Music Northwest seems a lot quieter since the clarinet circus left town. After last week’s brouhaha—a wide swath of concerts featuring upwards of a hundred clarinets—the audiences at Thursday night’s Copland/Shaw concert and today’s New@Noon felt hushed, rapt, attentively relaxed in a way that only summertime and a lot of lovely string and flute music can induce.

Flutist Tara Helen O’Connor performing at Chamber Music Northwest.

Let’s talk about the flute first. Last night at Reed College, CMNW stalwart Tara Helen O’Connor played flute in a chamber orchestra of other CMNW stalwarts, performing Aaron Copland’s bland-but-beautiful Appalachian Suite. This afternoon at the New@Noon concert down in Portland State’s Lincoln Recital Hall, O’Connor did what she does every year: she balanced Thursday’s classical side with something daring, special, bizarre. Last year, it was Andy Akiho’s -intuition) (Expectation; the year before it was Allison Loggins-Hull’s electronics-laden Pray. This year, today, she played a bit of “boombox music” by bizarro Dutch composer Jacob TV, whose Grab It, for saxophone and prerecorded samples of death row inmates, caught everyone’s attention several years ago (two favorite versions: this one for jazz trio, and this one for two bari saxes and drums).

Lipstick—the one O’Connor played today—uses the same multimedia gimmick as Grab It, a combination of speech-to-melody transformations (used most famously by Steve Reich in Different Trains), wild chromatic flourishes on regular and alto flute, various extended techniques, electroacoustic stuff I couldn’t discern the nature of (was that a prerecorded track or a filter-delay effect on the live flute?)—all of it accompanying a manic MTV-age video montage of footage from talk shows and talent competitions, sliced and remixed and projected on the screen above the stage.

In other words, it’s exactly that madhouse smorgasbord of aesthetic layering we love so much about contemporary classical music. Hearing O’Connor play this stuff is always a festival highlight for me, because it demonstrates the one thing that really makes new music sing: love of craft. The rest of the time, we hear O’Connor and all the rest of the CMNW crew apply their considerable skills to Bach and Brahms with real dedication—and it’s wonderful to hear that craft applied to music by living composers.

Which brings us to the Calidore Quartet and Caroline Shaw. Forget, for a moment, about how perfect Shaw’s music is. This quartet simply sounds amazing. Sweet high notes and rich lows, precise rhythmic and intonational contouring, deeply attentive bowing and breathing, and this lush and vastly mysterious pizzicato that fills the room. Two years ago, I had said this to say: “Calidore Quartet at Chamber Music Northwest 2017 gave the greatest string quartet performances I have ever heard in person.” After hearing them play Shaw’s Three Essays twice in the last 24 hours, all I really need to change about is the year. (I may have also referred to them as “face-meltingly beatific,” which also holds true).

Okay, now let’s talk about Caroline Shaw, a polymath violinist-singer-composer who seems to have no difficulty bouncing around from intricate vocal ensemble music to earthy folk songs. Her string writing is top notch (check out the Attacca Quartet’s new album Orange—a whole wonderful hour of Shaw’s music), and to my ear Three Essays and Entr-acte both sit somewhere on the Beethovenisch side of Bartók, maybe with a shard of Glass. A love of chords runs through all of it—especially the second Essay, “Echoes”—but those chords are always scored in a way that suggests choral writing, with independent voices moving through fundamentally tonal sonorities (mostly triads) in a framework which is often decidedly not tonal and generally includes massive glissandi and giant heaps of glorious noise. The harmony thus becomes a holographic prism, a hallucinatory psychoacoustic refraction, and—not incidentally—it also (to my ear) represents a livelier, truer Americana than Appalachian Suite.

But we’ll talk more later about Shaw, Copland, and that circus of clarinets next week.

Calidore, O’Connor, and the rest of the CMNW repertory players are bringing more of that love of craft back to Reed’s Kaul Auditorium starting this weekend, on a pair of concerts (Saturday July 6, Monday July 8) featuring Bach, Brahms, and Portland composer David Schiff (read Charles Rose’s interview with Schiff right here). Sunday and Tuesday at PSU, it’s Heartbeat Opera with Daniel Schlosberg’s reimagining of Mozart’s creepy Don Giovanni (one of precious few vocal-centric concerts on this summer’s festival). And you’ll get a chance to hear the Miró Quartet perform Shaw’s Entr’acte at the next New@Noon, Friday July 12.

Gonzo Rock

We’ve said before that the best way to hear new music by Portland composers is to drop into any bar, club, or other venue that hosts local bands. There must be thousands of bands in this little city, huddled together in basements and garages and attics and lofts and practice rooms all over the place, tribes of musical friends writing weird riffs together and playing dives for tips and drink tickets. Any given night in Portland, you can plunk down five bucks (at most) to hear three-to-five ensembles cranking out the rawest, funkiest, punkiest music in town.

In this forest of bands, we all have our favorites. My favorites right now are Nasalrod and Kulululu.

Some of you may remember a little art-punk sextet called Drats, a bunch of typical Portland goofballs whose apex was a rock operetta based on a Matt Dillon film. Their charismatic singer, known only as “Chairman,” was known for his distinctive metal croon and acrobatic stage hijinx. After Drats collapsed, Chairman spent the next couple of years perfecting his jump-kick and gathering three more of the sharpest, toughest post-punk strangelings in Portland (including legendary Fear drummer Spit Stix, whose instructional videos are the best) to form Nasalrod, immediately cranking up both the “art” and the “punk.” The band put out a proggy-punky album in 2017, and every time we hear them play live they steal the whole damn show (last time, it was headliner Big Business they were topping-from-the-bottom, at Mississippi Studios). For the musical equivalent of greasy, syrupy, crispy late-night diner pancakes, it doesn’t come much better than this.

Nasalrod plays this weekend’s Rontoms Sunday Session with Dirty Princess, another heavy-goofy-dirty Portland band.

Last Wednesday, as band practice was wrapping up early, our bandleader said, “Kulululu is playing at Doug Fir in an hour.” The only appropriate response to that is, “let’s go!” We descended the woody staircase just as the second opener, another Portland act called !mindparade, was wrapping up. “Hail Eris,” I cried, wishing we’d arrived earlier, “that’s an octet!” A delirious multi-colored light show swirled over the band and across a giant white sheet draped upstage behind them. Always nice to come upon these little surprises.

The band’s name suits its zany, vivid music. That initial exclamation point, the big bang of creation, an explosion of joyful consciousness and ass-shaking grooves under gooey pop-psychedlic harmelodics, of Montreal on better drugs, Polyphonic Spree with better costumes. Then, after that, the mind: a shocking recognition of how strange and proggy this poppy stuff really is, sideways jazz harmonies and shifting meters and all the rest. Then, the parade: an eight-person radar array, from busy drummer far stage right, across moogy synth guy and lead singer guitarist guy and chill bassist, over a pair of grinning violinists and a cellist, across to a second bass player on upright, bow and all. The last number was so jolly and jumping that I swear I could feel a conga line almost forming up. Another minute or so would have done it. Maybe next time.

The first time I heard Kulululu, they were opening for jazz-dub trio Moon Hooch at Wonder Ballroom. Another big group, the seven musicians of Kulululu all wear masks, sort of a Ghost-meets-Devo-meets-King-Gizzard thing. No violins in this band: it’s your standard rock quartet again, second guitar instead of keys, augmented with trombone, cornet (a small trumpet), and a bass clarinet of all things. Everybody sings. Everybody dances. The band chatters amongst itself, possibly 50% gibberish, and members leave the stage at will to go mill about the audience.

There’s some sort of cult around these guys, and it’s easy to hear why. The songs are catchy, weird, more than a little childish, but also more than a little dangerous. It’s edgy, in a “watching Spongebob while you’re stoned” kind of way, and these guys are clearly a lot more clever than they let on. Like Nasalrod, they combine very intelligent songwriting with a wacky sense of humor and a vibrating undercurrent of tough-as-nails aggression. More than anything, these bands all remind me of Northern California’s favorite contrarians, Mr. Bungle.

Then there’s that cult vibe. The band’s identities and origins are shrouded in mystery. Their songs seem to have some underlying mythology, and apparently all the fans are in on it. At Doug Fir this week, just like at Wonder, the 50-odd otherwise-normal-looking Portlanders were singing along with songs about “crab dad” and calling out at the crew like it was the Rocky Horror Picture Show. The band leans into this, with their masks and their surreal, on- off-stage presence. At Wonder, they chided the crowd for their all-too-conventional cheering and demanded “more boo energy”—a request with which we eagerly complied, booing the band’s excellent music the rest of the evening.

Wednesday night’s show opened with the masked bandleader, seated, reciting poetry while the rest of the band fussed and mussed his wig. Halfway through the set, the band announced that the horn players were all fired. Elaborately despondent, they left the stage, dragging their horns behind them. Then, the second guitarist announced that, actually, it was the whole band who was fired. Exeunt the rest of the band, leaving an empty stage and a hushed room.

Off to one side of the woody Doug Fir dance floor, the roving horns have gathered. With them, the violinists from !mindparade. Kulululu bandleader gets their attention, forms them into a rough semicircle surrounded by expectant fans and one very amused music journalist. Bandleader guy begins conducting, trying to get the musicians to do something. After several false starts, he gets them going….and it’s gorgeous, dear reader. Some sort of chorale-type thing, vaguely classical in a modernistic sort of way (a little like Caroline Shaw, in fact), and quite well played. The crowd adores it. The band shifts swiftly into and back out of a chaotic free jazz romp, a Zappatastic something-or-other, and then head back into that luscious chorale. All of this conducted, quite ably, by the lead Kulululu, almost as if he knows what he’s doing. Who the hell are these guys?

“We are Kululu, and you are also that thing which is Kulululu,” they intone from the stage near the end of their raucous set. If this sort of craziness isn’t a part of your musical diet, dear reader, it should be.

And guess what? Nasalrod and Kulululu are playing together at Mississippi Studios on August 21st.

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