As Portland composer Kenji Bunch watched last year’s confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice nominee Brett Kavanaugh, which included accusations of sexual assault, he “had this weird idea of a concert” based on the hearings.
“It was such a fraught moment, a watershed event,” Bunch recalled. “Something about the theatricality of that hearing just seemed to me that it could work for this kind of artistic exploration.”
Bunch, artistic director of Portland new music ensemble Fear No Music, mused about the notion on Facebook. Immediately, New York composer Daniel Felsenfeld endorsed the idea. So did others, including fellow Oregon composer Andrea Reinkemeyer.
The three picked eight contemporary composers, including four from Portland, to write music for “Hearings” — the opening concert in a Fear No Music season dedicated to new classical music that responds to today’s social issues. It’s so timely that when the show starts on Monday, Kavanaugh will still be in the headlines.
Season of Social Awareness
When Bunch took over the 27-year-old group a few years ago, its name inspired him to ask, “What are we fearing?” he said. “That happened to coincide with some divisive times in our country, and rather than avoid that and be in our ivory tower of abstract work, what if we lean into that and explore how music written today can relate to the world we’re experiencing? All sorts of ideas opened up when I started to look at it that way. Since then we’ve given a lot of focus to composers whose voices historically have not been heard as easily — women composers, immigrants, political dissidents. It’s invigorated us.”
Bunch was conscious of the dangers of didacticism and divisiveness when taking on this season’s touchy, timely topics. “I wanted to come at it not from a polarizing or divisive place,” he explained. “Simply sharing experiences and stories can maybe elevate the conversations and the potential for empathy and understanding.“
Much of the concert’s music incorporates actual stories. Written and oral testimony by Kavanaugh and/or his accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, becomes spoken or sung text mixed with live acoustic and/or electronic sounds in Megan DiGeorgio’s I’m Terrified, Stacy Fahrion’s The Summer of 1982: A Rape Culture Tango, Portland composer Carolyn Quick’s Stop the Clock and Reinkemeyer’s Opening Up. Veteran Portland composer Jack Gabel’s Summer of ‘82, Exhibit XXX transmogrifies snippets of pop music from the nominee’s ritzy prep finishing school days. Portland composer Matthew Packwood’s confrontation uses the words of the two women who last year confronted a US Senator in an elevator to speak the truth about their outrage. The program also includes music by Felsenfeld and Idaho composer Ruby Fulton.
Performed by Fear No Music musicians and guests on flute, voice, percussion, piano, cello, violins and viola, some compositions channel anger, while others find moments of dark humor. “Each of the composers had such a unique vision of how to handle this,” Reinkemeyer recalled.
Her Opening Up weaves narrated excerpts of Ford’s testimony among phrases from a string quartet. Reinkemeyer had already written a piece for a Louisiana orchestra that touched on the Kavanaugh hearings in a metaphorical, indirect way.
“I wasn’t being openly political about it there,” she explained. “But I wanted to be very direct with this piece. I didn’t feel like I had the need or emotional energy to hide. This hurt me. I’m old enough that I remember the Anita Hill hearings” in 1991, in which another Republican Supreme Court nominee, Clarence Thomas, was confirmed despite a former subordinate’s sexual harassment accusations.
“It doesn’t feel like anything much changed,” Reinkemeyer said. “I was upset that they said, ‘She’s credible, but we’re going to choose him anyway.’ To have a group of senators say that it doesn’t matter is infuriating. I think you can hear honesty in music and I was honestly fed up when I wrote the piece — as a parent, as a teacher, as a woman myself.”
Timely & Timeless
While responding to current events is nothing new in pop music, it’s rarer in classical composition — but that’s been changing lately, Reinkemeyer and Bunch said. “My students have pushed me to be more forward about these things,” said Reinkemeyer, who grew up in Troutdale and taught outside Oregon before returning to her home state to join the music faculty at Linfield College. “I see them grappling with issues more openly in their music than we did. They’re used to hearing people talk and be open about social issues — they don’t have this reticence about addressing them. When we grew up, we got the message that you should keep this to yourself. With social media and blogs, they put it out online in a way that’s new. A lot of my students come at it with this punk attitude.”
She and Bunch both believe classical music brings unique authority to bear on today’s issues. “We have a richer harmonic palette that lets you explore complex emotional things without words, so people can bring their own meaning to them,” she says.
“I think there’s something powerful about seeing these instruments that come from a centuries-old tradition” applied to contemporary concerns, Bunch said. “Being able to draw on centuries’ worth of references helps to express that this situation may be specific and happening now, but the feelings, the humanity of it all are universal and timeless. When we use the vocabulary of this tradition in a new and personal way to express feelings about something going on in our world, that gives it extra weight.”
Bunch believes that the stories shared through new classical music in this concert and FearNoMusic’s social issue-oriented season as a whole can play a constructive role in diminishing the differences that divide us. “I really hope people can see newly composed music as an opportunity for increased empathy and understanding about the human condition, and that it can make it easier to be on the same planet as each other. It can bring us together.”
Speaking of Kenji Bunch, the Eugene Symphony opens its season September 26 with his Groovebox Fantasy, a fond ten-minute tribute to the great American film composer, record producer/arranger/executive, and jazz musician Quincy Jones, who spent much of his youth in Seattle. Bunch had long admired the genius behind Michael Jackson’s classic albums Thriller and Off The Wall, whose distinguished career included the classic 1962 Big Band Bossa Nova album that heavily influenced Bunch’s own first symphony. Along with Jones’s “driving, infectious rhythmic grooves,” Bunch says Groovebox Fantasy also draws on American composer Morton Feldman’s abstract minimalism and the sound of a digital music module.
And speaking of Andrea Reinkemeyer, her music is all over Oregon these days, including in next month’s Third Angle concert.
FearNoMusic presents Hearings: New Music Inspired by the 2018 Kavanaugh Hearings at 7:30 p.m. Monday, Sept. 23 at The Old Church, 1422 S.W. 11th Ave. Portland. Tickets at fearnomusic.org or at the door. A shorter version of this story appears in The Oregonian/OregonLive.
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