Portland Opera Puccini in Concert Keller Auditorium Portland Oregon

MusicWatch: Caroline Shaw and Danni Lee at Alberta Abbey, Nancy Ives and Charlie Martin with Metropolitan Youth Symphony

The Pulitzer-winning composer and Portland singer-songwriter’s new “electronic cinematic pop duo” Ringdown prepares for festival season with a concert in Northeast Portland; MYS performs two more Oregon composers and also Beethoven.

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Ringdown: Danni Lee and Caroline Shaw. Photo by Anja Schutz.
Ringdown: Danni Lee and Caroline Shaw. Photo by Anja Schutz.

It’s real: Caroline Shaw is finally an out-and-proud Oregonian. Most of us knew that the Pulitzer and Grammy winner had become enchanted with the regional terroir–”great moss!” she told James Bash in 2022–and most of us also knew that she had settled down in Portland. Now she’s done another of those “most Portland thing ever” things that all new Portlanders have to do as a rite of passage when they relocate: she started a band with her girlfriend.

Shaw’s life partner Danni Lee is a badass in her own right, a creative singer-songwriter with an assortment of ukuleles and a tremendous singing voice. It should be impossible to not be overpowered by Shaw’s modestly overpowering presence, but Lee more than manages. Their partnership is well summed-up by this hilarious line from the duo’s bio:

Collaborators Caroline Shaw and Danni Lee—who between the two of them have a Pulitzer Prize, a handful of Grammys, and a “Best Drum Major” Award—describe Ringdown as an electronic cinematic pop duo from Portland, Oregon.

You can hear them together on Lee’s album Truth Teller, which premiered at The Old Church in 2021 and was released in 2022. Here they are singing one of the album’s songs, “Little Seeds,” down by the Ross Island Bridge:

Now the duo has taken a name, Ringdown, and has released a handful of singles, including the Brahmsian “Thirst” and the Willie Nelson classic “Crazy,” the latter of which features Lee belting the familiar melody into an upright piano. From their Bandcamp site:

One of the saddest love songs ever written, penned by Willie Nelson and made famous by Patsy Cline. Here, reimagined in a framework of glitching memories.

This is a cover that was originally recorded singing directly into the harp of an upright piano in Omaha, NE. The ghostly ethereal reverb was haunting and we decided to lean into the creepy.

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But our favorite of the three tracks released so far is their wintry original song “Reckoning,” with its glorious vocal harmonies and wondrous synths and lush strings and this beautiful refrain:

Oh, I love you–Of course I love you
Shorter days mean longer nights with better views
Oh, I love you–and I’m gonna love you even when these winter days are gone and through.

Oh, I love you–Of course I love you
Shorter days mean longer nights alone with you
Oh, I love you–and I’m gonna love you even when these winter days are gone and through.

Ringdown is playing this year’s SXSW and Big Ears festivals before heading to Carnegie Hall in May, but you can hear them in Oregon next weekend at Portland’s Alberta Abbey. On Sunday, March 3, they’ll perform at the historic former church with opening support provided by fellow Portlanders Ezza Rose and New Body Electric.

Tickets and more information available here.

An embarrassment of riches

You now have a difficult choice to make, dear reader, because we’re about to tell you all about another concert happening at the exact same time: Metropolitan Youth Symphony’s Rooted, Sunday, March 3, at Newmark Theatre in Downtown Portland, featuring premieres by two different Oregon composers alongside Beethoven’s spring-perfect Sixth Symphony (aka the one from Fantasia with Bacchus and Zeus and all the dancing fauns and centaurs).

A few years ago, when MYS played the hell out of Beethoven’s Seventh, we had this to say about it:

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Of the three orchestras we’re discussing, MYS has the most exciting program this month. We’re obliged to tease them a little bit for playing Beethoven’s Seventh on their fall concert, but it actually doesn’t matter: kids should play Synecdoche van Beethoven, not just as part of their musical training but also as part of their upbringing as conscious human beings.

Most importantly, MYS nailed it. Beethoven’s Seventh has quite honestly never sounded so good to these ears. In fact, MYS nailed it so well I’m wondering if youth orchestras should be the only ones playing the chestnuts. What if it was actually difficult to go hear Beethoven performed live? What if you looked over the OSO’s season offerings and thought, “crap, nothing but new stuff, guess I’ll have to go listen to the youth symphony”? Even then, lucky you: the youth orchestra is going to crush that Beethoven symphony.

They also played some Joan Tower (one of Shaw’s only serious rivals for the “Greatest Living American Composer” title) and a young Oregon composer named Matthew Kaminski, who conducted his own piece Hidden Voices and has since been lost to Chapman University in Orange County, California. Better luck next time, Oregon!

The teenaged composer on this upcoming MYS concert, Charlie Martin, is (like Kaminski) a participant of Fear No Music’s Young Composers Project. His composition The Steadfast Tin Soldier was commissioned for MYS via the symphony’s Authentic Voice Series, a partnership with YCP that gets the kids off their damn phones and teaches young composers to (in the words of MYS music director Raúl Gómez-Rojas) “use their artistry to empower others and create joy in the world.”

You want to keep orchestras and the orchestral tradition alive? This is how you do that.

Another piece of that puzzle is crucial but a little harder to define. We also have to support composers over time, and we must support composers within our own region. It is (and we’re sorry to be so blunt) embarrassing when a major organization like the Oregon Symphony has so many wonderful Oregon composers to choose from–including more than a few within their own ranks–and yet persists in commissioning and premiering works by the latest and hippest East Coast composers. Nothing against those composers, and nothing against OSO either (you know we love you), but we do wish they would do better.

Fortunately we have the youth orchestras to pick up their slack. Portland Youth Philharmonic has a concert this weekend featuring the Grammy-winning Jeff Scott and Imani Winds (none of whom are from Oregon but we’ll let that slide), and later this year they’ll perform their own Oregon composers double bill: May’s “New Beginnings” concert will feature music by Venezuelan-Oregonian Giancarlo Castro D’Addona, who has in recent years conducted MYS as well as orchestras at Portland State and Reed, alongside music by one of the four biggest names in the Oregon School of Composition.

Yes, we’re talking about Nancy Ives (the other three big names are, of course, Kenji Bunch and Robert Kyr and David Schiff).

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But back to MYS. This weekend it’s their turn to play Ives’ music–they commissioned her to compose a new piece for the Rooted concert, and she settled upon a deceptively simple way of deciding what to write about. She asked the musicians. Here’s how she described that process in a recent email:

When Raúl and I first discussed a commission for the MYS Symphony Orchestra, we concocted a plan for me to collaborate with the musicians on the subject or theme of the new work. I wanted to know what really interested them, rather than assuming I knew what was on their minds! I prepared a presentation about my past work to demonstrate some of the ways social and environmental issues can be addressed and explored in the classical music context. It was a blast — and I should add that it’s a big deal to be given a whole half hour of rehearsal time! I had so much fun talking with the students about some of my pieces and performing some for them, and then hearing from them afterwards. Later, the students filled out index cards with their thoughts and suggestions. It was a lot of fun to go through the index cards — there was a surprising amount of interest in incorporating kazoos! —  and it was clear that the environment, the natural world and the climate crisis were on the majority of their minds. That leaves a wide swath of possibilities, of course, but I heard a Science Friday piece about Pando just when I was feeling the need to settle on the subject, and I knew instantly that this was it. I wanted to touch on the dangers of global warming, which is so much on the minds of this orchestra’s generation, but the commission was for a ten-minute concert opener, not a multi-movement manifesto, and I wanted it to also express the joy and beauty of the natural world.

A portion of the quaking aspen Pando, one of the largest trees in the world. US Forestry Service photo by John Zapell.
A portion of the quaking aspen Pando, one of the largest trees in the world. US Forestry Service photo by John Zapell.

Yes, you read that right: it’s a piece of music about a tree, which is the most Oregon thing ever. The composition is simply called Pando, and since we certainly can’t do better than Ives herself in explaining all about it we’ll turn the mic back over to her:

Pando means “I spread” in Latin, an appropriate name for the subject of my piece. Pando is a quaking aspen that spans 106 acres in the mountains of Utah and is both the largest tree by weight and spread and also the largest known aspen clone. What appear to be individual trees from the human vantage point are actually branches, or stems — 47,000 of them! — united by a single interconnected root system so massive its estimated weight is 6 million kilograms or 13.2 million pounds. Pando is thought to be the heaviest known organism. Pando is certainly ancient, but its age may never be definitively determined, since aspen clones continually regenerate, but it is likely between 9,000 and 12,000 years. However, its future is uncertain; climate change, drought, grazing, and fire suppression are all threats to its long-term health.

The piece opens with a wind storm followed by rain. I very much wanted to set the high elevation scene, and I also admit that I adore air sounds in instrumental music! A seed finds its place, announced by a single pizzicato note in the low strings, and stems begin to rise, first depicted by two solo violins with other instruments joining at an ever faster rate. Repeated figures and slow glissandi appear in the lowest instruments as roots establish themselves below the surface. Since I started at the beginning, I had to grapple with the question of how to depict millennia in about ten minutes, so once I had the scene established and the spread of the clonal stems under way, I decided to adopt a progressively shorter and shorter phrase structure to create a sense of fast-forwarding through thousands of years of seasons, nights and days. The thematic and harmonic materials employed are very simple. I wanted the impression I was building of so many stems through the use of layers of staggered entrances to remain clear and vivid. I made a conscious effort to feature different sections and instrument families to create a kaleidoscopic range of color and texture, but I returned again and again to the rising scale motifs in overlapping layers underpinned by groups of repeated low notes. Stems and roots.

One thing I loved about Pando as a subject for an orchestral piece is that the variousness of each stem — each statement of the scale motif — belies the fundamental unity of the organism, much like an orchestra. They look like individuals, but in the end, they all join in unanimity, and the piece ends with a giant unison statement.

There is an alternate ending, which I believe is the one MYS will be performing. As the music hurtles towards the present moment, an adaptation of Daniel Crawford’s depiction of global warming through data sonification, A Song of Our Warming Planet (2013), intrudes discordantly, and Pando peters out. I had thought to make this musical incursion representing the relatively recent human-caused rise in temperature take an amount of time in proportion to Pando’s previous existence, but in such a short piece, that would have been too brief to really register on the listener! Artistic license to the rescue.

Metropolitan Youth Symphony performs Nancy Ives, Charlie Martin, and Beethoven on Sunday, March 3, at Newmark Theatre in Portland. Tickets and more information are available here.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Music editor Matthew Neil Andrews is a composer, writer, and alchemist specializing in the intersection of The Weird and The Beautiful. An incorrigible wanderer who spent his teens climbing mountains and his twenties driving 18-wheelers around the country, Matthew can often be found taking his nightly dérive walks all over whichever Oregon city he happens to be in. He and his music can be reached at monogeite.bandcamp.com.

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