MusicWatch Monthly: American mestizaje

Caroline Shaw, nyckelharpa and hardanger fiddle, Carnatic voice and violin, harps and drums, and American gothick

As we said a few weeks ago, American musical culture–whether we define “American” as USA, North America, or the entire New World–is above all immigrant musical culture. This seems to hold true for a broad interpretation of “immigrant” which includes, at the very minimum: Puritans and other English-speaking immigrants, with their blend of English, Irish, Scottish, and European traditions; abducted Africans with their own blend of classical and folk traditions; indigenous Peoples across North and South America who found their musical cultures decimated, consumed, and alienated by the arrival of Wendigo; and the successive waves of cultures pouring out of war-torn regions across the world, from Italy and Russia to India and Japan, all bringing their cultures with them and adding to the great and glorious New World Melting Pot.

To be fair, there’s another word that covers all this melting pottedness, and we’d like to follow Gabriela Lena Frank’s lead and adopt a term she borrowed from Peruvian anthropologist José María Arguedas: mestizaje. So let’s go all out and say that American culture is mestizaje culture. Sound good? Great!

The week ahead

Of all the living traditions that thrive in fair Oregon, the one we most enjoy paying attention to is the Contemporary Classical Tradition. We just love the way contemporary composers–like Portland’s David Schiff and this month’s guest star Caroline Shaw–tend the gardens of American Classical Music by embracing both the musicks of their predecessors and the distinctly mestizaje aspect of American culture. (Read more about Shaw and Schiff here and here).

This Thursday and Friday, Shaw begins her Portland residency with Third Angle New Music, whose “Caroline in the City” concerts at the irresistible little New Expressive Works studio on Southeast Belmont will probably get you as excited about Shaw as we are. The Third Angle string quartet will perform two of Shaw’s instrumental works: Valencia, included on Attacca Quartet’s recent album of her music, and Evergreen, a new work commissioned by Third Angle. If Shaw were Bartók, she’d number these instead of naming them, and someday you’ll be able to purchase a charming Calidore Quartet boxed set with a title like Shaw: Complete Quartets.

You’ll also get to hear Shaw doing the other stuff she does best: solo composer music of more or less the Joe Kye variety (loopers and all), and she’ll also sing selections from her catalogue of songs for voice and quartet. She’ll be doing a similar routine the following week, on the first of Oregon Symphony’s new Open Music concerts. Shaw and OSO Creative Chair Gabriel Kahane (whose idea this was in the first place, for which we are embarrassingly grateful) will be up at the Alberta Rose Theatre for an evening of Shaw, Schubert, and Simon (Paul, that is), featuring members of the symphony (who are, please remember, objectively some of the best musicians in Oregon).

That weekend, Shaw ends her Riptown Vacation with possibly the craziest program of the symphony’s current season. On the 14th through the 16th, Shaw and the vocal ensemble she sings with will be at the Schnitz performing the era-defining, Pulitzer-winning, brain-melting instant classic Partita for Eight Voices. We recently said that the Partita recording and Pulitzer win are this generation’s In C premiere, our Rite of Spring riot (and we intend to stand by that until someone proposes a better candidate). The Partita is amplified and a cappella, and just the thought of its overwhelming soundworld crawling up those familiar sculpted walls is already making our ears burn. That’s just to get you warmed up, though. Next, the orchestra will come out and back up those eight amplified singers in a rendition of Luciano Berio’s everything-all-at-once masterpiece Sinfonia, with animation by local wizard Rose Bond. You remember Turangalîla, right? That was Rose Bond.

Listen: what would you give to go back in time and hear Copland or Gershwin performing their own music in a quiet little dance studio, then in an adorable little theater, and finally in the nicest concert hall in Portland with the oldest orchestra west of the Mississippi? Nothing less than this is what you’re being offered, dear reader. See you there.

For the last couple years, local musician collective 45th Parallel Universe has been producing double concerts featuring the “constellations” of ensembles that make up their “universe.” On this pair of one-hour concerts this Saturday at The Old Church, the Arcturus Quintet and the ad hoc “Friends of Greg” ensemble (led by founder/violinist Greg Ewer) perform a buffet table stacked with music by Scandinavian composers. Arcturus, a standard woodwind quintet (flute, oboe, clarinet, horn, bassoon), will perform Northern Lights: works by Carl Nielsen, Johan Kvandal, and Esa-Pekka Salonen. Then, for Smörgåsbord, the F.O.G. ensemble augments the standard string quartet with two Scandinavian folk instruments, the nyckelharpa (played by Amy Hakanson of Portland Nordic folk band Vasen) and the hardanger fiddle, for the music of Nielsen and Grieg as well as a selection of authentic Scandinavian folk tunes.

Show me the world

You might not know it, but one of the reasons you can get so much good Indian food in Portland and environs is that we have a pretty large Indian community here. Another lovely result of this cultural influence is that several arts organizations in the area devote themselves to producing concerts of music in all the myriad Indian musical traditions. Kalakendra is the one we’ve talked about the most (and they’re bringing Zakir Hussain to Portland again this month), but there’s also Rasika, plus a whole world of music centered around the HECSA Portland Balaji Temple out in the techie part of Hillsboro.

Just this month, you have at least five concerts to choose from (besides Zakir, which will sell out), and they’re all within the exciting and colorful classical and folk traditions of Southern India, generally less frequently encountered in America. The first one is this Saturday, the 6th, at PCC Rock Creek’s cozy Forum Theater: Rasika’s “Carnatic 2.0 Fusion” features violinist Shravan Sridhar and vocalist/electronicist Mahesh Raghvan. Then at the Balaji Temple, you’ve got vocalist Vrinda Acharya this weekend on the 7th, Carnatica Brothers on the 15th, vocal duet Aishwarya and Soundarya with their ensemble on the 21st, and finally Padma Bhushan T.V. Sankaranarayanan on the 27th. Busy, busy, busy!

“Experimental music” is another tradition unto itself, with (paradoxically perhaps) its own rules and characteristics. Most of those are implied by the label: experimental music is generally characterized by curiosity, openness, improvisation, collaboration, an ambivalent devotion to technology–all values prized by scientists, incidentally. This makes experimental musicians friendlier than most towards social causes and the like, which brings us to another of this month’s offerings: “Music and Film for the Brazilian Amazon” on the 11th at Holocene.

This benefit show brings together a handful of Portland’s busiest experimental musicians for an evening of “audio-visual improv, immersive sound experiences and film screenings.” Performers include the Ecology Ensemble of percussionist Lisa Schonberg, guitarist Mike Gamble (possibly the best electric guitarist in Portland), and bass clarinetist Jonathan Sielaff–three big names in Portland’s experimental/improvisation scene (Schonberg runs Secret Drum Band, Sielaff is half of Golden Retriever, and Gamble is the artistic director of Creative Music Guild). Their multi-sensory performance will include audio and visual field recordings from the Brazilian rainforest.

The Harpas de la Floresta ensemble brings together local harpist Sage Fisher (who records and performs extensively as Dolphin Midwives) and three other harpists with data sonification by electro-acoustician and self-described “sonic ritualist” Crystal Quartez. We make no secret of our enthusiasm for Fisher’s projects; within the slice of Portland culture she occupies, she’s on par with Resonance Ensemble (another of our unabashed enthusiasms). And this singing, harping, triple-threat composer, with her looping technology and her elegantly syncretic style–yes, we could easily consider Fisher a Portland version of Caroline Shaw.

Why four harpists and an electroacoustician? For the surround sound, of course! Quartez will be creating an immersive sonic environment for the four local experimental harpists: Fisher, Lily Breshears of Sheers, Joshua Ward (whose Location Services we just mentioned last week), and Trine’s Dasha Shleyeva.

And, true to their open spirit, these artists are donating the concert’s benefits to IDESAM and the Instituto Socioambiental, two Brazilian organizations working to defend and restore the Amazon. Damn fine work, “experimental” music!

The beat goes on

Jennifer Higdon composed her On A Wire specifically for the unique skills of contemporary classical sextet Eighth Blackbird, and they’re bringing it to Portland State University’s Lincoln Performance Hall on the 13th. The Oregon Music Festival orchestra provides the backdrop in this concerto for ensemble and orchestra, and the orchestra will also perform Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man and the first Sibelius symphony. The day before, also in PSU’s Lincoln Performance Hall, Eighth Blackbird performs in the School of Music’s free Noon Concert Series.

Cappella Romana is the best choir in town for truly old-timey traditional music: they specialize in liturgical music from the Orthodox tradition, which often finds them singing works from the Middle Ages. They also frequently perform new music that lies within this tradition, including the works of Arvo Pärt, Sergei Rachmaninoff, and University of Oregon composition chair Robert Kyr (later this year). On their March 14th concert at Northwest Portland’s Trinity Episcopal Cathedral they’ll be singing Tchaikovsky’s less well-known religious music, joined by the hundred voices of the Pacific Youth Choir and the singular voice of basso profundo Glenn Miller.

On the 18th, Mississippi Studios welcomes Roselit Bone, a Portland-based octet working the gothic end of the Americana tradition. They put on a great show, partly because they’re essentially three bands in one: the Southern rock trio, grizzled bearded dudes with drums and bass and spooky lap steel; the hipster trio, glammy violin soloist flanked by a deft pair of multi-instrumentalists switching between keys, percussion, and duelling mariachi trumpets; and the founding duo, bandleader Charlotte McCaslin and snazzily dressed Victor Franco, matching their guitars and voices like some old MTV special starring Siouxsie Sioux and Frank Black. The band’s big, complex sound pays off splendidly in their engaging live show, and you can hear the same energy on their latest release Crisis Actor, a rich half-hour of delightfully gloomy outlaw country songs which you should put on right now.

I know, I know, I know–some of you are sitting there, screaming at the screen, “when can I hear Charlotte McCaslin sooner?!?!?” Settle down, friend–she’s singing at Dante’s this Saturday with Spindrift and her fellow Portlandeers, Federale. And you know who else is going to be there? Federale’s keyboard-playing soprano, Maria Karlin, whom we were excited to notice in the Resonance lineup at Alberta Rose last Sunday, singing the music of Joe Kye and Caroline Shaw. If you’ve ever smiled at how perfectly Federale nails that moody Morricone sound, you can thank Karlin and her heroic belting.

Small town!

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