MusicWatch Monthly: Frosty Festive February

Festivals, youth music, and a month’s worth of Black composers

In a “normal” year, February would be a month of Portland festivals. After months of seemingly endless overcast skies and (until this week) not-quite-cold-enough-for-snow temperatures, we need a bit of a reprieve before the sunny skies come back in full. With our usual work, school and social schedules all out of whack, it feels comforting to remind ourselves of annual traditions and festivities.

Mardi Gras and Ash Wednesday fall in mid-February this year for the Catholics among us, reformed or otherwise, and it has felt like last year’s Lent self-sacrifices haven’t even ended yet. Portland Foodie favorites like the Seafood and Wine festival are, unsurprisingly, cancelled. Turns out it’s pretty hard to have a socially-distanced food festival. Who knew? Thankfully you can still experience bits of the Winter Lights Festival in various places across the city.

The most musical February Festivals are Portland Jazz Festival and Valentango, one of the largest tango festivals outside Buenos Aires. The Milongas will have to wait until 2022, but thankfully the Jazz Festival has switched to a hybrid model. The Jazz Festival and the Cascade Festival of African Films are appropriate for Black History Month, along with Powell’s Black History Month selection and the local Black-owned bookstore Third Eye Books, Accessories and Gifts.

This year’s Jazz Festival starts on February 18 with a screening of the film Universe, a documentary about Miles Davis protege Wallace Roney. Later in the month on the 25th, there is another screening of a documentary of Tijuana Brass trumpeter Herb Alpert. One of the highlights is the PDX Jazz All-Star Pandemic Big Band directed by Lars Campbell. The performance will include charts (for those cats not hep to the lingo, that means songs) by many of Portland Jazz’s recognizable names including Carlton Jackson, Ezra Weiss and Lily Wilde.

The other highlight for me would be the concert “Black Music and Freedom,” by Marcus Shelby featuring Darrell Grant, Carlton Jackson and Tiffany Austin, which you can catch on February 26. “Black Music and Freedom” traces the history of the music of Black struggle, from spirituals and early Blues to the freedom songs of the 1960s. Also check out The Royal We on the 27th, a sextet led by Seattle-based keyboardist Wayne Horvitz, perfect if you’re a fan of 60s post-bop and modal jazz.

The other half of the program features a series of performances of those who would’ve been here, playing around the world from Havana to Johannesburg to Brooklyn to London. You can find all of the shows, many hosted by the Jack London Revue, on the PDX Jazz website.

We also have the continuation of Chinese New Year festivities, many of which take place in our urban oasis at the Lan Su Chinese Garden. The celebrations of the Year of the Ox take place from the 12th until the 28th. In the meantime, you can re-watch the festivities from Mochitsuki’s Japanese new year celebration.The musical highlight of Mochistuki’s festival has to be the performance by the always entertaining Portland Taiko putting on a distanced performance.

One of my fondest memories of college was having the morning off of class and deciding to spend that free time at the Lan Su garden. I took the MAX from PSU to Chinatown, wandering over the koi and under the foliage of Chinese plums and honeysuckle to the tea shop, where I sat with a book listening to the morning’s erhu, the Chinese cousin of the violin. It was a worthwhile experience for me, and if you need something relaxing this month, there is little better.

Classical Blackness

With Fear No Music broadcasting their concerts so early each month, I haven’t had much of an opportunity to cover what they’ve been up to–their ongoing series Tomorrow is My Turn represents the group’s bold decision to program their 2020-21 season with music by all Black composers. A couple familiar names pop up in the programs–Nokuthula Ngwenyama, Valerie Coleman, Adolphus Hailstork–alongside composers who will likely be unfamiliar. Next month on March 1st flutist Amelia Lukas presents her solo concert of music by Coleman along with Carlos Simon, Allison Loggins-Hull and Joshua Mallard.

On the 13th, the Catalyst Quartet plays the Chamber Music Northwest concert “Uncovered,” featuring more Black composers: Florence Price, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, and Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson. To prepare us for the concert, on the 9th CMNW hosted the conversation “Musically Integrated” with violist-composer Ngwenyama. This talk is still available, and all CMNW concert streams remain available for one week following broadcast. On the 27th, CMNW will broadcast their next February concert, Fleur Barron and Julius Drake performing Schubert’s Winterreise. Barron, a mezzo-soprano, brings a unique color to the song-cycle, which is usually performed by a tenor. The Schubert will also be preceded by a conversation on the 23rd at 6 pm with Michael Parloff.

Friends of Chamber Music will offer a live-streamed concert by experimental string quintet Sybarite5 on February 21 at 3 pm. The stream will be available for 72 hours after the premiere. Sybarite5 have recorded music from local violist and composer Kenji Bunch, occasional Portlander Andy Akiho, and music by John Coltrane and Radiohead (classical music’s favorite rock band). Notably, Sybarite5 were somewhat ahead of the Radiohead cover trend in classical music, releasing their arrangements years before Steve Reich’s Radio Rewrite but not before Brad Mehldau’s jazz arrangements.

We all know that students are hit especially hard by the Coronavirus, but music students have remained resilient. Lewis and Clark College will still offer their annual (Anti-)Valentine’s choral concert, premiering on Saturday the 13th. Reed College is hosting a virtual talk about Beethoven and Blackness by scholar Kira Thurman–really did you expect anything else from Reed? Portland State has moved all music classes and other events online, live-streaming their weekly Virtual Jazz series (Wednesdays at 3) and semiweekly Noon Concerts (Thursdays at noon) for students and the public on their respective Facebook pages. Students have handled the pandemic by moving their recitals online to sites like Instagram and retreating into other methods of creating music.

My times as a plucky young music student aren’t too far behind me, so I can say with some certainty how hard it can be to be a young musician. And the stigma around young musicians as being under-developed or lacking is extremely misguided. Young people and students make some of the most daring music out there–and all great musicians have to start somewhere, right? Even if an initial radical experimentation tempers over the years, that fervor of adolescence remains throughout their oeuvre. 

Ramona Xavier, a Hawthorne resident better known by her pseudonyms Macintosh Plus and Vektroid, helped codify the post-internet “digital punk movement” of Vaporwave. A deeply hauntological genre that revels in VHS tapes, 80s and 90s advertisements and the detritus of maligned genres like smooth jazz and new age, Vaporwave is genuinely weird and unsettling, standing at odds to corporate marketeers that demands music be consumer-friendly. Another important Portland practitioner of Vaporwave is Yung Bae (pronounced “young bay” for the readers older than forty), who creates reverb-saturated remixes of Japanese pop music.

Haley Heynderickx is a recent alumna of Portland State University known for her 2018 album I Need to Start a Garden, following a long and on-going group of brilliant Portland singer-songwriters including the tragic Elliott Smith and Pitchfork and r/IndieHeads darling Will Toledo (known by the name Car Seat Headrest). Drummer-composer Micah Hummel, another PSU alum, has performed and recorded with Tony Starlight, Machado Mijiga, and even more Vikings: clarinetist Lisa Lipton and pianists George Colligan and Todd Marston.

And need I mention Esperanza Spalding? These half-dozen or so names should be enough to convince the reader that young Portlanders are worth your attention if they aren’t already. Of course, there are hundreds more I neglected to mention for the sake of space–but the curious can easily find them on Bandcamp.

Electronica

As Black History Month continues unfolding, we find that we’re off to a decent, if insufficient, start to the process of rectifying centuries of racism in the world of “art” music. S1, hosts of the Synth Library, are currently undergoing a transition towards BIPOC leadership, a welcome and much-needed stand taken against the overwhelming whiteness of art in Portland. This is a small step forward among many that we need to be taking towards true equality in the arts. 

Other than that, the future of the Synth Library is uncertain. They moved out of their space on the far east side, storing their collection of synths elsewhere. Additionally, before the pandemic they hosted two monthly Synth Library introduction classes, one for all and one for female-identified and non-binary synth geeks. Thankfully, their sponsors at the synth shop Control Voltage are still open for business for those who want to acquaint themselves with the world of modular synthesis.

As a final note, I have to offer a word of remembrance for pop and electronic producer SOPHIE who unfortunately passed away January 30 at the tragically young age of thirty-four. Her style ranged from melancholy ambient synth pop to noisy metallic bangers, both anchored by her incredible sound design skills. She was on the forefront of a new sound for pop music coming out of the UK from a variety of underground artists associated with the PC Music label, sometimes called “Hyper-Pop” or “Bubblegum Bass.” SOPHIE took the sounds of synth-heavy electro pop to new extremes, and accomplished this while being maybe the most public trans woman in electronic music since Wendy Carlos. It’s impossible to say for sure, but taking into consideration her collaborations with big names like Charli XCX, Vince Staples and Madonna, we think her influence will be felt in pop music for years.

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