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MusicWatch Monthly: In veni vidi veritas

In which we consider the meanings of music with a Fresh Air Fest, a Columbia Riverkeeper composer-in-residence, a pair of rowdy rock concerts, and a sampling of Chamber Music Northwest.


Statue of Julius Caesar by French sculptor Nicolas Coustou and commissioned in 1696 for the Gardens of Versailles, Louvre Museum.
Statue of Julius Caesar by French sculptor Nicolas Coustou and commissioned in 1696 for the Gardens of Versailles, Louvre Museum.

There’s a Nietzsche quote for everything. Early on in The Gay Science, the notorious composer and linguistics professor–he who said “without music, life would be a mistake”–lays out a history of humanity’s quest for meaning and concludes thus:

There is no denying that in the long run every one of these great teachers of a purpose was vanquished by laughter, reason, and nature: the short tragedy always gave way again and returned into the eternal comedy of existence; and “the waves of uncountable laughter”–to cite Aeschylus–must in the end overwhelm even the greatest of these tragedians. In spite of all this laughter that makes the required corrections, human nature has nevertheless been changed by the ever new appearance of these teachers of the purpose of existence: It now has one additional need–the need for the ever new appearance of such teachers and teachings of a “purpose.”

Gradually, man has become a fantastic animal that has to fulfill one more condition of existence than any other animal: man has to believe, to know, from time to time why he exists; his race cannot flourish without a periodic trust in life–without faith in reason in life.

<<Die fröhliche Wissenschaft>> (“The Gay Science”), Walter Kaufmann translation, 1974.

The project of this column, over the years, has been to investigate the “meanings of music.” We must pause every now and then to consider what we even mean by that–to put it differently, we must ask why we ask why. Can’t music just be what it is? Art for arts sake and all that?

Well, yes, of course. Consider this gem from Leonard Bernstein:

Music is never about anything. Music just is.

We’ve all been asking this question about music since we first called it music. The great composers all wrestled with it one way or another, and the Soli Deo gloria of J.S. Bach (and plenty of others) can be considered a very definite solution to the problem.


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Consider the way we’ve always bounced around between overtly religious or social music–from Bach’s Magnificat to Joel Thompson’s The Seven Last Words of the Unarmed–to purely functional music of the String Quartet No. 14 in C# minor, Op. 131 variety. The important point here: neither category is more or less “meaningful” than the other. It’s largely a matter of focus, of framing, of the contexts in which composers and performers and audiences and communities “live and move and have our being.”

The great outdoors

Thus we come to two events happening in Oregon this weekend. The first: the Third Angle New Music Fresh Air Fest at Wapato Island Farm on Sauvie Island just north and west of Northwest Portland. The second: Flutes in the Garden, a benefit concert for Leach Botanical Garden and Columbia Riverkeeper, hosted at the former, featuring the music of local composer Deena T. Grossman.

Let’s start with FAF. We won’t bother grumbling about yet another hot shit Brooklyn-based electronic indie band coming and taking up space at an Oregon concert (oops, we just did). We’ll simply note that FAF’s headliner Balún is–we mean this quite sincerely–totally badass and very likely to put on a terrific show. It’s just that we can’t help wishing 3A had chosen an Oregon band–say, Y La Bamba (performing July 21 at Fairwell Festival in Redmond) or Orquestra Pacifico Tropical (headlining Shady Pines Festival at Red Pines Ranch in Oregon City on July 13).

The 3A String Quartet will perform a mix of music by Indigenous composers (Mexican, Cuban, Peruvian, Chickasaw, Navajo), and it’s a fine mix of musical voices: Mario Galeando Toro, Gabriela Lena Frank, Gabriela Ortiz, Raven Chacon, and Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate. According to 3A, this Roots & Strings program “pays tribute to the sacred land, and to Wapato Island Farm’s Latinx roots.”

“Wapato” is, of course, both the original name of Sauvie Island–once home to fifteenish villages of the Multnomah band of the Chinook Tribe–and a kind of potato once common all over this part of the world. Here’s what the folks who currently run the Farm have to say about the place:

We recognize that this land we call our home was also sacred land that the Multnomah Tribe lived upon before colonization. We honor the importance of acknowledging sacred tribal homelands and are grateful that we have been able to care for the land for so many years. Wapato Island Farm has been in our family for over a decade, and our family has grown and changed with the land over the years — learning from it and becoming wiser with it.


All Classical Radio James Depreist

FAF happens 4-8 pm this Saturday, July 8. Tickets and info available here.

You may have already read about Deena T. Grossman here at ArtsWatch last year, in James Bash’s review of her album Wildfires and Waterways and accompanying release concert (read that here). Here’s what Mr. Bash had to say at the time:

The imagery of fire and water takes center stage in Wildfires and Waterways, a new recording of music by Portland-based composer Deena T. Grossman. Released this year on the Moonbridge label, the album received a celebratory party on May 25th at The Old Church as part of a benefit concert for Columbia Riverkeeper, a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting and restoring the water quality of the Columbia River. Grossman’s environmental music poignantly expresses the mission and values of Columbia Riverkeeper, where she is composer-in-residence.

One of the cool things about the experience of listening to this music was the fact that a non-profit that is not a music organization has a composer-in-residence. Would it be possible for similar non-profits to create such a position? Imagine if Amnesty International, the World Wildlife Fund, or Doctors Without Borders had a composer-in-residence. It would be great if that became a trend.

You can listen to (and purchase) the album on Bandcamp right here:

And at this weekend’s benefit concert you can hear the premiere of Grossman’s two new flute sextets, performed by a group of local flutists that includes John C. Savage (a frequent PJCE collaborator), Amelia Lukas (one of FearNoMusic’s most potent secret weapons and a new music impresario in her own right), PSU professor Antares Boyle, UO professor Elaine Martir, Gabriela Gimenes, and Natalie Van Slyke.

From the press release:


All Classical Radio James Depreist

With musical soundscapes directly inspired by the plants, trees, and spaces of this special place, Flutes in the Garden is a perfect example of what Grossman does best: she celebrates a universal interconnectedness and the importance of environmental stewardship by mirroring the rhythms, patterns, and fluidity of nature through music in true Oregonian style. Proceeds from this concert equally benefit both the garden and Columbia Riverkeeper where Grossman is composer in residence.

Also on the program: Grossman’s snowy egret, january messenger (performed, by Lukas on bass flute, at that album release concert). After the Grossman segment, stay for drinks, conversation, and Portland’s Brazilian music group Choro da Alegria (featuring Gimenes on flute).

Flutes in the Garden happens 7-9 pm this Sunday, July 9, at Leach Botanical Garden in Southeast Portland. Tickets and info available here.

What do either of these concerts have to do with “meaning,” then? Only this: a sacred sense of place, and the ways music–and musicians–can find and support the meanings inherent in that sacred sense of place. It is through the act of naming, honoring, and protecting these sacred places that they remain sacred. To take music out of its more customary settings–concert halls, bars, churches–into outdoor spaces is to transfer its power to those spaces.

The great indoors

You’ll never hear Portland crunchsters Gaytheist outdoors, though–and you probably wouldn’t want to. No, these three lunatics belong inside, safely locked away in the back room of some bar or nightclub or in the basement of a house show or in some weird little venue down by the east bank of the Willamette River.

Yes, we’re talking about Lollipop Shoppe, where our second favorite Gonzo PDX band will be playing this Sunday, July 9, with Seattle trio Tacos! (a Nadine Records artist, but we’ll get back to Nadine next month for Bandcamp Friday). You can take a little lick of both bands right here:


Oregon Cultural Trust

Another band that commands you to be comfortably seated in a secure location: the “meditative doom metal” group Breath. This formerly-drum-and-bass-duo recently added a keyboardist, but that’s not likely to diminish the minimalist, psychedelic, space-operatic obliterating power of their music.

The new trio configuration is playing twice in Oregon this month: on the 11th at The Midnight PDX and on the 15th at Eugene’s fabulous WOW Hall. You can get some idea of what their music is like on their album Primeval Transmissions–but it’s really the sort of music that you have to just sit on the floor for, in person, letting the stately Om of thunderous drums and bass and keys and vocals shudder through your body.

Free to good home

By now you’re surely all aware that Chamber Music Northwest is well underway. This freight train won’t stop until August, when the last of the At-Home concerts come streaming into your living room. You can get a good overview in James Bash’s preview right here, but we’d like to call out a few specific concert programs that stand out this month.

First up is the composer collective that calls itself “umama womama”–aka flutist Valerie Coleman, violist Nokuthula Ngwenyama, and harpist Han Lash. You’ve heard from all three before, both at CMNW and elsewhere. Coleman is the founder and former flutist of Imani Winds, who (among other things) crushed an improbably terrific Rite of Spring at Portland Art Museum a few years back. Ngwenyama’s Primal Message rocked CMNW 2018, and her music has continued to be featured on subsequent fests. Lash was another of the bevy composers at The Great CMNW Fest of 2017 (read about their Form and Postlude here).

The trio will perform their Three Pieces for Flute, Viola & Harp, consisting of Ngwenyama’s Down, Lash’s Music in Cold, and Coleman’s Aja. They’ll also perform R. Murray Schafer’s uncharacteristically melodic Trio for Flute, Viola & Harp (modeled after Debussy’s, which really ought to have also been on this program). Bartók’s buddy Zoltán Kodály is on the bill too (Alexi Kinney, Jessica Lee, and Hanna Lee will perform his Serenade for Two Violins & Viola), and Zitong Wang will perform Rachmaninoff’s bell-haunted Piano Sonata No. 2 in B-Flat Minor.

Next up: the Kenari Saxophone Quartet, one of CMNW’s many Protégé Project alums. They’re playing a few different times at this year’s festival, notably on July 16 & 17, when they’ll be part of the ensemble performing compser David Ludwig and Oregon poet Katie Ford’s The Anchoress (starring soprano Hyunah Lu). On the same program, Kenari will perform Mischa Zupko’s Quantum Shift for sax quartet.


Oregon Cultural Trust

You can learn more about The Anchoress at two free events: July 15’s Poetry in Music conversation with Ludwig, Ford, and Portland poet Alicia Jo Rabins (read about Rabins’ work with Jessica Meyer, In Mulieribus, and PYP right here); and July 16’s composition masterclass with Ludwig and students from FearNoMusic’s Young Composers Project. We don’t know for sure that Ludwig will be discussing The Anchoress at either of these events–but, knowing composers, we feel confident in making an educated guess.

Kenari will also present two free events. The first is an outdoor community concert on July 14 in the instantly-infamous SoundsTruck, which will be parked at North Clackamas Park in Milwaukie. Second is Kenari’s own masterclass, July 17 at PSU.

You’ll be hearing plenty more about CMNW soon enough. We’ll leave you, for now, with one more free event: the Young Artist Institute Final Ensemble Showcase. That’s on Friday, July 7 (tomorrow, if you’re reading this on Thursday, July 6) at University of Portland’s Pilot House. This is the culmination of this year’s YAI program, which selects string players from around the world and brings them to the fest to attend masterclasses with CMNW musicians and perform on CMNW concerts–an enormous opportunity that forms a continuum with CMNW’s Protégé Project (read about Zlatomir Fung and last year’s YAI right here).

At this showcase, the sixteen YAI players will partner up in quartets, working with FNM’s YCP and poets from the Literary Arts Youth Program. We might have wished for some involvement with local string educators–say, PYP or MYS or Bravo–but we can hardly complain when local composers and poets are involved. “Progress, not perfection,” as the AA folks say.

And so we close with a return to our original theme: the meanings of music come from the land, and from the youth, and from those who support them.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

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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


One Response

  1. Wrote Wendell Berry: “There are no unsacred places, only sacred places and desecrated places.”

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