Chamber Music Northwest Lincoln Recital Hall Portland State University Portland Oregon

MusicWatch Monthly: October Surprises

Classical mainstays move into their seasons, a choir dissents, new music sounds out, electronica and rock get experimental, plus jazz and post-punk.

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THE LOCAL NON-MUSICAL NEWS is about what you would expect for this time of year: football and basketball are back, the mayor and city council are still ineffectual, and people who don’t live here are finding new ways to decry “wokeness” as the scourge facing our society today–as opposed to climate change, racism or wealth inequality I guess? There are elections coming up, including the race for the governorship, but I’m sure this is the last place you want to hear more about all that–there’ll be plenty to hear about in the coming weeks. And there might be some precious time to get out and stockpile vitamin D before it’s time to break out the supplements and light-therapy lamps. 

On the musical terrain, this is the return of classical ensembles’ standard concert seasons. The musicians, conductors, and staff are back from their summer touring and beachfront sabbaticals, hopefully ready to take on a busy nine months of performances, which is what we are here for. There will be plenty this October, even after we got the unfortunate news that the first FearNoMusic show with Isabel Hagen was canceled–an early first surprise of the month, albeit a minor one.

Tonight (!), Thursday, Sept. 29, is the opening of the Chamber Music Northwest concert season, featuring Adam LaMotte’s Amadeus Chamber Orchestra and violinist Anna Lee performing Bach and Alistair Coleman: It’s not technically an October concert, but close enough (read James Bash’s interview with LaMotte here). CMNW’s next show–in October Proper this time–also will be at the Reser a mere two weeks later, on the 11th, with the Sphinx Virtuosi Orchestra, a self-directed chamber ensemble of eighteen Black and Latinx musicians that does extensive outreach and touring. The ensemble will perform music from the vast corpus of Black and Latinx composers including Valerie Coleman, Jessie Montgomery and Heitor Villa-Lobos. The big draw will be the new pieces by Coleman and Montgomery, Tracing Visions and Divided respectively, both of which will have their New York premieres at Carnegie Hall a few days later. Isn’t it nice to be ahead of New York for once? And if you are unable to catch the Sphinx Virtuosi in Portland, they have two prior shows in Ashland on the 7th and Eugene on the 9th

This Saturday, Oct. 1, is the return of the Resonance choral ensemble with its show WE DISS=NT, a scathing and passionate rebuke of the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade–a fitting opener for their season, “Justice For All?” For Saturday’s concert they are reviving their 2019 commission LISTEN, by Melissa Dunphy (read Matthew Andrews’ review of the premiere here), originally composed for the confirmation of adolescent frat-boy and noted beer-enjoyer Brett Kavanaugh. This, sharing a program with Suzanne Vega (writer of one of the catchiest songs ever written), will surely make for a harrowing yet entertaining show.

Next Thursday, Oct. 6, brings “Radio Happening,” a unique collaboration between the Gemini Project percussion ensemble and All Classical Radio, courtesy of 45th Parallel. This melding graces a performance of John Cage’s City Wears A Slouch Hat, which is an event in itself: It’s one of Cage’s overly ambitious early pieces that was considered a failure because the technology at CBS (which commissioned the piece) wasn’t up to the task yet, and the musical establishment hadn’t yet caught up to his precocity. Thanks to groups like the University of Washington percussion ensemble (and now 45th Parallel), the piece, which had been forgotten after its 1942 CBS Radio recording, has returned in its strangeness and majesty. 

For its Oct. 19 season opener, The Big Reveal, Third Angle New Music returns to the beloved Kendall Planetarium at OMSI–one of the coolest impromptu musical venues the chamber ensembles have explored recently. The program is a hip assortment of contemporary composers performed by brilliant clarinetist James Shields along with a 3A string quartet of Emily Cole, Megumi Stohs Lewis, Wendy Richman, and Valdine Ritchie Mishkin. The roster includes some familiar names, including Adolphus Hailstork (whose work FearNoMusic performed last season) and Gabriel Kahane (the Oregon Symphony’s Creative Chair). Alongside them will be 2014 Pulitzer Prize finalist Christopher Cerrone‘s new piece Nervous Systems–a co-commission of Third Angle with Kaleidoscope Chamber Orchestra, Omega Ensemble and Chatter ABQ–as well as Chickasaw composer Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate’s Pisachi for string quartet. 

To end the month, Portland Baroque Orchestra opens its season Oct. 29 and 30 with a throwback to the early eighteenth century, when the hottest talents in music left their homes in Tuscany, Venice, or Prussia for the Emerald Isles. This season will serve as the orchestra’s search for a new artistic director after the departure of longtime director Monica Huggett. Three candidates for the position will present programs showing what they might do with PBO.

The first of these is harpsichordist Peter Whelan, who is a big name in historical performance in Ireland and Scotland, performing works by Vivaldi, Handel and Geminiani. The first show is the night of Saturday Oct. 29, at First Baptist, and the next day brings a matinee at Kaul Auditorium. Be sure to come early as well to hear Whelan speak about the premiere of a little piece called Messiah, with Suzanne Nance, president and CEO of AllClassical. 

Let’s get experimental

This Friday, Sept. 30, one of the big living names of experimental electronic music, William Basinski, will play at Holocene. He’s most well-known for the acclaimed Disintegration Loops, long tape loops that slowly decay over time into ambience and noise. Basinski is a controversial figure, with some, such as former Pitchfork writer Chris Ott, considering him a hack who used online music press and the tragedy of 9/11 to promote his mediocre music. I’m sympathetic toward this view, since I also despise artistic self-importance, though Basinski has certainly proved himself a talented composer since then

Regardless of what you think of him, this show isn’t just about Basinski: Two of our own great local experimental acts will also be at the show. First is local act Methods Body, who use custom tuning systems, pitched-down samples and polyrhythms to build their unorthodox sound (read about the making of their debut album here). The other is Astoria-based ambient singer-songwriter Grouper, who will be doing a DJ set under the Garbage Man persona. Incidentally, if you haven’t heard her latest album Shade yet, put that at the top of your list. 

Another concert we are quite excited for is by local experimental rock band The Mercury Tree, performing at Dante’s on the 13th. The Mercury Tree musicians are on a vanguard of sorts into xenharmonic music: They perform on specially-built instruments that have seventeen notes per octave (as opposed to the 12 notes per octave used by 99.9 percent of music you’ve ever heard). Some prefer the term “xenharmonic” to “microtonal,” since it’s a more culturally neutral term–the latter begs the question, “micro to what?”

Like some of the best xenharmonic music (Harry Partch and King Gizzard being two well-known examples), Mercury Tree’s music strikes a balance between the familiar and the uncanny, exploring new harmonies and dissonances within a familiar framework of mathy prog rock. If you’re interested in the theory behind it and aren’t allergic to algebra and logarithms, check out the xenharmonic wiki for a primer on music beyond twelve notes. 

On the 15th, the ExTradition Series returns to its usual haunt, the Leaven Community center, for its fall concert. This show’s emphasis is on voice, percussion, and electronics–a meeting between some of the oldest instruments we have and some of the newest. The show ends with Wave Songs by Alvin Lucier, one of the forebears of this strain of American experimentalism. This is just a bit of a teaser before Extradition put on its biggest event yet, a month-long celebration of Fluxus founder Philip Corner, who is still alive and composing in Italy. Keep your ears out for more details on that in future Artswatch Monthlies.

Autumn leaves

In the world of jazz we have quite a few great shows happening this month–especially appropriate for the season. For local artists we have neo-soul/experimental jazz duo Brown Calculus pairing up with the Portland Jazz Composers Orchestra on the 13th at the Polaris Hall. As for big-name touring artists, I wouldn’t miss The Bad Plus, who play in their latest quartet incarnation at the Reser on the 20th–It’s hard to pass up seeing the incredible Dave King on drums.

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Cascadia Composers Music Concert Portland State University Lincoln Hall Portland Oregon

Two great local bands, Sea Moss and Yuvees, open for British post-punk band Snapped Ankles on the 4th at Polaris Hall. Sea Moss is one of the hardest-rocking bands I’ve heard that has no guitarist, with the joyous noise coming instead from vocalist Noa Ver and drummer Zach D’Agostino’s DIY electronics. Yuvees, meanwhile, are an art punk/new wave quintet who just played at the Lose Yr Mind fest. I would recommend you go see that–as long as you weren’t also planning to see Tortoise that same night at Revolution Hall. 

Charles Rose is a composer, writer and sound engineer born and raised in Portland, Oregon. He graduated from Portland State University with a degree in Sonic Arts and Music Production in 2019. His piano trio Contradanza was the 2018 winner of the Chamber Music Northwest’s Young Composers Competition. He releases music on BandCamp under various aliases. In addition to composing, he is a sound engineer for chamber music group FearNoMusic and is an editor of the Portland State music journal Subito. You can find his writing at Continuousvariations.com.

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