MusicWatch Monthly: October surprises

The invisible becomes visible

Normally we’d be writing a snazzy “trick-or-treat” column like this one from last year, but Halloween is basically ruined for 2020, right? It’s not just the practicalities of it all, the problems of going to parties and/or collecting candy from your neighbors while mysterious diseases and domestic terrorists ravage the land. That’s all bad enough, but a morbid holiday that’s themed around death and monsters and masks and pranks and fakery seems like exactly what we really, truly don’t need right now.

On the other hand, we’re all still watching Lovecraft Country, right? There’s something therapeutic, literally cathartic about art that wrangles with the shadow and the uncanny–perhaps especially during times when the uncanny shadow is so palpably near. It’s that uncanniness we want to talk about this month, because the Oregonian music we want to share with you today all falls less in the “Halloween” camp and more in the generally spooky vibe of what this time of year has always represented, the reason Samhain and Día de Muertos fall in the same part of the calendar.

It’s the gloaming, the weirding, the lifting of the veil–the moment when the old year truly begins to decline and we begin to turn inward and hunker down for Whatever Comes Next. It’s our annual trip through the gates of Chapel Perilous, and although this year is considerably weirder and more perilous than most of us are used to, we still have just enough sparks of hope to keep those candles lit against the night.

Doppelgängers

Our first “concert” happens in the past, but that doesn’t really matter these days, and this one’s definitely too ridiculous to simply let it pass without comment. It’s those 45th Parallel Universe people again. This time they’ve cloned themselves: despite having roughly 15% of the Oregon Symphony players at their disposal, the U’s intrepid Pyxis Quartet decided to handle Steve Reich’s Triple Quartet all on their own. Hop in the time machine and see for yourself:

If we had a real time machine, we’d take you back to when they did this in a railroad museum squeezed between rows of giant trains. But you missed it, dear reader! Shoulda been there!

Meanwhile, in the near “future,” two nicely complementary concerts compete for your attention this Saturday. Behind door number one, we find Soovin Kim performing an ancient summoning ritual. Behind door number two, a roomful of women–Portland vocal ensemble In Mulieribus–invoking eternity.

Violinist Kim, in one of his first official acts as Chamber Music Northwest co-AD, has summoned an Elder God: Johann Sebastian Bach, who by now is as much a Classical Elemental as his name (“Beach”) suggests. Before departing his original flesh in 1750, leaving behind a dozen-odd copies to carry his work into the future, the godling composer disguised one of his more potent horcrux rituals as a set of “musical compositions” stamped with the cryptic sigil “BWV 1001-1006.”

To execute Bach’s eldritch instructions effectively demands a skillful mage willing to work with intense concentration and purity of heart, and you can decide for yourself whether Kim’s magical Working manages to Summon the Dead. CMNW is trying out the whole “charging people for concerts” thing (we wish them luck), but the first one is free until Saturday.

We’ve already enthused about Oregon composer Andrea Reinkemeyer’s setting of Henrietta Cordelia Ray, Cycles of Eternity–the song cycle that gives IM’s upcoming concert its title–and you can read about that here and here. But you may still be wondering why you should tune into an online “concert” when you can listen to the mastered-for-home-audio album anytime you like. But, see, this isn’t exactly a concert or even a “concert”–no, it’s a New Thing, one of the New Things that we don’t quite have a name for yet.

We’re overstating a bit, of course, because the music-and-visuals thing is hardly New in itself. But it’s finally arriving in its starring role as The Way We Do Music Now–because internet, because quarantine, because Gen X-ers and Millennials and all the other Digital Natives, because for whatever confluence of reasons it’s inevitable that music will continue getting more polysensory in the immediate future. That should last us until the equally inevitable backlash, when it becomes fashionable again to just close your eyes and listen.

All of this visualizing is inherently a good thing, at least if we take seriously the near-century of classical music lovers who’ve been Turned On by Fantasia. We’ll eventually get a new Art Form out of all this, something as revolutionary in its way as opera and cinema were. But it’s going to take awhile to get there, and it’s one of those things that sounds simple but isn’t.

All we know right now is that it starts with stuff like this, a local choir singing the music of a living local composer while showing you the work of a local printmaker. Until we all ascend to the cloud and “local” is just an IP address, this is as good as it gets. You can watch Visions of Eternity for free right here this Saturday.

Beyond the veil

It’s impossible to think of our generation’s musical heroes without thinking of Death. It’s not just the notorious Kurt Cobain, whose bizarre death crumpled Gen X like a nasty aftershock of the Challenger Explosion. For most Oregonians (including this Californian Exile), the Keatsy archetype who’s really stayed with us all these years is Elliott Smith.

If you’re not familiar with his stuff yet, get on it! You have homework, O Recent Transplant who knows Nothing of History! Put on your headphones and go for a long walk in the woods with Figure 8 and Either/Or and the posthumous From a Basement on the Hill. You’re lucky, sort of: that’s pretty much all there is. No disappointing comeback albums, no questionable “country” phase, no desperate collaborations with younger and hipper producers. Just six(ish) solid goddamn albums of perfectly twisted pop music and that’s it. A knife to the heart and Elliott slipped into eternity.

Okay, now that you’re all caught up you can truly appreciate this new album from Third Angle New Music. It’s a classical reimagining of Smith’s tunes from–whoooaaa there dear reader, hold on a minute, we’re not talking about some shopping mall mantovani malarky. Not. At. All. We heard 3A’s take on Smith at Alberta Rose Theatre back when they still had concerts, and we’re happy to report that the six composers who banged this thing together took the opportunity to go Full Weird Classical.

In other words, they did something New. Check it out right here.

And Third Angle’s “concert” season starts next week, on the 29th, with an all John Luther Adams livestream from the domed synagogue of Portland’s Congregation Beth Israel. Violinist Tomás Cotik leads a quartet through JLA’s elemental music, including a premiere of the 3A-commissioned Noctilucent.

Of all the contemporary classical composers Third Angle could have chosen to start what could end up being an all-online season, dependable JLA is the most natural possible choice. That may seem contrary, since his five-dimensional soundscapey creations seem so utterly dependent on immersing a live audience in a shared acoustic space with the performers. If you don’t have decent speakers or headphones at home, you’re going to miss most of the real action.

That would matter if we were going to be all puritanical about it. But this is a man who remixed a bunch of his old tape experiments and released them (you can read the story of those “electro-acoustic soundscapes,” which give the concert its title, right here). For a classical composer, this guy seems extremely content to let everything simply be its own thing–and we also like being able to turn his music down (or up) when those twenty-minute crescendos get overwhelming.

We also can’t think of a contemporary classical composer who’s better suited to being savored at home, lounging in your pyjamas (how JLA got into your pyjamas I’ll never know), with all the lights turned out and a pot of [redacted] tea simmering patiently on the stove.

Visible

If you want the exact opposite of that, put on your dancing slippers and let the Portland Gay Men’s Chorus put a spell on you. Their Halloweeny showcase shindig on the 30th is part singing and part storytelling, and that’s the part that sounds especially fun. You’ve heard of Mortified, where folks tell their most embarrassing stories? The PGMC folks are taking off their oh-so-pro masks and telling tales about “singing gone wrong,” and that sounds just right for a concert you’ll be watching on your phone. The new Artistic Director, John Atorino–replacing Bob Mensel after an epic 26-year run–leads the choir and a flurry of guest artists, including host Syzygy, Brooklyn Drag King of the Year Vigor Mortis, Dragula winner Biqtch Puddin, and Portland’s own Bolivia Carmichaels.

Opera Theater Oregon’s fall concert Invisibile: A Virtual Songspiel–broadcast from Polaris Hall on Halloween itself–has a bit of Schubert and a few songs of Amy Beach and Stephen Foster, but this one’s all about the headliners. OTO commissioned a new work from local singer-composer Damien Geter, Invisible, based on the prologue of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man; another local singer-composer, Onry, is performing it. The concert’s unsurprisingly rich roster also includes Jocelyn Claire Thomas, Camille Sherman, Adrian Rosales-Cassilas, Lisa Lipton, Logan Thane Brown, Sequoia, and George Colligan.

We never miss a chance to quote OTO’s ever-eloquent director-composer Justin Ralls, so we leave you with this image:

Imagine if Franz Schubert, Stephen Foster, Amy Beach, Damien Geter and Onry all found themselves in Havisham’s parlor from Great Expectations, presenting their music in a Twilight Zone-esque salon of music, poetry, and a dreamlike reflection of past, present, and future on what will surely be the most surreal Hallows’ Eve in recent memory. We hope to give an intimate, cathartic experience–interrogating nostalgia and promoting innovation–and asserting that music has a place in times of upheaval.

Want to support Black lives in Oregon? You can sign Resonance Ensemble’s open letter to the mayor and governor right here, and you can start learning more about racial injustice and police reform with Campaign Zero‘s #8cantwait campaign and the original Black Lives Matter.

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