MusicWatch Monthly: Sour grapes

Eschew the news and venues’ booze

I know. There are more important things to talk about and think about right now. Hopefully you’re staying informed about What’s Going On during this Important Historical Moment, both in terms of the bigger picture and the ground-level perspective of the myriad local journalists documenting the last two months of Black Lives Matter protests here and around the world.

We could never make an exhaustive list of people who can speak for what’s happening here in Portland, but a good place to start listening might include: former and current mayoral candidates Teressa Raiford, Sarah Iannarone, and Jessie Sponberg; Alex Zielinski and Sergio Olmos, just two of the many livestreamers who’ve been on the ground since the beginning; The Only Robert Evans, who’s been belling feral cats for years; and the few local politicians worth a damn, a short list that can’t exclude Wyden and Blumenauer and Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty.

Okay, good, you’re staying informed. But you need a break from staying informed, right? We therefore offer this humble distraction. 

Putting the you back in venue

Let’s talk about the part of the music industry most directly impacted by The Troubles: the shuttered venues where we no longer gather and share musical ecstasy. But let’s be honest: sure, this live music pause is a pain in the ass, but when was the last time you sat around in your pajamas ripping bong hits while listening to Your Oregon Symphony? Or ate a big messy plate of homemade nachos at the opera? When was the last time you could watch your favorite local bands without having to stand around the back of some dingy bar with a bunch of strangers?

The whole thing highlights a relatively minor problem, one which would hardly be worth complaining about if we hadn’t just promised to distract you from the major ones. We’re talking here about music’s drinking problem.

It cuts across all genres, and it’s excruciatingly visible to those of us who don’t drink alcohol. Classical, jazz, rock, punk, metal, and so on–they all depend on performance spaces that either make ample serving room for booze or are inherently built around selling it. Go to the rattiest local rawk pub you can find (the World Famous Kenton Club in North Portland will do), and then go to the ritziest theater on Southwest Broadway (let’s say it’s the Schnitz).

You’ll hear very different musicks in these places–and, more importantly, you’ll be in very different musical social classes–but you can have a glass of wine at either one. Meanwhile, out on these two venues’ respective smoking patios, good luck smoking more than half a joint before getting hassled.

The stereotypical “drinking band with a rock and roll problem” is by far the more notorious end of this issue, but we see it all over the classical and jazz worlds too. Hell, you can attend entire festivals forged around wine and wine country (read Angela Allen’s ArtsWatch preview of this year’s Willamette Valley Chamber Music Festival right here). As for those ratty bars where all the best local composers used to perform–yeah, most of those places routinely paid the musicians in paper raffle tickets that could be exchanged for (you guessed it) more booze.

Please don’t misunderstand, dear reader: we’re not whining about sour grapes. Even the most puritanical stoner doesn’t want to get on Bacchus’ bad side, and we would never begrudge any audient a single drop of their preferred mind-alternators.

No, it’s just that we want to join in the fun.

A socially distant silver age

Behind all this silliness is a more serious point. One of the areas where What’s Going On touches the musical world is this question of access and responsiveness to the audience’s needs. It’s the little things, like prohibiting clapping between movements (so as not to disturb delicately long attention spans), cologne (for the sake of sensitive sinuses), and cell phones (for the love of God).

It’s also socially important things like subsidized tickets and family-friendly concerts, and it’s artistically important things like diverse creative representation, education, and audience outreach. And it’s the Really Big Things, like defending the city you live in and fighting for your audience’s human rights.

Where does that leave us? When the venues open up, they’ll be serving alcohol with a vengeance–especially if capacity remains restricted. Every other decent drug remains federally prohibited, and that doesn’t seem likely to change long enough to make Amsterdam-style cannabis lounges a viable option (Flight Lounge notwithstanding). So the stoners will probably just continue to stay home. Sober venues? Don’t make me laugh. Put those next to the all-ages clubs and the empty churches.

Rent isn’t going down any time soon, which means access to quality performance spaces will still be filtered by social class. We might have been entering a golden age of very small house shows (if anyone could afford a house), but a silver age of livestreamed, socially distant basement concerts still has the potential to dawn right about now. Call it the Banana Stand Model.

Moves like that could even come to define Oregon’s robust musical underground, one of the most visually vigorous music scenes in the country. What else are you doing right now, you lazy damn musicians? At least take a TikTok tutorial and make your quarantine recitals look as good as Tomoki the Violinist’s.

Into the light

There’s one big local venue we haven’t discussed yet, and it’s a tricky one because we don’t want to disappear into some beige minivan. See, every night for the last two months there’s been a huuuuuuge audience gathered downtown, all masked up and ready for someone to come play live music for them. What happens if the [redacted] quartet goes down to the Justice Center and starts playing Florence Beatrice Price? What happens if [redacted] gathers up all the local choirs and starts leading Pauline Oliveros Sonic Meditations on the Burnside Bridge? What happens if everyone who performs with [redacted] gathers outside Revolution Hall to perform In C?

The local hip-hop community is, unsurprisingly, already well on board. So is Onry, a local opera singer who’s been documenting his experiences singing for the protests (read his recent ArtsWatch piece here).

Masked weirdos Kulululu might as well be there too, for all you know, and since you are also Kulululu that means you’re Late to the Show! But we certainly won’t blame anybody for staying home. When the rib joint gets pepper sprayed, you know things have gotten real.

Fortunately, it turns out that Gil Scott-Heron was only technically correct about the revolution not being televised: you can still livestream it whenever you get tired of free opera.

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.

Want to read more music news in Oregon? Support Oregon ArtsWatch

One Response.

  1. Jeff Winslow says:

    To follow Matt’s lead and focus on peripheral details, interesting to see applause between movements mentioned, but not in the way I expected. After almost two generations of clamoring (so to speak) in some quarters for a return to a the more relaxed atmosphere of the 19th century, where people feel free to erupt in applause at the end (heck, the Viennese did it in the middle, the very first time Beethoven’s 9th symphony was performed in public) of an exciting section of a work, has a new generation come up who wants a return to the quasi-religious silence of the mid-20th century? Matt’s great-grandfather would be proud. 🙂

    I agree stoners should have equal access to smoking porches, but along with the teetotalers, you’ll just have to accept that western civilization depends on alcohol. It’ll save lots of wasted words. 🙂

    In much recent online listening, I discovered even the audience of the august Berlin Philharmonic once applauded after the opening movement of a Mahler symphony. It feels so strange to sit on your hands after a sustained climax lovingly created by roughly a hundred committed and inspired musicians finally goes BOOM. Think, not weed, but champagne.

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