MusicWatch Weekly: A wider net

In which we stumble upon a Hall of Fame inductee, learn about joiking and konnakol, and hear from the audients

There’s so much going on this month that I’m going to refer you to our monthly column, cast a wider net, and focus on telling you about different concerts, music that flies under the radar or comes up at the last minute. But you still deserve to hear about more than just what I can tell you about. The delicate imbalance of mental variance my Muse demands of me requires a certain amount of rest and risotto, and if I went out and did all the things you hear about here I’d soon be reduced to a burbling mess of incoherence.

So I’ve been sending my team of loyal brigands around town, collecting intelligence for me and turning in hot takes like Odin’s snoopy ravens. Call em the Rose City Irregulars. In a moment, you’ll hear about symphonic Batman, choral Oliveros, and Third Angle. But first, a digression.

A random evening out

Do you ever go out on a limb and decide last minute to mosey down to the nearest pub that still books live shows, order yourself a beer (or, in my case, coffee), and sit for a spell with a band you’ve never heard of? That’s what your chilly music editor is doing right now, dear reader. After finishing an intense interview at the Heathman Hotel with part-time Portland composer Andy Akiho and international superstar percussionist Colin Currie–which you can read Friday morning, after I’ve edited out the ums and the references to [redacted]–I hopped off the bus early and checked into the punnily-named Laurelthirst Public House on NE Glisan to write this here column and listen to the soothing sounds of the Little Sue Trio.

Little Sue herself is soundchecking her guitar, preparing for the last of her regular Wednesday shows here (word is she’s moving to Mondays with her full band). Paul Brainard is rubbing fresh-cut onions over his lap steel guitar, getting it all weepy. David Lipkind is nowhere to be seen, but that doesn’t stop Little Sue from joking about “the trio.” At one point Brainard whips out a sad pocket trumpet, sweet and mournful in the dark, moody pub. Little Sue calls it “the smallest trumpet in the world.”

The music is not at all the sort of thing I’d normally go out and listen to on a school night, but it’s lovely pub music, a slice of serendipity for a cold Wednesday in Northeast Portland. Little Sue has a gorgeous, twangy voice and a gentle, folksy touch on her acoustic six-string, and Brainard’s steel skills alone are worth braving the cold for–sweet chords, subtly slidey melodies, a couple of nice big Looney Tunes swoops. They close with an exquisite rendition of the Santo & Johnny Farina classic “Sleepwalk,” a dreamy bit of Americana that gets the crowd happily swaying on the dance floor.

Outside, between sets, a couple of regulars tell me all about Little Sue getting inducted into the Oregon Music Hall of Fame this weekend at the Aladdin, and about the Underground Country that happens here several times a week. It’s exactly the sort of popular music you tend to overlook when you spend most of your time across the river at the bougie Schnitz and high-falutin’ Old Church. Get out of the apartment, dear reader. Open yourself to serendipity. Maybe I’ll see you at Laurelthirst next Monday.

North and South

Tonight, the 10th, Norwegian Sámi singer Mari Boine performs at The Old Church. Norwegian folk music in the modern age is an exciting world unto itself–have a listen to Annbjørg Lien, Gåte, and Karl Seglem–and recently got some extra global wind in its sails when a version of Sámi composer Frode Fjellheim’s Eatnemen Vuelie was used in the title sequence of Disney’s Frozen.

Since the ‘80s, Boine has been combining traditional joik (pronounce that with a Nordic ‘y’ on the ‘j’) with spacey ECM-style jazz (pronounce that ‘j’ in the U.S. manner), and this is your chance to hear her do her thing at Southwest Portland’s Old Church. Joik is (to be unfairly brief) a highly idiosyncratic form of chanting, and you really have to hear it to believe it. Thank gods, Media is here to help:

Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, the Indian subcontinent continues cranking out the craziest and most profound music ever made. When you think of “Indian classical music” you’re probably thinking of Hindustani music–the classical music of North India. Most of the musicians who have achieved fame outside India come from this tradition: Ravi Shankar, Ali Akbar Khan, Zakir Hussain, Hariprasad Chaurasia and Pandit Pran Nath are all Hindustani musicians. But down south there’s a whole different realm of raga-based music, the Carnatic tradition, and it’s just as crazy and profound as their neighbors’ music.

Any attempt at comparing these is doomed to futility, but to my ear it’s a little like the difference between Chicago blues and Southern rock. It’s all highly sophisticated and technical music based on ancient traditions–hence the “classical”–but the way they handle their displays of melodic and rhythmic virtuosity is wildly different. The instruments are different, but clearly related. They have different names for the same ragas and talas, and different ways of handling them.

On Saturday the 12th, Oregon-based Indian arts organization Kalakendra brings the Carnatic instrumental ensemble Vaadhya Tarangam to First Baptist in Southwest Portland, one of the handful of local Christian churches more than happy to open their doors to religious music besides J.S. Bach and Rich Mullins. The Vaadhya Tarangam ensemble features Shantala Subramanyam on the venu, a transverse bamboo flute similar to the bansuri you may have seen in Chaurasia’s hands. She’s joined by Vishaal Sapuram on chitravina, an ancestor of the lute and a variety of the veena you may have seen in one of Saraswati’s four hands. Anirudha Bhat plays the mridangam, a double-headed drum which legend says got broken into the two drums of the Northern tabla, and will also show off his skills at the unbelievably complex beat-boxing style known as konnakol in the south and bol in the  north. Payyanur Govida Prasad holds down the drone with his morsing, a twangy metal jaw-harp.

The Irregulars speak

I wanted so badly to hear Third Angle New Music performing Crumb and Kouyoumdjian last month, but a Tokyo typhoon and Balinese jetlag threw off my delicate mental imbalance, so I sent one of the Irregulars to get a fresh take on 3A’s challenging modernist sound. It’s easy to get blasé about this sort of classical music anyways, and this particular Irregular is more of a jazz cat–perfect for an outsider’s perspective on a soundworld which has become all too familiar to your grad school purgatoried Music Editor. Anonymous Irregular Number One (not his real name) had this to say:

The concert was really good! Definitely outside of my normal listening bracket. The first piece, Rebekah Driscoll’s Testing the Second Breath, was a little confusing for me. It started with music coming out of two onstage speakers, which was then joined by a duet between Sarah Tiedemann on flute and Carin Miller Packwood on bassoon. They were on an adjacent balcony, so there was still nothing happening onstage for like the first ten minutes. The effect was disorienting, and I’m pretty sure that was intentional. Spoken voices started coming out of the speakers, overlapping with each other, unintelligible but an interesting sound dynamic. I’d summarize it as “chaotic.”

The Koch brothers piece, Jonathan Russ’ Koch-aine, was more concentrated in tonal range, and the pace was quicker. The violin and cello did the thing where they knock the bow against the fingerboard to get the woody slap sound, Bartók pizzicato. There was a lot of violence in this one, conveyed by aggressive string playing, but it was complemented by smooth reed sounds. The solo piano piece, Eleanor Alberga’s Glacier, was very moving–mostly just very slow sustained chords, a drifting and haunting effect with beautiful harmonies.

Mary Kouyoumdjian’s Sedna, Beneath the Sea involved pre-recorded animal noises, and the sound of howling wolves blending with the woodwind and strings gave me chills. The solo cello piece, Nancy Ives’ …black snow, dark ocean…, took me by surprise when cellist Valdine Mishkin started singing. Voice and cello made a really intriguing combination.

The second-to-last piece, George Crumb’s Vox Balaenae, was the most extreme. Flute, piano, and cello pushed their instruments out of their range. Pianist Maria Garcia placed metal rods on the strings so they would rattle and buzz when played, and Tiedemann vocalized into the flute as she was playing – something I’ve only heard on Rahsaan Roland Kirk records. All three wore masks while playing. This was the most unsettling piece of the night for me. I loved it.

The closing piece was the one composed using the temperature graph, Daniel Crawford’s Planetary Bands, Warming World. The cello represented the equatorial regions and the violin the polar regions. At the beginning, we were told that the polar regions warm much faster, so by the end of the piece the violin would be playing notes which are theoretically out of its range. Screechy, and very ominous.

The experience as a whole wasn’t exactly depressing, but it definitely wasn’t uplifting. Before the concert, Tiedemann read out some very grim statistics: we have only a six-year window if we want any chance at slowing the earth’s warming, and even then our odds are only 67%. After hearing that, I thought I’d be more gloomy by the end of the show, but the music turned these harsh climate realities into strange feelings I can’t describe.

I think this was one of the goals: to give uncomfortable scientific data an emotional side so that we can process it differently, perhaps better. I definitely feel more aware and more genuinely concerned after.

Holy shit, Batman!

Thanks, Number One! Another of the Rose City Irregulars–let’s call him “Mavis”–joined me for Oregon Symphony’s performance of Danny Elfman’s Batman score last Friday. Since I’ll have plenty to say about My Favorite Composer pretty soon (that delicate imbalance necessitates a cooling off period and a change of pants), I asked “Mavis,” who creates gorgeous ‘90s throwback pop music, to share his impressions.

Watching Tim Burton’s “Batman” with the accompaniment of a live orchestra changed the way I experienced the movie. Although the film itself is a bit dated, the musical score stands as timeless. I walked into the auditorium expecting to simply listen to the symphony playing Elfman’s incredible work. To my extreme pleasure, they surpassed my expectations by breathing new life into the cinematic experience. I found myself thinking again and again, “this film would be nothing without the tension interlaced throughout.”

As a musician, I heard the movie for the first time in a three-dimensional environment. I marveled at how Elfman chose just the right moments to introduce themes, and imagined myself being responsible for the score, viewing the film silently and arranging what should creep in where, deciding which stretches of film should have an appropriate silence. To see it delivered in a way that emphasized the musical contribution to the film encouraged my vast appreciation for the work as a whole.

At one point in the movie, there was a transition–in the lobby of the art gallery, an ensemble gently played in the foreground, only to be overtaken by the rest of the orchestra introducing a theme of Elfman’s, like a DJ crossfading two songs simultaneously live, an entire ensemble acting like a closely choreographed school of fish or a flock of swallows, twisting and turning in unanticipated mathematical perfection.

Other highlights included the soundbites on a TV Newsflash, or the Percy Faith/Max Steiner “Theme from A Summer Place.” The only musical moments that weren’t performed live by Portland’s finest numbered less than a handful, and featured the Artist formerly known as the Artist formerly known as Prince.

I was amazed, impressed, surprised and altogether pleased. My review for the evening, can be summed up in one sentence, comprised of three words: “Holy shit, Batman!!!”

Listening to meditation

Thanks “Mavis”–and watch your language! Last Saturday, while I was still reeling from Elfmania, another of the Irregulars (let’s call him “Charles Rose,” since that’s his name) joined me at Resonance Ensemble’s mental health themed concert at Cerimon House. You’ll hear about that from me when we discuss Resonance, Fear No Music, and the different ways we handle text and significance in classical music. For now, though, Charles wants to tell you about Pauline Oliveros and mental health.

The oddest choice on the program was the inclusion of a Sonic Meditation by Pauline Oliveros: it was by far the oldest piece performed, and has no text. So why include it in a concert about mental health?

Oliveros’ intentions when writing the Sonic Meditations were to promote her practice of Deep Listening, encouraging participants to open their ears and minds through meditative listening. In a retrospective for the New Yorker, Kerry O’Brien calls these meditations a form of activism: Oliveros herself says in the score that, “healing can occur . . . when one’s inner experience is made manifest and accepted by others.” That kind of empathy has the potential to inspire political action. Whether this deep listening occurs at a concert or with a close friend, or even with a stranger, recognition of another person’s pain can help us move forward.

One problem with the discourse around mental health is that it tends to focus on the individual rather than social causes of depression and anxiety. The late Mark Fisher wrote about how we tend not to talk about how poor work-life balance, precarious jobs, fear of climate change and massive debt burdens cause people to become depressed, chalking it up instead to “serotonin imbalances.” Classical music is not separate from this reality, as artists are among the most precarious jobs of all, though concerts such as this are at least moving us towards recognizing these problems.

Oliveros’ Sonic Meditations offer a possible solution through solidarity, since her meditations are intended for whole groups collectively singing. Maybe these meditations suggest that depression and anxiety are something we all struggle with, that we should be looking for solutions together, beyond going to our respective doctors for Prozac prescriptions.

So, more than anything, I was a bit disappointed they didn’t allow the audience to join in too.

Good genes

Thank you Mr. Rose! Meanwhile, music flies in from around the world and nests in Eugene. Senior Editor Brett Campbell brings you the good news from Ducktopia:

Rising Indian American contemporary classical composer Reena Esmail’s evocative 2013 piece Teen Murti leads the Oregon Mozart Players’ October 12 program at Beall. Informed by raga melodies, its title refers to the New Delhi residence of the country’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, a building whose sculptures influenced her composition’s form. The concert centerpiece, Mozart’s incomparable final symphony, is one of music’s greatest treasures. Eugene’s own Delgani Quartet joins the orchestra for Pulitzer Prize winning American composer Kevin Puts’ How Wild the Sea, inspired by the devastating Japanese tsunami tide of 2011, which reminded Puts of the earthquake of 1995 that destroyed much of Kobe. When he visited that two years later, its rapid rebuilding accounts for the hopeful tone of his piece’s second movement, “Saisei” (rebirth). 

Another Japan-related disaster inspired the new album by Seattle-born Japanese American composer/violinist Kishi Bashi, who returns to Portland’s Roseland Theater October 8 and Eugene’s WOW Hall October 10 with music from his wistfully wondrous new album Omoiyari, which grew out of parallels he saw between World War II America’s deplorable imprisonment of innocent Japanese American citizens in concentration camps and the recent resurgence of white supremacy and our national government’s anti-immigrant policies. He visited former prison sites and listened to the stories of survivors, developing musical concepts along the way. Another classically trained Japanese American composer, cellist Nick Ogawa, opens the show under his performing name Takénobu.

Also at WOW Hall on Oct. 9 and Portland’s Doug Fir Lounge Oct. 10, hot young Malian band Songhoy Blues plays music from their forthcoming new album. While sizzling with the trance-tastic, bubbling electric guitar lines of famous Malian bands like Tinariwen, the band also deploys a range of rhythms (including funk and reggae) and song forms. “With the internet, now you can hear everything from the US and Europe and that has given us new ideas to [mix] Malian music with different kinds of music from around the world,” singer Aliou Touré told me before the band’s first American tour. They’ve cited influences from B.B. King and John Lee Hooker to Jimi Hendrix and contemporary hip hop, and are accumulating more with every touring mile. “Travel is the best school,” Aliou said. “Hearing different kinds of musicians in different countries gives us new ideas for our music.”

Next week

Thanks Brett! Stay tuned this week and next for interviews with composers, more composers, metalheads, video gamers, and more of the Irregulars.

tI leave you with Skerik:

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