MusicWatch Weekly: Federale February

Indian classical, Super Bach Sunday, and a chat with Collin Hegna

Normally we like to contain all our monthly previews in one tidy column. But since February starts this weekend, we’d like to tell you all about the first stretch of Februarial concerts now–and we’ll tell you about the rest of the month next week. We’ll start with local supergroup Federale, playing with local “desert surf” act Plastic Cactus at Polaris Hall this Saturday.

This crafty, vintagey septet is among Portland’s greatest musical treasures, and last year they released one of 2019’s best albums, No Justice. We gushed thusly about it in our year end album guide:

This was one of those albums that made us stop everything and sit down to just listen–from the terrifying opening title track through the catchy-as-hell Morriconesco Maria Karlin showcase “Unchained Malady” to the apocalytpic Barryesque closer “When Snow Falls,” the latest from the local cinematic murder balladists grabbed us and wouldn’t let us go. If this year-end list were shorter and more objective, this one would still be near the top–probably in the number one slot.

After Federale’s soul-stealing show with fellow localistas Roselit Bone at Mississippi Studios last November, we wrote to the band’s founder Collin Hegna with our usual questions about a-ha moments and compositional processes. Before we move on with the rest of the weekend–featuring Crystal Quartez, Kalakendra, Oregon Symphony, Super Bach Sunday, and Federale drummer Brian Gardiner’s other band, Portland Percussion Group–we’d like to share Hegna’s answers with you (condensed and edited for clarity and flow).

Oregon Arts Watch: Tell us, both individually and as a band, about your a-ha moment–a song or album, a concert you attended or performed in, a formative time with a teacher or a community, an early experience that made you think “this music thing is not just some other thing, it’s something important that I really want to do.”

Collin Hegna: For me the a-ha moment in music will always be Revolver by The Beatles. It’s actually the first thing I can remember. At all. The way their vocals melded together in songs like “She Said She Said” created a single texture that I simply could not comprehend. In that particular song the music is poppy and bright, with the 12-string electric guitar chiming along, but the vibe is also really dark. Heavy. And the bass line (played by George Harrison) is more like a melodic guitar solo down an octave. It’s confusing. It’s cool.

They’re talking about knowing what it’s like to be dead–what the hell is going on here? Here I am, like four years old, and I’m digging what these heavy dudes are saying about their first acid experience. I’d never even heard people with a British accent before. This record blew my mind. Nothing else was ever the same for me.

Our first two Federale records were a search for a sound that was more grandiose than we could achieve as a group at the time. We had capabilities on guitars and occasional keyboards, but what we lacked was knowledge that we could actually have access to the full palette of the orchestra. On our third record we started involving string and horn arrangements. That’s where the switch went off. We realized there were no bounds for our palette other than our imaginations. Since then we’ve utilized strings, horns, synthesizers, folk instruments. The full gamut. Plus we’re still pretty good with guitars.

OAW: Ennio Morricone’s vast catalogue is the obvious Big Influence on Federale’s sound. What are your favorite Morricone moments, and are there lesser-known bands or composers you’d like us to know more about?

Hegna: The scope of Ennio Morricone’s canon can’t really be over-exaggerated. He is a master who has worked in so many styles, and has created so many iconic themes and unforgettable film music moments. Specifically I am very enamored with his scores for The Great Silence as well as Once Upon A Time In The West. I don’t think it’s possible to spill enough ink in praise of these works.

Last December Italian composer Fabio Frizzi played his live score to Lucio Fulci’s film The Beyond at the Hollywood Theater. Frizzi (along with Goblin) ushered in the wave of early ‘70s horror scores from Italy that featured synthesizers, mellotrons, and drum machines. There is a cold and evil edge to much of his music, but this is also a composer who can convey themes of beauty and love. Check out the theme to 1977’s Sette note in nero (Seven notes in black), known in the USA as The Psychic.

OAW: What do you listen to for pleasure? What’s on in the tour van?

Hegna: We listen to a LOT of different kinds of music in the van. Outlaw country is a big favorite. Waylon Jennings gets a lot of spins. George Jones. There’s also a lot of love for classic soul hits. Marvin Gaye on a daily basis.

Right now there’s a bunch of great Portland bands who are putting out records. We love Roselit Bone, The Shivas, and Blackwater Holylight. But don’t get confused if you hear us rolling up to your town blasting hits of the ‘80s or even questionable early ‘70s or late ‘80s Grateful Dead album tracks.

OAW: Tell us about the Federale songwriting/arranging process–how does a song or album start out, and how do you develop those musical ideas into the full band sound?

Hegna: Our songs often start off very simply. I feel like you can take a lot of the biggest John Williams scores and whittle them down to a song one could play on a guitar and a whistle. We basically reverse engineer that concept, starting off with something relatively simple and then using the arrangement to bring out something bigger.

A major goal for us is to create musical moments. To create drama, with big movements from very small to very large. And to use these gestures in a way to convey emotion. Whether it be love, lust, anger, or a lust for revenge.

OAW: Our favorite closing question is “what would Federale ask Federale?”

Hegna: How are you ever going to possibly get anywhere walking in the footsteps of such giants?

Turn on

Tomorrow night (Thursday) at Holocene in Southeast Portland, local “ceremonial sound artist” Crystal Quartez celebrates the release of her new album Causal Loop. We last encountered Quartez helping run The Wave, a 32-speaker spatial sound installation at Disjecta, and her solo live shows usually have her at a tabletop full of pedals and other electronica, summoning dark and pulsing soundwaves to create spacious music that’s quite a bit too interesting to call “ambient.” Openers include Portland-based Omari Jazz, Arts Watch’s favourite harpist-composer-electroacoustician Dolphin Midwives, and a name we haven’t heard in a while: multimedia artist Avola, former electronics whiz for our favorite defunct Portland band, gonzo doom trio Prizehog.

Local performing arts organization Kalakendra produces intimate chamber concerts featuring Indian classical musicians from all over the world, from dhrupad vocalist Uday Bhawalkar to superstar percussionist Zakir Hussain (returning this March). On Saturday, at Hillsboro’s HECSA Shiridi Sai Baba Temple, Kalakendra’s annual community music concert presents two concerts of Indian classical music.

The first focuses on the Carnatic music of southern India, with vocalist Lavanya Madhavan accompanied by Harini Ganesh on violin, Madhu Swarna on mridangam, and Srikrishna Prasannan on ghatam. The second concert features the more familiar northern Hindustani style, with Suma Raviprakash playing slide guitar and Shrikant Naware supporting on tabla.

But if you prefer “world” music from the Global North, you might pop into The Old Church in downtown Portland Thursday night for Sounds of Siberia, starring Siberian musicians Yuliyana Krivoshapkina and Nachyn Choreve. Krivoshapkina sings and plays the khomus, a jaw harp from her native Sakha Republic. Choreve, from Tuva, is the co-founder of your new favorite metal band, Hartyga. Choreve plays the Tuvan stringed instruments igil and doshpuluur, and is also an accomplished throat singer. If you’ve ever heard or even heard of that crazy vocal tradition you know where you’ll be tomorrow night.

Your Oregon Symphony has two family-friendly concerts this weekend. The first–Game ON!, Saturday night–presents the work of composers Jason Hayes, Jesper Kyd, Garry Schyman, Sam Cardon, and Derek Duke. Don’t recognize those names? They’re the composers behind the soundtracks for popular games World of Warcraft, Assassin’s Creed, BioShock, and Overwatch. Much as we love the classic NES scores of Hiro “Hip” Tanaka and Koji Kondo (Legend of Zelda, Metroid), it’s always nice to hear the symphony playing more recent stuff. And it wouldn’t be an Oregon Symphony show without the PSU Chamber Choirs and visuals featuring game videos and concept art to complete the spectacle.

Benjamin Britten wrote his orchestral theme-and-variations The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra (performed by Oregon Symphony this Sunday), for two audiences: an educational documentary about the orchestra, and the children of two of his friends. The work takes its theme from British composer Henry Purcell, and that beautifully logical Baroque melody makes an ideal guide for the ear to follow throughout the orchestra, an audible demonstration of the subtle ways orchestral composers distribute and develop musical ideas. That is, the music is not just an introduction to the instruments of the orchestra–it’s an introduction to the orchestra as a unique instrument unto itself, with its own special mode of listening. And if the kids want to get their hands on some real-life orchestral instruments, come early for Kennedy Violins’ petting zoo.

Tune in

When percussionist Brian Gardiner isn’t playing drums with Federale, he’s performing with Portland Percussion Group. We make no secret of our love for PPG, a nimble quartet known for keeping the young tradition alive by commissioning a constant stream of new work, performing traditional stuff by Harrison, Cage and Reich, and promoting the music of living (and sometimes local) composers like Michael Johanson and Paul Lansky. They also have the dubious distinction of being the first ensemble the present author reviewed for Arts Watch, way back in antediluvian 2016.

Next Tuesday down in Wilsonville, they’ll form a percussion sextet with DUO Stephanie & Saar for “Petite Corvette Rouge,” a concert of new music at the World of Speed motorsports museum. It bodes well that the oldest work on the program–Meredith Monk’s Ellis Island–was composed in 1981; the second-oldest, Reich’s Nagoya Marimbas, dates from 1994, and John Adams’ Hallelujah Junction is from 1996. That’s the Old Stuff.

The more plentiful New Stuff includes Ben Justis’ Nucleation (one of three winners of PPG’s most recent call for scores) and world premieres of works by Mendel Lee and Martin Bejerano. Rounding out the program: Lansky’s quartet for percussion and two pianos, Textures, which PPG’s Paul Owen and Chris Whyte performed with Ahuvia and Ho a few Makrokosmoses back. At the time, we had this to say:

We could call this a percussion quartet since piano is technically a percussion instrument, but no one in their right mind would buy that bullshit, besides which we would be obfuscating the Béla Bartók reference—the first of what will turn out to be several. Compositionally, Lansky’s quartet has almost nothing in common with Bartók’s 1937 Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion (even the percussion arrays are different, leaning heavily towards the vibes and marimba), but I still heard ample echoes of it.

Textures is pretty squarely modernist in most ways, with its Towering chromatic riffage and its Glassy odd-metered arpeggios and its Bartóky acoustic scales. But the music was poppy as all get out, too, all shiny melodies and emo chord changes and groovy backbeats played on delicate little miniature crash cymbals. Hell, it’s even got a Super Mario Brothers quote. I struggle to hear this as the work of a seventy year old man.

Drop out

Our favorite Super Bowl Sunday tradition: hardcore nerds like the present author competing to determine who can pretend to hate sports the most. It’s a badge of honor, not caring about sportsball, and this cheeky defiance tends to result in a lot of wintry anti-football parties celebrating…well, anything other than football.

Portland’s Bach Cantata Choir has made it their mission to perform the Great Composer God’s complete cycle of cantatas over the course of three decades. This Sunday, while non-nerds are enjoying their chips and proxy war games, the BCC’s Super Bach Sunday illuminates Rose Park Presbyterian Church on Northeast Sandy. The concert will check BWV 38 (“Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu Dir”) and 149 (“Man singet mit Freuden vom Sieg”) off the choir’s three-decade to-do list. They’ll also perform Bach’s heavenly Double Concerto for Two Violins with violinists Mary Rowell and Erin Green, plus a whole bunch of brassy Gabrieli. And who can resist a vocal soloist lineup that includes Hannah Penn and Vakarė Petroliūnaitė?

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