MusicWatch Weekly: For the record

An ode to immortality

No, we’re not talking about the criminal records that Multnomah County DA Mike Schmidt is declining to saddle peaceful protestors with (yes, we’re still glued to the news). Today we continue our Distraction Policy and talk about music records, a Plastic Age Miracle that existed fleetingly in the material plane as “vinyl albums” but immediately transcended its base origins to become the twentieth century’s predominant musical art form.

Before we get into all that, though, we’d like to pause a moment and share Breonna Taylor’s favorite song, recorded by Mary J. Blige in 1997 and preserved for all time by the magic of technology:

Lead to gold

Sweet Mother of God, the latest In Mulieribus album is good! For a group that boasts “a focus on works written primarily before 1750” (and the Barbara Strozzi concerts to prove it), this Portland-based choir sure sings a lot of new music. Their fifth album, Cycles of Eternity, features eight contemporary composers, among them exangeleno Portlander Craig Kingsbury, Reed College professor John Vergin, and Linfield College professor Andrea Reinkemeyer.

You can read Bruce Browne’s detailed and enthusiastic review right here, and you’ve certainly read about Reinkemeyer–composer of the album’s title track–in these pages more than once (her Opening Up was a highlight of Fear No Music’s Hearings concert last year, and you can read Gary Ferrington’s interview right here).

Got your speakers going? Good, that leaves us free to Wax Philosophical Awhile. There are two historical streams flowing into the happily common union of musical Oldness and Newness that we hear on albums like Cycles of Eternity. One stream is the limiting factor of Patriarchy–simply put, the further back into Western Classical History you listen, the fewer female voices you hear. Flip that around and you’ve got a strong overlap between “music written by women” and “music written in recent times.” There are more Seegers than Strozzis.

But if you want to perform older styles of music and also want to promote women composers, you’re going to have a dilemma on your hands–eventually you run out of Hildegards and Kassianës. Of course, that’s not much of a dilemma if you also like working with living composers, and it’s a non-problem altogether if you can find composers who like to write new music with one ear on the older traditions you favor.

The other factor here is that strange-but-inevitable confluence of “modern” and “ancient” that runs through all the best contemporary classical music: consider Harrison, Messiaen, Monk, Reich, Saariaho, Shaw, and so on. Choirs and choral composers seem especially attuned to this–at least the ones outside what Bruce bitingly calls “the Whitacre/Lauridsen/Gjeilo orbit”–and our choir-rich Artisanal Portland surely loves its Vintage Culture. That’s probably how another local vocal group that ordinarily specializes in very old music–Cappella Romana–can put on a concert of contemporary music so startlingly fresh and perfect we’re still talking about it two years later.

Whence this Old-New confluence? The phenomenon we mean when we say “modern” and “ancient” is neither truly modern (Le Sacre is over a century old) nor truly ancient (in the sense of “before the Fall of Rome”) but simply the rebellious twentieth century’s adolescent rejection of the next-most-recent “classical” era: everything from Mozart to Mahler is out, everything old is new again. “Don’t let me catch you playing that old shit,” Miles Davis used to tell his band while wiring his wah pedal to an instrument so old it’s in the Bible.

From this vantage point, the Bach we hear lovingly echoed in, say, David Lang’s music is not the earliest interesting composer (as your college textbooks no doubt framed him) but the latest–that exquisitely international, literate, and above all Protestant composer stood at the tail end of a long and florid period of musical culture which saw no conflict between intellect and emotion, inspiration and craft, the spiritual and the material, the Human and the Divine.

That’s right: I’m talking about the Renaissance.

We are not, of course, going to Get Into All That (lest we have to defend our overenthusiastic simplification of an era that lasted–so far!–longer than this country). No, what matters is that precisely this is the reason why “ancient” music resonates so strongly with “modern” composers: we are currently living through our own Renaissance, a Second Renaissance instigated not by trade routes and printing presses but by fiber-optic cables and electronic recording technologies, a global cultural rebirth which opposes not only the tyrannical Church and corrupt State (ever the popular villains) but the more pernicious forces of Superstition, Patriarchy, Imperialism, and White Supremacy which have always driven those august institutions.

This Renaissance is turning out to be just as messy and unpleasantly exciting as the first one, but we do have to admit that we wouldn’t want to live in an era where it wasn’t possible to push a couple of buttons and share this video of Reinkemeyer’s Triptych with you across time and space:

Spinning straws

So what does all this mean for Oregon musicophiles during The Quarantine and The Uprising? One thing it means is that as musicians–and this is just one critic’s opinion–we all need to stop pretending “live” music still matters and start recording albums.

For once we’d like you to consider San Francisco, specifically the recorded output of two of its most famous musical icons: the Kronos Quartet and the San Francisco Symphony under Michael Tilson Thomas. Both became well known internationally for championing all manner of new and old music, and therein lies a great deal of hidden potential for Oregon’s new music nuts.

We argued awhile back that the only way performing groups can remain competitive in a virtual world is by embracing a locavore novelty through investments in living artists and communities. We’ve been calling it the Competing with Lenny Problem: when your only venue is online, you have to compete with thousands of hours of Bernstein videos.

But that channel goes both ways. As eyes turn to Portland, we have an opportunity to tell the world who we are. Part of that is our robust music scene, which covers a wide variety of traditions and genres across race and class lines (and which generally seems a lot more diverse than the city it lives in). But the problem here is that our lovely robust music scene is not as well represented as it could be.

Some ends of the scene do better than others. Head over to the Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble label page on Bandcamp and take a moment to marvel at how beautiful their catalog looks (to say nothing of the vast network of performers, ensembles, and composers who have kept the city’s jazz scene bouncing across decades of gentrification). All the classier post-punk bands have their indier-than-thou 180-gram vinyl releases for sale at Music Millenium, and we even have more than a few decent local labels (Eolian, Mississippi, Nadine–tell us your faves). And let’s not forget the Glorious Media Empire that is Pink Martini.

But where is the classical equivalent of all that? For that matter, where are the albums that our other favorite groups have released? Besides In Mulieribus and Cappella Romana–both prolific enough, for classical groups–we’ve got the PSU choirs and their justly lauded recordings, and Christopher Corbell’s Cult of Orpheus production The Emerald Tablet is considerably more satisfying in album form than it was in concert. What else?

Well, we hate to say it, but there’s not much to recommend Oregon Symphony’s albums; their Haydns and Pistons are good, sure, but the only album of theirs we’ve listened to more than once is Gabriel Kahane’s emergency shelter intake form. Metropolitan Youth Symphony and Portland Youth Philharmonic have been performing American composers–many of them local–for decades. Would someone please throw a hefty grant toward an MYS or PYP boxed set?

And then there’s our Fave Four in the chamber realm: 45th Parallel Universe, Fear No Music, Resonance Ensemble, Third Angle New Music. Each has the beginnings of a decent catalog, especially 3A. Resonance has released one album to date, featuring commissioned music by Renée Favand-See and Melissa Dunphy, and you can get a real live physical copy of that right here (totally worth it, by the way).

But when will 3A release their Elliott Smith album? When will 45|| release their Micah Fletcher album? Is anyone going to step up and record the Complete Tomas Svoboda String Quartets? As for FNM’s Miksch Masterpiece Somewhere I have never traveled–well, it’s a good thing I have the plastic CD, because it’s not on Spotify or iTunes and we can’t recommend giving money to Lex Luthor.

We certainly don’t want to make light of how damn difficult it is to get an album made (this one took two years and the songs were already written–and don’t even ask about the master’s thesis). But consider the full horror and the full hope in this line from the Cycles of Eternity liner notes: “The majority of the music is previously unrecorded.”

The majority of the music is previously unrecorded. Such is the fate of nearly all composers, for whom “world premiere” has always normally meant “final performance”–unless a group of kind singers takes the trouble to record it and release it. As we all sit at home getting familiar with various recording technologies there’s no longer any excuse for us to keep sitting on music, letting it fizzle into the ether.

Finish your compositions and record them! Release the tapes!

Look, no doubt Pink Floyd performed a lot of really fun concerts that were super exciting and memorable for the people that were there–but those guys also went into the damn studio and farted out The Dark Side of the Moon, which will likely outlast the species (along with Puspåwårnå and a whole lot of Bach and Beethoven). That is exactly why it’s worthwhile, and why it must be done.

So we’ll see you in the studio–masked and scrubbed and standing at a bass marimba’s distance.

Rest in power

We leave you with this, dear reader, and you’d better sit down because it’s a sad story.

It’s perfectly clear that the men who hounded Billie Holiday to her death did not feel remorse for framing her, ruining her career, and ending her life. One of those useful sadists, arresting officer George Hunter White, even spent the subsequent decades playing “Strange Fruit” (the song that got her killed) on reel-to-reel tapes while he tortured people for the [redacted]. Pretty striking as lynching souvenirs go, but sadly it’s not exactly uncommon.

Despite their lack of conscience, though, we do like to believe that these terrible men understood one thing perfectly well: that the Black woman they murdered would outlive them all.

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

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