Allow me to get personal for a moment. You, my dear readers, know that I’m involved in this vibrant local music scene I’ve been writing about every week for the last three years. As a student at Portland State University, I walk past area composers Kenji Bunch and Bonnie Miksch in the hallways about once a week. Until recently, I sat on the board of Cascadia Composers (about whom you can read all about right here in Maria “Arts Bitch” Choban’s detective hunt). I play drums in a surf punk band and gongs in a Balinese gamelan, and most of my friends and acquaintances are musicians. It’s inevitable that your ever-busy music editor will occasionally find himself becoming Part of the Story.
So this week I’m going to lean into that pretty hard and tell you all about my brother’s band. I’ll also explain why you have to go to a bunch of wonderful local concerts in my stead this weekend, beautiful shows I’ve been waiting all year for, all piling up here at the bottom of July where I have to miss them because I’ll be spending the next five days packing for a six-week trip to Bali.
But first, a case for Mozart.
To garden or not to garden
Portland Opera earns its place in the city’s music scene for one reason: they pour almost as much time, effort, talent, and money into productions of operas by living U.S. composers as they put into the classics. (Honestly that’s a pretty generous “almost,” but they do alright for an arts organization of their heft. Oregon Symphony does better, but they also do more.)
Anyways. Case in point: PO’s summer seasons usually wrap up with a nice pairing of conventional and modern (the latter have included Kaminsky and Lang in recent years). After you’ve finished digesting Choban’s Cascadia dissection, take a look at Senior Editor Brett Campbell’s preview of Jerry Mouawad’s production of Philip Glass’s surprisingly successful pocket opera, the grim Kafka adaptation In the Penal Colony. Opening night tonight is just about sold out, but the show runs this weekend through August 10. Stay tuned for Bruce Browne’s review next week.
New Music is our beat, and as a big Glass fan I’ve literally been awaiting this production for a year—and now I “have to” miss it, because I’ll be busy doing laundry and photocopying my passport and getting ready to tell you all about what an Oregonian does in Bali for six weeks (I know you feel real sorry for me). That means that it’s up to you, dear friends, to go instead—and I hope you enjoy every minute. This particular Glass opera is a rough one (compared to, say, his cynical but sunny Akhnaten), so be sure to keep the kleenex and indica on hand.
New music priorities aside, though, it’s healthy to keep your ears attuned to the ongoing story of Actual Classical Music (the kind written in the Classical Era and adjacent eras by mostly dead, mostly white, mostly dudes). There are only a few composers whom we would dare call Universally and Objectively Good; Bach is one, of course, and Stravinsky is another (fight me, Schoenberg nuts). Wolfie “too many notes” Mozart occupies a special and weird place in that pantheon, because on the surface he’s just this precocious wiseass Viennese wunderkind brat, farting out massive amounts of insipidly sweet and flowery pop music—along with some of the most deliriously beautiful, profound, literally perfect music the world has ever heard. You’ve seen the movie. You know all about Mozart.
What impresses me is that the Mozart Sound simply refuses to quit, with its timeless melodies and surprisingly fresh harmonies and radiant love for instruments and voices alike. It’s like the Beatles or Duke Ellington—if you erased this music from the planet it would find a way to come back.
All that to say that while you’re appreciating Glass and Kafka for me this weekend, you should also take time to duck into the closing performance of PO’s La Finta Giardiniera on Saturday. Is it the best opera Mozart ever wrote? Nah, not by a long shot. It’s a bit of youthful fluff, the equivalent of With the Beatles. But hell, With the Beatles is a great damn album—and, as Dr. Cal Meacham once noted, Mozart belongs to the world. Go get some culture!
So last Friday, after camping in Rogue Valley and getting busted by park rangers for playing Pat Metheny Group too loud, my brother and the funk band he plays guitar in rolled into Oregon for the 70th Annual Salem Art Fair and Festival. I’ve been following Con Brio for most of a decade, usually from the side of the stage, and I hope I can say without too much bias that their shows are always the happiest, most intelligent of mind-blowing, ass-shaking ragers. There’s plenty of the usual funk and R&B in the mix, and the sort of classic good time positive energy we associate with Sly & the Family Stone and Curtis Mayfield. They play with bands like Galactic and Tower of Power, and have toured a bunch with Portland’s own Dirty Revival.
These are also all typical Millennials, with typical Millennial tastes and skill sets. Drummer Andrew Laubacher keeps a little sampler on hand for those precious moments when a tasty TR-808 beat is needed. Saxophonist Marcus Stephens (pronounced how it looks, not how you expect) has a pedal rig to rival a noise guitarist’s, some of it handmade, all of it taking Stephens’s tenor sax to insane heights of glorious funky weirdness straight out of the electric Miles Davis era (too bad he didn’t bring out the EWI this time). Trumpeter Brendan Liu, celebrating his birthday at the Salem show, took solo after delay-drenched solo, bouncing all around the stage and kicking the crowd into overdrive. And my brother the guitarist—well, after we had to turn off Metheny we just had to turn on Gojira and Voivod and Pantera, and that all made its way into his playing. Every time he took one of his customary blistering solos, that dancing crowd would stop what they were doing to stand and stare jaws agape at the mad shreddy nonsense coming from the tattooed guy from Berklee.
And a crowd it was, too, a big lawn full of middle-aged partiers dancing the afternoon away as the sun went down over Bush’s Pasture Park. Before Con Brio’s set, as the band was unpacking their big white tour van (“Barry White”), we got a taste of this big bouncy Portland band Mbrascatu, a fusion of slow, funky, riffy grooves, countrified electric guitar, and Italian folk music courtesy of singer/guitarist Andrea Algieri and violinist Griff Bear.
This is the best thing about hanging around bands and musicians all the time: you end up at bars or clubs or festivals or parks or whatever, hearing random opening bands you never would’ve sought out on your own, and they blow your damn mind. It’s the happy accidents that season life and give it, yes, spirit.
Here’s another show I’ve been waiting for all damn year: ARCO-PDX’s fifth anniversary concerts at Holocene in Portland TONIGHT, Friday July 26th, and at Satellite Pub in Beaverton Saturday July 27th. The Amplified Repertory Chamber Orchestra of Portland is the electrified brain child of area violinist and Cascadia Composer Mike Hsu, whom you’ll encounter when you get to the end of Choban’s Cascadia epic. The best thing about this New Music Thing we love so much is how personal and eclectic it has all become. Have a listen to Bunch, Miksch, Gabriel Kahane, Caroline Shaw, Gabriela Lena Frank, Melissa Dunphy, Renée Favand-See, Stacey Philipps, et alia, and you’ll hear what I mean. Every 21st-century composer is a brand unto him or herself, a unique amalgam of various styles and personal expression, and that goes double for the majority of these composers who also perform their own music.
Hsu is very much a part of all this. His day job—his Clark Kent alter ego—is physiatrist. But he’s spent the last half-decade recording Cascadia concerts, refining his skills as a composer, and putting together an amplified classical ensemble capable of getting out of the usual classical church-and-college circuit and into hopping venues where the youngsters hang out. The sorts of places that usually host bands like Con Brio and Mbrascatu. Places like Holocene, a happening little bar on SE Morrison, just past the Plaid Pantry, up the street from Robo Taco.
If I weren’t busy getting last-minute immunizations and packing books and sarongs, I’d be at that show tonight. Last time I heard ARCO-PDX do their thing, it was a revelation. Where else can you sing along to Pärt, Bach, and Depeche Mode on the same bill? And I love where Hsu is coming from as a composer, because we share that same dual consciousness with most of our generation’s composers. When you grow up with a CD collection (remember CDs?) that shelves Violator and 101 right next to Erasure, Fast Eddie, The Desert Music, Bach boxed sets, and all the rest, what are you supposed to do? Turn off an entire region of your creative personality?
Nah. You grow up to be Mike Hsu.
Portland’s Extradition Series—”A meeting place of intent and indeterminacy”—is another of those Part of the Story things for me. I got hip to them a couple years ago when I was doing video journalism for the PSU Vanguard. Their youtube channel has more than one of my features, one of which may look familiar to Arts Watch readers. I’ve even occasionally changed hats and been a part of their post-modernist brouhahas, singing and whistling and dropping leaves on the Leavenworth Community Center’s sanctuary floor according to mysterious directions on slips of paper.
Two things sold me on the value of Extradition, which began as an aspect of Creative Music Guild. The first was this John Cage mash-up, wherein co-founder Matt Hannafin and two other percussionists performed Cage’s infamous Branches while at the same time area vocalist Michael Stirling (better known for his work in the Indian classical tradition) sang Cage’s Satie-based microtonal Song No. 85. I’ve always been more than a little frustrated with huckster Cage’s non-music, so this layering felt like exactly the right way to experience Cage. (This was a few years ago, before Makrokosmos Project convinced me re: Sonatas & Interludes). Not that Extradition shows always feature that kind of thing—but they’re always utterly unique musical experiences, totally unlike anything else you can get in Portland.
The second thing that sold me on Extradition was Hannafin himself, who has an endearingly dogged enthusiasm for cultivating these silent, spacious musical experiences as an antidote to the chaos and confusion of modern urban life. He’s a fine percussionist, and always manages to attract a crew of high class local musicians to play all this modernistic, Fluxusy sound-art-graphic-score stuff. At Saturday’s show—during which time I’ll be over at the gamelan practice house cooking chili and working on gong patterns—you can expect modern dance, clarinet and dobro, friction gong and bowed bell, lots of voices, and all the electronics you can stand. Hannafin will perform Alvin Lucier‘s The Sacred Fox using “voice and resonant vessels,” and if you want to find out what that means you’ll just have to go down to Performance Works NW on SE Belmont (not far from Holocene, in fact) and see for yourself!
Don’t be silent
If silence and indeterminacy aren’t your thing, well then get your ass to Lovecraft Bar on SE Grand for local composer Erin Jane Laroue’s Saturday night album release show, also featuring “ritual folk music” storyteller band Kertoa Kalevala. Laroue has been kicking around Portland for quite awhile now, singing and playing keyboards with “chamber-funeral-folk ensemble” Jamais Jamais, and now she’s got her own record out. Have a listen to Chalant right here and decide for yourself whether you’re going to go pretend to be me while I pack for Bali or if you’re going to wimp out and stay home. It’s five bucks. Eventually T.H.E.Y. will come and tear down Lovecraft Bar along with the rest of Old Portland, and then you’ll really be sorry. Go get some culture!
Farewell CMNW, hello festivals
Your final assignment: close out Chamber Music Northwest for me. Even though the two composers featured on this festival-closing bill (Dvořák and Schubert) are both distinctly dead and male, I would have made time for either the Saturday show at Reed College or the Sunday show at PSU if I weren’t calling Singapore Airlines to make seating arrangements and giving away the last of my CDs to friends and strangers on the street. If you missed the Mozart opera, here’s your chance to scratch that Old Music Itch—there’s nothing new in Dvořák or Schubert, but Dover Quartet, pianist Jeffrey Kahane, and cellist Peter Wiley generally have no trouble making old music less musty and more timeless, less stuffy and more spirited.
And there’s not much classical music happening in Portland until the fall seasons start up, so now’s your chance—that is, unless you have the means to head down to Jacksonville for the Britt Festival (happening now; read Alice Hardesty’s profile here) or out to wine country for the Willamette Valley Chamber Music Festival next month (read Angela Allen’s preview next week).
Saxophones in the Garden
Before you go, one last teaser. Next Tuesday, while your Fearless New Music Editor is on a plane over the Pacific Ocean, you need to get down to Lan Su Chinese Garden, where erstwhile Portland composer Hailey Niswanger while be bringing her saxophone and her band MAE.SUN to the Jazz in the Garden series. Saxophone rivals percussion for Most Popular New Music Instrument, and Niswanger fits nicely into the world of cross-genre composer-saxophonists (Henry Threadgill, Jessica Lurie, John Zorn). Niswanger isn’t as big a name as Glass, but I’ve been eagerly awaiting this one too—and since I’ll be magically aloft in the air halfway around the world while she’s playing, you’re just going to have to go enjoy her music for me.
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