MusicWatch Weekly: This music kills fascists and opera

Folksy chamber operas, locavore choral music, doom and psych and loops, pairs of pairs of pairs

Well folks, basically everything is happening this weekend. You want modern chamber operas based on Woody Guthrie and Joe Hill? Justin Ralls and Opera Theater Oregon have got your back. You want doom metal and/or psychedelic stoner rock? Hippie Death Cult and Queen Chief will melt your mind. Or maybe live Spaghetti Western music is your cup o’ joe: check out local supergroup Federale. Electronics abound at 2019 NW Loopfest, but if you want to go the other direction, check out Portland’s newest local-composer-friendly singing group, Foris Choir. You could even pack a sandwich and a thermos of green tea and get your voice down to Bach Cantata Choir’s madrigal sing-along.

I know you’re all chomping at the bit for your next music theory lesson, but all this lovely stuff is happening tonight and this weekend–so let’s dive right into what I’m missing right now.

Opera must die

Olivia Giovetti recently made a compelling case for why opera must die, and although I agree with her conclusion I must quibble with her timeline–opera is already long dead. Moreover, while its sloppily shellacked corpse has been slowly decomposing for the last few decades, wonderful new forms of opera have been springing up everywhere. Have a listen to some of my recent favorites: Laura Kaminsky’s As One, Missy Mazzoli’s Breaking the Waves, David Lang’s Little Match Girl Passion, Kevin Puts’s Silent Night (could throw Du Yun’s Pulitzer-winning Angel’s Bone, but honestly I’m not crazy about that one; can’t win em all, which is sort of the point). Patient Zero in this rebirth of the opera is probably Philip Glass, whose brilliant 1979 opera Satyagraha is quite possibly his greatest work and almost surely the likeliest to live beyond him.

These modern operas all still have compelling narratives and the harmonic sensibilities to support them; beautiful, singable, memorable melodies; well-drawn characters; and a sense of the mythopoeic that connects the mundane lives of individual characters to the grand archetypes which illuminate the human psyche.

In other words, opera is alive and well. The trouble is that opera companies (as Giovetti points out) program way too much of the safe conservative stuff and way too little of the new stuff. I’m not saying stop doing Mozart and Puccini–Mozart and Puccini are awesome. But what if we just flip the ratio of new to old? Instead of a season of Vivaldi and Leoncavallo with one or two token new operas, what if it was a whole season of new stuff with a token Wagner or Rossini? Portland Opera is gradually catching up–they’ve recently performed Lang, Kaminsky, and Glass, and their upcoming season features Jake Heggie’s Three Decembers and An American Quartet of short operas by Menotti, Barber, Douglas Moore, and Lee Hoiby.

But, for now at least, nobody in town is doing as much to promote new opera as Opera Theater Oregon under the co-directorship of composer Justin Ralls and singer Nicholas Meyer. A couple summers back, it was Ralls’s lovely, mythic Two Yosemites; last year it was Rachel Portman’s The Little Prince. When I interviewed Ralls for Arts Watch last summer, he said two things that rang a big pair of Balinese gongs in my brain:

I see the retrograde forces of our society making war on the people and on our culture. That translates to things like arts education and cultural literacy. We describe classical music and opera in terms of market failure, but it’s really education and access. If people are given the opportunity to learn and participate, and the resources are allocated to create a thriving arts scene, people do love this music and participate in it, and respond to it, and it becomes a vibrant part of our culture.

And:

So our endeavor and our project I see as trying to create a bulwark against the unraveling of our social systems. It’s not abstract to me: I see it all very clearly as one thing. I see a performance as a tonic to our social problems, which is challenging, because classical music is wedded to money, and the elite, and all these things that are problematic in our society.

With OTO’s summer production This Land Sings–playing Saturday and Sunday at Alberta Rose Theatre–Ralls gets to be a little sneaky: there are actually four U.S. composers on this bill. The title work celebrates folk composer and notorious antifascist Woody Guthrie in a characteristically post-modern mashupy singspiel sort of thing by Grammy-winning composer Michael Daugherty. The other half of the bill is a celebration of famed labor martyr Joe Hill composed by Michael Lanci.

Let’s talk about all these composers while you wait for the Alberta Rose ticketing page to load. Daugherty is one of my own Patients Zero: way back in the antediluvian ‘90s, a wise music theory teacher played the class Daugherty’s Metropolis Symphony (this was years before its Grammy win). Have a listen to it right now–it’s still one of my personal favorites for turning people onto post-1989 “classical” music. It’s noisy and exciting and has all kinds of dramatic emotional twists and turns, and it does the thing I was just saying opera should do: connects the human to the transcendental (remember, our gods wear spandex).

So I was pretty stoked to hear how Daugherty would weave Guthrie’s folk inspirations into This Land Sings, and it’s another of my “most disappointed to miss it because I’m on the other side of the world” regrets. Eleven original songs and a handful of instrumental numbers, performed by chamber ensemble and some very fine singers: baritone Meyer (thrilling as John Muir in Two Yosemites), bass-baritone Daniel Mobbs, soprano Helen Huang, and a pair of mezzos whom I simply adore. Lisa Neher is a Cascadia composer whose lyrical voice will be all over their fall concert in November, and As One star Hannah Penn is just about the greatest singer in the world as far as I’m concerned. (Full disclaimer: the present author has taken a couple of lessons with Penn and has endured a few Cascadia board meetings alongside Neher).

But that’s not all. Daugherty, ever the wiseass, crafted his hour-long opera in the form of an old-timey radio show, announcer and all. So Ralls went out and hired Thom Hartmann, “Portland’s very own progressive radio host,” to play the part.

Lanci’s Songs for Joe Hill, scored for soprano, Pierrot ensemble, and percussion, is shorter and perhaps less grand than Daugherty’s work, but it’s a very nice bit of modernistic classical music, not unlike Gabriel Kahane’s Crane Palimpsest. The young Brooklyn-based composer has released a respectable dozen-odd chamber pieces in the decade-ish he’s been active, and they’re all pretty cool: have a listen to A Driven Leaf and Space Between for a good sampling. But the one that really excites me is Lanci’s new satirical dystopian opera (dystopera?) Crude Capital. A future OTO production, perhaps?

Sing for your supper

Two other voxcentric shows I’ll be missing while I’m at the kendang and Barong competition this weekend: the premiere concert of Marisa Wildeman’s locavore Foris Choir at Taborspace Sanctuary tonight, and the Bach Cantata Choir’s popular madrigal singalong in Northeast Portland’s Grant Park on Saturday.

Let’s start with the madrigals: this is exactly what this art form was made for. It got complex and “classical” pdq, but the Renaissance-era innovation originated as a way for professional church musicians and other educated people to blow off steam and have fun together in their own language. If you’ve ever been in a church band, you know that the best shit happens after services when you just need to play some real music after all that Maranatha Praise Book drudgery. Or, if you haven’t been in a church band, consider this scene from the classic ‘80s horror flick Dirty Dancing:

So the deal on Saturday is this: BCC artistic director and local singer-composer Ralph Nelson sits at the piano to teach you a handful of songs, you take a little dessert break, then learn a few more songs, then wrap up by singing everyone’s favorites again. That sounds like a helluva good time to me.

If you like very new music more than very old music–or if you want to hear human voices in harmony but don’t feel like being one of them–check out this relatively newfangled Foris Choir, who premiered last December. A few months ago, I heard that local singer-composer Wildeman was gathering up more of her fellow singing-composers to expand the only choir in town that specializes in the music of local singer-composers, and it seems she managed it with aplomb.

How novel! If I weren’t in Bali singing a clove-roughened deng-dung-dang-ding-dong all-day-diddly-long, I’d probably be singing bass in this choir with my fellow Portland Staters, local singer-composers (and conductors) Jeffrey Gordon Evans (PSU University Choir) and Matt Navarre (Portland Gay Men’s Chorus)–both of whom also have works on tonight’s program. Sharing the bill: composers Alison Dennis, Chad Dickerson, Naama Friedman, Jacob Mashak, and Joan Szymko, whose Water Women so soothed us during Resonance Ensemble’s beautifully difficult Women Singing Women concert in February.

I wish I could be there to hear how the heck Wildeman and company put all this together. You’re just going to have to go hear for yourself and tell me all about it.

Dooooooooomed

Alright, now for the “less serious” stuff. 2019 NW Loopfest at Bit House Saloon (careful on the stairs!) features all the NW-style indie electronic music you can stand, from Eric Blood Project’s bass-and-voice grooviness to Gnostic Evolution’s next-level beatboxery. Michael “plays guitar with everyone in Portland” Gamble does his MIDI-guitar thing, Annie Sea does her “socially conscious soul anthem” thing, and Clodewerks is bringing a damn trumpet to the show. Portions of this shindig will probably suck, to be perfectly honest, but even the parts that suck are going to be awesome. To steal a line from Florida Man Jeff VanderMeer’s mind-breaking novel Borne, “it has the economy of design usually only achieved by committees of one.”

If you get lost, Link-style, in Southeast Portland’s Ladd’s Addition Labyrinth on the way to Saturday’s Federale show at Ladd Taphouse, just listen for local singer-composer Maria Karlin’s perfect Edda Dell’Orso wail piercing the ether over the beloved Portland septet’s romping cinematic grooves. Wander through the rose bushes and over to the Taphouse’s outdoor stage, order up a beer and roll up a joint (but watch out! this is an all-ages show), and soak up the band’s fiery take on Spaghetti Western and Giallo (that’s a horror genre, not an ice cream flavor). Also starring Christa Buckland & The Broken Hearted and Alison Self and The Lonesome Lows.

If you want some True Doom to distract you from the Actual End of the World, you could spend your Saturday with Hippie Death Cult at Music Millenium on East Burnside (where they still sell physical music like a bunch of Neanderthals). Or, you if need a bit of heavy-ass stoner psychedelia to help swallow all that jungle smoke, you could brew up a batch of [redacted] and take it down to Holocene on Southeast Belmont for Queen Chief’s Sunday album release show with “cosmic sorcerers” Cambrian Explosion and Eugene-based Native American drum group Black River Singers.

That’s it for the previews. The baby fascists have all gone home, cowed and vindicated, so the streets should be safe for at least another coupla weeks. Enjoy yourself, Portland–it’s later than you think!

Meanwhile, in Bali

Picture a typical Western Classical Orchestra (WCO). You’ve got your vast string section, augmented by a rich array of wind and brass sections. Then you’ve got percussion. Sometimes there’s a bunch, as in Messiaen and Rouse. Sometimes there’s just a skosh, like Haydn’s brace of timpani or Tchaikovsky’s celesta. But no matter how much percussion a composer includes in a work for the WCO, percussion is never, ever the actual centerpiece (we’ll talk about OSO and Theofanidis another time). Percussion is always something extra–a bit of heft and color added to a still strings-winds-brass dominated soundworld. Always a bridesmaid, never a bride.

Flip that. Imagine an orchestra where percussion is the dominant instrument type. Instead of string sections, it’s row upon row of percussion instruments. Ditto the winds and brass–whole sections of different but complementary percussion instruments, chosen for how they augment and blend with the dominant section. And then, every now and then, a solitary flute, just for a hint of color.

That’s your basic gamelan world. You’ve got a lot of different types of metallophones, from tuned gongs to keyed instruments (your familiar vibraphone is a type of keyed metallophone), and they come in all sizes. You’ll have one or two players on huge hanging gongs, more or less like what Western eyes would recognize as “gong” but with an extraordinarily complex and precise intonational character. That is, you can hear a distinct pitch coming out–the gongs play what is essentially the bass line–but the fundamental pitch of each gong is crowned in heavenly cascades of overtones that even precise oscilloscopes have trouble discerning. Get em all ringing together and it sounds like Quasimodo gone mysterious and emo.

Then there’s the little pot gongs, most of which are called reyong. These are tuned to that pelog scale you learned on your Casioccordion last week (“E-F-G-B-C”), and they’re arranged on racks so several musicians can crowd up next to each other playing complex interlocking patterns and composite melodies. If you’ve ever seen or played in a handbell choir, you have some idea of how this works: each person is assigned one or two notes, and everyone has to listen super attentively to everyone else in order to come in on time and make it sound like one mind making the music instead of slushy mayhem.

Because you don’t just have to play the right notes at the right time–you have to mute them properly too. Mute too forcefully, you get a lot of weird clicking (although that is sometimes used for deliberate effect). Mute sloppily, it’s slushy mayhem and the melody gets lost. Again, it’s like handbells. Imagine playing, say, Bach’s Fugue in G minor, but you’re only responsible for G4 and F#4. Miss those notes, or let em ring out improperly, and you lose all that lovely harmony.

The keyed instruments, also tuned to pelog, come in pairs of pairs of pairs of pairs (it’s pairs all the way down, but we’ll get into that next week when we talk about rwa bhineda). The set of instruments Wahyu just got blessed, collectively known as kebyar, is made of a secret bronze-copper-unobtanium alloy, but there are also keyboard-style instruments made of bamboo, aluminum, etc. You strike these pretty metal instruments–and I swear I’m not making this up–with spiked wooden hammers. As with the reyong, you have to strike and mute very precisely or the music gets buried. But, unlike the reyong, the parts are distributed differently, and here’s where we really get into pairs of pairs.

Start by thinking of one kebyar instrument playing a melody. Every time you hit a note, you have to mute the last one with your other hand. So one hand chases the other, perpetually one note behind, a sort of shadow canon. It gets confusing very quickly, although muscle memory takes hold eventually and then you’re doing it in your sleep (yes, this is another aspect of rwa bhineda).

That one instrument has a companion, slightly but precisely detuned, and they’re always played together. This first level of pairing–pengisep the inhaler, pengumbang the exhaler–creates ombak, a bizarre acoustic effect somewhere in the chorus/flanger zone. These two instruments will play the exact same melody, but because their tuning is offset ever so slightly–the difference tones are measured in single-digit hertz–the result is this constant, extremely distinctive “wahwahwahwah” warble. You’ve probably heard some fancy Western spectralist stuff using this principle, but in the context of the gamelan orchestra it’s more like if all the first violins in our WCO were tuned to 440 and all the second violins were tuned to 432.

All the keyed instruments are tuned in pairs like that, and here’s where it gets a little “turtles all the way down.” One pair of instruments plays a melody, all flanged out. Another pair plays the same thing empat: four keys up. In pelog that means you’re sometimes playing parallel fifths, Medieval organum style, but the funkiness of the mode results in parallel intervals that would make Fux run screaming to the nearest priest. With that pair of pairs going, another pair of instruments will be playing a reduction of the same melody. So if the first layer is playing (in last week’s extended metaphor) E-F-G-B-C-B-G-F-E in quarter notes, the next layer down will play E-G-C-G-E in half notes. Every other note gets emphasized, an octave down, and still with that microtonal shimmer. Ditto, mutatis mutandis, on the way up: the higher instruments play more notes but everything still comes together.

This expands in every direction, reductions and elaborations, all in pairs of pairs, all abuzz with acoustic glimmer. And that’s just one section of the orchestra. The reyongs will be playing something totally different, and usually there’s another set of pot gongs called trompong that are reserved for dancers and virtuosi to improvise even more complex melodies atop.

Anchoring it all, the drums (also in pairs, naturally), and the lead drummer is also the conductor. Can you imagine Carlos Kalmar conducting with a drumset instead of a baton? And Norman Huynh is right next to him, playing a second kit, interlocking like a couple of James Brown drummers?

The whole thing is a lot like the bonkers-but-functional Balinese traffic, and the solution in both cases is one we could well apply to all walks of life. All you need is self-discipline and a willingness to pay close attention to everyone around you.

That’s all for now, weirdos! Get your doom on, sing some songs, get loopy, celebrate antifascism and the death of opera, and remember to stay balanced!

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