Open Wide

Big Mouth Society embraces inclusivity, high artistic standards, and socially engaged art

A shipwreck brought musician Emily Lau to Portland. It didn’t happen in Oregon but off the Italian coast, where in 2012 the cruise ship Costa Concordia ran aground, capsized and killed 32 people. Lau was on her honeymoon, and though she and her husband weren’t injured, the Mediterranean disaster changed her life. A virtuoso musician and composer, the perfectionist Hong Kong native was then stressing out trying to make it in Boston’s highly competitive early music scene.

Big Mouth’s Emily Lan.

“I’m a classical musician, and my whole life I’ve been trying to… perfect something,” she told CBS News at the time. “And fear comes with being a perfectionist. And I think the emotional take for me, after being almost dead, was that I don’t have to be so scared any more.”

Seeing dead bodies and wondering for hours whether they’d survive clarified Lau’s priorities. 

“After the shipwreck, the high-anxiety, success-motivated lifestyle on the east coast didn’t look like what we want out of life anymore,” Lau remembers. “It didn’t align with our values. After a few visits to Portland, it seemed like a good match: kind people, plentiful nature, and the idea that I can build a community with like-minded people. In Portland, no one is impressed with a Harvard education or resume. You need to bring your art to people and move them.”

Three years ago, Lau started a new production company called Big Mouth Society that combines high artistic standards with a more collaborative, nurturing creative process—and genre-fluid, socially engaged art.

Those values—socially engaged work, high artistic standards, collaborative creativity—permeate Big Mouth Society’s next project. Performed by a quartet of expert multi-instrumentalists, this weekend’s “The American Promise” surveys American ideals and promises of the last 250 years using classical, folk and popular music, poetry, newspaper articles, imagery, and improvisation.

The multitalented composer, whose singing, original music, and theatrical music productions have won praise from Boston to the BBC, now teaches music at Reed College, performs with Cappella Romana and Resonance Ensemble, tours nationally as a performer, singer, teacher, and director, and directs the Broken Consort, a group of early music experts from across North America. That name, like Lau’s original compositions, has deep roots in Renaissance and Baroque music). A new CD of her compositions performed with the Broken Consort, Isle of Majesty, comes out this month.

“When you want a space but the space isn’t there, you create your own space,” she recalls. “We were looking for a space where the product wasn’t the only goal, but the process of building it and creating a community the way everyone matters. A more feministic way of leading, where professionals and aspiring professionals and amateurs can be under the same umbrella.”

Artist-led, Values-driven

All Big Mouth productions share the group’s values: “We try to do socially engaging work,” Lau says. “Speaking to current events should be a reflection of what’s going on in the world right now, so people know the art we’re making now is a memento of our time—we’re not just interpreters of past ideas.” 

The society’s programs don’t trumpet its values so much as exemplify them. Their belief in gender equality is reflected in the equal prominence of music by women, for example, and last year’s holiday season show didn’t restrict itself to music from a single religious tradition but instead embraced winter songs from many cultures. Other themes have included a medieval feast that matched photographic imagery in a gallery with music, a concert devoted to historical American love songs, another to songs from across the ages celebrating spring.

Future projects include May’s theatrical production of David Lang’s The Little Match Girl Passion, next year’s international music festival featuring sounds from across the globe and the ages, a full length original opera on the tough subject of rape, and more. 

With values in place, now all they needed was a name for the company. A 12-member committee pondered. “We wanted something easy to remember and also symbolic,” Lau recalls. “Then I remembered that when I was a kid I was endlessly teased for having a giant mouth—ugly by Chinese standards, but it seems to be an attractive feature here. We think that one needs a big mouth to laugh, eat, sing, and advocate for others with courage… hence the name!”

While some shows, like this weekend’s, feature only professionals, others mix musical abilities. May’s concert will include more than 30 musicians, three-quarters of them amateurs. And the company trains and develops its local amateur musicians with an eye toward eventually including them in some Broken Consort shows. Performers’ ages range from 15-70 and they come from various countries, orientations and backgrounds. 

Audiences, which have tripled since Big Mouth started three years ago, display similar diversity, a rarity in classical music concerts, in part because of Big Mouth’s pay-what-you-can-afford ticketing policy and practice of giving away tickets to homeless people, veterans and others. 

High Standards

Lau insists on maintaining high performance standards even in shows including amateurs. Big Mouth achieves this through a much more extensive rehearsal process—five months, four hours per week for the May show—than typical Portland classical shows, which too often suffer from poor preparation. That in turn often stems from the low pay most gigging classical musicians receive, so to address that deficiency, “Big Mouth’s artist fees are among the most generous” in Portland, Lau maintains. “If we want the arts to live, we need to fund them.”

Even for the professionals, chops alone aren’t enough for Big Mouth. Not only do they have to be “highly trained, virtuosic, with impeccable technique and no technical problems,” Lau explains, “they also have to have the character and personality that allows you to give and receive good coaching and feedback. We want collaborative chamber musicians.” Professional Broken Consort members can also “improvise in any style and play multiple instruments,” which permits flexibility in programming.

But in contrast to the competitive East Coast environment Lau emerged from, Big Mouth values its musicians’ personal as well as musical side. “Artists often talk about a utopia where everyone cares about each other, but few organizations really do that,” Lau says. “In conservatory and art school, we let people think they’re chefs but really we’re teaching them to be line cooks—people who know how to chop in the most precise way, but never asking who are you as a person. [In Big Mouth], we take time to check in with each other.” Broken Consort musicians even live and rehearse together in the weeks preceding a concert.

American Promise

That empathetic attitude also informs their collaborative decision-making process. This weekend’s American Promise concert arose during a group discussion of the next concert’s theme when the youngest member, 20-year-old multi-instrumentalist Peter Lim, mentioned that he was convinced by his parents to move to the US at age 12 because this was a place where all his dreams would come true. In the current anti-immigrant environment, Lau says, Lim felt lied to and lonely, and wanted to make music in response.

The group plunged into research at the Library of Congress and other sources, finding historical speeches to use as a basis for improvisation, music played in pre-20th-century American homes, poetry and more. The Broken Consort (Niccolo Seligmann on viola da gamba, dulcimer, fiddles, and more; Julie Bosworth, voice and fiddle; Lau, voice and percussion; and Lim, harpsichord, oboe, recorders) will perform in an intimate concert environment—only 50 seats per performance. 

“It’s going to feel like we’re all gathered in a living room and being told a story,” Lau says. “Audience members will sit within 5 or 10 feet of the performers while we sing and play in many different styles, from popular and classical to more theatrical performances throughout the evening.”

The program asks “what are some of the promises America has made and how we can look at it today and not lose hope completely,” Lau says. “We want to create a different framework to think about issues in a way that’s not so heated. A lot of today’s political rhetoric makes us feel angry and not think. I want to do the opposite: make you feel not angry and make you think.”

Maybe it’s classic American immigrant optimism, or maybe it was surviving a shipwreck that wound up with her washing ashore in an unbounded place like Portland, but for all her determination to address tough contemporary social issues, Lau retains a faith in America’s promise. 

“We’re in a defeatist place as a people today, but I don’t feel that way,” she says. “We’re going through something difficult, but I feel like we can do something about it. I have hope in this country.”

Big Mouth Society’s world-premiere production of The American Promise by The Broken Consort. 7:30pm Saturday, March 14 and 5pm Sunday, March 15.  Cloudability, 334 Northwest 11th Ave. Portland.
Tickets:​ Pay-as-you-can

https://www.big-mouth.org/eventsandtickets

A shorter version of this story appears in The Oregonian/OregonLive.

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