Orchestra Becomes Radicalized review: Instruments of resistance

By weaving diverse voices into cohesive musical collaboration, musical collective models artistic opposition to oppression


As long as there is oppression, there are resisting voices singing out, instruments played in fervor, and messages transmitted in many different ways. With the upwelling of resistance to our current conservative political climate, how will artists step up to express their own resistance? What would that music sound like? What form would it take? Which genres would step up to the plate the most? In this new resistance, who would these artists be?

I received an answer to those questions when I heard Orchestra Becomes Radicalized’s November 29 show at Portland’s Holocene. With some of the most outstanding musicians in Portland on stage, drawing performers from local experimental, jazz, and classical scenes, the nonet, led by John Niekrasz, played a fantastic set. Personnel included Holland Andrews on voice and electronics, Luke Wyland on keyboard, Brian Mumford on guitar and electronics, Sage Fisher on harp, voice, and electronics, Jonathan Sielaff on bass clarinet, and electronics, Madelyn Villano on violin, and electronics, Andrew Jones on double bass, Ben Kates on alto saxophone, and video contributed by Vanessa Renwick. John Niekrasz took the wheel, steering the ensemble’s performance through his drum set and composition.

Orchestra Becomes Radicalized performed at Portland’s Holocene.

The orchestra demonstrated a level of awareness that tends to escape experimental groups of this size. While each musician played off each other’s melodies and improvisations, they also demonstrated an adept and tactile ability to be part of a larger whole, structurally anchored by John Niekrasz on the drum set.

The overall effect of this single long composition was like being immersed in a musical ecosystem, with each performer occupying a specific niche. The music would ebb and flow, and change in its complexity each time a new soloist came to the fore. Eventually the orchestra’s music would melt into a space of silence or come to a crashing conclusion with only one player holding onto a single, quiet note to signal a new section. Sometimes new sections would begin at the end of a drum solo, the transition executed by Niekrasz.

In this second iteration of OBR, Five Hundred and Two, Niekrasz’s creative inspiration includes the writings of Subcomandante Marcos and the current struggle for the rights of Native American people. (These structural elements are fleshed out in more detail in Nim Wunnan’s ArtsWatch preview. ) The idea of protest music is nothing new in most musical styles, but appears less frequently in instrumental music. Even in jazz, it is most often the lyrics of songs (Louis Armstrong singing Fats Waller’s “Black and Blue,” Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” the conversational shouts in Mingus’s “Original Fables of Faubus”) that clue us into the meaning of the music.

John Niekrasz, center with drum sticks, has assembled another edition of Orchestra Becomes Radicalized.

Members of this ensemble vocalized, “For so long, five hundred and two years fighting on, oh, and still.” These words, a reference to the amount of time that the native people of the Americas have had to struggle for their lives and their rights, encapsulates the meaning behind the larger composition. The accompanying video by Vanessa Renwick consisted of a series of alterations on the words Indian Land and seemed to refer to the current crisis at Standing Rock and our nation’s continuing obligation to protect the land and the lives of the people who inhabit it. OBR’s use of words on video and spoken word lyrics helps to stitch the themes of protest and unity into the instrumental fabric of the music, metaphorically representing the rollercoaster of emotions and events that determine the words and manner of protest. The defiant hope embodied in the tone of this segment, quieter and less rhythmically busy, was wonderfully refreshing and lingered until the end of their set.

Free Jazz and Ambient Improv

I’ve worried that artists might opt out of their creative protest, choosing instead to stick to non-offensive themes and try to appeal to the widest possible audience without offending them or alienating them. Why make lucrative and inoffensive music when there is such an unfortunate wealth of politically and socially oppressive situations that need a louder cultural voice? So it was uplifting that the night’s first act was a very non-commercial jazz set.

The Ian Christensen Quartet’s free jazz compositions that were refreshingly new, yet rooted in the deeply soulful traditions established in the late 1950s and early ‘60s by the likes of Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler. The quartet, composed of Christensen on tenor saxophone, Noah Bernstein on alto saxophone, Andrew Jones on bass, and Jonas Oglesbee on drum-set, is standard fare for your free jazz ensemble. The absence of a chordal accompaniment in the rhythm section allows the musicians freedom for more experimentation without following the parameters of a strict harmonic progression usually set by a piano or guitar.

The quartet took advantage of that freedom, unleashing rhythmic, complex, and emotionally engaging music, with the performers so engaged with each other that the music avoided a common free jazz pitfall of cacophony. Their deceptive effortlessness revealed practiced skill and a love of the craft. The compositions ranged from lively, playful, and humorous (8 Bars of Poetry) to slower, grittier, and noisier, with squeaks, squeals, and slaps giving way to a raucous, growling melody (Cattywampus). The set was so good that I was surprised when it ended, too soon.

The Visible Cloaks duo of Spencer C and Ryan C, teaming up with bass clarinetist Sielaff, followed with a long and improvised electronic music set. Sielaff’s improvisation and electronic manipulation of his instrument put me right in the middle of Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner soundtrack. Eventually Sielaff’s solo ended and the performers transitioned into playing to a visual accompaniment by Brenna Murphy, an extension and evolution of a shorter piece, ‘Valve,’ from their short digital album Valve/Valve (Revisited). The segment drew from “Japanese ambient and pop music” and borrowed the vocals of Miyako Koda for its opening. The overall tone of this segment, with its sampled marimba, percussion sounds, and improvised ambience floating like a slow river into your ears, is where I fell adrift, and the ensemble lost me.

While the duo is without a doubt technically masterful and undoubtedly creative, evidenced by the wonderful visuals and cool sci-fi sounds, I have a difficult time listening to music that is so homogenous for so long. A significant and discernible change in the structure and form of music would have been welcome. However, it is necessary in situations like these to remind myself that the point of experimental music is to experiment. I think that fans of music that emphasizes ambient and atmospheric styles would certainly enjoy this ensemble.

I hope to see more creative artists using music to draw attention to a movement or to give voice to an oppressed people. Not just in the further concerts by Niekrasz and Orchestra Becomes Radicalized, but by the entire music scene in Portland. We experience so much restlessness, stress, pain, and anger as a result of the dramatic way our world is changing. Why not continue expressing it and working through issues through art and music? Consider this a call to action. Musicians, artists of all stripes: the world needs your creativity to help overcome the reality of the oppressed and the hatred, ignorance, and intolerance of the oppressors.

Patrick McCulley is an Oregon born saxophonist, educator, and composer with an M.M. in saxophone performance. He is the saxophone instructor and director for the Portland Music Collective. His non-musical interests include tea, cats, rain, science fiction and international travel.

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