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Our life, our breath, our hopes and dreams: Makrokosmos IX

The ninth annual day-long new music festival at PICA featured music by Crumb and Takemitsu alongside a clutch of Pacific Northwest composers that included Adams, Bunch, Johanson, Miksch, Svoboda, and Volness.


DUO Stephanie & Saar at Makrokosmos 9. Photo by Alan Niven.
DUO Stephanie & Saar at Makrokosmos 9. Photo by Alan Niven.

On Thursday June 29, the Portland Institute for Creative Art warehouse hosted Makrokosmos Project for the second year in a row. The PICA building remains conspicuously hidden behind a gas station and a Toyota dealership in one of the more concrete-infested parts of Portland. The sidewalks in this area normally fill with audiences trekking to the Moda Center to see some legacy classic rock bands or to witness the Trailblazers earn their number 3 draft pick, but parking was no issue. It’s also fairly close to a streetcar line–if you don’t mind crossing some busy and treacherous roads. 

Last year’s Makrokosmos was a more intimate affair, cloistered in PICA’s black box theater in the back corner with refreshments outside near the loading bay. This year they spread out into the main space with the audience surrounding the performers (generally speaking–but we’ll get to that). PICA has gone through some changes over the last few years, with new staff and–most relevant to Makrokosmos–various acoustic treatments and clever sound engineering to improve the sound in the absolute nightmare of an acoustic space as a large concrete box. Thus I was impressed at how good the show sounded, thanks to some light amplification. The warehouse worked surprisingly well as a venue, speaking to the perseverance and creativity of new musicians to work outside the bounds of typical concert halls. 

Makrokosmos is a musical marathon hosted by piano duo and power couple Saar Ahuvia and Stephanie Ho. For one long evening every summer, they feature themselves–alongside some of the best local musicians–for a night of new music, with ample wine, cheese and snacks to keep the audience awake and upright for the five-plus hours of live music they provide. 

This year’s theme was Ghosts of Cascadia. While not all composers on the program were explicitly from the Pacific Northwest, there seemed to be a fair amount of aesthetic kinship among them. There were many spirits and presences on the program: the recently-deceased George Crumb and Tomáš Svoboda were represented, along with the slightly older ghost Tōru Takemitsu. Lou Harrison’s music would’ve been a fantastic addition, but I’m not complaining at all about what we did get. There were also plenty of composers who, like Svoboda, are associated with the Pacific Northwest–giving the experience the broad scope we’ve come to expect from Makrokosmos.

Portland Percussion Group performed John Luther Adams at Makrokosmos 9. Photo by Alan Niven.
Portland Percussion Group performed John Luther Adams at Makrokosmos 9. Photo by Alan Niven.

The audience was quite large–over two hundred in attendance, which is a lot for what is ostensibly polarizing and experimental music. A large part of that audience came courtesy of PSU’s Portland Summer Percussion Academy, giving the high school percussionists a chance to hear some great percussion pieces by Crumb, Takemitsu, John Luther Adams, and Ian Gottlieb in person. 

Adams’ Drums of Winter opened the program, performed by the Portland Percussion Group. Other performances of Drums have taken place outside, spread over vast distances; here they were far closer together, near the four corners of the “stage” in the center of the warehouse. The work proceeds in cycles, building up ever more complex polymeters–three against five, five against seven, seven against nine, etc.

Portland Percussion Group performed John Luther Adams at Makrokosmos 9. Photo by Alan Niven.
Portland Percussion Group performed John Luther Adams at Makrokosmos 9. Photo by Alan Niven.

One highlight of the whole night was Crumb’s Processional, performed by Ho after Drums. The whole performance was dark and brooding, as if the music was covered in a veil.


Portland Playhouse A Christmas Carol Portland Oregon

The next set consisted of music by Meredith Monk (in a reprise of sorts from two years ago), Oregon composer Kirsten Volness, and Adam Schoenberg (no relation to the other famous Schoenberg). Funnily enough, two years ago I told Kirsten that she should’ve been on the program alongside all the other women; and look where we are now.

I enjoyed both of her works quite a bit, which represented a wide span of her music–a 2022 commission by Makro themselves and a world premiere of a piano piece she wrote during her undergrad. The new work–Ghosts of Cascadia, from which this season of Makro takes its name–was a luscious ode to the mountains that as Ho said, are “our life, our breath, our hopes and dreams.”

Stephanie Ho performed Kirsten Volness' "Ghosts of Cascadia" at Makrokosmos 9. Photo by Alan Niven.
Stephanie Ho at Makrokosmos 9. Photo by Alan Niven.

Set three took its name from the centerpiece Crumb composition, An Idyll for the Misbegotten. This set was a treat for Amelia Lukas and her stellar flute playing. For Crumb, we are the misbegotten, having disconnected ourselves from nature and the Earth from whence we came and someday shall inevitably return. This theme of humanity’s connection with the natural world and a broadly animist spirituality seems to underlie a lot of the music from the Pacific Northwest, from Adams (when he was still living in Alaska), to British Columbian Hildegard Westerkamp to Oregon’s very own Deena T. Grossman.

Alongside the Crumb were pieces from Takemitsu and Ian Gottleib, played by Lukas and members of PPG. While not of the PNW, their music seemed of a kind with the rest of the program, with their floaty rhythms and rich tone colors. Movement three of Gottleib’s piece refers to the Ouroboros, the symbol of eternal recurrence and rebirth via a snake eating its own tail, deepening the spiritual dimension to the show.

Amelia Lukas and PPG's Terry Longshore performed at Makrokosmos 9. Photo by Alan Niven.
Amelia Lukas and PPG’s Terry Longshore performed at Makrokosmos 9. Photo by Alan Niven.

In past years there has always been an “oh shit they’re playing that!?” piece, such as Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes, Crumb’s Black Angels, or Monk’s complete four-hands piano music. This year didn’t seem to have one, but since that piece tends to come near the end, I would have to point to the music of Svoboda–including his Piano Sonata–as that draw. Svoboda would be the second ghost alongside Crumb–a recently-deceased composer whose presence is felt throughout Makrokosmos and the entire classical music scene in Portland.

The two pieces by Svoboda featured Bartók-like driving rhythms and chromatic dissonances. Jeff Payne and Susan Smith played the Suite for Four-hand Piano exceptionally well, nailing the tight rhythms. Another highlight of the set was Karen Tanaka’s Three Water Dances, performed by Yoko Greeney. The music was gorgeous, featuring impressionistic flurries and pentatonic melodies that Greeney played engrossingly. The set ended with Michael Johanson’s Catalyst, composed for Greeney and Smith, that featured upbeat inside-the-piano sounds and angular chromatic and octatonic-ish melodies.

Susan Smith and Yoko Greeney performed Michael Johanson's "Catalyst" at Makrokosmos 9. Photo by Alan Niven.
Susan Smith and Yoko Greeney performed Michael Johanson’s “Catalyst” at Makrokosmos 9. Photo by Alan Niven.

The last leg of this musical marathon saw the crowd migrate into the corner for an elaborate percussion setup courtesy of Neil DePonte. This set opened with Pyxis quartet performing the gorgeous I found this flower by Bonnie Miksch, an unassuming and linear string quartet that flows and grows with incredible smoothness and charm. 


Portland Playhouse A Christmas Carol Portland Oregon

The end of the night was another highlight: the world premiere of Bunch’s Trackings (commissioned by DePonte) for percussion, piano (Maria Garcia), and string quartet (Pyxis) Inspired by the breadth of African-American music–blues, jazz, toe-tapping rock music–Trackings saw DePonte migrating between a large percussion array including vibraphone, a full drum set and marimba. The music was exciting, fun and uniquely Bunch, avoiding musical stereotypes while melding the rhythms and harmonies of blues and jazz seamlessly into a new musical context.

Percussionist Niel DePonte, pianist Maria Garcia, and Pyxis String Quartet performed Kenji Bunch's "Trackings" at Makrokosmos 9. Photo by Alan Niven.
Percussionist Niel DePonte, pianist Maria Garcia, and Pyxis String Quartet performed Kenji Bunch’s “Trackings” at Makrokosmos 9. Photo by Alan Niven.

I cannot wait to see what the tenth (!) Makrokosmos Project will bring next year, and I am happy to continue along the wild ride they have given Portland each summer. 

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Charles Rose is a composer, writer and sound engineer born and raised in Portland, Oregon. In 2023 he received a masters degree in music from Portland State University. During his tenure there he served as the school's theory and musicology graduate teaching assistant and the lead editor of the student-run journal Subito. His piano trio Contradanza was the 2018 winner of the Chamber Music Northwest’s Young Composers Competition. He also releases music on BandCamp under various aliases. You can find his writing at Continuousvariations.com.


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