Preview and Interview: FearNoMusic plays the music of Kenji Bunch

Kenji Bunch

Kenji Bunch

Since ArtsWatch broke the news that one of America’s best contemporary composers was returning to his hometown after two decades winning renown in New York, where he moved to attend the Juilliard School, Kenji Bunch and his wife, the superb pianist Monica Ohuchi, have quickly become an integral part of Portland’s thriving contemporary classical music scene. They’ve played in concerts by 45th Parallel, Cascadia Composers, March Music Moderne and more, and Bunch has worked with his old teenage youth orchestra, Portland Youth Philharmonic.

This month, veteran Portland new music ensemble FearNoMusic announced that Bunch, who was already directing its admirable Young Composers Project, would become the group’s new artistic director, and Ohuchi would run the business end as executive director.

This weekend, Bunch and Ohuchi join the ensemble (composed mostly of current and former Oregon Symphony players and other top Oregon musicians) in an all-Bunch concert at Portland’s Alberta Rose Theater: an ideal opportunity for Oregon audiences to hear Bunch’s engaging, intriguing chamber music, often inspired by popular music and culture, and performed by one of Oregon’s most valuable and adventurous music groups. It’s one of the most highly recommended concerts of the year.

The program includes:

• the playful, six-movement Paraphraseology (1999) for marimba and violin;

• the gorgeous 1996 piano trio Slow Dance, Bunch’s homage to American mid century slow jazz and pop ballads partly inspired by his 8th grade graduation dance in Portland;

• the aptly named Boiling Point, a blistering 2002 composition for amplified string quartet, bass and drums inspired by “comic book graphics, the music of Morton Feldman, heavy metal, and my whistling teakettle”;

• the dreamy “eventual lullaby,” Drift, for clarinet, viola and piano;

• the lively 2005 string quintet String Circle, which incorporates elements of Texas swing, Appalachian fiddling (Bunch plays in a bluegrass band), folk music, and, naturally, the Fibonacci series.

Under his predecessor, violinist Paloma Griffin Hebert, FearNoMusic made serious strides toward breaking out of the new music ghetto by performing in non-traditional (for chamber concerts) venues like Portland’s Aladdin Theater and programming some music influenced by pop. ArtsWatch asked Bunch about his plans for FearNoMusic, his impressions of his hometown vs. his old Brooklyn haunts, why music education is so important to him, and more



Returning to Portland

It’s far exceeded my dreams. I never thought that in the not-even-a-year since we’ve been here, Monica and I both would be as active as we are in the music community here. People have been so incredibly welcoming and generous with us, and we’re both so grateful for it.

Portland and Brooklyn

There’s a lot of similarities. They have more in common than differences. There’s a real community spirit I’ve been finding here. People are supportive of each other, in my experience so far. That’s so encouraging and so necessary in this relatively small world of concert music. It’s particularly nice to see musicians showing up to other musicians’ concerts.

Vision for FearNoMusic

I’ve been bestowed this honor of having the keys to FearNoMusic, but it’s been lovingly built over decades by some dedicated people who’ve put their heart and soul into it. I’m still working on really understanding how FearNoMusic fits into the community. From what I can see, what they were doing made a compelling resource for the music scene here. My prime directive would be to not screw it up. As I told them, I consider this not my group but their group, and in time, our group.

I do have some ideas. It’s important to be connected to Northwest composers and to represent them well. I think in a lot of ways, FNM is poised to be connected with a lot of different like-minded institutions like Cascadia Composers. I know some of them.

I’ll also be casting my net wider than just the Northwest and will draw on my connections and experiences back East to present works by composers I admire and who inspire me. I have maybe a unique perspective because I was in the middle of that [New York] scene and know a lot of fantastic composers working there. I feel I can represent what’s going on in New York today, and I would like to share that with the Portland community.

I hope to feature a lot of composer/performers. I’m still an active performer and I’ve always been interested in preserving both aspects of my career. In general, we’re seeing a return to the composer/performer, after seeing in the last 50-100 years musicians specializing in either composing or performing, and not many examples of people doing both things.

We also have the Young Composers Project (YCP), and Monica as our incoming executive director is interested in growing that project to possibly in the future having a wider influence than just the Portland area — possibly becoming available to other parts of the state.

We’re trying to arrange a call for scores, a competition for not only young composers to have a piece performed on FNM concerts, but also for composers of any age.

Collaboration with PYP

I plan on having that conversation with PYP. Those PYP kids are so advanced and more sophisticated and aware of a lot more music than I was at their age. You can throw new stuff at ‘em and not only can they keep up, but they can embrace it and thrive on it.

I have a friend back in New York…who runs a group called Face the Music, one of two youth music ensembles in the country. I think that’s such a cool idea, to have a youth ensemble devoted to new music. The time has come for that and Portland is perfect for that kind of ensemble. So there’s a pipe dream to find a way to found a youth new music group here in town.

Establishing an Identity for FearNoMusic

We’re living at an unprecedented time in history where there’s more music by more composers available to more people than ever before. Brooklyn is saturated with new music groups, and there’s enough of it out there that you can have coexisting groups being very active without ever conflicting in terms of repertoire. I don’t see any competition or conflict. I welcome more new music groups for the scene to thrive.

In terms of our identity, I really like the FearNoMusic name. It applies to all three components of the musical equation: composer, performer and listener. It’s kind of a challenge to each of those three. For composers, the challenge is to not be afraid to dream big and take risks and write things they might not have thought were possible. For performers, the challenge is to work outside of our comfort zones and stretch ourselves and be fearless in what we present to audiences, not to worry if this is going to sell tickets. If they are committed to it, they can make it work. For listeners, it’s a challenge to be open to new experiences.

One of my favorite places to be is a modern art museum. What I love about them is that I rarely understand what I’m looking at. That’s not upsetting to me in any way. I like not having answers and having questions, realizing that there’s no right or wrong answer to what I’m looking at. Sometimes with new music, we lose our patience and think that it should make immediate sense to us, and if we’re not hearing what we’re supposed to be hearing, something’s wrong. I think it’s OK to be confused and be bewildered and to leave a concert with more questions than when you arrived. That’s the job of art, really: to raise questions rather than answer them.

Building New Audiences

I think what Paloma was doing is really working in that respect. If you look at a place like New York and other places around the country: look how much music the LA philharmonic puts on and look at their audiences. They’re one of two or three orchestras in the country operating in the black. Definitely there’s a blueprint there about creating a buzz about stuff that’s new and of our time and cool and fresh and unexpected and not stuffy and not overly intellectual and communicates in an emotional way and offers something that doesn’t require you to study the score in advance. It’s definitely possible.

Interest in Education

It comes from my own experience. I owe so much of my success to my teachers. I had dedicated music teachers everywhere I studied. What’s happened to music education in the 20 years since I benefited from that has been really hard to watch. It’s terribly upsetting for those of us in the arts.

There’s not a lot going on in the public schools in terms of institutionalized support for arts education, though that may be starting to change with the arts tax and so on. There are some privately run organizations like PYP and [Metropolitan Youth Symphony] MYS and YCP that are really making a difference. That was a big reason for moving back here — to raise our own family, and being a dad and having kids makes me want to do what I can to contribute to the education of more kids, not just our own. So if I’m at a point, career-wise, where I’m able to help with that, I want to do whatever I can.

FearNoMusic presents “To Brooklyn and Back: The Music of Kenji Bunch,” Friday, April 18, 8:00 pm, Alberta Rose Theater.

FearNoMusic also presents “Hearing the Future 2014: Music from the Young Composers Project,” which includes the latest works composed by members of this year’s class of FNM’s Young Composers Project. Sunday, April 27, 2:30pm, Evans Auditorium, Lewis and Clark College.

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