Portland Columbia Symphony Realm of Nature Beaverton and Gresham Oregon

Remember the uncomplicated joy

Two arts "lifers" drop a debut record in the midst of the 2020 debacle. The hard questions began to drop, too.

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By JOHN NIEKRASZ AND LUKE WYLAND

This has been a weird year to drop a debut record. Portland has seen its share of upheaval lately. In January, after three years of composing and recording, we’d found great label support, honed our live set, ordered vinyl, and booked tours. Then, our record announcement fell on the same day the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. Two months later, the record was released just days before George Floyd’s murder. We wept for the world as we went through the motions working on promo and music videos, and the world showed us growing fascism, worst-ever wildfires, and forced sterilizations of the most vulnerable people. Every week of 2020 has shown us something far more important, far more worthy of attention than a record of new music by two white men.

We’ve had the rare fortune of being able to put our most precious energies into our art for decades. We’re lifers. We always thought this in itself was a radical practice: fighting for a life outside of the accumulation of capital, spending our efforts building a community for the arts, and trying to share with our friends and audiences a sense of hope, joy, and inspiration, or offering a new definition of beauty that’s lightyears away from the Gucci-Kardashian-Bugatti-sphere.

But it’s not enough. The same hard questions we asked ourselves after the 2016 election have come roaring back with renewed relevance and force. Are we doing any good? Why should niche art music based on microtones and polyrhythms be important? Should we be taking up any space at all?

John Niekrasz and Luke Wyland. Photo courtesy of Methods Body.
John Niekrasz and Luke Wyland, aka Methods Body. Photo by Jacob Heule.

This year, Portland has dealt with protest curfews, federal forces, and insane wildfire smoke. One of our housemates was injured by illegally deployed police impact munitions. We had friends of Color buying bulletproof armor or not leaving their homes out of fear of attacks by Proud Boys. And these immediate threats piled on top of our perennial concern: will the American West, and, really, much of the world, continue to be habitable under this kind of worsening climate damage? 

We’re learning a lot from our partners and friends. We have it pretty good and so we have a responsibility to re-educate ourselves around justice, mutual aid, and proper communication. We’re supporting our friends in the streets, we’re giving money to liberatory causes, trying to center others’ voices. And, of course, we’re heartbroken. We’ve lost our own lifeblood. We’re not doing the thing we love and have built our lives around: we’re not performing.

Methods Body. Photo courtesy of the band.
Methods Body performing. Photo by Taylor Ross.

Our entire “industry” has essentially disappeared. We’ve heard that the downtown venue where we first met and played together in 2007 will not reopen. The same goes for our favorite DIY neighborhood spot that has been hosting challenging music for years. How many brilliant ensembles will fold? How many artists are giving up on their dreams this very moment?      

Sponsor

Portland Area Theatre Alliance Fertile Ground Portland Oregon

The impetus to get to work on our next record is still here, if muddied. We’re both noticing that our expectations for our music have changed drastically. The music we were making even eight months ago feels suspect. Something different is required now. We’ve had the privilege of being together, taking refuge in our instruments, playing and chasing our weaknesses. Trying to remember the uncomplicated joy of just spending time at an instrument. Fighting to feel like it can matter. We find solace in hearing from other musicians who are forging ahead with hope: Ed Rodriguez, Amirtha Kidambi, Holland Andrews, Chris Williams, many others.

After the last inauguration, John wrote some speculative fiction about a future in which we might need to assemble resistance cells to oppose fascism. The music in Claimed Events Pt. 2, Overheard is built upon a bit of that writing:

My friends, however, claimed events would identify them, but to

overhear and accept only one month to prepare us in a very 

small room with rubble in one corner … 

John plays the rhythm and melody of this phrase in a drum ostinato that is eventually taken up by the vocals of Holland Andrews. Luke and Holland improvise over this structure.

One of our collaborators, UVA art professor Lydia Moyer, shot some tests for a dance-theater project inspired by images of Civil War battle smoke. Moyer sent us this complex, smoke-choked imagery and the resonances with our present reality were breathtaking—civil war has, again, been a distinct and terrifying possibility; the US has deployed more toxic gas against its own citizens during a respiratory pandemic than in all the years since Vietnam; COVID is out of control. When Moyer and Leeri synched their imagery to a track on our debut, Claimed Events Pt. 2, Overheard, the result was harrowing and beautiful.

Sponsor

Portland Opera The Snowy Day Newmark Theatre Portland Oregon

Of course, art will adapt and go on in new and unpredictable ways. Poets and musicians here have been supporting the Black Lives Matter protests by performing in the streets. Some local venues that have been shuttered for months put on limited capacity patio shows. Before the most recent COVID surge, we gave an outdoor performance for a few physically distanced (and chilly!) friends. We’re starting work on our next record. And we will rise up with others to ensure the voice of the compassionate majority is heard.

John Niekrasz and Luke Wyland are Methods Body, whose self-titled debut record is available now on New Amsterdam Records and Beacon Sound. Reprinted from NewMusicBox, the web magazine from New Music USA.

Niekrasz and Wyland unwind. Photo: Jonathan Sielaff.

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