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Safe Distance Sounds, Part 2: Chamber terroir

Feeling down? Think local: Recent recordings by Oregon composers offer sonic solace in troubled times.


With live performances temporarily out of the picture, I’ve been fulfilling my jones for homegrown sounds by listening to recent releases from Oregon-based or -born musicians that caught my ear. Many listed below offer atmospheric, even ambient sounds that offer a kind of sonic solace in a turbulent  time. With so many spring and summer concerts and festivals canceled or postponed, this roundup offers a chance to continue exploring Oregon sounds remotely. Most of this music is available to sample in whole or in part online; click the links. 

It’s also a chance to sustain Oregon musicians. Time was when recordings were the end, and touring the means to sell them. This century’s shift to online content has reversed that formula, as most musicians use recordings (usually found free or cheap online) to entice fans to pay for tickets to their live performances. And with the latter now suspended, that puts musicians in a pickle, and shifts the focus back to their recorded artifacts. 

We’re looking here primarily at music available on CD or through paid downloads, though you can often listen to many of those listed here for free at least once. If you like what you hear, buy the music from the artists themselves or their record companies, which right now is even more important to sustaining their music making ability. On the first Fridays of June, and July, in fact, the streaming platform Bandcamp, home of several of the recordings below, is again waiving its fee, meaning that the Oregon artists whose music you buy there on those days will receive every penny of your purchase price.

down the sky they sing, A Rising Space

Scott Unrein 

“I aim to create landscapes of memory,” Portland composer Scott Unrein writes, “quiet, meditative music floating on the cusp of ambient and 21st century chamber music.” Next to Brian Eno himself, no one I’ve heard creates ambient music of greater richness than  Unrein, whom the great critic Kyle Gann calls “the Harold Budd of the Pacific Northwest.” (If you don’t know why that’s high praise indeed, check out Budd’s lovely music.) Listening to Unrein’s two most recent albums reminds me of gazing out over a seemingly placid Oregon coast seascape.

Even though little initially seems to be happening, the calm but never static music’s subtle ebbs and flows, proceeding at the speed of breath, gently compel attention, and leave you feeling somehow refreshed for the experience. Unrein’s new work co-created with Andrew Lee was set to be a highlight at June’s national New Music Gathering at Portland State. Who knows if that’ll happen now, but fortunately Unrein’s  sounds are available through our speakers anytime.


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Grid of Points 


Astoria’s Liz Harris hasn’t put out an album under her Grouper rubric since 2018, and that one’s only 22 minutes long. But that’s all Grid of Points needs to conjure the hushed, suspended vibe that Harris has woven so well for so long, this time using only her echoey voice and melancholy piano. Recorded at a frigid artists retreat in northern Wyoming, its melancholy songs revolve around “the idea that something is missing or cold,” she said, which explains its aptness in today’s America.

I Dream Awake; Then Elephant Speaks

Bill Whitley

The somber, reflective tone of Bill Whitley’s Then Elephant Speaks for piano and electronics no doubt stems from the horrific Florida school massacre that happened when the Salem-based University of Oregon alum was writing it, as well as the famous tune by a quarter-millennial old composer glimpsed through it. Other inspirations for Whitley’s absorbing music include Gregorian chant, raga, gamelan; American composers like John Cage, Meredith Monk, and John Luther Adams; progressive rock, and meditation practice, which might get his cyclical sounds tagged as ‘ambient’ or even ‘new age.’ 

But although sonic soothing is especially welcome in this plagued moment, there’s a lot more going on in that EP, in 2017’s full-length I Dream Awake, and on other recent tracks. Moving cuts like the Alexander Calder-inspired, Indonesian and Indian-influenced Lily of Force (for soprano sax, vibes, double bass, and piano), and Awake for flute, sax and piano, plus other tracks on his website from multi composer compilation albums, erupt into playful, post-minimalist pulsation and return to reflection. Chinook and South Asian creation myths inspired the guitar duo The Creation of the World. Donna Henderson’s poetic narration in the propulsive Little White Salmon alternates a historical view with a fish-eye first-piscean perspective of its Columbia River journey. Another sax and piano composition, Los Cielos, draws on a visit to Mexico. 


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Whitley, who hails from a long line of Northwest ranchers, organically assimilates these diverse global influences. His music has been performed by Oregon groups like Choral Arts Ensemble and Tualatin Valley Symphony as well as by ensembles in Greece, Russia and Italy, where IDA was recorded, and I hope to hear more of it here again when live performances return. 

How To Listen To Machines: Songs for Violin & Noise

Jordan Hall

The title of Portland native Jordan Hall’s EP How To Listen To Machines: Songs for Violin & Noise, might make you think you’re in for something mechanistic or clamorous or at best conceptual. But Hall hastens to note that “How to Listen to Machines did not begin as a concept. It emerged out of my everyday experience of sound. I have always had an intense sensory response to the sounds of machines. My ear organizes their tonalities and textures into musical qualities, often leaving me moved by sounds many consider noise pollution. The growling bass of an approaching train can make me tremble. Chills crawl down my arms at the sound of overtones in a generator. The drumming of an idling engine can quicken my pulse.” 

Hall recorded the sounds of machinery on an iPhone in the streets of New York,  where he’s lived since 2006, and used them as accompaniment to his own multi-tracked violin melodies to create an ear-friendly urban true chamber music (minus the chamber) that sometimes sounds more like Penguin Cafe Orchestra than the tuneless soundscape or retro Futurist homage its title might suggest.

Travelogue; Steel, Wood, & Air 

Derek Hunter Wilson


All Classical Radio James Depreist

Derek Hunter Wilson’s 2017 debut album Travelogue showed the then-27-year-old Portland composer/pianist applying his gift for melody to minor key minimalist settings. Though still often reliant on repetitive structures, his subsequent releases — including last year’s luminous full-length Steel, Wood, & Air for piano, bass clarinet, and strings — explore a wider range of emotional landscapes. While some tracks bristle with yearning and tension, others focus more on mood than motion, placing EPs and singles like Abstraktes and this month’s new “Brutal” close enough to the “ambient” category to provide the kind of quiet, reflective atmosphere so many are seeking during this time of upheaval.

February 29th

Marcus Fischer & Ted Laderas

We can’t talk about Oregon ambient music without mentioning estimable Portland musician and installation artist Marcus Fischer, who amalgamates carefully layered extended guitar and studio effects, field recordings, synths, and tape manipulation with improvised gestures. His most recent release, February 29th, with cellist Ted Laderas (his partner in the 2016 score for the film Youth), follows other mesmerizing, gentle and/or Feldmanesque recent collaborations with Burke Jam, Simon Scott, Taylor Deupree, and others. The different combinations and contexts keep each project sounding fresh. 

This time, Fischer replaced his usual guitar with vibraphone, while Laderas played un-effected cello, eschewing electronic manipulation in favor of purely acoustic instrumentation. The lambent half hour single track journeys from rumination to agitation to resolution. Proceeds from purchases of the download benefit Portland’s Rose Haven shelter that serves women, children and gender non-conforming folks experiencing trauma, poverty, and physical and mental health challenges. 

For an entrancing all-Fischer ambient experience, try 2017’s dreamy Loss, whose creative process (the loss of audio fidelity inherent in successive re-recordings of the same source material, like photocopies of photocopies) sonically mirrors the emotional process of coming to terms with personal losses. Fischer’s Bandcamp site offers a non-comprehensive wealth of other recent recordings, including a live 2018 performance.

Virga 1; Pianoworks


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Portland’s Matthew Cooper, a longtime master of evocative, atmospheric instrumentals, has embarked on a new series of ambient recordings under his Eluvium moniker, and Virga 1 indicates that, as usual, deeply considered, relatively spare textures can yield surprising emotional richness. Inspired by children, Eluvium’s other 2019 release, Pianoworks, purposely leans even further toward tuneful simplicity, in hopes of appealing to kids as well as adults. Eluvium’s 2017 Shuffle Drones invites listeners to use the shuffle button on their online players to randomly rearrange Cooper’s brief melodic fragments (or “vignettes of orchestral ambience”), in a move that process-oriented composers like ambient progenitor Brian Eno might appreciate. 

The Snow Queen 

Kenji Bunch & Orchestra Next

Many famous ballet and film scores were released or performed in concert only in excerpted orchestral suites. It’s the composer’s job to serve the dramatic action, not some potential at-home listener, and so scores by even the most famous composers like Copland, Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky and more contain cues that, however deftly they underline, counterpoint, or enhance the stage/screen action, don’t sustain purely auditory interest over long stretches. Same goes for some stretches of Portland composer Kenji Bunch’s 100-minute score commissioned by Eugene Ballet for its original 2017 production of the famous fairy tale (also the source for Disney’s Frozen), performed by Eugene-based Orchestra Next. Luckily, in the digital age, it’s easy to build your own personal Snow Queen out of the cuts here.

Mine would include the stirring opener, “Gypsy Camp,” and “Conjure Woman’s Garden,” and many others, but even the score’s more atmospheric music deserves at least one hearing, though perhaps not all in a single sitting. You’ll hear traces of those above Russian and various cinema composers , especially John Williams, in the anthemic finale and elsewhere. In his biggest-ever single musical creation, Bunch uses a tuneful musical language accessible to all ages that should provide propulsion for dancers and delight for family audiences. I hope other Oregon dance companies will stage the story and use this score. And I hope some Oregon orchestras will perform a concert suite of, say, 20 or so minutes of its most engaging music.  

Feed Your Head; Things Got Heavy for a Moment


All Classical Radio James Depreist

Cult Leader

This Salem-based project (not to be confused with the Utah band of the same name) led by composer and sometime ArtsWatch contributor Tristan Bliss might be described as “heavy ambient,” but these two EPs, intermittently more aggro than atmospheric, are definitely not something you’d want to prescribe as a sleep inducer. Brief doses of sampled pop and other vocals (Neil Young, Whitney Houston, Jefferson Airplane, Carl Sagan) briefly flit in from behind the organ, auto-tuned growls, half-heard vocal snippets, drone ’n drum haze, reversing the usual formula of ghosts haunting reality. When the miasma clears, as when the wispy vocal-over-arpeggiated guitar of “When We Met” emerges from the sludge of “All My Stoned Friends” and “Swirling,” it feels like almost but not quite waking from a vaguely disturbing dream you can’t quite recall.

Find Some Kind of Light

Mood Area 52

You know how sometimes an old friend you haven’t seen in years visits — and you’re surprised how much they’ve changed? That’s how I felt hearing Mood Area 52’s surprising 2019 release Find Some Kind of Light. The Eugene ensemble’s eighth album still features Michael Roderick’s signature gritty vocals (more evocative and expressive than ever) and occasional accordion, Amy Danziger’s soulful cello, Billy Barnett’s sizzling guitars and other recognizable elements, including a dozen original personal and political songs by all three.

Mood Area 52

But it also continues the band’s evolution from Piazzolla-influenced tango rock through film soundtracks, Henry Mancini covers, electronica, klezmer, jazz, blues, Balkan, and Mexican music into full-fledged rootsy  music —  blues rock, folk rock, country and other classic American sounds, enriched by Corwin Bolt on acoustic bass, Don Elkington on drums, and Kee Zublin on tenor sax. Like seeing that old friend again, what at first seems like a sudden shift reveals itself as continued growth in a promising direction that in retrospect had actually been a long time coming — and a welcome alternative to the stagnation that can afflict veteran bands. 

Donut Robot! 


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Post-Haste Reed Duo 

As with their first album in 2016, Portland saxophonist Sean Fredenburg and Idaho bassoonist Javier Rodriguez coax a surprising range of sounds and moods from their unlikely combination of instruments. Ruby Fulton’s title track (inspired by a “damn you, autocorrect!” moment and other tech fails) gets the album off to a fun start, and playfulness permeates other compositions, like the frolicsome first and third movements of Portland composer Michael Johanson’s Soundscapes; the middle movement, by contrast, sonically glides through a snowy Oregon mountain vista. Those pieces contrast with somber, long tone works in the Lamont Young/Morton Feldman tradition by Drew Baker and Portland’s Andrea Reinkemeyer, whose elegiac In the Speaking Silence somehow evokes a strong emotional response out of seemingly little musical activity. Tracks by Edward J. Hines and Takuma Itoh contribute more variety to this vibrant duo disk.  

Other sound sources

Of course, this roundup represents only a fraction of the vast bounty of sonic splendor Oregon musicians provide every year, sometimes in unexpected places. For example, I was listening to a recent Brooklyn Rider CD and noticed the name of a famous Oregon photographer in the title of the mesmerizingly vaporous closing track. It all made more sense when I realized that the composer of Sequence for Minor White was University of Oregon alum Kyle Sanna, who’s carving out an impressive career as composer and guitarist in NYC.  

Though this survey is restricted to recent contemporary classical music composed by past and present Oregonians, by all means, check out worthy recent recordings of, say, Astor Piazzolla, Mozart and JS Bach by Portland State University prof and violin master Tomas Cotik, or arrangements of Baroque-era Scottish music by Portland lute legend Ronn McFarlane. Other enjoyable, folkier recent releases by non-“classical” Oregon musicians like former UO guitar studies faculty member Don Latarski’s Frozen Moments, Eric Kallio’s Life Force and Merideth Kaye Clark and Jenn Grinels’ Siren Songs similarly fall outside the scope here. 

For ArtsWatch appraisals of more original Oregon sounds, check last month’s roundup of jazz-oriented recordings, and other recent recordings recommended by ArtsWatch writers, like Bruce Browne’s ArtsWatch reviews of recent albums by Oregon Repertory Singers and In Mulieribus, Rachael Carnes’s review of a performance that included Eugene composer and UO prof and piper Eliot Grasso’s music for his ensemble Dreos, now available on record, my own looks at FearNoMusic’s latest CD collecting music by one of Oregon’s finest composers, Bonnie Miksch and Christopher Corbell’s recent lyrical Cult of Orpheus release,  and more.

This would also be a prime moment to go back through our archives and check out the Oregon music CDs we’ve often rounded up at year’s end, like this one or this one. Our Oregon ComposersWatch is an ideal central site to sample some of Oregon’s most compelling contemporary classical sounds, past and present. And we plan separate stories on recent recordings by the Oregon Symphony, Oregon choral and vocal recordings, and other locavore musicians.


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Photo Joe Cantrell

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Brett Campbell is a frequent contributor to The Oregonian, San Francisco Classical Voice, Oregon Quarterly, and Oregon Humanities. He has been classical music editor at Willamette Week, music columnist for Eugene Weekly, and West Coast performing arts contributing writer for the Wall Street Journal, and has also written for Portland Monthly, West: The Los Angeles Times Magazine, Salon, Musical America and many other publications. He is a former editor of Oregon Quarterly and The Texas Observer, a recipient of arts journalism fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts (Columbia University), the Getty/Annenberg Foundation (University of Southern California) and the Eugene O’Neill Center (Connecticut). He is co-author of the biography Lou Harrison: American Musical Maverick (Indiana University Press, 2017) and several plays, and has taught news and feature writing, editing and magazine publishing at the University of Oregon School of Journalism & Communication and Portland State University.


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