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Sonic explorations: Fear No Music’s ‘Locally Sourced Sounds IX’ presented music by Portland-based women composers

Last Monday’s concert at The Old Church featured ebows and superball mallets in music by Skye Neal, Kirsten Volness, Rachel Modlin, Bora Yoon, and Kimberly Osberg.


Have you heard the sounds that an ebow creates when placed inside a piano? Or the sound of a superball mallet rubbing along the skin of a bass drum? Those were some of the unique sonic effects that I heard in Fear No Music’s most recent concert (January 22) featuring works by Portland-based women composers. Entitled “Locally Sourced Sounds IX,” FNM’s intrepid musicians gave the small but hearty crowd at The Old Church an earful of terrific vibrations concocted by Skye Neal, Kirsten Volness, Rachel Modlin, Bora Yoon, and Kimberly Osberg

The sonic journey began in familiar territory with Romance by Skye Neal, an award-winning, 14-year-old composer who has participated with FNM’s Young Composers Project for the past six years. Played evocatively by violist Kenji Bunch and pianist Monica Ohuchi (the husband-and-wife honchos of FNM), Romance filled the hall with a lovely and lyrical melody that also had a hint of old-timey, folk style. After transitioning to a faster section with an alternating theme, the piece returned deftly to the initial melody and finished gracefully.

The Pathless Woods by Kirsten Volness involved a curious blend of live electronics, pre-recorded sounds, vibraphone, kick drum, and violin. Performed by violinist Inés Voglar Belgique and percussionist Michael Roberts, this piece started quietly with pizzicato-ing violin and a continuous tremolo on the vibraphone, accompanied by a gentle, atmospheric pre-recorded background. The pace quickened and became more rhythmic with Belgique playing the violin and stepping on the kick-drum pedal at the same time. The music had an otherworldly hollowness before drifting into a beautiful, lullaby-like passage and folded up quietly.

Rachel Modlin’s Hemingway’s Attitude conveyed a lot of improvisation and jazz-like elements for flute (Amelia Lukas), clarinet (James Shields), cello (Nancy Ives), and piano (Ohuchi). The tough part of the piece seemed to be the constant repetitive drive that Ohuchi maintained on the keyboard while each of the other instrumentalists had free-wheeling sections. Lukas excelled with some tremendous licks, Shields generated more measured riffs, and Ives, after a subdued start, really got climbing into a wild frenzy but then had to stop.

Darn it!

The piece concluded with all the musicians shifting to a sunny passage before a final tutti chord. 

According to Wikipedia, the ebow (electronic or energy bow) “is an electronic device used for playing string instruments.” This little gizmo was placed somewhere inside the piano by Ohuchi where it became a central part of Bora Yoon’s Proprioception Game. This piece also incorporated the subterranean sounds that were generated by a superball mallet that Roberts stroked or rubbed on the bass drum. At times he bowed cymbals and the vibraphone. Violinist Keiko Araki provided high, solemn, sustained lines. It took a while for my ears to adjust to the collage of disparate sounds, but they did acquire a pensiveness and then sort of relaxed in an oddly enjoyable way.


PCS Clyde’s

The program notes supplied an excellent description: 

Proprioception Game is a generative chamber trio, for dyadic e-bows within a piano, violinist with perfect pitch responding with the creation of music in realtime, and a percussionist of bowed wind gongs and various metals to resonate in turn. This 3-part conversation is akin to the walking sensation of stepping forward, weight shifting, and the torso and sense of self in space following suit for the other step to determine navigation, speed, gesture, direction. This delicate work is scaffolded with fixed motifs, underpinning the structure into 12-parts to shape the ultimate trajectory, density, and contour of the resulting work. This piece is performed different every time. This work breathes with its players, and the room. 

The concert concluded with the wonderfully humorous and witty Suite-Ass Cycle by Kimberly Osberg. Flutist Lukas and clarinetist Shields cycled through three tricky but playful movements. The first involved forte whistling moments from the flute, and pinpoint stops and starts. The second piled on more extended techniques with fluttery sounds, tongue pizzicatos, key clicks, and other unusual skills. Both Lukas and Shields also paused at times to yawn when the tempo slowed down. The third movement – inspired by a huge moth that the composer encountered while taking a shower – quickened with periodic cries (Yeow!), stomping of feet, and the instrumental sounds flying chaotically. 

The only problem was that Lukas’ score became locked near the end, and she couldn’t advance to the last page (screen). That didn’t matter to the audience, which responded with enthusiastic applause. But the performers wanted to do it the right way. So we were treated to an encore. This time, the foot stomping was more coordinated, and that brought down the house a second time.

I loved the fun aspect of Suite-Ass Cycle, and I am sure Peter Schickele aka P. D. Q. Bach would have fully approved. It was a great way to end the concert, and it also made me reflect on the new music scene in Oregon. We are experiencing a groundswell of composers and are fortunate to have outstanding ensembles like FNM to present their musical ideas. It’s a great time to be in the Rose City. Some musicians are even talking about a Oregon School of Composition much in the same way that we think of moniker like the Second Viennese School. Wouldn’t that be something!

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Photo Joe Cantrell

James Bash enjoys writing for The Oregonian, The Columbian, Classical Voice North America, Opera, and many other publications. He has also written articles for the Oregon Arts Commission and the Grove Dictionary of American Music, 2nd edition. He received a fellowship to the 2008 NEA Journalism Institute for Classical Music and Opera, and is a member of the Music Critics Association of North America.

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