bob priest

MusicWatch Weekly: Welcome to Digital Heaven

Hermit like a champ with Oregon’s virtualocal superstars

These days we’re toggling between two extremes: on the one hand, digitally mediated mass socialization via zoom, youtube, social media, and all the rest of the burgeoning digital (after)life; on the other hand, some truly next-level hermit action in the form of baking, yoga, quilting, meditation, prayer, journaling, self-reflection, self-recording, and the simple joy of sitting and catching up on all those books you’ve been meaning to read since, like, the eighties.

Of course, most of us are splitting the difference one way or another–for instance, we know dozens of musicians who are spending their quarantine listening to and sharing their favorite albums, a perfect example of how a fundamentally isolated endeavor can be transmuted into an eminently social experience. Same goes, mutatis mutandis, for book clubs and TV show binge-watching parties (let me know if I can spoil Battlestar Galactica for you).

We’ll be talking in some depth about this nascent digital afterlife starting next week, when we’ll discuss: 45th Parallel Universe’s new friend Kevin; defunct Portland cyberpunk indie trio Menomena; recent and timely Matrixy entertainment like Devs, Westworld, and Upload; and media guru Douglas Rushkoff’s “Ten Commands for a Digital Age.” That’s all in the first of several new series we schemers at ArtsWatch have planned for your next few months of quarantined music reading. Stay tuned.

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March Music Moderne preview: celebrating Debussy

Festival commemorates the creativity and influence of composer Claude Debussy with concerts of his music and new works by Oregon composers

While everyone is checking their brackets for one kind of March Madness (go Ducks!), some of us are equally excited by the return of another crazy rite of spring. March Music Moderne has been on hiatus for while, so it’s even more thrilling to welcome back one of Oregon’s most fascinating music melanges, because it spotlights music you can’t hear at other Oregon classical music concerts, primarily composers who write or wrote music in the modernist tradition. And unlike most overpriced classical music concerts, March Modness is always free, subsidized by Priest (whose wealth lies in his musical generosity rather than negotiable currency) himself.

Actually, though, this edition of MMM superficially resembles Ye Olde Classical Music in at least one way: what I call necromusicophilia, the worship of dead composers. Classical music institutions, desperately needing a news hook to provide an excuse to pay more than usual attention to composers who aren’t going to be releasing any albums of new material or embarking on tours, tend to focus on round number birthdays or, more macabrely, death days.

Claude Debussy, 1908.

For Claude Debussy, that day came exactly 100 years ago Sunday, when the French composer died of cancer during World War I as German shells exploded near his Paris home. But why would the generally mid-20th century March Music Moderne’s three concerts this weekend at Portland’s Community Music Center, and associated other activities this month, commemorate Debussy’s demise?

One answer may be that it was one of his groundbreaking works, Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, that turned MMMpresario Bob Priest onto classical music, rescuing him from rock music’s gutters and vaulting him into the palace of — nah, not really. Priest still cherishes Jimi Hendrix, Prince and other rock and pop deities. And as we’ll see, this festival includes far more new music — and by Oregon composers — than old.

But Priest is far from alone in his Debussy devotion. This isn’t the only centennial commemoration of his death happening around the world this year. There are days when he’s my favorite composer too. And it’s a sign of Debussy’s artistic significance and variety that he’s legitimately claimed as a major inspiration by many if not most composers who followed — modernist, post-mod, and otherwise, including one of Priest’s prime mentors, Olivier Messiaen. That’s how rich was his palette — from La Mer’s turbulent seascapes to Children’s Corner’s playful naivete to Pelleas and Melisande’s shadowy moods and so much more. And that’s why Debussy makes an appropriate centerpiece of a modern music festival: not just for his past accomplishments, but also for his future impact, which continues here and now.

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Musicians from Classical Revolution PDX performed at Holocene in March Music Moderne

Musicians from Classical Revolution PDX performed at Holocene in March Music Moderne.

There are people who really like the mathematically determined music of the 20th century Greek-French composer Iannis Xenakis—more than just acknowledging its undeniable historical importance. There are also people, I am told, who enjoy being rolfed, walking barefoot across hot coals, participating in fight clubs, and being lashed by whips. I think these all must be the same people.

Enduring the relentless pummeling of the Portland premiere of Xenakis’s 1978 exercise in dissonance Ikhoor at Sunday night’s closing March Music Moderne, just after enjoying so many other concerts featuring young (and sometimes not-so-young) Oregon composers at the same festival revealed just how far midcentury modernism that MMM celebrates strayed from appealing to a broad audience — and how Oregon composers are leading the way in bringing music in the classical tradition back to its rightful, central place in the hearts and minds of anyone who loves music, not just the dwindling niche who dig discordance.

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Good Fellas

There's a new music mafia in Oregon: meet the godfathers

By MARIA CHOBAN

I dragged myself to my first Cascadia Composers concert on a rainy November night in 2010, tired after a full day of teaching. David Bernstein greeted the audience with a welcome speech pleading with us to take pity on composers – so little respected and liked anymore.

I rolled my eyes. Who’s to blame for composers not being well respected or liked anymore? Could it possibly be. . . . THEY are to blame? For having subjected us for half of the 20th century to sudoku math puzzles or chance games masquerading as music? They called it the Modernist era, after the fact. I call it bullshit. Moreover, the music at that first CC concert sucked, the performances sucked and I stalked home in a bad mood.

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Founder Mattie Kaiser toasts the revolution at CRPDX's fifth anniversary bash.

Founder Mattie Kaiser toasts the revolution at CRPDX’s fifth anniversary bash.

When I first met Mattie Kaiser, she looked haggard. Sitting on a barstool at the Waypost, the founder of Classical Revolution PDX, an indie classical music organization founded for those who defined classical music as something larger than the pin-point of anything old and academic, she was waiting for one of its early-on chamber jams to be over so she could go home and sleep.

Kaiser would also have been easy to underestimate. In these early days of CRPDX, after they’d switched from infrequent jams announced well in advance (at various venues like Red & Black Cafe, Costello’s, Someday Lounge, the Woods) to weekly sessions at The Waypost in northeast Portland circa 2011, there were nights when it was just Mattie who held down the fort, playing solo Bach on her viola to no one in the room. Hard to believe from a personality so charismatic, from someone who understands the importance of physical appearances (and she is beautiful!), from what seems like a performer with a natural ability to draw an audience. Obviously it takes more and as I would soon discover, in Kaiser the tenacity is there.

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Enter Bob Priest, impresario of music festival March Music Moderne. We too started off on the wrong foot. I completely misunderstood his mission, having been completely seduced by the title of the first of his two concerts in his then-weekend festival: “Almost Nothing Like Purple Haze.” He assured me that that 2011 weekend concert series was a one-off, explaining that he was too tired and too burned out from having done this sort of thing in his distant past with disastrous consequences to his health, I nodded disingenuously in false agreement, secretly plotting how to get him to meet me for coffee so I could cajole him into presenting another year of expanded MMM festspielnalia.

Turns out it wasn’t hard. Priest is a festival creator addict. He had been taking notes on his yellow legal pad while waiting for me to show up. Full of ideas, exuberant, clearly in the throes of his high, he left me in the dust – something I’m not used to. Priest knew exactly what he wanted: Modernism! I detest it because of its academic elitist attitude and its misconceived perception that music is made minus feeling or choice.

I knew exactly what I wanted from Bob: a one-month long festival in March, feting up-to-the minute music with up-to-the-minute fresh professional presentations, something that could be marketed as a Portland tourist attraction in our least attractive tourist season. And never the two shall meet, or so I imagined after this fireworks first meeting.

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