Bobby Torres

MusicWatch Weekly: Second summer chills out

Portland cools down with Montavilla Jazz Festival, two-score local bands, orchestral hip-hop, and a bunch of bleached assholes

Happy Indonesian Independence Day! Seventy-four years ago today, Indonesia declared its independence from the Netherlands after three centuries of Dutch colonialism (I’ll bet you thought they were always just about tulips and weed). To celebrate, here’s a little video (if you can’t read Indonesian, skip on down):

So in a minute I’m going to tell you where to hear a zillion local composers rock out this weekend, and Senior Editor Brett Campbell has some things to say about the Montavilla Jazz Festival starting tonight, but the gamelan band I’m in Bali with just played its freshly blessed instruments for the first time this morning, so as soon as I wipe these tears of joy out of my beard I think it’s about time to give you all a little music theory lesson.

Caution: All comparisons to Western phenomena are meant as a starting point, not an accurate description of genuine Balinese music. The present author is no expert, but only an egg. Caveat emptor.

Start at your piano, accordion, Casio, or other Western style keyboard. All those white keys make up the diatonic major scale, and if you shift around the starting pitch you get the seven so-called church modes. Music students learn about all that in first year theory and never use them again.

Start with the note E on your white-note keyboard. Play the next two white keys: F and G. Then skip one, to B, and then to C. Skip up to E and you’re done. In the West we might call that a Phrygian Pentatonic. In Indonesia they call it pelog, and it’s everywhere. Even the ubiquitous roosters crow in pelog.

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Portland’s August occasions

The great playwright August Wilson takes the spotlight in Red Door's high-school monologues and PassinArt's gala and "Two Trains"

We’re in the middle of August Wilson Week in Portland, which is a very good place to be.

On Friday, PassinArt: A Theatre Company opens the great American playwright’s Two Trains Running at the Interstate Firehouse Center.

On Monday evening before a packed audience in the Newmark Theatre, the August Wilson Red Door Project held its fifth annual high school Monologue Competition, choosing two winners and an alternate to move on to the nationals at the August Wilson Theatre on Broadway in New York.

On Saturday evening in a ballroom at the DoubleTree by Hilton near Lloyd Center, PassinArt celebrated its annual gala, Sweet Taste of the Arts, with a healthy crowd that included, among many others, Two Trains Running director William Earl Ray and the superb veteran actor J.P. Phillips, who is also riding the trains.

And with just a little patience, the August Wilson celebration extends: On May 2, Portland Playhouse will open its revival of his Pulitzer- and Tony-winning Fences. It’ll be the seventh of Wilson’s “American Century Cycle” of ten plays, each from a different decade of the 20th century, that the Playhouse has presented for Portland audiences – a gratifying and illuminating feat. Those plays – in addition to Two Trains Running and Fences they include Gem of the Ocean, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, The Piano Lesson, Seven Guitars, Jitney, King Hedley II, and Radio Golf – constitute one of the great achievements of the American theater, and for that matter, of American literature and culture.

Wilson’s plays are vital historic documents, and they are still urgently current, as a story by Tracy Jan earlier this week in the Washington Post makes clear. Report: No progress for African Americans on homeownership, unemployment and incarceration in 50 years, it’s headlined, and it underlines both the disturbing intransigence of America’s racial divide and the continuing need for honest, revealing, compelling stories about ordinary life in all of the nation’s communities.

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Jump for joy: August Wilson monologue winners, from left: third place winner Alyssa Marchant, first place winner Noreena McCleave, second place winner Kai Tomizawa. Wade Owens Photography

Both the August Wilson Monologue Competition and PassinArt’s gala were intensely community events, art growing from the connections among place and people and time. Communities, of course, are both fluid and interlocking, and can be expanded or carried with you when you leave. In Wilson’s case it begins in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, the economically teetering but culturally vibrant African American/Jewish/Italian neighborhood where he grew up and where most of his plays are set. But really, it begins further back, on the slave ships, in the fields and plantation houses (his great and mystical character Aunt Ester is 285 years old when we first meet her in Gem of the Ocean, and lasts through several plays and about 60 more years beyond that), along the route of the Great Migration that brought so many emancipated but not fully free African Americans out of the rural South and into the urban North, bringing their hopes and songs and stories with them.

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