caroline shaw

MusicWatch Weekly: Stay home!

Cancellations, confirmations, and quarantine playlists

Bad news, everyone! No, it’s not quite the end of the world, at least not yet–and that’s probably the scariest thing of all. It seems we never quite hit Full Disaster, and if the Great Malthusian Dieoff really is underway it’s apparently content with taking its sweet time with us. Instead of a full-blown crisis, we get a series of morally debilitating crises which drain us but don’t ever amount to much (except for the people directly impacted by these subapocalyptic crises, of course, but they’re usually poor, old, foreign, or some other shade of invisible).

Not that we’re wishing for a full-blown crisis: but our minds sure go there in a hurry, don’t they? You’ve seen all the memes by now: on some level of our social psyche we find it easier to hoard toilet paper than to wash our hands more often. We don’t like the small, rational fixes. We like to dream big, and we like to nightmare big too. We like to panic. We like to ostrich.

That, paradoxically, is why the present author has been so gratified to see the concert cancellation notices pouring in. Denial and panic are two sides of the same apocalyptic coin, a rejection of measured responses in favor of whichever easy option is more comfortable (note that neither denial nor panic require much effort). Instead, everybody’s actually talking about it, weighing options and doing their own research, grappling with their social responsibilities, and coming to their own conclusions in the old contest between “safety is job one” and “the show must go on.”

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MusicWatch Monthly: American mestizaje

Caroline Shaw, nyckelharpa and hardanger fiddle, Carnatic voice and violin, harps and drums, and American gothick

As we said a few weeks ago, American musical culture–whether we define “American” as USA, North America, or the entire New World–is above all immigrant musical culture. This seems to hold true for a broad interpretation of “immigrant” which includes, at the very minimum: Puritans and other English-speaking immigrants, with their blend of English, Irish, Scottish, and European traditions; abducted Africans with their own blend of classical and folk traditions; indigenous Peoples across North and South America who found their musical cultures decimated, consumed, and alienated by the arrival of Wendigo; and the successive waves of cultures pouring out of war-torn regions across the world, from Italy and Russia to India and Japan, all bringing their cultures with them and adding to the great and glorious New World Melting Pot.

To be fair, there’s another word that covers all this melting pottedness, and we’d like to follow Gabriela Lena Frank’s lead and adopt a term she borrowed from Peruvian anthropologist José María Arguedas: mestizaje. So let’s go all out and say that American culture is mestizaje culture. Sound good? Great!

The week ahead

Of all the living traditions that thrive in fair Oregon, the one we most enjoy paying attention to is the Contemporary Classical Tradition. We just love the way contemporary composers–like Portland’s David Schiff and this month’s guest star Caroline Shaw–tend the gardens of American Classical Music by embracing both the musicks of their predecessors and the distinctly mestizaje aspect of American culture. (Read more about Shaw and Schiff here and here).

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MusicWatch Weekly: Look before you leap day

A weekend of concerts and a Portland Weird undectet

Fry Day

As usual, we’d like to start by bringing you last minute news of a few shows happening tonight, tonight, tonight. As you read this, Mike Dillon and Band are packing up their road bags, leaving Eugene (where they played at Whirled Pies last night), and trekking up I-5 to Portland, where they’ll head straight down to the Jack London Revue subterraenan social club for an evening of what we can only call “gonzo punk jazz.”

See, from a technique perspective these dudes are all basically just avant-garde jazz musicians (bandleader Dillon is in wide demand as a vibraphonist and all-around killer percussionist), but–like so many others over this last half-century of escalating strangeness–they’ve found the grittiest, truest expression of both “avant-garde” and “jazz” not in the relatively staid traditional world of characters like Henry Threadgill and Branford Marsalis (who are, of course, total badasses and not to be trifled with except for purposes of this strained comparison), but instead have seen the true face of “jazz” and “avant-garde” in the wooly realm of punk, metal, and other folk musicks of the rough and ragged variety. If that’s your bag, dear reader, get on it!

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There is a value in simple things

An interview with composer-singer-violinist Caroline Shaw, performing next week with Third Angle

Whenever composers get together and talk about other composers, the topic inevitably drifts to Who’s The Most Important, a typical domesticated primate behavior which normally results in lists and fights (for the record, Pärt and Saariaho remain verifiably at the top). In terms of living U.S. composers, the question for us often takes the form, “who will be in future music history books?” The really big living names–the Adamses, Crumb, Elfman, Glass, Gordon, Higdon, Lang, Mackey, Monk, Reich, Riley, Tower, Whitacre, Williams, Wolfe, Zwilich–are already in the history books, so for this exercise we’d like to really dig down and focus on the rising generation of composers, the ones who are (let’s be generous) underfortyish.

Prediction’s a messy business, laden with personal biases and all the customary cultural baggage, but the present author would like to report that, in our experience, a handful of names nearly always make the speculative Future Music History Book list: Andy Akiho, Gabriela Lena Frank, Gabriel Kahane, Missy Mazzoli, Andrew Norman, and Caroline Shaw. My money’s on Frank and Shaw, who I think will be remembered as the Bartók and Stravinsky of this era. Frank as Bartók is an easy one, but don’t take our Shaw=Stravinsky equation too literally (sonically Norman is much closer). However we must note that if, as David Lang suggests, Riley’s In C premiere was his generation’s Rite of Spring premiere, then Shaw’s Pulitzer win for Partita for Eight Voices was quite likely ours.

In an important sense there has never been a composer like Caroline Shaw, who will be in town twice next month, starting with Third Angle’s “Caroline in the City” concerts March 5th and 6th. Brahms needed Joachim, Britten needed Pears, the Three Brothers of Minimalism (Phil and Steve and Terry) never could have existed without each other, ditto Bang on a Can’s Bizarre Love Triangle. But as near as I can tell, Shaw (like, say, Laurie Anderson) doesn’t actually need anyone else–and (again like Anderson) she has the generosity and collaborative spirit characteristic of such autonomous artists. We’re talking about a classical composer who can go on stage with a megastar like Kanye West and she makes him look cool. Suddenly Barbara Strozzi comes to mind.

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MusicWatch Weekly: The fanfare zone

Gongs and songs, traditional guitars and uncommon fanfares, and a lecture on women in jazz

Tonight, tonight, tonight!

Your busy music editor has to miss a bunch of cool stuff tonight, dear reader: I’ll be schlepping gongs and playing reyong with Gamelan Wahyu Dari Langit, opening for Wet Fruit at Mississippi Studios. If you followed our adventures in Bali last summer and want to hear what all the fuss was about, here’s your chance.

We’ve been hearing the name Mary-Sue Tobin for years: her saxophone quartet Quadraphonnes is a real riot, and the composer/saxophonist herself gets involved in all sorts of Portland jazz shenanigans. Tonight at Literary Arts in Southwest, Tobin presents her free Women in Jazz lecture.

Across the river at Holocene on Southeast Belmont, local musicians Night Heron, Korgy & Bass, and Colin Jenkins join hands with local puppeteers for Pop + Puppetry. Meanwhile, down in Eugene, the symphony’s got a show tonight that Senior Editor Brett Campbell wants to tell you about:

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MusicWatch Weekly: Year end album guide

Get your healthy 78 minutes of listening with albums of modern classical, vintage pop, nouveau prog, Australian psych, and Portland Gothic

We recently came across a study showing that 78 minutes of music a day can have a positive impact on mental health. Now, this particular study wants to break it down into percentages and so on: yet another instance of the commercialized slicing and dicing that gave us the one-minute bible and endless “classical adagios” compilations. I say cancel all that noise and damn it to hell. Listen to what pleases you. Don’t make a goddamn recipe of it, reducing Glorious Music to a set of instructions. If you’re going to do that, you might as well buy one of Philip K. Dick’s Penfield Mood Organs and relax into navel-gazing oblivion.

Anyways, the main takeaway here is that curiously specific 78-minute block of time, which just happens to be pretty close to the exact length of a CD (remember CDs?)–and that’s probably no coincidence. Various other studies (start here) have shown that our brains prefer twenty-minute chunks of mental processing, and if you string four of those chunks together you get your basic symphony. Vinyl LPs (remember LPs?) followed the same flow format, their 20-minute sides strung together into 40-minute single albums and 80-minute double albums. Scale that back down and you get mini-albums and EPs. These usually these clock in at a brain-friendly 20-30 minutes, shorter than a full-length album but also distinctly more substantial and coherent than a mere collection of songs.

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Embracing creativity

Composer Gabriel Kahane discusses new Creative Chair position, concerts with Oregon Symphony

This week, singer-songwriter-composer Gabriel Kahane arrived in Portland to start his position as Creative Chair for the Oregon Symphony–a job he’ll hold for three seasons, organizing a variety of concerts and working with the beloved hometown orchestra to expand its embrace of new music and living composers. Kahane’s already got Caroline Shaw on board for two different concerts next March: her Partita (paired with Berio’s Sinfonia) and a more intimate chamber concert, the first of Kahane’s Open Music series (and conveniently scheduled less than ten days after Shaw’s Portland concerts with Third Angle). That seems like a pretty good start to me.

The symphony has needed this, dear reader–although, in the half-decade I’ve been monitoring them professionally, the OSO has performed some truly wonderful concerts of new music. In fact, they’ve covered three pretty distinct eras of what’s broadly thought of as “new music”: old new music (Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Ravel); new new music (Theofanidis, Akiho, Bettison); and that fruitful in-between realm of oft-forgotten mid-to-late 20th-century music (Barber, Menotti, Corigliano). There have also been more than a few duds in the mix–which is as reliable a sign as any that they’ve hit critical mass.

It’s the question of what they should be doing with that critical mass that’s been concerning me these last few years. We could consider the situation until now as a bare minimum for embracing new music–after all, a bolder move would be to simply invert the ratios and banish Beethoven to the occasional overture, that phantom token zone where the new music usually has to content itself.

That brings us to this weekend’s concerts, which begin with Beethoven’s overture to The Creatures of Prometheus–a wildly appropriate choice considering the rest of the program. The old new music is represented by Russian film composer Sergei Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5 in B-flat Major, a gorgeous and emotionally complicated mid-century ode to the human spirit. All the rest is Kahane, joining the orchestra to sing “Empire Liquor Mart” and Pattern of the Rail, a suite of six newly orchestrated songs from his solo piano-and-voice album Book of Travellers–another ode to the human spirit.

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