contemporary portland orchestra project

Eugene Contemporary Chamber Ensemble performed at Bamboo Grove in 2012. Photo: Brian McKee, a former member and bassoonist

Eugene Contemporary Chamber Ensemble performed at Bamboo Grove in 2012. Photo: Brian McKee, a former member and bassoonist


Composers and musicians from opposite ends of the Willamette will celebrate new connections between two river communities when the Eugene Contemporary Chamber Ensemble  (ECCE) and the Contemporary Portland Orchestra Project (CPOP) join forces for a March Music Moderne concert on March 8 at Portland’s AudioCinema studios.

Organized by ECCE director Andrew Stiefel, OCF members John Goforth and Matt Zavortink, and CPOP composers Jay Derderian, Lisa Lipton and artistic director Justin Ralls, the  New Music Co-Op: Inaugural Assembly includes 21 performers and 11 composers and features premiers of new music composed just for this occasion. 

The Contemporary Portland Orchestra Project, founded in 2011, is intent on connecting audiences with today’s young West Coast composers. The Eugene Contemporary Chamber Ensemble, one of six University of Oregon groups organized and run by School of Music and Dance students, has performed new music composed in a variety of configurations ranging from soloists to large ensembles. Made up of honors instrumentalists and composers, ECCE has, since 2005, premiered more than 60 new compositions in venues around Oregon. This inaugural collaboration received funding from a grant from New Music USA, one of only 60 awarded out of 1,618 project proposals it received.

“Our organizations have a shared mission — to support emerging voices in contemporary music through new collaborations and innovative concert experiences — so working together has given us a chance to broaden the reach and impact of our work,” Stiefel told ArtsWatch via email. “We hope this will be the first of many collaborative concerts between our organizations and the new music communities in Eugene and Portland. Strengthening regional collaborations increases the reach of our music and allows more people to participate in creating a vibrant musical community in Oregon.”

New Music From Upstream

The Portland concert will showcase new works by participants in the Oregon Composers Forum (OCF), a group of composition students at the University of Oregon and who have studied with School of Music and Dance faculty Robert Kyr, David Crumb and Terry McQuilkin.

David Eisenband was strongly influenced by thoughts of dancing when he composed Three Dances for String Quartet. “Each instrument has an extensive passage which I conceived of as music for solo dancers,” he writes. “The first movement is titled Blues as it uses a modified blues form, the second features the bowing technique bariolage, and the third is a joyous finale.”

Oregon Composers Forum members Alex Bean, Matt Zavortink, Andrew Stiefel, David Eisenband, John Goforth, David Sackmann, and Nayla Mehdi. Photo: Robert Kyr.

Oregon Composers Forum members Alex Bean, Matt Zavortink, Andrew Stiefel, David Eisenband, John Goforth, David Sackmann, and
Nayla Mehdi. Photo: Robert Kyr.

John Goforth’s Three Preludes explores the relationship between the two lowest instruments of the string family. “In the first prelude, the cello and bass descend into waves of resonance that begin to falter and eventually evaporate as they emerge and overpower the resonance from which they surfaced,” he explains. “In stark contrast to the first, the second prelude is quick and light with the cello and bass dancing around one another. The third prelude, the longest of the set, uses dramatic expanding gestures to return to the resonance of the first prelude.”

David Sackmann calls Rainier Monster Slayer “a fun little scherzo for violin, alto saxophone, and cello loosely based on an old advertisement I ran across in a bar.” While featuring all three instruments in unique ways, it places emphasis on the alto saxophone. The piece attempts to explore some of the interesting sounds that comes from this fairly unorthodox combination of timbres, while painting a fun and sometimes over-the-top picture of a hero’s journey (battling the “Rainier monster” as depicted in the ad) that finds its peak in a short alto saxophone cadenza towards the end. Video interview.

(Addison) Kei Hong Wong reflects upon his Macau childhood when discussing his Dances for Solo Violin. “The first movement mimics the lullaby my mom quietly sang to me when I was a baby,” he remembers. “It was sung in the afternoon while my dad was at work and my sister and brother were at school. The fast second section reflects a joyful festival celebrating the Chinese New Year when the streets are full of laughter, blessings, fire works, and dragon dancers.”

Foxglove, for solo flute, is based on composer Matt Zavortink’s friend’s favorite word. “It’s the juxtaposition of soft, fricative sounds (“f” and “v”) at either end with an awkward to pronounce string of consonants in the middle (“xgl” — try saying this part slowly) that has its appeal,” he explains. “The piece’s timbral palette is directly derived from these sounds and the mouth positions required making them. Additionally, the letters of the word were used to create a seven-note motive that gives rise to all of the piece’s pitch material through simple fragmentation and transposition.” Video interview.

Nayla Mehdi says her short would it have been for trumpet and electronics focuses on a moment missed. Composed of subtle complexities, it is intimate in nature, “calling for a more sensitive listening.” Video interview.


New Music From Downstream

The concert includes three compositions by CPOP members.  Justin Ralls explains that the title of his composition, Sat chit ananda, is Sanskrit for “being, consciousness, and bliss,” noting that the piece is minimalistic and perhaps spatially oriented and contains improvisatory elements for the ‘bliss’ section à la the minimalism jams of old.

Jay Derderian‘s [REDACTED], scored for amplified solo viola and fixed media (“tape”), is about “what we hold within — whether out of fear, necessity, social custom, or ineffable reason — we assimilate into the fabric of ourselves,” he posts. “Our memories and experiences inform the basis of our sense of self. The traces we leave around us — our interactions, words, photos — become the fabric of our lives, our outer sense of self, and along this process emerges our lives, experienced.”

Sam Resing ‘s fun piece for bassoon, She Doesn’t Know, “exploits registral differences to create several independent melodic lines that join together to create rich counterpoint,” he writes. “The opening rhythmic figure serves as the foundation of the piece, and all of the remaining material is derived from it. In addition, gradually changing harmonic cycles in each voice help propel the movement forward.”

The inaugural assembly of CPOP and ECCE concludes with a community performance of Frederic Rzewski’s Les Moutons de Panurge and Terry Riley’s minimalist 20th century classic In C. Everyone is encouraged to bring their own instrument — voice, a trumpet, a guitar, a toy piano, or just a bucket and a pair of sticks — and join in.

Tickets are $7 in advance or $10 at the door. Discounted student/senior/military tickets are available at the door for $5 with ID. Tickets may be purchased online, and ticket sales will be donated to the Portland Community Music Center. Composer video interviews are available on the ECCE site.

Gary Ferrington is Senior Instructor Emeritus, Education, at the University of Oregon. 

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Want to learn more about contemporary Oregon classical music? Check out Oregon ComposersWatch.

CPOP's March 2012 performance, 'Cymatica 1.' from left: Brandon Becker, Brandon C. Nelson, Wille Gibbs, Aaron Banfield. First row from left: Lucia Conrad, Virginia Feldman, Erin Winemiller. Justin Ralls conducting. Photo: Karen Parrott

CPOP’s ‘Cymatica 1,’ at Portland’s Someday Lounge March 2012.
From left: Brandon Becker, Brandon C. Nelson, Wille Gibbs, Aaron
Banfield. First row from left: Lucia Conrad, Virginia Feldman, Erin
Winemiller. Justin Ralls conducting. Photo: Karen Parrott


Contemporary Portland Orchestra Project (CPOP) is presenting “When Strange Birds Passing Meet: Memory and Mimesis in the Soundscape” on Friday, March 22, at 11:00pm at Portland’s Bamboo Grove, in the penultimate performance of March Music Moderne 2013. ArtsWatch contributor Jana Hanchett interviewed clarinetist and CPOP co-artistic director Lisa Lipton about the concert and the project.

CPOP is a bold marriage between classical instrumentation and the electronic sounds of our current sound world. Inspired by BMOP (Boston Modern Orchestra Project),  co-artistic directors Lisa Lipton and Justin Ralls pair contemporary composers with skilled chamber musicians. This performance features San Francisco and Portland composers Joe Colombo, Danny Clay, Justin Ralls  and Charles Copeland.

Q: Why and how did you start CPOP?

Lisa Lipton: I didn’t know a lot about contemporary classical music until I moved to Portland in 2009 and enrolled at Portland State University. I became so bored playing dead composers. Classical music has often felt to me like a dying thing, and it’s mind-blowing that so many of us are just nonchalantly watching it expire. I began asking, “Why don’t we play anything new? Are new thoughts even happening in classical music?” I joined a new music ensemble at PSU in my freshman year, and as my new music friends started writing clarinet music for me, I realized that here was something special and unique. I uniquely understand this music because it’s happening now and because my friends are the composers.

This community aspect is very important to me. To play any music, but particularly contemporary music, you need to understand people. I love human interaction, and that’s why I love performing this particular repertoire. I have become possessed by this need to start a small chamber orchestra made up of community members.

I met Justin Ralls at a Third Angle Concert in Portland.  He had just graduated from Boston Conservatory, and we were both asking “Why do all my friends write this music and it never gets played?” At the time I was also working at Rimsky-Korsakoffee House and playing classical music there. Justin and I wanted to open up something similar but on our terms; we would play anything we wanted!! Inspired by the Milk Bar in A Clockwork Orange, it would be eclectic, but ultimately a place to hang out and share musical ideas without rules or expectations.

Unfortunately, we couldn’t find enough musicians, and we didn’t get enough funding from our Kickstarter to rent the parts, pay the musicians, and find an appropriate venue. In the process, though, we met all these fabulous musicians and realized that something was indeed coming together. So we decided we would just do it: become an orchestra and eventually get a venue space. Our first concert was at the Mini Experimental Music Festival put on by Paul Pinto at the Someday Lounge back in 2011.

What’s your ideal venue?

A gigantic space! Open, spacious, high ceilings. I think industrial spaces that have been touched up a bit create a great sound and atmosphere where people can actually move around and not be stuck.

What kind of musicians play in CPOP?

We’re looking for performers to join all the time. Right now we could use a good oboist! The music we work with is pretty challenging to learn, and to give composer’s the encouragement and freedom to write what they want, we make sure our musicians are classically trained, meaning that they can read music. We do have open improv at the end of every show, so we encourage audience members to bring their instruments and play along no matter their training.

What is a classical musician and are classical musicians best poised to play contemporary classical music? 

When someone says “I’m a classical musician,” they mean they can read notation and read it damn well. Classical music capitalizes on literacy. A classical musician is proficient at reading all styles of music for her particular instrument. While a classical musician isn’t necessarily able to play everything, she’s able to understand how to read it and how to play it.

Unfortunately, not every classical musician can improv.  Improvisation is a different language, notation not included but not necessarily excluded.  For instance, I just worked on this project with Mike Mahaffay; he’s doing a project called the Universe Ives Project Symphony. He wanted to play Charles Ives’s “Universe Symphony” but didn’t have the resources, so he decided to do an improv based on the symphony.  He’s making his own Ives Universe Symphony! His piece has a small string section, two upright basses, percussion, clarinet and trumpet as solo. He talked us through the form of the piece (“strings are going to get louder here, the trumpet’s going to play this here three times, watch for this motion here, and when I give you these signals you need to know what they mean”), and it worked!

This sophisticated illiteracy is what makes the Decibel Festival so fascinating. During the Decibel Festival in September 2012 I worked under Christina Vantzou, a composer from Belgium. She was paid by the government to fly to America and participate in this festival, but she couldn’t read a note. She gave me these index cards that had C or A written on them. I didn’t even know if I was supposed to transpose, and she had to listen to me play and tell me yes or no.  It was such a crazy thing that all these composers were reaching out into the new music society without any formal training. The music is classically influenced, and all the people I played with were classically trained.

How should a newbie approach contemporary classical music?

Contemporary music presents ideas using unfamiliar sound structures; sometimes this is exhilarating, but often we have to commit to listening. When we commit and really listen to a new idea or a new piece, it can be hard. Humans do not like change. In fact, we do our best to avoid the trauma of change. But without change, without growth, there can never be any new discoveries; for this reason, we need to constantly expose ourselves to new sounds.  We particularly need to pay close attention to the sounds created by the people we live by, work with, and see at that coffee shop. Contemporary music is about hearing people; it’s about understanding what is important in life; it’s about expressing how you feel, and it’s about learning how to connect with a meaningful vision.

Lisa Lipton performs a vegetable improvisation on "carronet" at CPOP's March 2012 concert

Lisa Lipton performs a vegetable improvisation on “carronet” at CPOP’s March 2012 concert

What’s your dream for CPOP?

Boston Modern Orchestra Project (BMOP) is definitely an inspiration and model for our group, as it’s the leading orchestra performing, recording, and commissioning new orchestral music. I would love to create something bigger than myself: something that non- musicians want to support because they find it nurturing for their community. If I had a grant, I would be able to pay my musicians and call for new, culturally relevant scores on a monthly basis, thus growing CPOP into a gigantic organism that everyone wants to be a part of.

Orchestra is a beautiful art form and so many people love it, but there are problems with how orchestras are currently trying to integrate into society. I understand that sometimes people are uncomfortable at high art performances simply because they’ve never experienced classical music before; but also, a lot of irrelevant art makes the cut in orchestra, and so of course people are going to feel a little confused and uncomfortable.

CPOP is trying to bridge that gap by playing works by people developing their artistic voice within their particular community. For example, Justin and I participated in the Filmusik annual “Movies in the Park” this year, which met with huge success. I think around 2000 people attended the showing of the foreign film Gamera vs. Zigra, which was accompanied by a live chamber ensemble performing a score composed by Justin. Galen Huckins, who helps manage Filmusik, has hit the mark: this is new music performed by community members in a familiar visual context.  As the audience experiences active listening, strong connections are created within our community between new music and contemporary art.  The ultimate goal with CPOP is to be super community oriented: a community-based orchestra playing community-based compositions.

Tell us all about your upcoming performance.

Our performers are Justin, my father John Lipton, Ian Kerr and Tyler Bragg, who have worked and taught in the Washington-Oregon area a lot, Lucia Conrad, Travis Chapman, and myself.

There’s also a theme: electro-acoustic ambient composition. This music is very minimalistic music with lots of electronics. You’ll hear new sounds presented in familiar ways. We’re doing two solo violin works, a piece for two violins and clarinet, a piece for glockenspiel, clarinet and ride cymbal, plus, the really exciting ones are the trios for three glockenspiels.

I’m really excited for Charlie Copeland’s piece. Charlie is an amazing composer who has truly found his voice. He composed this piece for three glockenspiels after I told him about Joe Colombo’s “Structure II,” which is also on the program. The first movement of Copeland’s piece is called “Don’t Rain” and is very ambient with beautiful intervals and little trills between all the glockenspiels.  Then the second movement of the piece, which is about three minutes, is called “The Starlight Parade,” after Portland’s hilarious and rambunctious night parade.  It’s a canon between the three glocks!

The Starlight Parade

I’m also excited to premiere Danny Clay’s piece for solo clarinet, two violins and tape cassette. Danny is a student at San Francisco Conservatory of Music who recently wrote a piece for Kronos Quartet!  It’s been great fun working with him on the ranges of the clarinet that I like. The vision that comes to me when I perform this piece is a musical séance! We play to the cassette player, and it plays back to us.  So come on out and listen to our new interesting sound explorations!

Tickets are $10 per person or $5 per person for groups of five or more.  The Bamboo Grove is at 134 SE Taylor St., Portland map (971) 207-8476.

Here’s ArtsWatch’s earlier look at CPOP from 2011.

Pianist Jana Hanchett is exploring new music in her new home of Portland.

FearNoMusic is on the bill at Portland’s Someday Lounge. Image via FearNoMusic

Last November at Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall, Portland’s Third Angle New Music Ensemble tore through one of the 20th century’s most famous works, George Crumb’s searing 1970 string quartet Black Angels, music that reflected the turbulence of its time (including the Vietnam War) and which sparked David Harrington to create the Kronos Quartet, so that he would have a vehicle to perform new music with that kind of power and contemporary relevance. The music also inspired the creation of another musical institution.

“I was blown away,” young composer Justin Ralls recalls. “That was the moment I realized that some big things were possible here.”

At the reception after the show, Ralls, recently returned to his hometown after obtaining his degree in composition from the Boston Conservatory in spring 2010, chatted with 3A music director/violinist Ron Blessinger and cellist and PSU prof Hamilton Cheifetz, and learned that Portland’s new music scene had been blossoming since he’d graduated from Cleveland High School in 2006. The 23-year-old composer/drummer saw the enthusiastic but mostly middle aged audience and began to wonder: could there be a place in the city for a larger, orchestra-sized new music group rather than a small ensemble? And could it draw musicians and music lovers of his generation?

Ralls decided to find out, and the first manifestation of his vision appears this Sunday night at Portland’s Someday Lounge, when his new Contemporary Portland Orchestra Project makes its debut at what looks to be a fascinating new music festival featuring another veteran Portland ensemble, FearNoMusic, Eugene’s Beta Collide (founded by two veterans of other major contemporary music groups, New York’s Meridian Arts Ensemble and Chicago’s eighth blackbird), and other musicians from New York and California.


Cantores in Ecclesia performs at Portland's William Byrd Festival

It’s official: no Oregon weekend, even in the canine days of August, is free of fascinating music. Oregon State University’s La Sells Stewart Center in Corvallis hosts the 20th annual Zimbabwean Music Festival, where you can listen to and/or learn to play marimba, drum, mbira (the beautiful gourd-encased metal so-called “thumb piano”) and more music of southern Africa’s Shona people. Down in the Siskiyous, the Beloved Festival continues with various world music offerings. And Eugene’s Oregon Festival of American Music presents its final show of the Gershwins’ Girl Crazy tonight at the Hult Center.

Speaking of Gershwin, Barry has alluded to the controversy over the impending remake/reboot/desecration/ modernization of the 20th century’s greatest work of American music (although West Side Story, Appalachian Spring, Music for 18 Musicians, Einstein on the Beach, Charles Ives’s Symphony #4 and a few others also have a strong claim). This Friday and Sunday, and next weekend, you can see a more traditional version of Porgy and Bess, in a new Seattle Opera production directed by Chris Alexander and conducted by John DeMain (who helped revive Gershwin’s great American opera with the Houston Grand Opera in the 1970s). Portland writer Angela Allen reviewed it quite favorably on ConcertoNet.

Seattle Opera's Porgy & Bess runs this weekend and next. Gordon Hawkins (Porgy) and Lisa Daltirus (Bess). © Elise Bakketun photo

Another great American opera that premiered a year before Porgy, in 1934, gets a new production next weekend in San Francisco, courtesy of SF’s Museum of Modern Art, which, in conjunction with its much praised exhibit of Gertrude Stein’s et families’ art collection, commissioned a new version of Stein and Virgil Thomson’s delicious opera Four Saints in Three Acts — and a brand new response to it by a local, contemporary composer, Berkeley’s Luciano Chessa. (Attention Portland art institutions and classical music institutions: here are two good ideas for you borrow. ) Chessa’s A Heavenly Act takes the Stein texts Thomson cut from a later, truncated version of Four Saints and makes a new story from them, set to his original music. It runs next weekend, Aug. 18-20 only.

Portland’s new music / alt classical scene is about to get a boost from a new organization making its debut this Sunday at the city’s Someday Lounge. Composer Justin Ralls modeled his Contemporary Portland Orchestra Project on the celebrated Boston Modern Orchestra Project, and along with its first performances, the concert stars the great Portland new music ensemble FearNoMusic (embarking on its first season under new director and violinist Paloma Griffin), Eugene’s superb duo Beta Collide (trumpeter Brian McWhorter and flutist Molly Barth, with guests), New York experimental opera composers Jeff Young and Paul Pinto, Oakland percussionist Moe! Staiano, and sound artists Lucio Menegon and Sabrina Siegel. Some of these artists played parts of the same show at Eugene’s Jazz Station Wednesday.

Classical and choral music fans should check out the 14th annual William Byrd Festival, dedicated to showcasing the complete works (over several decades) of England’s greatest Renaissance composer (probably, depending on whether you count John Dowland as part of that period). On Friday, in maybe the top recommendation for this summer’s edition, David Trendell of London’s King’s College will conduct soloists from Portland’s Cantores in Ecclesia in music of Byrd’s last songbook, Psalms, Songs and Sonnets, on its 400th anniversary. Sunday’s Compline service, conducted by Cantores director Blake Applegate features Byrd’s music for the divine office, and Monday’s mass for the feast of the assumption will be accompanied by liturgical music from Byrd’s 1615 collection Gradualia, conducted by Duke University’s Kerry McCarthy.

Portland Taiko director Michelle Fujii’s solo show, Choking, finishes its run at the city’s Interstate Firehouse Cultural Center, 5340 N. Interstate. This multimedia exploration of Asian American identity involves dance, music, video and an art installation.

And if you missed Portland’s hottest jazz ensemble’s scintillating collaboration with Northwest Dance Project last year, you can see Blue Cranes and NDP dancers alfresco at Portland’s Washington Park Friday night. In fact,  you probably want to see them again even if you did catch them last time, especially because this time, it’s free!