crazy jane composers

Cascadia Composers fall concerts: Spanning the spectrum

Quartet of concerts reveals rich diversity in contemporary Oregon classical — or is that 'classical' ? — music

Cascadia Composers can’t put on a boring concert. The organization of composers based primarily in the Northwest is only halfway through its 2016-17 season and already I’ve seen:

  • e-bow-generated harpsichord drones played on a dark stage, with the composer draped in blue LED lights and projections of cymatically stimulated beads of blue water dancing in time to the music;
  • a stack of toy pianos played by five composers crammed all together, music clutched in their hands or squinched in between the tiny wooden legs;
  • duets between cello and doumbek, between clarinet and electronics, between pianists wearing flamboyant wigs and chasing each other around their instrument, screeching like wild cats;
  • a simple pastoral song about barnyard animals turn into a horrifying depiction of slaughter;
  • a choir imitating an alarm clock, a forest, a goddess, a rose.

Jennifer Wright performs her ‘You Cannot LIberate Me…’ Photo: Matias Brecher.

This is what happens when Oregon composers get together and make music. Taken together, the concerts presented a snapshot of contemporary Oregon’s surprisingly rich and diverse contemporary classical music scene.

A Cuba con Amor

The first Cascadia concert of the season, October’s A Cuba con Amor, featured works written for the group’s first-ever composer exchange: the concert’s six composers traveled to Cuba the following month to have their works performed there by local musicians in the 29th Annual Festival de La Habana. This was the concert with the toy pianos (Jennifer Wright’s semi-aleatoric X Chromosome), the doumbek and cello (Paul Safar’s Cat on a Wire), the clarinet and electronics (“synth wizard” Daniel Brugh’s Fantasia), and an evening’s worth of lovely music. I was especially pleased to hear so much music written for strings, including Brugh’s Reticulum for tenor and string quartet and no less than three pieces for piano trio (Safar’s A Trio of Dances, Art Resnick’s Images of a Trip, and Cascadia co-founder David Bernstein’s Late Autumn Moods and Images).

Wright, Brugh, Clifford, Safar, and Max Weisenbloom play with toys on Wright’s ‘X-Chromosome’ at Cascadia Composers’ Cuba concert.

One particularly memorable moment was Ted Clifford’s melodica solo during the middle movement of his composition Child’s Play. As the newest composer in the Cascadia stable, seeing this family of composers at work on and off stage (and afterward at a nearby watering hole) made me feel fantastic about joining up.


Landscape Music

The environment inspires today’s composers who write music advocating its protection 


Places, and increasingly wild landscapes, are inspiring, even compelling today’s composers to create a diverse array of new music in a wide breadth of styles. From chamber music to inter-media pieces, from major orchestral works to sound art installations, new music is engaging audiences in compelling ways as composers seek to connect with the world around us — not by replicating the sounds of nature, but by interpreting the landscape and expressing it through sound.

Composers Justin Ralls, Nayla Mehdi, and Andrew Stiefel collect soundscape field recordings. Photo: Afield Composers.

Composers Justin Ralls, Nayla Mehdi, and Andrew Stiefel collect soundscape field recordings. Photo: Afield Composers.

Landscape music has lately been a growing part of Oregon’s musical landscape. For example, Third Angle New Music has showcased sounds of nature in recent shows, including last year’s “Afield” concert featuring composers Justin Ralls, Andrew Stiefel and Nayla Mehdi; a 2013 concert featuring Northwest composer John Luther Adams’s Earth and the Great Weather; and another show with Cappella Romana in A Time for Life, University of Oregon composer Robert Kyr’s “environmental oratorio.” Crazy Jane Composers have often featured environmentally oriented works, including an entire “Inner Nature” concert in 2014. Many Cascadia Composers concerts have featured music celebrating the Northwest’s natural beauty. You’ll find plentiful other recent examples in the ArtsWatch archives.

Other works celebrate our national environmental treasures. Stephen Lias’s orchestral work transports me to the gates of the Arctic. I can feel the cold tidal waters through Northwest composer Alex Shapiro’s string quintet, Current Events.  Michael Gordon’s Natural History, premiered in July 2016, immerses us into Crater Lake’s multilayered geological and cultural landscape. On September 14 at Portland’s Old Church Concert Hall, Eugene composer Justin Ralls will present a reading of Two Yosemites: An Environmental Chamber Opera that he says explores “a pivotal moment in the history of the American environmental movement.”

Crater Lake, during the July 2016performance of Michael Gordon's "Natural History." Photo: Christina Rusnak.

Crater Lake, during the July 2016 performance of Michael Gordon’s “Natural History.” Photo: Christina Rusnak.

By creating works that look to the diverse landscapes in which we live as a foundation, composers expand our musical palette. Today’s composers are innovative—not merely in musical practice but also in exploring different approaches to new music, by examining the roles in our society, civic engagement, our connection to nature, and in celebration of heritage. They are connecting with audiences in musically new ways.

Perpetual Transition

Our environment — the physical landscape — has influenced musical creation for eons. For centuries, people have orchestrated their lives by the chaotic and transitory nature of the sea, the landscape, and its arteries. The environment is not a merely a rigid, static location, but a highly nuanced layering of shifting, transitory elements: buildings, natural spaces, waterways, transportation and commercial systems, and our shared human experiences. Whether we are walking, biking, floating, or driving, the nature of experiencing place is also transitory.


Crazy Jane and Third Angle New Music reviews: Inspired by Nature

New Oregon music responds to nature's beauty — and humanity's threats to it.

Living in a bountiful land where so many of us spend as much time in nature as possible, it’s no surprise that Oregon composers have devoted so much music to environmental themes, just as New Yorkers and Chicagoans often incorporate urban influences in their music. (“New York is a very percussive place,” the great American composer and New York native Steve Reich, once told me about the source his pioneering percussion music.) A pair of November Portland concerts showed how contemporary Oregon composers are also embracing the environment — sometimes including actual recordings of natural sounds — in their music.

Marsh and Miksch performed at Crazy Jane.

Marsh and Miksch performed at Crazy Jane.

Field Music

“The world is a huge composition going on all the time,” said the pioneering Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer in a brief film Listen played immediately before Third Angle New Music’s “Afield” concert at southeast Portland’s Zoomtopia Studio 2 November 6. Schafer, who invented the notion of the soundscape (a musical evocation of an environment rather than, say, an attempt to tell a story or express a feeling via music) urged us avoid the noisy distractions of our bustling modern world and tune into nature’s sonic beauties.

That posed an implicit challenge to the three young Oregon composers (all University of Oregon graduate students) whose music Third Angle had, to its credit, commissioned for this latest entry in Third Angle’s innovative Studio Series: why should Northwesterners venture indoors to hear human-created sounds that sought to imitate nature, when we have so much of the real thing all around us?

The greatest living Northwest composer, Alaska’s John Luther Adams, has been persuasively answering that question for decades, as Third Angle showed last year in a vivid performance of his Earth and the Great Weather. Adams’s 2014 Pulitzer Prize suggests that the rest of the country is catching up to his and Schafer’s expansive vision of music and nature in harmony. Third Angle and Crazy Jane’s programs demonstrate that nature will continue to deeply and delightfully inform 21st century classical music.