Danny Elfman

Living in a world of upside down

ArtsWatch Weekly: The pandemic is the puzzle. Adaptability is the key. Unlocking the cultural world's path to the future is the challenge.

SUDDENLY EVERYTHING’S TOPSY TURVY, and it’s seeming more and more like a mistake to think that things are going to get back to “normal” even after the health threat has ended, whenever that might happen. In the cultural world, the economic effect of the coronavirus shutdown is going to be hard on everyone and catastrophic for some. And by “everyone” I mean not just arts groups themselves but also the artists and staffers who’ve made their livings working for them, and the funders who keep them going, and the audiences who may understandably be reluctant to flock back to theaters and concert halls and museums as if social distancing were just some crazy blip that’s done and gone. Some groups, even if they do everything “right,” aren’t going to survive.
 
Barry Johnson, ArtsWatch’s executive editor, has started writing a column he calls “Starting Over,” which is about exactly those issues. How do we start over? How do we reinvent? What do we return to, and what do we move beyond? In his most recent “Starting Over,” Masks and democracy, he talks about some of the political failures that have made things worse in the United States than they needed to be, and reports on his conversation with the veteran arts consultant George Thorn, who suggests that the sort of creative, step-by-step problem-solving artists engage in every day might be a model for the society as a whole. In an earlier column, Point to point, Johnson talked with Portland Center Stage at the Armory’s Cynthia Fuhrman about practical adaptability. 

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Friderike Heuer, “The Strikers,” montage, from her series “Fluchtgedanken,” 2020. In her visual essay “Fluchtgedanken: Thoughts of Escape,” Heuer writes about manipulating images of paintings by the mid-20th century painter George Tooker, and how her adaptation of his work is a response to such disturbing issues of the Covid-19 crisis as the return of eugenics to public discussion and practice: “Took us what, only 75 years to get around to it again? What are expendable lives? The old? The diseased? The incarcerated? The poor?”

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ADAPTABILITY IS GOING TO BE CRUCIAL, and in a lot of cases, also not sufficient. Because the situation will be different for everyone, which means that while there may be smart overall strategies, they’ll have to be adapted to specific situations. And the ground keeps shifting.

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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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ArtsWatch Weekly: Thanks again

On a day of sharing, we talk about giving and receiving, and then dig in to Oregon's lavish cultural banquet: the arts beat goes on


TODAY IS A DAY OF GIVING THANKS, HOWEVER YOU CHOOSE TO DO SO. Here at ArtsWatch, some of us are on the road, traveling to visit family. Others have already reached their destinations. Some are hosting dinners or meeting with friends. Some are already busy in their kitchens, chopping and baking and simmering and laughing and preparing for a grand meal. We imagine you’re doing much the same. Some of you might even be busy in soup kitchens or food pantries, helping to cook and serve a good hot meal for people who don’t always get one. Some of you might be in line, waiting. 
 

Childe Hassam, Oregon Stlll Life (detail), 1904, oil on canvas, 25 x 30.25 inches, Portland Art Museum. Gift of Col. C.E.S. Wood in memory of his wife, Nancy Moale Wood. (On view in Belluschi Building; the museum is closed on Thanksgiving Day.)

Oregon is a land of bounty, as Childe Hassam’s delicious painting above from more than a century ago attests. Enjoy, share, and nurture it. Revel in its natural and creative wonders. Be generous. In a time of division and antagonism, help make it a place for everyone. Happy Thanksgiving to you. And thanks for being part of ArtsWatch. We’re here thanks to you.  

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King of the undead

Fall concerts with Oregon Symphony and Saloon Ensemble keep Danny Elfman's music alive

Those of you who just can’t get enough Brahms and Beethoven are lucky: you get to hear those guys all the time on myriad concerts and fresh boxed sets and so on ad apparently infinitum. But if your favorite composer happens to be alive, or works in video games or film, or both–well, that leaves you with fewer options. The situation could be a lot worse, of course; we do still get ample performances of Andy Akiho, Gabriela Lena Frank, Gabriel Kahane, Caroline Shaw, et alia, and most orchestras (our beloved Oregon Symphony included) make a point of playing a few concerts of film and game music every year.

There’s a barter involved here, though: the cultural institutions that paid for the music in the first place (Hollywood, Nintendo) still exert a powerful influence over the continued performance of the music they commissioned, which is to say soundtracks rarely take center stage and their composers almost never write directly for the concert hall.

It’s no secret to anyone that the present author’s favorite composer is Danny Elfman (except in academic circles, where I claim it’s Stravinsky), and it made a wonderful birthday gift this year to hear his music performed twice in my adopted hometown. The two concerts could hardly have been more different–symphonic Batman screening at The Schnitz, homey Nightmare hootenanny at Alberta Rose–and both shows were firmly indebted to the visual and narrative elements that birthed the music. Satisfying though both experiences were, the frame felt somewhat intrusive, and left me wishing I had more opportunities to just listen to this guy’s music the same way the rest of you get to listen to The Decomposing Austrians.

Screen and frame

In the case of Oregon Symphony’s Batman, the entire concert had a strong element of frustration: what the hell is that screen doing there? Why are they showing a goddamn movie during the symphony? And it’s a goofy movie too, friends. It was fun watching it again, especially for the sake of appreciating the scoring craft and considering how extensively the bad old grimey ‘80s have returned to our world, but what would have been really nice is to listen to this music the same way we listen to a Shostakovich symphony.

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MusicWatch Halloween III: The Unveiling

The dead rise in Portland with a feast of tribute bands and other spooks

The world is already a haunted house. Killer clowns, mercenary robots, dystopian surveillance states, wildfires galore–what do you need a haunted house for? Instead, go lurk in the shadows with some dark music and costumed fun. There are dozens of tribute shows and other appropriately spooky concerts happening tonight (All Hallow’s Eve Eve), tomorrow (All Hallow’s Eve), Friday (Samhain), and through the weekend.

Hiding under the covers

Bands these days tend to turn their snotty punk rock noses up at the reviled “cover”–who wants to play someone else’s dead old music, when you could be creating your own new frankenstuff? Normally I heartily approve of this virtuous sentiment, as anyone who’s heard me ask “who the fuck cares about Brahms?” can attest. Local bands are your best source of folk-based contemporary composition, and even the worst among them have a creative joy that even established cover bands like the Oregon Symphony can only rarely match.

But every now and then, these folks like to turn their noses down and play dress up. And by “every now and then,” I mean Halloween season, when the veil between worlds thins to a viscous membrane and musicians reveal their secret hearts–this is the one time of year when it’s not only acceptable but downright Cool to learn Other People’s Music and play it for all your friends. Some bands do this sort of thing full time (Portland’s very busy Talking Heads tribute band Life During Wartime comes to mind), but Halloween season is when basically everybody gets in on the tribute game. Some of these bands are even making the rounds, trick-or-treating around various local venues over the next few days. Here are some of this year’s most exciting costumes.

A Bunk Halloween at Bunk Bar down on Water Avenue features Hell Beside You as Seattle ghouls Alice In Chains, New York Kids as aughts moodsters Interpol, and Victoria as dreamy duo Beach House. Up at North Portland’s stabby Kenton Club, Lobotomen does The Ramones, Danzig Fever does Misfits, Chippunks play “Rodent Punk Classics,” and The Hauer Things plays songs from the Nuggets crypt.

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MusicWatch Weekly: A wider net

In which we stumble upon a Hall of Fame inductee, learn about joiking and konnakol, and hear from the audients

There’s so much going on this month that I’m going to refer you to our monthly column, cast a wider net, and focus on telling you about different concerts, music that flies under the radar or comes up at the last minute. But you still deserve to hear about more than just what I can tell you about. The delicate imbalance of mental variance my Muse demands of me requires a certain amount of rest and risotto, and if I went out and did all the things you hear about here I’d soon be reduced to a burbling mess of incoherence.

So I’ve been sending my team of loyal brigands around town, collecting intelligence for me and turning in hot takes like Odin’s snoopy ravens. Call em the Rose City Irregulars. In a moment, you’ll hear about symphonic Batman, choral Oliveros, and Third Angle. But first, a digression.

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MusicWatch Monthly: Hot music in the cold city

Warm up your fall with saxophones, film and classical music, international virtuosi, and metallized Metroids

Are you cold yet? Have your fingers and toes and hearts and guts frozen as Winter creeps closer and you face down the end of the world? Are you ready to put on a sweater and a balaclava and drown out the chaos with frosty music and a fire in the belly?

Good! Here’s your prescription for October.

Saxomaphones

Now that you’re all sweatered up, it’s time for some hot sax. Tuesday, October 2nd–tonight!–it’s the zany trio Too Many Zooz at Crystal Ballroom, wherein baritone saxophonist Leo Pellegrino, trumpeter Matt Doe, and drummer David “King of Sludge” play their stompy dancey “brass house” music. If that’s not zany enough for you, wait until tomorrow and check out skronky Skerik at Goodfoot Lounge on the 3rd. Then, at 4 in the afternoon on the 5th, head over to the Midland Library on Southeast 122nd for the Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble’s tribute to Portland’s Native American saxophonist Jim Pepper. Or wait all the way until next week and dig local diy jazz quintet Blue Cranes at The 1905 on Sunday the 13th.

Oregon Symphony Orchestra

After a cancelled zoo concert and a weekend of Empire, the OSO’s symphonic season is officially underway. We heard from composer Oscar Bettison last week, and you’ll hear all about his rewilded music (performed last weekend alongside Mozart and Brahms) from Charles Rose soon enough. This month, the oldest orchestra west of the Mississippi continues into full fall mode with concerts of music all over the “classical” map, from film music to Stravinsky to Coldfuckingplay.

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