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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: 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 Holidays: Auld lang syne

Wring the last drops of joy from 2019 with punky, funky, trippy New Year's Eve concerts

New Year’s Eve, like Death, is the great equalizer. We all celebrate the solstice-adjacent holidays differently–Christmas, Kwanzaa, Yule, Festivus, Hogswatch, and so on–but those of us who follow the Gregorian calendar all come to the end of 2019 at more or less the same time. As we look back on one crazy year and look forward to another that promises to be just as bonkers, we’re reminded that we’re all stuck in this Weirdest Possible Timeline together.

So now that the presents have all been opened and the grievances have all been aired, it’s time to kill the fading year’s unfulfilled hopes and dreams and plant them in the dark soil of the coming year, where they will either germinate and bloom or get eaten by squirrels.

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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: Everything is popular to someone

"Popular" and "classical" music, from Third Angle to School of Rock

This weekend’s concerts are pretty evenly split between “classical” music and “popular” music, so I think it’s time we talk about how you can tell the difference between them.

Humorist and Florida man Dave Barry discovered a pretty good definition in his son’s encyclopedia:

But we also need to define “classical music.” A little farther on in the World Book, we come to the section on music, which states: “There are two chief kinds of Western music, classical and popular.” Thus we see that “classical music” is defined, technically, as “music that is not popular.” This could be one reason why the “average Joe” does not care for it.

He has a point, sort of, but let’s break this down for real. First let’s dispose of some common half-assed theories. To start, “classical” music isn’t necessarily any more “intelligent” or “sophisticated” or “difficult” than “popular” music, and vice versa for ostensibly poppy characteristics like “accessible” and “simplistic” and “folk-based” and “relevant.” Consider Duke Ellington, Carla Bley, Björk, tUnE-yArDs, Brian Wilson, Imogen Heap, and the damn Beatles for “pop” (this is just off the top of my head–I’m sure you have your own favorites). Consider this bit of inspired Mazzolia and this bit of insipid Mozartiana for the rest.

Consider Caroline Shaw.

The one common charge that comes pretty close to sticking is the one about “elitism.” Musical education, access to “classical” performances, spare time for lessons, money for instruments, etc.–these are all earmarks of privilege. Many of the best classicists of the modern era (from Bartók’s Mikrokosmos to Frank’s Academy of Creative Music to Oregon’s BRAVO Youth Orchestras) have tried to break down those walls, and it’s one of the few things the internet has ameliorated. Yet “classical” at large remains a fairily conservative and meritocratic world.

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