ellen mcsweeney

Words & Music: Ambitious Oregon productions combine stories and sounds

'Attachments & Detachments,' 'Boldly Launched Upon the Deep,' and 'Oregon Stories' weave stories and sounds

Oregon is all about stories. Maybe the rain helps, but for whatever reason, we’re known as one of the most literary states in the union. Check Portland’s downtown Powell’s bookstore even on a Friday or Saturday night and you’ll find it teeming with people seeking stories.

Of course stories appear in other art forms besides books — films, operas, songs. Not so much in instrumental music, however. Yet lately, we’ve seen a slew of contemporary music performances that explicitly connect new music to storytelling in various ways, including just in recent weeks:

I’m sure I’m leaving out plenty of others, but it’s clear that there’s a trend toward connecting storytelling to new classical and jazz music in Oregon these days. Why?

Delgani Quartet's Man of Words concert.

Delgani Quartet’s Man of Words concert combined music and theatrical dialogue.

Both jazz and contemporary classical music have gone from being relatively mainstream art forms to niche interests over the past half century or so, and one reason is their emphasis on art for art’s sake, too often privileging artistic process and innovation over audience connection. It’s not necessarily an either/or proposition — much of the greatest music both innovates and connects — but maybe this craving for story represents a desire to re-connect new music to lived human experience rather than indulge in abstract soundscapes, abstruse musical processes, and concept-dominated art.

Yet when performers add words to music in unfamiliar ways (not opera, not songs), they enter a different realm than the usual music concert. Even the most compelling words and music don’t necessarily compel interest without some sense of how they work together dramatically on stage. Three recent Oregon performances showed the risks and rewards of mixing stories with sounds.

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