Hannah Penn.

MusicWatch Weekly: Welcome to Digital Heaven

Hermit like a champ with Oregon’s virtualocal superstars

These days we’re toggling between two extremes: on the one hand, digitally mediated mass socialization via zoom, youtube, social media, and all the rest of the burgeoning digital (after)life; on the other hand, some truly next-level hermit action in the form of baking, yoga, quilting, meditation, prayer, journaling, self-reflection, self-recording, and the simple joy of sitting and catching up on all those books you’ve been meaning to read since, like, the eighties.

Of course, most of us are splitting the difference one way or another–for instance, we know dozens of musicians who are spending their quarantine listening to and sharing their favorite albums, a perfect example of how a fundamentally isolated endeavor can be transmuted into an eminently social experience. Same goes, mutatis mutandis, for book clubs and TV show binge-watching parties (let me know if I can spoil Battlestar Galactica for you).

We’ll be talking in some depth about this nascent digital afterlife starting next week, when we’ll discuss: 45th Parallel Universe’s new friend Kevin; defunct Portland cyberpunk indie trio Menomena; recent and timely Matrixy entertainment like Devs, Westworld, and Upload; and media guru Douglas Rushkoff’s “Ten Commands for a Digital Age.” That’s all in the first of several new series we schemers at ArtsWatch have planned for your next few months of quarantined music reading. Stay tuned.

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MusicWatch Weekly: The Apocalypse will be livestreamed

As world ends in slow motion, musicians struggle in solidarity

First of all, how are you? Eating enough? Staying inside and entertained? Called your friends and/or family lately? Good.

Let’s start by collectively admitting that we’re Not Doing Alright. It’s been a busy two weeks since last we spoke, dear reader: schools closed, concerts canceled, tours derailed, musicians laid off, stay-home orders issued, force majeure clauses invoked. We’ve been comparing notes with our fellow Gen X-ers and other overthirties, folks who experienced 9/11 and its aftermath as adults, and we’ve all reached the same conclusion–this is weirder by far.

Nobody knows what the hell is going to happen next, and as we scramble to make sense of it all we find ourselves grasping for new definitions of “musical activity” in general and “music journalism” in particular. We’d like to quote words from Oregon ArtsWatch Executive Editor Barry Johnson’s Mission Statement, which have recently comforted us:

The arts remind us that we are in this together. That we aren’t alone in our particular thoughts and feelings. That things can be made right and whole, if just for a moment. They remind us that the individual can do great things, and so can individuals acting together. And somehow, they resolve the great tension of American life, that between the rightful autonomy of the individual and the responsibilities that come with belonging to a group. We can’t imagine a good outcome to our dire problems—as a community, a nation, a planet—without the complex lessons the arts teach us.

We believe that the processes of discovery, explanation and discussion of journalism have an important role to play in all of this. An “informed citizenry” extends to cultural matters, and that is the mission of Oregon ArtsWatch—to help those of us in this particular culture share support and create arts and culture that respond to our needs.

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MusicWatch Weekly: Federale February

Indian classical, Super Bach Sunday, and a chat with Collin Hegna

Normally we like to contain all our monthly previews in one tidy column. But since February starts this weekend, we’d like to tell you all about the first stretch of Februarial concerts now–and we’ll tell you about the rest of the month next week. We’ll start with local supergroup Federale, playing with local “desert surf” act Plastic Cactus at Polaris Hall this Saturday.

This crafty, vintagey septet is among Portland’s greatest musical treasures, and last year they released one of 2019’s best albums, No Justice. We gushed thusly about it in our year end album guide:

This was one of those albums that made us stop everything and sit down to just listen–from the terrifying opening title track through the catchy-as-hell Morriconesco Maria Karlin showcase “Unchained Malady” to the apocalytpic Barryesque closer “When Snow Falls,” the latest from the local cinematic murder balladists grabbed us and wouldn’t let us go. If this year-end list were shorter and more objective, this one would still be near the top–probably in the number one slot.

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MusicWatch Weekly: A song and a dance

Irish songs, Latinx bienestar, Balkan Brass, Viking musicians, and the return of Federale

As the great Pacific singer, dancer, composer, percussionist, instrument builder, and calligraphist Lou Harrison loved reminding us, “music is basically a song and a dance.” This week’s selections might be all over the genre map–cumbia psicodélica; twisty Balkan brass; rowdy cinematic rock and other local uncategorizables; clarinets and percussion and laptops; songs from Ireland and World War I; a siege catapult’s worth of jazz–but all of it hews to this basic formula. Sing. Dance. Repeat.

You’re probably going to get snowed in with the cats and the chessboard next week, so now’s your chance to clear your throat, lace up your red shoes, and get into some music.

Tonight, tonight, tonight

We already talked about Blue Cranes and the Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble in November’s monthly column, so hopefully you’ve already bought tickets and hired a babysitter. In case you haven’t, this is your reminder that their Siege of Cranes concert, featuring the tight-knit BC quintet and PJCE’s eight-piece horn section, is happening tonight at Holocene. Get on it, Portland.

You could go up to T.C. O’Leary’s on Northeast Alberta to hear Irish folk songs–and even sing along if the mood strikes you–every month. But the special guests on tonight’s Oíche na namhrán (“night of song”) deserve a mention: Uilleann piper Preston Howard Wilde and harpist Elizabeth Nicholson will join regular host Michael Steen-Orr for tonight’s shindig. No doubt the harp in question is the lovely diatonic variety used by Taliesen and Dolphin Midwives, and that’ll be sweet–but it’s those pipes we’re curious about. You’re probably picturing the noisy bagpipes of countless cheap jokes, but these are different; sweeter, gentler, more Irish. Have a listen to Wilde right now and tell me you don’t want to go order up a Jameson’s and sing along.

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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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Meaning and quality on a shoestring

Opera Theater Oregon's tribute to Guthrie and Hill features expressive performances and timely message

We all know a bit about Woody Guthrie, the 20th-century American social-justice troubadour. Apostles and adopters like Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen and Johnny Cash embraced and copied his music ad infinitum. During these 21st-century trying times, when social justice is taking a far back seat to greed and power-grabbing, why not celebrate Guthrie again?

Opera Theater Oregon’s This Land Sings: Songs of Wandering, Love and Protest took up the cause with an engaging production built on Michael Daugherty’s radio-show-style chamber opera Aug. 24 at Alberta Rose Theater. The house wasn’t sold out, but close enough. Scenery was spare, other than big-screen slides of the Dust Bowl and other Depression horrors, and costumes were non-existent—though conductor/OTO co-creative director/composer Justin Ralls wore suspenders. The outfits leaned toward muted country-folksy with a touch of  frontier vibe rather than showy or elaborate.

Opera Theater Oregon's 'This Land Sings.' Left to right: Daniel Mobbs, Lisa Neher, suspendered Justin Ralls, announcer Thom Hartmann. Photo by Michael Daugherty.
Opera Theater Oregon’s ‘This Land Sings.’ Left to right: singers Daniel Mobbs and Lisa Neher, suspendered conductor Justin Ralls, announcer Thom Hartmann. Photo by Michael Daugherty.

But the music? The singing? The conducting? The ensemble-playing? They were terrific and made up for any deficits in visual design. With this piece, OTO continues to fulfill its mission of presenting contemporary English-language works that shine a bright and piercing light on social, political and environmental issues. If you saw OTO’s 2017 Two Yosemites, composed by Ralls, then you know the group set a high bar for its mission and continues to pursue it with utter sincerity. (Read Arts Watch’s interview with Ralls here).

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MusicWatch Weekly: This music kills fascists and opera

Folksy chamber operas, locavore choral music, doom and psych and loops, pairs of pairs of pairs

Well folks, basically everything is happening this weekend. You want modern chamber operas based on Woody Guthrie and Joe Hill? Justin Ralls and Opera Theater Oregon have got your back. You want doom metal and/or psychedelic stoner rock? Hippie Death Cult and Queen Chief will melt your mind. Or maybe live Spaghetti Western music is your cup o’ joe: check out local supergroup Federale. Electronics abound at 2019 NW Loopfest, but if you want to go the other direction, check out Portland’s newest local-composer-friendly singing group, Foris Choir. You could even pack a sandwich and a thermos of green tea and get your voice down to Bach Cantata Choir’s madrigal sing-along.

I know you’re all chomping at the bit for your next music theory lesson, but all this lovely stuff is happening tonight and this weekend–so let’s dive right into what I’m missing right now.

Opera must die

Olivia Giovetti recently made a compelling case for why opera must die, and although I agree with her conclusion I must quibble with her timeline–opera is already long dead. Moreover, while its sloppily shellacked corpse has been slowly decomposing for the last few decades, wonderful new forms of opera have been springing up everywhere. Have a listen to some of my recent favorites: Laura Kaminsky’s As One, Missy Mazzoli’s Breaking the Waves, David Lang’s Little Match Girl Passion, Kevin Puts’s Silent Night (could throw Du Yun’s Pulitzer-winning Angel’s Bone, but honestly I’m not crazy about that one; can’t win em all, which is sort of the point). Patient Zero in this rebirth of the opera is probably Philip Glass, whose brilliant 1979 opera Satyagraha is quite possibly his greatest work and almost surely the likeliest to live beyond him.

These modern operas all still have compelling narratives and the harmonic sensibilities to support them; beautiful, singable, memorable melodies; well-drawn characters; and a sense of the mythopoeic that connects the mundane lives of individual characters to the grand archetypes which illuminate the human psyche.

In other words, opera is alive and well. The trouble is that opera companies (as Giovetti points out) program way too much of the safe conservative stuff and way too little of the new stuff. I’m not saying stop doing Mozart and Puccini–Mozart and Puccini are awesome. But what if we just flip the ratio of new to old? Instead of a season of Vivaldi and Leoncavallo with one or two token new operas, what if it was a whole season of new stuff with a token Wagner or Rossini? Portland Opera is gradually catching up–they’ve recently performed Lang, Kaminsky, and Glass, and their upcoming season features Jake Heggie’s Three Decembers and An American Quartet of short operas by Menotti, Barber, Douglas Moore, and Lee Hoiby.

But, for now at least, nobody in town is doing as much to promote new opera as Opera Theater Oregon under the co-directorship of composer Justin Ralls and singer Nicholas Meyer. A couple summers back, it was Ralls’s lovely, mythic Two Yosemites; last year it was Rachel Portman’s The Little Prince. When I interviewed Ralls for Arts Watch last summer, he said two things that rang a big pair of Balinese gongs in my brain:

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