Improvisation Summit of Portland

MusicWatch Weekly: Getting creative

Third Angle welcomes Oregonian composers home, Creative Music Guild improvises

The best and worst thing about Portland audiences is that they really, really listen to the music. At rock shows like the one your night owl music editor attended Tuesday night at Southeast’s Bit House Saloon, the audience stood around intently focused on listening to loud, thrashing, doomy punk and metal. It’s pretty much always like this at bar shows in this rainy, hoodied town: one hand cradling a glass, the other loosely plunged into one pocket, earplugs in, heads bobbing, but usually no dancing, no mosh pits, no movement from anyone but the musicians. Moving around too much would get you all sweaty and uncomfortable. And besides, you’re here to listen to some damn music.

Meanwhile, across town at the venerable Schnitz, enthusiastic audients got shushed for applauding the first movement of Charles Ives’ Three Places in New England last Sunday. Have a listen to that beautiful barnstormer of luscious melodic overload for yourself:

Ah, but it’s only the first of three movements, so the scattered applause didn’t really take off. It’s always a little embarrassing when this happens. There are valid psychoacoustic reasons for not applauding between movements, but it’s also sad to hear spontaneous joy being stifled.

Anyways, it was the only low point of a wonderful concert full of melodic bliss and rhythmic verve. Three Places and Stravinsky’s Firebird are both swarming with melodies, mostly borrowed from hymns and other folk musics, all given the Modern Classical twist: everything all at once in rhythmic counterpoint and overwhelming panmelodic delight. Andy Akiho’s Percussion Concerto was sandwiched tastily between these, a new work in the Ives-Stravinsky vein, comfortable treating melody and harmony and rhythm and color and texture as isomorphic layers of some Hermetic miracula rei unius.

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DanceWatch Weekly: Summer improvises

This week's dance calendar features the art of improvisation

At the core of it all, life is really one big improvisation. I’m thinking dance improvisation, of course. Every day, in this funny, wonderful, and truly bizarre world we live in, we are presented with a variety of people and events to interact with, and how we bump into them, or embrace them, or avoid them, or dance with them, can change the trajectory of our lives. I find this process and where it takes us to be magical and thrilling in its mechanics, and sometimes a little frightening, too. It’s the not knowing and the risk that we encounter everyday that makes life interesting, don’t you think?

This week’s dance performances all move in this realm of chance and risk beginning tonight, July 5, with four soul-searching solos in Finding Soul: A Constellation of Stories, directed by Susan Banyas and Andrea Parson at the CoHo Theatre Summerfest. Opening Friday, July 6, at the Disjecta Contemporary Art Center, the Creative Music Guild’s Improvisation summit takes over the center’s voluminous space featuring some of Portland’s dance improvisation veterans in collaboration with other artistic mediums.

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MusicWatch Weekly: passions and improvisations

A pair of new American Passions, an explosion of improvisation and other Oregon musical highlights 

J.S. Bach’s two surviving Passions (St. Matthew and St. John) remain pinnacles of Western music, more than a quarter millennium after he constructed them. Neither is on the program at this year’s Oregon Bach Festival, but this summer, Oregon does offer a pair of new Passions inspired by Bach’s mighty masterworks.

Harlem Quartet performs with Imani Winds at Chamber Music Northwest.

On Thursday at Reed College’s Kaul Auditorium, Chamber Music Northwest brings the premiere of Jeff Scott’s ambitious “Passion for Bach and Coltrane” an hour-long work for wind quintet, string quartet, piano, double bass, percussion, and orator. The Imani Winds hornist and composer, who’s performed plenty of both classical and jazz music, finds musical common ground between two musical deities separated by centuries, culture, race and style — but united by virtuosity and spirituality. JS Bach’s masterpiece Goldberg Variations and John Coltrane’s landmark A Love Supreme provide points of departure, and leading African American poet and jazz writer A.B. Spellman’s poems provide the text — with Spellman (who happens to be the father of Imani oboist Toyin Spellman-Diaz) on hand to narrate in this performance with two of my very favorite ensembles in the world: CMNW’s artists in residence, Imani Winds, and the fabulous, Grammy-winning Harlem Quartet. The attention given last week’s release of a lost Coltrane session recorded a couple years before Love Supreme, and another new release documenting his final tour with Miles Davis’s ensemble a few years before that, shows that Trane’s music still matters, just as Bach’s does, and both still inspire listeners and other artists alike.

The two ensembles’ Saturday and Sunday CMNW performances at, respectively, Reed and PSU include more most welcome new music by Scott and Imani’s other excellent composer, flutist Valerie Coleman — a world premiere tribute to Muhammad Ali, who grew up just blocks from Coleman’s childhood home in West Louisville. The shows also sport a 1987 composition about New Orleans by the great film composer Lalo Schifrin, arrangements of the most famous music by Antonio Carlos Jobim, Dizzy Gillespie and Billy Strayhorn, and more.

CMNW’s Monday and Tuesday shows also include new music by an erstwhile Northwest composer. Pulitzer Prize winner John Luther Adams splits his time between Mexico’s Sonoran desert and New York City now — both about as far removed as possible, in different directions, from his longtime Alaskan abode — but he still channels his environment into music. His gentle, even delicate 2016 septet “There is no one, not even the wind comes directly from my experience of the space and solitude, the stillness and light of the desert,” Adams says. CMNW’s excellent lineup will also play a JS Bach trio sonata and a Dvorak string quartet.

Oregon’s other big new Passion is Sunday’s world premiere of The Passion of Yeshua, by American composer Richard Danielpour, whose music has been performed by Yo-Yo Ma, Dawn Upshaw, Emerson String Quartet, New York Philharmonic, and other notables. Commissioned by the Oregon Bach Festival, and led by acclaimed conductor JoAnn Falletta, the oratorio recounts the myth of Jesus’s last day on earth from the perspective of female voices traditionally silenced in the Biblical tale — Mary and Mary Magdalene.

It’s a real treat to see today’s American composers infuse this ancient musical form with today’s, well, passions, and especially exciting to see two of our state’s major music institutions providing the commitment and cash to make them possible. But I hope next time, they or another Oregon institution will commission one of Oregon’s own composers (rather than a couple of New Yorkers, however accomplished) to perpetrate a passion even more relevant to our own time and place.

Rich Halley Quartet performed at the 2017 Improvisation Summit of Portland.

You can hear just such homegrown music at the Creative Music Guild’s annual Improvisation Summit of Portland Friday and Saturday at Portland’s Disjecta Contemporary Art Center, 8371 N Interstate. This year’s edition features veteran CMG improvisers who also draw from the modern classical music tradition like Matt Carlson, Lie Very Still (fab flutist John Savage, drummer Ken Ollis, guitarist Mike Gamble), and Dana Reason’s An Apple for my Teacher (with Gamble, Andrews, Savage, Gillet and more). The summit also includes LA-based koto/dobro duo Caspar Sonnett and non musical improvisers — comedy, DJs, a midnight variety hour that mixes dancers, filmmakers, and sound artists) and much more. And yes, there’s first-rate jazz too: Rich Halley Trio, Ian Christensen Quartet; Belgium-born, New Orleans based cellist/composer/singer Helen Gillet, and a tribute to one of the state’s true jazz legends, the great bassist Andre St. James, who died suddenly this year.

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