jeff payne

Young Composers Project: sound of the future

A conversation with emerging Oregon composers featured on upcoming FearNoMusic concert

Interview by CHARLES ROSE

This state is just crawling with composers, though you might not know it if you only go to Oregon Symphony and Third Angle concerts—just to arbitrarily pick on a pair of robust local organizations with rather different ideas of what constitutes classical music and rather similar habits in regards to living local music. Both groups have been justly lauded for programming contemporary composers—inviting faraway folks like Gabriel Kahane and Gabriela Lena Frank to perform and discuss their work—and both deserve credit for occasionally performing music by locals like Kenji Bunch and Branic Howard. A handful of local classical organizations do better—recent efforts by 45th Parallel come to mind—while Cascadia Composers and the Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble feature basically nothing but locals.

But when it comes to commissioning and developing a vital ecosystem of local composers in the classical tradition, it’s hard to beat Fear No Music. FNM puts on an extraordinary all-local-composers concert every year, and even has its own composer development program: the Young Composers Project, headed by FNM co-founder Jeff Payne.

FearNoMusic pianist and YCP director Jeffrey Payne at Blue Sky Gallery.

In March, we gathered Payne and four YCP students as part of a series of “oval table” discussions: six different conversations, featuring over 20 local musicians, all on the theme “the future of classical music.” We engineered these oval tables for the second issue of Subito—the student journal of Portland State’s School of Music and Theater (out in May)—and we’ll be running the whole series here on Oregon Arts Watch this summer. Stay tuned for conversations with Bonnie Miksch, Jeff Winslow, Jennifer Arnold, and more.

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FearNoMusic: Musical Terroirists

New music ensemble’s Locally Sourced Sounds concert provides tasty sampler of locavore sounds

Kenji Bunch is either an oenophile or he’s been reading Jeff VanderMeer. The Fear No Music artistic director introduced the ensemble’s fifth annual Locally Sourced Sounds concert post-concert Q&A with a discussion of the somewhat esoteric term terroir, used to describe the interlinked ways in which wines, cheeses, cannabis, and other such creations are influenced by the myriad regional factors that help condition their development. Bunch defined terroir (actually it seems likely he got the term from Darrell Grant) as “the taste of a place” and asked the gathered composers, “is there a sound to composers living in the Northwest?”

Kenji Bunch and Monica Ohuchi at Locally Sourced Sounds

The January 21 concert at Portland’s Old Church Concert Hall gave us a chance to find out, with a tasting menu of six Pacific Northwest composers.

Kids these days

FNM’s artistic and executive leadership team of Bunch and Monica Ohuchi opened the concert with the world premiere of recent Reed College graduate Yiyang Wang’s Converse, a sparse and cloudy mood piece, awash with open strings and rhythmic tappings on Bunch’s viola over tinkly jazz arpeggios and Liszty swirls on Ohuchi’s piano. At one point Bunch carefully set down the viola to sneak around to the piano’s low end, hiding behind Ohuchi’s arched shoulders, where he pounded out a few bass tones. FNM usually likes a slow start, and although Converse didn’t command my rapt attention the way Wang’s piano trio Color Studies did in 2017, her atmospheric little duet opened the show on a pleasantly conversational note.

Next up was another duet, Music for Four Hands by Ryan Francis, a youngish Juilliard-trained composer whom we have seen around the halls at Portland State University, where he’s been teaching theory. Ohuchi and Jeff Payne provided the titular hands, spinning out polyrhythms in wistfully melancholy GlassGuaraldi harmonic language similar to Portland composer Jay Derderian’s The People They Think We Are (performed on this same piano a few months back by Kathleen Supové). And because this was Ohuchi and Payne—one of the finest piano duos in Portland — the polymeters and the wistful melancholy were uncommonly graceful, immersing the audience in elegant waves of auditory bliss the way John Luther Adams is supposed to.

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Makrokosmos IV review: screwy, spiritual music for a summer evening

Portland summer modern music marathon’s ‘Dadapalooza’ mixes Cage, Zappa, Crumb, piano, percussion, even cactus into a meditative musical experience

Story by MATTHEW ANDREWS

Photography by Masataka Suemitsu

Summer evening, Northwest Portland’s Vestas building, next to the Lego wind turbine. A box truck’s worth of vibraphone and xylophone and timpani and chimes and cymbals and crotales and tam-tams and on and on; two grand pianos, interlaced, lidless, ready for anything; a table full of cacti and branches and wires and shit.

Across the lobby, on the other side of the elevators, past the wine and cheese, over by the windows onto a bright sunny NW Everett, sat the other piano. The prepared piano. Tastefully roped off like a museum piece, prepared with screws and tacks and whatnot inserted between the strings to vary the sound, according to the instructions developed by famed American musical theorist / composer John Cage.

DUO Stephanie & Saar performed and directed Makrokosmos IV.

On the back wall, behind the tam-tams, a projection of various visual schemata. Slabs of Sanskrit and Chinese writing. The Makrokosmos Project logo, George Crumb’s iconic “Spiral Galaxy” score (suitable for framing!) The score and preparation instructions for Cage’s 20th century milestone Sonatas & Interludes, which would ultimately close the concert.

Musicians and enthusiasts gather. Chris Whyte and Paul Owen from Portland Percussion Group, sleeves already rolled up like proper percussionists. Oregon Symphony violinist and 45th Parallel Executive Director Ron Blessinger makes his customary cameo. No fewer than six of Oregon’s most adventurous pianists tumble in, ready to play some John Cage: Alexander Schwarzkopf, Deborah Cleaver, Susan Smith, Jeff Payne, Julia Lee, Lydia Chung. I spot audio electronics whiz (and fellow Bonnie Miksch acolyte) Branic Howard running sound and such. Then Miksch herself, then local classical music celebrity Robert McBride, the former classical radio host and Club Mod president, both apparently enjoying their summery freedom to do nothing but compose music and go to concerts. Before too long the whole gamut of Cascadians and Arts Journalists and New Music Weirdos I always see at these concerts has arrived.

It’s Makrokosmos IV: Dadapalooza—five-odd (if not exactly dadaist, as far as I could tell) hours of piano and percussion music by modern and contemporary composers, perpetrated for the fourth year by the New York based piano Duo Saar & Stephanie. Last time, this happened. Here we go.

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Fear No Music & Third Angle reviews: discoveries

Portland new music ensembles open Oregon ears to music from beyond the usual sources

I love going to a concert with exactly zero familiar composers. In Oregon classical music programs, the standard is still usually one new composer per concert, sandwiched between the dead white guys. Even in Portland, it’s relatively rare to hear a concert with music by composers who are all new to me. In the last few weeks, veteran Portland new music ensembles Fear No Music and Third Angle delivered two such concerts that led me to new discoveries.

Fear No Music played recent music by Middle Eastern and emigrant-diaspora composers at Portland’s Old Church Concert Hall. Photo: John Rudoff.

FNM’s October 9 concert at Portland’s Old Church, The Fertile Crescent, featured music by six composers rooted in the Middle East. Although they were new to me, they are all accomplished international composers. Gity Razaz studied at Juilliard with Corigliano, Beaser, and Adler; Kinan Azmeh is a member of Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble; Reza Vali, Kareem Roustom, and Franghiz Ali-Zadeh have all composed for Kronos Quartet (I’m sure they’ll get around to Bahaa El-Ansary eventually). Although the music performed at the concert didn’t always satisfy me, I liked most of it, and the pieces that left me cold still led me to discover other enjoyable music by the same composers.

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Makrokosmos 2 preview: Musicians in the Midst

Piano-propelled contemporary music festival returns to Portland and Eugene

By GARY FERRINGTON

“I don’t know where to stand,” Portland composer, violist and violinist Kenji Bunch confessed to the crowd crammed into Blue Sky Gallery last June. There was after all no stage, and the audience sat in folding chairs arrayed around the downtown Portland art and photography space. Bunch finally decided to start his set of original music with pianist Monica Ohuchi by not standing at all, instead walking around the pianos as he played.

Changing the usual “rules” of classical performance is part of what made Stephanie Ho and Saar Ahuvia’s Makrokosmos Project so successful last year, and why the New York-based duo pianists are bringing it back next week. For one thing, there’s no prescribed duration to the musical “happening” featuring work by living American composers and leading local performers; audience members are welcome to come and go, catching as few or as many of the 40 minute sets as they like.

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Kenji Bunch’s walking performance. Photo: Saar Ahuvia.

Moreover, the event, whose second annual performance occurs this month in Portland and Eugene, pretty much obliterates the distinction between the performers’ stage and the audience’s space.

The project strives for “a performance atmosphere that breaks the barriers of traditional concert halls by putting the audience in an intimate space, close to the performers and the music performed,” according to Ahuvia. In a genre that’s too often distanced itself from its audience, it may seem a little crazy; no wonder this year’s theme is American Berserk.

The Makrokosmos Project, which OAW called “one of 2015’s peak Oregon musical moments,” again takes listeners to the acoustic edge at Blue Sky on Thursday, June 23 and then travels up river to Eugene for a festive evening at Oveissi & Co. on the 26th.

Like last year, the program begins at 5 pm with a wine social and the first of a series of short sets each about 40 minutes long.

The absence of a stage brings artist and audience together. Photo: Saar Ahuvia.

The absence of a stage brings artist and audience together. Photo: Saar Ahuvia.

“This is something that we have been experiencing more and more in our own performing as classical music tries to reinvent itself in public spaces, clubs and other non-traditional venues,” Ahuvia suggests. “We hope to attract a diverse audience, some who are new to contemporary music, by giving them an option to commit to as much or as little music as they desire. A 40-minute set is something most people can handle and having some delicious food and wine helps to spark the conversation afterwards! And having tickets from $10-20 also makes it affordable.”

This year’s featured work, a 40th anniversary performance of Frederic Rzewski’s The People United Will Never be Defeated, includes 36 variations based on the song “¡El pueblo unido jamás será vencido!” by Chilean composer Sergio Ortega with text by the popular vocal group Quilapayún. The composition has been divided among a team of six pianists, which is not typically done, but seems to work well for this festival, according to pianist Alexander Schwarzkopf. Despite the apparent connection between Rzewski’s famous radical composition and this year’s overheated political rhetoric, “no strong political statement was planned beyond the poignancy of ’uniting the pianists,’” Ahuvia explains. “That being said, we love the spirit of contemporary music being political and relevant to our time.”

John Adams’s six-minute American Berserk!, a title suggested by a phrase in Philip Roth’s novel American Pastoral, resonates with earlier American piano music of Charles Ives and Conlon Nancarrow, the composer notes. “This is a piece that we have always liked,” Ahuvia recalled, “and were happy to hear that Lydia Chung had it in her repertoire. Lydia, who we know from Baltimore and our Peabody days, had just relocated to Portland and when asking her about possible repertoire for this summer she mentioned American Berserk. We had an ‘Ah-ha!’ moment, and this year’s festival theme fell into place.”

Audience and performers at intermission of last year's Makrokosmos Project.

Deborah Cleaver demonstrated George Crumb’s techniques at last year’s Makrokosmos Project.

“We’ve constructed the festival with music that is super edgy, infused with virtuosity, urbanity and jazz,” Ahuvia says. “Nikolai Kapustin, Portland-based Ryan Anthony Francis and especially John Zorn’s Carny all have elements of ‘berserkness.’ There are plenty of ’berserk’ elements in the Rzewski as well.”

DUO Stephanie & Saar will open the festival with music by contemporary American composers influenced by Eastern philosophies and sounds. “Philip Glass brings both drama and meditations to Four Movements for Two Pianos,” Ahuvia notes about the minimalist pioneer whose music owes much to his 1960s work with Ravi Shankar and study of Indian music’s rhythmic structures. “Gerald Levinson’s new piece Ragamalika: Ringing Changes uses actual Indian and invented ragas infused with rigorous contemporary compositional techniques,” Ahuvia explains.

In addition to DUO Stephanie and Saar, performers include Oregon musicians Angela Niederloh (a prominent opera singer and Portland State University professor who was a classmate of Ho’s at Portland’s Wilson High School), Lydia Chung, Julia Hwakyu Lee, former Florestan Trio pianist and Portland Piano International founder and director Harold Gray, Third Angle New Music’s Susan Smith, Reed College professor Deborah Cleaver, FearNoMusic’s Jeff Payne, and Eugene pianist Alexander Schwarzkopf. The Portland second set features mezzo-soprano Niederloh and Stephanie Ho in three early songs by George Crumb and selections from Jake Heggie’s Winter Roses. “The music provides a chilling, lyrical respite from the otherwise high octane music presented throughout the evening,” Ahuvia says.

Third Angle pianist Susan Smith played George Crumb's music at last year's Makrokosmos Project. Photot: Aaron Brethorst.

Third Angle pianist Susan Smith played George Crumb’s music at last year’s Makrokosmos Project. Photo: Aaron Brethorst.

Niederloh and Payne can’t make the Eugene show, so Alexander Schwarzkopf will play his own new composition, Perspectives (2016) instead of the Zorn piece Payne plays in Portland, and Stephanie & Saar replace Niederloh’s set with their own performance of music by Pulitzer Prize winning American composers from two generations, George Crumb (whose music they hope to program every year in the festival named after one of his major compositions) and David Lang.

“Our message to the audience,” Ahuvia says, “is to come open-minded, have a glass of wine on us, and immerse themselves in new sounds in new settings.”

Makrokosmos Project 2: American Berserk! Thursday, June 23, 5pm-10pm at Blue Sky Gallery, 122 NW 8th Avenue, Portland. Sunday, June 26, 5 pm-10 pm at Oveissi and Company, 22 West Seventh Avenue, Eugene. Ticket prices are $15 advance, $20 day of show and $10 students and seniors. Tickets and more information online.

Read ArtsWatch’s interview last year with Stephanie & Saar and review of last year’s inaugural Makrokosmos Project.

Gary Ferrington is a Senior Instructor Emeritus, Instructional Systems Technology, College of Education, University of Oregon. He is an advocate for new music and serves as project coordinator for Oregon ComposersWatch.

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Want to learn more about contemporary Oregon classical music? Check out Oregon ComposersWatch.