joan tower

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:

Continues…

MusicWatch Weekly: Hello from Bali!

Music editor in Bali, women in wine country, classical jamming in NoPo

It seemed appropriate that practically the first thing we did in Bali—after stopping for bottled water and kretek—was stop into a beautiful restaurant featuring a thirty foot statue of Ganesha, the famous elephant-headed remover of obstacles. Ganesha is traditionally invoked at the beginnings of difficult endeavors, and although none of us post-Christian U.S. Americans were religiously savvy enough to know any traditional prayers and blessings, we still took His presence at our first dinner as a good omen.

Ganesha, remover of obstacles, blesses Semar Kuning Resto near Ubud. Photo by Sean Steward.
Ganesha, remover of obstacles, blesses Semar Kuning Resto near Ubud. Photo by Sean Steward.

Gods and goddesses are everywhere here, along with a wild profusion of temples, statues, offerings of fruit and rice and incense, street dogs, motorbikes, delicious “warung” food carts, and music music music. I’m here with Portland’s only Balinese gamelan, Wahyu Dari Langit (“Revelation from the Skies”), and we’re here to study the traditional percussion-centric music of Indonesia. It’s been almost embarrassing to encounter groups of kids on the street playing drums and gongs with skill and grace we all agree we’ll never achieve.

But we’re still learning, and I’ll tell you all about that as we go along. I’m also still going to tell you about all the stuff I’m missing in Oregon this week and beyond. But first, I have to tell you about the mini-opera we watched shortly after arrival—a deeply entertaining, spiritually fulfilling two-hour spectacle of music and dance centered around a mythical beast known as Barong.

Continues…

Music in the wineries: a fine pairing

Old world and new meet and match in a rare and heady balance as the Willamette Valley Chamber Music Festival uncorks its fourth vintage

Good wine is a natural companion to great music, perhaps better than strawberries and cream in Oregon’s midsummer. In pairing the two, the old world meets the new, and each enhances the other, says Leo Eguchi, co-founder of August’s Willamette Valley Chamber Music Festival. 

A cellist and wine collector, Eguchi explains how the alchemy works: “In the summer of 1890, an aging Johannes Brahms felt that he had one last mountain to summit, and it was a big one. He sat down to write one final piece before retirement, and he poured in everything left to say. The resulting work, the String Quintet in G Major, opus 111, demonstrates a perspective that only an aging master can provide: exuberant joy, mournful tragedy, love lost and won … in short, a life complete and well-lived.”  

(As it turned out, the piece wasn’t Brahms’ swansong.)

Festival founders Sasha Callahan and Leo Eguchi at J. Christopher Wines in Newberg. Photo: Kelly Stewart

The vintage that partners with Brahms’ piece during the first festival weekend, Eguchi explains, is “restrained or extravagant. Archery Summit’s 2016 Red Hills Vineyard Pinot Noir has a depth and balance to accompany the string quintet. Ripe cherry and roasted tea flavors mirror the music’s surprise turns from major to minor, and the wine strikingly shows the same warm richness that can only be the voice of Brahms, deepened even further in the mid-range by this quintet’s additional (extra) viola.”

Give it a whirl!

Continues…

People & Conversations 2018

2018 in Review, Part 3: ArtsWatch goes behind the scenes for conversations with 22 creators who talk about their lives and art

By Sarah Kremen-Hicks

Theaters have their curtains. Paintings have their frames. Books have their covers. The act of presentation, of framing, of giving things edges, shifts the subject to the work itself and hides the artist away, if only a little bit. ArtsWatch’s writers have spent the past year seeking out the artists behind the frames and bringing them to you. Here are 22 glimpses behind the curtain from 2018.

 


 

Michael Brophy in his North Portland studio, 2017. Photo: Paul Sutinen

A conversation with Michael Brophy

Jan. 3: Prominent Northwest painter Michael Brophy talks with Paul Sutinen in an interview that begins with being “the kid that drew” and becomes a meditation on medium and viewership:

Where did that lightbulb come on for you to say, ‘OK, I saw all that stuff in London and now I want to go to art school.’

I knew the minute I saw paintings, like in the National Gallery. The scale of things—my mind was blown by the size of things. An artist I don’t think about much, Francis Bacon, there was a room of Bacon’s paintings [at the Tate Gallery] and it terrified me. I didn’t know that art could do that. I had to leave the room. I had a kind of like a panic attack.

I think they call it ‘epiphany.’

Yeah, so after that I just knew what I was going to do. Just as simple as that.

Continues…

Joan Tower: ‘The voice is in the risks’

The esteemed American composer, in Oregon for Willamette Valley Chamber Music festival, talks about music, teaching, risk-taking, and the future of classical music (not)

I love Joan Tower’s music. It’s right there in the Goldilocks zone: serious but not stodgy, zealous but not brash, subtle but not understated, big and bold but also immediate and intimate, fun and exciting and weird but also somber, emotive, complex, heartfelt. It’s expansive, stimulating stuff, neither overly planned nor chaotically aleatoric but organically developed from simple generative ideas, grown from seed to plant to harvest with a minimum of fuss and fluff.

It’s rich music that fills your soul like a hearty meal. When I’m done with a typical 13-to-15-minute Tower composition (say, 1976’s Black Topaz, or the Grammy-winning Made in America), I don’t want more, at least not right away; I want to savor. No obsessive munching on hours of Glass opera, no blissing out in Oliveros trances, no Kahane singalongs.

Tower is, above all, a narrative composer. Not in the sense that there is a poem or story dictating each detail like in a tone-poem by Strauss or Berlioz, but in the more abstract isomorphic sense that led Debussy to affix descriptive titles to the ends—not the beginnings—of his preludes. The music comes first, and has its own peculiar narrative language; titles and subheadings come later, as a description of music that has already been written.

American composer Joan Tower.

Tower will be in Oregon for the opening weekend of the Willamette Valley Chamber Music Festival, whose founders Sasha Callahan and Leo Eguchi are among what seems like an endless river of Tower friends (David Ludwig is another name in that river, and when I mentioned him she said she had just been texting him). As this year’s composer-in-residence, Tower will attend open forums to discuss her work, and the first weekend’s concerts feature her fifth string quartet (“White Water”, which I remember quite fondly from Calidore’s performance at last year’s CMNW) and Rising for string quartet and flute, sandwiched between Haydn’s Joke and Beethoven’s second Rasumovsky quartet. Portland area superstars Amelia Lukas, Marilyn de Oliveira, Greg Ewer, Charles Noble, and Megumi Stohs Lewis join Callahan, Eguchi, and former composer-in-residence Kenji Bunch, whose String Circle for String Quartet features in the second weekend.

I spoke with Tower by phone while she waited to board a plane to Oregon and drink wine in the country with classical musicians.

On composing

“It’s totally organic. It’s like writing a novel. You start with a character and an environment with a particular profile and then you try and figure what that character is going to do.”

“What is technique? I don’t know. You see, I’m not a pitch person. The world’s all pitch pitch pitch, and that’s not what my music is about. It’s about everything else. The register, the texture, the rhythm, the action, is it going up, is it going down, all that other stuff is what I’m concerned about. Pitches are not that important to me. I can say that now. Pitches to me are like, okay, I’m going to use bricks, I’m going to use marble, but they mean nothing to me until I start shaping. They don’t drive the music, the music drives them. It took me a long time to figure that out, after all the schooling.”

“If you look at Beethoven, who is one of my biggest influences, he is very much about the texture, the rhythm, where is it going, where is it coming back to; those kinds of issues are very significant to Beethoven. If you just did just a pitch analysis of Beethoven, it’s not that interesting.”

Continues…

Chamber Music Northwest reviews: defying limits

Concerts and conversations offer insights into contemporary music by female composers

In 1985, Pennsylvanian cartoonist Alison Bechdel inadvertently invented the trope that bears her name: The Bechdel-Wallace Test. (You can look at the original comic here.) Not that the test is a perfect indicator of either gender equality or cinematic worth: your average slasher flick passes, and your average Coen Brothers movie does not. Star Wars: Rogue One passes, but just barely. Gravity famously failed it, for rather specific reasons having nothing to do with gender. But as a way of calling attention to the nature of (and reasons for) gender inequality, The Bechdel-Wallace test still serves a useful, perspective-broadening diagnostic purpose.

One thing the Bechdel-Wallace tends to demonstrate: including only one woman in a movie (or a conversation, or a chamber music concert, etc.) inevitably puts all the weight of female representation onto that one character. Tokenism collapses representation into a single vector, a phenomenon best understood as The Smurfette Principle (first noted in 1991 by Katha Pollitt.) The other smurfs, all male, get to be The Nerdy One, The Funny One, The Fat One, The Jock, and so on; the girl smurf is just The Girl. Smurfette doesn’t get to do anything or have any of her own interests and pursuits. She has to be The Girl.

Composer Gabriella Smith discussed ‘Carrot Revolution,’ performed by Tomas Cotik, Becky Anderson and Nokuthula Ngwenyama at Chamber Music Northwest. Photo: Tom Emerson.

None of the composers on Chamber Music Northwest’s July 15 program at Reed College had to be The Woman Composer. After a lovely afternoon exploring the trails around Reed’s campus, I was treated to a concert of not only all women composers, but almost all Pulitzer winners and finalists: Tower’s Violin Concerto was a finalist in 1993, Ellen Taaffe Zwilich won in 1983 for her Symphony No. 1 (Three Movements for Orchestra), and Caroline Shaw won in 2013 for her Partita for 8 Voices. After spending the week with Gabriella Smith and her wonderful music, I’d say she’s in good company.

Smith’s Carrot Revolution opened the concert, performed by an ad hoc string quartet made up of violist-composer Nokuthula Ngwenyama, PSU violin professor Tomas Cotik, Fear No Music / Oregon Symphony cellist Nancy Ives, and Smith’s fellow Curtis Institute of Music alum and erstwhile Oregonian Rebecca Anderson. I’d had the chance to observe this quartet in rehearsal a few days earlier, and I was impressed not only with how much they improved but with how well they handled Smith’s peculiar, energetic, post-modern idiom.

Continues…

ArtsWatch Weekly: hail & farewell

Dance and dancers on the move, jazz in Cathedral Park, women composers, taiko and Bach, Mozart's spicy little sex opera

Last Thursday at Lincoln Performance Hall, the line to pick up tickets for Éowyn Emerald & Dancers’ performance ran across the lobby, down a partial stairwell and up the other side, like a restless snake shifting and stretching in the midday sun. Eventually the crowd slithered into the theater’s 450-plus seats, packing the place with people eager to see the company’s final show of contemporary dance in Portland and give it one last cheer before Emerald & Co. move to Scotland, where they’ve scored enthusiastically reviewed successes during two recent appearances at the annual Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

Emerald, on top of the world in Edinburgh for the 2014 Fringe Festival.

As it happens, the first piece I wrote for ArtsWatch, back in January 2012, was about Emerald’s first show in town as a choreographer, at BodyVox, where she’d been dancing with BodyVox-2. Now here I was again, with a lot of other people, to witness her farewell gig in town. An eagerness bubbled in the crowd, a sense that a fresh contemporary voice was moving on to new things, and ought not be let to slip away without a warm farewell.

Continues…