john cage

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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‘Extradition’ review: difficult on purpose

Creative Music Guild concert embraces experimental, aleatoric, multiphonic, ritualistic, electronic and ultimately rewarding sounds

Story, photos and video by MATTHEW ANDREWS

Below you’ll find an extended video recap of some highlights of this show. Read this before watching the video, or afterwards, or both, or at the same time, or not at all. In case of confusion, consult the I Ching, the Tarot, a sack of runes, or your pineal gland—whichever is closer at hand.

When John Cage is the most mainstream composer on the program, you know you’re in for something out of the ordinary. When Creative Music Guild is putting on the show, you know it’s really going to be something you haven’t heard before. And when it’s Portland percussionist and experimental music impresario Matt Hannafin’s Extradition Series doing their quarterly show, then it’s time to put away all your expectations, get comfortable, take whatever drugs or do whatever meditation exercises you need to, and open your ears for the most exigent listening experience you’re likely to have this season.

Last time I covered an Extradition concert, Hannafin and his crew ended a two and a half hour concert with rocks in their hands, rubbing and clacking them periodically with sine tone and pink noise accompaniment over the course of something like 30 minutes (Michael Pisaro’s Six Stones)… and this was the conclusion of a concert already overflowing with very slow, sparse music. It was mesmerizing, and haunting, and to be honest it was a little hard to sit through (or stand through, in my case, since I was filming). Ultimately, though, it was totally worth it.

Extradition’s April 22 concert was just as demanding and even more rewarding, as the community of CMG regulars and guest artists worked their way through experimental works by Cage, Alvin Lucier (the second-most “mainstream” name on the bill), G. Douglas Barrett, and two Japanese composers: Takehisa Kosugi and Toshi Ichiyanagi.

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Third Angle New Music review: Music as meditation

Portland ensemble's showcase of music and radio conversations between John Cage and Morton Feldman reveals parallels between pioneering 20th century American composers

by MATT MARBLE

American composers John Cage (1912-1992) and Morton Feldman (1926-1987) met at a New York Philharmonic performance of Anton von Webern’s Symphony Op 20 in 1950. After the concert, the then-24-year-old Feldman came up to Cage—a stranger, despite Feldman recognizing his face—and said, “wasn’t that beautiful?”

For both composers Webern offered a model for a new music, a new way of thinking, which was non-linear, abstract, unpredictable—a fusion of intuition and discipline.

Feldman and Cage.

Feldman and Cage.

Webern’s Movement for String Trio, Op. posth (1945), the composer’s final work, began Third Angle New Music’s March 11 concert at Portland’s Zoomtopia. Reflecting on Cage and Feldman’s first acquaintance, Webern’s distilled dissonances echoed throughout the evening. Interpolated with excerpts from Cage and Feldman’s recorded conversations from the 1960s, Third Angle’s concert offered a mosaic of the composers’ music. As Cage and Feldman noted in their conversations, to be a composer was to be “deep in thought.” This meditative abstraction is established in Webern’s opening act and is reiterated in Cage’s and Feldman’s works at key points in their lives. This concert, involving spoken dialogues and cross-historical compositions placed our attention upon the underlying forces of the composers’ creative process. And it highlighted—personally, artistically, and historically—how these two unique artists intimately overlap.

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Oregon Rites of Spring 1: Drums along the Pacific

Powered by percussion, the West Coast's adventurous musical legacy continues in spring Oregon concerts.

New York has long snagged all the attention as the creative center of American music. But a quintessential New Yorker (from The New Yorker, no less) reminded us recently that much of the impulse for American music’s creativity originated right here on the West Coast. As I explained a few years ago, “a little attention to history reveals that many, if not most, of America’s major postwar musical innovations actually originated here on the West Coast and spread east in a kind of reverse migration that energized NYC, rather than vice versa.”

This spring’s and summer Oregon concert seasons have sparkled with new music by West Coast and other American composers. One of those shows established a context that helps explain West Coast music’s trailblazing creativity, and several others revealed how it’s continuing now in 21st century Oregon. Even as the region suffers from historic drought, its musical wellsprings continue to flow abundantly.

Cascadia Composers percussion concert.

Cascadia Composers percussion concert.

I’ve never seen such a profusion of Oregon music over so long a stretch, so I attended as many concerts as possible (though I missed several that included contemporary Oregon music) to see what this snapshot revealed about contemporary classical music in Oregon 2015. I initially planned to end the survey in April — but the Oregon music just kept pouring forth, as new concerts were announced that also featured works by Oregon composers. That continuing abundance alone is a most welcome sign for anyone who cherishes homegrown music. But it also reveals some neglected areas still in need of exploration.

In this first of a three part series, we’ll look at concerts that perpetuated Harrison and Cage’s West Coast percussion legacy. Part 2 covers concerts that sprinkled Oregon music among sounds that originated elsewhere, and the third installment focuses on concerts devoted to showcasing the work of one Oregon composer, and a wrap up that draws some conclusions based on this rich spring sampling of Oregon contemporary classical music.

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About this time every year our neighbor calls to gently complain about the noise coming from our pond at night. The frogs, in their throes of passion, disturb his sleep. Curious. The frogs have the opposite effect on me. They lull me to sleep, the perfect white noise machine. Yet, every once in a while, because of some kind of full agreement I don’t understand or out of caution, they’ll stop chirping. And in these quiet moments, if there’s any wind at all, I can hear that same neighbor’s numerous wind chimes.

Before visiting “The International Invitational Triennial of Contemporary Wind Chimes” at Rocksbox Contemporary Fine Art last week, I anticipated I would find myself in some sort of calamitous cacophony (sorry) of sound. Instead, in the absence of a breeze, it was only visually so.

Sixty pieces of art are scattered about the two levels and stairwell of the gallery. Most are hung on a continuous line of parachute cord latticed and woven a foot or so from the ceiling, sometimes lower. This in itself makes it rather hard to navigate some parts of the show; other times difficulty in passage is more a matter of the proximity of one piece of art to another or several pieces blocking one’s way. There is little if any perceptible wind in the space, yet manual manipulation is allowed if one wants to hear any “chiming.” Some pieces I was not inclined to touch at all, such as Gary Robbin’s chime, “Ding Dong,” which consists of a collection of black dildos.

True to the “no holds barred” approach to curation we have come to expect from the gallery’s director, Patrick Rock, the overall tenor of this exhibit is raucous, yet also imaginative and smart. Truly international, there are artists from Canada, Austria, England, France and Iceland, although the majority of artists hail from the West Coast. The chimes are organized into several categories: “Conceptual Assholes” is in a room upstairs; “Witchcraft” fills the hallway upstairs; “Show me the Money” is laid out in the stairwell; wandering the first floor space will take the visitor through “Sausage Party” (where “Ding Dong” is front and center), “Bad Habits,” “No, It’s Cool, You Can Trust me, I Am a Feminist…” and “Dirty Smelly Hippy Types.” Equally distinct is the success some pieces have over others in inventiveness and/or construction.

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John Cage (l) and Lou Harrison (r) lead their pioneering percussion ensemble in San Francisco ca. 1940.

“Can we just stop talking about John Cage?” pleaded Classical Revolution PDX founder Mattie Kaiser. The violist was part of a mostly (with one exception) distinguished panel of performers, writers and composers discussing new music at March Music Moderne’s kickoff event. Kaiser, like me, wanted to talk about new music, and Cage’s most famous/notorious creation, the silent 4’33” was, she pointed out, sixty years old. Kaiser has a point, to which we’ll return anon.

But it’s been hard to avoid talking about Cage (1912-1992) and his colleague/protege Morton Feldman in Portland for the past few weeks. FearNoMusic’s spectacular Cage-fest at Southeast Portland’s immense YU art space brought 600 Cage-curious fans to see a dozen well chosen pieces from throughout the composer’s varied career. The following week, New York pianist Adam Tendler gave a glorious traversal of Cage’s 1949 masterpiece, the Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano. A few days later, the Portland State University Percussion Ensemble performed Cage’s landmark 1941 Third Construction. The same week, Third Angle string quartet performed Feldman’s epic String Quartet #2 — all four hours of it. And Saturday, the group joins the city’s superb Resonance Ensemble for a performance of Feldman’s 20th century landmark, Rothko Chapel, plus recorded conversations between the two composers and more.

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Harpists assembled for “Postcards from Heaven”/Courtesy of YU and FearNoMusic

For John Cage’s “Litany for the Whale,” YU, the contemporary art center, and FearNoMusic, the contemporary music ensemble, situated us in the garage of the Yale Union Laundry Building, Friday night, a large and resonant space, its lighting augmented by stage lights.

We sat on simple, rather flimsy upright chairs painted silver, two long rows on each side of a corridor. Before the performance began, that set-up, spare and expectant, was rather beautiful all by itself.

Then the crowd assembled for “100 Years of John Cage,” which featured 10 different works of the composer spread throughout the old building, sometimes simultaneously, started filtering into the space, filling the chairs quickly, and the late arrivals started weight-shifting in the area closest to the door, maybe two or three in hundred in all, a healthy fraction of the total number of us who’d arrived for the event.

Baritone Robert Ainsley, who conducts the Portland Opera chorus and has a degree in mathematics from Cambridge, found his way to one of the long corridor and stood with his music in hand, waiting for Kevin Walsh, a fellow baritone who is called upon to sing in a variety of contexts, from Bach’s St. John Passion to David Schiff’s “Gimpel the Fool,” to begin.

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