jonathan sielaff

MusicWatch Monthly: American mestizaje

Caroline Shaw, nyckelharpa and hardanger fiddle, Carnatic voice and violin, harps and drums, and American gothick

As we said a few weeks ago, American musical culture–whether we define “American” as USA, North America, or the entire New World–is above all immigrant musical culture. This seems to hold true for a broad interpretation of “immigrant” which includes, at the very minimum: Puritans and other English-speaking immigrants, with their blend of English, Irish, Scottish, and European traditions; abducted Africans with their own blend of classical and folk traditions; indigenous Peoples across North and South America who found their musical cultures decimated, consumed, and alienated by the arrival of Wendigo; and the successive waves of cultures pouring out of war-torn regions across the world, from Italy and Russia to India and Japan, all bringing their cultures with them and adding to the great and glorious New World Melting Pot.

To be fair, there’s another word that covers all this melting pottedness, and we’d like to follow Gabriela Lena Frank’s lead and adopt a term she borrowed from Peruvian anthropologist José María Arguedas: mestizaje. So let’s go all out and say that American culture is mestizaje culture. Sound good? Great!

The week ahead

Of all the living traditions that thrive in fair Oregon, the one we most enjoy paying attention to is the Contemporary Classical Tradition. We just love the way contemporary composers–like Portland’s David Schiff and this month’s guest star Caroline Shaw–tend the gardens of American Classical Music by embracing both the musicks of their predecessors and the distinctly mestizaje aspect of American culture. (Read more about Shaw and Schiff here and here).


Fin de Cinema’s “Beauty and the Beast”: spirit of discovery

Latest mix of classic film and Portland contemporary music captures Cocteau creation's mix of beauty and grit


Seeing a film with a new score played by live musicians — who, just like the audience, have their eyes on the screen as they play — is a treat for the eyes as well as the ears. A musician working in service of a film changes the currency being traded — the artist gives up some creative freedom, and in exchange the film offers a narrative that the audience would normally need to imagine on its own. In some ways the job for both is harder, since the audience must take in a film and new music at the same time, but the rewards can be great when both parties take the deal in the spirit of discovery.

That’s what happened at the January 11 screening of the film in the ongoing Fin de Cinema series curated by Gina Altamura at Portland club Holocene. Jean Cocteau’s 1946 film Beauty and the Beast floats like a cotton candy cloud through a dream world that is both strikingly gorgeous and alarmingly fragile. But for all the astounding visuals and innocent love between the two title characters, the film is driven by the greed and jealousy of the rest of the colorful cast of characters.

Jean Cocteau’s “Beauty and the Beast.”

This screening divided the film into three parts, with different musicians scoring each section in live performance: EDM-inspired loops and beats by Patricia Wolf, Like a Villain’s voice and effects pedals, and an ad hoc grouping of John Niekrasz on drums, Amenta Abioto on voice and mbira, Jonathan Sielaff on bass clarinet, and Noah Bernstein on alto saxophone. Each soloist and group captured both the film’s beauty and its underlying grit, without overplaying either element. Though the music had a sharp contemporary edge, the film still landed softly, like snowflakes on the eyelashes of its charmed audience like the filmmaker might have intended, more than half a century after it was made.


Golden Retriever review: Fashion over form

Portland ensemble's large-scale show is heavy on stamina and virtuosity, light on contrast and form


Hell, in all aspects this should have been my thing:

1. I’m a Millennial and Golden Retriever came to their October 20 show at Portland’s Old Church armed with a synthesizer and enough microphones to give the American people a voice.

2. I’m an avant-garde nerd who has equal wet dreams to Kronos Quartet as to Sonic Youth and they hired a classical string quartet and chamber ensemble of improvisers.

So that leaves us with the question: How did the whole night still end up being a clusterfuck of godawful-ry?

Golden Retriever's Sielaff & Carlson.

Golden Retriever’s Sielaff & Carlson.

Culture creates music and music creates culture and culture creates music and music creates culture. . . It’s the chicken and the egg / nurture versus nature / art imitates life therefore life imitates art conundrum, they are impossibly interwoven and you sound a bit foolish bothering to distinguish between them. Music subcultures are as important as the music those subcultures surround, for those people are the human embodiment of the music; they are the living, breathing incarnate aesthetic of their chosen music’s emotional quality. When someone’s walking down the street rocking their Slayer shirt you know what they’re about: metal ass shit.

So, upon arrival I quickly realized I was in for a show that so badly wanted to be cool. Wanted to be cool above anything else, including creating or listening to emotionally engaging music. Walking through the door I had to initiate the transaction with the ticket collector who wouldn’t talk, make eye contact, or confirm or deny that the transaction was over, because being the gatekeeper to this sanctuary of cool he needed complete apathy. . . obviously.

It seemed a majority of the audience members were there to maintain an image. Problematically their image is bought on trust fund money and adorned like an article of clothing from Filson, J. Crew, or Anthropologie with the tags cutout to look thrifted. Never have I seen so many different styles of elegantly disheveled heads of hair tousling around conversing about which music festival or estate they just came from. It’s a sadly common misconception – the poor souls – that cool is an image, something to be purchased when its trendy. Cool has forever been and will forever be about genuineness, a trait very few there wore well.

Performers assemble on stage. Lights go down. Audience shuffles and coughs. And I’m just sitting there rage-coring in a church pew and the music starts.

I’m prepared to hate everything by this point, but I don’t.