Julia Wolfe

MusicWatch Weekly: Year end album guide

Get your healthy 78 minutes of listening with albums of modern classical, vintage pop, nouveau prog, Australian psych, and Portland Gothic

We recently came across a study showing that 78 minutes of music a day can have a positive impact on mental health. Now, this particular study wants to break it down into percentages and so on: yet another instance of the commercialized slicing and dicing that gave us the one-minute bible and endless “classical adagios” compilations. I say cancel all that noise and damn it to hell. Listen to what pleases you. Don’t make a goddamn recipe of it, reducing Glorious Music to a set of instructions. If you’re going to do that, you might as well buy one of Philip K. Dick’s Penfield Mood Organs and relax into navel-gazing oblivion.

Anyways, the main takeaway here is that curiously specific 78-minute block of time, which just happens to be pretty close to the exact length of a CD (remember CDs?)–and that’s probably no coincidence. Various other studies (start here) have shown that our brains prefer twenty-minute chunks of mental processing, and if you string four of those chunks together you get your basic symphony. Vinyl LPs (remember LPs?) followed the same flow format, their 20-minute sides strung together into 40-minute single albums and 80-minute double albums. Scale that back down and you get mini-albums and EPs. These usually these clock in at a brain-friendly 20-30 minutes, shorter than a full-length album but also distinctly more substantial and coherent than a mere collection of songs.

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Makrokosmos Project: expansive vision

Fifth annual festival of 20th and 21st century music creates and relies on community

When Portland native Stephanie Ho first heard Makrokosmos, the massive, four-volume cycle of amplified piano and percussion music written in the 1970s by one of America’s greatest living composers, George Crumb, she thought, “I haven’t lived on this Earth until I heard this music,” she remembered. 

Years after that epiphany at Oberlin College’s prestigious music school, Ho and her husband and piano duo partner Saar Ahuvia decided to play Crumb’s mega-masterwork to inaugurate their first Portland festival — which they named.

Makrokosmos Project turned out to be an apt name for their annual five-hour, come-and-go-as-you-please music marathon, which happens for the fifth time from 5 to 10 p.m. this Thursday, June 27, at Portland’s Vestas Building. A macrocosm is a social body made of smaller compounds — in this case, a series of five 30- to 45-minute concerts with breaks for locally sourced vino, vittles, and conversation. And the expansiveness the name suggests also alludes to the broad audience the festival seeks for new and often unfamiliar music by creating a relaxed, communal experience.

E Pluribus Unum

The festival started because Ho and Ahuvia, a married couple who live in New York City, visited Ho’s native Portland each summer to catch up with family — and nature. Their friend Harold Gray, the Portland State University professor and pianist who founded Portland Piano International, suggested that “instead of only doing so much hiking, we should do something musical, too,” Ahuvia recalled.

Stephanie & Saar performing in Portland.

After all, as DUO Stephanie & Saar, the pair of powerhouse pianists had earned a national reputation for their performances of classical and contemporary music. Since moving to New York in 2004, they’d staged performances in “strange venues” like World Financial Center and One Liberty Plaza in lower Manhattan, Bank of America building in LA, (le) poisson rouge in NYC (the old Village Gate – a grungy indie-rock club), Knockdown Center in Queens (an old doorknob factory that has been transformed into a gallery and performance space), and the basement bar of the now closed Cornelia Street Cafe in the West Village. “If any place was up to that, it was Portland,” which is all about keeping it weird.

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