Lisa Bielawa

The Meanings of Music, Part Two: Minding the beauty

In part two of three, we consider Resonance Ensemble's "Beautiful Minds" concert and its meaningful treatment of text, time, and texture

Several questions haunted this journalist’s mind during a series of fall concerts put on by three of Portland’s most excellent classical groups: Fear No Music, Resonance Ensemble, and Third Angle New Music. The music was all good, but was often upstaged by the concerts’ messages and the questions they raised. These questions ended up being so big we’ve decided to dig deep and interrupt your Thanksgiving weekend with a three-parter.

Yesterday, we started our investigation of music and meaning with FNM’s “Hearings.” Today, we continue with Resonance Ensemble’s “Beautiful Minds.”

It was a pleasant October afternoon, and intermission had just ended. Resonance Ensemble Artistic Director Katherine FitzGibbon led the crew back into Cerimon House’s cozy performance space, where they dispersed around the room and encircled the hushed audience. FitzGibbon looked around her band of singers, lifted her hand, and dropped it: and suddenly we were bathed in a bizarre nonsense chord, a shocking flash of sound-color, like something out of Ligeti’s micropolyphonic choral works or Shaw’s “Allemande,” a vast simmering “aaaaaaa” that soared beyond mere “consonance” and “dissonance” out into some alternate realm of abstract sonic glory. Over the course of five minutes that felt like five wonderful hours, the singers creeped around gradually shifting long tones while a groovy psychedelic sci-fi mandala rotated on the screen above the stage.

The music was one of the Sonic Meditations conceived by beloved composer, accordionist, electronic music pioneer, and Deep Listening guru Pauline Oliveros. Normally these meditations–essentially text-based scores–are meant for large groups of people to practice together; Oliveros once led 6000 women in a meadow through one of these, and I can personally attest to their power in informal settings. To hear it as a concert piece, though, put a new spin on the work–not least because this is one of the most agile vocal ensembles this reviewer has ever heard. Where large groups of participants with mixed musical skill levels can have a lot of fun with these meditations (try one with your family this weekend!), this small professional vocal ensemble gave a highly focused interpretation of Oliveros’ creation, transmuting it into something more like an aleatoric post-tonal soundscape drawn from the New Polish School playbook. That is, they turned a set of instructions into music.

Continues…