moon hooch

MusicWatch Semi-Monthly: Unholy daze

Busy December needs two monthly columns: one for holiday concerts, one for everything else. Part one: music for strings, singers, and saxophones

Bah, humbug! It’s too early for Christmas music, don’t you think? Just because December is upon us, with its flakey promises of snow, doesn’t mean there isn’t a nice pile of early unholiday presents waiting. We’ve got a good dozen or two non-holiday themed concerts for you: abstract string quartets, killer guitarists and groovy saxophonists, and a visit from Oregon Symphony’s newly appointed Creative Chair Gabriel Kahane (interview coming this week).

Aside from Die Hard the Musical at Funhouse Lounge (starts on the 5th, runs through January 4th) and Oregon Ballet Theater’s Nutcracker (starts on the 7th, runs through the 26th), all the other fun holiday concerts start around the 13th. So we’re going to play Grinch and make you wait a week or two before telling you about all that. Take off that Mariah Carey Christmas playlist, put on MAE.SUN’s latest EP, get some Thanksgiving leftovers out of the fridge, and settle down for our first half of December mixtape.


MusicWatch Weekly: natural classical

Sounds inspired by nature and spring highlight this week's Oregon music performances

Oregonians live in a nexus between the natural world that drew so many of us here and the human-created environment that nurtures us. That juxtaposition has inspired several of this week’s musical highlights.

Read my ArtsWatch preview of Habitat, Third Angle New Music’s immersive multimedia performance created by Portland composer/sound artists Branic Howard and Loren Chasse,
Thursday and Friday, Studio 2 @ N.E.W. 810 SE Belmont St. Portland.

• Lewis and Clark College faculty chamber ensemble Friends of Rain’s annual new music concert features music that responds to the natural world, written by a cast of top Northwest composers from accomplished veterans like Susan Alexjander to an award winning rising star, Andrea Reinkemeyer.
Friday. Evans Hall, Lewis & Clark College.

• One of the stalwarts of Portland’s classical music scene, Violinist Adam LaMotte is probably most familiar for his sterling work in Portland Baroque Orchestra. He’s launched a new, conductor-less orchestra to explore repertoire for bigger bands than the standard chamber ensembles he also performs with, and that stretches across a much wider time period than PBO — from the 17th to the 21st centuries. Amadeus Chamber Orchestra seeks to “bring new audiences into the realm of classical music via education, outreach, and vibrant live performances, collaborating with other entities to present multifaceted events.”

The added facets this time: interpolated readings by one of Oregon’s greatest nature writers, Kathleen Dean Moore (who has done similar shows with a pianist), and nature photography by Larry Olson. Both complement the nature-inspired musical selections in this “concert devoted to Mother Earth”: two of Vivaldi’s famous seasonal concertos, a flurry of English Baroque master Matthew Locke’s music for Shakespeare’s The Tempest, early 20th century English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams’s famous The Lark Ascending, long a popular evocation of spring’s impending arrival, and even an original composition for piccolo and strings by LaMotte himself.
Friday, Lincoln Recital Hall, Portland State University.

• There’s more English music for chamber orchestra in this Saturday’s Oregon Mozart Players concert. The program includes one of Haydn’s miraculous London symphonies (written for a much bigger orchestra than OMP’s chamber orchestra forces) to a couple of mid-20th century works, Benjamin Britten’s Rossini tribute ​Soirées Musicales and Malcolm Arnold’s ​Serenade for Small Orchestra​, to contemporary composer Jonathan Dove’s ​nifty Mozart tribute Figures in the Garden.​
Saturday, Beall Concert Hall, University of Oregon.

• The Lark Ascending reappears, in a much larger flock, when the Oregon Symphony mixes a pair of much-beloved classics with a brand new piece from one of the country’s leading active composers. Oregonians can sympathize with a 19th century German composer’s joy in visiting sunny Italy — Felix Mendelssohn’s ebullient “Italian” Symphony. The big news is the world premiere of leading American composer Christopher Theofanidis’s new concerto Drum Circles, co-commissioned by the Oregon Symphony, which incorporates a percussion quartet as the soloists rather than the usual violinist or pianist. Theofanidis wrote it for an all-star group called the Percussion Collective, who will play it with the orchestra.
Saturday-Monday, Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, Portland.


New voices of ArtsWatch 2017

A dozen writers have joined the ArtsWatch ranks this year. Find out who they are, and what they're bringing to the cultural mixer.

In one important way it’s been a very good year for Oregon ArtsWatch: We’ve added a lot of good writers to our mix, deepening and broadening our coverage of everything from dance to theater to music to visual arts to literary events and more.

ArtsWatch has been able to add the voices of a dozen new contributors because of support from you and people like you. Oregon ArtsWatch is a nonprofit cultural journalism organization, and your gifts help pay for the stories we produce. It’s easy to become a member and make a donation.

In 2018 we hope to add even more fresh voices and perspectives to our continuing engagement with Oregon’s complex and diversified cultural life.

Meet 2017’s new writers, from A to Z (all right; A to W), and sample their work:



TJ Acena

A Portland essayist and journalist who studied creative writing at Western Washington University, TJ was selected as a 2017 Rising Leader of Color in arts journalism by Theatre Communications Group. He writes about theater and literary events for ArtsWatch, and also contributes to American Theatre Magazine and The Oregonian in addition to literary journals such as Somnambulist and Pacifica Literary Journal. Web:


Greg Watanabe with Mao on the wall in “Caught.” Photo: Russell J Young


Acena reviews the installation and performance Caught at Artists Rep, a play that crosses the line between fact and fiction, fake news and real. “If it feels like there’s something I’m not telling you about Caught, you’re right. Don’t take it at face value: There’s a hidden conceit to the show. But discovering that conceit is what makes Caught compelling.”



Bobby Bermea


A leading actor, director, and producer in Portland and elsewhere, Bobby specializes in deeply reported and insightful profiles of theater and other creative people for ArtsWatch. A three-time Drammy Award winner for his work onstage, he’s also the author of the plays Heart of the City, Mercy, and Rocket Man.



Moon Hooch review: danceable complexity

New York trio combines jazz/experimental music techniques with pop accessibility


As a saxophonist, I am immensely grateful for the amount of respect brought to the saxophone by its resurgence in popularity through pop music. But in pop and rock music, the saxophone usually plays a very small and limited part, one that could easily be taken up by many other wind instruments. It’s a very small facet of a very large gem.

Is there a band that effectively combines masterful techniques and tones usually associated with jazz, classical, and experimental styles of the saxophone with the form, style, and danceability, of popular music? There’s a two word answer to that question: Moon Hooch.

Moon Hooch’s name doesn’t sound like a band with saxophonists in it as much as it sounds like a old-timey bluegrass band from Appalachia, but these guys are full of surprises. The New York-based trio (saxophonists Mike Wilbur and Wenzi McGowen and drummer James Muschler) has married many of the technical complexities found in jazz saxophone approaches with the form and function of pop and electronic dance music. They’ve taken advantage of the peculiar times we live in, where popular audiences are willing to take unusual instrumentations seriously, and operate as trio of drum set and saxophones.

Moon Hooch, which performed in Portland’s Doug Fir Lounge last month, has effectively reverse- engineered EDM (electronic dance music) from a primarily electronic format into an acoustic one. There’s even a word for this genre that combines percussion and brass instruments to effectively translate EDM to the acoustic world: brasshouse. (Another well-known band in this genre is Too Many Zooz.) Through that creative mashup of saxophones, drum set, musical skill, and dance music, they’ve brought together audiences that range from academic saxophonists to danceaholics.

Moon Hooch. Photo: Kenneth Kearney.

What sets saxophonists Wilbur and McGowen apart from the usual is their use of multiphonics, altissimo, honks, squeaks, growls, and screams while playing. Often more associated the intensely idiomatic improvisations of free jazz or the carefully constructed noise of modern chamber music, these techniques, when given rhythmic context and structure in Moon Hooch’s playing, convey a staggering emotional intensity. They mix and match instruments often; sometimes both on tenor saxophone, but often on a combination of tenor and bari or contrabass clarinet.

All this is underpinned by drummer James Muschler’s dynamic, unceasing drive into rhythmic glory. Seriously, I think the guy stopped playing once in the entire one and a half hour set, effectively turning his musical art into a physical one as well.

You can tell the band tours a lot. This is the second time that they’ve been to Portland at the Doug Fir Lounge in less than as many months, and they’ve been performing like this for a while. Most of the songs they played in their set were off their albums Moon Hooch, This is Cave Music, and Red Sky. I strongly suspect that there were more than a few songs they played that are as yet unrecorded. They’ve crafted their set into an unstoppable machine with tremendous momentum. Song after song blends one into the other until you’re not sure where endings and beginnings are anymore.