Paul Owen

Percussion’s vast instrumentarium

Portland Percussion Group expands percussion world with concert of score-call winners

By CHARLES ROSE

The world of contemporary percussion music is strange. While many composers we think of as “classical” wrote great percussion music—Varese, Xenakis, and Stockhausen among them—contemporary concert percussion music has a much broader scope of influences than most other fields. By their nature percussionists are extremely flexible, learning the nuances of playing dozens of different instruments that span the whole world of cultures, eras and aesthetics, united by a shared emphasis on rhythm, performance and dance. If there’s any genre of contemporary classical music that lovingly embraces the music of West Africa, Indonesia, Japan and Turkey as much as Western Europe, it is concert percussion.

The percussion scene of Portland is equally vast and colorful, even if on a smaller scale. High school marching bands, a world-class drum corps, some great shops, PSU’s massive percussion department, the Portland Percussion Group, and dozens of private teachers hanging posters in coffee shops around town all play their part in the fertile culture here. The Portland Percussion Group is among the most prestigious performing groups in town: the quartet of veteran performers Brian Gardiner, Paul Owen, Brett Paschal and Chris Whyte have been together since 2011, playing classics and constantly commissioning new works. Their concert Fixtures on October 21 consisted of Threads by composer and recently-retired Princeton professor Paul Lansky and three premieres from their recent call for scores.

In performance, Gardiner, Owen, Paschal and Whyte operate as a single unit, and perfectly locked together throughout the concert. That is a testament both to their individual skills and their cohesion: even through the heaviest fields of noise they emerged right back in tempo. I tend not to discuss performance in my reviews, mostly because I am a composer and spend most of my listening time analysing the music on the fly. At Fixtures, however, I couldn’t help but be enthralled with their precision and dynamic control.

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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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