paul safar

MusicWatch Weekly: Welcome to Digital Heaven

Hermit like a champ with Oregon’s virtualocal superstars

These days we’re toggling between two extremes: on the one hand, digitally mediated mass socialization via zoom, youtube, social media, and all the rest of the burgeoning digital (after)life; on the other hand, some truly next-level hermit action in the form of baking, yoga, quilting, meditation, prayer, journaling, self-reflection, self-recording, and the simple joy of sitting and catching up on all those books you’ve been meaning to read since, like, the eighties.

Of course, most of us are splitting the difference one way or another–for instance, we know dozens of musicians who are spending their quarantine listening to and sharing their favorite albums, a perfect example of how a fundamentally isolated endeavor can be transmuted into an eminently social experience. Same goes, mutatis mutandis, for book clubs and TV show binge-watching parties (let me know if I can spoil Battlestar Galactica for you).

We’ll be talking in some depth about this nascent digital afterlife starting next week, when we’ll discuss: 45th Parallel Universe’s new friend Kevin; defunct Portland cyberpunk indie trio Menomena; recent and timely Matrixy entertainment like Devs, Westworld, and Upload; and media guru Douglas Rushkoff’s “Ten Commands for a Digital Age.” That’s all in the first of several new series we schemers at ArtsWatch have planned for your next few months of quarantined music reading. Stay tuned.

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MusicWatch Monthly: Fabulous February

Composers, composers, composers! ...and a jazz festival

Classical weekend

This weekend, you can take your pick of classical music concerts: choral, chamber, or orchestral (or all three, if you have the stamina). On the 7th and 8th, Portland Lesbian Choir celebrates the ratification of the 19th Amendment (guaranteeing women’s right to vote) with their “Born to Celebrate” concert at Central Lutheran Church in Northeast Portland. The most exciting thing about this concert: a premiere of a new 19th Amendment-themed work commissioned by PLC from Portland composer Joan Szymko, whose music has been a highlight of recent Resonance Ensemble and Oregon Repertory Singers concerts.

Also on the 7th and 8th, at local theater company Bag & Baggage’s cozy Hillsboro venue The Vault, Northwest Piano Trio performs Shostakovich’s second piano trio as the live score for playwright Emily Gregory’s intimate end-of-life play The Undertaking. In this unique collaboration with B&B and director Jessica Wallenfels’ Many Hats Productions, the trio will be onstage with the actors. On the 8th at Portland State University, PSU violin-piano duo Tomas Cotik and Chuck Dillard will perform Mozart, Schubert, and Piazzolla–three of the four composers Cotik specializes in (the other, of course, is Bach). And if you already have tickets to Portland Opera’s An American Quartet, don’t forget that it opens this weekend–and if you don’t have tickets yet, you’d better hurry!

Also this weekend, the Oregon Symphony relegates two more living composers to the Fanfare Zone. Their “Pictures at an Exhibition” program (concerts Friday in Salem and Saturday-Monday in Portland) manages to make room for twelve minutes of Missy Mazzoli and thirteen minutes of Gabriella Smith between the half-hour blocks of decomposers Mussorgsky and Paganini. I get that we’re supposed to be grateful to OSO for playing anything at all by living composers and women composers, and we really are grateful that they commissioned a new work from Smith: living composers need to eat! But we’ll never tire of complaining about the Fanfare Zone, and we won’t stop until the ratios are reversed and decomposers have to compete for their token opening spot on concerts dominated by Zwilich concerti and Tower tone poems.

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MusicWatch Weekly: The magic is in the middle

Prog, Shaw, Wolfe, African funk, Indian classical, and an Austro-Bohemian tribute band

There are a handful of things that make a city’s musical culture feel complete. You need several symphony orchestras and large choirs, and they all have to be pretty damn good. You also need several smaller choral and instrumental ensembles overlapping with and supplementing the larger bands; ideally, these smaller units will be a little more adventurous, and probably a lot more stylish.

You need an ecosystem of local and touring bands across the various spectra of genre and heft, not just the big names and your friend’s solo noise-pop project but a solid middle-register balance of lesser-known but high-quality musical acts. This middle ground principle applies equally to rock, jazz, classical, and all the rest: the magic is in the middle.

Finally, you need a diverse assortment of music from a variety of cultures. After arriving here from the sprawling metropolis of [redacted] in 2001, I knew Portland was a Serious Musical City when I saw just how easy it is to hear Indian classical music here–to say nothing of the broad assortment of groups playing music rooted in traditions from Africa, Eastern Europe, Indonesia, Japan, Latin America, Russia, and so on. Touring acts come from all over, which is nice, but it’s the abundance of local-international musicians that’s really impressive.

We’ll talk about all of that in a minute. First, let’s talk about the Big Fish and its Favorite Bohemian.

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The music of our time?

Recent Delgani String Quartet concert featuring living local composers raises questions of tradition and timeliness

It would be hard to come up with a better scenario for listening to new art music than the A2 Productions concert Local Sounds, Local Stories, presented at Springfield’s Wildish Theater September 7th and 8th, featuring the Delgani String Quartet performing works of Eugene composers. Gifted performers, local composers, quality production, state-of-the-art venue–and top-notch local brew, booze, and food just a block or two in any direction. The program was well curated, with varying styles and formats, keeping the appreciative audience engaged throughout the program. A recipe for success. However, I left the venue wondering, “Why was this music written?” “Where did this music come from?” “How does it fit in the now?”

It is fair to say that most of the pieces evoked western classical musical languages from the first half of the twentieth century and earlier, all stylistically anachronistic, with one particular work speaking in a solidly mid-nineteenth century voice. Exceptions were Paul Safar’s Quartet in Red, Black, and Blue and The Walrus and the Carpenter, and Terry McQuilkin’s Invisible Light: Fantasy for String Quartet. Both used musical languages of our time: touches of pop, blues, and jazz in Safar; post-minimal textures in McQuilkin. Their general tonal language was in the western tradition. Even so, as evidenced by the enthusiastic response, the large audience had no problem with that. So, why did I?

A question posed

Having studied the art music of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries in depth and at length, I have an expectation that contemporary art music be a logical continuation–or in some cases perfectly illogical discontinuity–of this history and development, that it be cognizant of this trajectory or at least be responsive to the popular music of our time. I do not think this is an unreasonable expectation since other artistic genres exhibit a similar arc (outsider art being a notable exception). So why would a new music composer write music that does not communicate in a musical language of their time? I am not speaking of quotation but of whole cloth imitation. That is my vexing question, and it is difficult to answer. So I emailed the composers and asked them: “How do you see your music in relation to the music of our time?”

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MusicWatch Weekly: How to decide

Your guide to choosing a balanced musical diet

I know what you’re thinking. “Hey Mr. Music Editor Guy, how the [redacted] am I supposed to pick one of these million shows you’re always telling us about?” Good question, dear foul-mouthed reader. The short answer, as always, is: follow your bliss!

But you want a real answer, don’t you? Normally, you might use genre as a guideline. But genre is dead and can’t help you anymore. Instead, I have three recommended methods for picking a weekend of concerts. First: rely on institutions. Second: use this newfangled interweb thingy to listen ahead of time to whatever’s happening on whichever morning/afternoon/evening you happen to be free. Third: ask your friends!

Rely on institutions

It may sound strange to hear a certified Discordian Pope telling you to rely on institutions, since any organization stuffy enough to earn the name “institution” is pretty reliably unreliable. But Oregon is blessed with several well-established music organizations that have earned our Trust in such matters.

Two of these are Cascadia Composers and Fear No Music, both of whom celebrate contemporary “classical” music and the (usually living) composers who create it, both of whom have concerts at The Old Church in the next week (Cascadia Saturday, FNM Monday). Stay tuned for Senior Editor Brett Campbell’s FNM Hearings preview tomorrow, and he’ll have something to say about Cascadia in just a moment. For now, I’d like to tell you about two other Portland institutions with shows coming up: School of Rock and Creative Music Guild.

Yes.

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MusicWatch Monthly: A Septemberful of ‘music’

"Classical" music, "Hip-hop" music, "Queer" music, "Experimental" music

Well, friends, you’ve got a helluva nice September to look forward to. Oregon Symphony provides live backup to the greatest movie of all time and also Wyclef Jean. Cappella Romana performs a bunch of Byzantine music, Kalakendra and Rasika present Indian classical music and dance, Nordic folk band Sver comes to Alberta Rose, and local rapper Fountaine headlines a free Labor Day hip-hop fest.

FearNoMusic and Third Angle swing back into full Relevant Classical mode this month, while Oregon Repertory Singers perform local composer Joan Szymko. Portland State’s Queer Opera presents gender-bent opera scenes and art songs, Dolphin Midwives plays a Harvest Moon Cacao Ceremony, and the Extradition Series imports a Canadian trumpeter.

We’ve even got a few concerts for you outside the Portland metro area, in case the shame trolls decide they want another helping of bananafied humiliation optics, police cover, wasted city resources, and charitable donations.

“Drip, drip.”

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10th anniversary season-closing concert offers clues to organization’s success

by MARIA CHOBAN

Guess where I am.

A lemon yellow wading pool, aluminum bowls spin bump chime on its blue sparkly surface, kids clang big silver balls at them.

Nope, I’m not sitting in a friend’s backyard.

A drone dancing with a human robot.

Nope, I’m not at Burning Man.

A cider balanced on my belly, lying on floor pillows, watching a wizard wave Wii wands, warding off ghosts.

Nope, I’m not high.

Give up?

Photo: Luciana Pina

I was at Cascadia Composers’ All Wired Up micro-festival of electronic music at downtown Portland’s Old Church Concert Hall on the deliberately chosen date — 4/20. 

Concocted by a Western classical music consortium, I expected . . . well, what do you expect when you read “micro-festival of electronic music?” Instead, It turned out to be the funnest fringe festival I’ve attended in Portland.

We obey Cascadia’s unflappable third president, the forward-looking Ted Clifford, and four more Cascadians wielding hand percussion instruments. The Pied Percussionists lead us outdoors into the bright sun where the gamelan is set up . . .  next to the lemon yellow wading pool . . . delighting even the pedestrians strolling down SW Clay.

Gangstas of Gamelan

Cascadia Composers, with 86 members, mostly from the Pacific Northwest, thrives when breaking classical music’s archaic ‘rules’ with unconventional events and offerings. For example, All Wired Up micro-fest of electronic music included a piece for Balinese gamelan (Indonesian percussion) and no electronics: ArtsWatch editor Matthew Andrews’s Because I Could Not Stop For Death

In May, I attended Cascadia’s monthly presentation (open to all) and spoke to a 30-something composer who recently moved from Dallas, Texas, ninth largest city in the US. His reason for moving to the 29th largest city? Dallas doesn’t support the ideas of burgeoning creators. When he asked a music mentor in Dallas where in Portland he should plug in, the response was Cascadia Composers and Classical Revolution PDX

How did Cascadia gain this notoriety? How did it turn a well behaved niche art enjoyed by a niche few into the rollicking frolic for young and old, newbies and insiders evidenced at All Wired Up? I’ll dust for fingerprints all over this festival. Let’s follow the clues and solve this crime.

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