reed college

The family that vanished

Author JB Fisher talks about a 61-year-old Portland mystery, this week at Third Street Books in McMinnville

On Thursday evening, Portland author JB Fisher will return to his one-time home of McMinnville to read from and discuss his latest book, Echo of Distant Water: The 1958 Disappearance of Portland’s Martin Family. You’ll find him downtown at Third Street Books, which has proved over the years that small-town indie bookstores can not only survive, but thrive. The Sept. 26 event begins at 6:30 p.m., and the store has a plentiful supply of copies for purchase.

Fisher is the author of another Portland true-crime book, Portland on the Take: Mid-Century Crime Bosses, Civic Corruption & Forgotten Murders, written with JD Chandler and published in 2014. That volume tells the tale of how gangsters gained control of some of the city’s unions during the Red Scare that followed the 1934 West Coast waterfront strike.

It turns out his new book was born right under my nose.

The author, teacher, and historian and his family used to live around the corner from us in McMinnville before they moved to Portland about six years ago. Our kids played together occasionally, so it turns out that I’ve actually visited the house where Echo of Distant Water has its origins.

Portland author JB Fisher came to true-crime via a background in Shakespeare and English Renaissance literature. He notes that popular literature of that time is “full of sensational stories: infanticides and hangings and the seedy underworld of ‘rogues, vagabonds, and sturdy beggars.’”
Portland author JB Fisher came to true-crime via a background in Shakespeare and English Renaissance literature. He notes that popular literature of that time is “full of sensational stories: infanticides and hangings and the seedy underworld of ‘rogues, vagabonds, and sturdy beggars.’” Photo by: Robert Delahanty

Digging through boxes in the garage of the ranch-style home, Fisher found a stack of newspapers left behind by the previous owner, and that was where he first learned about the Martin family. That story goes back to 1958, and boiled down to the most basic facts, it goes like this:

A few days before Christmas of that year, Ken and Barbara Martin of Portland and their three daughters climbed into their 1954 Ford station wagon and headed up the Columbia Gorge to find a Christmas tree. (Their 28-year-old son was stationed in New York with the Navy.) They had lunch at a Hood River diner, then apparently headed back to Portland.

Then they vanished.

Evidence emerged about a month later suggesting that the car had plunged off a cliff into the Columbia River near The Dalles. Early in May 1959, the bodies of the two youngest girls were discovered — one in the Columbia Slough near Camas, Wash., and the other near the Bonneville Dam spillway. The car was never found.

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Tin House: vulnerability & risk

As its celebrated literary journal shuts down, the Portland publishing house's summer writing workshops at Reed College continue to thrive.


By BEN BARTU


Midsummer has arrived in Oregon, and every surface at Reed College seems ripe with books. The campus is hosting the sixteenth annual Tin House Summer Workshop, as a few minutes walking the grounds makes plain. Signs for lecture destinations and attendee housing point in every direction. Above Cerf Amphitheatre, tables are stacked high with various issues of Tin House’s quarterly journal. 

The journal’s final issue – printed in July, and marking the end of a 20-year run for one of Portland’s most esteemed and far-reaching literary magazines – stands out from its predecessors, a robust volume with a pitch-black cover on which is etched a gilded rendition of the press’s logo.

Tin House has come a long way since it was founded in 1999 as a literary journal and nothing more. It was established by Holly MacArthur and Win McCormack (MacArthur remains a founding editor and deputy publisher; McCormack, who is also editor in chief of The New Republic since buying the magazine in 2016, is Tin House’s publisher and editor in chief), but it was not until 2003 that the publishing house held its first writing workshop at Reed. Another five years went by before Tin House also became a press, publishing novels, nonfiction, and poetry.

This was my first year attending the conference. Its lectures, panels, and readings have always been open to the public, although the workshops themselves are strictly for accepted applicants. In most cases, those accepted are also required to pay a substantial fee to cover the cost of working closely with some of the United States’ literary superstars.

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Poet D.A. Howell, “The Godfather” of Tin House’s writing workshops.

THE 2019 WORKSHOP, which ran July 7-14, included many big-name authors, among them R.O Kwon, Garth Greenwell, Natalie Diaz, Camille T. Dungy, Kaveh Akbar, and Mitchell S. Jackson. Also in attendance was poet D.A. Powell, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award, who has earned the affectionate nickname “The Godfather” for having attended every Tin House summer workshop since 2003.

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What Kind of Music Do You Listen to for Pleasure?

An interview with Portland composer David Schiff

Introduction by Matthew Neil Andrews
Interview by Charles Rose

Alongside Kenji Bunch and a handful of others, recently-retired Reed College professor David Schiff sits comfortably among Portland’s most popular composers of what we still call “classical” music. There’s a good reason for that: the New York born, longtime Oregon resident writes music that combines the best of mainstream contemporary classical (Stravinsky, Copland, Carter) with the energy and appeal of more popular genres such as minimalism (Reich, Riley), jazz (Mingus, Ellington), and even klezmer.

That makes his music catchy, exciting, intellectually stimulating, and emotionally rewarding. We also find it very telling that he’s written books about Ellington and Carter: two giants occupying complementary ends of the vast spectrum of 20th-century U.S. music. You can read Arts Watch Senior Editor Brett Campbell’s profile of Schiff right here.

David Shifrin and David Schiff onstage at CMNW’s 2016 Summer Festival.

Schiff’s also gone out of his way to make friends with some of the finest players in the daring cross-genre world he lives in, so we get to hear his music played by Regina Carter, Fear No Music, David Shifrin, and various stars from the Chamber Music Northwest company of world-class performers. This upcoming Saturday, July 6, and Monday, July 8 (both in Kaul Auditorium at Reed College, where Schiff teaches), CMNW presents the world premiere of Schiff’s Chamber Concerto No. 1 for Clarinet and Ensemble, commissioned for this occasion.

The concert also includes Bach’s Concerto for Violin and Oboe in C Minor and Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 in G Major, and composer/pianist Daniel Schlosberg‘s arrangement of the Adagio from the second Brahms piano concerto, a task Schlosberg described as “a daunting proposition.”

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Column Zero: Summer comes alive

Chamber Music Northwest blows its clarinets, Storm Large sings about craziness, Makrokosmos gets nightmarish

We here at Oregon Arts Watch tend to pay a lot of attention to Oregon composers. In a sense, our job is made easier by the problem outlined yesterday by Senior Editor Brett Campbell: we like local composers, living or recent, diverse in gender and age and race and genre. That’s exactly who is often underrepresented in the largest institutions, and—lucky us!—that means we have a journalistic obligation to write about exactly the artists we’d want to write about anyways.

Wolfie

But never mind that for a moment—I want to talk to you about Mozart. We’ll come back to Kenji Bunch and Storm Large and George Crumb and Tōru Takemitsu and all the rest, but for right now I want to take the somewhat contrary position that we should absolutely be happy about hearing Mozart’s clarinet music at Chamber Music Northwest this week.

The pair of opening concerts (Reed College June 24, PSU June 25) are a handy confluence of musical meanings. Outgoing CMNW Artistic Director David Shifrin is, of course, a very fine clarinetist himself, and in past years has dazzled and transported us with gorgeous renditions of everything from Bach and Mozart to Messiaen and Akiho. This season—his second-to-last before handing the reins to Gloria Chien and Soovin Kim for the 2020/21 season—thus fittingly concludes with a whole lot of clarinet music. And, because this is CMNW, the concerts stretch all the way back to the instrument’s first great composer and all the way forward to recent and newly commissioned works by those beloved modern composers we talked about earlier.

But they’ll have to wait a little longer while I justify Mozart to the kids.

Chamber Music Northwest Artistic Director David Shifrin

You probably learned in music history class or here on internet that Mozart was pals with pioneering Viennese clarinetist Anton Stadler, an early virtuoso who sold Mozart on the new instrument’s charms. It’s a pretty weird instrument, essentially three instruments in one body, its lower chalumeau register stretching almost to the bottom of the cello’s range, its upper clarion and altissimo registers covering the violin’s entire range. Its tone is unlike any other woodwind instrument, a “long purply sound” in Berio’s phrase, somewhere between a human voice and a bowed string instrument.Mozart ended up composing plenty of really good music featuring clarinets and their sibling basset horns, and the best of it pairs the Frankenstein instrument with voices and/or strings—an ideal blend of sound colors and expressive possibilities.

Mozart ended up composing plenty of really good music featuring clarinets and their sibling basset horns, and the best of it pairs the Frankenstein instrument with voices and/or strings—an ideal blend of sound colors and expressive possibilities.

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Celebrating Schiff

Reed College pays tribute to the veteran Portland composer and music professor, who's retiring from its faculty, in two concerts of his music this week

Famed classical clarinetist David Shifrin recently commissioned Portland composer David Schiff to write a new piece for him to play at Chamber Music Northwest’s 2019 summer festival. After Schiff began working on it, he asked Shifrin if he had any suggestions.

Shifrin pondered. Schiff is a legendarily versatile composer whose past work has touched on everything from jazz to French Impressionism to klezmer, so Shifrin had a vast potential palette to choose from, ranging across several centuries and cultures. “I’d like,” the clarinetist replied, “a Baroque aria.”

“I already started it,” Schiff said. “We’re on the same wavelength.”

David Schiff speaks at Chamber Music Northwest’s 2017 Summer Festival.

No wonder. Shifrin and Schiff have been partners in music since shortly after the Bronx-born composer came to Portland to teach at Reed College in 1980. The following summer, he discovered CMNW and showed some of his scores to Shifrin, who had just begun his 40-year tenure as director. He asked Schiff to adapt music from his opera Gimpel the Fool into an instrumental chamber music work, and programmed it for the 1982 festival. It’s since become Schiff’s most-performed piece.

Shifrin and other CMNW colleagues will play it again Thursday in an all-Schiff concert commemorating both Schiff’s retirement from Reed this spring after 38 years, and Shifrin’s upcoming retirement as CMNW artistic director. Reed will also honor Schiff with a Tuesday concert of his music featuring Portland new music ensemble FearNoMusic.

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‘She never wanted to leave anyone out’: Bonnie Merrill, 1935-2019

Collaborators remember a Portland dance pioneer’s generous spirit

Generations of Portland dancers—with one conspicuous exception—turned out to see Minh Tran’s concert Anicca (Impermance) last weekend at Reed College. Tran’s work, inspired by the recent deaths of his parents, premiered just a week after one of his teachers, Bonnie Merrill, succumbed to leukemia on Valentine’s Day. Tran’s piece, already weighted with grief and memory, felt like a kind of elegy for Merrill, an influential Portland dancer, instructor, and choreographer, and a founding mother of the city’s contemporary dance scene.

Merrill's work We Gather was performed at the citywide Portland arts festival Artquake in 1994. Photographer unknown.

Bonnie Merrill dances a solo in Donald McKayle’s “Collage.” Photo courtesy of the Merrill family.

Merrill kept her Portland dance card full for close to 40 years. She worked with modern and ballet companies, public school students, and collegiate dancers from Portland State, Lewis and Clark, and Reed. She created more than 100 works that were performed on film, onstage, and in city streets. Along the way, she forged creative alliances with musicians and visual artists, and earned accolades including the only Oregon Governor’s Award for the Arts given to an individual dance artist.

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Minh Tran’s journey to rebirth

In his first new piece in eight years, the choreographer/dancer creates a luminous evocation of a soul's passage to the next life

When does the personal become the universal? That is one of several questions raised by Minh Tran’s Anicca (Impermanence), the Vietnamese-born choreographer’s first new piece in eight years, which premiered on Thursday night in Reed College’s Massee Performance Lab.

Two years in the making, Anicca is in fact deeply personal: It is Tran’s superbly crafted response to the loss of his parents, particularly his mother, its organizing principle the time (49 days) that practitioners of Theravada Buddhism believe it takes for the soul to journey from death to rebirth. “These souls are called wandering ghosts,” Tran said in an interview for Reed Magazine. “They’re living in a world we call the bardo, a (neverland) that doesn’t belong to any place at all. During this time, these souls need a lot of attention and prayers [so] they will be shepherded by the bodhisatta or the Goddess of Mercy until they reach the gate … so they can be reincarnated for the next life.”

Company members circle Carla Mann, who represents the “death soul” of Minh Tran’s mother in “Anicca: Impermanence.” Photo: Chelsea Petrakis

In the course of the 49-minute piece (give or take) the seven dancers in Anicca perform the same number of sections, each of them representing a different stage of the soul’s journey, as well as that of those who grieve and finally find some form of acceptance.

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