sō percussion

Minimalism & Millennials: Generation gap?

Minimalist music in Third Angle’s Reich-analia strikes one millennial musician as manipulative


Locational obliviousness combined with missing my first exit and leaving my apartment late due to compositional tunnel vision had me literally running up the stairs in the Montgomery Park Atrium on January 30 as Steve Reich’s Sextet began.

Heavy breaths and forced stillness; running to sit; momentum to dead-space; being on the very cusp of arriving late where every movement matters. Yet upon punctual arrival it all seems so pointless, which is coincidentally the feeling I arrived and left Third Angle’s Reich-analia with, originally due to my poor timing, but sustained by the music:

This is not an idea. Tthis is not an idea. Ththis is not an idea. Thithis is not an idea. Thisthis is
not an idea. This ithis is not an idea. This isthis is not an idea. This is nthis is not an idea. This is nothis is not an idea. This is notthis is not an idea. This is not athis is not an idea. This is not
anthis is not an idea. This is not an ithis is not an idea. This is not an idthis is not an idea. This is not an idethis is not an idea. This is not an idea. This is not an idea.

I’m sorry, let me clarify my thoughts on long-term phasing as a compositional tool. Or as eminent classical music scholar Richard Taruskin, author of the Oxford History of Western Music and other books, said of Reich’s contemporary Philip Glass’s five hour opera Einstein on the Beach: “it’s basic behavior-modification therapy, and so far from spontaneous or liberating, it is calculated authoritarian manipulation. I find it sinister. . .”

Third Angle New Music brought So Percussion to Portland to play music by Steve Reich.

Third Angle New Music brought So Percussion to Portland to play music by Steve Reich.

It’s this mechanical nature of strict minimalist ideas that fails to differentiate the early Minimalist movement from that of Modernism. Sure, the harmonic language had changed, but the same insipid relation to human existence outside of rhythmic patterns or various serialization schemes is the predominant aesthetic feature of both. The Modernists had their twelve-tone rows, mathematics, and cold Stochastic practices, while the Minimalists had their mathematical development of rhythmic motives producing phasing, and obsession with these pattern cycles at the expense of listenability and emotional impact. Life is more than patterns, twelve-tone rows and clever justifications for breaking the rules, jobs, school, social expectations, and all that stupid shit.


Portland Opera presents Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro this weekend and next. / image via Portland Opera

So much swell singing onstage this weekend in Portland, including Friday night’s Winter’s Journey, which tops this weekend’s list of recommendations; it’s a rare opportunity to see one of music’s absolute classics and in a vital new interpretation. If you’re hesitating at all, listen to our podcast with the perpetrators. The biggest vocal news is Portland Opera’s production of Mozart’s classic The Marriage of Figaro Friday night and Sunday afternoon, and next Thursday and Saturday. It can be played as a romp or revolution, and it’ll be interesting to view the tale of unjustified class privilege during the current Occupation.  I’ll have a mini-review at Willamette Week next week.

In this week’s paper, you can read my review of sound artist Seth Nehil’s haunting Children’s Games. It’s not for audiences who want their messages delivered literally, but definitely worth checking out if you’re interested in adventurous sounds and stagings; this one uses live chorus (by members of Portland’s Flash Choir) as well as video projection.

And speaking of Portland Opera (which just snared an Operagasm! award for … well, you should just check out the site, because the categories definitely smash the stuffy stereotype), Tuesday brings a free recital at the Portland Art Museum’s Whitsell Auditorium by one of its young studio artists, Andre Chiang, who sings an intriguing program of music by contemporary American composers Ned Rorem, Lee Hoiby, their predecessors Charles Ives, Leonard Bernstein and John Jacob Niles and Samuel Barber, and Robert Schumann’s famous cycle — up there with Schubert’s — The Poet’s Love. PO’s always engaging Robert Ainsley accompanies and comments.

For more Portland vocal excitement, on Saturday night, two more of the city’s most vibrant voices, Mel Downie Robinson and and Tim Galloway, both of whom appeared in last weekend’s Resonance Ensemble show, join forces at Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall, accompanied by early music specialists Michael Wilhite and Douglas Schneider, singing Baroque music by J.S. Bach, Monteverdi, Handel, Rameau and more. There’s more Bach at Sunday’s Bach Cantata Choir free performance of a cantata (accompanied by small orchestra) by J.S. Bach and music by Renaissance composers at Portland’s Rose City Park Presbyterian Church, and still more free Bach in Eugene on Saturday afternoon at the downtown Atrium, where the Emerald Chamber Orchestra plays a cantata for solo soprano and a pair of chorale preludes. Eugene Baroque fans can also hear Elizabethan  lute duets and songs on Sunday afternoon at United Lutheran Church, featuring lutenists David Rogers and Hideki Yamaya and singers Anna Seitz Rikli and Jim Rich, who’ll sing songs by John Dowland and others, including Shakespeare’s contemporary (and perhaps composer for some of his plays), Robert Johnson.

Orchestra fans have several attractive choices around the state. Saturday and Monday’s Oregon Symphony concerts feature an always worthwhile warhorse, Mozart’s Symphony #41 — the composer’s magnificent final orchestral statement — and a relative rarity, Benjamin Britten’s only Piano Concerto, which offers diverse delights and a solo turn by Scottish pianist Steven Osborn, and Richard Strauss’s tone poem Don Juan.

Last weekend’s OSO concert featured a superb performance by violinist Karen Gomyo in Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, and if you want more violin virtuosity and Beethoven, they’re onstage Friday and Sunday at the Beaverton Symphony’s concert, which includes Belgian composer Henri Vieuxtemps’ rhapsodic Violin Concerto, with Portland Baroque Orchestra violinist Adam LaMotte front and center, with Brahms’s Tragic Overture and Beethoven’s picturesquely pastoral Symphony #6.

Over on the coast, the Newport Symphony features yet another big concerto, Rachmaninoff’s Shine-y  third piano concerto, and a really fascinating undercard of Mexican music, including the startlingly original 20th century genius Silvestre Revueltas, Blas Calindo, Arturo Marquez and more.

Of the several excellent shows I caught last weekend, Resonance Ensemble‘s performance may linger longest in my memory. Hugo Distler’s theatrical Dance of Death proved to be strangely moving and seemed to emerge from ancient times, despite the occasional modern musical influences. But what really struck home was the sensitive, intimate performance by this all-star team of singers in mostly somber music by Samuel Barber, Johannes Brahms, Maurice Durufle and more. Resonance’s seemingly effortless dynamic shifts seemed perfectly geared to the lyrics’ phrasing and emotional content, and their ability to maintain a rich, firm tone even at the softest volume was especially impressive. At the end of Distler’s piece, when a worthy character achieves redemption, the sun suddenly brightened the stained glass windows at Portland’s First Presbyterian Church.

Several concerts of new music have already brightened the fall music scene. Third Angle’s agile performance of songs from New York composer Eve Beglarian’s Mississippi Project persuaded me that the composer, who also performed, is one of this country’s most compelling active composers.

Cascadia Composers’ third concert of the still young season offered several local gems. My favorite was Jackie T. Gabel’s Comet Crash 9, an electroacoustic setting of a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem that reflected that phenomenon as colorfully as Agniezska Laska’s video accompaniment. Bonnie Miksch’s Like Water, Like Sound, Like Breath effectively conveyed the varied moods and emotional turbulence related to the loss of parents and the birth of children in the same period. Gary Noland’s admirably concise Trio for flute, viola and cello swerved from late romantic angst to bucolic tango in a deliciously loopy staggering dance, that ultimately reminded me a bit of Ravel’s  deconstruction of classic waltzes, La Valse. Tomas Svoboda’s Lamentation for string quartet echoed Webern in its spare use of silence and sound. Wind quintets by Ted Clifford and Liz Nedela both showed real promise and engaging moments. In maybe the finest performance of the night, Eugene singer Nancy Wood sang rapturously in Jeff Winslow’s Yeats setting, When You Are Old. It’s nice to hear lyrics delivered clearly without being burdened by archaic or inappropriate opera or art song styles. Thanks to its perky percussion parts, played by Florian Conzetti, Greg Steinke’s sparkling Expressions III, inspired by Klimt paintings, contributed the night’s most exciting moments, and percussion also enlivened David Bernstein’s Quadralogues II.

What really stood out about this concert was the level of performance quality, the highest I’ve heard at CC concerts. When you have performers like Third Angle pianist Susan Smith, Colorado Quartet co-founder Diane Chaplin on cello, former Turtle Island String Quartet violist Danny Seidenberg, Oregon Symphony flutist Alicia DiDonato Paulsen and other excellent musicians giving their superb skills to this homegrown music, it adds immensely to the audience experience. Now, when are other musicians and presenters going to show up and scout some of this  listener-friendly Northwest music for use on local stages?

So Percussion’s performance of music by John Cage, Steve Reich and the band’s own Jason Treuting at Reed College — one of the highlights of the year so far — demonstrated the young quartet’s status as one of the country’s most important musical voices, and presenter  Friends of Chamber Music‘s welcome hipness in taking an expansive of view of chamber music. The New Yorkers brought Oregon some really fresh sounds, including one of Reich’s grooviest latter-day works, 2009’s Mallet Quartet, which sounded even more appealing than it did when I heard So present its premiere in 2009. Debut performances are important, but keeping them in the repertoire really makes new music grow.

FOCM’s outreach efforts also made important connections, as happened with last year’s Calder Quartet appearances at the Portland Art Museum and elsewhere. A Sunday afternoon free performance at Multnomah County’s Central Library kept kids and families engaged and participating in some clapping and other percussion. I wonder if anyone there realized that the music was by composers who were positively vilified by critics and conservative audiences for much of their careers. Hidebound critics routinely ridiculed Cage’s concepts of chance music, his ideas about the value of non traditionally musical sounds, and the rest of his transformational contributions to 20th century arts, while Reich’s early minimalism received boos and derision in the 1960s and early ’70s and even later. The critics lacked imagination, of course, but let’s also acknowledge just how much those two geniuses changed our culture, so much so that Stomp! and Blue Man Group and other percussion-propelled performances now seem perfectly safe,  friendly and fun, even for kids and families. That long view is worth keeping in mind when we encounter new art that seems strange today.

Composer Eve Beglarian took a trip down the big river / via Eve Beglarian

 Around the time of the election of Obama and the economic meltdown, I decided what I wanted to do was travel down the Mississippi River really slowly, human powered. I ended up paddling and biking down the river, from the headwaters in Minnesota, all the way down to New Orleans, in the fall of 2009. ... I went with a tape recorder, very little agenda, and absolutely no schedule… [I]t’s the spine of the country and I wanted to know what it was. And it’s richer and more full of things that I knew nothing about than I could possibly have imagined.

Eve Beglarian, from an interview in NewMusicBox.

The diminutive woman in red and the violinist in black stood grinning on stage singing a gentle, playful duet of the simplest of texts: sol, ti, re, fa, do, mi, la and so on, a landscape scene projected behind them. Next, the woman, composer Eve Beglarian, read a short essay (posted on her blog) about her four month journey down the Mississippi River by kayak, bike, car, and foot, collecting images, stories and sounds that she later turned into The River Project. She joined Third Angle New Music Ensemble and Eugene’s Beta Collide  to perform excerpts from it Friday night at Portland’s Alberta Rose Theater — the first time she’d taken the show on the road.