university of Oregon school of music and dance

Singing Strings

Composer Stephen Scott created singular music — and a unique instrument to play it

Stephen Scott was all set to become a jazz musician until the day in 1964 his mentor, University of Oregon music professor Homer Keller, brought a cassette to class. “There’s something going on in San Francisco,” he said, “and you should hear it.” The music, premiered only a few months earlier, was one of the seminal works of the 20th century, Terry Riley’s proto-minimalist In C. Mellifluous, repetitive, and easy for even untrained listeners to grasp, it marked a turning point away from the atonal, often dissonant sounds that had dominated classical music since World War II. 

“It grabbed me by the throat,” Scott recalled. “We were all stunned by it.”

Composer Stephen Scott. Photo: Melanie Tutt.

That ear-opening experience led Scott, who died March 10 at age 76, to blaze his own trails during a long and fruitful career on the faculty of Colorado College.  All composers make new music, but few create an entire new instrument to express their musical visions.  In the able hands of Scott and the Bowed Piano Ensemble he founded at the college in 1977, his bowed piano music became far more than a mere gimmick, even though the instrument’s uniqueness unfairly threatened to eclipse in the public mind the mesmerizing, minimalist-influenced music he wrote for it. In Scott’s case, the medium itself helped inspire the muse.

 “Stephen Scott is an inheritor of the mantle of Henry Cowell and Harry Partch and Lou Harrison and John Cage,” the eminent music historian Joseph Horowitz told me in 2008, “that American maverick tradition that had emanated from the West Coast of self invented composers in many cases using self invented instruments. These composers used novel means in a more traditional musical language. It’s an American phenomenon and he’s at the center of it today.”                                 

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DanceWatch: March hare edition

We are still watching dance online, and that's so much better than the alternative

Welcome to March. It’s almost spring! That means warmer weather, light in the sky, and flowers blooming everywhere. We also have the Coronavirus vaccine to look forward to, which means that maybe we can all commingle in theatres and dance studios once again by next fall, which is excellent! So, many things to look forward to, but dance and dance-related discussions are all still online until then. 

This month offers a mixed bag of performance experiences from new performance experiments from Linda Austin and Allie Hankins to an annual performance share by four different dance groups at AWOL Dance Collective’s performance space to a new film from PDX Contemporary Ballet and conversations with Oregon Ballet Theatre’s artistic director Kevin Irving on the future of classical ballet and its problems with racism and sexism. 

It’s a light month in terms of the number of dance performances, which is nice because I think we are all exhausted and could use some time offline. So go outside and dance, but don’t forget to watch and support the dance community online too. 

Last thought. Here is an excerpt of a poem I recently found by author Laura Kelly Fanucci:

“When this is over,
may we never again
take for granted
A handshake with a stranger
Full shelves at the store
Conversations with neighbors
A crowded theatre
Friday night out
The taste of communion
A routine checkup
The school rush each morning
Coffee with a friend…”

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Future Music Oregon: triangle of artistry

University of Oregon's music technology program shows that instruments aren't the only evolving aspect of music -- so is the composer's role

At first glance, the stage at the University of Oregon’s Thelma Schnitzer Hall looks like any other chamber music recital. A violinist and pianist sit/stand ready to perform Neil Rolnick’s Deal with the Devil. Look closer, though and you’ll see controllers (devices that trigger sound generators) mounted on violinist Jennifer Choi’s violin, resting on her music stand, and at her feet. New York new music star (and Portland native) Kathleen Supové’s piano is wired for treatment, as well. The composer is also on stage, facing a bank of mixers, black boxes, and a laptop.

Neil Rolnick’s Deal with the Devil starts out a lightly swung, jazzy duo with minimal electronic elements, but it swells into an expansive sonic canvas of interchange and interaction between acoustic instruments, their affected sound, and modulated sound samples. It is powerful, engaging music. Ten minutes in, however, I ask myself, “Why is the composer on stage?”

As the instrumentalists dig in to their virtuosity, a warped string orchestra of electroacoustic sounds emerges: a whorling cacophony that whips around the hall’s eight-channel speaker system, causing heads to swivel. In contrast, Rolnick’s performance is mundane. He pushes faders, twists knobs, wiggles his mouse, and peers at the laptop. He makes intermittent, quasi-conducting motions, without ensemble eye contact. Put simply, he appears out of place. Next to the impassioned gestures of the musicians, his presence is a distraction.

Jennifer Choi, Kathleen Supové, and Neil Rolnick perform Rolnick’s ‘Deal with the Devil’ at Future Music Oregon’s fall quarterly concert on November 17, 2018. Photo: Daniel Heila.

Nonetheless, with its crowd-pleasing, whiz-bang ending, the piece is a success. But my question remains: Why is the composer on stage? Luckily, I find answers in the program’s remaining pieces and during a later interview with longtime FMO director Jeffrey Stolet.

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There has often been a social and cultural distance between an institution of higher education and the city that surrounds it. This detachment between town and gown dates back to the European Middle Ages when academic and non-academic worlds often eyed each other with some sense of conflict and mutual suspicion.

Fortunately, there is far less distance these days as more academic centers and local communities find unique opportunities to become mutually engaged in social and economic projects, research, and artistic efforts. Interplay, a collaborative project of the University of Oregon School of Music and Dance Department and the Eugene Ballet Company, provides evidence of this in a March 8-10 production.

Shannon Mockli and Suzanne Haag collaborated on "Between Your Eyes and You" Photo courtesy of UO School of Music and Dance

Shannon Mockli and Suzanne Haag collaborated on “Between Your Eyes and You” Photo courtesy of UO School of Music and Dance.

The idea behind Interplay, the way in which two or more things have an effect on each other, is to explore ways in which four choreographers from the university and three from the Eugene Ballet, along with dancers from both organizations, can become creatively engaged with one another and share the results with audiences in the intimate environment of the Soreng Theater at the Hult Center for the Performing Arts.

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DanceWatch: A rich cultural stew

What's happening in Oregon dance now

Welcome to DanceWatch for March, the month that enters like a lion and retreats like a lamb, or so they say. While it’s still cold and dark outside, you can think of this month’s dance offerings like a warm winter stew: hearty, rich, varied, and soul-soothing. And don’t forget that spring is a mere 22 days away!

Let’s start this month’s column with Native American dance. Last fall, the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art caught my attention with this statement in its Time-Based Art catalog: “The land now known as Portland rests on the traditional village sites of the Multnomah, Wasco, Cowlitz, Kathlamet, Clackamas, Bands of Chinook, Tualatin Kalapuya, Molalla, and many other Tribes who made their homes along the Columbia (Wimahl) and Willamette (Whilamut) rivers.”

I didn’t know this. Did you? I was struck. I rarely hear about the native tribes of Portland and the surrounding areas and I even more rarely see dance representing these cultures. I feel weird about this. I can’t go back to not knowing. In fact, this information made me want to learn more about Native American dance artists in Oregon and beyond, and recently, I did.

This past Sunday, I attended the Alembic artist performance at Performance Works NorthWest, where choreographer Olivia Camfield, a resident artists and a Muscogee Creek Tribal member from Texas Hill Country, choreographed and performed a powerful contemporary piece about indigenous people reclaiming their narratives. She welcomed everyone with this statement, a reminder to be respectful when we’re visiting someone else’s territory.

“Hensci (hello), estonko (how are you), Olivia Cvhocefkv Tos (my name is Olivia). I come from the Muscogee Creek nation of Oklahoma. Originally we come from the southeastern region of this continent. I would like to acknowledge that I am a visitor here today and in the spirit of reciprocity, I would like to bring medicine and movement prayer to this land and the people of it. These nations include the Multnomah, Kathlamet, Clackamas, Tumwater, Watlala Bands of the Chinook, the Tualatin Kalapuya, and many other indigenous nations of the Columbia River valley region. I would like y’all to acknowledge whether you are a settler occupier of this stolen land, an indigenous visitor, or you are of this land and this is your ancestral territory. I would like to ask to come here and be in a good way and walk this land as a caretaker and a medicine giver. I would like y’all to do the same, be here in a way that is respectful and honorable to the people and spirits who have taken care of this land since time immemorial. Mvto (thank you).”

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TaiHei Ensemble: garden reflections

New music by University of Oregon composers inspired by Portland's Lan Su Chinese Garden premieres in Eugene and Portland concerts

A new day at Portland’s Lan Su Chinese Garden begins. The morning’s multi-hued sky reflected in a koi filled pond is accompanied by the sounds of birdsong and the gentle trickling of a waterfall hidden in a bamboo alcove. This walled-in botanical oasis of Chinese native flora, art, architecture, and calm — one of the most authentic Suzhou-style gardens outside China — was the destination last October of a cadre of University of Oregon graduate students beginning a year-long music composition project.

Organized by Eugene’s student-managed TaiHei Ensemble, the “One Day in a Chinese Garden” project immersed ten invited composers from the Oregon Composers Forum in a day of Chinese art and culture. The highlight was a 45-minute docent-led walking tour of the garden that ended at the teahouse, where composers heard a program of traditional Chinese music performed on authentic instruments by members of the Portland Wisdom Art Academy.

Lan Su Chinese Garden Reflective pond with Moon Locking Pavilion. Photo: Jared Knight

After a full day of sensory exposure to a multitude of cultural experiences, the participants composed, based upon their garden visit and further individual research into Chinese culture and music, a 5-8 minute piece for TaiHei Ensemble, known for exploring and enacting international dialogs across the Pacific Rim through music. On Tuesday, TaiHei performs the music in the first of three 2019 concerts. Like the image of the sky in the garden’s reflecting pool, their compositions reflect aspects of the garden’s physical attributes as well as the ideas it signifies and other notions gleaned from their experience in the garden.

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DanceWatch Weekly: Move it, own it

Dance doesn’t just belong to the young or skinny or white or “trained” or "educated” or able-bodied. Claim it. Shape it. Make it your own.

Because it’s Valentine’s day/week, and love is in the air, I thought I would reflect on loving relationships in regards to dance, more specifically my evolving relationship with dance, with our bodies, why I think we should all dance, and how I think dancing can change the world. I have big ideas, I know.

Remember when you were a kid and you would be talking away and suddenly a word would pop out that sounded really strange like it was from another planet, and then you would repeat it over and over and over again (much to the chagrin of your parents), until it completely lost its meaning, and became an amorphous sound? Well, that’s kind of what’s happened to dance for me since I started writing DanceWatch. But this isn’t a bad thing, I promise. Let me explain.

Because I spend so much time looking at, thinking about, reading about, writing about, dance, and dancing myself, all of the boundaries that I once upon a time created to define dance have been blown apart to form a new, much more inclusive definition. I so narrowly defined dance that I almost defined myself right out of it. I highly recommend immersing yourself in something you don’t understand, to understand it.

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