A concert is never about only the music. Otherwise we’d just listen to a recording on headphones. At Pyxis Quartet’s Feb 15 concert at Portland’s Old Church, which on that rainy evening felt like the most consequential performance I’ve attended in Portland, the music offered some splendid moments. But there was much more at stake.
The most important was the event that sparked it. The concert was an artistic response to the horrifying homicidal 2017 stabbings on Portland’s Max train. One of the survivors, poet Micah Fletcher, already known around Portland State University as a superlative poet even before he became famous in a way no one wants, performed his original poetry, which also inspired all the compositions on the program, including Nicholas Yandell’s opening Crisis Actor.
Just before the composer intoned Fletcher’s words as part of the performance, the lighting turned blood red. That chilling extra-musical effect (made possible, not incidentally, by contributions to the Old Church that allowed a new lighting system that dramatically enhances the music performed in that essential Oregon arts venue) added a dimension to the performance by evoking the bloody attack that inspired it.
Both poetry and music were commissioned by Pyxis’s parent organization, 45th Parallel Universe. That is: they paid some of Portland’s most accomplished artists to create this artistic response to the terrifying crime against our community — a wholly admirable act of artistic and community vision. They put their money where their morals were. They saw their community attacked — and they responded in the best way artists can, with original creations that directly defied it. Many moments in that concert rose to the occasion, and as a whole, it helped me engage with the still unresolved feelings the killings provoked.
What made that possible was the vision of 45th Parallel founder Greg Ewer, who conceived the concert, composers Yandell, Kenji Bunch, Bonnie Miksch and Texu Kim, supporters like the invaluable and indefatigable Ronnie Lacroute, ticket buyers, and above all poet Fletcher, who insisted on being more than a victim. These committed community members deserve our deepest gratitude.
That’s not to say it was a perfect concert, whatever that is, just a deeply meaningful one. (Just. We need more of those.) ArtsWatch’s Charles Rose and new music editor Matthew Andrews will fully assess the music in another story. It won’t be easy to separate it from the occasion of its creation. I’m still processing it myself. I heard moments of fierce beauty in each of the four musical compositions, in Fletcher’s searing poetry, and especially in his unforgettable performance of it.
Flourishing Homegrown Music
The Pyxis performance, and maybe even the Mousai Remix concert that preceded it on this excellent 45th Parallel double bill, might not have happened when we started covering contemporary classical music at ArtsWatch back in 2011. Of course, groups like FearNoMusic and Third Angle New Music had been playing American sounds for decades, and you might occasionally have heard music by Oregon composers on those programs or at Chamber Music Northwest and a few other places. But a concert featuring only brand-new music by Oregon composers, written in direct response to a momentous local event — that’s something I don’t remember ever encountering before.
While contemporary classical music of any kind made up only a fraction of live Oregon music then, before Cascadia Composers arrived a decade ago, all-Oregon contemporary classical shows were rare or nonexistent. That’s all changed. Today, at least in Portland, you can hear contemporary Oregon classical music throughout the year, regularly in Cascadia shows and sporadically but increasingly on programs by FearNoMusic (which has instituted a Locally Sourced Sounds concert since Portland composer Kenji Bunch took over artistic leadership), 45th Parallel Universe, Resonance Ensemble, Third Angle, Creative Music Guild, even some of our orchestras, though not nearly often enough. The Pyxis concert, which also included original commissions, collaboration with another art form (poetry) and responsiveness to current events, upped the ante even more. And I’ve heard promises of more to come from other, larger institutions that we’ll tell you about when they happen.
I hope our attention to today’s classical music — usually the most culturally relevant and therefore most newsworthy events in Oregon music — has helped as well, giving presenters that want to play locavore sounds confidence that at least someone in the press is paying attention and telling Oregon audiences about it. Our writings are used in publicity material, grant applications, and more. Knowing that we’ll cover it, PR people regularly email me touting their new music programming — something that seldom happened a few years ago. In fact, both Eugene Symphony and Chamber Music Northwest recently excitedly informed me of new commissioning programs, which they want Oregon donors to support.
Mission in Progress
But those missives just show that Oregon classical music institutions still have a ways to go to contribute adequately to the communities that support them. It’s great to see classical institutions encouraging new music of any kind, of course, but these programs make no provision for Oregon music, raising the specter of the good people of Oregon subsidizing Brooklyn hipster composers du jour instead of Oregon creators. New Yorkers and LA composers get enough attention and access to funds. The total absence of Oregonians from these programs so far shows these institutions still don’t consider the communities that support them to be worth their return investment.
We won’t repeat the mistakes of another institution that declared Mission Accomplished while battle still raged. Oregon classical music institutions still fail to pay nearly enough attention to the composers in their community. Still deeply mired in the dated historical museum model of endless repetition of the same old same old by long dead European composers, classical orchestra programs have been particularly derelict in their duty to our creative community and audiences, though even this is starting to change. As always, the children shall lead them — look at Metropolitan Youth Symphony and other young musicians’ efforts to bring classical music into their generation.
Why send your money to Brooklyn, when donors, grantmakers and music fans can invest in creativity in our community? Check our ComposersWatch directory (which includes samples of the wide variety of Oregon sounds available), Cascadia Composers, FearNoMusic’s YCP, and other programs that nurture our own creative community. It’s June — wouldn’t a lasting, original work of musical art make a special wedding present?
To deserve the support of our community in the tense world we live in today, concerts must be about more than worshiping at the altar of old music. Pyxis, Fletcher and the rest have shown the way. Others we’ve written about in ArtsWatch have, too. Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble, FearNoMusic and Resonance Ensemble, to name just three, have devoted concerts or whole seasons to musical responses to today’s injustices. Who’s next?
However, it’s not enough to just program new music, whether from Oregon or elsewhere. If listeners are really going to get a chance to enjoy it, new music — any music — must be adequately rehearsed and expressively played. And that’s the next frontier in contemporary Oregon classical music. Too many of our new music performances sound like sight readings, with poorly prepared players too often picking or faking their way through dull performances that leave the music essentially unheard. If a listener takes a chance on unfamiliar or new music, comes away bored because of a weak performance, and blames the composers or even classical or contemporary music… that’s worse than not hearing the music at all.
There’s more work to be done in other ways, too, as you’ve read here often — more collaboration, multimedia elements that can draw a broader audience that wants more from a concert than seeing musicians play, tighter concert planning that considers the audience experience more than the musicians’ convenience, lower ticket prices, more diverse composers and audiences…. Oregon ArtsWatch will be there to tell readers and performers alike how that ongoing story of making music more relevant and entertaining to Oregon audiences is progressing.
Nevertheless, Oregon has made enormous progress in my main goal since becoming OAW music editor: providing more showcases for made-in-Oregon music. So it seems a ripe time to make way for a new perspective. Allow me to introduce ArtsWatch’s new music editor, Matthew Andrews. Actually, he needs no introduction to most of you, since he’s been contributing thoughtful, insightful coverage of Oregon music here for the past three years. You may not know that he’s also a professional percussionist, singer and composer; co-created and edited a new journal of student voices at Portland State University, where he’s about to obtain his master’s degree; played in gamelan ensembles, prog rock and surf bands; grooved to Philip Glass operas while driving commercial trucks back and forth through all but three states in this great country of ours; and is getting set to form his own ensemble to play his original music. He provides next-generation perspective on Oregon’s flourishing contemporary classical music scene.
Of course, Matt can’t do it all. I’ll still be writing for ArtsWatch as well as continuing to cause trouble as an OAW senior editor along with OG OAW writers Barry Johnson and Bob Hicks. And we have a sturdy corps of other music writers, which Matthew is already augmenting. We’d love to have more voices to cover the breadth of Oregon music, both in genre (hip hop, rock, electronic, and every other genre and beyond-genre form) and geography. If you or someone you know might be able to help with our coverage, whether through tips about stories or by writing them, please email Matt at firstname.lastname@example.org. Audiences, including you discerning OAW readers, are the most important part of any arts scene. Thanks to all of you for your support of OAW, and Oregon music. Let’s keep it going.
Because, as that February Pyxis concert reminds us, it’s not just about us — musicians, journalists, presenters. It’s about the Oregonians we’re all serving. Near the end of the concert, the lighting changed. Incarnadine before Yandell’s opener, it turned green before Pyxis performed Miksch’s concert closing I Found this Flower, which, with its nod to Samuel Barber’s famous Adagio, channeled the hard-earned hope in Fletcher’s poem title, as Yandell’s Crisis Actor had summoned the anger in Fletcher’s words. I thought of what the first known composer whose name and music survive, Hildegard of Bingen, called Viriditas, the divine healing power of Green.
But just before Pyxis started playing it, other lights pulsed outside on the street, red and blue pouring in through the church’s stained glass window, continuing throughout the performance, unignorable.
Police lights are common in downtown Portland, where I lived for nearly a decade. Before this show, I might have ignored them. But here and now, in the wake of the horror that happened that day, they provided a dissonant, extra-musical counterpoint to Miksch’s anguished uplift, their insistent pulses reminding us, like sharp jabs, that whatever we heard here that night, the city outside this church of art still wasn’t safe for everyone, and may never feel that way again for many of us.
And that’s why this concert, this gathering, this art, was so meaningful. Those community-wounding events threw a different, a harsher, revealing light on the words and music resounding through the space, which never before felt so much to me like what it originally was called — sanctuary.
We — as a community — need more performances like this. Moments where our community’s finest artists and their neighbors gather to seriously grapple with the events that move and challenge and threaten and exalt us today, here and now. Not every creation, not every moment, will reach the heights the occasion beckons us toward. But what matters is that our serious artists get the opportunity and occasion to apply their best efforts to helping us come to terms with what’s happening in the world around us. Catharsis would be ideal, but confrontation and commitment are essential, because we can’t have the first without the others.
There’s a lot of bad shit going down out there in the world, and plenty of good too, and at this fraught moment in our history, we need more art that responds to them. When it happens, ArtsWatch will be there to tell the story.