The sound of (near) silence

Disjecta's Quiet Music Festival summons a spirit of contemplation.

Tara Jane Oneil, featured at Disjecta's Quiet Music Festival, has a soft and spectral presence.

Tara Jane Oneil, featured at Disjecta’s Quiet Music Festival, maintains a soft, spectral presence.

When I volunteered to cover the Quiet Music Festival, I couldn’t know how badly I would need soothing. My afternoon filled by the funeral of a friend, I came to Disjecta—as the name subtly suggests—dejected. I’d even forgotten my notebook and had to fill the margins of the funeral program with my show notes. (Lest that seem a sacrilege, my friend was a writing colleague; he’d approve.)

Few rock fests foster comfort, reverence and introspection the way the Quiet Fest does. K Records’ Helsing Junction Farm Sleepover springs to mind, and probably a few San Juan Islands’ summer soirees, a la “What The Heckfest,” have explored this form—but compared to the “stand around and talk”-fests, this gentle animal as near extinction as a manatee. Dotted with glowing lampshades and carpeted with pillows and blankets, Disjecta’s cool concrete floor hosts a few dozen silent denizens holding vigil. Less avant-garde-looking than the usual contemp-art crowd, these folks may as well be guests in a living room, neighbors in cozy spring/autumn clothes who’ve come by for tea. They sprawl on the blankets variously crosslegged or hugging their knees.

A pair of room mics about 15 feet in front of the stage ever-so-slightly infuses an ambient crackle, while signs at the entrances announce (in lowercase lettering) “let’s keep it quiet…seriously quiet.” Dragging An Ox Through Water’s Brian Mumford is seated onstage, crooning over a reverby wah-wah wash of echoing electric guitar. (A superstar introvert of Portland music, Mumford once memorably played an entire PDX Pop set while hiding behind a pillar.) Quasi’s Sam Coomes stands watchfully at the side of the room in weathered head-to-toe denim, hands jammed in pockets, and the Golden Bears’ Seth Lorinczi softly finesses the sound board.

Here’s my take: rebellion against the accepted tropes of rebellion is super-double-backwards badass. The idea that “sticking it to the man” = “turning it up to 11” is such a clichéd and played-out notion that it invites its own meta-rebellion. Like flower children plugging gun barrels with daisies, these post-rock rebels damp their amps with pillows. If punk and metal are the “doms,” this music is the submissive…meaning equally and oppositely subversive of the mainstream paradigm, equally and oppositely demanding of its participants’ souls.

Mumford’s set becomes (quietly but urgently) insistent as a pedal effect turns each single bass note into a rapid quadruple tapping of sixteenths. The music drones and shimmers, and the guitar tone softly snarls.

He closes his set to soft applause, making way for Tara Jane Oneil, Portland’s princess of slightly-subterranean ambient pop. True to form, she’s hiding under a hat; tonight it’s a camoflage trucker cap, artfully askew. Julianna Bright from Golden Bears (fresh from releasing a recent childrens’ album) and a drummer whisperingly introduced as “Joel” join her, seated on the floor to minister to a collection of objects that look more like an array of wares at a spice market than a set of instruments. Crash cymbals hang from the ceiling on fishing line, dispossessed of their sonic purpose, as mere ornaments. Oneil directs a delicate crescendo of chimes, bells, harmonics, and beads being dragged across the surface of a drum, seeming to invoke unseen spirits. Eventually, she begins strumming her acoustic guitar and gently lifting her choir-boy-clear voice. A blues chord juts out unexpectedly, shifting the melody from major to minor, then retreats into ether.

Few performers can be spiritually ambient while physically present. Those who can are like living ghosts. Oneil, it seems, is one of those great spectral, ageless, absent women (a la Hope Sandoval, Sarah Brightman or Steena Nordenstam) who can retreat so far into a sustained, breathy melody that no mere mortal can follow. I can hear the paper crackle as I write this note on my program, next to something I jotted at the funeral about the two types of time: chronos (the passage) and chiros (the infinitely important present moment). A faraway siren briefly but serendipitously syncs to one of Oneil’s repeated refrains. Now Julianna is harmonizing in flutelike major seconds and questioning fourths, only hitting the reassuring thirds in passing, suspending an unresolved moment as a brushed cymbal shimmers like a cresting tide. Now they’re performing a call-response (seemingly “Give me sight,” “sight,” “And Sound” “sound”)…but the words are muffled, as though even a sharp consonant could puncture the music’s impossible softness. An eerie series of “oohs” and a whistled outtro taper the set into final silence.

There is undoubtedly some blanket-space left at tonight’s Quiet Music Fest. I recommend it to any weary pilgrims in need of restoration and contemplation.

3 Responses.

  1. Jack Gabel says:

    missed: PDX Morton Feldman’s cross-over moment – where’s CRPDX when their mission should be whispering in their collective ear?

  2. A.L. Adams says:

    RE: Feldman
    Everything is an echo.

    In a novel twist, suddenly the rockers demand silence and the chamber musicians allow chatter.

    • Jack Gabel says:

      but don’t forget the big bands – biggest band performing this weekend – PSU Symphony Orch. tackling one of the biggest loudest scores of all time

      Stravinsky’s ‘The Rite of Spring’ with Agnieszka Laska Dancers – all sharing the same stage – this is a centenary celebration performance – one show only

      details here –

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