Washougal Art & Music Festival

‘To build something, you have to knock something down’: Jennifer Wright’s ‘Body/Language’

The local composer assembled a cast of artists and musicians for an environmentally conscious arts and culture festival.

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Jennifer Wright and her "deconstructed piano" at the Body/Language arts and culture festival. Photo by Matias Brecher.
Jennifer Wright and her “deconstructed piano” at the Body/Language arts and culture festival. Photo by Matias Brecher.

Body/Language was an arts and culture festival put on by Portland composer Jennifer Wright on October 1 on the front lawn of Toast Studios on Northeast 43rd and Killingsworth. The inconspicuous structure sits around the corner from a convenience store and De La Salle Catholic School. Planes taking off and landing at nearby PDX airport occasionally engulf the nearby traffic noise. Right down the street is Neerchokikoo, home to the NAYA Family Center, serving the Native people of Portland. The nearby Cully neighborhood provided much of the cultural and historical impetus for a festival so imbued with the culture of the native people of Portland, featuring local vendors and a breadth of music featuring jazz standards, modern classical, Mexican folk dances, folk punk and Balkan dances.

Toast Studios, fronted by a small lawn and environmentally-conscious messages, designs and creates wood and leather phone and laptop cases among other high-quality crafted goods. It was a long-time project by Wright and her husband Matias Brecher. They hoped to build it years ago at twice the size of its final form, but a combination of global forces conspired against their vision, from former president Trump’s steel tariffs as part of a stupid trade war with China and the Covid-19 pandemic leading to higher lumber costs. 

Craftiness has been part of Wright’s artistic practice for some time. Since introducing her skeleton piano in 2015 with the premiere of her “Obscured Terrain,” she has made use of other repurposed instruments, including a 50-gallon oil drum for “The Battle Cry of the Phoenix.” In November 2021, Wright debuted her large environmental concert, “The Phoenix Project” at BodyVox Theater. This included works by her students who similarly repurposed what we would consider garbage into impressive art pieces and musical instruments. More recently, at the New Music Gathering this summer, Wright gave away shakers made from plastic bottles filled with environmental detritus.  

Wright described how a recent renovation of the Keller Fountain downtown provided her with some poetic resonance with her ethos towards music: “to build something, you have to knock something down.” Though she doesn’t seem at all concerned with knocking down anything as daunting or abstract as “the Western Canon,” but specific instruments and approaches to musical composition, it takes an eye and ear for resourcefulness and creativity to look at something half-broken and see it as potential for new growth. 

One thing that is remarkable about Wright’s work is that the environmentalist message avoids two of the common tropes of the genre: utter pessimism and indifference to humanity. The music is not austere and inhuman, but rather full of joy. Like the phoenix rising from the ashes, Wright’s music envisions a new, better future emerging from whatever chaos may come in the next decades. It is music that grapples with our responsibility towards the environment, not as stewards but as co-inhabitants with the plants and animals we depend on. 

The environmental message permeated the whole event. On the tops of the few trash cans were messages asking, “Wait! Can you recycle that?” A question worth asking, since as I figured out, you can indeed recycle coffee cup lids, and the paper cups may be biodegradable. While these individual choices–recycle this, toss that–may not amount to much individually, a large collective of people doing the same can really add up to substantial changes. 

The goal for Body/Language was to reach out to the broader community of Northeast Portland. Wright wanted families to come, and she succeeded: there were kids running around and making art feather crafts while the adults browsed the wares and listened to the music. The lone food vender was La Oaxaqueña, a nearby Mexican grocery store serving tasty tamales and champurrado (hot chocolate thickened with corn masa). It was casual, more of a small street fair than a concert.

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Dancers at the Body/Language arts and culture festival. Photo by Matias Brecher.
Dancers at the Body/Language arts and culture festival. Photo by Matias Brecher.

That area of Northeast Portland near the Cully neighborhood has faced so many environmental issues affecting primarily Black and Indigenous communities, from the floods of Vanport to the smallpox outbreaks among the Upper Chinook people. And as long as our government seems at best ineffective at rectifying these past injustices, we must depend on community organizing instead. 

Alex Hirsch and Bonnie Meltzer both had artworks featured inside and were at the festival. They seem to share an aesthetic kinship with Wright. Hirsch told me about her inspiration for her painting’s approach to color and movement, which reminded me of the way Wright performs: with precise and deliberate motions. Meltzer meanwhile showed up in a yellow shawl she dyed herself–taking a cheap white shawl and dipping it in a turmeric-based dye she mixed up herself. That resourcefulness permeates her work, especially into the re-purposed “Columbia River East” tapestry, constructed from fishing wire and items found along the Columbia river.

Wright’s set took up the middle of the day. Other performers included Baksana Ensemble, 1876, Ballet Papalotl, and a jazz set by Wright’s fellow Cascadia members Paul Safar and Ted Clifford.

Baksana Ensemble performed at the Body/Language arts and culture festival. Photo by Matias Brecher.
Baksana Ensemble performed at the Body/Language arts and culture festival. Photo by Matias Brecher.

The festival opened with a set from the Baksana Ensemble, who perform a blend of dance and musical styles from the Balkans, Egypt and Turkey. More specifically, there were three members of Baksana present: Bevin Victoria, Morgan Fay, and Kaya Helmann. All three were doing double- or triple-duty, switching between goblet drums, finger cymbals and accordion, singing, dancing, and getting the audience involved. One highlight was the impressive Roman Havasi dance in 9/8 (grouped 2+2+2+3). The interplay onstage between Victoria and Fay was a treat, with their “competitive” dance-duels leading to some hilarious moments as they tried to out-do each other.

The second set of the day featured Gabe Colhoff, lead vocalist and guitarist of the band 1876. Colhoff is from the Northern Cheyenne and Blackfoot nations, growing up in Portland and starting 1876 in 2020. My best guess as to where the band name comes from is the date of the Battle of the Little Bighorn during the Indian Wars, when Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse led the Lakota, Dakota, Northern Cheyenne and Arapaho to victory over the 7th Cavalry Regiment, led by General George Custer. Colhoff played about a half-dozen songs folk-punk style, with aggressively-strummed chords on a guitar covered in stickers.

Gabe Colhoff performed at the Body/Language arts and culture festival. Photo by Matias Brecher.
Gabe Colhoff performed at the Body/Language arts and culture festival. Photo by Matias Brecher.

Body/Language included an abbreviated performance of Wright’s “Whalefall,” with field recordings of whale songs interacting with noises made on the plate of an old piano. Imagine taking the piano frame apart, leaving just the strings and the cast iron piece that keeps the strings in tension–it looks sorta like a harp that fell on its side. 

The deconstructed piano is an appropriate choice for “Whalefall,” as Wright explained to us the meaning of the title. As whales die, they fall to the seafloor and provide food and habitat for an entire ecosystem of deep sea critters that can feed off the nutrients for decades. The piece felt semi-improvised, with clear instructions for the sorts of sounds Wright extracted from the piano’s corpse. This new version of “Whalefall” for what she calls “destroyed piano” premiered earlier this year at Wright’s Break to Build concerts at Zidell Yards (as opposed to the earlier 2017 version for prepared piano). 

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Wright’s next performance will feature her as a Selected Guest Artist for the 2023 new music festival by the Eugene Difficult Music Ensemble. Wright’s skeleton piano should be in good company amongst the other “difficult” works of EDME this weekend. Wright performs Friday; complete schedule and information here.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Charles Rose is a composer, writer and sound engineer born and raised in Portland, Oregon. In 2023 he received a masters degree in music from Portland State University. During his tenure there he served as the school's theory and musicology graduate teaching assistant and the lead editor of the student-run journal Subito. His piano trio Contradanza was the 2018 winner of the Chamber Music Northwest’s Young Composers Competition. He also releases music on BandCamp under various aliases. You can find his writing at CharlesRoseMusic.com.

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