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Unusual and often terrifying: Makrokosmos 8

The annual mini-festival of contemporary music celebrated its eighth year with five hours of music at PICA, featuring compositions from across Latin America.

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Stephanie Ho and Saar Ahuvia at Makrokosmos 8. Photo by Orlando Romulo Sanchez.
Stephanie Ho and Saar Ahuvia at Makrokosmos 8. Photo by Orlando Romulo Sanchez.

In June, Makrokosmos Project came back for its eighth show, LatinX. This year, instead of the split venue over two weekends, they were back in form for a five-hour, five set monster in the black box theater at PICA. These non-traditional shows and venues have been ramping up over the years, and even accelerated during the peak years of Covid-19–a trend which I welcome and embrace. 

One thing I appreciate about Makrokosmos more than anything else: co-founding piano duo Saar Ahuvia and Stephanie Ho’s commitment to some of the best programming in the city. Every year I expect to hear not only big works by composers any twentieth-century classical fan will know, but lesser-known underrated composers and a few local names in attendance, all performed by some of Oregon’s finest musicians. And I know I’m not the only one going into the shows with few preconceptions, prepared to be taken on whatever musical ride they have planned for us.

Portland Percussion Group at Makrokosmos 8. Photo by Orlando Romulo Sanchez.
Portland Percussion Group at Makrokosmos 8. Photo by Orlando Romulo Sanchez.

Casual vibes

Last year’s Makrokosmos was split into two days: one outside Portland Pianos by the airport, the second in the Japanese Garden to a small audience for a filming session. This year, it was back to the five-hour marathon show (much like Bang on a Can’s Marathon Concerts) with drinks and hors d’oeuvres. There was plenty of wine flowing; cheese cubes, grapes and dumplings aplenty. It’s such a minor and superficial thing, but the free food and wine is a big draw for me (especially as a grad student who can never turn down free food).

There aren’t many shows of recent music that feel this much like a cocktail mixer during the intermissions. It feels like you could walk up to anyone and strike up a conversation, not least because we all bond over this specific musical repertoire. It’s not a huge crowd, but nearly everyone will have thoughts on George Crumb, Gabriela Lena Frank and Galina Ustvolskaya. It may not be a large audience, but it’s the right audience.

Even during the performances there is a looseness and jocular atmosphere. The performers joke and interact with the audience: one notable moment was when Jeff Payne, when sitting down to play three pieces by José Pablo Moncayo, said, “I have the wrong glasses on.” We had a good laugh about that while he got the right glasses that would let him actually read his sheet music. Later, we got to see Saar’s glasses fly off at the end of the intense Migrant Voyage by Manuel Valera. And of course, we all love seeing Stephanie Ho’s dramatic eye gestures and smiles while she’s playing.

Jeff Payne at Makrokosmos 8. Photo by Orlando Romulo Sanchez.
Jeff Payne at Makrokosmos 8. Photo by Orlando Romulo Sanchez.

Archipelagos

As Brett Campbell said in his preview, Makrokosmos shows how complex the idea of Latino musical identity can be: “with no common musical elements that characterize the compositions as Latin-influenced except for the ethnic heritage of most of the composers.” Composers come from all over the Americas south of the Rio Grande, from the Spanish and French Caribbean through Peru down to Brazil and Argentina. Furthermore, most of these composers are alive and young–young as far as composers go at least. None of the Latino classical composer mainstays are here: Ginastera, Villa-Lobos, Chavez and Piazzolla all stayed home. The only obvious omission I can think of is oddball Argentine composer Mauricio Kagel–though given how great the program was already, his absence was hardly missed.  

The proceedings opened with Amelia Lukas playing Nathalie Joachim’s Aware, an odd-time tape piece with a techno-like syncopated synth bass. Like Joachim’s solo works, the flute sits on top of the tape, interacting with the looped flute and vocal parts. Overall it was a good opener, drawing the listener into the strange journey they would be embarking on that evening. Later in the program Lukas’ playing really opened up, with the extended techniques and Shakuhachi-like breathy tones of Tania León’s Alma, and the impressively soft pan flute evocations and bird calls of Adina Izarra’s El Amolador.

Amelia Lukas at Makrokosmos 8. Photo by Orlando Romulo Sanchez.
Amelia Lukas at Makrokosmos 8. Photo by Orlando Romulo Sanchez.

Set two was in large part made up of music by recent Pulitzer recipient León, bookended with a couple politically-charged pieces. Marcos Balter’s Dreamcatcher was a multi-layered post-minimalist piece, with its title alluding to the dreams of children stuck in the migrant detention centers that dot the American southwest like Solzhenitsyn’s archipelago. On the other side of the three León pieces was Manuel Valera’s Migrant Voyage, one of the most intense pieces of the night. Valera is more well known for his work as a relatively young Cuban jazz pianist, and a great one at that, so Migrant Voyage is one of his forays into more classically-oriented composition. The piece is fantasy-like, in the sense of drifting from one idea to another, and while it took a long time to get really going, once it did it was exciting and powerful. 

Ho and Ahuvia said there were bits of improvisation woven into the piece, which would be in line with Valera’s jazz background. These were woven into the texture so seamlessly that, even perusing the score and listening to the performance, I couldn’t tell where those spots were. After the show Ho told me the duo are working on some arrangements of pieces by Hiromi Uehara and recently-deceased Chick Corea, which they say will help as an exercise in their improvisational skills. We’ll have to see where this takes us in future Makrokosmos shows.

Stephanie Ho and Saar Ahuvia at Makrokosmos 8. Photo by Orlando Romulo Sanchez.
Stephanie Ho and Saar Ahuvia at Makrokosmos 8. Photo by Orlando Romulo Sanchez.

The inside of this bookended set was the aforementioned Alma, followed by Abanico, which appeared to have some kind of Max/MSP patch alongside the violin to trigger samples and manipulate sounds coming from the violin. Ron Blessinger’s Brazil mask was a nice touch. Then we heard Yoko Greeney playing Momentum, León’s first solo piano piece. 

I mentioned in a recent New@Night review that I knew I had heard Jessie Montgomery’s Rhapsody No. 1. At the time I’d forgotten that I’d literally heard it only a few days earlier here at Makrokosmos (but even at Makro, I thought it sounded familiar). It’s a great piece, and a showcase for various virtuosic techniques that seems to have become a favorite for local violinists. I’d like to hear more of her Rhapsodies (she’s composed two, of a planned series of six) on concert programs in the future. 

Ron Blessinger at Makrokosmos 8. Photo by Orlando Romulo Sanchez.
Ron Blessinger at Makrokosmos 8. Photo by Orlando Romulo Sanchez.

The highlight of the third set had to be Gabriella Lena Frank’s Sonata Serrana No. 1, performed wonderfully by Susan Smith and Greeney. Frank originally wrote Sonata Serrana for four-hands on one piano–but, as long as we had two pianos on hand, we may as well distribute those four hands more traditionally. I can definitely hear some of Frank’s Bartók influence throughout the piece: there is always a hint of Peruvian folk tunes peeking through the walls of dissonance and angular, violent textures. It’s an immense and challenging piece, and for that it’s one of my favorites of hers.

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Given its difficulty, Smith and Greeney showed no signs of struggle against Sonata Serrana. You may have heard Smith playing in the Palatine Piano Trio with Nancy Ives and Inés Voglar Belgique. Meanwhile, Greeney has quietly been one of the most significant members in Portland’s classical music scene: through her teaching at Lewis & Clark College and MYS; her administrative work, serving as a board member for Portland Piano International and Chamber Music Northwest; performing with both CMNW and 45th Parallel; and probably a dozen other things I don’t know about. (You’ve definitely heard Greeney’s husband Jon, principal timpanist for the Oregon Symphony).

Yoko Greeney at Makrokosmos 8. Photo by Orlando Romulo Sanchez.
Yoko Greeney at Makrokosmos 8. Photo by Orlando Romulo Sanchez.

Tributes

The fourth set departed from the Latin theme for a tribute to recently deceased composer George Crumb. He was one of many avant-gardists from his generation to pass in the last year-or-so–along with Louis Andriessen, Alvin Lucier, Gottfried Michael Koenig, Frederic Rzewski, and R. Murray Schafer (read my obit here). Crumb is of course a keystone for the Makrokosmos festival: not only did Saar and Stephanie take the series’ name from his collection of solo piano works, but his outlook on ethos on music runs through all these concerts. He was an avant-garde composer whose music was unusual and often terrifying, but he was a friendly man with a sense of humor who didn’t take himself too seriously. 

The first part of the tribute consisted of Ho playing two pieces from the Makrokosmos suite of solo piano music (Scorpio and Leo to be exact), and Smith playing Unsuk Chin’s Two Etudes. The Crumb pieces were great as always, with plenty of drama and intensity that perfectly suits Ho’s performance style. While Chin may come from a vastly different avant-garde tradition from Crumb, there are similarities in how they use the piano: more as a sound-generating device than anything relating to harmony or melody. Placing Smith’s performance of these etudes alongside Crumb made perfect sense to me. 

Portland-based composer and pianist Alexander Schwarzkopf composed Synergy as a tribute to Crumb, and debuted it at this show. Not only did the music succeed in channeling the spirit of Crumb’s work, but Schwarzkopf even wrote the whole score by hand, which is becoming more rare these days. This also allowed him to create a gorgeous visual score akin to some of Crumb’s Makrokosmos piano compositions, wrapping the notes around in a “butterfly mandala” pattern.

Alexander Schwarzkopf at Makrokosmos 8. Photo by Orlando Romulo Sanchez.
Alexander Schwarzkopf at Makrokosmos 8. Photo by Orlando Romulo Sanchez.

Synergy also gave me some insight in Crumb’s music I hadn’t had before. His music can be described as “unsettling”–which is usually meant as a synonym of scary or haunting, when really it should be more like eye-opening. To unsettle music is to challenge its core aesthetic assumptions about what music is and can be by creating sounds and forms not heard before. This is a big part of Makro’s aesthetic, as they show all sorts of wild stuff. 

The final set opened with Imago by Inti Figgis-Vizueta performed by the Pyxis Quartet. It was a noisy and touching piece consisting of a repeated harmonic cycle with variations in articulation and complexity. My notes say, “very cool,” which it definitely was. It’s also cool to hear a trans composer–there are many out there and they don’t get enough attention. 

Pyxis Quartet at Makrokosmos 8. Photo by Orlando Romulo Sanchez.
Pyxis Quartet at Makrokosmos 8. Photo by Orlando Romulo Sanchez.

Some of the stranger pieces on the program come courtesy of the Portland Percussion Group. I have seen Angelica Negrón’s Gone performed here before, which makes sense: they have the equipment to do it once, may as well do it again. The piece is just as much a visual performance as a musical one: pitchers of water are emptied into glass cubes to change the pitch of their instruments, lights flash, and at one point they swing their mallets without making a sound, just for that added effect.

Last piece on the program was PPG performing Stress and Flow by Argentine composer Alejandro Viñao. There were some crazy harmonies in the second movement along with unique and colorful textures throughout, strengthened by the electronics which mostly strengthened and augmented the percussion instruments. It was almost spectral in a way, probably owing to Viñao’s experiences at IRCAM. While it was one of the longer pieces on the program, rivaling Frank’s Sonata Serrana, it didn’t feel tiresome one bit and ended the preceding five hours of music on a high note. 

Portland Percussion Group at Makrokosmos 8. Photo by Orlando Romulo Sanchez.
Portland Percussion Group at Makrokosmos 8. Photo by Orlando Romulo Sanchez.

Charles Rose is a composer, writer and sound engineer born and raised in Portland, Oregon. He graduated from Portland State University with a degree in Sonic Arts and Music Production in 2019. His piano trio Contradanza was the 2018 winner of the Chamber Music Northwest’s Young Composers Competition. He releases music on BandCamp under various aliases. In addition to composing, he is a sound engineer for chamber music group FearNoMusic and is an editor of the Portland State music journal Subito. You can find his writing at Continuousvariations.com.

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