Oregon Cultural Trust

With thirsty ears: A report from New Music Gathering 2023

NMG 2023 acknowledged loss and celebrated recovery with concerts indoors and outside.

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Ed Edmo and Nancy Ives at New Music Gathering in Lincoln Hall. Photo by Lorin Wilkerson.

The young person who greeted me at the door with a compliment on my Hellfire Club t-shirt (and who in turn received a compliment on their Cannibal Corpse tee) was the first sign that something unusual was afoot at Lincoln Hall on the PSU campus. I always love attending arts events at my alma mater, even though it wasn’t music that I studied there. The name tags with a dedicated spot for people to write their preferred pronouns were a nice touch.

I took a seat at second row center stage. There was an air of informality to the whole affair which belied the seriousness with which the music was taken. I sometimes think the stuffiness so often associated with art music is a thing that very much needs to change in order to keep folks engaged going forward. Relevance is another important topic: Artist Dameun Strange, who introduced the performance, specifically stated that the gathering was about “what issues and stories can we bring to life?”

At times throughout the night, there seemed to be a point-counterpoint as to whether to continue to acknowledge the presence of the Covid-19 pandemic in our lives or just get past it already. Cecille Elliott’s We Are Murmurs, performed with the vocal group Resonance Ensemble, was evocative of those times. With the sopranos humming in unison and the men scatting, it addressed the pandemic head on, capturing in plain and powerful language the emotions we felt in those first dreadful days, watching our lives as we knew them collapse around us as we wondered which of our friends and loved ones we would never see again, and when or whether the unseen terror might come for us ourselves: “Was there a warning? It was dead by morning. There’s no escaping it. I wasn’t ready. I didn’t want to believe it.”

Next was a song of loss of a very different kind. Songs from Celilo, by Nancy Ives, who also played cello and provided vocals, was set to the poetry of Ed Edmo. An elder of the Shoshone-Bannock tribe, Edmo knew Celilo Falls as a boy before they were drowned by the creation of The Dalles Dam in 1957. With a strangely clear-eyed calm he spoke of the 10,000 years of his people’s history that were erased, and the sense of grief was palpable. “I couldn’t believe that something so big and beautiful could be destroyed,” he said. The cello sang a threnody for those hundred disappeared centuries as Edmo recalled that time of destruction through period-piece descriptions: “Automaton atomic government man with briefcase in hand,” he chanted. The cello sawed and Ives wailed as Edmo continued: “Grandfather storyteller, I come to you with thirsty ears.”

Fear No Music presented compositions by alums of its Young Composers Project, which nurtures composers in grades 6-12. There were numerous selections that reminded one of the importance of new music. Interstitial by Caleb Palka featured soprano Arwen Myers and pianist Jeff Payne. Discordant yet beautiful, Myer’s voice was suitably sirenic, singing an eerie text by Fatema Bhaiji: “The sea creeps to shore. The sirens go off every night.” Kind Wildness by Drew Swatosh was another such selection. Music of naked protest and yet subtle beauty, it consisted of Amelia Lukas on flute and the composer on electronics, manipulating faintly heard echoes of the flute to provide a delayed sort of self-accompaniment. “This is what democracy looks like,” Lukas aspirated into the flute at one point. “The people united will never be defeated. Black Lives Matter. Education not deportation.” Dead Ends by Rohan Srinivasan featured some cool sonic elements. There was squealy and disjunct sul ponticello bowing from Ives, and from the piano, hammers striking strings that were muted by Payne’s other hand, giving the notes a satisfying pizzicato feel; a sort of ‘thunk!’ with an echo. Microtonal scales emanated from a cello gently brushed by the bow.

All these compositions represent why new music is so important. It can take you somewhere new and strange; lead you by the hand into weird little corners that you’ve never thought of before, if you’re open to that sort of thing.

Third Angle New Music presented a program entitled Self Portrait that showcased mental health as it embraced neurodivergence on the part of composers and performers, and a bit of time was taken to address the subject. Sarah Tiedemann, artistic director and flutist with the group, spoke at length about wanting to just be done with the pandemic, and move past it, not even wanting to name it, perhaps as a way of depriving it of the devastating power it has had over mental health for so many countless people. A video by Nina Shekhar spoke of coming to terms with her obsessive-compulsive disorder, acknowledging the toll it takes on her, and of learning to live with the challenges while yet embracing the strengths that that particular part of her personality imbues.

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Valdine Ritchie Mishkin played an electrifying piece for solo cello by Giovanni Sollima entitled Alone. It was composed as a showcase of technical prowess, and she was absolutely up to the task. Grooving and jamming, playing pizzicato with the left hand on the top two strings while simultaneously droning on the bottom strings with the bow, and a dizzying array of multi-stops were just some of the delights from Mishkin’s seemingly bottomless bag of tricks.

Portland favorite Andy Akiho’s Spiel, a movement from his work Pillars, was another display of sheer brilliance. Played on the glockenspiel by Chris Whyte, this work pushed the boundaries of what seems possible on this versatile instrument. Clamoring glissandi and tricky hammering at blinding speeds gave way to the sticks being slammed down on the instrument with full force. The brilliance of the composition was such that the long tacets were as exciting as the surrounding ear-ringing clangor.

Outside

Andy Akiho and some guest artists, including percussionists from the Oregon Symphony, played Akiho’s compositions the next day, out in the park blocks behind Lincoln Hall. It was a sanguine, sun-dappled, and cool afternoon, the kind of day that practically begged for live music to ring out over the throng assembled on the grassy patch in the middle of the city. 

Akiho’s the rAy’s end, originally written for violin, trumpet and steelpan (sometimes less-accurately called a steel drum) was played–this time sans trumpet. The mellow timbre of the pan underlay various short phrases and utterances from Liz Carreno on the violin as sounds of city life played out simultaneously, feeling like an unwritten yet indispensable part of the piece. Someone rattling down the tiny-cobbled sidewalk on a skateboard, the futuristic hum of a streetcar, children squawking and playing. Uncontrollable and unpredictable, yet the music persisted. In another piece, Akiho reworked the opening bars of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony as a bagatelle for solo piano, played by Yoko Greeney. It was somnambulant and eerily beautiful, unfolding slowly as a chickadee tittered from the trees.

Akiho was joined by percussionists Jon Greeney, Sergio Carreno, Stephen Kehner and Chris Whyte for the fourth movement of Seven Pillars. Explosions of sound from the bass drum formed the backbone of this hip-hop inspired piece, imparting the ambience of a car driving by with the bass cranking. Ethereal and intimate in the cityscape mise-en-scene, it felt trance-like, something that you wish DJ Shadow would sample.

Humble as he may be, as one of the world’s pre-eminent pannists Akiho on solo steelpan is always quite something to hear. A true poet of the pan, his mellow yet brilliant Murasaki (“Purple”) took the form of a self-accompanied filigree of interlocking glissandi of almost indescribable grace, the tune simple but haunting. This is music that says something very real, very personal. 

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Andy Akiho in the SoundsTruck NW mobile venue at New Music Gathering. Photo courtesy of NMG.
Andy Akiho in the SoundsTruck NW mobile venue at New Music Gathering. Photo courtesy of NMG.

Aka (“Red”), as Akiho noted, has been played on everything from solo pan to full orchestra. This composition is an example of what to me has always seemed one of the key elements of his compositions; that is to say they, they all seem to revel in the dizzying and glorious ways that we humans have of making this magical noise that we call “music.” Performed by the full ensemble–including drum kit, pan, violin and some metallophone I couldn’t identify–it was funky and infectious, featuring disjunct, syncopated hits from out of a wall of sound. Karakurenai (“Crimson”) was the final piece, and consisted of repetitive rhythms with very cool, subtle things happening on the offbeats as the momentum shifted gradually.

Lying on the grass, sitting on benches, or leaning up against trees, people simply listened to music that felt as innate and natural as the whisper of trees or the hum of traffic. All were interwoven. Thinking back to three years ago, when the hospitals overflowed and our hearts filled with fear as the streets downtown descended into a burning wasteland of nightly riots, this day felt like a city trying to breathe life back into itself. Insistently yet organically; patiently, even. Through music. I can think of no finer way.

Andy Akiho in the SoundsTruck NW mobile venue at New Music Gathering. Photo courtesy of NMG.
Andy Akiho in the SoundsTruck NW mobile venue at New Music Gathering. Photo courtesy of NMG.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

A lifelong musician and writer, Lorin Wilkerson has been a part of the Portland classical music scene as a performer, writer, and non-profit board member for over 15 years. He has performed with the Portland Symphonic Choir, Bach Cantata Choir, and Classical Revolution PDX, and served on the boards of the Bach Cantata Choir and Musica Maestrale. He has written for Willamette Week, Hollywood Star, Oregon Music News and other publications. An avid birder, he is the Field Notes Editor of Oregon Birds, the journal of the Oregon Birding Association.

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