This state is just crawling with composers, though you might not know it if you only go to Oregon Symphony and Third Angle concerts—just to arbitrarily pick on a pair of robust local organizations with rather different ideas of what constitutes classical music and rather similar habits in regards to living local music. Both groups have been justly lauded for programming contemporary composers—inviting faraway folks like Gabriel Kahane and Gabriela Lena Frank to perform and discuss their work—and both deserve credit for occasionally performing music by locals like Kenji Bunch and Branic Howard. A handful of local classical organizations do better—recent efforts by 45th Parallel come to mind—while Cascadia Composers and the Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble feature basically nothing but locals.
But when it comes to commissioning and developing a vital ecosystem of local composers in the classical tradition, it’s hard to beat Fear No Music. FNM puts on an extraordinary all-local-composers concert every year, and even has its own composer development program: the Young Composers Project, headed by FNM co-founder Jeff Payne.
In March, we gathered Payne and four YCP students as part of a series of “oval table” discussions: six different conversations, featuring over 20 local musicians, all on the theme “the future of classical music.” We engineered these oval tables for the second issue of Subito—the student journal of Portland State’s School of Music and Theater (out in May)—and we’ll be running the whole series here on Oregon Arts Watch this summer. Stay tuned for conversations with Bonnie Miksch, Jeff Winslow, Jennifer Arnold, and more.
This Sunday, you can hear the future of classical music for yourself at YCP’s annual showcase, with compositions by current YCP students spread across a pair of concerts at 2 and 4 p.m. in Portland State University’s Lincoln Recital Hall. Last year’s concerts were full of musical delights, and we expect this year to be no different. Get your tickets here. — Matthew Andrews.
The Young Composers
Katie Palka told us she had a YCP piece in her backpack, having printed it out on her way to the oval table. MYS premieres her Letter to Florence Price May 21 on America’s Florence, a concert celebrating U.S. composer Price, who’s experiencing something of a renaissance. Also next month, Palka’s music for string quartet features in local dance company BodyVox’s annual Junior Artist Generator showcase.
Jake Safirstein is attending Interlochen in Michigan, where he is collaborating with writers and singers and “writing an oboe concerto for a friend.” MYS premiered his Tone Poem No. 1 “Orpheus and Eurydice” last fall.
Sylvan Talavera, now a freshman at University of Michigan, recently finished a composition for processed contrabassoon and electronics and a theater piece involving drones and processed vibraphone. He told us he’s currently writing himself a solo piano piece: “I tend to write music that is hard, so I wanted to write music for myself, because then it would have to be not hard.”
This conversation has been edited for clarity and flow.
Barriers and boundaries
Ball: When I was a little younger, I’d only listen to classical music and was just a stupid snob about it, because I was 10 or whatever. I’ve been getting into jazz lately, and listening to more popular music. The barriers between genres seem to have less and less meaning and importance as I continue to see all these connections between things. That’s more important than barriers.
Safirstein: I think the issue is the focus on the music of the past instead of the music of the future. When you go to a symphony concert, it’s usually a newer work on the front half and maybe an older concerto and then a symphony. As much as I love all those works, I think that is at the root of what is limiting the growth of it.
At Interlochen a guest composer talked to us about the world of writing for bands, because they all are fighting over new music. That push is really proving to be important, as opposed to orchestra where there is less-to-none.
I have a few friends up in the Seattle Symphony and they tell me the people who came from playing newer band music are generally more able to play things like that Steve Jobs opera, because there’s crazy time signatures and key signatures and all this stuff that makes this music a lot more difficult to people who come from just Tchaikovsky and Beethoven.
Palka: Where is the boundary between genres? Is there really such a strict line or is it more blurry? MYS did a concert with Joe Kye, and obviously a lot of stuff we did is not what you would call classical with a capital C. It was really fun seeing more fluidity and less rigid boxes. To me, the area in the middle is the most interesting to explore.
“Something that is new and something that is old”
Talavera: I would like to see things that are entirely new being created. Because the historical structures of the orchestra are going to influence that. Even if they do something that is genre-less, there are always going to be societal and historical implications of what orchestras have been throughout the years.
There is an organization of artists in Detroit called Apetechnology—it’s hard to describe them so I’ll just explain a performance they created. They set up all these gongs in a warehouse and had robots programmed to react to each other and hit the gongs at certain points. At times they would set the gongs on fire. They did a run of performances of that, which is a very new thing that clearly doesn’t exist other places.
A master’s student here put on a concert at midnight, a celebration of the solstice—a combination of mixed chamber ensemble stuff, meditation, and performance art. It started with the entire audience meditating together. This composer doesn’t record much of his music, and a lot of his live performances involve performers and audience members coming together. Audience participation is a big part of that, playing on something that is new and something that is old.
Blowing up the audience
Payne: Stravinsky blew up the musical world with the Rite of Spring. If you guys could write anything to blow up the classical music world, what would you do? What would you write?
Safirstein: I don’t even know if the Rite of Spring, or its equivalent today, would gather the same popularity and response. Sylvan, what you’re saying has a lot of merit, but instead of thinking about the past as being incorrect or needing to change—which I’m not saying you’re saying—what needs to happen is keeping it rooted in that and growing from there.
I think our job is appealing to the audience, and then hoping they love it as much as we do. To do that, we need to think about who our audience is: generally people who grew up listening to classical music. Personally, I love the whole “wear a suit to the symphony, go hear Beethoven and don’t clap between the movements” thing. At the same time, that is limiting to people our age. I think it is scary to just go and sit down for two and a half hours and not talk. That took me a long time to get used to. I remember going to my first concert and it was long. Really long.
I think that is what needs to change. Not the instruments, not the technique. Involving the audience and involving people, making it an experience instead of sit-there-and-watch kind of thing, that’s more important.
“Our natural response is to connect”
Ball: The way we consume music is just listening to it whenever, when you are doing something else or sitting down and listening to it. Going to concerts, I would say it’s not the primary way of doing music.
Safirstein: The use of Spotify and Apple music, we have to stop seeing it as “this is a detriment” and start seeing it as “how can we work to further this and how can we push new music?” If both sides are going to stay static, then one is going to die out, and it’s going to be classical music.
Hamilton and these big Broadway shows are involving bigger pits and mixing electronics with that—people love that stuff, the physical engagement of having a story. I’m not saying classical music is anything less, but you have to work to feel it. It takes a while. “Why would I have to work to feel something when I could just do it this way?” I think that’s the question we need to be thinking about. There is clearly an alternative, so how do we make it more appealing instead of less? If we don’t, I think it’s just going to go stale.
Palka: There are a lot of conventions about how we are supposed to engage with the music at classical concerts—what you’re supposed to do, what you’re supposed to not do—and that can be fairly distancing when connecting with the music, unless you are already familiar with the rules and you’ve accepted that. Little kids listening to music, they’re not sitting still in their seat. Our natural response is to connect. Little kids dance around the room because they feel the music. The way we experience these concerts, we have to close off our natural authentic reaction. That can be distancing us from fully, emotionally engaging in a way we could otherwise.
Ball: It talks about tradition and culture. A lot of this classical music is of the past and has these connections to it and just has a different kind of environment around it. That’s why you have these conventions that don’t make sense but have developed over time. I think the issue is focusing on the old instead of the new. Focusing on the old is great. There are so many great things. But if either one gets in the way of the other….
Entertainment and diversity
Safirstein: We are in the entertainment industry, and part of that is making sure that they get their money’s worth. This isn’t just about us and what we like. It’s about how do we make sure that they feel happy with their product. I think there is a degree of truth to the fact that they clearly like to hear older more tonal music. I’m not bashing that kind of music in any way. I’m just saying that is clearly where the focus is right now. Maybe that’s the next step, reverting to that with some new sense of tonality.
Palka: In terms of why the audience you see for a symphony concerts is fairly homogeneous, I think one of the things to look at is the programming. Not just in terms of tonal and atonal—it’s also the diversity of the composers. Not just living or not. And why are we thinking of certain composers as being great or genius? A lot of things go into that besides inherent goodness in the music. What access to learning opportunities did these composers have? How was their work valued in their time? Did institutions in their time support and want to play their music?
I have a lot of questions in terms of the classical canon. When you have a very homogeneous set of composers creating a set of music, it brings a very homogeneous audience. If we want more inclusive audiences we must have more inclusive programming.
“A new way to tell stories”
Payne: What are you guys listening to these days? What do you really like or not like?
Talavera: God, you want the complete list or styles? I listen to Moondog a lot. He is a whole other guy. Colin Stetson, who is amazing in every way. He did the soundtrack for Hereditary. He has collaborated with a plethora of people, it’s ridiculous. It totally runs the gamut of what you can do in music.
Payne: There is a whole bunch of people at YCP right now who want to do film scores.
Safirstein: I think there is something really important about that. Because the amount of people who want to do that is crazy. Audiences love the Hans Zimmer thing and the John Williams thing. I’ve never seen a bigger turnout to shows. I went to the Hollywood Bowl and saw Indiana Jones live and it was full. It was sold out.
Maybe that is what we need to be focusing on, instead of just incorporating the audience: making things more objectively expressive. Objective storytelling. As opposed to just pushing boundaries about what music means and what it stands for, maybe it is figuring out a new way to tell stories.
Birds, insects, and whales
Palka: I’ve been thinking about a lot of new sounds: not composed sounds, but sounds in the natural world. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has a whole sound library of nature sounds—most of it is birds, but there are some others. Lately I’ve just been thinking about sounds in a lot of things, whether it is insects or lights humming.
I’ve been listening to a lot of field recordings of bird songs and insects, and lately have been thinking about insects in a different way, insects and climate issues and how much they are vital to continuing life as we know it, how effective they are in terms of the whole system.
Payne: Funny you say that. My office is just down the street and they’ve been constructing an apartment building for about a year. There is the coolest bunch of sounds between the hammers, the saws, the jackhammers, the traffic going by, and the people yelling. Sometimes I just stand out there and listen and people probably look at me on the street like “oh, geez, he is nuts.” Once in a while, you’ll hear one vehicle speeding up and the pitch is going up and another is slowing down and the pitch is going down and they’ll cross and there will be like two seconds where they are on the same pitch. If you just stop and listen and have a little John Cage moment, it’s really cool.
Talavera: I have a friend who is a graduating senior in the percussion department. This summer he is going to an island in the middle of Southern Huron to contact-mic the entire island and make 13-hour recordings. He operates on this theory that the entire nature world exists as an instrument, and it’s just our job to put the label of “performance” or “music” on it.
Safirstein: I’ve gotten to this weird place this year where I’ve been able to sit down and write music, without needing to attach it to something, or make it rooted in something or needing to wait for inspiration. I can just do it.
We did a challenge at school where for a month you had to write, it doesn’t matter how much time, but you could only do that much every day. It was like, “write for three hours a day.” It forced us to stop waiting for inspiration but instead make it ourselves.
Palka: I find a lot of things inspiring in music. Just the fact that we are people in the world. There is an inherent connection between what we are creating and what we are experiencing.
In one of my classes we were talking about spindle cells, a cell in our brain which is partly responsible for empathy among other things. We were talking about how whales have three times the amount of spindle cells as we do, and so my piece explores what we have to learn from whales.
Ball: I don’t really do that programmatic thing. It just hasn’t really clicked for me. In [Portland Youth Philharmonic] we played the [Leonard] Bernstein Jeremiah Symphony. In the score it says it is about the story of Jeremiah, but [Bernstein] pretty much says he didn’t write it with that in mind. The music is the music in and of itself and the story isn’t really necessary. I see that as the intermediate between not having any sort of literal meaning connected to the music versus it being about a particular story.
Talavera: Especially within the last year, I found myself writing for the purpose of catharsis, in myself and other people. Not necessarily being like, “I want to write some music so I’m going to write some music,” but more like “I have something to write about, so I’m going to write about something.”
Or I’ve experienced something that requires me to write music, not so much individualistic experiences but world things or historic things. And I see that as a trend with other people I’m around. I know more than a few people who, like, a good portion of what they write is for the purpose of catharsis.
Matthew Neil Andrews is a composer, singer, percussionist, and editor of Subito at Portland State University, and serves on the board of Cascadia Composers. He and his music can be reached at monogeite.bandcamp.com.
Charles Rose is a composer and sound artist at Portland State University. He is the sound engineer for FearNoMusic and a contributor to Subito.
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