Cascadia Composers fall concerts: Spanning the spectrum

Quartet of concerts reveals rich diversity in contemporary Oregon classical — or is that 'classical' ? — music

Cascadia Composers can’t put on a boring concert. The organization of composers based primarily in the Northwest is only halfway through its 2016-17 season and already I’ve seen:

  • e-bow-generated harpsichord drones played on a dark stage, with the composer draped in blue LED lights and projections of cymatically stimulated beads of blue water dancing in time to the music;
  • a stack of toy pianos played by five composers crammed all together, music clutched in their hands or squinched in between the tiny wooden legs;
  • duets between cello and doumbek, between clarinet and electronics, between pianists wearing flamboyant wigs and chasing each other around their instrument, screeching like wild cats;
  • a simple pastoral song about barnyard animals turn into a horrifying depiction of slaughter;
  • a choir imitating an alarm clock, a forest, a goddess, a rose.

Jennifer Wright performs her ‘You Cannot LIberate Me…’ Photo: Matias Brecher.

This is what happens when Oregon composers get together and make music. Taken together, the concerts presented a snapshot of contemporary Oregon’s surprisingly rich and diverse contemporary classical music scene.

A Cuba con Amor

The first Cascadia concert of the season, October’s A Cuba con Amor, featured works written for the group’s first-ever composer exchange: the concert’s six composers traveled to Cuba the following month to have their works performed there by local musicians in the 29th Annual Festival de La Habana. This was the concert with the toy pianos (Jennifer Wright’s semi-aleatoric X Chromosome), the doumbek and cello (Paul Safar’s Cat on a Wire), the clarinet and electronics (“synth wizard” Daniel Brugh’s Fantasia), and an evening’s worth of lovely music. I was especially pleased to hear so much music written for strings, including Brugh’s Reticulum for tenor and string quartet and no less than three pieces for piano trio (Safar’s A Trio of Dances, Art Resnick’s Images of a Trip, and Cascadia co-founder David Bernstein’s Late Autumn Moods and Images).

Wright, Brugh, Clifford, Safar, and Max Weisenbloom play with toys on Wright’s ‘X-Chromosome’ at Cascadia Composers’ Cuba concert.

One particularly memorable moment was Ted Clifford’s melodica solo during the middle movement of his composition Child’s Play. As the newest composer in the Cascadia stable, seeing this family of composers at work on and off stage (and afterward at a nearby watering hole) made me feel fantastic about joining up.

Love, Laughter, and Truth

The following week, I mosied down to Portland’s Old Church to hear Portland choral group The Ensemble perform songs by Cascadia composers paired with Johannes Brahms’ song-cycles of unrequited love: the Liebeslieder Walzer (Love Song Waltzes), Op. 52, and the Neue Liebeswalzer, Op. 65. Vocal solos alternated with quartets dense with characteristically Brahmsian counterpoint, showcasing all four singers’ abilities in settings of poems compiled by poet, translator, and Hafiz enthusiast Georg Friedrich Daumer (except the last one, with a text, naturally, by Goethe).

Elizabeth Dyson’s ‘Fever Dream’ was performed at Crazy Jane in Technicolor. Photo: Matias Brecher.

The Cascadia Composers’ contributions to the concert—songs by Lisa Ann Marsh, Jeff Winslow, and Theresa Koon—mirrored the intimate and quotidian mysticism of the Brahms cycles. Marsh’s Songs of Love and Life, on texts by frequent collaborator Deborah Buchanan, painted idyllic portraits of rural life before taking a turn to horror when the butcher comes for the adorable farm animals. Winslow’s When You Are Old set a poem written by Irish magician-poet William Butler Yeats and addressed to fellow Nationalist Maud Gonne, a revolutionary and suffragette who rejected Yates’ marriage proposals no less than four times. Koon’s Songs of God and Laughter, like Brahms’s songs, set translations of mystic poetry by Eastern writers, including Hafiz.

My favorite moment, aside from the delicious music itself, was baritone O’Brien’s fireside manner as he rested an insouciant elbow on the piano and belted out Brahms’ cold simmering passion like a 19-century Sinatra.

Crazy Jane: in Technicolor!

Speaking of Irish feminists associated with Yeats … the following Cascadia concert featured music by members of Cascadia’s sister organization, Crazy Jane — named after, as their bio puts it, “an earthy character invented by the Irish poet W. B. Yeats and based on a real person that Yeats admired for her audacity, lust for life and satirical eye… The only reason she gets away with it (in early 20th century Ireland, anyway) is because, well … she’s crazy.”

This was the concert with the yowling pianists in wigs (Liz Nedela’s The Chase on the Man Gong) and the blue-LED-decked cymatic harpsichordist (Jennifer Wright, performing her solo composition You Cannot Liberate Me: Only I Can Do That For Myself). There were also singers in hats (Jan Mittelstaedt’s Two songs for voice and piano), dancers—including a couple of tango dancers accompanied by violin, piano, and a bandoneon player who played with one leg up on a chair, resting his instrument on his knee (during Cynthia GerdesTango Con Lo Desconocido)—and PSU percussion guru Joel Bluestone imitating the animal sounds of a Rudyard Kipling tale (Linda Woody’s How the Rhinoceros Got His Skin).

NeuroCantos Susan Alexjander. Photo: Matias Brecher.

Special lights bathed each composition in themed colors, from the cool grey of Susan Alexjander’s NeuroCantos to the terrifying blood red of Elizabeth Blachly-Dyson’s Fever Dream. The weirdest moment in this sea of strange was the perfectly banal moment when the stage lights came up, the e-bows came off the harpsichord, and everyone spooled out into the Lincoln Hall lobby to munch on cookies and socialize around the mermaid statue.

PSU Choirs: New Muses

The final fall concert featuring Cascadia Composers was not a Cascadia-hosted event, but a concert at Northwest Portland’s First United Methodist Church performed by Portland State University’s Chamber Choir, Vox Femina, and Man Choir. The PSU choirs performed almost nothing but music composed by women, from Medieval abbess Hildegard von Bingen and Renaissance lutenist Maddalena Casulana to PSU-affiliated Crazy Janes Renée Favand-See, Lisa Ann Marsh, Bonnie Miksch, and Stacey Philipps. This was the concert with the choral alarm clock (Philipps’ Morning). It may not have had toy pianos and flashing lights, but it was a wonderful concert full of joy, hope, humour, and the wildly rich sonic textures— which Miksch calls “sensuous sound profusion”—that only a skilled choir can produce.

No words can describe the experience, although the present author did his best here.

Cascadians and the Modern “Tradition”

I think we can now consider “20th-century classical music” a tradition unto itself, and it sure does cover a lot of territory: the post-Romantic harmony of Debussy and Mahler; the Second Viennese School and the Parisian modernists; Californians from ultra-modernist Henry Cowell to global syncretist Lou Harrison; Pulitzer Prize winners Ellen T. Zwilich, Christopher Rouse, and Caroline Shaw; the post-minimalism of Michael Torke and Andy Akiho (ok, stretching a bit for Akiho). The beauty of the Cascadians is that, underneath all the lightshows and fancy hats, they all exist pretty solidly somewhere in the wide spectrum of this 20th-century tradition.

Dancers sizzle in Cynthia Gerdes’s ‘Tango.’ Photo: Matias Brecher.

Bernstein, Clifford, Resnick, and Safar compose in distinct, expressive, jazzy, early-modernist styles reminiscent of Barber, Prokofiev, and Stravinsky. Winslow and Koon are essentially Romantics, although their Romanticism is more Bruckner or Wolf than Beethoven or Schubert. Mittelstaedt, Marsh, and Woody remind me of the early American experimentalists, especially Ruth Crawford and certain works by Aaron Copland; Gerdes, Nedela, and Blachly-Dyson make dance-like, impressionistic music recalling later Saint-Saëns, Piazzolla, even Shostakovich at times. Brugh, Alexjander, and Wright are perhaps the most overtly modernist, embracing minimalism, atonality, electroacoustics, and extended techniques (like Wright putting e-bows on harpsichord strings to generate drones or Alexjander translating DNA-coding and neuron-firing into rich, uncanny electronic music). Miksch, Philipps, and Favand-See are the only ones I hear falling outside this tradition: their music seems like a summation of all that has come before, pointing the way to the future—post-Romantic, post-Classical, post-Modern, post-post—and establishing a “new normal” of what will someday be called “early 21st-century classical music.” I wonder if they’ll still put “classical” in scare quotes.

Upcoming Concerts:

Cascadia Composers has several concerts planned for the long crunch of midwinter and the yawning golden delight of blooming spring. The choir- and organ-themed Desire for the Sacred, featuring Portland’s Resonance Ensemble, takes place in Agnes Flanagan Chapel at Lewis & Clark College in southwest Portland this Saturday, January 21.

As we start sneaking up on springtime, the Oregon Historical Society will present Cascadia’s Concert of Remembrance on March 12th, featuring works by Daniel Brugh, Ted Clifford, Denis Floyd, Jan Mittelstaedt, and Cascadia co-founder Greg A. Steinke. The concert commemorates the 75th anniversary of FDR’s Executive Order 9066, which authorized the internment of 120,000 Japanese-Americans, many of them U.S. citizens, during World War II. The concert will also showcase the work of New Mexico photographer Joan Myers and Japanese-American poet (and former Oregon Poet Laureate) Lawson Fusao Inada.

On April 29, Cascadia returns to its psychedelic perceptual profusions with the Burn After Listening: Fire and Ice concert at the PLACE studio in northwest, featuring Crazy Janes Stacey Philipps, Lisa Ann Marsh, and Jennifer Wright. Rumor has it there will be percussion instruments made of ice.

Two concerts in May recapitulate the Cuba theme. On May 19, local modern-classical ensemble Fear No Music presents music by Cuban composers from the other end of last year’s composer-exchange in the New Pearls from the Antilles concert. The following evening, Cascadia returns home with their Pacific-Northwest-themed concert, May 20’s Sense of Place.

Matthew Neil Andrews is a member of Cascadia Composers and a composition student at Portland State University. He and his music can be reached at

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