Cascadia Composers reviews: Lights, poetry, music

Concerts seek meaning beyond music through complementary art forms

One of the oldest questions in music — right after “what the hell is music, anyways?” — is how music expresses meaning. We normally think of meaning as a semantic thing, something that can be explained in words and symbols. We can, of course, regard music as a kind of language…but when we think of meaning in music we normally go outside the music itself to something more overtly linguistic. Usually that means lyrics, libretti, and programmatic music based on poems or stories. We also tend to think of musical meaning as being something non- or extra-auditory — paintings, religious iconography, or the physical appearances of performers, conductors, and composers. In the past few months, Cascadia Composers has put on two concerts dealing with these strategies for meaning-making in music: one visual, one linguistic.

Visual Meaning: Desire for the Sacred

January’s Desire for the Sacred concert, hosted at Lewis & Clark College’s sylvan Agnes Flanagan Chapel, was as much light show as concert: performers on several compositions played up in the organ loft while the audience sat enveloped in the colored lights projected all over the chapel’s gorgeous modernist wooden ceiling and its Casavant organ, the world’s only circular pipe organ, its pipes suspended from the chapel’s ceiling in a dense spiral.

The organ in Agnes Flanagan Chapel.

The light show was run by Nicholas Yandell, whose music began each half of the concert. In the opening Dilate; Elucidate, slowly evolving pastels emulated the holy glow of the rising sun and reflected the yearning arpeggiations and pedal notes of the Pacific Northwest’s resident organ god, Dan Miller. After intermission, Yandell’s Hymn of Daybreak resurrected the solar theme, this time with Cheryl Young at the manuals and the sweet longing of Kurt Heichelheim’s distant horn imbuing the chapel with numinous charms.

Greg Homza, Director of Music Ministries at Portland’s First Presbyterian Church, took to the Casavant for two pieces: John Bilotta’s haunting serial/tonal organ solo Emergence and Cascadia president Jan Mittelstaedt’s playful theological allegory Circle Loops, the latter of which was one of several featuring peerless local chamber choir Resonance Ensemble, led by the indefatigable Katherine FitzGibbon.

Other Resonance pieces included Crazy Jane and Burn after Listening composer Lisa Ann Marsh’s jazzily neo-medieval amphibian ode Miserere, David De Lyser’s medievally neo-jazzy (and rather Talbot-esque) Hosanna Filio David, and Paul Safar’s A Meditation for the Earth, originally composed for the Seattle Peace Chorus, based on an Ojibwa prayer and texts by Thích Nhất Hạnh, Namao Sakai, and the late, revered Seattle poet Denise Levertov. I was especially struck by Resonance’s devoted and enthusiastically detailed performance of Jeff Winslow’s lush, intricate The Sun Never Says, an a capella work full of complex eight-note chords and based on Daniel Ladinsky’s poem about generosity—a fitting theme for its gregarious composer, who exclaimed in rehearsal “I didn’t think those chords would work at all, and you made them sound amazing!”

Resonance Ensemble sang music by Cascadia Composers.

Even when performers took the chapel’s stage, they too were bathed in light about half the time: instead of the usual off-white stage lighting we’re used to seeing at classical concerts, that same set of colored lights suffused the performance space with spooky reds, eerie greens, and uplifting shades of cool blue. Safar performed his solo piano piece Mourning-Blessing-Ascension awash in rich blues and violets, and Cascadia’s resident synth wizard Daniel Brugh stepped away from the electronics to perform his beautifully Messiaenic piano piece Abraham, accompanied only by a deliciously subaqueous sapphire hue and the distant clicks and chimes of percussionists tucked away up behind the elevated organ.

Stage lighting appeared only when soprano Nicole Leupp-Hanig and pianist Susan McDaniel performed Cynthia Gerdes’ homage to Abraham’s long-suffering wife, Sarah’s List, and when the Resonance Ensemble was on stage. An extra splash of lavender light illuminated Jennifer Wright’s Gospel-and-Grail themed, Australian aborigine inspired Walkabout, and when bass-baritone Damien Geter sang the devil’s lines (“I got a better heaven down underground”), the lights went down and tinted spotlights enveloped him in an intimidating, seductive, sinister red.

Linguistic Meaning: Concert of Remembrance

In March, the Oregon Historical Society hosted Cascadia’s Concert of Remembrance, commemorating the 75th anniversary of Executive Order 9066. The concert included the reliably engaging work of familiar Cascadians BrughMittlestaedt, Denis Floyd, Ted Clifford, and Greg A. Steinke, but the real star of the show was poet Lawson Fusao Inada. Oregon’s fifth poet laureate, a former jazz bassist whose “favorite form of publishing is live,” was one of over 110,000 West Coast Americans of Japanese ancestry interned in concentration camps during World War II.

Lawson Inada and Greg Steinke performed at Cascadia Composers’ Concert of Remembrance.

Dr. Steinke opened the concert with his composition A Japanese Folk Suite, his oboe providing sparse, lyrical support for Inada’s reading of his poem Akatonbo Song. Words and music both date from Steinke and Inada’s first collaboration in 1992. Ted Clifford’s Poems in Stone also incorporated Inada’s earlier poetry, using a Brubeckian neo-classical cool jazz idiom to set poems inscribed on standing stones in Portland’s Waterfront Park and sung by mezzo soprano Nancy Wood, backed by the composer and jazz trio.

The highlight of the show, for me, was Inada’s pair of new poems, written especially for this concert. After intermission, Inada recited Revisiting, a surreal narrative piece which started with a trip through the old neighborhood, Inada saying hello to all the shopkeepers, joking around and asking after their families, and ended with the community’s shocked, unbelieving reaction to the announcement of Order 9066.

Clifford and Wood performed his music at Cascadia Composers.

For the closing piece, Daijoubu, Steinke’s oboe and singing bowl accompanied Inada’s meditation on the Japanese word daijoubu, which roughly means “it’s okay.” The poem’s closing lines are worth quoting in full:

And as we commemorate the past
Let us celebrate the present
Let us liberate ourselves in the spirit of daijoubu
Here, there, everywhere

Meaning in Music

Even after all this, I am still inclined to agree with Leonard Bernstein: “Stories are not what the music means at all. Music is never about anything. Music just is. Music is notes, beautiful notes and sounds put together in such a way that we get pleasure out of listening to them, and that’s all there is to it.”

That said, those of us who live and work in this syncretic, multi-disciplinary, post-modern age—each of us now so accustomed to having our cake and eating it too—can always enjoy music as a “thing in itself” (embodied or otherwise: screw Kant) while at the same time relishing the polysensory possibilities of capital-M Meaning to be found in music + visuals, music + poetry, music + whatever else we can come up with. What a lovely time and place to be a music nerd!

Cascadia Composers aren’t done with you yet! Stacey Philipps, Lisa Ann Marsh, and Jennifer Wright host a pair of concerts this weekend (April 28-29) at the PLACE warehouse in Northwest Portland. Burn After Listening: Fire and Ice will feature percussion instruments made of ice and a bunch of other cool stuff (get it? cool!) in an “adventurous multi-sensory collaboration.” Meanwhile, Daniel Brugh hosts  Cascadia’s monthly composer presentation on Monday, May 1 at Lincoln Hall 201, where he’ll show off several of his recent electro-acoustic pieces and give a short demonstration of the new Arturia MatrixBrute analog synthesizer, which as far as I’m concerned is plenty of reason to mosey on down. 

Matthew Neil Andrews is a Cascadia Composer and a student of Bonnie Miksch at PSU’s School of Music. He and his music can be reached at

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One Response.

  1. Jeff Winslow says:

    Matthew, thanks for your colorful observations in general and sympathetic ones in my case. A few minor corrections though – if I really thought chords wouldn’t work “at all”, I wouldn’t include them! But of course one can have doubts when reaching beyond one’s grasp. There was indeed one passage I was worried about, and Resonance restored my complete faith in it.

    Also, although Cascadia Composers is thrilled to have the women of Burn After Listening as composer members, supporters and volunteers, Burn After Listening is actually their independent initiative and all credit goes to them!

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