Oregon ArtsBitch

‘Grey Gold’ review: Myrrh’s myth

Tightly performed premiere of Portland composer/singer/guitarist Larsen's rock opera takes audiences to another world.


Do you like the thrill of venturing somewhere seemingly dangerous? Then The Steep And Thorny Way To Heaven (TS&TW2H), tucked under the Hawthorne Bridge in Portland’s inner east side, is the venue for you. Portland singer/composer/guitarist Myrrh Larsen’s rock opera Grey Gold premiered there last weekend and concludes its recently extended run January 29.

My winter heart traipsed through dimly lit intersections, under overpasses, ebullient that we were escaping the iron lung of a concert hall or a church. Once inside, there is enough seating for ten. I am not kidding. There is standing room enough for maybe 50 if you crush. TS&TW2H has its priorities straight: Good sized stage and a bar. Y’all in the audience can puppy pile on each other. And with enough booze, you will.

appear on and offstage in Myrrh Larsen's rock opera 'Grey Gold.' Photo: Jack Wells.

The two costumed actors playing Hades (Lauren Mitchell) and Persephone (Caitlynn Didlick) appear on and offstage in Myrrh Larsen’s rock opera ‘Grey Gold.’ Photo: Jack Wells.

Do you like dadrock? Pitchfork doesn’t, so while it’d give this show a 1.7, favoring the obnoxiously obtuse lyrics and somnambulistic music from the Decemberists and Radiohead, I give this much more mainstream sonic experience a solid 6.6. The David Bowie influence is evident in Larsen’s mascara and hair. Other music heroes include the 1966 Rolling Stones (not the 1971 Sticky Fingers Rolling Stones or the 1972 Exile on Main Street Stones), the Mars Volta, Afghan Whigs, and some of the more usual suspects: Sonic Youth, Elvis Costello, Muse.

I heard the rock steady 4/4 meter of Foreigner infiltrated with NIN’s rhythmic noise. The song “Persephone” in particular opens this concept album-esque show with stop action, using bombastic silences as a hook. Very Trent Reznor.

Also very Reznor is Larsen’s tight control, evident in the crisp ensemble. Because I’m so used to attending under-practiced and under-rehearsed professional classical music concerts, I carry a vigilance and anxiety I wasn’t aware of until somewhere in the middle of “Persephone,” when I noticed I had totally surrendered myself to this control freak. In fact, by the third cut, “Love Has a Time Machine,” In a tender moment of awwwwwwwww, I time traveled, feeling as naive and unfettered as the youngest there, thinking fondly about my partner several rows back where I abandoned him for a front row position. Grey Gold took nine months to put on stage with a sneak peek performance on November 21. That’s six weeks before the first show on January 8! The show was so tight, even Larsen tuning his guitar then taking a swig of water (or Everclear) was efficiently choreographed, one eliding into the other in under eight seconds. I counted.


Beerthoven’s Pint

Best appreciated after consuming more than your share of New Year's champagne


Editor’s note: Since the Oregon Symphony is again playing Beethoven’s Symphony #9 to ring in the new year, we asked Ludwig van’s distant descendant, Beerthoven, to comment on his ancestor’s masterpiece. He didn’t, really, but who cares? 

What do Jenna Jameson and Charles Barkley have in common, aside from Charles’ traffic ticket because he was in a hurry to get a blow job (frankly the police should have let him go simply for giving a completely honest answer as to why he was speeding but never mind that)? Combined, we can refer to them as the “Round Mounds of Rebounds.” Aside from that, both of them spent time performing in the entertainment industry. It’s not sports, it’s sports entertainment. That Vince McMahon dude from WWE got it right.

Conductor Herbert von Karajan's statue in Salzburg.

Conductor Herbert von Karajan’s statue in Salzburg.

Now what do Charles, Jenna and (and if you have a different conductor that you particularly dislike feel free to substitute your personal choice here) Herbert von Karajan have in common? Absolutely nothing: Herbie the K never did learn that he was in the entertainment industry.

Let’s try a different comparison. What do gold, silver, and copper have in common with Herbie? Again, absolutely nothing; gold, silver and copper are excellent conductors.

Before anyone tries to point out that Jenna’s silicone monuments qualify her as a semiconductor (and that is more credit than I will assign to Herbie), it is silicon that is the semiconductor, not silicone. I didn’t intend this to become a lesson in metallurgy (that is a pretty big word for such a small beer; I had better correct that) so it’s time to move on.

The frequency that I find things noteworthy (good or bad) is not particularly high. The last piece of “classical” music that I heard for the first time that I even remember was by Carl Nielsen, and that was at least 15 years ago (remembering it means that it didn’t make me want to throw up or that I did throw up after hearing it). I don’t count soundtracks for movies; if I did, the Indiana Jones, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and Alien series would count for much.

I am sure that this is going somewhere even if none of us has figured out when or where. Somewhere along the line, I have referred to some pompous fuck waving a stick. I am sure that if I try hard enough, I can find something good to say about the pompous fucks. Well, this took a lot of effort (and beer) but the really good thing about pompous fucks is that if I wait long enough, they die! Rest in peace Herbie, I can’t honestly say that I miss you or any of the others.

I do not believe that the musicians are so talentless that they require having a stick waved in front of them to be able to perform. I for one would like to hear a piece, and preferably one that I am familiar with performed without the pompous stick waving fuck in front. Maybe it would suck, and maybe it would put some new life into music that is old and stale. Of course I also think that baseball managers don’t know anything about baseball, but they are extremely good (at least the good ones) at managing a bunch of inflated egos.

The Oregon Symphony plays Beethoven's Symphony #9 on Wednesday night at Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall.

The Oregon Symphony plays Beethoven’s Symphony #9 on Wednesday night at Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall.

Now that bowl season is in full swing, this brings me to college football. On the surface, college football does not appear to have much to do with music, classical or otherwise. Perhaps I am dating myself a bit, but there was a time when at halftime, the marching bands were shown on TV. Today was not one of those days however. For those of you keeping track, the USC band played “Victory” 18 times and “Conquest” 22 times. Not that I know the difference between the two (in that respect they remind me of Mozart’s first 13 symphonies except Conquest and Victory are both far more memorable).

These days there still is one game where the marching bands get some airtime and that is the Bayou Classic (someone went to the NASCAR and WWE schools of Marketing) between Southern University and Grambling State University.

A marching band is slightly different from a symphony orchestra. On one hand, the musicians get off their ass while they are playing (unlike a symphony orchestra). They are also spread out over 50 or 60 yards where a symphony may be spread out over 60 feet. There are other things that can be compared between the two and unfortunately one of those is that a marching band again has some pompous fuck waving a stick in front of it. Sometimes it is a couple of pompous fucks waving sticks. Being someone who has actually watched the people playing the instruments instead of the pompous stick-waving fuck, I have a couple of observations.

Some of these people have a card dimension of QxQ in front of them. At an angle Z that represents their displacement in meters T, the pompous stick-waving fuck is completely invisible behind the card, but these people can still play something that is recognizable (even to uneducated barbarians such as myself). Never mind that I left out that sound travels at a specific speed if temperature and pressure are constant. Never mind that the Superdome is an acoustic nightmare. Just ignore that hurricane blowing in, it will not make any difference. If you do not believe me, take a physics class. Fuck, take 2 or 3 physics classes, we are all idiots here (Ok, I’m not an idiot, I just play one on the internet and sometimes I do a better job than other times).

Most of us have seen or heard groups of different size perform. It might be 3 – 5 people, it might 15, it might be 50 or 100 or 435 or 1,000. Have you ever noticed that as a group gets larger, inevitably it winds up with some pompous fuck waving a stick? I rarely see rock bands with 3-8 members or string trios/quartets/quintets with a conductor. On the other side, I see some very dysfunctional groups of varying size like the state legislature, symphony orchestras, the US House of Representatives, and the US Senate. These groups all have something in common. Care to guess what it is? That’s right, it is some pompous fuck waving a stick, including gavels.


Next time you go to the Symphony, or the Ballet, or the Metallica concert, or the Opera, or whatever the fuck I left out, remember that that pompous stick waving fuck really does not have a functional use.

My dislike of pompous fucks waving a stick is pretty well documented. Some of you would consider me a pompous fuck, and you would be right. I however manage to be one without waving a stick in front of a bunch of people.

Next time we search for the elusive non-pompous stick waving fuck, but until then, I am out of beer.

This post appeared in slightly more inebriated form on alitisa.com. Beerthoven is an actual Oregonian, but has never written for Oregon ArtsWatch. The Oregon Symphony performs Beethoven’s — not Beerthoven’s — Ninth Wednesday night at Portland’s Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. 

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The Mousai review: The importance of now

Portland chamber ensemble’s concert of music by living American composers delivers emotional excitement


… enter the stillness of Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall on December 4, escaping the incessant drizzle and oil-slicked roads of Portland nights stretching the city’s west side, much of which I had just walked with my companions – having just escaped the daily salt mines – trying to smoke and be punctual: being young and alive in Portland is a gift of time and place. The Mousai (Janet Bebb, flute, Ann van Bever, oboe, Chris Cox, clarinet, ArtsWatch contributor Maria Choban, piano) programmed and performed the rare concert that doesn’t coerce nostalgia for a time gone-by that none of us have known, but sounds with torrential excitement to be alive now. Propelling the tornadic relationship of art imitating life forward new music, young and young-at-heart American composers, the Mousai reminded us on a murky Oregon Friday why life should imitate art.

No announcement, no pre-show pretense or sales pitch — City Vignettes (composed 2014) by Los Angeles composer George N. Gianopoulos kicked off the show, like much of life, without warning. Cox sauntered on stage as if “we’ll always have [Portland]” to Choban’s piano ramblings to a woolgathering audience, myself included, and, with no Now-Art-Begins pomp, began reciting a Sara Teasdale poem, catching the audience vulnerable to actual emotional involvement and holding them rapt. Gianopoulos’s City Vignettes for flute, piano, and narrator successfully borrowed noir sounds – deep unresolved existential piano arpeggiations with melancholy flute melodies – without sounding pastiche. Embracing Teasdale’s challenge to live life — “The dreams wear thin, men turn upon their beds, And hear the milk cart jangle by alone” — Gianopoulos audiated a somber acknowledgment that the dream of past music is wearing thin, and if composers don’t turn upon their beds, we’ll hear music history jangle by alone with nothing to say of our time or place.

The Mousai's happy ending to Schlosberg's premiere.

The Mousai’s happy ending to Schlosberg’s premiere.

Unwilling to accept that our time is mute, Daniel Schlosberg, a Brooklyn-based composer dissatisfied with the passivity of merely tossing his two cents onto the music history cart, composed pandemonium and quiescence intoxicated by life. Opening with an eclectic ragtime meets Dixieland Buster Keaton-esque free-for-all where the intentionality of everything is questionable yet brilliantly executed, including three butt-cluster chords perpetrated by Choban, Schlosberg dissolved our emotional defenses with laughter and took them captive. Dividing his Two Remarks (2015) into the “Clarinet Remoulade,” described above, and the quiescent timbral modulations and unaccompanied high pitched piano pedal tone of the second movement, “Bated Breath,” Chamber Music Northwest’s 2014 Protege Project composer enchanted the auditorium by the drama of contrast. Night and day, summer/winter, love/indifference etc. … life is dependent upon contrast for comprehension: contrast is as necessary to art as it is to life and Two Remarks, commissioned by the Mousai, made me feel alive.

Ann van Bever introduced popular Washington DC composer Scott Pender’s Variations as the Hollywood piece of the concert, and bad-news-Babbitt it was, and that’s not bad! While not my personal aesthetic preference, it was music to share a strawberry milkshake with a pretty girl to, and engage new audience members with music composed in 2010 that doesn’t demand fluency in 20th century compositional practices.


‘Viva’s Holiday’ review: Homespun home run?

Successful made in Portland new opera attracts diverse audiences, but will they return?


It. Coitus. Knocking boots, hooking up, going down, getting dirty, whatever you call it, however you do it, simple word and concept that has been the dominatrix of human history and imagination: sex. If you want to catch peoples attention sex sex sexy sex sexity sex: people go apeshit for it. Viva’s Holiday’s December 2nd  premiere at the Star Theater proved no exception for the undeniable salability of everyone’s favorite past time.

Helen Funston (Viva), Bobby Jackson (Dad), Sadie Gregg (Mom) in 'Viva's Holiday.' Photo: Jessica Beer.

Helen Funston (Viva), Bobby Jackson (Dad), Sadie Gregg (Mom) in ‘Viva’s Holiday.’ Photo: Jessica Beer.

A Portland stripper going home for the holidays to visit her conservative family, a quickie synopsis of Portland composer Christopher Corbell’s new opera based on the memoirs of local legend Viva Las Vegas, contains the overt sex appeal of strippers and stripping as a positive reality of someone’s existence. But even that would be no match for the cold-shower sterilizing power of traditionalist opera culture.

Viva Las Vegas read from her memoir, 'Magic Gardens,' before the opera began. Photo: Gene Newell.

Viva Las Vegas read from her memoir, ‘Magic Gardens,’ before the opera began. Photo: Gene Newell.

Fortunately! Viva’s Holiday premiered anything but traditionally. Star Theater, NW 6th and Burnside, a venue usually known for band music and liquored up dance parties, was busting with an audience that by their own admission had negligible previous opera attendance. Sponsored by feisty indie opera company Opera Theater Oregon and produced by Corbell’s own Cult of Orpheus, the opera sold out its three day run. First time ticket sales to new audience members is a pretty solid second-base in the art music world, first-base if they even know this music still exists and third-base for second time ticket sales, and Corbell lightly petted basically the whole damn venue.

Viva’s Holiday’s true genius is its intersectionality of subcultural interests, creating a diverse audience appeal: opera, new music, Viva Las Vegas, and Star Theater fans are not a homogenous group, far from it, but a broad social swath diverse in almost every variable conceivable. Fans of Magic Gardens, Viva Las Vegas’ memoir, were the most represented subculture premiere night showcasing the importance of story; few people have had to tell their puritanical father their life calling is stripping, although everyone has (or should) have the moment of self-proclamation declaring, to borrow a line from Helen Funston’s aria: “it’s my fucking life.”


45th Parallel non-review: Much unfamiliar, little new

Chamber music concert presents less familiar names, but stays in traditional aesthetic territory


What do concert reviews review? The music?

Excluding Kenji Bunch’s premiered work for solo cello, the music in 45th Parallel’s November 14th concert at Portland’s Old Church doesn’t need reviewing: it’s already been premiered, reviewed, reviewed again, mentioned in scholarly columns and in the various composers collected works published shortly after their obituaries. In short, what new is there to say about Schulhoff, Kreisler, Cowell, or Shostakovich? Am I to seek out that one obscure fact about their lives still not published that some poor doctoral student is going to try and turn into a thesis?

Editor’s Note: The comment thread for this post is no longer live, but you can still comment here and read why we closed the thread.

Now to be fair: this certainly wasn’t just another concert of Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart or their 20th century equivalents Stravinsky, Schoenberg, and Cage. Without having committed relatively large portions of time to the exploration of 20th century music, Schulhoff and Kreisler might not be familiar. However their aesthetic surely is not foreign, nor is it new.

Cellist Jeffrey Zeigler (r) appeared with 45th Parallel at Portland's Old Church.

Cellist Jeffrey Zeigler (r) appeared with 45th Parallel at Portland’s Old Church.

Schulhoff’s In Futurum predated John Cage’s famous so-called silent piece 4’33” by several decades, but both are old news. Programming obscure names is not the equivalent of programming an obscure or new aestheticism. Aesthetics are time sensitive. That is not to say older aesthetics cannot fill every emotional aspect we expect from art, but older works were written for a different time with different societal concerns and vogues; there’s a reason I like Hank Williams III, my father Hank Williams Jr., and my grandfather just ol’ Hank Williams. So, perhaps you haven’t heard of Schulhoff and Kreisler by name, but their late Romantic aesthetic sensibilities can be heard in a large swath of early twentieth century music.

Schulhoff’s Concertino for flute, viola and double-bass, Kreisler’s Caprice Viennois for violin and piano, and Shostakovich’s Piano Trio No. 2 can be reviewed in one fell swoop: late Romanticism. Well-executed late Romanticism, but by this point our (or perhaps just my) ears are so desensitized to the aesthetic that it falls flat. 45th Parallel’s concert themed around the performance of forbidden (late Romantic) music itself partook in passive oppression-of-omission. Music aesthetics outside of Baroque, Classical, and Romantic are still drastically underrepresented and effectively repressed by omission from the repertoire.


Golden Retriever review: Fashion over form

Portland ensemble's large-scale show is heavy on stamina and virtuosity, light on contrast and form


Hell, in all aspects this should have been my thing:

1. I’m a Millennial and Golden Retriever came to their October 20 show at Portland’s Old Church armed with a synthesizer and enough microphones to give the American people a voice.

2. I’m an avant-garde nerd who has equal wet dreams to Kronos Quartet as to Sonic Youth and they hired a classical string quartet and chamber ensemble of improvisers.

So that leaves us with the question: How did the whole night still end up being a clusterfuck of godawful-ry?

Golden Retriever's Sielaff & Carlson.

Golden Retriever’s Sielaff & Carlson.

Culture creates music and music creates culture and culture creates music and music creates culture. . . It’s the chicken and the egg / nurture versus nature / art imitates life therefore life imitates art conundrum, they are impossibly interwoven and you sound a bit foolish bothering to distinguish between them. Music subcultures are as important as the music those subcultures surround, for those people are the human embodiment of the music; they are the living, breathing incarnate aesthetic of their chosen music’s emotional quality. When someone’s walking down the street rocking their Slayer shirt you know what they’re about: metal ass shit.

So, upon arrival I quickly realized I was in for a show that so badly wanted to be cool. Wanted to be cool above anything else, including creating or listening to emotionally engaging music. Walking through the door I had to initiate the transaction with the ticket collector who wouldn’t talk, make eye contact, or confirm or deny that the transaction was over, because being the gatekeeper to this sanctuary of cool he needed complete apathy. . . obviously.

It seemed a majority of the audience members were there to maintain an image. Problematically their image is bought on trust fund money and adorned like an article of clothing from Filson, J. Crew, or Anthropologie with the tags cutout to look thrifted. Never have I seen so many different styles of elegantly disheveled heads of hair tousling around conversing about which music festival or estate they just came from. It’s a sadly common misconception – the poor souls – that cool is an image, something to be purchased when its trendy. Cool has forever been and will forever be about genuineness, a trait very few there wore well.

Performers assemble on stage. Lights go down. Audience shuffles and coughs. And I’m just sitting there rage-coring in a church pew and the music starts.

I’m prepared to hate everything by this point, but I don’t.


Skeleton Piano Dances: Emotional disconnect

Creative multimedia concert is long on virtuosity and inventiveness, short on emotional engagement


As far as I can tell, this world and our lives are terrifyingly shaped by things completely outside of our control or comprehension. Think I’m full of shit? Then why art? Why music? Why do we dedicate hours, weeks, years, and decades of our lives to jotting down specks of black ink onto five lines for someone else who has gone and dedicated the same goddamn amount of time to interpreting those black specks?

Composing and performing are standing on the precipice of existence, screaming into the void that amidst chaos your insignificant little self created something coherent, and that’s beautiful. Not that music shouldn’t be chaotic – it often needs to be chaotic! — but it should offer a humanistic insight into the chaos. Its creation must be propelled forward by emotion, for what else understands the daily human condition? Without emotion there is no philosophical human condition; it just is what it is what it is what it is what it is what it is. . . just cold chaotic reality. When the predominant motivation for a work of art or music is not emotion, but something secondary such as the technicality of recording, form, or physical performance, only the physical reality of music is being realized: sound.

Jennnifer Wright plays her Skeleton Piano at BodyVox Studios this weekend.

Jennnifer Wright played her Skeleton piano at BodyVox Studios.

I have nothing but respect for the logistical capabilities of Jennifer Wright and Agnieszka Laska Dancers putting together Skeleton Piano Dances and furthermore effectively marketing the show, which happened at Portland’s BodyVox Studios October 3 and 4. As far as I could tell the first show was sold out, AND with an average age that has relatively low personal experience with colostomy bags! Not a small achievement in the “art” music world. The venue was hip or whatever – seriously though, having chamber music presented outside of academies and churches is refreshing. Odd as it may be, I also think the program book deserves an honorable mention: thick card stock, quality color printing, and creative design may seem like trivial details, but they go a long way for the perception of professionalism.

All this to say: great planning and professionalism, but for me, there was no emotional communication.


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