fEARnoMUSIC review: Incomplete conversation

Portland new music ensemble's concert of homegrown Oregon music doesn't always connect with broad audiences


On my drive home from my first new music concert of the year, there was a bad accident on the 5, and with my own family’s experience of death and suicide weighing on me from this past year, I started considering my motivations to spend this next year – and this review – expounding on the importance of new music. We already have plenty of notated organizational schemes of how to produce sounds traditionally considered pleasing, so why bother with the new?

It’s not that somehow living composers recognize logical inconsistencies with the works of the past, quite the opposite really, and have deemed it their life’s work to fix historical music. New music isn’t about what’s logical; in fact great art is often overtly about what’s illogical: it’s about forgetting to check your blind spot on the 5 and totaling your car, fracturing your skull on a casual hike from a falling rock, or receiving a phone call at work about how your distant uncle who never reconciled with the family stuck a gun to his chest.

So, why new music? Further, why new local music? With all the chaos that could/has/will happen with yet another new year, why do we bother ourselves with such petty considerations as organized rhythm and pitch, and why do we care where the composers live?

Voglar Belgique, Payne and Ives performed a pair of piano trios by Oregon composers.

Voglar Belgique, Payne and Ives performed a pair of piano trios by Oregon composers.

Exactly because of the chaos that makes music seem so petty! New music and our constant return to new music, despite natural chaos-driven tragedies or the cold calculated tragedies of man, stands as a constant reminder of our humanity, and while these conditions exist everywhere, we don’t live just anywhere. We live here, the Pacific Northwest, where when the sky is clear I can see Mt. Hood from Salem, the determined can ski and surf in a single day, craft coffee and beer are a way of life, and we have an ever-growing new music scene. Bach is like an overheard conversation, beautiful and engaging, but, me being neither German nor dead, it was never meant for me!

The power of new local music is that we are the intended audience, and while I didn’t love everything about fEARnoMUSIC‘s second annual Locally Sourced Sounds concert last Friday, I was glad for the conversation — but hope that fEARnoMUSIC will eventually extended the conversation past those already engaged with new music. 

Homage to Anonymous Ancient Fiddlers, a violin duo by Texu Kim, kicked the evening off at Portland’s Old Church with a fun, athletic, and engaging performance given by Ines Voglar Belgique and Emily Cole. Coming from the classical and finger-picking traditions of guitar, I love seeing composers take advantage of the endless possibilities of scordatura, and due to my possibly excessive love for the great American composer Charles Ives and his devastating Three Quarter-Tone Pieces I was even more ecstatic for the tuning of a quarter-tone between the violins.

However, I was disappointed to see Kim’s program note: “the exact quarter tone below A would be ideal, but not necessary.” This tuning discrepancy suggests that the vertical harmony and the violins’ combined linear motion wasn’t a strong compositional consideration, but that the quarter-tone tuning was merely used for its novelty — a special effect for its own sake. Alois Hába, and Ivan Wyschnegradsky provided extensive work into quarter-tone harmonic theory, and hell there’s even subreddits on this shit, so I guess I’m just confused about why a whole compositional consideration would be so readily dismissed. This oversight was obvious in the finished composition, as I didn’t feel or hear a harmonic thrust propelling the piece forward; I just heard a slightly detuned violin, although briefly during a short slow moment the harmony permeated the space gorgeously. Schluffing on harmonic homework complaints aside, the rhythmic vitality and interplay of Kim’s writing drove the composition home and was artfully delivered by the violinists.

Wild Silk by Andrea Reinkemeyer for baritone saxophone, piano, and percussion was a mixed bag. The baritone saxophone melody delivered by Sean Fredenburg was gorgeous and had brilliant accompanying textures delivered by Michael Roberts on unpitched percussion and glockenspiel. Yet Roberts’ marimba and Monica Ohuchi’s piano melodies often seemed unnecessary —both performed exceptionally well, but distracted from the melodic force of the baritone. The piano’s presence was not completely irrelevant, though I can’t say the same for the marimba. At the beginning, the piano provided a beautiful textural canvas created within the piano body for the baritone melody to briefly unfold over, until the texture inexplicably stopped, not to be extensively used again. Dramatic changes of texture for unclear reasons without accompanying changes of mood or restatements of the previous textures significantly dampened my enjoyment of this composition even with its exceptionally strong melodic writing.

Uninviting Openings

Programming works like these as show openers significantly narrows who can engage in the conversation. Homage to Ancient Fiddlers’ tuning was certainly palatable, but followed by the amorphous form of Wild Silk, we’re now fifteen minutes into the concert and I haven’t yet heard anything that would overtly reintegrate the John and Jane Does with a casual interest in music back into the audience of “art,” not to mention NEW, music. In no other entertainment context can the first fifteen minutes – critical attention-catching time – be relatively inaccessible and expect to maintain an audience. Experienced listeners certainly knew how to process and enjoy the tuning of Homage and disregard the unnecessary in Wild Silk, but experienced listeners are already attending the shows! As in argument, you can’t alienate the inexperienced from the start if you wish to have a constructive ever growing conversation.

A show opener (if not the first piece, definitely the second) needs to offer inexperienced audience members a clear programmatic theme they can identify with through familiar forms such as clear melody or rhythms, or even blatant expressionism: it’s amazing how accessible the inaccessible becomes when it’s at least obvious what the conversation is about. While I could identify with Kim’s lament for the lost fiddlers, I also have dedicated a lot of time to understanding our Western concepts of harmony within a 12-tone equal temperament (think piano) system and how new they are, so it was obvious to me why a Homage to Anonymous Ancient Fiddlers would be “out of tune.” My father, on the other hand, would have sat very politely – as he so often does with my music – through a composition for “out of tune” violins, the piece having significantly lost the intended programmatic impact. As for Reinkemeyer’s over-composed piano and marimba lines, I’m not clear how they were supposed to contribute to the program “loosely follow[ing] the three stages of its [luna moth] life cycle” when the emotional delivery was all in the baritone melody.

Third time was the charm for the first half of the show, with Alexander LaFollett’s Piano Trio No. 1 in G Dardanian which won fEARnoMUSIC’s Locally Sourced Sounds call for scores. Riding the exceptionally fine line of maintaining interest to the seasoned ear and accessibility for the newcomer LaFollet’s own original modal material offered the secure anchor of tonal centrality while still being far removed from the milquetoast modern uses of pure tonality often found in new-age, classical crossover, or bluntly Muzak. An established mode is a powerful way to create a distinctive sound world, with clear direction tricking the audience into finding the inaccessible accessible. LaFollet’s retooling of the Baroque sonata di chiesa (four movement, slow-fast-slow-fast) form was beautifully performed by cellist Nancy Ives, pianist Jeffrey Payne, and violinist Emily Cole. A clarity of thought was achieved with each instrument having its own clear voice and compositional space, allowing for a more emotional audience engagement uncluttered by intellectual uncertainties such as “are they out of tune” or “what-the-fuck is the marimba doing.”

Lafollet’s piano trio was the only composition on the first half of the show that didn’t provide a story-board program. He successfully created powerful imagery with just clear melodic ideas, engaging rhythms, and a sense of forward momentum due to the falsified tonal direction thanks to the mode. Certainly a whole show of this music could become boring; I find whole shows of any one style of music to be rather boring, but LaFollet offered the audience instant emotional connectivity, which is the strongest case for new local music.

Inessential Elements

“Great climax, but how/why did we get there?” is everything I jotted down in my notebook for the opening of the second act: the three-movement trio Late Autumn Moods and Images by David Bernstein, performed by Voglar Belgique, Payne and Ives. The first movement, “Come Ye Thankful,” was a passe rendering of several quotations from the Protestant hymn “Come Ye Thankful People, Come,” connected by a variety of directionless fluff. Where was the famous Protestant fire-n-brimstone drama? I was excited for the interwoven and contrapuntal melodies of the second movement, “Dances with…”, based on the combination of two Hebrew dance melodies but was left unsatisfied. The melodies didn’t interweave so much as the piece just flip-flopped back and forth. Bernstein’s “Rhetorical Rhythms in Flight” — interestingly the only movement he claims sources no outside musical material — was dramatic, rhythmically engaging, and just damn fun. Late Autumn Moods and Images could have been an emotionally enthralling work had Bernstein embraced the power of the climax for the whole of the work; composers so often confine their emotions to the climax while leaving the rest of the composition to prove their intelligence and bore us.

FearNoMusic performed Ryan Francis's 'Sequences.'

FearNoMusic performed Ryan Francis’s ‘Sequences.’

Using the largest acoustic ensemble of the night paired with electronics, Sequences (or the electronic soundtrack for Leave it to Beaver, as it struck me) by Ryan Francis still managed to say the least. The unshifting pandiatonic texture, synth lines that could have been presented acoustically, and the lack of lines that truly utilized the synth’s ability to do the acoustically impossible (e.g. produce various wave forms, alter the low and high filters dramatically altering the timbre, play in the extremes of human hearing, pull off extremely gradual note attacks, perfectly consistent sustains etc.) only served to highlight the 1980s-style synth playing. That focus on the excessive use of a singular timbre, which I’m sure in the ’80s was new and exciting, now just sounds dated. Without clearly defining its own aural space and compositional reasoning, the synthesizer was unnecessary at best, and damaging to the electro-acoustic world at worst giving the distinct impression of a contemporary facade for the sake of salability to technophiles, while in the end only being a compositional hat-trick not integrated into the whole.

So, once again I’m stuck considering my motivations to expound the importance of new music and defend a concert where I only found one whole composition and brief excerpts of others truly enjoyable. New music and arts’ role in the human process of coping with the human condition – and really MY process of dealing with my condition – is worth slow, but sure progress. Half of success is just going through the motions: don’t have self-confidence? fake it. We hear this mantra all time and fEARnoMUSIC too often went through the motions of new music. They care enough to go through the huge fucking hassle of throwing a concert, and beginning a conversation with us using material written specifically for us, and much like the invention of the lightbulb, every version is crucial to our eventual and continual enlightenment. I would encourage further consideration towards the current non-audience members, especially how programming order can significantly impact listeners’ enjoyment, and the immediacy of the music’s emotional connection, but would also like to extend a thank you. Thank you for the art and sharing your experiences. Thank you for the new music. Thank you for the humanity. We’re going to need it all on the cusp of this new year.

Tristan Bliss is a music composer currently living in Salem, Oregon. Engaging in all sorts of shenanigans ranging from motorcycle dirtbaggery to navigating his way through the bullshit bureaucracy of earning a Bachelor’s of Music with a focus on modern composition; trust me, it’s not as fancy as it sounds. Also, apparently he is now reviewing concerts he goes to.

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12 Responses.

  1. PDF Bach says:

    Dissatisfied when there’s no new music on a program, then he’s dissatisfied when there is. Some of the criticisms here are valid – like Texu’s arbitrary quarter-tones and the marimba/piano parts in Andrea’s piece – but a good chunk of what’s discussed here is filled with some pretty loaded assumptions. A few examples:

    “Programming works like these as show openers significantly narrows who can engage in the conversation.”

    How? No explanation was given.

    “…we’re now fifteen minutes into the concert and I haven’t yet heard anything that would overtly reintegrate the John and Jane Does with a casual interest in music back into the audience of “art,” not to mention NEW, music.”

    How do you know that? I spoke to a number of non-musicians at the concert and they told me that they really enjoyed the “inaccessible” pieces Mr. Bliss is railing against. So where is Mr. Bliss getting these ideas about John and Jane Doe from?

    “A show opener (if not the first piece, definitely the second) needs to offer inexperienced audience members a clear programmatic theme they can identify with through familiar forms such as clear melody or rhythms, or even blatant expressionism”

    Why is “blatant expressionism” or a program necessary? How do we know these are the means to “accessibility” (whatever that means) in the average listener? Are drum lines less “accessible” because of their lack of melody and harmony? What about drone pieces where rhythm is all but absent in favor of pure tone and harmony?

    “Lafollet’s piano trio was the only composition on the first half of the show that didn’t provide a story-board program… but LaFollet offered the audience instant emotional connectivity, which is the strongest case for new local music.”

    Wait, I thought we needed a program to be accessible to the uninitiated? So it’s about emotional connection to a musical language, too? And aren’t there an infinite variety of musical languages?

    “…the synthesizer was unnecessary at best, and damaging to the electro-acoustic world at worst.”

    Only SLIGHTLY hyperbolic.

    “I would encourage further consideration towards the current non-audience members.”

    I agree, but let’s not assume we know the mind of the listener.


    I could go on, but I’m hungry and it’s lunchtime.

    • bob priest says:

      Tristan Bliss signed a real name to his article. Perhaps you might consider doing the same in the future?

      • Dan Rasay says:

        Agreed. If you care about music and the arts and disagree with Mr. Bliss start a conversation. You’re just trolling if you don’t bother to use your real name.

        • bob priest says:

          Yes, Dan, thanx for reinforcing this view.
          BTW, some grrrrrrrreat schtupf coming up over @ OSO next season:
          + Messiaen – Turangalila
          + Dutilleux – Cello Concerto
          Wow, what gives?

          • Dan Rasay says:

            Told ya there’d be some interesting stuff. It’s much easier to pull it off when 1) you’re not cutting costs to survive 2) audiences have shown some affinity to interesting programs/new formats 3) you grow some cajones

  2. Herein lies the problem with doing programs which only present new and local music: the best living in Oregon today aren’t going to be able to compete (as a group, not necessarily individually) with the best there ever has been. I find different divisions of high school football to be a great analogy. 4A schools tend to have better teams than 1A schools because their teams are selected from a larger pool of potential players. The best out of 300 is not going to be as good as the best out of 2500. The same can be said with music. So you kind of have to pick your battles in these sorts of things. On the one hand, the concert didn’t stand up to ones in which the best composers worldwide/historywide were played. On the other, local living composers were given a chance to make their voices heard in a world where they are often eclipsed by the Stravinskis and the Mozarts of history.

    I feel like I should take this opportunity to mention or remind those who know me that I myself am a composer and think concerts dedicated to new music are great. I just think it’s best to keep things in perspective.

    • I’ve been thinking about this response since I posted it and feel like it makes assumptions (or assumptions of assumptions) which were unfair since I was unable to attend this concert. In truth, I had never heard any of these pieces either. So I went online and listened to recordings of the pieces which actually have an internet presence (well, a free internet presence because I’m cheap). Unfortunately I only found two, as is often the case with new and recently premiered music: the Reinkemeyer and the Kim.

      I think they are lovely in their own rights. I felt that the piano lines heard in Wild Silk were well written dialogues with the bari on an instrument which lesser composers might damn to the boring monotony of pure accompaniment lines. You know the ones, you’ve heard them millions of times before. Those insipid block or arpeggiated chords which tell the audience “the pianist is only here to make the real musician look good”. Reinkemeyer didn’t doom the pianist to servitude. Thank you.

      I also don’t find the scordatura in Homage to be at all unnecessary. In fact, I think it was utilized very well in the piece as a scordatura (even of a quarter-tone between instruments) is a tool to facilitate different intonations and sonorities but does not necessarily require them. The sections in which the difference in tuning is best heard is during the homophonic passages. I imagined it as being played by one unknown fiddler on one very out of tune violin rather than by two concert violinists on two violins which are out of tune with each other. In fact, it would be nigh impossible to achieve that same sonority if it were actually written for the former. “The end justifies the means” but so does the inverse. It was a great aesthetic and a great commentary on what the piece was ultimately about.
      I also found myself listening for and discovering different sections in the piece which were seemingly inspired by different fiddle traditions: Gypsy, American, etc. The fact that these weren’t jarring juxtapositions and were pieced together into one coherent piece was very pleasing. I may be wrong on that last point but it was John Cage who said “most people mistakenly think that when they hear a piece of music that they’re not doing anything but that something’s being done to them. …they themselves are doing it and not that something is being done to them” Basically, my expectations altered my perceptions as is the case with anyone who has them. I wanted to hear good fiddle music… so I did.

  3. Emily Cole says:

    Considering the piece was “uncluttered by intellectual uncertainties,” Mr. Bliss incorrectly identified me as the violinist in the LaFollett trio. The violinist was Inés Voglar Belgique.

  4. Greg Ewer says:

    “Bach is like an overheard conversation, beautiful and engaging, but, me being neither German nor dead, it was never meant for me!” Clever analogy, but can art’s audience ever really be known or defined? Great works of art seem to have an unending capacity to reach those who are open to them, regardless of temporal or spacial proximity. I suspect many in the arts actively distance themselves from the old in hopes of reinforcing their own devotion to the avant-garde. This is natural I suppose, but I believe that art is more organically created as part of a continuum than as an active effort to deny or resist one.

  5. Jean Herst says:

    I’m not following all these nonsense responses…

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