‘Fire and Ice’ preview: accessible adventure

New Portland composers' collective's debut performance includes aerial dance, sculpture, poetry, icy instruments — and a close connection to audiences

Though their music differed from each other’s, Portland composers Stacey Philipps, Jennifer Wright and Lisa Ann Marsh had a lot in common. All three were accomplished members of the composers groups Cascadia Composers and Crazy Jane Composers. Unlike too many 20th century classical composers, all three cared as much about what the audience experienced as what the creators wanted to express.

“We all appreciated each other’s music but also each other’s ability to make concerts engaging for audiences as well as esthetically appealing for all of us,” Philipps recalls. And they shared one more thing.

Burn After Listening’s Philipps, Marsh, Wright.

“We’re all up for anything,” Wright says. “We found each other because we wanted to do things that don’t look like the traditional thing.”

They decided to form a group called Burn After Listening. This weekend’s debut multimedia performances, Fire and Ice, promise to look nothing like a traditional classical music concert.

New Venues, New Visions

For a year, the trio talked about what they wanted in a performance, not just from the composers’ perspective but also from the audience point of view. They wanted to make the concert experience more appealing to a wide range of audiences, break down the barrier between stage and audience.

Composer Stacey Philipps. Photo: Gary Norman.

“There’s a certain appreciation that we as musicians and composers and audience members will have for traditional settings and rituals,” Philipps acknowledges. “I don’t think that’s ever going away. But everybody in the arts is thinking about how to survive for the next decade. Why are we here? How do we invite people to come into our world? I go to music festivals across the country  and I definitely see all kinds of adventurous things going on in music around the world. There’s a lot of experimenting going on in this era. This is a free and experimental period in music history, a lot of trying things and seeing what happens.”

The first thing they wanted to change was where shows happened. They recognized the value of standard, often stuffy venues for classical music — concert halls and churches — “they’re typically wonderful acoustic experiences,” Philipps says — “but everyone brings their own assumptions into a space like that.”

New venues might bring new audiences who wouldn’t normally go to a concert in a church or recital hall. And shorn of the baggage and expectations traditional venues impose, new spaces might also encourage the composers themselves to take their music to previously unknown dimensions.

“We didn’t really know what kind of space we wanted until we saw it,” Philipps said: the new studio occupied by the Portland office of the design and planning firm PLACE Studios. Offered by a friend of Wright’s, the flexible space afforded the  possibility of audience interaction and multimedia collaboration that would make their events much richer experiences than a standard classical recital.

Melita Westerlund’s artwork appears in ‘Fire and Ice.’

“As a non concert space, there’s less separation and more back and forth,” Philipps explains. “The audience feels more like they’re part of a special event.”

It also afforded more opportunities to bring in different kinds of art, including works by multimedia Finnish sculptor Melita Westerlund, who draws on her explorations of many different world cultures and whose recent work was inspired by alarm at the worldwide degradation of the coral reefs. And it dovetailed with Design Week Portland, which included the shows in this year’s lineup.

Westerlund’s ‘Koralli Saari Blue.’ Photo: Stewart Brecher.

“We’re fascinated with the immense potentialities inherent in novel intersections of music, design, poetry, movement, and art in all forms,” Wright says. “You compose differently when bringing these other artists. Deep collaborations give you the capabilities for reaching people, touching people. It’s more fun for people if you can give them an experience with so many elements involved. It’s like the old fashioned variety shows — eclectic and exciting and something for everyone,” including kids and devotees of other Design Week Portland events.

Multimedia Mission

The space and concept liberated Marsh, a Portland State music prof whose experiences include singing in jazz band and playing keyboards in a punk rock band. When Philipps proposed the notion of a concert series in a nontraditional venue, “it was being given permission and giving myself permission to write whatever I wanted to,” Marsh said. The first concert features her new song cycle inspired by a series of photographs of vanishing glaciers. Will We Remember includes amplified voices, keyboard, electric guitar, percussion (including instruments made of ice!), and special effects and some improvisation, with texts by poet Deborah Buchanan, who’ll read them onstage.

Lisa Marsh conducted her music at a Cascadia Composers concert.

Also inspired by warming climate — a sweltering summer day — Philipps’s electronic Is it getting hot in here? incorporates recorded sounds of laughter, baby toy, metal garbage can, and rocks along with cello and voices. Where There’s Smoke evokes the sounds and sights of flames. Nature also influenced Philipps’s ice-storm inspired Walk Carefully for flute, clarinet, finger bells, and violin, as well as her piano trio One Hundred Percent Chance of Rain. Musicians include some of Oregon’s most accomplished contemporary classical players.

The ever-adventurous Wright, whose recent shows include toy pianos, amplified harpsichord, her own altered “skeleton piano” and theatrical elements like wrapping herself in flashing blue lights, composed Whalefall to accompany aerial dance, suggesting floating in an underwater dreamscape. She wrote Firebrand for herself and Marsh to play on pianos.

Jennifer Wright. Photo: Matias Brecher.

“If James Bond was on a top-secret undercover MI6 mission in the Taranta region of Italy, investigating the assassination (via lethal dose of tarantula poison) of a high-ranking Italian official who may or may not have had ties with a highly dangerous international network of covert arch-criminals bent on world domination, and 007 crossed paths with a stunning, mysterious woman wearing a slinky black dress encrusted with jewels in cobweb pattern (coincidence?) in a smoky underground jazz club, leading to a steamy and disastrous romance that ended with a blaze of gunfire,” Wright explains, “well, this is the song that would be playing in the background.”

That secret agent theme informs the group’s very name and purpose. “With ‘Burn After Listening,’ you have this feeling that the last show was that mission, and now your next mission is coming up,” Wright explains. “That’s the energy that pushes artists along.”

Accordingly, the group’s next show, in November at Portland’s Doug Fir Lounge, will be “a whole other adventure,” Philipps promises. “That’s the danger of using a new place every time — you have to reinvent the experience. The whole impulse is you don’t know what’s going to happen. I think it’s a special thing to hang out with a group of people who are there for an adventure.”

Burn After Listening: Stacy Phillips, Lisa Ann Marsh, Jennifer Wright. Photo: Matias Brecher.

Burn After Listening presents “Fire and Ice,” Friday, April 28, and Saturday, April 29, 7:30 pm, PLACE Studio, 735 NW 18th Ave. Portland. $12-$25. A shorter version of this story appeared in The Oregonian/O Live.

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One Response.

  1. bob priest says:

    Accessible and adventure in the same sentence?

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