March Music Moderne review: Beyond the Moderns


Musicians from Classical Revolution PDX performed at Holocene in March Music Moderne

Musicians from Classical Revolution PDX performed at Holocene in March Music Moderne.

There are people who really like the mathematically determined music of the 20th century Greek-French composer Iannis Xenakis—more than just acknowledging its undeniable historical importance. There are also people, I am told, who enjoy being rolfed, walking barefoot across hot coals, participating in fight clubs, and being lashed by whips. I think these all must be the same people.

Enduring the relentless pummeling of the Portland premiere of Xenakis’s 1978 exercise in dissonance Ikhoor at Sunday night’s closing March Music Moderne, just after enjoying so many other concerts featuring young (and sometimes not-so-young) Oregon composers at the same festival revealed just how far midcentury modernism that MMM celebrates strayed from appealing to a broad audience — and how Oregon composers are leading the way in bringing music in the classical tradition back to its rightful, central place in the hearts and minds of anyone who loves music, not just the dwindling niche who dig discordance.

Possibly the ugliest 15 minutes (or however long it lasted—it felt endless) of music I’ve ever experienced live, Ikhoor’s aesthetic embodies much of the spirit of post-World War II modernism, the music that while supplying technical innovation also helped drive millions of classical music lovers from concert halls. (In this usage, “modern” doesn’t mean “contemporary” but rather refers to the music written roughly between World War II and say the 1980s.)

Of course, composers like Beethoven, Wagner, Stravinsky and others also offended some conservative listeners, but still found plenty of fans even during their own lifetimes. But the modernists—for whom (in the characteristically astute words of the most insightful living commentator on classical music, Richard Taruskin) “the customer is always wrong”—marginalized contemporary classical music in a way even their most avant-garde predecessors never did. Reversing Duke Ellington’s formulation that “if it sounds good, it is good,” they posited a nonexistent, mutually exclusive dichotomy between audience appeal and musical value—despite abundant evidence to the contrary from composers as diverse as Ravel, Stravinsky, Copland, Oregon native Lou Harrison, and many others.

“After World War II in the classical music world, because people were very disillusioned about all the terrible things that happened to humankind, [t]hey just said, ‘OK, we can no longer embrace this beautiful music of the Germans and the Austrians, because look at what that has done to us!’” explained the great Israeli American cellist Maya Beiser in a San Francisco Classical Voice interview this week. “So you had all these composers come out and just say, ‘We’re gonna do something horrible, we’re gonna do something that’s not gonna make you guys like it and we don’t care if you don’t like it because we’re not really interested in people liking anything.’ So we went through this really difficult time where music was really not meant to be experienced in the same kind of way. And, as hard as it was, I think it was an important part of our evolution because it was a reaction to something, and it was an important reaction.”

“But what it did, of course, is it scared everybody away from the concert halls, and of course with the revolution of rock and roll things have changed so radically. So we just kept playing only the 19th-century music and backwards….”

The great choreographer Anna Halprin, who worked with American modernists like Morton Feldman, once told me that artists of her generation were so shocked by the war that they actively shunned ego and emotional expression, which they believed was partly responsible for the 20th century’s horrors, deliberately seeking to objectify their art whether by leaving decisions to chance (like John Cage) or other processes.

Of course, many mid century composers defied these trends, and even many modernists found emotional connection and expression in some of their music. But overall, their music appealed to only a tiny niche of aficionados. Collateral damage included the many other midcentury composers who didn’t follow the modernist mantra but found their work ignored by understandably fearful audiences and the taste making, trend-following academics, music directors, prize and grant-awarders, and the other cool kids of the day who prided themselves on their disdain for anything as demode as, say, memorable melodies or driving rhythms or emotional expression. Listeners sought and found those missing elements in jazz, rock, and other pop music—much of it at least as creative and sophisticated as what was happening in the “classical” world—and many of them never came back.

Modernism loses its grip

Finally, beginning in the last quarter of the 20th century, modernism’s death grip gradually succumbed to various backlashes from minimalists, neoromantics, postmodernists, and other composers who saw no conflict between innovation and broad musical appeal, and who, unlike their modernist predecessors, were actually talented and artistically generous enough to achieve both. Although those battles (which were already diminishing by the time Xenakis wrote Ikhoor) seem increasingly distant now, classical music is still recovering from the modernist depredations that understandably left older listeners wary of any concert program that harbors anything newer than, say, Ravel or Americanist-era Copland.

Thankfully, it’s getting harder to find the worst modernist culprits (and their legatees) on concert programs, as many members of the last couple of generations of composers have increasingly built on modernist innovation while also reaching out to audiences who just want to hear music — not all of it conventionally pretty or even consonant  — that touches hearts as well as minds.

“Now, in the 21st century, we’re back to a place where we have fantastic composers who are writing beautiful music, important music that will undoubtedly survive many generations, hundreds of years from now,” Beiser continued. “But people need to remember that we are no longer in that period where everything is so complex and difficult, and that they can go back to the concert hall and experience music today that would leave them with a wonderful experience, and sometimes even a life-changing experience.”

MMM master Bob Priest

MMM master Bob Priest

Judging by what I heard at MMM this month, many of those composers, transcending false dichotomies and rejecting modernist orthodoxy, happen to live and create in Oregon. The modernist category itself was always pretty blurry, and the distinctions between modernism and post-mod have broken down almost entirely today, with composers happily evading easy categorization as modernist or whatever, sometimes even in the same piece.

But, as with so much of the Brutalist architecture that now seems so dated and ugly,  the bleak, blasted landscape of midcentury modernist music like Xenakis’s does boast a few gems and still has fans. Portland composer Bob Priest is one of them, and he started the March Music Moderne series to bring to Portland the modernist sounds he and a few others still cherish (I confess to enjoying some of it myself). It’s a worthy goal; the best of modernism deserves its museum just like the best of the Baroque, Romantic, and other musical eras, although it’s impossible to imagine it ever attracting more than a fraction of those listeners.

But to his great credit, Priest (who likes some but not all modernist music, and some but not all post-modernist music) did more than that, opening MMM to other late-20th and 21st century sounds (with a few limitations—Philip Glass, for example, need not apply), and even commissioning dozens of new works (many of them one minute long, but still) from contemporary Oregon composers, resulting in a fascinating festival that offers as wide a spectrum of contemporary music as any I know.

And as schizophrenic, embracing as it does both midcentury modernism and much music created as its antithesis. The sounds at this year’s festival showed how far we’ve come from modernism since those old ideological battles ended a couple of generations ago, and how Oregon composers old and new are bringing beauty and meaning back to classical music.

Rite of Spring

As always, not all the contemporary music on Portland stages this month was part of MMM. The weekend before the festival began, several composers and performers associated with Classical Revolution PDX performed in a concert called Spring Snow organized by young pianist and composer Mitchell Falconer at Portland State University’s Littman Gallery. The venue followed a long tradition of new music in gallery settings; modernists like John Cage and minimalists like Steve Reich often resorted to galleries when conservative concert halls rejected their radical sounds. The only nod to visual art was a projected old black and white Japanese film, drastically slowed down so that it became a kind of visual ambient effect, at least before halting inexplicably in the middle of the best piece on the program.

Falconer astutely picked the pieces to evoke Oregon’s somber late-winter feel—and he may have succeeded too well, because almost everything in the show hit approximately the same mood. To avoid mind-wandering, a concert that runs over two hours demands more variety, if not in tone, tempo and/or timbre, then maybe in presentation. Cushions instead of chairs, maybe? Varied lighting? Hookahs?

Mitchell Falconer and Patrick McCulley at Spring Snow. Photo: Gary Ferrington.

Mitchell Falconer and Patrick McCulley at Spring Snow. Photo: Gary Ferrington.

Eschewing the usual slam-bang opener common to both rock and symphony concerts, the show established the reflective mood by opening with a pair of spacy 1992 works, including the longest piece on the program, Jay Schwartz’s minimalist-influenced Music for Saxophone and Piano, distinguished by Patrick McCulley’s supple long tones, powerfully played over Falconer’s gradually thickening texture and building to a percolating groove. McCulley also excelled in the next piece, Japanese composer Ryo Noda’s Birth of Snow, his brief phrases and Falconer’s sprinkled piano arpeggios drifting along like snowflakes in the wind, but like Schwartz’s, it ultimately proved too diffuse to fully seize my attention.

Despite superficial similarities (repeated piano figures under a long melody, here on viola plangently played by Grace Young), the third piece, English composer Gavin Bryars’s haunting 1993 The North Shore, was far more evocative, maybe the strongest music on the program, though its impact was diluted by the surrounding similar textured works. The excellent New York based composer/critic Kyle Gann’s 2012 Going to Bed for cello, piano and clarinet cleverly incorporated the signature moves of its honoree, minimalist master Philip Glass, but was similarly undermined by its similarity to the other works (dark mood, repeating piano figures, simple treble melodies) as well as a scruffier performance, an exception to the concert’s generally high playing standards.

The dirge-like opening of the first music after intermission, solo piano selections from Louisville composer Rachel Grimes’s folkish, neo-impressionist 2009 Book of Leaves, threatened to resume the brooding, but finally a welcome allegro brought it to a faster clip, as it cantered toward George Winston land. Promising young Portland composer Jedadiah Bernards’s Astoria also ignored the alleged barrier between “classical” and non, moodily conjuring the Oregon coast’s foggy forests capes. Falconer then played another Bernards composition, featuring a five note descending pattern over constantly shifting unexpected chords, but it felt more like an exercise. Singer Valery Saul joined guitarist Christopher Corbell in the latter’s settings of poems by Edna St. Vincent Millay, one injecting a needed dose of feistiness, another beautifully melancholy, one of the highlights of the concert.  A pair of recent compositions by 27-year-old composer Adrian Knight (one for piano over electronic drone, another for amplified solo harp plucked by Kate Petak) maintained the wintry mood, and the concert closed on another high note with Falconer’s own new Winter Tapestry for cello, viola, clarinet, piano, alto saxophone, and harp.

The Spring Snow audience, which filled the gallery despite competition from several other strong classical shows that night, spanned age ranges from 20s to 70s, to my eye at least—the kind of diverse demographic classical music organizations are desperately struggling to achieve. The pay-your-wage admission charge (which still resulted in musicians earning a decent compensation) might have had something to do with that, as was the fact that the entire program was created by composers who are still alive and writing, some of them from Oregon. And despite the sameness that undermined its impact, all of the music was ear-friendly, and not just to classical music or modern music fans.

Mod in Oregon

I’m still trying to figure out how the diminutive Falconer, who moved to Portland only last year, managed to stage, perform in and even compose for this concert while at the same time rehearsing (evidently extensively) for a half-dozen performances in the following week’s March Music Moderne shows, of which he was one of the ubiquitous stars.

Classical Revolution PDX’s March 9 MMM concert at the Portland dance/pop music club Holocene explored a wider variety of musical moods. The first performer was actually the grand piano onstage, which stood impassive while a hidden reciter told the audience about some of the workers responsible for its construction in New York’s Steinway factory. The Autobiography of Lady Steinway is actually an instructional piece by the important American composer Pauline Oliveros, the Texas-born, longtime Bay Area based electronic and tape music pioneer who’s celebrating her 80th birthday this year. Like the other composers and most of the performers on this “Marriage of True Minds” program that celebrated Oregon’s impending and long overdue marriage equality, Oliveros isn’t straight. But this concert’s appeal stemmed not from its politics but rather its powerful performances.

Jedadiah Bernards performed at March Music Moderne's "The Marriage of True Minds" concert at Holocene.

Jedadiah Bernards performed at March Music Moderne’s “The Marriage of True Minds” concert at Holocene.

The music proper got off to a sizzling start with Portland composer Bonnie Miksch’s  sensational Solstice, which she performed at last year’s Crazy Jane concerts. Her smoldering solo work for voice, electronics, didgeridoo and computer realized recording burned even hotter in Holocene’s more intimate space.

Falconer followed with persuasive performances of three of Portland-born Lou Harrison’s early-1940s Cembalo Sonatas, which the then-20-something composer wrote in San Francisco under the sway of his beloved Baroque composers. To cover the quick stage changes another CRPDX stalwart (and OAW contributor), pianist Maria Choban, played Harrison’s charming little New York Waltzes, written during his 1940s Greenwich Village days. Why don’t more programs do this, instead of making the audience stare in silence at stages empty of anything but people moving chairs and music stands?

Harrison’s music returned after the brief, playful Metanoia, by another Portland composer, Josh Kreydatus, added variety to the program thanks to its a cappella arrangement for nine singers, and guitarist Mario Diaz’s hesitant performance of British composer Peter Maxwell Davies’ most popular work, the nostalgic 1980 Farewell to Stromness. Diaz’s poignant performance of “Music for Bill and Me,” written in 1967 not long after Harrison met his life partner of 33 years, Medford-born Bill Colvig, was preceded by a brief but equally moving, artless reading by Chris Allen of some of Harrison’s writings about his lover and fellow musician and instrument builder. Both brought tears to the eyes of at least a few listeners.

Falconer’s polyrhythmic quintet As We Wait, inspired by gamelan music, effectively continued the composer’s evident intoxication with post minimalist notions. With award-winning Portland poet Zachary Schomburg on hand to read his  “Testy Pony,” still another CRPDX regular, cellist Harry Gilbert, contributed a lovely accompaniment by New York composer Eve Beglarian.

Bernards followed with a pair of his own piano impressions from Portland Journal: the first a nostalgic evocation of Portland’s Buckman neighborhood (where Holocene stands and where the composer used to live), the second a jazzy, swinging number that I immediately wanted to hear again and again.

After Falconer led Oliveros’s short, audience participation Tuning Meditation, Portland composer Max Voltage (on ukulele) and Choban concluded the concert with Voltage and Leander Star’s Dream Ballet from their forthcoming musical Homomentum, featuring a trio of dancers (Jesse Bean, Ladybeard and Lauren Mitchell) who left the audience grinning. Based on this lilting music, I can’t wait to see a full staging. And I left this tightly performed concert more convinced than ever that Oregonians are writing plenty of adventurous music capable of utterly enchanting the broadest audiences imaginable.

From Both Ends of the River

That impression was reaffirmed in MMM’s collaborative concert at AudioCinema’s invitingly industrial space in Portland’s inner east side, featuring the Eugene Contemporary Composers Ensemble and Contemporary Portland Orchestra Project. After a gleefully raucous if overlong Les Moutons de Paurge (an audience participation repeated riff), the players offered David Sackmann’s energetic, episodic alto sax showcase Rainier  Monster Slayer; Matthew Zavortink’s solo flute showcase Foxglove (probably my favorite of the new works), with the composer, unperturbed by an unexpected duet with a passing train, sometimes imitating a breathy shakuhachi sound; John Goforth’s nicely contrasting Three Preludes, which explored the lower registers of cello and bass, at first sombre, then jittery, then plaintive; the abandoned cry of Jay Derderian’s vibrant viola work [REDACTED], which impressed me in an earlier Cascadia Composers concert, and Nayla Mehdi’s atmospheric would it have been, for trumpet and electronics, which might have sounded better in a late-night setting, and without some technical difficulties that rendered one channel inaudible.

Musicians from Eugene Contemporary Chamber Ensemble and Contemporary Portland Orchestra Project converged at AudioCinema for a March Music Moderne concert.

Musicians from Eugene Contemporary Chamber Ensemble and Contemporary Portland Orchestra Project converged at AudioCinema for a March Music Moderne concert.

Alas, I had to leave after Lisa Lipton’s potent Lasagna for clarinet and drum, but despite occasional slight sound leakage from what sounded like a practicing rock band, the first-time collaboration provided a thoroughly satisfying view of the creative and listener friendly music these young Oregon composers are making today. And the future of this two-city cross fertilization looks promising, as the University of Oregon’s composition program has been regularly cranking out distinctive composers whose music deserves wider attention, and who can also benefit from exposure to Portland’s flourishing grassroots new music scene.

Monday’s Cascadia Composers concert showed that older Portland composers have as much to offer listeners as their younger counterparts, even though it’s never a good sign to see a string quartet still rehearsing (it didn’t look like a soundcheck) as the audience is entering the hall. It tells the audience they didn’t rehearse enough—a marked contrast to the clearly well-rehearsed previous shows I saw at MMM. Fortunately, the DTQ Quartet soldiered through the late Salem-born composer Walter Winslow’s big, ambitious sextet Concertati Veneziani with few noticeable slips, though without much expressiveness either. I haven’t heard Winslow’s other’s music, but according to the composer’s CD program notes, this 1996 work emerged from a need “to speak a somewhat broader language” — from the academic modernism that then dominated the output of composers of his generation, although some had already begun making similar shifts, for various reasons. Assuming that the exciting opening movement and poignant last movement point in the promising direction Winslow’s music might have taken had cancer not claimed him at age 50, this Oregon premiere of his last major composition left a bittersweet aftertaste. 

The first half of the concert at downtown Portland’s Old Church, comprising music by Winslow’s brother Jeff (full disclosure: a frequent contributor to Oregon ArtsWatch), was superbly played, with the always riveting Eugene singer Nancy Wood (accompanied by the composer) outdoing even last year’s Cascadia performance of the playful Cat Tale (at one point gazing silently skyward like the titular cat after the line “And took a leap into the sky,” cracking up the audience). It’s hardly an easy or even pretty piece, but Winslow and Wood showed how a strong, tight, well thought out and rehearsed performance makes all the difference—a notion confirmed by Falconer, Winslow and Dianne Davies’ sequential performance of Winslow’s solo Ghosts and Machines. Falconer again excelled, but Davies’ deeply committed performance really brought out the rugged beauty and drama of Winslow’s heartfelt tribute to his late brother.

ArtsWatch’s own short Saturday afternoon showcase at TaborSpace further showed just how today’s Oregon composers are placing technology and sophisticated techniques in the service of emotional expression. Corbell’s Digital Adaptation  pitted his acoustic guitar against a software algorithm he wrote, forcing him to adapt his choice of melodic “cells” to the electronic sounds the program threw at him, which produced a real tension in the real-time duet. Miksch triggered musical events (from digital samples of her own voice) via iPad as she sang beautifully in Surrender Me Endless. But a movement from one of Corbell’s acoustic guitar sonatas and Bernards’ solo piano music reminded the listeners that contemporary composers can still find plenty new—and beautiful—to say while using older instruments, tonalities, and musical forms.

It’s a Mod, Mod, Mod World

After another concert that brilliantly demonstrated the genius of another experienced Oregon composer (MC Hammered Klavier’s all-Tomas Svoboda show celebrating the dean of Portland composers’ 75th birthday), still another older-generation Oregonian, Susan Alexjander, delivered the highlight of last Sunday’s Electric Marzenaland concert at Portland’s Community Music Center with her atmospheric 2001 Rock Piece. Most of the show’s other music was either too brief to leave a lasting impression or just sounded dated, and as usual with prerecorded electronic music concerts, gazing at an empty stage felt awkward and pointless. What concerts like this really need is a non-concert setting, with cushions, projections, maybe dim or no lighting.

Free Marz Trio closed March Music Moderne Sunday.

Free Marz Trio closed March Music Moderne Sunday.

The short (40 min) free show really served as more of an appetizer for MMM’s concluding concert, the aforementioned Xenakis-fest, also spiced with brief readings (of Ray Bradbury, Italo Calvino and other great 20th century writers) by familiar Portland actor David Loftus. The first half represented that midcentury modernist museum that MMM started with, and all it proved (to a Xenakiphobe like me, anyway) was that Ennio Morricone made the right decision in becoming a film composer instead of writing concert chamber music (exhibit A: his 2001 Vivo here), and that weak performances can even sabotage the music of more ear-friendly composers like the promising young Bulgarian British composer Dobrinka Tabakova.

The icy claws of modernism even seemed to stretch backward across the centuries, seizing and suffocating even the music of J.S. Bach in its bony grip. Historically informed ensembles like Portland Baroque Orchestra have long reminded us that even a composer as brainy as Bach gotta sing, gotta dance, but the Free Marz Trio’s stolid, unfocused performance did neither. Arriving a day after the passionate, razor sharp, audience-appealing Svoboda show, and in the wake of the earlier MMM concerts, their readings too often felt tentative. (Admittedly, the Xenakis and all those premieres must have been a monster to prepare.) Add the deadly dose of Xenakian dissonance, and no wonder a quarter of the audience (including most of the few apparently young members) fled at intermission—of a FREE concert, no less—and the applause (compared to that of the other concerts I saw) seemed more dutiful and less spontaneous, reenacting on a microcosmic level modernism’s midcentury expulsion of audiences. There’s a real risk that mixing niche-appeal old-style modernism with more accessible contemporary sounds on the same program will frighten off newbies who won’t understand that Xenakis and his ilk aren’t what’s happening in contemporary classical today.

Which was a shame, really, as the concert and festival actually ended on a charming note with one of its most admirable features: commissions of new music by Oregon composers, this time nine, one-minute tangos that took off from the great French iconoclastic miniaturist Erik Satie’s Perpetual Tango. All of them were pretty fun, some including gestures or even quotes (from the Dies Irae, from Astor Piazzolla, and even from another Satie piece), with John Berendzen’s Feldmanish long tones providing a needed break from the similarity, Free Marz playing with spark and even panache, and the last three—by Jennifer Wright, Beth Karp and Kenji Bunch (which was written in icing on a cake!) especially capturing Satie’s irresistible impishness.

His subversive spirit itself inspired many modernists such as John Cage, yet Satie demonstrated (like Oregonians Harrison and Svoboda, whose listener friendly music, disdained by many modernists, embraced by the succeeding generations, here seemed prophetic) that music can simultaneously skewer, scourge—and seduce. Happily, this year’s March Music Moderne revealed that today’s Oregon composers, young and old, have learned from modernism’s failures, unashamed of moving audiences with music that expresses beauty, anger, grief and the other all too human feelings that too many modernists too often disdained. For the sake of those Oregonians who genuinely admire Xenakis and other modernists (and they did applaud with enthusiasm), I’m glad that Bob Priest makes modernism happen in Oregon each year. But for the sake of the wider range of Oregon music lovers who’ve been denied the beauties of today’s listener friendly sounds, I’m  even happier that this essential Oregon music institution showcases and even inspires the often beautiful, powerful, category-defying homegrown music being created here and now.

Stay tuned for more OAW reviews of March Music Moderne concerts.

Want to read more about Oregon classical music? Support Oregon ArtsWatch!
Want to learn more about contemporary Oregon classical music? Check out Oregon ComposersWatch.

14 Responses.

  1. bob priest says:

    hey brett!

    thanx very much for your detailed & somewhat “call to arms” review.

    yes, there are many musical styles & aesthetic philosophies present during an MMM roustabout & i’m glad to note that some of them appeal to you.

    unfortunately, labeling some music/musak “listener friendly” polarizes, divides & alienates many music lovers right back into the sad either/or, them or us mentality that MMM strives to avoid. something tells me that such highly reductive thinking & cheerleading is ultimately counter-productive to the inclusive musical climate that you truly aspire to foster.



  2. Thanks again Brett for heartfelt and honest impressions. I’m on the fence with the modernists…I think occasionally they actually hit the numeric sonic codes that ring celestial chimes…but mostly it’s so ego-driven as to be nauseating. Basically I view it as a balancing act to swing the pendulum back from over-sticky romantic crap (also ego-driven). This might sound newage, but I believe that when the composer is carefully listening to what is trying to ‘come through’ …listening from a deep heart space (assuming they have the skills to translate it)… the music has a special resonance that connects, no matter what the style. Body and heart need to test drive the mind’s creation…it can have teeth and feel good too.

  3. Jack Gabel says:

    RE: “…since those old ideological battles ended a couple of generations ago…”

    not to get polemical, but they’re not ended – were it so, consideration of all musical language would be more balanced, but it’s not – this in reference to the full spectrum of media criticism of music, not MMM IV, or this review in particular

    were it so (that they were ended), a deeper examination of the exodus from the American Classical Concert Hall might prevail – I would submit that it’s not the fault of Modernist composers (so-called ‘bad boys’ in the so-called ‘ideological battle’) – it’s more likely the fault of Mad Men (as per the AMC TV series), of which I’ve not seen much, but enough to know its core theme: subversion of the public psyche

    but, don’t need Mad Men to tell it – obvious to anyone paying attention – simply put: ubiquitous contemporary pop culture is not brain food – quite the contrary – and therefore, utilitarian far beyond so-called ‘ideological battles’ – another way of putting it: the shopping mall is not the museum, nor the concert hall, nor the installation gallery, the salon, the church – well, it may be a religion of sorts – nevertheless, try reaching out to the shopping mall – not much interest in anything but pop – trust me, I’ve tried

    one might call the shopping-mall example a straw man, but then raising the specter of so-called ‘ideological battles’ over the programming of one severely edgy work on a 2-week-long series, might as well be – again, not to get polemical, rather to open a broader perspective – good to see the local contemporary art music scene so enthusiastically covered

  4. Jeff Winslow says:

    I agree with Brett, and probably not with Bob, that the term “modern” as applied to music is a historical term. But somebody needs to say – so at the risk of playing Captain Obvious, I will – that “modern music” in the classical context began just before WWI, not WWII, more or less with the two great examplars Pierrot Lunaire and The Rite of Spring. Of course both Schoenberg and Stravinsky provided plenty of rumblings before that, and even Debussy could be considered the first modern composer. But those two works made the biggest splash from that pond. And while they may not be as well-loved as Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, they are widely loved enough to give the lie to the notion that “modern music” lost classical music’s audience. (All this is ancient history by now of course, with more to come, and known to everybody weighing in so far.)

    The “modernism” which Brett refers to, and initially specifies as “midcentury modernism”, is quite a different animal, the result of not only what Maya Beiser talked about, but also the first generation of composers brought up in the modern era, who possibly to their chagrin were too late to be part of the exciting times the previous generation had created.

    They all tried anyway, of course, in their various ways. From hardcore explorers like Xenakis on the one hand to (relative) tunesmiths like Leonard Bernstein and Ned Rorem on the other, the scene splintered into a spectrum of styles. For some reason the hardcore factions were considered the sexiest by the experts, and here I do agree that the result, lined up against concurrent attractive (if usually superficially so) alternatives in the pop music field, lost a lot of audience. The tunesmiths had their day in the concert hall too, of course, but like it or not, experts do have a lot of influence with the public through one means or another.

    We’re almost three generations on from the day when Boulez made his infamous esthetic judgement of early modernism, “Schoenberg is dead”. Minimalism has grown up from a reaction to the complexity of Boulez and his cohorts, to become popular and even acquire a patina. Most of the splinters from the old battles are still around in one form or another, and pre-modern styles are being re-thought as well. The spectrum is becoming a wash of color, with none dominant.

    I very much appreciate that Bob in his selections for March Music Moderne represents pretty much the entire wash, including historical, first-wave modernism – such as the Stravinskian theme last year and Bartok quartets and Satie-inspired tangos this year – especially since he has his own definite preferences that do lend the proceedings a certain tint, a result of synesthesia perhaps. That tint bursts into brilliance, love it or hate it, in his own Free Marz concerts. (Anybody who works as hard as he does to make it all happen deserves at least one soapbox to stand on!) I usually wind up doing both. Personally I wouldn’t want it any other way.

  5. bob priest says:

    Oh, lemme please clarify an aspect of MMM programing that might not be readily apparent to some.

    I completely stand behind all repertoire choices that appear on my own direct concerts/events. This year, these were:

    + the two late night film screenings @ Cinema 21
    + Metal Machine Music with Butoh dancers @ 3 Friends
    + the PDX Noir photo exhibit that is still up @ 3 Friends
    + Electric Marzena Land electro-acoustic program @ CMC
    + Free Marz String Trio “Marzian Chronicles” concert

    ALL other MMMings are predominantly curated by the individual performer(s) &/or group @ ear. Needless to say, some of these events are closer to my own core aesthetics than others. That said, I’m proud to be able to do my part in getting multiple styles up & across the footlights all over Global Village PDX.

    And, yes, Brett is right when he sez Phil Glass need not apply – EVER! So, shoot mmme now, if you must! Heck, shoot me again & again & again —- in full-on, nauseatingly zombie-churn, fill-‘er-up & overflow Glass style! :)))

    • Jack Gabel says:

      you make this irresistible:

      • from PDX, only the Portland Opera and PICA ever do apply

      • when his MONSTERS OF GRACE with RAW was done in Lincoln Hall some 15 years ago, PSU’s own award-winning, emeritus, composer laureate was heard to say, “He could use some lessons in voice leading from me.”

  6. Thank you Brett for writing this wonderful article documenting our burgeoning music scene! I especially appreciate your ability to be constructive in your criticism. I feel that there is a tendency in Portland of those who document the arts to fluff their writings with only praise and its refreshing to read something honest. Cheers, Patrick.

  7. I second Patrick’s comments. A lot of the writing I’ve seen about “new music” events either resorts to a simple play-by-play of an event. It’s good to see depth, and indeed some commentary, so my metaphorical hat is off to you, Brett.

    Being a composer myself, and having attended a few events (even dragging out my violin for the CPOP/ECCE Rzewski and “In C” jams), I have to say that I rather appreciated the aesthetic variety that was present not only MMM-wide, but in the individual events themselves. I have to give Bob and all the individual groups/efforts a lot of credit for creating an inclusive and diverse musical environment. Since Xenakis was brought up as an example, although I’m not a huge fan of his work (though I do rather like Eonta), I appreciated that it was on tap, so to speak, to give a fuller picture of the state of the art. I eagerly look forward to the fifth edition.

  8. Fred Hauptman says:

    I agree with much of Brett’s article, including some of the remarks about the Free Marz event, but the ranting about “modernism” demands a reply. Nobody can possibly say just what modernism really means at this point in time. Jeff went back to Le Sacre: why not the Eroica? Each stage of musical history adds vocabulary and resources which can be utilized and enjoyed by future generations. Your diatribe is much more political than musical. Shades of Soviet “formalism”. Let’s leave this sort of stuff to Fox News and keep politics out of music. The arts are what makes human beings great: politicians accomplish exactly the opposite. More light and less heat, please.

    • Maria Choban says:

      “I think it’s a lost art in this country — developing that narrative voice where readers connect with you as a human being. They want to see how you react individually to things. And if you think something is outrageous, and you write about it in a tone without outrage, then that’s just deception, you know?”

      The above was written by Matt Taibbi, who just left Rolling Stone after years of being one of the most honest and best and he never tempered his language or his heat!

    • Jeff Winslow says:

      So you’ll see our “modernism” and raise one “formalism” and Faux News to boot? 🙂

      I’m not sure who is supposed to have written a “diatribe” here – I’m a little nonplussed to think anyone could possibly apply that term to my laughably undetailed snapshot of western classical music history – but there is at least one very good reason to start modernism at Le Sacre et al rather than the Eroica: those works represented a break from roughly 300 year old common harmonic practice which the Eroica did not. (Rhythmic practice was also enormously enriched at the same time, thanks to an influx from ethnic musics and symbiosis with early jazz.) Also, though I’m much less sure about this, I don’t believe the term “modern music” was current in Beethoven’s time, but it was in the early 20th century. It seems to be less current today, more often replaced by “contemporary”, as “modern” slides into history.

      Yes, each new generation adds resources. But the “great generation”, the first modernists, added resources in harmony, rhythm and line which dwarfed the additions of a dozen generations, and which still play out today in such top living composers as Adés, Saariaho, Maxwell Davies, Salonen, the list goes on and on.

      The post-WWII generation, the midcentury moderns, did their damnedest, but their innovations don’t seem to be sticking nearly as well. The extended instrumental techniques developed at the time are used less and less (granted, it would be fairer to say “more and more judiciously”), and who today bothers to serialize rhythm or volume?

      At the Bloch Festival composers’ symposium in Newport (OR), I once heard Bernard Rands say (to the best of my recollection), “In the early 60’s we thought we knew how music should go. We were wrong.” No one with his background and accomplishments would ever say that about the 20’s. When someone with his authority doesn’t gloss over the issues and pretend that the immediate post WWII generation was just doing what every other generation of composers has done, why should we?

      As for today, who can say? Schoenberg’s imperialistic dreams of Germanic musical superiority may have crashed and burned long before he imagined, not least because of the unanticipated rise to power of people with a very different idea of “Germanic” than his own, but he was sure right about one thing. “contemporaries are not final judges, but are generally overruled by history”.

  9. Arts journalists should never confuse their personal tastes in artistic style with objective determinations of quality. In this case, I’m referring to the undeniable rejection by audiences (as judged by concert attendance, record sales, subsequent performances, and other criteria) of much of the music of a certain period and style I shorthandedly termed “midcentury modernism,” just for convenience’s sake. Regardless of my personal taste or that of anyone here, I saw the audience reaction at the concerts featuring Oregon composers and that at those (not just at this festival) featuring the midcentury mods, and that reaction made it clear which music connected better with listeners. That’s not to say one is better than the other, or that popularity is the sole criterion of quality, but it’s impossible to ignore the evidence of listeners voting with their feet (fleeing) and their hands (clapping) for one or the other, both here and over the years. However, when the great midcentury Modernist revival finally happens, and the crowds are lining up for Xenakis the way they do for Aaron Copland (some of whose early modernist music was actually pretty popular for its time), John Adams or, dare we say it, Mr. Glass, ArtsWatch will be the first to congratulate MMM on its prescience and faith in that music’s long-hidden popularity, despite decades of prior evidence to the contrary. As I said in the story, I’m glad there’s a place for it in the festival for its legions of fans.
    I love the passionate comments and feelings in this thread, and the fact that all this music matters so much to those who care about it shows that it does have some vitality. Keep the conversation going!

    • bob priest says:

      yes, agreed that this is a healthy conversation & i’m pleased to see it continue . . .

      as for xenakis, his music has considerably more followers in europe than here – especially in france.

      now, for one last time, what about this “ear/listener friendly” business? are you REALLY comfortable with such a ridiculously reductive, polarizing, alienating & black or white way of referring to such wide swaths of music?

      if so, so be it.

      i’ve attempted to make my case for how damaging i ultimately believe this stance is & will now leave it at that.

      it would be great if other folks weighed in on this matter. dang, sometimes these conversations feel terribly incestuous! :)))

Comments are closed.

Oregon ArtsWatch Archives