Muse:Forward preview: Portland new music salon debuts


Emilyi Poltorak's Alpha Beta will be performed at Classical Revolution PDX's Muse:Forward salon on Sunday.

Emyli Poltorak’s Alpha Beta will be performed at Muse:Forward on Sunday.


We are cursed to live in interesting times. Last year Portland witnessed a pretty dramatic growth spurt in successful informal accessible (yet high quality) local contemporary classical music events spurred on by local composers through organizations like ClassicalRevolutionPDX and Piano!PushPlay! Severe growing pains ensued, from a few members of the traditional classical music community within CRPDX becoming enraged to the point of a near-coup which ultimately resulted in a complete board-of-directors turnover, to suffocatingly huge crowds in performing spaces not designed for such.

The nearly ousted executive director of CRPDX, Christopher Corbell, himself a composer, found a neat solution. In early 2014 he created another organization, Muse:Forward, to continue nurturing the community of burgeoning composers/music creatives and the performers who wanted to hear and play their works, to defuse the anger of the CRPDX traditionalists and to alleviate the crowding at one of its monthly classical jam venues, northeast Portland cafe The Waypost.

Finally, an unobstructed open mic chamber-music-jam setting for music created by local living Portlanders, M:F differs from formal presenters such as Cascadia Composers or Third Angle New Music’s “New Ideas in Music” event because it happens monthly and it is not curated. Anyone can participate provided their thumb- or mud-wrestling skills can muscle them onto the stage.

Going beyond the parameters (whatever those are) of classical music (whatever that is), Corbell is inviting “more cross-fertilization among experimentalists, composers, improvisers, sound designers, electronic music makers and other performing artists.” This mash-up debuts at The Waypost, on Sunday, May 18 at 7 pm. Of course those like me who want to just listen, talk with the creators and performers, quaff a beer or two and eat carnitas tacos are also welcome.

The first hour will feature music by composers John Berendzen, a four time winner of Portland Drama Critics’ Circle awards for sound design who’s composed music for Portland’s Liminal Performance Group, and Emyli Poltorak, the young Portland State student star whose angry Alpha Beta was one of the highlights at Cascadia Composers Crazy Jane concert last November. The rest of the night is a free-for-all open mic, reserved for newly created local music, followed (or preceded) by audience/creator/performer kibbitzing.

Looking Forward

Muse:Forward emerges out of CRPDX, the mothership. Corbell took over CRPDX from founding executive director Mattie Kaiser, who migrated to Manhattan last year, April 2013. Thinking July 2013 would be a dead month for attendance, Corbell issued an invitation on the Google groups CRPDX board in June 2013 to local composers to write something for the July jam.

The response was overwhelming.The Waypost was so crowded that in the following August jam the owner temporarily took out the tables due to liability concerns. The audience age dropped by a generation and hair color went from earth tones to jewel tones to neon.

Corbell’s path led to growth in numbers and breadth at the chamber jams, with beat boxers duetting with cellists, accordions playing Bach preludes, local and regional composers regularly bringing in new works to be played followed by enthusiastic input from players and listeners from Josh Kreydatus’s form-busting Piano Quintet, where Kreydatus debuted as bashful conductor of his piece, to alto sax phenom Patrick McCulley’s forays into extended techniques frequently eliciting the loudest most enthusiastic response from the young audience.

It also brought in a new, excited and engaged audience outside the traditional music school denizens. Alternative, young to the point of necessitating a last call for minors at 8pm on jam nights, these “Portlandia” extras started cramming the place. And CRPDX musicians began spinning off their own groups and events while contributing heavily to exciting music startups, connecting them to each other and back to CRPDX, among them, Mitchell Falconer’s Spring Snow concert and Megan McGeorge’s Piano!PushPlay!, endeavoring to bring pianos and music outdoors so that access to playing and hearing music becomes truly more democratic.

Christopher Corbell. Photo: Gary Stallsworth.

Christopher Corbell. Photo: Gary Stallsworth.

An unlikely protagonist, the introverted Corbell initially found himself battling old guard Revolutionaries who could sense the revolution moving beyond the elite green beret few, to a democratic all who wanted to participate regardless of background training. Formal training in classical music is a fierce and false barrier to democratic participation. Still others who liked the Amateur Chamber Music Players (AMCP) model worried they were losing space previously dedicated to recreationally sight-reading centuries-old library literature.

Wanting to ensure growth on all fronts, Corbell tapped violist Grace Young, a fiercely loyal lover of sight-reading library literature and all things traditional who is also hip, charismatic and open to the new. She became the host of CRPDX chamber jams at the Waypost. The librarians seem to love her, judging from the enthusiastic responses to her queries on the Google groups site. Now Corbell had to find a home for the once underground local creatives who tasted appreciation and liked it!

“It was a blast to see young composers start making things happen at CRPDX chamber jams, and kind of a bummer to see so many traditionalists respond negatively to what was emerging,” Corbell  wrote. “I’m hoping these new music nights will protect the momentum of this scene.”

Looking around, Corbell observed niches of creatives, from Portland’s improv-based Creative Music Guild to the Contemporary Portland Orchestra Project, which eschews any reference to the word “classical” and assiduously promotes the connection of today’s audience to today’s contemporary composed music.

Thinking collaboratively, Corbell mused whether it was possible to put all these groups together under one roof and spawn a bigger talent pool, something beyond just the new music equivalent of ingenious but inward-looking Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, something that might possibly head in the direction of Apple. Corbell thinks Muse:Forward might be the vehicle to pull these niche groups together with the possibility of great things erupting.


Portland composer John Berendzen performs his music on a Robophone at Muse:Forward Sunday. Photo: Caldera Arts

Not just an open mic, M:F is a salon, an old-fashioned word that basically means expecting the audience to participate and talk about what they just heard with the creators and performers. . .something that started to happen last year at the CRPDX chamber jams. Muse:Forward, held on the third Sunday of every month at The Waypost should also alleviate the overcrowding of the traditional CRPDX chamber jams.

While I’m thrilled that everyone seems to be getting what they want out of this deal, I’m also concerned at the recalcitrance on both sides — the traditionalists who want to maintain their comfortable living room sight-reading or performance of library literature, AND the front end of the curve who want nothing to do with the word or scent of “classical.” Will ghettoizing new music and severing connection to the old have adverse consequences — depriving new music audiences of connection to the past/tradition, depriving library audiences of the sense of freshness of classical music as living tradition? Will we see audience growth in both venues (the traditional CRPDX jam and the M:F salon)? We’ll find out at 7 pm Sunday, May 18 at The Waypost, 3120 N. Williams Ave..

Pianist and teacher Maria Choban is OAW’s Oregon ArtsBitch.

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