Music in Small Spaces

Small-scale series bring new sounds closer to audiences

In the music world, most of the attention goes to the mega-venues: Keller Auditorium, Moda Center, Schnitzer Concert Hall, arena shows. Yet most of the creativity seems to happen in more intimate confines. Maybe it’s something to do with focus or informality or even lower ticket prices, but for me, cozy clubs, chapels, galleries, small auditoriums somehow make it easier to connect to what’s happening onstage.

That’s why I’ve cherished Music in Small Spaces, which for the past six years has presented new and unusual music in Beaverton and other towns on the west side of Portland’s West Hills (Tualatin Mountains), and Third Angle New Music’s Studio Series and Porch Music, which bring mostly new sounds to inner Southeast Portland’s Zoomtopia studios and the front porches of homes in a leafy old Northeast Portland neighborhood.


Alas, MiSS’s indefatigable majordomo, Judy Castle, has announced that last week’s concert, at Portland’s ironically not-so-small Village Baptist Church, will be the last in the series — a big loss for the West Side and for Oregon music in general. The final two performances, as well as Third Angle’s season-ending (but thankfully not series-ending) show last week show just why these spaces are so valuable. And while it won’t be in a small space, you will have the chance to see a reprise of the final MiSS show this Sunday in downtown Portland.


MiSS’s April 23 concert brought together two of Oregon’s most valuable instrumentalists. Eugene-based Koto virtuosa Mitsuki Dazai is the state’s primary exponent of the Japanese zither, while Ashland-based flutist Tessa Brinckman has long been one of Oregon’s most persuasive proponents and performers of contemporary music, especially by Oregon composers, including Portland composer Jack Gabel. His lovely Through a Gentle Rain, inspired by walks in a Portland park, opened the show with its seemingly incompatible mixture of American blues, contemporary classical and traditional Japanese music that somehow sounds delectably natural in Brinckman’s hands. Dazai used the technique of slapping the koto strings while Brinckman deployed two different flutes and piccolo. (It’s available on their scintillating North Pacific Music album Glass Sky by East-West Continuo.)

Dazai & Brinckman.

Dazai & Brinckman.

Like so many other recent Oregon new music shows, this one mixed words (specifically poetry) and music to good effect. (Unfortunately, I had to miss Sound of Late’s fisher poets-meet-new-music concert a few days later.) Brinckman proved to be an uncommonly engaging reader. Ichiro Higo’s Kangen Hisho occupied a darker emotional landscape than Gabel’s, in keeping with Ojibwe poet Heid Erdrich’s angry The Theft Outright (after Frost) about American injustice to its Native peoples.

Brinckman used flutter tonguing, long held notes and other techniques in J-pop musician Hiroshi Morikawa’s lyrical Time Goes By. And she employed multiple flutes again in Yuji Takahashi’s Horse’s Heads Were Towards Eternity, interpolating musical passages between stanzas of Emily Dickinson’s famous Because I Could Not Stop for Death, and somehow making it sound like a Japanese poem.

Dazai swished a wooden dowel over her koto’s things to evoke a windy sound in Australian composer Jim Franklin’s A Lattice of Winds, which made a fine match for 2014 MacArthur Fellow Terrance Hayes’s fiercely ardent, incantatory Wind in a Box. Sometimes rising from her stool and perching like a spider, stretching to reach the farthest extremes of her instrument, Dazai alternated jabbing phrases with swirling passages, with sections growing shorter and shorter to build momentum to the end. In the opening of John Kaizan Neptune’s 5+13=Prime Number, she damped and otherwise manipulated the strings to humorous effect, while Brinckman read Carl Sandburg’s poem about a character obsessed with numbers, before picking up the flute to engage in Indian-music like imitative duets with Dazai before the music grooved into a regular beat that brought the delightful concert home on a joyful note.

Fairy Tale Finale

The final MiSS concert featuring music by Cascadia Composers performed by The Mousai chamber ensemble opened with big Lisztian chords representing a forest that gave way to more delicate textures featuring the Baroque oboe d’amore representing the rising dawn illuminating nature’s beauties. Pretty persuasive even if you didn’t know the composer was an 8th grader — the extremely promising young Matthew Kaminski. Liz Nadela’s The Rose and the Amaranth interpolated lines from Aesop’s fable with Ann van Bever’s wistful oboe phrases. Flutist Janet Bebb and clarinetist Chris Cox took over for the second movement of John Bilotta’s Gen-ei no Mai (Dances of Illusions and Fleeting Visions), redolent of fluttering butterflies and placid meadows. The mood turned wistful with Thomas DeNicola’s Memories, which seemed to view the Edenic setting through a nostalgic, post-ejection lens. As different as they were, collectively, these pieces, and much of the rest of the program, suggested a style that might be called Northwest Pastoral — mostly gentle and even bucolic, but occasional, sometimes sudden darkening, like a storm charging in from the coast.

With the quiet rattle of clarinet keys (but no clarinet sound) Stacey Philipps’s dramatic Converge, Disperse began an unsettling shift in tone, led by a sparkling flute and piano duet that eventually erupted into more turbulent textures  involving all four instruments (plus a march rhythm, explosive chords, and a shout), like the ever-changing Columbia River that, according to the composer’s program note, inspired it. Another explicitly programmatic piece, Jan Mittelstaedt’s Tides, added English horn, piccolo and rainstick. The attractive music reflected the four movements’ titles (“Warm Ripples,” “Waves,” etc.) but using only one or two of them (as the band did with most of the other pieces) would have kept the pacing from slackening. And it would have kept the program short enough to dispense with the focus-sapping intermission.

The driving rhythms of Spirits of the Canyons, inspired by a hike through the magnificent Canyon de Chelly and an encounter there with a Native American flutist, recharged the show. Lisa Ann Marsh’s evocative piece, like many of the others here, naturally put the spotlight on Bebb’s flute and piccolo, but the quartet also fleshed out the sound with English horn, various percussion, and oboe d’amore along with the piano and oboe. Marsh’s alluring composition beautifully captured that wide open spaces tradition of music by Aaron Copland and his many successors.

Pounding piano chords in a darker Nadela Aesop fable setting, about a shipwrecked man, announced the second half, which continued with two movements from a piece by Scott Anthony Shell, a composer new to me. The surprise hit of the show, its lovely lyrical opening swerved abruptly and acerbically into more dangerous, even wild territory that drew enthusiastic applause.

Portland composer Ted Clifford’s skipping, bopping “Extroverted” movement from his Mood Swings delightfully summoned the feel (if not the actual style) of bebop, befitting the composer’s background in both jazz and contemporary classical music. The third movement of Mark Vigil’s rhythmically charged third piano sonata revealed (as have other recent works) a more muscular (though equally appealing) side to the Eugene composer’s usually lyrical style.

The steady rock beat and pop hooks of the closing deLIVErance continued Portland composer Mike Hsu’s fruitful cross-pollination of 1980s dance music styles with contemporary classical music. Hsu’s beat-driven music offers similarly broad appeal to Marsh’s, but with a more urban and contemporary vibe. Propelled by Bebb’s puffing out a bass line on the big bass flute, alternating with tambourine, Hsu’s piece ended one of the most entertaining chamber music concerts in memory on a buoyant note. Maybe because they’d expended so much energy in the preceding pieces, maybe because of a slight break to adjust the microphone, this performance felt a bit more ragged, less focused than the rest. Yet it apparently didn’t matter to the audience, which responded with the heartiest applause of an afternoon that was filled with enthusiastic responses from the MISS listeners.

The brief, wry modern fairy tale (involving themes of risk taking, self doubt and more) concocted and intoned between pieces by ArtsWatch contributor and Mousai pianist Maria Choban, signaled the musical changes in mood, turning each piece into a chapter of a narrative derived from the titles and moods of the compositions. The music dictated the story, the reverse of the usual process in which stories are set to music. Since each narrative interpolation amounted to only a sentence or three, and the whole thing was actually staged by a veteran Oregon theater director, Glen York, the crisp, charming narration really enhanced the performance, though it might have flowed even more seamlessly with a separate narrator/actor who didn’t have to back move back and forth from an instrument. (That should be solved with a narrator’s microphone at the piano when the program is repeated Sunday afternoon at Portland’s First Presbyterian Church.) Enhanced by the ensemble’s characteristic pinpoint precision, the music at all times occupied center stage, and the brisk pacing (with none of the usual dead time for resets between pieces and poor preparation that bog down most Portland classical performances) made this one of Cascadia’s best-ever shows.

Cascadia Composers deserve a bow. Photo: Troi Anderson.

Cascadia Composers deserve a bow. Photo: Troi Anderson.

And it’s these compositions that really deserve the spotlight. The composers took seriously the Cascadia call for scores’s injunction to write or submit music accessible to a general, even non-classical audience. Piquant touches of late 20th and early 21st century techniques ensured that no one would mistake most of the music for anything retro or elevator music, but the composers mostly succeeded in creating a program that sounded distinctively here and now, yet broadly appealing to anyone who loves music, not just classical music fans. It’s as though the score call gave the composers permission to write music that actually appeals to audiences, not just tenure committees and other composers besotted with experiments in novelty for its own sake rather than as expressive vehicles.

If Northwest composers can continue to write audience-friendly yet forward looking music like this, we could be seeing the emergence of a new style of contemporary classical music that can reach beyond the niche audience of new music aficionados. It’s a shame that they won’t be able to find it in the always rewarding Music in Small Spaces series anymore, so let’s hope that Judy Castle eventually brings something like it back in some form. Oregon and contemporary classical music need intimate spaces for this kind of broadly appealing new music, Oregon audiences deserve to hear it, and we’re lucky to have Cascadia Composers around to generate it.

Cascadia Invokes the Muses repeats this Sunday afternoon, May 22, at Portland’s First Presbyterian Church, 1200 SW Alder. Tickets at the door.

Dutch Treatment

The demise of MiSS leaves Third Angle New Music’s Studio Series as Portland’s most prominent intimate new music outlet. Its May 12 final installment at Zoomtopia featuring contemporary Dutch composers was a likably lighthearted affair, including cartoon imitation Dutch master paintings displayed in the lobby, characteristic orange chairs and plastic tulips onstage, a huge lighted aluminum foil covered mockup of a boombox, an opening piece featuring a hair dryer and a shrubbery, and, like the MiSS concerts, some terrific flute playing, this time by Sarah Tiedemann, who also wielded a mean hair dryer in Cathy Van Eck’s 2007 groene ruis, for a sounding tree. (They should repeat this along with one of John Cage’s works featuring a tuned cactus for a real green theme.) The whooshing sounds and inherent visual humor were fun for awhile, but like every other piece on the program, the novel idea outstayed its welcome once we got the point. The same problem dragged down Mayke Nas’s Anyone Can Do It, in which six silent performers sat in front of monitors and assumed various positions (dancing, frowning, etc.) presumably depending on what they (but not the audience) could see on the monitors. It’s funny. For the first three minutes. It went on much longer.

Third Angle's Ron Blessinger goes Dutch: Photo: Jacob Wade.

Third Angle’s Ron Blessinger goes Dutch: Photo: Jacob Wade.

With its squeaks and sawing tones, Michel van der AA’s extremely dissonant 2003 Memo for violin and portable cassette recorder felt as dated as its tech, despite Ron Blessinger’s fiercely concentrated playing. He gave an equally committed performance in Jacob TV’s brilliant Grab It! that I probably would have enjoyed more had I not heard Lindse Sullivan shred it on saxophone a couple years ago. The piece can be played on various instruments, and to my ear, a violin just can’t mount the kind of attacks that match its percussive vocal samples.

The most (relatively) conventional and successful piece, Ruben Naeff’s Wander & Wonder, engaged Tiedemann’s flute and Sergio Carreno’s xylophone, cymbal and drum in a tuneful, extended interlocking duet that was impressive for the flutist’s awesome breath control and stamina and the pair’s locked-in performance as the melody unspooled continuously. But though playful and danceable, its lacked much variety of tempo or other expression, or minimalism’s mesmerizing glacial change. As it wandered on and on and on, I wondered when it would end.

Tiedemann & friend. Photo: Jacob Wade.

Tiedemann & friend. Photo: Jacob Wade.

Third Angle’s publicity made much of the Dutch government’s support for this art, and certainly the arts deserve public support. But Holland reputedly teems with warehouses bursting with government funded paintings that no one wants and can’t be dumped, and I’ve heard enough self-indulgent, state-sponsored Dutch jazz (along with, granted, some that’s actually appealing) to wonder whether high-concept art like this and other subsidized emissions too often remain content to come up with a cool concept — enough to get a grant — without doing the hard work of keeping it interesting and appealing over the course of more than a few minutes.

Still, it was nice to get a taste of another musical tradition rarely heard around here, and Zoomtopia was the ideal place to present it. Third Angle’s Studio Series is a much niche-ier affair than MiSS (which reached out to families and kids) ever was, and there’s always room for such  specialized interest shows; as recent Third Angle guest flutist Claire Chase noted during her Portland visit, small spaces are ideal for music that doesn’t pretend to seek more than small audiences. Third Angle brings it off brilliantly: hour-long, no-intermission performances, informal chat and chew afterwards for those who care to stay, engaging visual elements, flexible and intimate space. I hope other groups will follow the studio series’s lead, and long may it wave. But I also hope Oregon can spawn more series something like Music in Small Spaces, which can bring broadly appealing contemporary classical and world music to wider audiences.

Third Angle New Music’s Porch Music is June 18 in Portland’s Irvington neighborhood.

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Want to learn more about contemporary Oregon classical music? Check out Oregon ComposersWatch.

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