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Music Reviews: Chance Encounters

By Brett Campbell
October 24, 2012
Music, Visual Art

The Late Now’s John Cage Centenary Tribute

Walking into Pacific Northwest College of Art’s Commons on Saturday, you might have beheld the following. A quartet of crimson garbed saxophonists (the jazz-new music female foursome Quadraphonnes) played periodically a 1991 work, Four5. Behind a screen and before a video camera, choreographer Linda Austin, clad in an orange and yellow dress, hurled herself against a wall, reclined, chanted, while her image was projected on the front of the screen. (Austin was “realizing” New York poet Jackson Mac Low’s 1964 “The Pronouns,” cryptic one-word instructions randomly drawn from a basic English word list on a deck of cards.) On screen, a woman’s visage (Brussels’ Bas Schevers) loomed while she played, and didn’t play, the flute. A bearded man coaxed sounds from a vintage tape recorder, while another bearded poet (David Abel) quietly performed an original poem.

Dissected piano

Then again, you might have experienced other events in The Late Now’s John Cage Centenary Special, depending on when you arrived and where you were standing, walking, listening, and looking. You might have heard Derek Ecklund’s sound environment, inspired by a similar Cage piece, involving field recordings of the Columbia River and environs. You might have sat on a bench made of piano keys and plucked or rubbed the strings of a standing piano soundboard with various art and kitchen utensils — a “dissected piano sculpture” that audience members and the artists (Zack Kosta, Reese Kruse, Adam Updyke and Ryan Zachary) played. Or spotted poet James Yeary wandering about, reading more Mac Low stanzas. Or heard odd sounds contrived by sound artists Dann Green, Doug Theriault, and Justin Smith, or seen other videos involving, say, Tilburg street life (by Dutch artist Koen Dijkman), or heard a Skyped-from-Seattle performance of percussive wordplay by touring Dutch performance artist Jaap Blonk, or encountered a quartet of dancers rolling and gesturing and otherwise moving their bodies throughout the cavernous space, among the dozens of denizens gazing bemusedly or amusedly around, trying to figure out what was happening and where to look.

Or perhaps you marveled or puzzled over any number of other sounds, movements, images and combinations thereof, perhaps abetted by a sketchy program that listed the performances and the works happening around you, or by explanations and discussions led by chief TLN instigator Leo Daedalus (who reprised an earlier performance of Cage’s famous silent piece as a standup comedy monologue) and co-host Alex Reagan, who sat next to a gong and occasionally poured and sipped brown liquid from what appeared to be a liquor bottle. TLN’s customary talk show spoof, in which audience volunteers were randomly chosen to read Cage works and artists briefly talked about their work and Cage’s influence, provided the only non random element amid the circus atmosphere, a solitary point of coherence.

Until, that is, the culminating event, when Daedalus called for quiet, the lights dimmed, and dozens of wired, helium filled white Mylar balloons floated in, guided by creators Charles Buckingham and Alex Norman, who passed them to audience members who then walked them, tethered, around the central area. One by one, the colored bulbs inside them lit up, and then each briefly flared and fizzled, followed by wisps smoke.

Throughout this last 15 minutes, the Commons, which had buzzed for the previous hour and half with music, random sounds, conversation, announcements from the hosts, poetry readings, and more, grew strangely hushed — a fittingly anticlimactic climax to a mostly non linear event. Then the colored lights faded, the house lights rose, Daedalus thanked everyone and sounded the gong. Everyone applauded. The Cagean circus was over.

Arts lovers who prize thematic development and linearity would likely have found only frustration amid the crazy concatenation of simultaneous events. And, as in FearNoMusic’s Cage tribute last February, there’s a legitimate question whether the composer himself would have wanted some of his music, particularly the pre-aleatoric works like “The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs” presented in a way that made it difficult to focus on their individual sounds, which were very important to him.

Yet this jamboree also managed to capture its honoree’s genial, open minded spirit while channeling his philosophy of chance as a fuel for creativity. And amid the delightful silliness and half baked concepts,  moments of magic flared and fizzled like the non-incendiary balloons (if only they’d used hydrogen instead of helium), most often during unexpected collisions of disparate sights, sounds and ideas. It was sort of like wandering through an avant garde fun house. Maybe it should happen every Halloween?

Linda Hutchins at the Portland Building

Another Streak in the Wall

For municipal workers going to or returning from lunch Monday and Tuesday, another chance encounter occurred in the Portland building, where they might have seen a slim woman reaching up a white wall as far as she could, then — ssshhhak! — whipping her fingers down the wall, silver thimbles leaving shiny grey streaks on the surface. Over and over again, Portland visual artist Linda Hutchins scratched out simple patterns, making grooves in three distinct patterns and creating an audible rhythmic groove as her silvered thimbles scraped the wall.

The performances (there’s one more Wednesday, October 24, at noon) were part of Hutchins’s drawing performance, “Apart, Along, Together,” part of the regular series of installations curated by the Regional Arts and Culture Council at the city office building. She draws for three minutes at a time, six times during the hour, and chats with anyone who’s there in between. The drawings will be up through November 16, after which she’ll paint over her ephemeral creation.

If you just saw the Zen like simplicity of Hutchins’ drawings, like most of her work, it would probably engender feelings of tranquility, spaciousness. But seeing and hearing them created with such real physicality, almost violence (she had to wear earplugs to shield herself from the loud scraping noises in the resonant space) made me aware of the energy that went into their creation, and that seemed to emerge from them even after she stepped away. You’d expect that vibrancy in, say, a wild Jackson Pollock action painting, but the contrast between Hutchins’s minimalist lines and her rhythmic exertions added a dimension to the work she was making.

As she worked, Hutchins naturally found a regular beat, as would someone running or swimming or doing other exercise. At an earlier performance last spring, she told me that focusing on the rhythms she was making almost distracted her from the image she was crafting. A composer friend, in fact, is working on a piece that uses her percussive scrapes along with flute and piano. The drawings themselves are worthwhile, of course, but experiencing the process that created them in media res provided an intriguing artful experience of another kind.

Carrie Bye points out unexpected art.

The City as Museum

One of the riches of living in a culturally vibrant city is the opportunity to find art in unexpected places. Last Friday, I attended a tour of downtown art spaces led by Portland’s Carye Bye, author of “Hidden Portland” and leader of many bike tours to some of the city’s odder art museums, like the Church of Elvis and the Peculiarium. This walking tour never left the Cultural District at the southern end of downtown, where I’ve lived for six years, yet even I found out about various museums I hadn’t known about, like the Wells Fargo museum, an exhibit (including a very funny building directory) on the second floor of the same Portland Building where Hutchins went up against the walls, and various other surprises along with the usual suspects such as the Portland Art Museum and Oregon Historical Society. I recommend Bye’s tour, and other sponsored by the wholly admirable Dill Pickle Club, which teaches us all about our community.

The art museum’s Whitsell Auditorium regularly hosts art films sponsored by the Northwest Film Center, including the Reel Music Festival that’s going on now, and that showed filmmaker Eva Soltes’s documentary about the Portland born composer Lou Harrison last week. But it also hosts recitals by the Portland Opera’s studio artists, and last month, I saw soprano Lindsay Ohse sing music of Handel, Schubert (accompanied by Todd Kuhns’s sweetly nuanced clarinet), Strauss and more, including a sassy showstopper by Leo Delibes (“The Girls of Cadiz”), a bleaker Britten song cycle (“On This Island”) and some fascinating rarities by Alberto Ginastera, topped off by a slightly too operatic yet still poignant “Over the Rainbow.”

Teeming with commendably non-standard repertoire, the fascinating program seemed designed to show off the singer’s versatility, and displayed Ohse’s confident theatrical delivery and expressive face and body. Ably accompanied by pianist Michelle Alexander, she even took risks, a couple of times venturing into a lower range where she wasn’t quite as solid, but her winning manner proved thoroughly persuasive. She’s a potential star.

LIndsay Ohse

Zen Funk

I did hear some music in traditional music venues last week. At Northwest Portland’s Mission Theater, the Swiss jazzer Nik Bartsch brought his splendidly subtle Ronin ensemble back to Portland after a triumphant performance at last year’s Portland Jazz Festival. (Read my interview with him.) Influenced by Japanese esthetics and propelled by funk grooves, Bartsch’s spare, minimal lines unfolded over long, gradually evolving cycles — a clear debt to minimalism. He revels in the low end of the spectrum, worrying a left-hand riff on acoustic piano while playing a simple melody in the middle of an electric keyboard with his right, and sometimes reaching into the piano to pluck and strike the strings directly for percussive effect, a la Cage and his mentor, Henry Cowell. Bass clarinetist Sha and bassist Bjorn Meyer contributed to the deep, low grooves. Harmonic changes followed structural shifts in the music and even the changes in the low lighting, which favored shadowy blues and purples.

Bartsch is one of many creative young European jazzers the PDX Jazz Festival has brought to town in recent years. They’re showing how to brew jazz, postclassical music, and even pop sounds into a potent mixture that appeals to fans of many different kinds of music.

Baroque Masterpiece

My favorite musical moment last week — and easily one of the grandest of the year — happened just a couple blocks away in one of Portland’s most traditional of musical venues. Trinity Episcopal Cathedral hosted the Seattle ensemble Pacific MusicWorks in a performance of the first great Baroque breakthrough, Claudio Monteverdi’s magnificent “Vespers of the Blessed Virgin 1610.” After a glorious opening sparked by ancient sackbuts (proto-trombones) and cornettos, PMW’s nine spirited singers combined in various solos, duos, quartets, and other ensembles through various psalms and concertos, never faltering in those spiraling, melismatic melodies despite the fact that they were carrying the load without the support of the massive choirs often used to perform this great piece. Even including the horns, the entire complement of instrumentalists numbered barely more than a dozen, including Stubbs (recently returned to his hometown after winning renown for his performances with major European early music ensembles over the past three decades) on lute in small ensemble passages when he wasn’t conducting the full orchestra.

Pacific MusicWorks’ Charles Robert Stephens, bass;
Joanna Blendulf, cello; Joseph Adam, organ.

I was happy to see the program acknowledge Stubbs’s debt to conductor and musicologist Joshua Rifkin, who in the 1980s was often ridiculed for his then-controversial, historically informed ideas about performing big choral works with stripped down forces, often one-to-a-part. Today, most informed conductors perform this music with much smaller forces than a generation or three ago — as the composers intended. And when those performers are as expert and accomplished as these, the results are magically transparent without losing power. Stubbs clearly cast his singers so that their different vocal textures would make each musical line clear, never blending into the mush that can result when using inauthentically larger forces. The result: a rich, powerful tapestry of glorious sound, and a major event in Portland classical music. Portland Baroque Orchestra, venturing into the presenting business, brought PMW down I5 and was rewarded with a nearly full cathedral. As long as they’re going to the trouble to stage these fabulous Baroque operas, oratorios, and choral orchestral masterpieces in Seattle, PMW might as well reprise them down the road apiece. Let’s hope this is only the first of many visits.

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