Oregon new music recordings 2016: Small beauties

Some of Oregon's most intriguing 2016 releases apply big ideas to small-scale compositions

The Warbler Sings, Paul Safar
Composer/pianist Safar had already forged a reputation as one of Eugene’s most intrepid musicians in the classical tradition, thanks in part to his years of concerts and festival appearances via Cherry Blossom Productions, the company he set up with his partner, singer Nancy Wood. His reputation spread statewide thanks to his many appearances in Cascadia Composers concerts, then his 2013 Composer of the Year Award from Oregon Music Teachers Association, which resulted in the commission for his 2016 CD’s title track. That airy, seven-part setting of haikus by the famed Japanese poet Basho finds a unique place between jazz (especially in trumpeter Dave Bender’s trumpet lines and bassist Nathan Waddell’s interjections), classical music (Wood’s elusive, evocative vocal melodies), and Japanese music (spare, almost austere atmosphere of asymmetric abstraction evident in Safar’s pianistic sprinkles).

More birds flutter through a pretty pair of short, solo piano intermezzi, “Geese in the Moonlight” and “Dawn, Singular Heron,” joining other denizens of nature: the Middle Eastern cello / dumbek / zills trio “Cat on a Wire”; the playfully ominous “The Spider,” and the narrated fable “Moonfish” (both featuring Wood). Waves sparkle and heave, via Safar’s piano and Woods’s lovely vocals in the closing “Ocean.” These and the other concise, tuneful tracks should appeal to a wide range of listeners, not just classical fans. Most have highlighted Cascadia concerts over the past few years, and there’s no substitute for seeing an electrifying performer like Wood live, but this diverse recording stands on its own as one of the most enjoyable contemporary Oregon classical music releases of the last decade.

Invisible Light, Delgani Quartet
Safar’s music also graces the debut release from Eugene’s Delgani String Quartet, which in under two years has zoomed to prominence in the Willamette Valley and beyond. Their collaboration with another Eugene based artist, actor Ricke Birran, on Safar’s four settings of music from classic literary sources ranges from a gripping, over-the-top reading from The Pied Piper of Hamelin; an antic take on Lewis Carroll’s The Walrus and the Carpenter, an ominous percussive jungle chant to William Blake’s “The Tyger”; and an incantatory Satanic soliloquy from Milton’s Paradise Lost.

Maybe their experience in historically informed performance practice helped the ensemble embrace the ancient, Middle Eastern spirit of Portland-born composer Lou Harrison’s gravely beautiful 1978 String Quartet Set (written for Canada’s Orford Quartet and first recorded by the Kronos Quartet), which relies on the Pythagorean (a/k/a ditone) tuning used in the millennium before the Renaissance in Europe and the Middle East as well as Turkish and French baroque forms. University of Oregon prof Terry McQuilken’s scintillating title cut is based on the music of a more recent source: an early 19th century shape-note hymn, evolving into a tuneful suite that passes through sections touched by jazz, contemporary classical and even medieval influences.

Trundlebox, RP Collier
Another splendid summary of an Oregon composer’s recent work, the low-profile Portland composer’s 71 (!) track compilation covers a decade and a half of recordings of music made on Collier’s self-built “lamellaphones,” described by Collier as  “made from a metal clamshell box with hairpin tines attached to a flat metal dish resonator,” which resemble the zingy African mbira/kalimba or so called “thumb piano,” electrically amplified and transformed, then looped and otherwise processed.

One of Collier’s lamellophones.

With such a quantity and variety of sounds and recording techniques, this isn’t a meant to be a coherent statement, more an overview of fascinatingly varied soundscapes that sometimes resemble southern African music, sometimes like the music of another idiosyncratic instrument builder/composer, Harry Partch, sometimes various species of minimalism, sometimes like Keith Jarrett’s experiment in playing various global instruments, sometimes like nothing else. These fascinating miniatures are sampled in small doses.

 social sounds, Catherine Lee
You might think a solo album by an oboist would grow a little texturally tedious, but Lee actually plays several related instruments and uses electronics and the stylistic differences among the five 21st century composers to present a relatively broad sonic spectrum, and she has the chops to make it all sound good.

I’ve written admiringly here of Lee’s earlier performances of Emily Doolitle’s plaintive, haunting Social Sounds from whales at Night for oboe d’amore and tape in recent live performances. Dorothy Chang’s Still uses little melodic and timbral filigrees to ornament a placid core melody, sometimes reminiscent of the traditional Chinese dizhi flute, though not as shrill, and here conjuring more contemplative mood. Another solo oboe piece, Tawnie Olson’s Plainsong, finds a similar mood from very different sources: medieval sacred chant.

Lee created her own whimsical a tiny dance to accompany a 2008 installment of Portland’s ever-popular Ten Tiny Dances, and it charms even without the movements, and waterfall, that inspired it. The longest track, Jérôme Blais’s Rafales, was inspired by coastal winds, allows improvisation (so no two performances are identical), and is inflected by both Lee’s dancing while playing (as the score instructs, though presumably that was more for live performances), and a resonating piano whose sustain pedal is depressed throughout the performance. It affords Lee room to cut loose both tonally and melodically, and she takes full advantage, and though it drags a bit, Lee’s firm tone and nuanced dynamics and phrasing add depth, here and throughout this sonorous solo album.

Dynamic Duos

4+1, XX Digitus Duo
The liner notes for the splendid, unusual debut CD by Portland pianists Maria Garcia and Momoko Muramatsu don’t specify the title’s provenance. Does it refer to the four dead and one living composer whose music is represented on the recording? The piano duo’s four hands and single spirit? Probably neither, but both nevertheless apply. The recent Oregon immigrants, who’ve enriched the Portland classical music scene over the past couple years by showcasing two-piano and four-hand piano music seldom heard otherwise, here contribute rarely heard and quite varied music by 19th– and 20th century Latin American composers.

Puerto Rico’s Juan Morel Campos’s habanera-spiced Four Dances sound like Gottschalk with a Spanish accent, contrasting with Argentina’s Carlos Guastavino’s lovely, poignant The Dove was Mistaken. Panamanian Roque Cordero’s 1954 Duo reflects the 12-tone postwar modernist sounds then coming to the fore in North America.

The longest single track is the most familiar to most classical listeners, Darius Milhaud’s bubbly The Ox on the Roof, and even though its composer was French, he too drew on music of Latin America — specifically Brazil, where he was posted  as a diplomat for two years in the 1910s — for his rollicking, polytonal 1919 score to a Jean Cocteau Dada pantomime.

The one oddball track reflects XXDD’s other priority besides Latin American music: music by Oregon composers. Portland State University prof Ken Selden wrote his three piquant Dialogues for the duo last year, playfully including passages that force them to contort themselves around each other while sharing a keyboard, maybe underlining the personal chemistry and artistry he spotted in them. You’d better like your partner if you wanna engage in this dialogue!

Beneath a Canopy of Angels…a River of StarsPost-Haste Reed Duo
The unlikely combination of bassoon and saxophones (sometimes with electronic enhancement) makes a surprisingly diverse and intriguing combo on this release by the duo of Sean Fredenburg and Javier Rodriguez. It’s another set of mostly miniatures that seems intended to display both the variety and virtuosity the Portland-based pair is capable of, as evident by the five different composers involved: Louis Andriessen, Simon Hutchinson, Ethan Wickman, album producer Lanier Sammons, Chamber Music Northwest veteran John Steinmetz. Some tracks are propelled by pulses (sometimes but not always minimalist inspired), some tend toward limning textures and atmospherics, others lean a little jazzy (though not necessarily improvised) or consciously classical/baroque, and charmingly lyrical. Taken as a whole, they show the potential in this unusual instrumental combo.

Caballito Negro, Songlines
Ashland flutist Tessa Brinckman keeps finding new horizons for her half dozen flutes of different flavors (including contrabass and Baroque). A frequent performer at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, the New Zealand native  teamed up with Southern Oregon University percussionist and prof Terry Longshore in a duo that favors ear-friendly music for flutes, marimba, vibes and other global percussion like tabla. Their colorful Songlines EP includes revered LA percussion master and composer William Kraft’s jazzy/impressionist Encounters XVI (for flute, marimba, vibes and percussion), which the duo premiered; David P. Jones’ Johannesburg-jazzy three-movement Music For South Africa; Ivan Trevino’s groovy, Turkmenistan-tinged This is Like Jazz!

On an Overgrown Path, Lyrical Strings Duo
When violinist Lucie Zálešáková was growing up in Prague, her family’s home resounded with the recorded music of her mother’s favorite composer, Leoš Janáček. Her affection for that music warms her second album with classical guitarist Stephen Osserman; its pellucid arrangements of Janáček’s famous piano suite gives this beautiful album its title. Their heartfelt, sometimes romantic though never sentimental performances of other Eastern European piano, vocal and chamber music by Janacek, Martinu, Wieniawski and Lysenko make this one of the loveliest Oregon recordings I heard this year, which is why it’s mentioned here despite lacking new music.

Fakebook, Oregon Guitar Quartet
Speaking of ingenious arrangements, OGQ’s often revelatory arrangements by the group’s founder, former Portland State prof Bryan Johanson, constitute a lasting contribution to music, bringing jazz and orchestral combinations to the surprisingly sympathetic ensemble of four guitars. The instrument has always been one of music’s most versatile, able to play chords and solo lines, and adding the richness and range of multiple acoustic instruments provides a much fuller sound than you’d expect, including percussing the instrument body like a drum on Luis Bonfa’s closing “Orfeu” from Black Orpheus, complete with “drum solo.” Precisely played and recorded, the repertoire on this ranges from jazz (Brubeck, Bill Evans) to classical (Mozart, Shostakovich,  Offenbach, Tchaikovsky) and in between (Gershwin). The move to guitars, at least in this recording, usually has the effect of making the music feel more laid back, folkier, and squarer. While fans of the originals may appreciate the move to a quite different medium, as with many (but not all — see Turtle Island or Ethel) classical string quartets, they may also miss the swing, sway and speed largely absent from these careful, sometimes stolid takes. I’d love to hear a quartet of real jazz guitarists try out Johanson’s sweet arrangements.

Breath of FireAndrew Durkin
Best known for his theatrical, Ellngton-meets-Zappa, 15 member PDX/SoCal big band Industrial Jazz Group, which has released six albums and toured the world, the LA-turned-Portland self-described “hack composer and pseudo intellectual” has also scored film and stage works. More recently, Durkin earned a doctorate in English lit, moved to Portland, wrote a book about music (Decomposition: A Music Manifesto), started a family, composed a new piece of music for six wind players for the atrium of Portland Center Stage, Black and Blue Skies, which premiered before performances of “Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin. Now, Portland Jazz Composers label has released the pianist-composer’s first album in eight years, whose breezy, Fender Rhodes-fueled funk/jazz/rock is to IJG’s flashy, sometimes parodic avant garde party music as his laid back new Portland environs are to Durkin’s erstwhile LA glitz and gridlock.

Somewhere I have never traveled: Chamber music of Bonnie Miksch performed by fEARnoMUSIC.
Read my ArtsWatch profile of Miksch, which contains detailed descriptions of the Portland composer’s music. Listening to it again months later, I can attest that the music not only holds up — it’s even better, more richly emotionally expressive than I remembered. There are some terrific albums on this list, and several that promise future glories, but if you want to try a single album of 21st century contemporary Oregon classical music, I’d unhesitatingly recommend this one. But with so many fine homegrown releases out there — and this roundup presents only a smattering of this year’s bounty — why stop with only one?

What other Oregon music albums rocked your world this year? Please recommend in the comments section below.

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