Oregon Rites of Spring 1: Drums along the Pacific

Powered by percussion, the West Coast's adventurous musical legacy continues in spring Oregon concerts.

New York has long snagged all the attention as the creative center of American music. But a quintessential New Yorker (from The New Yorker, no less) reminded us recently that much of the impulse for American music’s creativity originated right here on the West Coast. As I explained a few years ago, “a little attention to history reveals that many, if not most, of America’s major postwar musical innovations actually originated here on the West Coast and spread east in a kind of reverse migration that energized NYC, rather than vice versa.”

This spring’s and summer Oregon concert seasons have sparkled with new music by West Coast and other American composers. One of those shows established a context that helps explain West Coast music’s trailblazing creativity, and several others revealed how it’s continuing now in 21st century Oregon. Even as the region suffers from historic drought, its musical wellsprings continue to flow abundantly.

Cascadia Composers percussion concert.

Cascadia Composers percussion concert.

I’ve never seen such a profusion of Oregon music over so long a stretch, so I attended as many concerts as possible (though I missed several that included contemporary Oregon music) to see what this snapshot revealed about contemporary classical music in Oregon 2015. I initially planned to end the survey in April — but the Oregon music just kept pouring forth, as new concerts were announced that also featured works by Oregon composers. That continuing abundance alone is a most welcome sign for anyone who cherishes homegrown music. But it also reveals some neglected areas still in need of exploration.

In this first of a three part series, we’ll look at concerts that perpetuated Harrison and Cage’s West Coast percussion legacy. Part 2 covers concerts that sprinkled Oregon music among sounds that originated elsewhere, and the third installment focuses on concerts devoted to showcasing the work of one Oregon composer, and a wrap up that draws some conclusions based on this rich spring sampling of Oregon contemporary classical music.

West Coast Wellsprings

If you had to pick a single principal source for American new musical innovation, it’d be composer/publisher/mentor Henry Cowell, born in what’s now Silicon Valley. His proteges Lou Harrison (who called him “the central switchboard for two or three generations of American composers” and John Cage (who said he was the “open sesame” of American music) both drew on Cowell’s ideas to pioneer percussion music, world music, and even a broader notion of what music could be.

Ross helped curate and participated in a concert of music of all three West Coasters presented by Third Angle New Music at Portland’s Alberta Rose Theater, and you could hear the echoes of Cowell’s originality stretching across the 20th century, from the tuning experiments of his Quartet Euphometric (which might have helped spawn the minimalism born a generation later in the music of West Coasters Lamont Young (Montana and Los Angeles) and Terry Riley (central California), both represented on Third Angle’s program. Harrison is often credited as the godfather of the world music movement, but he always pointed to Cowell’s interest in Asian music as his own inspiration. Cage’s famous chance experiments and piano preparations, too, trace their origins to Cowell’s ideas and music.

Cage, Cowell, and Harrison wound up living a few blocks apart in Greenwich Village in the early 1940s, which obscured the fact that all three hailed from the West Coast; Cage from Los Angeles, and Harrison from Portland. The same thing happened with Young and Riley (who briefly moved to New York and was part of the scene that birthed the Velvet Underground); Cage’s partner Merce Cunningham came from Western Washington, John Luther Adams was educated at Cal Arts and spent most of his creative life in Alaska before moving to New York recently, and even Bang on a Can’s David Lang hails from LA and studied at Stanford before moving to New York, which of course garners all the credit for innovations that really began in the experimental attitudes common in the wide-open early 20th century West Coast that was unconstrained by traditional thinking. (Cowell’s parents were Freethinkers, Cage’s dad an inventor, etc.). Harrison and Riley returned to their native West Coast after a few years back East; the most iconoclastic of all, the DIY instrument builder and tuning experimenter Harry Partch, never really left the West.

New Yorker writer Alex Ross joined Third Angle at Alberta Rose Theatre.

New Yorker writer Alex Ross joined Third Angle at Alberta Rose Theatre.

Third Angle’s program audibly illustrated West Coast creativity; works like Cage’s Imaginary Landscape and Harrison’s friend Partch’s music still sounded fresh and forward thinking, without devolving into the often emotionally arid conceptualism that ultimately distanced the later music of Cage and his so-called New York school (along with the East Coast academic modernists who dominated the latter half of the 20th century’s classical composition) from broader audiences.

The value of the West Coast’s experimental attitude really struck me when I attended a concert a few days later of some of the earliest American music ever composed. Portland’s early music ensemble Musica Maestrale gave a delightful performance of music written in the mid-18th century by one Thomas Bacon that sounded like second-rate Handel, as the performers freely admitted. It didn’t keep the show from being a lot of unpretentious fun, but it also reminded me that (with one major exception, Charles Ives, whose forward looking music was ignored by East Coast audiences until Cowell, Harrison and others popularized it decades later) until confident West Coast visionaries like Cowell came along, too many Americans looked East to Europe for cultural validation for at least the next century and a half, just as so many now look east to NYC.

Lou Harrison (l) and John Cage composed for and directed a pioneering percussion ensemble.

Lou Harrison (l) and John Cage composed for and directed a pioneering percussion ensemble in the late 1930s and early ’40s.

“During the last two years an extraordinary interest in percussion music has developed on the Pacific coast. In Seattle, San Francisco, Oakland, Los Angeles, orchestras have been formed to play music for percussion instruments alone. They are directed chiefly by two young Western composers, John Cage and Lou Harrison, who have concocted innumerable creations for these instruments….This year, Seattle came down and joined San Francisco…. Seventeen “percussors” made up the orchestra.
— Henry Cowell, “Drums Along the Pacific” (1942)

One of the West Coast’s great musical legacies is music for percussion ensemble. Influenced by Asian music, Cowell used percussion in the early 1930s and encouraged his young proteges Harrison and Cage to form ensembles that used instruments gleaned from junkyards (like tuned  brake drums and flower pots) and Chinatown antique stores, rather than expensive orchestra instruments that required expensive trained musicians to play. Cage and Harrison’s famous San Francisco (and later Seattle and other West Coast cities, when they toured) percussion concerts constituted some of America’s original DIY music, the forebear of all those garage bands that have populated indie rock for decades now.

It’s doubtful that percussion-propelled music would have grown so prominent so quickly without Harrison and Cage’s band (whose players consisted of dancers — good at counting beats — and composers), so in a sense, Cascadia Composers’ April 19 concert at Portland’s Temple Baptist Church and Portland Percussion Group’s May 9 Old Church performance are part of their legacy. Percussionists Florian Conzetti and Ian Kerr starred in the former, and led off with a spare, simple duet by Timothy Arliss O’Brien that featured some bowed marimba.

Nancy Wood’s lovely, unaffected singing graced David Bernstein’s dramatic Whispers of the Lakota, matching the emotional content of the children’s affecting poetry, by turns melancholy, hopeful, and angry.

After a moody opening featuring bowed vibes, piano and trombone, Nicholas Yandell’s Wide-eyed in the Neon Light drifted into a jazzier sound without ever settling into a conventional groove.

Along with Conzetti’s contributions, Mark Vigil’s atmospheric I Have Cut Bamboo featured wispy flute and viola blended sweetly with Catherine Olson’s soprano voice and Asya Gulua strumming the strings inside the piano.

Another effective piece, Art Resnick’s 4 Phases paired pianist Dianne Davies with live painter Lang Schwartzwald, who painted up a blue streak — and also yellow, green, orange, and more lines and smears, moving left to right in response to the musical line. Live painting is common in pop music these days, but it, too, can be traced back to Cage and his 1940s-50s happenings involving visual artist buddies like Robert Rauschenberg.

Harrison’s melodic world music legacy, along with the Middle Eastern modes of another Northwest composer (at least in his latter years), Alan Hovhaness, informed I’lana Cotton’s sultry RagaPlay, an initially beguiling composition that stretched on too long for its material — a rare exception to the concision that was one of this concert’s real attractions. I definitely want to hear more of Cotton’s music, though. I always look forward to Lisa Ann Marsh’s, and her “In Next Spring” evinced a superficially similar feel, weaving a supple fabric of flute and cello lines.

Tristan Bliss’s brash, episodic This is the Night & All its Falling Stars added some needed dramatic contrasts in dynamics and texture to a generally well-behaved lineup, as did the real wild card: Paul Safar’s unexpectedly whimsical Within Earshot, which intricately interwove found / overheard speech fragments, singing, percussion, wind instrument and a few guitar strums into a delightful collage with real integrity. It sounded nothing like Safar’s music I’ve heard, and I really admire him for taking such a leap — especially when it succeeded so entertainingly.

The stirring closing number, Liz Nedela’s jazzy Piano Quartal, kept the momentum going, with bongos and plucked bass laying down a pulse in the first movement, a gentle bowed bass joining marimba, vibes and piano in the second, and a propulsive concluding movement to put an exclamation point on one of Cascadia’s best shows, much of whose music could really appeal to non-classical listeners. I didn’t list the names of the players or analyze the music closely because you can get that info and hear the music yourself in the handy accompanying videos.

Powered by Percussion

Three quarters of a century after Harrison and Cage established the modern model of a percussion concert, Portland Percussion Group somehow managed to lure a few dozen listeners indoors on a warm summery early May Saturday afternoon. The quartet started off with a classic, French composer Andre Jolivet’s 1966 Suite for Flute and Percussion. After the assertive opening movement, Sophia Tegart’s simple flute melody floating over soft cymbals and muffled mallets caressed by muffled mallets created an aura of mystery. A snare drum and slap sticks lent a martial quality to the third movement, which snapped to a surprise halt before Tegart’s haunting flute solo joined various shakers, rattles and brushed drums in an occasionally eruptive, mostly calm closer.

Sophia Tegart and Portland Percussion Group performed at The Old  Church.

Sophia Tegart and Portland Percussion Group performed at The Old Church.

The group next premiered three very different new pieces that won its call for scores. Austerity Measures by Ontario composer Nicholas Papador, a University of Oregon alum, started out with minimalist xylophone patterns, then employed a panoply of percussion (tambourines, claves, bongos, snare drums, tambourines, triangles and more) that culminated in big washes of sound, ending with gentle bell tree tones. London composer Paul Cowell’s Six Haiku programmatically evoked the Basho texts — a cuckoo, a heron’s night cry, spring rain dripping from a roof, an autumn storm, a cicada. Young Kentucky composer C. Snow’s shimmering Continental Divide deployed the classic minimalist sound, emerging from a circle of xylophones, some bowed.

The concert closed with one of its forebears, the first, bongo-driven movement of Steve Reich’s 1971 classic, Drumming, which like other early pulse classics, still works its proto-minimalist magic. Brett Paschal and Brian Gardiner alternately stepped forward and withdrew to play, punctuate and elucidate melodies that (as Paschal lucidly explained before the performance) resulted from the overtones generated by the evolving patterns played by the other two members, Chris Whyte and Aaron Jester.

Reich’s music also appeared on Third Angle’s program, even though he’s a quintessential New Yorker, because he spent his childhood shuttling between his parents, who lived on opposite coasts, and was infected by Riley’s early minimalism during his study at Oakland’s Mills College, and frequent trips to hear jazz in San Francisco. After playing in the premiere of Riley’s protominimalist masterpiece In C, Reich brought their ideas back to New York, formed an ensemble with his old Juilliard classmate Philip Glass, and the rest is minimalist history. Riley headed for New York, too, but returned to California after the ‘60s ended to pursue his own path, deeply influenced by jazz and Indian music, that constitutes one of the richest musical legacies of any living composer. Whenever you hear percussion ensembles or minimalist music (often, in the case of Riley, Reich, John Luther Adams, and others, both in the same piece), you’re hearing a West Coast heritage.

Read part 2: Spring concerts that mixed Oregon music with other 20th and 21st century compositions, and part 3, Oregon composer showcases.

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

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