‘Oregonophony’ review: turning place into sound

Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble concerts feature original music incorporating recorded sounds of Oregon -- but not necessarily the sounds you’d expect


What does Oregon sound like? For its spring 2017 concert, the Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble (PJCE) sought proposals from Oregon composers for music that would incorporate recorded sounds from Oregon. The music selected for Oregonophony evolved from the diverse auditory inspirations of two experienced professionals and three emerging jazz composers.

Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble performed ‘Oregonophony’ in Salem and Portland. Photo: Lynn Darroch.

Assimilating sounds of Oregon into the five musical pieces underscored the presence and importance of external sounds as part of our contemporary musical palette and of our lives. For me, this concert also reflected in music the way Oregon is changing.

PJCE has a history of creating and presenting music inspired by Oregon. Its Steel and Concrete, Water and Rock program presented new jazz music inspired by the Bonneville Dam in February 2014. Last spring, Oregon Stories presented three radio documentary pieces in Portland, Hood River and Astoria about exceptional Oregonians from minority communities. For this concert at Willamette University on April 13 (and repeated in Portland April 15), PJCE reached beyond typical jazz performance practice into the realms of 21st century electro-acoustic and chamber music.

The notion of using environmental sound in music stretches back generations. “Wherever we are, what we hear is mostly noise…we find it fascinating,” wrote John Cage in 1940. “The sound of a truck…static…rain. We want to capture and control these sounds, to use them not as sound effects, but as music instruments.” In Oregonophony, the sounds served as inspiration, as part of the piece, and in some cases, as a fragment of the composer’s memory or sense of joy.

Sam Hunt recorded the sounds of Portland’s Laurelhurst Park both on a rainy and sunny day for Slippery Slope. “I tried to capture a somewhat typical sonic experience of walking through the park,” he wrote in a program note, “to show how a place can feel and look very different depending on the environmental conditions.”

The rainy day recording and music played first with the sound of rain along with his feelings of being in the park. The recording of the sunny day captured more activity and sounds of children playing, reflecting how we can feel different depending on the environmental conditions. Hunt connected the music from the first half into the second portion. While not a variation per se, the similarity and contrast between the two allowed it to feel like one piece.

Andrew Endres. Photo: Nina Lee Johnson.

Andrew Endres’s Senectitude was the only one that captured the sounds of nature itself: a waterfall in the coastal range. Given its title reference to old age, maybe Endres’ was reflecting on his future senectitude and/or his feelings about it. The piece featured a complex drum solo performed by Ken Ollis that pulled the audience in. While I didn’t make a connection between either the recording or the title, the piece was engaging.

Jim Olsen, the most seasoned composer in the group, chose to create Migration as the story of his train journey on the Coast Starlight, from California to Eugene in the 1970s, to attend grad school at the University of Oregon. The recording of the train opened the piece and reappeared a couple more times. I felt myself peeking into his memory of the journey, as the energy of the piece progressed, feeding my sense of anticipation. The rhythmic elements of the train lingered in the background through the solos, truly making the train sounds an integral musical element. This piece harbored the most personal relevance for me, as I made my own journey in my move to Oregon.

Jim Olsen

The next two pieces chose to sonify urban Oregon. Eddie Bond’s five-movement Bridges was inspired by downtown Portland’s Steel, Morrison and Hawthorne Bridges over the Willamette River. Bond pitch-shifted his recordings to reveal the frequencies normally below human hearing capability, and to connected those recorded sounds with his original music. Bond fused modified noise, music and his unique interpretation of what Oregon sounds like to create a compelling piece. For instance, movement IV, “The Lurching Drawbridge” contained disjunct instrumental gestures, sound and flow in a way that reflected both the recording and title. To varying degrees, the noise becomes music as the frequencies are explored and in places, the music becomes noise as the gestures reference the sounds of the bridges. How many of us will listen to the bridges with new awareness as we walk across them?

Jessika Smith appreciates how Oregonians strive to protect our natural environment by reducing our carbon footprint. The field recordings for her three-movement From Here To There incorporated first the sounds of biking, then walking and lastly taking the bus. In the first movement, the sound of bicycle gears shifting became a melody. The sound of walking in the second movement established a rhythm, combining in energetic and cheerful music. The third movement musically captured the heavy sounds of the bus, the beeps for stops and interplay of people on the bus. By choosing sounds and values that every urban Oregonian can relate to, Smith invited us to adapt our listening to our own experiences. Thus, each person’s listening experience, including my own became personal and subjective.

Composers’ connection of sound, place and the resulting music is often quite different than the multitude of interpretations by audience members. We rarely hear the same thing as the person sitting next to us. Our experiences filter our listening. The field recordings provided context to the composers’ intention to the audience. For me, some pieces connected more than others. The recordings added context by giving listeners a shared starting point of inspiration. I wasn’t with Smith on her walk, ride, or bus, but I can put myself into those places. Whether inspired by the recordings or the composers’ own feelings, the musical aspects of the pieces definitely seemed to express emotion and mood.

Urbanizing Oregon

Since Oregon is renowned for its natural beauty and wild spaces, I was surprised that nature did not figure more prominently in this concert. Is it because jazz originated and evolved as an urban genre? Stravinsky and Schoenberg hardly lived in the woods. More likely, the predominance of urban sounds used by the composers reflects that for most of us, the sounds of Oregon emanate primarily in the urban landscapes in which we live.

In New Music as Advocacy for Place, I wrote that “As composers, performers, and interpreters of 21st-century music, we have the chance…to seek out… new ways of thinking about music, and its relevance to our life experiences and the world around us.” Place is a highly nuanced layering of shifting, transitory elements; like music, its subtleties take time to unfold. With its emphasis on improvisation, jazz lends itself to the dynamic element of our changing cities. Part of a larger developing dialog between music and place, PJCE’s Oregonophony succeeded in finding new ways of making music, and particularly jazz, that connects specifically to our unique experiences and environments here in Oregon.

Christina Rusnak is a multifaceted composer and explorer whose work reflects a diversity of styles and points of view. Passionate about composing about place and the human experience, she actively seeks to integrate facets of landscape, cultural history and art into her work.  

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