Strange Birds: Contemporary Portland Orchestra Project

CPOP's March 2012 performance, 'Cymatica 1.' from left: Brandon Becker, Brandon C. Nelson, Wille Gibbs, Aaron Banfield. First row from left: Lucia Conrad, Virginia Feldman, Erin Winemiller. Justin Ralls conducting. Photo: Karen Parrott

CPOP’s ‘Cymatica 1,’ at Portland’s Someday Lounge March 2012.
From left: Brandon Becker, Brandon C. Nelson, Wille Gibbs, Aaron
Banfield. First row from left: Lucia Conrad, Virginia Feldman, Erin
Winemiller. Justin Ralls conducting. Photo: Karen Parrott


Contemporary Portland Orchestra Project (CPOP) is presenting “When Strange Birds Passing Meet: Memory and Mimesis in the Soundscape” on Friday, March 22, at 11:00pm at Portland’s Bamboo Grove, in the penultimate performance of March Music Moderne 2013. ArtsWatch contributor Jana Hanchett interviewed clarinetist and CPOP co-artistic director Lisa Lipton about the concert and the project.

CPOP is a bold marriage between classical instrumentation and the electronic sounds of our current sound world. Inspired by BMOP (Boston Modern Orchestra Project),  co-artistic directors Lisa Lipton and Justin Ralls pair contemporary composers with skilled chamber musicians. This performance features San Francisco and Portland composers Joe Colombo, Danny Clay, Justin Ralls  and Charles Copeland.

Q: Why and how did you start CPOP?

Lisa Lipton: I didn’t know a lot about contemporary classical music until I moved to Portland in 2009 and enrolled at Portland State University. I became so bored playing dead composers. Classical music has often felt to me like a dying thing, and it’s mind-blowing that so many of us are just nonchalantly watching it expire. I began asking, “Why don’t we play anything new? Are new thoughts even happening in classical music?” I joined a new music ensemble at PSU in my freshman year, and as my new music friends started writing clarinet music for me, I realized that here was something special and unique. I uniquely understand this music because it’s happening now and because my friends are the composers.

This community aspect is very important to me. To play any music, but particularly contemporary music, you need to understand people. I love human interaction, and that’s why I love performing this particular repertoire. I have become possessed by this need to start a small chamber orchestra made up of community members.

I met Justin Ralls at a Third Angle Concert in Portland.  He had just graduated from Boston Conservatory, and we were both asking “Why do all my friends write this music and it never gets played?” At the time I was also working at Rimsky-Korsakoffee House and playing classical music there. Justin and I wanted to open up something similar but on our terms; we would play anything we wanted!! Inspired by the Milk Bar in A Clockwork Orange, it would be eclectic, but ultimately a place to hang out and share musical ideas without rules or expectations.

Unfortunately, we couldn’t find enough musicians, and we didn’t get enough funding from our Kickstarter to rent the parts, pay the musicians, and find an appropriate venue. In the process, though, we met all these fabulous musicians and realized that something was indeed coming together. So we decided we would just do it: become an orchestra and eventually get a venue space. Our first concert was at the Mini Experimental Music Festival put on by Paul Pinto at the Someday Lounge back in 2011.

What’s your ideal venue?

A gigantic space! Open, spacious, high ceilings. I think industrial spaces that have been touched up a bit create a great sound and atmosphere where people can actually move around and not be stuck.

What kind of musicians play in CPOP?

We’re looking for performers to join all the time. Right now we could use a good oboist! The music we work with is pretty challenging to learn, and to give composer’s the encouragement and freedom to write what they want, we make sure our musicians are classically trained, meaning that they can read music. We do have open improv at the end of every show, so we encourage audience members to bring their instruments and play along no matter their training.

What is a classical musician and are classical musicians best poised to play contemporary classical music? 

When someone says “I’m a classical musician,” they mean they can read notation and read it damn well. Classical music capitalizes on literacy. A classical musician is proficient at reading all styles of music for her particular instrument. While a classical musician isn’t necessarily able to play everything, she’s able to understand how to read it and how to play it.

Unfortunately, not every classical musician can improv.  Improvisation is a different language, notation not included but not necessarily excluded.  For instance, I just worked on this project with Mike Mahaffay; he’s doing a project called the Universe Ives Project Symphony. He wanted to play Charles Ives’s “Universe Symphony” but didn’t have the resources, so he decided to do an improv based on the symphony.  He’s making his own Ives Universe Symphony! His piece has a small string section, two upright basses, percussion, clarinet and trumpet as solo. He talked us through the form of the piece (“strings are going to get louder here, the trumpet’s going to play this here three times, watch for this motion here, and when I give you these signals you need to know what they mean”), and it worked!

This sophisticated illiteracy is what makes the Decibel Festival so fascinating. During the Decibel Festival in September 2012 I worked under Christina Vantzou, a composer from Belgium. She was paid by the government to fly to America and participate in this festival, but she couldn’t read a note. She gave me these index cards that had C or A written on them. I didn’t even know if I was supposed to transpose, and she had to listen to me play and tell me yes or no.  It was such a crazy thing that all these composers were reaching out into the new music society without any formal training. The music is classically influenced, and all the people I played with were classically trained.

How should a newbie approach contemporary classical music?

Contemporary music presents ideas using unfamiliar sound structures; sometimes this is exhilarating, but often we have to commit to listening. When we commit and really listen to a new idea or a new piece, it can be hard. Humans do not like change. In fact, we do our best to avoid the trauma of change. But without change, without growth, there can never be any new discoveries; for this reason, we need to constantly expose ourselves to new sounds.  We particularly need to pay close attention to the sounds created by the people we live by, work with, and see at that coffee shop. Contemporary music is about hearing people; it’s about understanding what is important in life; it’s about expressing how you feel, and it’s about learning how to connect with a meaningful vision.

Lisa Lipton performs a vegetable improvisation on "carronet" at CPOP's March 2012 concert

Lisa Lipton performs a vegetable improvisation on “carronet” at CPOP’s March 2012 concert

What’s your dream for CPOP?

Boston Modern Orchestra Project (BMOP) is definitely an inspiration and model for our group, as it’s the leading orchestra performing, recording, and commissioning new orchestral music. I would love to create something bigger than myself: something that non- musicians want to support because they find it nurturing for their community. If I had a grant, I would be able to pay my musicians and call for new, culturally relevant scores on a monthly basis, thus growing CPOP into a gigantic organism that everyone wants to be a part of.

Orchestra is a beautiful art form and so many people love it, but there are problems with how orchestras are currently trying to integrate into society. I understand that sometimes people are uncomfortable at high art performances simply because they’ve never experienced classical music before; but also, a lot of irrelevant art makes the cut in orchestra, and so of course people are going to feel a little confused and uncomfortable.

CPOP is trying to bridge that gap by playing works by people developing their artistic voice within their particular community. For example, Justin and I participated in the Filmusik annual “Movies in the Park” this year, which met with huge success. I think around 2000 people attended the showing of the foreign film Gamera vs. Zigra, which was accompanied by a live chamber ensemble performing a score composed by Justin. Galen Huckins, who helps manage Filmusik, has hit the mark: this is new music performed by community members in a familiar visual context.  As the audience experiences active listening, strong connections are created within our community between new music and contemporary art.  The ultimate goal with CPOP is to be super community oriented: a community-based orchestra playing community-based compositions.

Tell us all about your upcoming performance.

Our performers are Justin, my father John Lipton, Ian Kerr and Tyler Bragg, who have worked and taught in the Washington-Oregon area a lot, Lucia Conrad, Travis Chapman, and myself.

There’s also a theme: electro-acoustic ambient composition. This music is very minimalistic music with lots of electronics. You’ll hear new sounds presented in familiar ways. We’re doing two solo violin works, a piece for two violins and clarinet, a piece for glockenspiel, clarinet and ride cymbal, plus, the really exciting ones are the trios for three glockenspiels.

I’m really excited for Charlie Copeland’s piece. Charlie is an amazing composer who has truly found his voice. He composed this piece for three glockenspiels after I told him about Joe Colombo’s “Structure II,” which is also on the program. The first movement of Copeland’s piece is called “Don’t Rain” and is very ambient with beautiful intervals and little trills between all the glockenspiels.  Then the second movement of the piece, which is about three minutes, is called “The Starlight Parade,” after Portland’s hilarious and rambunctious night parade.  It’s a canon between the three glocks!

The Starlight Parade

I’m also excited to premiere Danny Clay’s piece for solo clarinet, two violins and tape cassette. Danny is a student at San Francisco Conservatory of Music who recently wrote a piece for Kronos Quartet!  It’s been great fun working with him on the ranges of the clarinet that I like. The vision that comes to me when I perform this piece is a musical séance! We play to the cassette player, and it plays back to us.  So come on out and listen to our new interesting sound explorations!

Tickets are $10 per person or $5 per person for groups of five or more.  The Bamboo Grove is at 134 SE Taylor St., Portland map (971) 207-8476.

Here’s ArtsWatch’s earlier look at CPOP from 2011.

Pianist Jana Hanchett is exploring new music in her new home of Portland.

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