bonnie miksch

Chamber Music Northwest reviews: defying limits

Concerts and conversations offer insights into contemporary music by female composers

In 1985, Pennsylvanian cartoonist Alison Bechdel inadvertently invented the trope that bears her name: The Bechdel-Wallace Test. (You can look at the original comic here.) Not that the test is a perfect indicator of either gender equality or cinematic worth: your average slasher flick passes, and your average Coen Brothers movie does not. Star Wars: Rogue One passes, but just barely. Gravity famously failed it, for rather specific reasons having nothing to do with gender. But as a way of calling attention to the nature of (and reasons for) gender inequality, The Bechdel-Wallace test still serves a useful, perspective-broadening diagnostic purpose.

One thing the Bechdel-Wallace tends to demonstrate: including only one woman in a movie (or a conversation, or a chamber music concert, etc.) inevitably puts all the weight of female representation onto that one character. Tokenism collapses representation into a single vector, a phenomenon best understood as The Smurfette Principle (first noted in 1991 by Katha Pollitt.) The other smurfs, all male, get to be The Nerdy One, The Funny One, The Fat One, The Jock, and so on; the girl smurf is just The Girl. Smurfette doesn’t get to do anything or have any of her own interests and pursuits. She has to be The Girl.

Composer Gabriella Smith discussed ‘Carrot Revolution,’ performed by Tomas Cotik, Becky Anderson and Nokuthula Ngwenyama at Chamber Music Northwest. Photo: Tom Emerson.

None of the composers on Chamber Music Northwest’s July 15 program at Reed College had to be The Woman Composer. After a lovely afternoon exploring the trails around Reed’s campus, I was treated to a concert of not only all women composers, but almost all Pulitzer winners and finalists: Tower’s Violin Concerto was a finalist in 1993, Ellen Taaffe Zwilich won in 1983 for her Symphony No. 1 (Three Movements for Orchestra), and Caroline Shaw won in 2013 for her Partita for 8 Voices. After spending the week with Gabriella Smith and her wonderful music, I’d say she’s in good company.

Smith’s Carrot Revolution opened the concert, performed by an ad hoc string quartet made up of violist-composer Nokuthula Ngwenyama, PSU violin professor Tomas Cotik, Fear No Music / Oregon Symphony cellist Nancy Ives, and Smith’s fellow Curtis Institute of Music alum and erstwhile Oregonian Rebecca Anderson. I’d had the chance to observe this quartet in rehearsal a few days earlier, and I was impressed not only with how much they improved but with how well they handled Smith’s peculiar, energetic, post-modern idiom.

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Chamber Music Northwest reviews: independent women

Festival’s concerts and conversations with female composers highlights rich diversity of their approaches and their music 

“It’s so nice to see you all!” said Chamber Music Northwest Artistic Director and clarinetist David Shifrin, introducing the July 13 concert at Reed College’s Kaul Auditorium with a warm smile. “I’m possibly the only man on stage tonight!”

He was indeed, unless you count The Ghost of Ravel: four CMNW concerts at Reed College and Portland State University July 13-16 featured compositions written and performed by women. Later that evening, Shifrin would join composer and harpist Hannah Lash on her composition Form and Postlude and the piece to which it nods in both instrumentation and style, the Introduction et Allegro by man composer Maurice Ravel.

The Claremont Trio performed a piano trio by Fanny Mendelssohn and the world premiere of Kati Agócs’s ‘Queen of Hearts’ at Chamber Music Northwest. Photo: Tom Emerson.

Night One paired: Kati Agócspiano trio Queen of Hearts with Fanny Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio in D Minor, Op. 11, and Lash’s Form and Postlude for harp, flute, clarinet, and string quartet with Ravel’s Introduction et Allegro. The Claremont Trio, in their premiere season as CMNW Protégé Project Artists, tore their way through Mendelssohn’s liedisch final major work, violinist Emily Bruskin hopping out of her seat at especially dramatic moments, twin sister Julia agile and confident at her cello, while pianist Andrea Lam immersed herself in all the pianistic luxuriance. Agócs’ trio was considerably more modern, with roots in and nods to the musical heritage that comes with writing for piano trio.

Queen of Hearts Meets Queen of Harp

If the 20th-century classical world was about carving up the last of the dissonance and starting radical new schools of composition, the 21st-century classical world seems to be all about synthesis and syncretism, taking up the messy mantle of competing traditions and making something new and personal and beautiful out of it.

Kati Agócs fits right in there: her polystylism has been making waves all over the world for the last decade or so, from 2005’s Hymn for saxophone quartet and 2008’s Requiem Fragments to 2011’s Vessel, 2015’s Debrecen Passion, and last year’s Tantric Variations for string quartet. It would be easy enough to pigeonhole Agócs as yet another post-modern more-is-more composer, but what I hear is an artist with ravenous taste and the skills to match. Compared to her other work, which often includes texts in multiple languages, quotations from earlier composers, grand gestures for percussion, and so on, Queen of Hearts, performed at Chamber Music Northwest, seems positively conservative in its simple neo-Romantic splendour.

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Chamber Music Northwest: the sound of glass ceilings shattering

Festival's focus on female composers reveals institutions changing and opportunities for women growing, though barriers remain

It might seem like a good time to be female and a composer. All three of this year’s Pulitzer Prize for Music finalists were women, several have won the award over the years (including four of the past seven) and names like Kaija Saariaho, Jennifer Higdon, Julia Wolfe, Anna Thorvaldsdóttir, Chen Yi and many, many more are regularly recognized as among the finest living composers regardless of gender.

And yet, a widely cited Baltimore Symphony survey revealed that of the music performed this past season by 85 American orchestras, only a little over 1 percent was written by women. No women occupy the top ten slots of most performed orchestra composers, living or dead. Two of the most acclaimed young male American composers, Andrew Norman and Mohammed Fairouz, recently asked music organizations to consider awarding commissions to female composers even over their own music, all other things being equal. Clearly barriers remain to women in classical music.

But those obstacles haven’t deterred this summer’s Chamber Music Northwest festival from scheduling scores by a score of women among its five weeks of concerts, including commissioning — that is, paying for — a trio of world premieres by rising young female composers. The repertoire ranges from one of the earliest composers we know by name — the medieval abbess Hildegard of Bingen — to Romantic composers Fanny Mendelssohn and Clara Schumann to some of today’s composers, including award winners Joan Tower and Ellen Taafe Zwilich and Portland’s own Bonnie Miksch, who’ll also participate in a panel discussion with other top female American composers, six of whom will be in town for the festival. Several report that while some obstacles remain to full gender equality, even the hidebound world of classical music is changing for the better.

Some obstacles remain. “There’s been pressure placed on more established opera houses and chamber music societies whether they accept this notion that women composers can be part o their vernacular,” says Imani Winds flutist and composer Valerie Coleman. “And rightly so.”

The problem is especially acute with composers of color, she says. “In general composers of color face the same obstacles as woman — but it’s a double negative punch. There is a tone of frustration with composers of color now over the futility in writing music, knowing that their works may not be performed in more notable chamber music series. The big struggle that all institutions face now is with building audiences and donor bases, breaking that glass wall that prevents folks of color from coming into the concert series.”

Valerie Coleman (second from left) performs her music and more with Imani Winds at this summer’s Chamber Music Northwest festival.

Coleman worries that young women composers of color aren’t finding their way into classical music, in part because they don’t see people like them represented in programs and performances. “The big discussion among women composers of color is this huge elephant in room: why does it appear to be fewer and fewer composers emerging?”

Coleman’s answer: “There’s a lack of African American women composers not because of opportunity but because of the lack of outreach being made.”

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Cascadia Composers fall concerts: Spanning the spectrum

Quartet of concerts reveals rich diversity in contemporary Oregon classical — or is that 'classical' ? — music

Cascadia Composers can’t put on a boring concert. The organization of composers based primarily in the Northwest is only halfway through its 2016-17 season and already I’ve seen:

  • e-bow-generated harpsichord drones played on a dark stage, with the composer draped in blue LED lights and projections of cymatically stimulated beads of blue water dancing in time to the music;
  • a stack of toy pianos played by five composers crammed all together, music clutched in their hands or squinched in between the tiny wooden legs;
  • duets between cello and doumbek, between clarinet and electronics, between pianists wearing flamboyant wigs and chasing each other around their instrument, screeching like wild cats;
  • a simple pastoral song about barnyard animals turn into a horrifying depiction of slaughter;
  • a choir imitating an alarm clock, a forest, a goddess, a rose.

Jennifer Wright performs her ‘You Cannot LIberate Me…’ Photo: Matias Brecher.

This is what happens when Oregon composers get together and make music. Taken together, the concerts presented a snapshot of contemporary Oregon’s surprisingly rich and diverse contemporary classical music scene.

A Cuba con Amor

The first Cascadia concert of the season, October’s A Cuba con Amor, featured works written for the group’s first-ever composer exchange: the concert’s six composers traveled to Cuba the following month to have their works performed there by local musicians in the 29th Annual Festival de La Habana. This was the concert with the toy pianos (Jennifer Wright’s semi-aleatoric X Chromosome), the doumbek and cello (Paul Safar’s Cat on a Wire), the clarinet and electronics (“synth wizard” Daniel Brugh’s Fantasia), and an evening’s worth of lovely music. I was especially pleased to hear so much music written for strings, including Brugh’s Reticulum for tenor and string quartet and no less than three pieces for piano trio (Safar’s A Trio of Dances, Art Resnick’s Images of a Trip, and Cascadia co-founder David Bernstein’s Late Autumn Moods and Images).

Wright, Brugh, Clifford, Safar, and Max Weisenbloom play with toys on Wright’s ‘X-Chromosome’ at Cascadia Composers’ Cuba concert.

One particularly memorable moment was Ted Clifford’s melodica solo during the middle movement of his composition Child’s Play. As the newest composer in the Cascadia stable, seeing this family of composers at work on and off stage (and afterward at a nearby watering hole) made me feel fantastic about joining up.

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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.

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FearNoMusic review: Fond farewell

New music ensemble co-founder Joel Bluestone passes the sticks to his successor in a concert celebrating the percussionist's quarter-century contribution to Oregon music

Joel Bluestone walked onstage to thunderous applause and an immediate standing ovation.

“I haven’t played a note yet!” he demurred with a grin.

The applause at the September 30 show at Portland State university’s Lincoln Recital Hall wasn’t for the notes Bluestone hadn’t played yet, but for all those he had played over the 25 years since he and pianist Jeffrey Payne founded Portland new music ensemble FearNoMusic.

Bluestone (right) with FearNoMusic at the ensemble's final concert last spring at Portland State University.

Bluestone (right) with FearNoMusic at the ensemble’s final concert last spring at Portland State University.

In 1992, new music was “a legitimate entity to be afraid of,” current FNM artistic director Kenji Bunch said in introducing the percussionist. “We wouldn’t be here today if not for Dr. Joel Bluestone,” Bunch continued. “We all owe a huge debt to people like Bluestone, who has shown such generosity, with an open mind and an open heart.”

Although Bluestone will keep his busy schedule as a guest artist, including stints with San Diego experimental ensemble Swarmius and local Cascadia Composers group Crazy Jane, he will be “passing the sticks” to Oregon Symphony percussionist Michael Roberts; Bluestone told ArtsWatch he is retiring as FNM percussionist in order to explore new musical projects.

When Bunch asked him what music he wanted to perform in this, his final concert as a member of the group, Bluestone said, he first thought of all the solo showcase pieces he has played through the years. But, he said, as he thought about FNM’s long history, he reflected on the importance of his relationships in the group: “These are some of my best friends in the world!” He chose his program accordingly, selecting compositions by some of FNM’s composers-in-residence (including Bunch) and featuring personally meaningful collaborations with these musicians who have meant so much to each other. Bluestone’s selections celebrated his colleagues and highlighted his own enduring obsessions with melody, the color of sounds, and the charm of found and constructed instruments.

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Chamber Music Northwest review: Enchanting enhancements

Modern technology complements contemporary music in enlightening multimedia concert 

It has become a dull commonplace that technology rushes us and disconnects us. I had the opposite experience of a late July Chamber Music Northwest New@Noon concert at Portland State University, a multimedia affair in the basement of Lincoln Hall bringing together video, animation, responsive A.I. programs, and the music of contemporary composers Bonnie Miksch, Jaroslaw Kapuscinski, and Bruce Adolphe.

Portland composer Bonnie Miksch started the concert with Every tendril, a wish. Miksch, who composed the music and text in 2007 for her son Grover, sang along with her own electroacoustic accompaniment, while Grover’s father Christopher Penrose handled interactive graphics. I have the privilege of studying with Dr. Miksch at PSU, where she chairs the School of Music as well as the composition area, and she was gracious enough to let me ask her a few questions about her process. As a composer of electroacoustic music, Miksch is somewhat unusual in that she prefers working with harmonic, pitched content—“unabashedly exploring beauty”, in her words—over the “blips, buzzes, and blurps” we often associate with Academic Electro-Acoustic Music (e.g., that of Schaeffer, Babbitt, Stockhausen, Ligeti, et al).

Penrose (l) and Miksch at Chamber Music Northwest.

Penrose (l) and Miksch at Chamber Music Northwest.

Every tendril, a wish began with musical material generated by Penrose’s program Hyperupic, which maps sound to 2d images; in this case Miksch chose black-and-white photographs for their high contrast, which I heard reflected in the music. This background electroacoustic texture, which Miksch describes as a landscape to interact with as a vocalist, consists entirely of recorded sounds (“sounds of playfulness and childhood”) subjected to extensive electronic processing such as filtering. Neither the electroacoustic accompaniment nor the vocal melody change from one performance to the next; rather, it is the video component which is interactive. As Miksch sang, Penrose’s computer captured both her voice and the electronic tracks, and he manipulated the video using the popular music program Max (originally developed at the Parisian electroacoustic music research institute IRCAM). Although Penrose adjusts the graphics in real-time, he is still working with “possibilities within constrained parameters.” The result: a “self-similar” multimedia piece: always different, always the same.

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