Bruce Adolphe

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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Kids, music, and the heart’s desire

Wishes fulfilled: After 22 years, Bruce Adolphe's "Marita and Her Heart's Desire" returns to Chamber Music Northwest, where its journey began.

Chamber Music Northwest has entered its fifth and final week – the venerable summer festival winds up its 46th season on Sunday, July 31 – and on the previous Saturday afternoon I zipped over to Reed College’s Kaul Auditorium to catch a family concert, Bruce Adolphe’s Marita and Her Heart’s Desire, a show I had first seen 22 years earlier when it premiered at CMNW, with the same narrator, the terrific Portland voice actor Michele Mariana. Marita was being performed the following two nights, too, on a more formal program that also included some Milhaud, Kurt Weill’s Threepenny Suite, and selections from another Adolphe piece, Einstein’s Light. But I wanted to see the kids, and the quirkily titled pre-show “Instrument Petting Zoo” in the lobby, and so I went to the shorter and more casual daytime show.

A trip to the moon, gossamer wings not included: "Marita and Her Heart's Desire."

A trip to the moon, gossamer wings not included: “Marita and Her Heart’s Desire.”

For anyone worried about the future of great music, the petting zoo was a revelation. Kids crowded the lobby, rushing up close to the instruments while their parents lurked behind. Trombones, violins, cornets: the place was cluttered with musical noisemakers, and kids were touching, blatting, bowing, trying things out. This was the musical nitty gritty: not just listening, but making music, even in crude and elementary form, and I couldn’t help thinking that some of these kids were going to choose an instrument, and buy one (that’s where the parents come in), and start practicing, and make this a lifelong thing. That’s how you pass it along.

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IT’S BIG. VERY BIG. And if you want to take the whole thing in, Matt Stangel writes for ArtsWatch readers, you’re going to have to ramble all over the state of Oregon. In his opening report, Portland2016: Disjecta goes gigantic, Stangel points out the sheer massiveness of this year’s Disjecta Oregon biennial art show. Curated by Michelle Grabner, who was also co-curator of the 2014 Whitney Biennial, this latest Oregon biennial of contemporary art takes the word “Oregon” seriously, spreading the art around to 25 spaces, 15 of them outside of Portland, in locations including the Schneider Museum of Art in Ashland, Crow’s Shadow Institute of the Arts on the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, in Pendleton, La Grande, Astoria, and elsewhere. And Grabner mixes things up: several Portland artists showing in venues across the state, several state artists bringing their work to Portland. What’s more, many of the artists have created pieces specifically for the spaces they were assigned.

"The Silva Field Guide to Birds of a Parallel Future," digital image of imaginary avians, dimensions variable, 2014–2015, Portland2016/ Image courtesy of the artist, Rick Silva.

“The Silva Field Guide to Birds of a Parallel Future,” digital image of imaginary avians, dimensions variable, 2014–2015, Portland2016/ Image courtesy of the artist, Rick Silva.

Even in Portland, you’ll need to travel to several venues to see what’s in the biennial. But a single visit to Disjecta’s home space in North Portland will grant you a look at one piece of work by each of the 106 artists whose studios Grabner visited – a decision viewed as inclusive by some onlookers and needlessly unfocused by others. Stangel writes: “Though a bit overwhelming, bringing everyone together in one place seems to be a practical remedy to the geographical largeness of this year’s exhibition—which presents a sizable travel ask of any one person who wants to see everything. So, this bouquet of artwork serves as an invitation to find something you like and, perhaps, explore it further at a satellite location.”

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