elliott smith

ArtsWatch Weekly: Play it, Sam

On the 88th day the pianos will play, all over town. Plus: The Japanese Garden reopens, Brett Campbell's music tips, new theater & dance

Wednesday, in case you haven’t been counting, will be the 88th day of 2017.

A piano, as you probably know, has 88 keys.

And that seems like an excellent excuse to throw a big piano party, which is exactly what Portland Piano International is doing with its minimalistically named Piano Day. Portland’s Piano Day, PPI declares, is the first in the United States. The celebration first struck a chord in Germany two years ago when pianist Nils Frahm proclaimed March 29 as Piano Day, and it’s crescendoed rapidly to Japan, Slovenia, Australia, the Netherlands, Israel, Canada, France, and elsewhere.

Dooley Wilson at the keyboard, playing “As Time Goes By” in the 1942 Warner Bros. movie “Casablanca.”

So what’s happening? Piano playing. Lots of it, by lots of pianists (no, not Francis Scott Key or Alicia Keys), in lots of styles, from noon to 10 p.m. in four locations: Portland City Hall downtown, All Classical Portland radio headquarters in the Portland Opera building at the east end of the Tilikum Crossing bridge, Alberta Abbey in Northeast Portland, and TriMet’s Oregon Zoo MAX Station. Listening’s free, but the pianists are also taking donations for PPI and educational programs, and a little payback is a good thing. Play it, Sam.


Men, bottled up and burning

Skinner/Kirk's "Burn It Backwards" dances in and around the way men try, and sometimes fail, to make relationships

Over the past twenty years, give or take, Eric Skinner and Daniel Kirk, founders of skinner|kirk DANCE ENSEMBLE, have developed what you might call an autobiographical movement vocabulary: a braiding-together of ballet lifts, modern floor falls, spins and jumps and tumbles that reflect their performing careers in Portland with Oregon Ballet Theatre, BodyVox, and the Gregg Bielemeier Dance Project. At OBT they danced in work by Portland choreographer Josie Moseley, and there is a lot of her particular branch of modernism in their choreography.

I saw all that and more in Burn It Backwards, their new evening-length work, which opened Thursday night at BodyVox Dance Center, performed to music by Elliott Smith, played live—extremely live!—by Bill Athens, Galen Clark, Catherine Feeny and Chris Johnedis. Smith, who died in 2003 at a very young 34, lived most of his short life in Portland, and according to Wikipedia (yes, I had to look him up) was strongly influenced by the Beatles and Bob Dylan, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature last year. Of his own songwriting, Smith said, “I don’t really think of it in terms of language, I think about it in terms of shapes.”

Brent Luebbert and James Healey, facing off. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Skinner and Kirk took the title of their piece from a line in Smith’s Sweet Adeline, one of the thirteen songs arranged by Clark specifically for these performances. They chose it, they say in a program note, “because it speaks of forming a new history, both erasing and creating.” That’s a pretty good description of the choreographic process, or the creative process generally, but what Skinner and Kirk actually put on stage was a finished, polished series of dances for themselves and three other men, Chase Hamilton, James Healey and Brent Luebbert, all of them accomplished, well-schooled dancers.


The local side of this year’s Reel Music Festival

A new Elliot Smith doc opens this year's Reel Music Film Festival, but there's plenty more to check out at the fest that runs from Oct. 10 to 22.


In the new documentary “Heaven Adores You,” director Nickolas Rossi sought to cover an aspect of Elliott Smith’s life he feels has been unfairly neglected – the music.

Late in the film, musician Sean Croghan says, “Hopefully someday we can… all get past the tabloid news aspects of his life and just start to focus on what he created.”

The sentiment is echoed by Rossi’s direction. Much of the film’s running time is devoted to Smith’s musical development in Portland, where he spent much of his life, in lieu of discussing his drug use or apparent suicide in 2003 – events which have come to dominate his narrative.


“Heaven” plays three times during the Northwest Film Center’s 32nd Reel Music Festival, including two festival-opening shows on October 10. Reel Music runs 11 days, primarily featuring music documentaries from the last year, along with a few classic narrative works, like Todd Haynes’ “Velvet Goldmine.”


The celestial strains of Alexander Courage’s famous theme from the original Star Trek series opened the second half of the Portland Cello Project’s concert Thursday night at Portland’s Old Church. It was an appropriate choice for a group that has taken its namesake instrument where no cello has gone before.

Now one of the city’s most popular musical exports, PCP has embarked on several successful national tours, appeared on National Public Radio, and has engaged pop and rock audiences like no other quasi-classical ensemble in memory since the Kronos Quartet. This concert showed why.

The show was a benefit for one of the city’s most invaluable music venues, The Old Church, which is raising funds for a air conditioner — a much -needed item, as anyone who sweltered through PCP’s 100-plus degree CD release concert there last summer will attest. The group has also recorded in the space, and deserve kudos for hosting this benefit to an institution that benefits the entire city’s music scene, in particular chamber and new music concerts by the likes of FearNoMusic and Third Angle.

PCP leader Douglas Jenkins, who took up the instrument as a college freshman (!) at the University of Oregon, has cherished classical music since his days of attending free rehearsals of the Honolulu Symphony as a kid, but he also played in punk bands as a teenager there. He led one of Portland’s most original bands, the improv-based, cello-guitar driven quartet Bright Red Paper, before starting the Cello Project, which he’s made into one of the unlikeliest success stories in pop music. They’re now rock stars — every music nerd’s dream come true.

Unlike PCP’s raucous, all-night dance parties at sold out rock clubs, which feature the cream of Portland indie rock scene singing their own hits and pop covers with PCP accompanying, this Old Church gig was a relatively conventional venue for an ensemble of “classical” instruments. But it did have one thing in common with the club gigs: this one, too, sold out.

The show opened with a lively classical piece, Manuel de Falla’s familiar “Ritual Fire Dance” from his 1915 ballet, Love the Magician, then delivered an original composition by PCP’s Gideon Freudmann (who was out of town and couldn’t make this gig). An arrangement of Duke Ellington and Juan Tizol’s famous “Caravan,” followed, and a famous chorus from Georges Bizet’s opera, Carmen, complete with audience participation. Then came several pieces by contemporary composers — including perhaps the hottest composer in the world today, Argentine-American Osvaldo Golijov and his plaintive “Lúa Descolorida,” (which I’ve also heard performed by his favorite singer, Dawn Upshaw, who premiered it; this version does the original justice).  Next came what Jenkins described as “a strict canon on a theme by [hip hop star] L’il Wayne, one of the most offensive songs in the history of man, ‘Lollipop’.” The set closed with Freudmann’s tuneful dirge, “Denmark,” inspired by a personal tragedy.

As a further preview of their forthcoming classical/ hip hop CD, PCP unleashed a Kanye West song, plus another jazz classic and another classic TV theme, Paul Desmond’s Brubeck Quartet hit “Take Five,” yoked to Lalo Schifrin’s driving Mission Impossible theme, and an unreleased song by the late, great Portland songwriter Elliott Smith, “Taking a Fall,” both from their darkly beautiful 2010 album A Thousand Words. And they revived one of their early signature covers, a dandy take on Britney Spears’ “Toxic,” before concluding with a Pantera cover that might have been the most inventive arrangement of the evening, and another Kanye West number.

This concert demonstrated that Portland Cello Project is much more than a gimmick. The cello, whose range approximates that of the human voice, can propel a band with plucked bass notes and also give wings to soaring melodies. Jenkins’ increasingly adept arrangements (now numbering nearly 700) for the ensemble provide musical depth while staying faithful to the pop hooks and tunes. The band’s hip hop covers bring out a pathos and musicality often obscured by massive beats and cliched, in-your-face lyrics. The group’s rhythmic prowess keeps heads nodding (in a good way) and feet tapping.

So to sum up, we have a youngish (mostly twenty- and thirty-somethings, I’d guess) sextet playing classical music, jazz, original compositions, hip hop , rock and pop music. On cellos. In a church. And it’s sold out. Classical music world — are you paying attention?

Admittedly the level of performance isn’t quite as stratospheric as at your typical classical recital, but the degree of musical expression and audience engagement certainly is — and so is the sense of spontaneity and delight. No one there thinks they’re entering a musty museum — they’re going because they know they’ll hear some vital music, regardless of genre or era, made by musicians who clearly love that music and work hard to get it across to the audience. There’s a lesson there for musical institutions everywhere, and not just classical ones. Something to do with boldly going where no one has gone before.

Portland Piano International’s excellent American-themed summer festival continues today (Friday) with a lecture and performance by the great Bay Area pianist Sarah Cahill and Portland’s own eminence grise Tomas Svoboda in music by 20th century American composers Henry Cowell, Ruth Crawford, Svoboda, and more. Cahill, perhaps America’s leading new music pianist and also a radio host, returns Saturday morning with another program

Sarah Cahill plays Portland International Piano Festival Friday and Saturday

featuring works commissioned by contemporary composers (Terry Riley, Frederic Rzewski, Meredith Monk, et al) on themes of war and peace, followed by a master class with the another radio host (From the Top) and Radiohead cover pianist (among many other accomplishments) Christopher O’Riley, a “piano dissection,” a screening of the film Pianomania, and a recital of music of Gershwin, Stravinsky, John Adams, and more by the duo of Stephanie and Saar. The festival (which includes a host of other concerts, films, and  lectures), closes Sunday with O’Riley’s recital featuring the doomed Portland rocker Elliott Smith and the doomed German Romantic Robert Schumann.

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