jennifer wright

Composing in the Wilderness 3: song of beginnings

Three Oregon composers journeyed to the Alaskan wilderness, and returned with new music and new perspectives

by JENNIFER WRIGHT

Editor’s note: Now in its sixth year, the Composing in the Wilderness program led by adventurer-composer Stephen Lias, who took these photos, is a joint venture between Alaska Geographic, Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival, Denali National Park, and Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve. Nine composers — three from Oregon this year — spend four days in Denali National Park, accompanied by scientists and naturalists as they draw inspiration from the wildlife, geology, scenery, and adventure of their surroundings, then over the next few days, compose new works premiered in Denali National Park and at the Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival. ArtsWatch asked the three Oregon composers to share their response to this unique experience. Read the first installment, by Christina Rusnak, and the second, by Brent Lawrence.

Composing in the Wilderness is a pressure cooker. The two-week program is a relentless mash-up of Survivor, Iron Chef, and summer band camp. It’s an incredibly odd thing to assemble a meeting of musical minds in the middle of the trackless, windswept wilderness. An unlikely mix of ages, inclinations and backgrounds, we nine composers ranged across the full spectrum of classical art music geekery: innocents, introverts, hipsters, professors, smack-talkers and church mice. The only real requirements were: be fit, and be ready to compose. And implicitly: no whining, not even when tundra mice clamber over your breakfast silverware.

Composers Jennifer Wright, Brent Lawrence and Christina Rusnak at Composing in the Wilderness 2017.

The comedy of errors began as soon as I set foot on Alaskan soil. Experienced hiker though I be, on day one, I bashed my knee wide open on a rock like a rookie. I discovered that my sleeping bag somehow had been packed in a dry bag that my cat had peed in. I spent a king’s ransom on lattes in Fairbanks to self-medicate against epic work sessions fueled by blazing self-doubt.

What on earth was going to come of this? Was I going to be able to make any actual music here? This was not a holiday: we were in the wilds to do serious work. And, in truth, I didn’t know if I had it in me to write a decent piece of chamber music in only four days.

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Composing in the Wilderness 2: on distant hills

Three Oregon composers journeyed to the Alaskan wilderness, and returned with new music and new perspectives

by BRENT LAWRENCE

Editor’s note: Now in its sixth year, the Composing in the Wilderness program led by adventurer-composer Stephen Lias, is a joint venture between Alaska Geographic, Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival, Denali National Park, and Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve. Nine composers — three from Oregon this year — spend four days in Denali National Park, accompanied by scientists and naturalists as they draw inspiration from the wildlife, geology, scenery, and adventure of their surroundings, then over the next few days, compose new works premiered in Denali National Park and at the Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival. ArtsWatch asked the three Oregon composers to share their response to this unique experience. Here’s Brent Lawrence‘s account. Read Rusnak’s report here and Wright’s next week.

Brent Lawrence, Christian Dubeau, Libby Meyer, Jesse Budel, Aaron Keyt, Christina Rusnak, Sarah Stehn, Dawn Sonntag, Corinna Hogan and Jennifer Wright at 2017 Composing in the Wilderness.

I don’t think it’s any coincidence that three Oregonians happened to participate in this year’s workshop. In fact, I chose to participate in Composing in the Wilderness at the recommendation of three other Oregon composers that had been in years prior.

I’ll admit that I’m a pretty new to Oregon; I’ve only lived here a year. But one of the things I love about this state is the deep connection people have with the outdoors, our public lands, and the existence of wildernesses. Don’t get me wrong, Alaska is impressive no matter who you are, but from my view, as a new Oregonian, this trip gave me a lot of perspective on why people feel so connected to the wilderness. True wilderness, not something I experienced growing up on the east coast, where there are less protected areas.

Brent Lawrence at Composing in the Wilderness.

People seek out wilderness for a variety of reasons. Being a musician, I’m always interested in how things sound. What I found most striking is the silence. Upon moving to Oregon, the first time I got out of the car near the McKenzie Pass, I was shocked at the quiet—and also realized how noisy daily life is.

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Conversation with Cuba

Cascadia Composers' journey to Cuba opened eyes and ears to musical and cultural riches

By DANIEL HEILA

When Havana Contemporary Music Festival president Guido Lopez-Gavilan wrote to David Bernstein inviting the Cascadia Composers association (northwest chapter of the National Association of Composers, USA) to his festival as guests of the Writers and Artists Union of Cuba, he included this entreaty:

“As is well known, our country is going through a difficult economic period, and therefore, we would appreciate it if you could communicate with us, regarding the possibility that you could obtain funding for your trip.”

What a profoundly gracious understatement. As if nearly 60 years of economic sanctions were nothing to go on about between potential friends. Bernstein got busy and procured the help of Project Por Amor to arrange for safe passage of six Cascadia composers (David Bernstein, Daniel Brugh, Ted Clifford, Paul Safar, Jennifer Wright, and Art Resnick whose work was performed though he did not attend due to illness) to Havana for the festival, held Nov. 14-22, 2016.

This Saturday, the Cascadians reciprocate with two concerts, the first featuring new music from Cuba performed by FearNoMusic, the second showcasing the sounds of the Pacific Northwest. In October, Oregon musicians performed the music the Cascadians took to Cuba in a concert at Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall called “A Cuba con Amor — To Cuba with Love.”

Wright rehearses with Cuban musicians for a performance of her “Loopers” in Havana. Photo: Matias Brecher.

I invited each composer to offer their perspectives on the trip and was pleased by the commonality of their responses. All mentioned the warmth and friendliness of the Cuban people and the tragic beauty of Havana. All marveled at the brilliant, sensual, passionate musical environment. And all were blown away by the artistic commitment and passion of the festival players.

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‘Fire and Ice’ preview: accessible adventure

New Portland composers' collective's debut performance includes aerial dance, sculpture, poetry, icy instruments — and a close connection to audiences

Though their music differed from each other’s, Portland composers Stacey Philipps, Jennifer Wright and Lisa Ann Marsh had a lot in common. All three were accomplished members of the composers groups Cascadia Composers and Crazy Jane Composers. Unlike too many 20th century classical composers, all three cared as much about what the audience experienced as what the creators wanted to express.

“We all appreciated each other’s music but also each other’s ability to make concerts engaging for audiences as well as esthetically appealing for all of us,” Philipps recalls. And they shared one more thing.

Burn After Listening’s Philipps, Marsh, Wright.

“We’re all up for anything,” Wright says. “We found each other because we wanted to do things that don’t look like the traditional thing.”

They decided to form a group called Burn After Listening. This weekend’s debut multimedia performances, Fire and Ice, promise to look nothing like a traditional classical music concert.

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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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Skeleton Piano Dances: Emotional disconnect

Creative multimedia concert is long on virtuosity and inventiveness, short on emotional engagement

By TRISTAN BLISS

As far as I can tell, this world and our lives are terrifyingly shaped by things completely outside of our control or comprehension. Think I’m full of shit? Then why art? Why music? Why do we dedicate hours, weeks, years, and decades of our lives to jotting down specks of black ink onto five lines for someone else who has gone and dedicated the same goddamn amount of time to interpreting those black specks?

Composing and performing are standing on the precipice of existence, screaming into the void that amidst chaos your insignificant little self created something coherent, and that’s beautiful. Not that music shouldn’t be chaotic – it often needs to be chaotic! — but it should offer a humanistic insight into the chaos. Its creation must be propelled forward by emotion, for what else understands the daily human condition? Without emotion there is no philosophical human condition; it just is what it is what it is what it is what it is what it is. . . just cold chaotic reality. When the predominant motivation for a work of art or music is not emotion, but something secondary such as the technicality of recording, form, or physical performance, only the physical reality of music is being realized: sound.

Jennnifer Wright plays her Skeleton Piano at BodyVox Studios this weekend.

Jennnifer Wright played her Skeleton piano at BodyVox Studios.

I have nothing but respect for the logistical capabilities of Jennifer Wright and Agnieszka Laska Dancers putting together Skeleton Piano Dances and furthermore effectively marketing the show, which happened at Portland’s BodyVox Studios October 3 and 4. As far as I could tell the first show was sold out, AND with an average age that has relatively low personal experience with colostomy bags! Not a small achievement in the “art” music world. The venue was hip or whatever – seriously though, having chamber music presented outside of academies and churches is refreshing. Odd as it may be, I also think the program book deserves an honorable mention: thick card stock, quality color printing, and creative design may seem like trivial details, but they go a long way for the perception of professionalism.

All this to say: great planning and professionalism, but for me, there was no emotional communication.

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Oregon Rites of Spring Survey 3: Composer showcases

Spring concerts shine a spotlight on Oregon music's present and future.

“This one’s called ‘Taciturn,’” deadpanned composer Ted Clifford from his keyboard, “so I don’t have much to say about it.” The concision of all the tunes the Portland composer played in his enjoyable concert at southeast Portland’s Woodstock Wine & Deli came as a surprise, considering how much the music he played from his agreeable new album, Azir, is influenced by jazz — a genre better known these days for giving performers ample to stretch out and follow long meandering improvisatory paths.

Clifford, Friesen and Doggett  played music from Clifford's "Azir."

Clifford, Friesen and Doggett played music from Clifford’s “Azir.”

Clifford’s concert is one of several spring shows devoted mostly to the music of a single Oregon composers whose coverage here follows part 1 of our series (which examined Oregon composers’  place in the West Coast’s legacy of percussion music) and Part 2, which looked at concerts that sprinkled Oregon music among works by composers not lucky enough to live here. Like the other spring and early summer concerts covered in this series, I enjoyed much of the music I heard in these shows. Yet I missed even more what I didn’t hear.

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