lisa marsh

Cascadia Composers and Northwest Piano Trio reviews: The Color of Magic

Two concerts featured contemporary Oregon classical music. One succeeded.

by MARIA CHOBAN

Lights out. In a dark cavernous church, twinkling blue Christmas lights bob their way to a harpsichord. They tilt over it, no doubt praying. They un-tilt and lower onto a bench. The instrument emits a long sustaining moan.

THE HARPSICHORD SUSTAINS??!!??? What spell has been cast?

Je

Jennifer Wright.

No time to think, the blue lights are driving the instrument to react. Like T-cells attacking an infection, the notes bombard the drone. Above, a screen displays the sound waves — oscillating, colliding, and my growing anxiety isn’t “How did composer, Jennifer Wright, achieve this?” It’s “OMG, Who or What is going to Win? How will this play out?” In You Cannot Liberate Me, Only I Can Do That for Myself, the composer/performer has managed to translate a creative concept/challenge (how to sustain a percussive sound) into a universal dilemma (how to deal with the new: fight it, ward it off, accept?). To be fair, I figured this out long after the performance, but only because the gnawing anxiety pestered me to work through it, to come to closure.

Science transcends process. Houston, we have Magic.

Lately more and more Oregon indie classical and even establishment classical groups are starting to realize the value of programming new and locavore music. It’s a really good sign of a developing homegrown alt.classical scene that’s not depending on dead Europeans and insular New Yorkers. I want all these groups who are playing homegrown 21st century music to succeed because Oregon draws outlaws, visionary DIYers who don’t just want to make it in New York and LA—they have something to say to today’s audiences. Oregon can be the role model for LA, New York, Paris.

But new and local are only the beginning, necessary but not sufficient if classical music is to (re)connect with broader Oregon audiences. The events need to appeal broadly, unless you just want a niche audience. And niches won’t sustain new classical music.

Multimedia helps. Taking the performances out of churches and auditoriums and staging them in bars and black box theaters helps. Dressing down or up (anything but black nightgowns) helps. Choosing a program that takes the audience on a ride helps.

Alas, even these ingredients are necessary but still not sufficient. To draw broad audiences, the essential element that must be cultivated is Magic.

Magic is not learned; it is omnipresent — there for the taking. It is the thing we often discount, the first feeling that comes up, the first glib utterance out of our mouths when throwing around ideas. Magic can only be welcomed in when she subtly drops a bomb in your ear. Or not; one can opt out, thinking the voice is too crazy, will offend too many people or the wrong person, and do the safe, sane, currently-in-mode thing and hope it’s enough to generate ticket revenue to cover what the RACC grant doesn’t. And the creative concept itself is only a start — much more Magic, courage to support the magic inspirations and lots of grunt work (including practice/rehearsal hours) are needed on this yellow brick road to the Emerald City.

Two concerts featuring new music by Oregon composers showed what can happen when presenters listen for Magic and then vest themselves in the quest of fulfilling that inspiration … and what happens when they don’t.

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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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by JANA GRIFFIN

All eyes are riveted on the musician on stage: hair flying, jaw clenching, neck jerking rhythmically, feet stomping, arms and fingers racing over the instrument, the musician’s whole body is wrestling with the passionate beast of music. The experience of getting lost in the music, of soaring freely into a soundscape, of becoming enveloped in musical creation, is what every musician strives for. Getting lost in the music, however, often comes at the cost of physical strain, inflammation, and irreparable damage to wrists, fingers, and shoulders.

For example, the Funk Brothers keyboardist Earl van Dyke, Incubus guitarist Michael Aaron “Mike” Einziger, and Anthrax drummer Charlie Benante all developed carpal tunnel syndrome, and renowned classical pianists Leon Fleisher and Gary Graffman struggle with hand dystonia, a neurological disorder characterized by involuntary muscle contractions and postures. “It’s scary to see what happens to musicians,” stated composer and pianist Lisa Marsh, founder and director of the Coordinate Movement Program at Portland State University and one of six Andover Educators internationally who can license people to teach the the technique called Body Mapping. “A lot of music students come to me who have had to stop playing because of injury. Using Body Mapping, I can help retrain their movements and help them continue playing.”

Beginning Thursday, June 18 at Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall, the Andover Educators four-day conference will celebrate, teach, and explore healthy movement for musicians.

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Crazy Jane and Third Angle New Music reviews: Inspired by Nature

New Oregon music responds to nature's beauty — and humanity's threats to it.

Living in a bountiful land where so many of us spend as much time in nature as possible, it’s no surprise that Oregon composers have devoted so much music to environmental themes, just as New Yorkers and Chicagoans often incorporate urban influences in their music. (“New York is a very percussive place,” the great American composer and New York native Steve Reich, once told me about the source his pioneering percussion music.) A pair of November Portland concerts showed how contemporary Oregon composers are also embracing the environment — sometimes including actual recordings of natural sounds — in their music.

Marsh and Miksch performed at Crazy Jane.

Marsh and Miksch performed at Crazy Jane.

Field Music

“The world is a huge composition going on all the time,” said the pioneering Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer in a brief film Listen played immediately before Third Angle New Music’s “Afield” concert at southeast Portland’s Zoomtopia Studio 2 November 6. Schafer, who invented the notion of the soundscape (a musical evocation of an environment rather than, say, an attempt to tell a story or express a feeling via music) urged us avoid the noisy distractions of our bustling modern world and tune into nature’s sonic beauties.

That posed an implicit challenge to the three young Oregon composers (all University of Oregon graduate students) whose music Third Angle had, to its credit, commissioned for this latest entry in Third Angle’s innovative Studio Series: why should Northwesterners venture indoors to hear human-created sounds that sought to imitate nature, when we have so much of the real thing all around us?

The greatest living Northwest composer, Alaska’s John Luther Adams, has been persuasively answering that question for decades, as Third Angle showed last year in a vivid performance of his Earth and the Great Weather. Adams’s 2014 Pulitzer Prize suggests that the rest of the country is catching up to his and Schafer’s expansive vision of music and nature in harmony. Third Angle and Crazy Jane’s programs demonstrate that nature will continue to deeply and delightfully inform 21st century classical music.

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Cascadia Composers’ “In Good Hands” concert: Bringing students the music of their time

Tomorrow's Oregon musicians play music by today's Oregon composers.

By MARIA CHOBAN

The young performers were warming up; some with Chopin Nocturnes, which they played with studied rubato (that technique where you hold a note longer than rhythmically intended or on-purpose rush a passage, all in the name of playing expressively) handed down from teachers. Or they held notes that meant nothing in the sentence surrounding them except self-indulgence or dry harmonic leading tone stresses—that is, staying on a penultimate note longer than usual and thereby, in theory, sustaining tension.

It wasn’t a promising sign.

The 29 young pianists, students of 13 Oregon Music Teachers Association teachers, were about to star in a public concert on a weekday summer afternoon at Portland Piano Company. . . to a packed house! I was not there to hear Chopin, or any other library or dead composer. That might be typical of a private teacher’s studio piano recital and I avoid those, as do my students who play whatever the hell they want in recitals — from improvised blues duets with their dads to pieces they write to chamber music or pop songs played and/or sung with their invited friends. They even bring me snippets from dead white guys like Beethoven they picked up, asking me to find the rest of that song for them to play, having no idea that song (“Für Elise” or “Moonlight” Sonata or whatever) was written over 200 years ago and not today.

Young hands played Oregon music at Portland Piano Company. Photo: Benji [Bao] Vuong.

Young hands played Oregon music at Portland Piano Company. Photo: Benji [Bao] Vuong.

My belief that students can show us the future was why I was participating in the “In Good Hands” concert, leading a performance of a recent piece by the dean of Oregon composers. I was also here to witness what I thought was an urban legend—the marrying of young students of OMTA teachers with music by local  Cascadia Composers.

For me, this type of event—the introduction of young impressionable performers to up-to-the-minute local music—is more important than hearing yet another touring artist playing yet another cycle of Beethoven sonatas or Bach’s Goldberg Variations (and needling my students to go hear them . . . which I won’t!). The way too many of us teach music is killing the music we love, and events like “In Good Hands” show us how to change.

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