portland percussion group

CeLOUbration preview: Lou Harrison’s Portland origins

PSU throws a 100th birthday party for Oregon's greatest composer featuring Harrison's chamber, gamelan, and percussion music and new music by Oregon composers, plus a free academic salon

One of the 20th century’s greatest composers, Lou Harrison (1917-2003) pioneered alluring fusions of Asian and Western classical music as well as creating a startling variety of sounds and helping restore danceable melody to classical music over a seven decade career. That journey began with his birth in Portland, where the young Harrison discovered the Asian art that would inspire his rich creative career. This weekend — appropriately during Pride Week, as he was early on one of America’s out-est and proudest gay composers and worked for equal rights — Portland State University celebrates Harrison’s centennial in three concerts, a musical salon and academic symposium. See below for more details.

This excerpt adapted from the new biography, Lou Harrison: American Musical Maverick (Indiana University Press) by California composer and music professor Bill Alves and me describes Harrison’s Portland beginnings. Read more about Harrison’s lifelong Oregon connections here

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Whenever Lou Harrison came home, it was like stepping into another culture. From as early in childhood as he could remember, wherever he looked in his family’s apartment in Portland, Oregon’s Silver Court Apartments, young Lou saw colorful paintings from various Asian cultures mounted on walls covered by Japanese grass wallpaper. Chinese carved teak furniture perched on Persian rugs, colorful Japanese lanterns dangled from the ceiling, cloisonné objects filled the mantel, and the rooms boasted other artifacts from Asia and the Middle East. Compared to the prosaic furnishings and fixtures of the rest of the young Harrison’s post-World War I Pacific Northwest life, his home was an almost magical place.

The exotic decor sprang from the ambitions of his mother. Born in Seattle in 1890, Calline Silver grew up in the Alaskan frontier with her sister, Lounette. Despite these rough circumstances, their father saw to it that both girls had music lessons, at a time when music was an important marker of good breeding and refinement for young women. After her father died and Cal raised herself from this rustic beginning to a middle-class ideal, she became a woman of strong will and determination, qualities that her son would inherit. She married affable, fair-skinned Clarence Harrison, a first-generation American born in 1882, whose Norwegian father had, like many immigrants, changed his surname from exotic (de Nësja) to blend-in conventional: Harrison.

Like many upwardly mobile West Coasters, Cal Harrison was attracted to the allure of Asia and regarded exotic artifacts as exemplars of refined taste. Such decorations were common in Portland homes since the 1905 Lewis and Clark Centennial and American Pacific Exposition and Oriental Fair. Japan alone spent a million dollars on its exhibit, which featured exotic (to American eyes) arts and crafts, sparking a local infatuation with Asian art and culture. Many middle- and upper-class houses boasted “Oriental Rooms” festooned with Asian and Middle Eastern furniture and art, “Turkish corners,” and other symbols of what many Americans still regarded as the mysterious East.

That Pacific exoticism also manifested in music. When Lou was born on May 14, 1917, Hawaiian music was the most popular genre in America. Radio broadcasts of Hawaiian slide guitars and the clacks of his mother’s mah-jongg tiles supplied the soundtrack to some of his earliest memories—and inspired one of his last compositions eight decades later.

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Lou Harrison at 100: a global musical legacy, born in Oregon

Portland classical music groups have shamefully ignored the music of Oregon's greatest composer in his centennial year — but that's about to change

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 make it Resemble
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 we becOme

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John Cage: “Many Happy Returns” for Lou Harrison

One hundred years ago Sunday, one of America’s greatest and most influential composers was born in Portland. This spring, concerts around the world are honoring the colorful musical legacy of Lou Harrison, who spent the first decade of his life here, and returned often after creating some of the 20th century’s most seductive and trailblazing sounds.

Lou Harrison (l) and his life partner and fellow Oregonian Bill Colvig.

During this birthday week alone, over a dozen tribute shows will be performed in California, where Harrison lived most of his long and fruitful life until his death at 85 in 2003. Other concerts have happened or will occur in New York, Los Angeles, Cleveland, and many other places — including Lapland! Yet so far as we’re aware, not a single Portland classical orchestra or ensemble has bothered to program any of the music of the greatest composer to emerge from Portland during his centennial year. After all, Harrison’s significance is widely recognized elsewhere (as for example in a recent article by The New Yorker magazine classical music critic Alex Ross (the magazine ran a long feature profile of Harrison before he died), and a segment on National Public Radio) as a major figure in American music.

More important, Lou Harrison’s music matters now. We shouldn’t listen today merely because he was born in Portland, but because so much is simply beautiful: melodic, danceable, global in its influences and impact, played and danced to all around the country. He was an emotional guy, and his music bristles with emotion — sometimes angry, sometimes melancholy, often joyful, and all colors in between. That’s why it’ll always connect with listeners who come to music for an emotional, not just an intellectual experience.

Fortunately, an important Harrison event is happening here in June. We’ll get to that in a moment, along with information on how ArtsWatch can help Oregon musicians who want to delight listeners with the pioneering, tuneful, forward-looking music of Oregon’s greatest composer during the remainder of this centennial year — and beyond.

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Portland Percussion Group review: Low and Mighty

Ensemble's concert of marimbas, vibraphones and newly commissioned music hits high notes amid the low notes

At a percussion ensemble concert, I expect to see a stage full of equipment. Percussion music traditionally calls for arrays of timpani, bass drums, snare drums, side drums, tom-toms, tam-tams, small gongs, large gongs, water gongs, congas, bongos, woodblocks, tables full of shakers and bells, amplified cacti, giant steel racks hung with giant glass bowls, and so on. So when I walked into The Old Church for Portland Percussion Group‘s end of season concert, I was surprised and delighted to see only four instruments: two marimbas and two vibraphones.

The vibes were small enough–typical three octave Mussers–but the marimbas were a matched pair of five octave behemoths, their range extending well into contrabass territory. I’ve played a few 4.3-octave marimbas, and even in that register you can feel the low A in your guts. I knew that three of the compositions PPG (Chris Whyte, Brett Paschal, Paul Owen, Brian Gardiner) would be playing that night had been composed specifically for the ensemble, winners of their recent “2×4” call for scores, and had every expectation of hearing music written with that bottom octave in mind. I took care not to sit too close, and checked to make sure my ear protection was handy.

Portland Percussion Group performed at Portland's Old Church.

Portland Percussion Group performed at Portland’s Old Church.

Christopher Bradford’s Marimba Quartet No. 2, third prize winner of PPG’s call for scores, set the right tone for the evening, with its rhythmic variations on 6/8 and 5/4 motifs and its ample use of the marimbas’ five octaves. Every time the mallets wandered into that lowest octave, especially when resonant open fifths and octaves appeared in the bass, nervous system agents in my gut tried to inform me that someone was covertly playing the pedals on The Old Church’s majestic old organ.

Definitely my favorite of the evening, Gordon Stout‘s Skylark Orange Circles lived up to its Torkean synesthetic promise, octatonic and Lydian modes expanding and contracting from close jazz chords to broad, open-spaced stacks of augmented fourths. The quick 7/16 rhythmic motif anchoring the piece recurred with and without figurations and arpeggiations, leading the ear to interpret the odd meter alternately as a precisely articulated complex meter or a very unusual swing. I couldn’t shake the feeling that Stout has spent as much time studying jazz vibraphone master Stefon Harris as he has Olivier MessiaenSomewhere in all that sparkling uncanny post-tonal consonance, I swear I really did hear a skylark flying in bright orange circles.

Kylle Strunk’s lovely and timely second-prize-winning Oaxacan Fantasy delighted me with both its unapologetically traditional tonality (for which the composer, in attendance, unnecessarily apologized) and its staginess, with players moving around the marimbas, playing from either side in turn, carefully executing complicated polymetric hockets with their backs to each other. I must confess that I haven’t spent much time listening to or studying Latin American marimba music, and couldn’t find much substance in the musical material; perhaps it is only that we were listening to dangerous party music in a safe and pointedly non-partying context.

Although I genuinely enjoyed Marc MellitsGravity, I found its familiarity slightly distracting. It’s not just that it was so reminiscent of Philip Glass, with its repeating patterns of major seventh chords and descending aeolian ground bass; it can be practically impossible to get out of Glass’ shadow (to say nothing of his fellow minimalist music pioneer Steve Reich’s). Eventually I remembered one particular Glass album, Aguas da Amazonia, commissioned and recorded by the Brazilian ensemble Uakti in the 1990s. I don’t really hold any of this against Mellits, who is a fine composer, and the PPG’s performance left nothing to be desired, but it did make this one the least interesting for me personally. Too bad it was the only piece that used the vibes; I would have particularly loved to hear some vibraphone in the Stout.

Closing the evening, the first prize winner of PPG’s call for scores, Mason Lee’s lovely six-sectioned color-suite Of Light, proved the most melodic of the five compositions, which is always refreshing to hear in percussion ensemble music. Among all the colorful modes and extended tertian harmonies, brief (and not so brief) melodies seemed to float around at several levels, with quick little melodic motives expanding into long, form-level melodic periods in the outer voices. Yet despite being actually more substantial as a composition than the others on the program, its originality was buried under the white noise of two hours’ worth of very little textural variety. I’ll have to hear it again in isolation.

In the end, this was essentially a marimba showcase, although the vibraphones did provide some timbral variety. Before this show, I would not have expected to enjoy an entire evening of marimba music — and I’m a marimba player myself. However, the variety of the compositions made the concert work as a whole, as did the instruments’ expansive beauty and power, the Old Church’s sympathetic acoustics, and the deft playing of the Portland Percussion Group. And I’m happy to report that my earplugs stayed in my pocket all the way to the end.

Matthew Neil Andrews is a composer and percussionist at Mount Hood Community College. He and his music can be reached at monogeite.bandcamp.com.

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Oregon Rites of Spring 1: Drums along the Pacific

Powered by percussion, the West Coast's adventurous musical legacy continues in spring Oregon concerts.

New York has long snagged all the attention as the creative center of American music. But a quintessential New Yorker (from The New Yorker, no less) reminded us recently that much of the impulse for American music’s creativity originated right here on the West Coast. As I explained a few years ago, “a little attention to history reveals that many, if not most, of America’s major postwar musical innovations actually originated here on the West Coast and spread east in a kind of reverse migration that energized NYC, rather than vice versa.”

This spring’s and summer Oregon concert seasons have sparkled with new music by West Coast and other American composers. One of those shows established a context that helps explain West Coast music’s trailblazing creativity, and several others revealed how it’s continuing now in 21st century Oregon. Even as the region suffers from historic drought, its musical wellsprings continue to flow abundantly.

Cascadia Composers percussion concert.

Cascadia Composers percussion concert.

I’ve never seen such a profusion of Oregon music over so long a stretch, so I attended as many concerts as possible (though I missed several that included contemporary Oregon music) to see what this snapshot revealed about contemporary classical music in Oregon 2015. I initially planned to end the survey in April — but the Oregon music just kept pouring forth, as new concerts were announced that also featured works by Oregon composers. That continuing abundance alone is a most welcome sign for anyone who cherishes homegrown music. But it also reveals some neglected areas still in need of exploration.

In this first of a three part series, we’ll look at concerts that perpetuated Harrison and Cage’s West Coast percussion legacy. Part 2 covers concerts that sprinkled Oregon music among sounds that originated elsewhere, and the third installment focuses on concerts devoted to showcasing the work of one Oregon composer, and a wrap up that draws some conclusions based on this rich spring sampling of Oregon contemporary classical music.

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