tristan bliss

45th Parallel review: Horror show

Expertly programmed concert's dramatic arc makes for scary-fun entertainment


When you’re deciding what you’re doing tonight and your options are:

  • Blazers game
  • Fantastic horror flick like Dead Snow, Norway, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night
  • Beer at ABV

chances are a niche chamber music concert titled “Classical Crossroads” won’t even register. Unless you group it under horror flicks to stay away from because you’ll probably die of boredom.

I had to go. A friend’s piece was on the program.

Show time. Players walk to their seats. We applaud. They fuss with their instruments and prepare to play the first note.

Bliss blasts Ross. Photo: Joe Cantrell.

B A M ! ! !

Whathefuck??????????? Whatjustfell???????????

“I hate ‘classical music!’”

OMG, YES!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Tristan Bliss, the Salem friend whose piece is being played on this show, just interrupted with a bang, flinging a book to the floor then dramatically reciting the opening words from Alex Ross’s essay “Listen to This.”


Done ranting after what seemed like microseconds, the four musicians start scraping and pulling at their strings for real. An homage to the Marquis de Sade, New York composer John Zorn’s Cat o’ Nine Tails plucks my guts every time the players pick at their stringed instrument. The churning tickly sensation in my abdomen stops after three minutes. After another three days, enduring polite insider tittering from the audience  and cute too-subtle ad hoc moves (like pretending to fall asleep) by the players, I’m ready to turn Juliette on Zorn’s over-extended gimmick. Luckily the violist beats me to it. He’s had enough, stands up and air-lashes viciously at the others with his bow.

Third Angle String Quartet whips it good. Photo: Joe Cantrell.

OMG, YESSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Hallowe’en by Charles Ives sneaks in with layers of sound, a creepy merry-go-round where new players phantasmagorically enter with each verse. This Hallowe’en felt more wacky than scary because the under-rehearsed players had to conduct the performance with clown-big gestures in order to stay together.

Just as I rolled my eyes at the lack of preparation, they stopped. They weren’t even finished!

Come play with us, Danny.

Remember the ghost twins in The Shining? 

At the back of the darkened stage appeared Portland composer Thomas DeNicola, a young ghost at an upright piano, a single moonbeam of light on his back, playing his eerily serene Notturno. I wanted to stay and listen. I wanted to run away. Scared of what was coming.

DeNicola’s “Notturno.”

Of course Hallowe’en bombasted back from the dead like every great villain from Freddy Krueger to Chucky in beloved cheesy cult flicks. Tristan Bliss and the show’s producer, Greg Ewer, carefully architected this show for maximum horror.

Serene like dead Ophelia, I’m floating downstream, white light bathing DeNicola — this time playing Paul Safar’s Geese in the Moonlight. He makes it sound so vulnerable, so sad. I float past cellist Marilyn de Oliveira at the front of the stage, the moon focusing on her luscious strokes, playing Nicholas Yandell’s And the Surface Breaks. I can’t shake the portent of Yandell’s disturbed ripples. Sadness mingled with terror.

DeNicola and de Oliveira play Safar and Yandell. Photo: Joe Cantrell.

And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance! Ezekiel 25:17 according to Jules – Pulp Fiction

You don’t see it coming. The distraction nearly eclipses the kill. Violinist Ewer fucked with our heads, shredding “Sweet Child o’ Mine” (Guns ‘n Roses/arr. Adam DeGraff). Burning followed. Composer Chen Yi’s musical reaction to 9/11 starts like John Zorn but plows into the Twin Towers like a feather. It’s over before you can process the fatality. Unsentimental, brutal in a real-time, real-sound, real-dead way. No film-bullet-reverb, no drawn out opera death. I couldn’t breathe and kept pulling at the front of my bra to give my ribs more room to expand.

Composer Tristan Bliss. Photo: Joe Cantrell.

Having seen the score, I understood why Tristan Bliss’s Requiem for a Tradition ended the show. Had it worked, it would have exploded in a surreal catharsis of meteor-hits-earth-and-nothing-matters-anyway. But the microphones on the violin and cello never cut in except for about two seconds of cello near the end. I never heard the unremitting industrial chords that should have been pounding from Doug Schneider at the piano. The drums dominated. Too bad! Scored for multi-generations of instruments from classical strings, French horn, through pop drumset and onto electronica, what a fitting good-bye to civilization.

A few flubs aside, this was one of the funnest horror shows I’ve lived through!

Wanna get me out more?

  • Take me for a RIDE! I don’t give a shit about contrasting sonorities or chronological order or other left brained nonsense.
  • Arc your show as though it’s a movie script/storyboard.
  • Rehearse everything including tech stuff until you don’t need a score or an excuse.
  • Take chances!

Or hire team Bliss-Ewer.

Maria Choban is ArtsWatch’s Oregon ArtsBitch. This story originally appeared on her new entertainment site, CatScratch.

Want to read more about Oregon music? Support Oregon ArtsWatch!
Want to learn more about contemporary Oregon classical music? Check out Oregon ComposersWatch.

45th Parallel review: Critical approach

Converting criticism into collaborative programming, concert features several generations of American composers, including contemporary Oregonians


If there were any doubt that music reviewers can influence the programming of classical concerts, that contention was put to rest, at least temporarily, on Wednesday night, March 29, in the latest concert of the Portland ensemble 45th Parallel. Reviewing one of the group’s earlier concerts from 2015, a young composer from Salem called Tristan Bliss (b. 1993) had attacked the program of 20th-century music as being uninterestingly composed of late Romantic pieces. Mr. Bliss went so far as to accuse Oregon composer Kenji Bunch of being merely part of a hidebound music establishment, and the ensemble as being afraid of truly new music and dedicated to consigning it to oblivion by not programming it.

45th Parallel performed Tristan Bliss’s ‘Requiem for a Tradition.’ Photo: Joe Cantrell.

This review rankled, needless to say, and 45th Parallel leader Gregory Ewer responded angrily online. A brief brouhaha ensued, with the result that Ewer invited Bliss to collaborate in planning a 45th Parallel concert. Bliss accepted and suggested five pieces, all written in the past three years, with the exception of perennial renegade Charles Ives’s piano quintet Hallowe’en, written way back in 1906 but sounding thoroughly contemporary. Ewer added three other selections, the earliest from 1988, and voilà! A concert was born.


45th Parallel preview: from conflict to collaboration

ArtsWatch review provokes contention, then cooperation as ensemble invites writer to co-curate a concert featuring music by young Oregon composers

The young Oregon-born critic was dismissive. The program contained only music by dead European composers, and the performance, he wrote in his review, “was especially remarkable in that it was so out of tune, and set something of a record in that its well-trained constituents . . . played wrong notes in a simple piece….”

The conductor complained to the young reviewer. His expectations were too high, he said, for a struggling orchestra whose funding allowed for minimal rehearsal time. If you think you can do better, do it.

The young critic, who was also a composer, accepted the challenge. He programmed a concert by the same group he’d criticized the following season, including a work by a neglected and revolutionary American composer, Charles Ives, another work by one of the critic’s own neglected American contemporaries, and a new work the critic had composed himself. As we’ll see below, the concert that followed, on  April 5, 1946, became a milestone in American music.

This happened seven decades ago. The young critic-composer, Lou Harrison, writing for the New York Herald Tribune, had chided the New York Little Symphony for its December 1944 performance, and that ensemble’s director, Joseph Barone, invited Harrison to program a subsequent concert.

Bliss (l) and Ewer found common ground.

But something similar is also happening right here in Portland, Harrison’s birthplace, this Wednesday, March 29, when 45th Parallel Ensemble performs music by 20th century American composers (including Ives) and three 21st century Oregons — including the young Oregon ArtsWatch composer-writer whose negative assessment of one of the ensemble’s 2015 shows led them to challenge him to do better. We’ll find out Wednesday night whether he met the challenge. But for those who care about the future of classical music, the story that led to the concert is just as promising.


Classical music: Shutting down a comment thread

The comments on Tristan Bliss's 'unreview' of a 45th Parallel concert started to get out of hand

ArtsWatchers arriving today might notice that I’ve shut down the comments to Tristan Bliss’s “non-review” of a recent 45th Parallel concert.

That’s not unprecedented, but it’s not something I expected to do at all when ArtsWatch flickered into existence on July 1, 2011. ArtsWatch was supposed to be a place that encouraged debate and disagreement. It still is but not when the comments attack the writer or other commenters personally. I killed off several comments that went WAY beyond what I consider constructive argument, though I left a few I find pretty awful just so you can get a little flavor of what I’m talking about.

No, calling out the writer and challenging him to compose a piece for 45th Parallel if he has “the balls,” as one 45th Parallel musician did in the thread, really isn’t constructive. It IS kind of amusing, from the outside, especially when Bliss, a music composition student, picked up the gauntlet. But if you look at it from Bliss’s point of view—and I’m just imagining, I haven’t talked to him—it must be a little startling. 45th Parallel swims in the ocean he hopes to compose for, and the hostile reaction his “non-review” received must be giving him serious pause. I hope it makes him yet more resolved to push his ideas about how classical music can and should evolve in the 21st century, though I’d understand if he took his musical interests in an entirely different direction. At this point lemonade is still possible if Bliss composes a piece, 45th Parallel plays it, a new audience hears it, and we all rocket forward toward musical experiences richer than ever.

Michael Ancher, "Art critics, Study," Google Art Project

Michael Ancher, “Art critics, Study,” Google Art Project

Some commenters thought that Bliss’s post (which I didn’t edit, by the way) shouldn’t be a part of Oregon ArtsWatch at all. Let’s clear that one up right away. ArtsWatch gives arts writers a place to publish and provides a development process that we hope will help them down their paths as writers. We believe that those engaged writers can make the culture-shed we inhabit better—more responsive to change, more aware of the possibilities for the future, fairer, more inclusive, more democratic, and yes, even more musically astute. If Bliss continues to write for ArtsWatch—and I hope he does—watching his turns and shifts will be fascinating. One of the best descriptions of a critic I ever heard: A critic is someone whose education goes on in public. I love the open-endedness of this, the very opposite of the image of the close-minded critic we are used to seeing. Yes, Bliss has a home at ArtsWatch for as long as he wants it. Of course, you do, too! And so do the many writers who contribute to our classical music stream, each coming at things from a different perspective. That multiplicity is one of the things I’m happiest about on our site.

This is aside from what I think about the essay, which took a 45th Parallel concert as a jumping off point to talk about how classical music can become more exciting to Bliss’s generation than it is now. (He was a lot more passionate about it than that simple sentence is, which is why he got the reaction he did, I suspect.) I would love for a discussion about that topic to continue on the comments thread here. Not just assertions and certainly not insults. Real arguments.

  1. What responsibility does any classical music organization have to the music composed in its own time? What about its own geographical place?
  2. What responsibility to classical music in general does that organization have to cultivate its own future audience?
  3. What responsibility does it have to make it clear what it thinks is at stake in any given program it produces?

Those are the questions I thought about after reading the Bliss essay. And then I tried to imagine various schemes and mechanisms music groups might employ for various answers. Bliss suggested a few for those groups who do want to locate and attract new audiences. I would count 45th Parallel in that number, by the way, despite the reaction to the essay, and I know a little bit about how much energy the group has put into its education efforts. I thought the program in question was pretty progressive, actually, though I didn’t attend. Which is why I found their response to the post disconcerting, though maybe, after 38 years of working in the media, I’m more inured to negative comments than 45th Parallel is. If you accept the challenge to create experiences that a new generation of classical music fans will enjoy and embrace, then Bliss’s post is simply a data point to be considered in your problem-solving.

So, those questions. If you have thoughts about them you’d like to share, by all means! The comment thread rarely approached any of them, and if you’re really interested in the existence and evolution of music in the classical tradition, they are the ones that matter. Let ‘er rip!

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.


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.


Oregon ArtsWatch Archives