Weekend MusicWatch: Beyond the bubble

Composer Eve Beglarian took a trip down the big river / via Eve Beglarian

 Around the time of the election of Obama and the economic meltdown, I decided what I wanted to do was travel down the Mississippi River really slowly, human powered. I ended up paddling and biking down the river, from the headwaters in Minnesota, all the way down to New Orleans, in the fall of 2009. ... I went with a tape recorder, very little agenda, and absolutely no schedule… [I]t’s the spine of the country and I wanted to know what it was. And it’s richer and more full of things that I knew nothing about than I could possibly have imagined.

Eve Beglarian, from an interview in NewMusicBox.

The diminutive woman in red and the violinist in black stood grinning on stage singing a gentle, playful duet of the simplest of texts: sol, ti, re, fa, do, mi, la and so on, a landscape scene projected behind them. Next, the woman, composer Eve Beglarian, read a short essay (posted on her blog) about her four month journey down the Mississippi River by kayak, bike, car, and foot, collecting images, stories and sounds that she later turned into The River Project. She joined Third Angle New Music Ensemble and Eugene’s Beta Collide  to perform excerpts from it Friday night at Portland’s Alberta Rose Theater — the first time she’d taken the show on the road.

Here’s part of the excerpt she read, describing her experience at the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers.

Mike and Mary got into the canoe, and I got in the kayak, and we paddled south through a back slough, where Mary saw her first eagle in the wild, a very excellent thing, and then we headed down the main channel to, yes, you’ve got it, the confluence of the Missouri and the Mississippi. Oh my, oh my! I imagine it’s a miraculous thing every single day, but I felt really lucky to experience it after these few days of rain have swelled the river. The Missouri appeared actually to be uphill from the Mississippi, I’m guessing because all those locks and dams hold back the flow of the Mississippi, and the afternoon light shone on this fierce flow of water coming from far far in the West, and at that moment there was no question in my mind that the Mississippi is the tributary here, the Missouri is the MotherFather river for sure for sure for sure. And just after I paddled into the actual confluence, a wave materialized before me, deep down in the water, a real breaker like you see on the ocean shore, and that breaker somehow transformed into a spiral, and it circled first down and then rose up and pulled me into it and I lifted my paddle above my head to let it take me around, amazed, and after it had let me feel it, let me know its power, it released me downstream and I soared into the meeting of these two great streams, exultant beyond anything I have ever experienced before.

I think this must all sound pretty over the top, I wish I could fully articulate the ferocious beauty of this water, this complex and ravenous flow. I had always thought real power resided in the circular, but this river, with its braids, both horizontal (in its sloughs and meanders and coursings) and the invisible multiply braided currents and knots that flow vertically, beneath the surface, creates an unbelievably complex directed line, made up of all these uncountable curves and circles that knit together to make this inexorable directed flow. It is counterpoint on a vast, overpowering scale — counterpoint that you can’t subdue or resist, can’t even comprehend or encompass.… The idea that Scott and Steve would come and drive a van around in order to allow Mike and Mary and me to go out on the river together — on the very evening of a day that started for them in the deep woods of Tennessee following Lewis’ journey to the end — completely blows my mind. These people are teaching me something incredibly powerful about the merging of the practical and the conceptual, the physical and the spiritual. I begin to understand what confluence really means.


The rest of this enchanting, enthralling evening proceeded in similarly riverine fashion, flowing and turning, touching visual, sonic, literary destinations, characteristically embracing pop music influences (including perhaps the most recorded sample ever), classical, electric, electronic, acoustic territories and more.


Lake Providence, Louisiana, via Eve Beglarian

Your way was through the sea

your path, through the mighty waters;

yet  your footprints were unseen.

Psalm 77, v. 20

The musical moods varied accordingly. The sparkling, descending patterns in the rippling solo piano opening to “Night Psalm,” inspired by the verses above, beautifully played by Third Angle’s Janet Coleman, reflected the projected video image of colliding river currents, picking up volume and tempo as those of the water increased.

“The Flood” used footage of the horrendous 1927 Mississippi floods that decades ago inspired Virgil Thomson’s famous documentary score to accompany Beglarian’s setting of Robert Frost poetic response to those deluges. Other pieces were more personal, including a spoken intro about a friend who was contemplating suicide, followed by somber music for cello, electric violin, muted trumpet, trombone, bass and guitar, with lonesome riverscapes projected behind. A ramshackle storefront illustrated a poem Beglarian read over Hamilton Cheifetz’s solo cello and electronics.

The evening’s most poignant moment happened in Beglarian’s rendition of the spiritual “Wayfaring Stranger,” sung in her understated yet richly expressive alto, sometimes falling into a whisper, with Beta Collide trumpeter Brian McWhorter counterpointed with extended whirling breath sounds and quietly dissonant trumpet harmonies.  The image of a graveyard cross hung starkly on the screen above the band. Rarely do you hear such unrestrained emotional honesty in a concert, classical, pop or otherwise.

The emotion turned to anger in “Brownie Feet,” the “messed up mashup” that initiated the project, which juxtaposed images of Katrina’s devastation (bodies in the water, refugees on roofs of floating houses) with photos of President Bush and “Heck of a job” Brownie, then finding some solace in video of New Orleans street musicians performing, unbowed.

 The water you touch in a river

is the last that has passed

and the first that is coming;
so with the present moment.The well-spent life is long.

Those lines by Leonardo da Vinci inspired “Well Spent,” a solo violin piece (commissioned by Third Angle in memory of its longtime supporter Donna Drummond) over pre-recorded loops, whose satellite imagery of rural landscapes and river systems seemed to morph into abstract art or blood vessels.

“Waiting for Billy Floyd” took inspiration from a Eudora Welty story set in the small town of Rodney, where Beglarian camped. The music swung from the prettiest music of the evening, for violin and vibes, as the screen showed the outside of an abandoned cabin, to harsh, darker sounds accompanying views of the detritus (and, oddly, a mural) left inside, then, as the screen showed a window open to the outside, then more exterior shots, returning to the consonant opening sounds, but this time leavened by melancholy. As the music faded, what remained were the distant howling and barking of dogs, breezes and other ambient sounds recorded on site. The piece took us on an emotional journey from the blissful response to the exterior’s picturesque pink wisteria blossoms to the realization of the disturbing reality inside, to relief tinged by the sadness of that memory as our eyes returned to the sunlit exterior.

Via Eve Beglarian

The musicians wielded shakers, and Beta Collide percussionist Philip Patti went to town on “Early in the Morning,” which used Dirty Dozen Brass Band samples and live trumpet and trombone to evoke New Orleans’s tremendous influence on American music. The show closed with a full band reprise of the solfege opening number, “I Am Really a Very Simple Person.”  The music did indeed sound simple, naive and refreshing, but in that NMB interview, Beglarian revealed the complexity to took to produce such seemingly easy sounds.

I’m Really A Very Simple Person … started with this little riff—it does C-G-D-G in all the different combinations of eighth notes and quarter notes that can happen. It takes 19 bars to loop through all the different possibilities. So on one level, it sounds totally relaxed and playful and easy, like there’s nothing to it. But I am doing some sort of combinatorial mathematics to get all the different possible combinations. I do like things like that. I mean you know, I did go to Princeton after all, and systematic, pre-compositional etcetera is always nice if it’s useful… I don’t fall in love with systematic stuff, but it does tickle me when I can incorporate it without doing violence to the ideas I’ve got going.

Composers like Beglarian don’t make a fetish of sophistication and process; instead, they’re using their innovations and technical training to produce lovely, powerful music that speaks to the feelings and happenings of our own time and place. Oregon is lucky to have talented, conscientious ensembles like Third Angle and Beta Collide (which hosted Beglarian at the University of Oregon the previous day) to bring their music to us.

Beglarian at Shelby General store / via Eve Beglarian


Beyond the Bubble

I’ve been a composer in New York City for something like 30 years now. That’s a long time to be doing one thing. Even though I’m self-employed and I never have the same 1099s each year, in a certain way there’s this incredible stability to my unstable life. The flourishing that I see going on in the New York scene is totally thrilling, but there’s also the danger of a big city. There’s a certain kind of provincialism that happens in a big city that can happen nowhere else. When you’re in a big city, you really can believe that it’s where everything is happening. And you’re not far from wrong, so nothing corrects you…. But those of us in New York generally don’t know shit about what’s going on anywhere but here. And the more rich and fruitful and fabulous New York is, the more provincial it becomes, because this world seems that much bigger…. But it is not the whole world.

In a post-concert talk with Third Angle music director and violinist Ron Blessinger, Beglarian described how she consciously used her river journey to escape her decades-long New York/New England urban-lesbian-artist bubble, including going to churches at many stops, going out of her way to meet people who “didn’t share my cultural values” and learning much from them, including how generous they could be, whether in sharing ice cream or returning her stolen kayak and bike. She’s taking the project back to the source, hoping to schedule performances of some of the easier pieces with local musicians in places she stopped along the way.

Blessinger ended the session, and the evening, by noting that The River Project provided a kind of model for how art that emerges from “ground level” can help us connect with each other, especially in this upcoming season season of red state-blue state political division.

Percussion Eruption

The soundscape switches from rural to urban Monday when Portland receives its second dose of New York new music stars Sunday and Monday. Classical music fans who hear about a percussion quartet might fear that they’re in for slam-bang experience, but Sō Percussion  plays soft melodic instruments (like the extended range marimbas in Steve Reich’s Mallet Quartet), plus more ambient sounds — including amplified cactus! — as well as metal and other materials. They’ll perform one of the real masterpieces of the percussion repertoire, John Cage’s subtle-to-stirring Third Construction, Sō Percussion  member Jason Treuting’s Amid the Noise, and a major new work inspired by Italo Calvino’s wonderful book Invisible City called Imaginary City, which evokes urban soundscapes via the use of recorded voices, video imagery of urban scenes, and of course music for a panoply of percussion instruments led by vibraphones and trap drums.

Sō Percussion / via Sō Percussion

I covered So’s performance of Drumming with Reich in 2009 and last year’s California premiere of Reich’s shimmering Mallet Quartet, which they’ll play at Portland’s Reed College Kaul Auditorium Monday, and interviewed both So’s Adam Sliwinski and Reich, the world’s greatest living composer. Here’s a bit of  I wrote:

Using paired five-octave marimbas that permit a lower range of pitches than the four-octave instruments available in his earlier percussion works, Mallet Quartet twines interlocking melodies from a pair of vibraphones with a textural shift in the slow movement, whose “change of pace is probably the most novel part of the quartet for me,” Reich says.

Mallet Quartet is “a cool synthesis of what Reich has been doing for the past 15 years,” says Adam Sliwinski of New York’s Sō Percussion =. “He seems to have condensed some of the ideas from his larger pieces. Fans will be able to hear different elements of his style over the years.”

Count Sō Percussion among those fans. “The culture has caught up with him now,” Sliwinski says. “People of our generation are finding a lot to relate to in his work.” 

“It’s a great joy to see younger players playing my music,” Reich says, “particularly when they’re so good at it, so completely made it their own and brought the kind of intensity and energy that comes with youth and complete familiarity with my music.” While [his original 1970s percussion ensemble] Nexus and Reich originally had to develop new methods to play his challenging (for performers, though not listeners) sounds, the members of Sō Percussion (Jason Treuting, Josh Quillen, Sliwinski, Eric Beach) grew up with Reich’s classic works and can handle with ease parts once considered almost too difficult to play. All under 35, they also “grew up with rock and roll and play a different way than Nexus because they are different,” says Reich. “I’m the beneficiary of that. We get something different from each other.”

What Sō Percussion gets is a chance to work with one of music history’s most creative figures. “We’ve made a mission of giving Reich’s music
as much exposure as other classical music gets to make sure it doesn’t operate on the fringe,” says Sliwinski. “I think it’s central to the American musical tradition.”

The ensemble understands the magnitude of their partnership with Reich. “We were not alive when he created most of these great contributions,” Sliwinski explains. “This is a piece we get to attach our name to as part of the history and lineage of this stuff. I love the idea that years from now we’ll be talking to students and we’ll be able to tell them about this piece. Being involved in a new piece of Steve’s really brings it full circle for us.”

As they did last year, Friends of Chamber Music is also arranging lots of community outreach for Sō Percussion, including performances at the Multnomah County Central Library and events at Portland State University this Sunday. The ensemble impressed the pop crowd at their Portland concert at Holocene with Matmos last year, and I know classical fans will also find a lot to enjoy in their supremely skillful performances.

This Saturday at Kaul, the state’s most innovative orchestra gets the Halloween season going with German composer HK Gruber’s “pandemonium” Frankenstein!!  Portland Chamber Orchestra performs this telling of Mary Shelley’s story from the monster’s point of view, with help from various other imaginary characters. Saturday night’s concert also features the world premiere of Duncan Neilson’s The Monster with visuals by Liz Gill Neilson, and pianist Rosa Li plays Franz Liszt’s Dance of Death and joins PCO for his Piano Concerto #1. 

Liszt’s 200th birthday will also be celebrated tonight in Eugene in a recital at Beall Concert Hall by the fine University of Oregon pianist Dean Kramer. And the UO brings another German import  Sunday afternoon when the Berlin Philharmonic Wind Quintet performs Gyorgy Ligeti’s delightful Six Bagatelles, Samuel Barber’s pastoral Summer Music and more. Sunday night is the world series — that is, the opening game in the UO’s World Music Series, which hosts Veretski Pass, a trio of American musicians of Eastern European Jewish descent that performs music from Eastern Europe. It’s urgent that Oregon listeners hear homegrown new sounds, but we can all benefit from exposure to great new music from outside our comfortable Northwest bubble.

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