Sunday, April 20, 2008

Review: Wordless Music strikes a nerve

Photo by Jeffrey Jacobus

Article and Reviews by Lorin Wilkerson

When I first heard about the Wordless Music Series’ Portland shows and read WM’s mission statement, I was immediately excited and wanted to be a part of spreading the word somehow, doing my part to “evangelize classical music” to those who probably aren’t familiar with it, as WM founder Ronen Givony put it during his pre-concert notes on Friday night. [Go here to read an interview I conducted with some of the performers in this series.] As a young(ish) classical music performer and aficionado, I attend and perform in dozens upon dozens of concerts each year, and one thing that often strikes me is the age of the patrons I see in the audience. By and large, (and this is more true at some events than others), the crowd is older, and quite often consists principally of a sea of gray and white-haired music lovers. Now, I am no ageist, and one thing seeing these types of audiences immediately tells me is that wisdom and good taste can indeed come with age. However, it also leaves me with pangs of concern, a worry for the future of this wonderful, fragile world of art music. Although the death knell for classical music has been prematurely sounded time and again over the last century, to me it seems like the future of classical music, post-classical music, art music or whatever term you want to use, faces challenges that it has not seen before.

While much classical music is immediately accessible even to the novice listener, let’s face it: this is a very complex idiom, one that holds in its tradition all the centuries since Neanderthals first pounded on a hollow log and determined that it was good. A lot of classical music is very much an acquired taste, and acquiring a taste almost always involves an intentional seeking. Rock ’n roll as well as hip-hop (which is rapidly becoming the world-wide voice of youth culture), for all that I love both genres, have entrenched into pop culture the standard of the 3-4 minute song. And now in these heady information-age days of ours, with I-pods and Play Station 3s and blogs and digital cable, the idea of a young person (read: future audience for classical music) having the desire to sit down and listen to a deep, weighty, mysterious Shostakovich string quartet can be unfathomable, and what is scarier, completely undesirable to the uninitiated. I’m not saying anything here that hasn’t been said a thousand times before, but it gets back the idea behind Wordless Music, which, simply stated, has the goal of tearing apart boundaries between different genres in the hopes of exposing audiences to sounds they probably would not otherwise seek out.

WM seeks to pair performers in the indie, electronic, and ambient musical fields with those who play what is more traditionally understood as classical music, although in the course of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, the distinction between these has been blurred, and in some cases erased entirely. WM has determined, rightly so it seems to me, that the audiences for classical music and ambient electronic music are a natural cross-over: both genres require the ability and desire to listen to lengthy compositions, works that in many cases focus on or exist entirely within very subtle gradations of sound changes. So without further ado, here are the…


Thursday, April 17th, The Holocene

The first concert featured Chris Willits, an ambient/experimental guitarist from the Bay Area, followed by members of the Portland chamber group Classical Revolution Portland (CRPDX) and the ambient music superstars Stars of the Lid (SOTL), a reference to the patterns of color and light one sees on the inside of the eyelids when eyes are closed. I wasn’t sure what to expect at the WM concerts, although one thing was readily apparent: the crowds at the Holocene on Thursday and the Old Church on Friday would be very different. I was right. The Holocene is a quirky club on 10th and Morrison, and the people here were definitely not the type I am used to seeing at a classical music concert. The place was thronged with 20- and 30-somethings; lots of hipsters (a term everyone hates and no one will admit to being) with thick glasses, loose jeans, corduroy shirts and thrift-store blouses. Geek chic was the rule of the evening.

I introduced myself to Hannah Carlen, the promoter from Spectre Music who is the PDX liaison for WM. She had been very helpful when I approached WM and Spectre and offered to cover the series, and put me in contact with the artists I was able to interview prior to the concerts. At the venue she introduced me to Ronen, the founder of WM, as well as Mattie Kaiser and Briana Ratterman, musicians from CRPDX. There are a number of rooms at the Holocene, and I was actually unsure where the performance would be, so I ordered a beer and sat down at one of the last remaining tables. I casually observed three djs at turn-tables on a low dais spinning electronica, one hapless, melancholy tune fading disjointedly, yet somehow comfortably, into another. Dim lights hung from the vaulted, exposed wooden beams high above, and a projection of haphazard, repetitive psychedelia crawled along quietly behind the guy selling cds and records, honest-to-god vinyl, at a table on the back wall.

The show started late and was in a small hall off to the back of the main room. I dragged a chair in and sat down, waiting for the show to begin. I struck up a conversation with a young-looking guy next to me, Jeff Jacobus, who is a photographer covering WM for a Danish music blog. [Go here to see Jeff’s own blog containing photographs of both the Holocene and Old Church concerts.] It was a very enlightening conversation, as we seemed to come to this show from the exact opposite perspectives: I, the classical music fan at my very first ambient show, and he a knowledgeable electronic music fan who didn’t have much experience with classical music. (In short, exactly the type of interchange that WM seeks to promote.) A long time SOTL fan, he dropped a number of names that probably most of the other people in the crowd would recognize (all of which meant nothing to me) until he finally mentioned one I had heard, Brian Eno. Although I’m no stranger to electronic music in general, my background in ambient/drone music is very limited, and Jeff gave me some good terminology and explained concepts that would help me frame my experience.

Chris Willits came out and immediately launched into his program, standing amidst a maze of mixers, sequencers, amps, keyboards and a spaghetti-like tangle of cords. His work was called Improvisation for guitar and custom-built software. It began with echoing loops of a simple, distorted guitar lick folding back in on themselves and shifting subtly. The actual performance was very confusing to me at first. Chris, wearing headphones, moved back and forth rapidly between guitar, laptop, and sequencers, constantly fiddling with knobs and checking the monitor of his iMac like some post-modern Wizard of Oz, only without the pretense of a curtain. At first it was hard for me to tell if he was actually performing, or just adjusting electronic gadgetry in an attempt to reach the desired setting. Eventually I picked up on the fact that this whole frenetic enterprise was part and parcel of the performance.

The room was dimly lit with various colored lights and there were visual projections all throughout, from clouds and close-ups of weeds growing through cracks in the sidewalk to amorphous blobs of constantly shifting color throbbing in time to a more-felt-than-heard electronic heartbeat. While some of this music was uninteresting to me there were moments of undeniable beauty, such as when he struck a series of chords on his guitar and then filtered them to such an extent that they reminded me of the voices of dead passengers on a sunken ghost ship, bubbling up from the depths of a murky green sea.

Next up was CRPDX, with Dmitri Shostakovich’s titanic String Quartet No. 8 in C minor. I actually missed the opening moments waiting in the long line for beer, but I will say this about hearing classical music at a club: as music and craft beer are my two great passions, it was singularly enjoyable to be able to sit in the dark and sip a bottle of Rogue Brewery’s Nut Brown Nectar while listening to the haunting strains of a Shostakovich quartet. This work was performed by Lucia Conrad and Mary Kazmierski, violins, Mattie Kaiser, viola, and Erin Winemiller, cello.

This piece, perhaps the most-often performed work in his seminal collection of quartets, was composed in a furious 3-day spurt of creativity when Shostakovich was in Dresden in 1960, and it was intended as a remembrance of the victims of fascism and totalitarianism. I attempted to pay special attention to the audience, as I surmised this style would be unfamiliar to many of them. It seemed like a number didn’t quite know what to make of it at first, but they sat in rapt silence and paid close attention; classical music audiences who are often coughing, shuffling and whispering could learn a thing or two from the serene meditative complacence with which this Holocene crowd attended the Shostakovich. One other thing that suggested an unfamiliarity with classical etiquette was an attempt to clap between movements, although the later movements flowed attaca one into the other, so that eliminated this problem. This was an audience that sincerely wanted to hear new music, as shown by the growing throng that was willing to sit packed together on the cold concrete floor.

The syncopated atonality that permeated large parts of this work proved a stark contrast to the dreamy ambient music immediately preceding it, and it actually took me a moment or two to adjust aurally. The opening Largo was very somber and intentional; it began with a sobbing motif that Shostakovich often uses as his musical signature. There were a few intonation problems right at first but they soon worked themselves out. Part of it could’ve been the loud hum of the overhead fans which was inaudible during the amplified sets of the other performers. But, it interfered with my hearing and could easily have proved a distraction to the unplugged musicians attempting to play in a whispering pianissimo.

By the time the Allegro Molto was in full swing the audience was hooked. The viola dominated an important segment of this movement, and Kaiser rendered these fiendishly difficult phrases with demoniac intensity, hammering out triple and quadruple stops with such ferocity that I thought strings might snap. I couldn’t help but visualize extreme violence during this section, families torn from their roots and ripped apart to be scattered unto death by the winds of a soulless, inhumane force. The Allegretto was a pleasant contrast to this, a bacchanalian dance that belied the fury of the former movement. The work closed with two sparse Largos, and Lucia Conrad played the return of the opening theme that dominated these movements with as much mesmeric intent as any fan of hypnotic music could hope for.

CRPDX finished with the minimalist Spiegel im Spiegel (Mirror in Mirror) by Arvo Pärt, a consonant piece more in keeping with the overall dreamy timbre of the evening. For this work Kaiser was joined by Briana Ratterman on an electronic keyboard. This was a simple piece featuring a languid, happy melody on the viola hovering over a repetitive motif on the keyboard. Ratterman had a deceptively challenging task in keeping the ostinato fresh and invigorating, and she did this well.

Stars of the Lid were the headliners, and there were many long-time fans there. With one member of this duo living in Brussels and the other in L.A., apparently American tours have become increasingly rare for them, so there were a lot of excited people when they took the stage. This ensemble was composed of SOTL members Brian McBride and Adam Bryanbaum Wiltzie, and they were joined by Ella Baruch on viola, Kate O’Brien on Violin, and cellist Julia Kent. All of the strings were plugged in to amplifiers.

While putatively there were five pieces performed by this group, to be honest I couldn’t distinguish one from another, but that didn’t distract from my enjoyment of the closing act. Hallucinatory projections were a prominent feature of the ambient/drone performances I heard that evening, and it was a good match. Projectionist Luke Savisky was responsible for the visual effects. These formed an all-encompassing burble of colors and slowly mutating shapes that served to enhance the trance-like state this music wanted to induce, creating a synesthetic jumble of the visual and the aural. All around heads were bowed in silent reflection, and a girl stretched out on a cushion in the window box, seemingly lulled to sleep by this effervescent lullaby.

The strings, situated in the center of the stage in between Wiltzie and McBride, played a virtually unvarying, agonizingly slow melody over and over again, and I imagine it was no easy task to keep coordinated at such an exaggerated adagio. Waves of somnolence washed from the speakers as Wiltzie and McBride both wielded guitars from the shadows off to the side. After a long buildup, the music did reach a crescendo towards the end. A sternum-rumbling bass gradually arose, and I could hear the twanging of guitar strings as a lightning-fast sequence of chords was struck, only to be heard four or five seconds later as a muted, warbling concatenation of sound, like waiting for the slow rumble of distant thunder long after a blinding flash of light. Finally the music disappeared as mysteriously as it had started and I was left in silence, staring at an eyeball-like blob melting on the back wall.

Friday, April 18th, The Old Church

I admit to being a bit groggy from the good beers and the 1 am ending time of the Holocene show the previous night (followed by a full workday), but I was in good spirits as I walked through the doors of the Old Church on a downright frigid Friday evening. I attended with my girlfriend Kristin, and we sat near the stage. Jeff, the photographer from the previous night, was probably as unsure of the setting as I had been at the Holocene, and we talked for a while, this time more about classical music.

The crowd was indeed different from the previous evening, with many more traditional-looking classical music fans (although what does that mean?) but there was a good mix of the ambient/electronica crowd there as well. Unfortunately some of those folks left after the opening act Eluvium, which seems unfortunate since the whole point of WM is in large part to expose yourself to music you might not normally hear. They missed a spectacular, exhilarating performance by Third Angle in the second half.

Ronen Givony spoke briefly both nights, and he wisely directed his comments to the differing though cross-fertilized crowds that made up each show. Givony is a relative newcomer to classical music, and on Thursday he addressed the crowd with an amusing anecdote about how he discovered what chamber music is, and how it is connected integrally to the music they were there to hear. On Friday night, he challenged the audience to listen closely, and to determine for themselves what it is that links composers who create music on laptops with those who write traditional acoustic chamber music.

Matthew Cooper is the man behind Eluvium, a drone/ambient project based in Portland. He has performed for WM before, and so he had a contingent of fans there specifically to hear him. He opened with a challenging (for the listener) piece called Miniatures, which is a brand new composition from him. It started with a sad, melodic guitar line that sounded like a slowed-down, dreamy surf-rock riff. Gradually an urban soundscape intruded upon this repetitive theme, eventually overtaking it until the original music could hardly be heard. These folded into a cacophonous feedback loop that grew louder and louder each time the theme began again, until it reached almost ear-splitting levels. This called to mind a genre of music called "danger music," the milder forms of which consist of making the audience fear that a damaging level of sound will be directed at them. (The most extreme pieces call for among other things lobbing anti-personnel bombs into the audience or the conductor gouging out his eye, but these misanthropic compositions are theoretical and fortunately never performed.) I noticed the patrons in front of me with fingers solidly plugging their ears as the wall of distortion grew louder, louder, louder, until I thought I would plug my ears too. Perhaps I was a little "ambiented -out" from the previous evening, but it became tiresome and I was thankful when this work finally ended. During the intermission I had a chance to speak with Mattie Kaiser, and she had a thought that elevated my thinking on this; for after all, isn’t creating disturbing tension and borderline anxiety a valid musical goal as well? Whether life imitates art or vice versa, life isn’t all lollipops and daisies, so I suppose there’s no reason music should be either.

There were several other works in the Eluvium performance, and while more segregated than SOTL, I still had trouble sometimes determining where one ended and another began. There were two simplistic keyboard works, thought not without charm, one of which was a melancholy waltz that reminded me a little of Elliot Smith. My favorite piece of his (possibly Talk Amongst the Trees) began with a shoegaze guitar line that was slowly recycled, laying back upon itself in minutely altered gradations of time until Cooper began hammering on the strings with his fingers to effect a muffled percussive sound. This one also featured a blasting soundwall at the end, though not to the extreme of the first piece. It made me think of M.C. Escher’s woodcut Metamorphosis, where an idea evolves almost imperceptibly from one iteration to the next until it is completely unrecognizable from that which preceded it only a few stages ago.

Third Angle New Music Ensemble began the second half with a solo work for violinist/artistic director Ron Blessinger. It was called RJ Meets LJ Meets ED by local composer David Schiff. The odd title references the initials of several jazz and blues composers from years past, including Robert Johnson. True to its name, it jumped between a series of jazz and blues themes. It was a short, difficult piece that struck me as rather wonky at first, but eventually it grew on me, especially the bluesy coda that kept repeating itself at the end of each verse.

Cellist Hamilton Cheifetz joined Blessinger for Duo for Violin and Cello by Zoltan Kodaly, and Cheifetz explained that the rhythmic accents found in this work mirror certain speech patterns in Kodaly’s native Hungarian language. Cheifetz and Blessinger seamlessly dove into this rapid, offbeat piece, see-sawing back and forth and tossing a tick-tock pizzicato from one to the other, with snippets of rich Hungarian folk songs popping out here and there.

Next they were joined by Peter Frajola on second violin and Brian Quincey on viola for the meat of the program, beginning with a pair of lush vignettes for string quartet by the renowned Chen Yi. Her background as a forced laborer during the Cultural Revolution, her experiences as a conservatory student where she was only allowed to play communist anthems, all of this seemed to feed directly into the almost surreal integrity of these meaningful works.

The first piece was Sprout, from 1982 near the beginning of her composing career. This work reflects the ebullience of youth and began with an anthemic melody that featured the haunting, slightly alien sonority that makes Chinese art music so engaging to Western ears. It mutated from this expansive, windy opening into a distant, spritely sort of passepied, and was over far too quickly for me.

Burning, composed in the days immediately following the September 11, 2001 tragedies, could not be more different from Sprout, and Third Angle did well in choosing such disparate works to showcase the vast depth of Yi’s emotional repertoire as well as their own virtuosic capabilities. This composition literally exploded right out of the gates, and never let up for a second. It seemed like Sturm und Drang carried to its uttermost conclusion: sighing, sawing, yowling, and pleading, Third Angle hammered out an incredibly thick chordal texture until suddenly, surprisingly, all voices joined together in scratchy, ascending glissandi that dwindled away into nothingness.

The final work of the evening was the exciting String Quartet No. 4 by Portlander Thomas Svoboda, which Blessinger explained was meant to be a reflection on the Iraq war. The placement of this work after Yi’s Burning struck me as symbolic: first we had the terrible tragedy that began it all, followed by a work that dwells on the continuing sorrow which sprang from that terrible day. It opened with a Vivace that was extremely scant at first, beginning with duplet motif starting with one instrument and rapidly, seemingly randomly taken up one by one by all the others, only to reduce itself just as quickly and start again somewhere else. The second movement was marked Adagio-Vivace-Adagio, and began with an eerie tune that soon gave way to a mildly playful Vivace, with a complex, loud plunking pizzicato that was jerky and yet somehow cheerful. The ultimate Adagio was pensive and serious, and closed with a three-note bass drum pattern quietly intoned by Frajola each time the rest of the group ended a certain phrase, sounding like the muffled crump of artillery fire retreating into the distance. And finally it was all over, with a dull, ominous thud.

Third Angle shone brightly Friday night, choosing powerful, important works that highlighted their spectacular precision and informed musicality. I think this was instrumental in helping further the goals of WM, that is to say, the dialog between different, though entwined sonic worlds.

One of the reasons I wanted to talk to the performers, the promoters, project founders and concertgoers during this past week was to see for myself if such a project has a hope of being successful. Can classical music survive the information overload age? Or post-classical music, if that is the correct term for these brand new works. Certainly it seems that the term ‘classical’ as it is commonly used is not always an accurate descriptor, but these works are linked in an unbroken chain to the early music that I love so dearly, so their fates, it would seem, cannot be separated.

In speaking with Jeff Jacobus after the show, he talked about how much he enjoyed the works he heard, and that he was interested in seeing more live performances of this type of music. I realize that that is only one person, but every revolution, every worthwhile goal or idea must needs make converts one at a time. I know for my part that I am interested in exploring more of the strange electronic dreamscapes that I have been exposed to the past few days. Despite, or maybe because of, the vast differences in style and performance of the artists in Wordless Music’s shows, I believe that I do see the commonalities that are inherent in the act of musical composition, whatever form the end product takes.

I’ve heard rumblings that these shows will not be the last WM presentations in Portland, and I certainly hope not. I would encourage traditional classical music fans to give a thought to attending works like this. What better way to spread the gospel of one’s own music than to reach out and give appreciation to that of others? How better to draw new fans and younger audiences who will ensure the continuity of this music that gives so much meaning to our lives? It can’t stop at the ambient/electronica frontier, and obviously needs to reach out to fans of other genres. But a good start is a good start, and Wordless Music is an admirable project that I hope will develop and expand for a long time, and this mirrors the hopes I have for this music that I so desperately love.


Chip Michael said...

This sounds like an exciting project. I am all for getting a younger audience involved with classical music, getting them to explore the richness and depth of orchestral music while getting the classical music world to appreciate some of the great music being performed by the the "pop" world (that including everything from bubblegum, to rock to metal to hiphop to….).

In my own music I am looking to bridge the gap. My concert in June will have a "rock" quartet - a string quartet group will be performing music that is, for the most part, based on heavy anthem rock of the 80's. While I am not covering any specific tune, I am trying to show the relationship to that music and classically written quartet music. There will also be a portion of an opera where Urban music styles are brought to the forefront. And finally a symphony. This last piece isn't trying to be "pop" in any sense, other than, if they've listened to the last hour of music the audience should be in a receptive frame of mind to allow for a more classically written piece to still move them.

Anyway… I hope the project succeeds - and isn't killed by the classical music snobs avoiding anything that ventures into the pop world.

Chip Clark

Lorin Wilkerson said...

Thanks Chip. It's nice to see that so many classical music lovers understand that our music cannot continue to thrive if the entire atmosphere in which it exists is so rarefied that it doesn't attract enough new listeners to assure its survival.

I thought James Bash referenced an important idea though, in his Crosscut piece, and one that's been going through my mind as I think this through: eventually, these new fans will need to come to the concert hall to hear classical music in its more traditional setting if the goal of creating new classical music lovers is truly to be met. It's a question of motivation, and I think projects like Wordless Music, CRPDX, your June concert and I'm sure countless others are the perfect way to begin this process. As classical music lovers, we can't just expect new fans to fall into the seats at the Schnitz or Keller auditorium. There needs to be a reaching out, and not of the type that says 'my music is better or more dignified than yours, so come pay 40 dollars to hear a Beethoven piano concerto.' It's got to be a two-way street.

As a side note, Matthew Cooper informed me that the Eluvium set list as presented in the program was not a 'set list' as such but the titles of the albums from which the various songs were taken.

The setlist was as follows:

1. Under the water it glowed.

2. Untitled Waltz

3. Taken (the piece I especially enjoyed and mistakenly referred to as Talk Amongst the Trees.)

4. Miniature 4 (Song for a New King.)

5. Repose in Blue.