Keeping Portland Creative

“Keep Portland Weird,” one of Portland’s unofficial mottos, is seen often on bumper stickers affixed to cars, skateboards, and bicycles and says a great deal about the city’s culture. With its population of about 600,000 (making it the 30th most populous in the United States), this little big town is known for its relaxed way of life, its green landscape, the coffee and micro-brewed beer that seem to be required if one is to successfully negotiate the rainy winters, and above all, its citizen’s affection for the unique brand of “weirdness” that permeates the place they call home.

Portland boasts a wide variety of festivals, new music ensembles, and presenters, as well as a host of artists young and old who are finding new audiences for their music through creative programming and new approaches to communicating with the public. There is no primary, preeminent new music venue, so a multitude of spaces and artists have come together to create a fabric of performance opportunities that present new music along with many other styles. This lack of a centralized source of presentation or funding has given rise to a scene that is as varied as it is fitting to a city well-known for a unique culture of individualists who pave their own way.

Portland hosts two internationally relevant festivals devoted to new music and performing art. The Portland Institute of Contemporary Art’s Time Based Art Festival, or TBA, is a gem of Portland’s creative arts scene, where contemporary performing and visual arts rub shoulders in a multi-venue festival. The events take place mostly over a ten-day period in September, with some additional programming throughout the year. TBA 2007 featured a performance of Rinde Eckert’s On the Great Migration of Excellent Birds in downtown Portland’s Pioneer Courthouse Square by the Portland Flash Choir, a non-traditional singing group dedicated to bringing unexpected art to everyday places. The Flash Choir has recently premiered a work by Portland composer Ethan Rose, Between Rooms and Voices, at the Portland City Hall.

The Portland Jazz Festival is another world-class festival that has brought to town many high-profile jazz artists who are committed to creating innovative music that expands and honors the jazz tradition. The Portland Jazz Festival came into being after the demise of the Mt. Hood Jazz Festival, which, when it ran into financial trouble, leaned more and more heavily on smooth jazz and pop acts. The Portland festival shed the large stadium approach of the Mt. Hood Festival and distinguished itself by featuring national and regional acts and offering innovative programming in multiple venues throughout the city. Many shows go on throughout each of the festival’s ten days. With its focus on some of the most creative artists in the field, the Portland Jazz Festival has quickly become one of the most respected in the world today.

A highlight of the festival is its connection to jazz outside of the United States. A particularly unique and memorable show was the Trygve Seim Ensemble’s performance for a sold-out crowd eager to hear this Norwegian composer’s finely constructed and highly personal compositions that have been seldom performed in the United States. This year’s festival draws connections between and Jewish- and African-American jazz musicians, featuring many musicians who find bridges between these two cultures: clarinetist Anat Cohen, trumpeter Avishai Cohen, violinist Regina Carter’s “Reverse Thread”, Don Byron playing the klezmer music of Mickey Katz, Maceo Parker, Joshua Redman, and the klezmer/hip-hop ensemble Afro-Semitic Experience.

The Portland Jazz Festival also sponsors the work of the Portland Jazz Orchestra as its “ensemble in residence”. Co-led by Lars Campbell and Charley Gray, this big band focuses on presenting repertory concerts of classic big band music, all of it composed in the 20th century by composers like Duke Ellington, Thad Jones, and Gil Evans. Though the group isn’t committed specifically to commissioning new works, it is an important member of Portland’s resident jazz scene whose members are all talented performers and composers themselves. A concert in February 2010 featured the music of Latin jazz master Tito Puente.

While these international festivals do bring a global reputation to Portland for great music, it is the resident musicians, working year-round to bring new music to their audiences, that make Portland the musical city that it is. Some new music groups have been working in Portland for decades to produce cutting-edge concerts every season and to improve Portland’s musical infrastructure. The Third Angle Ensemble, an active presenter of new chamber music for over 25 years, features Portland musicians playing the work of New York composers David Lang and Steve Reich in upcoming concerts. Fear No Music, with an impressive history of performances and commissions of Pacific Northwest composers and regional touring since 1992, brings Gabriel Prokofiev—DJ, producer, and composer, as well as grandson to Sergei—to the Aladdin Theatre in March. The Oregon Symphony, Oregon’s leading orchestra, has premiered works commissioned from Oregon composers Tomas Svoboda and Robert Kyr, with Svoboda’s Concerto for Marimba and Orchestra earning a Grammy nomination in 2000.

The Cascadia Composers is a newly formed composer’s collective that has already produced several concerts in and around Portland with bigger and better plans on the way. Composers David Bernstein and Dan Senn lead the collective that produces lectures and concerts throughout the Portland area. Cascadia’s next big event is a three-concert festival called “In Just Spring” at Portland State University on March 18 and 19 and featuring music by members of the collective.

With the chart-topping success of bands such as The Decemberists, much attention has been given to Portland’s indie rock scene. Even before the Decemberists, Portland had long been a hotbed of such creativity, and the city’s musicians creating new music in concert, jazz, and improvised music have made some natural connections. One notable example is Douglas Jenkins’s Portland Cello Project, which finds sixteen cellists playing arrangements of pop music along side the music of contemporary concert music composers. The group has an impressively diverse repertoire that ranges from Kanye West covers to Bach to Arvo Part and film music by Tan Dun. Through March 2011, the “indie cello orchestra” performs with introspective indie-folk singer Laura Gibson. Hear some of these arrangements at NPR music’s Song of the Day feature.

The rock venues Doug Fir Lounge and Someday Lounge have both hosted new music events in collaboration with some of Portland’s forward-looking music groups. Classical Revolution, a new music presenting organization that originated in San Francisco, brings chamber music out of the concert hall in creative pairings of space and repertoire, and guided by a healthy dose of imagination. Classical Revolution PDX and the Electric Opera Company collaborated February 27, 2011, to produce “Sympathy for the Devil”, playing Gounod’s Faust and music by the Rolling Stones. The normally traditional Portland Piano International presenting organization produced a concert featuring Phyllis Chen playing virtuosic new music for toy piano at Doug Fir Lounge in May 2010.

There is an impressive scene made up of young jazz players in Portland eagerly forging a new future for jazz in the city. A notable partnership is the new jazz series Notes From the Underground, curated by pianist and composer Ben Darwish and hosted by McMenamins, the ubiquitous brewpub of Oregon and Washington. This series, on the first Tuesday of the month, presents new, original jazz music paired with concert footage from classic jazz artists at the intermission. Another club, the Blue Monk, has reinstated its jazz programming with Sunday night jazz curated by saxophonist Mary Sue Tobin. The Portland Jazz Composer’s Ensemble, after a brief hiatus, is once again an up-and-coming group that is expanding its funding to commission Oregon composers to create new music for large jazz ensemble. Led by pianist and composer Andrew Oliver, it is a group to look out for on the energetic and growing Portland jazz scene. The internationally recognized Jimmy Mak’s jazz club is another place to hear progressive jazz music. In this beautifully renovated space in Portland’s upscale Pearl District one can hear live jazz music six nights a week with younger and older generations of musicians appearing on the same stage—often in the same groups.

Portland has a busy experimental music scene as well. Though this music remains intentionally on the fringes of the field, musicians have created some places where they can present their work in a setting of their choosing. Venues that occasionally present experimental music in Portland are Worksound and TaborSpace, though one might stay better informed by following Portland’s improvised music presenters the Portland Creative Music Guild. This group has been presenting performers of improvised music since 1991 in a variety of venues throughout Portland. The group has brought in musicians from all over the world, as well as from the Pacific Northwest and from the ranks of Portland’s resident improvisers. Their last concert featured Endangered Blood, a group of four New York-based improvisers—Chris Speed, Trevor Dunn, Oscar Noriega and Jim Black—with the Portland quartet Paxselin opening.

With an underground music of this kind, most of its performances won’t be covered by the usual channels of the media, though the online music journal Oregon Music News is doing a great job keeping its finger on the pulse of Oregon’s music scene in the experimental area and in many others. So, keep your ears to the ground (perhaps you’ll hear the rumblings of a PA system pushed to its limit) for news on performances in basements and in small venues in out-of-the-way neighborhoods. A good resource for learning more about Portland’s experimental music culture is the independent film “People Who Do Noise” by Adam Cornelius with concert footage and extensive interviews available at the independent film outlet, filmbaby. The new landscape of the music world has created challenges and opportunities for independent organizations to produce new music. The economics of making and selling recordings in the last few years has made it more challenging for emerging artists to document their music and establish their reputations. In an answer to this, Portlander Dusty York started a record label called Diatic Records and produced nine albums by Portland musicians. Diatic also produced collectively promoted performances and a weekly series featuring Diatic musicians that brought the them together into a new and exciting scene. The label folded after only a short time in operation, but was a noble and high-minded effort that grew directly out of the energy and creativity of Portland’s jazz scene.

It is unfortunately common to see the end of enterprises like Diatic, operations that often run on a shoestring budget shored up with nothing more than a love for music and an intense commitment from the people involved. Good times come and go, experiments pop up and die out. It is unavoidable in any town, and Portland, with its slightly smaller market, makes organizations here especially susceptible. But some efforts stand the test of time. Many of Portland’s institutions are going strong and are growing by finding new ways to connect with their audience and involving them in new musical undertakings. Rapid and sometimes unpredictable change is the rule right now in music, and Portland’s scene shows a great many responses to this situation from its ensembles, artist collectives, and innovative new music presenters. With all the energy for artistic projects in Portland, new ventures are sure to rise again from such fertile ground.

Portland’s scene is diverse and high quality, as is already known to all its residents. Anyone traveling there will find a unique musical offering on almost any given day. Portland’s particular brand of livability, with a small town feeling that still offers big city cultural events, has attracted many musicians to move in and add to the already vivid cultural fabric. Well known for the rainy weather, relaxed, independent culture and its own style of weirdness, Portland’s music scene deserves to join the list as one of the city’s brightest features.

[Ed. Note: We would like to update with an additional link to North Pacific Music, an independent record label carrying new classical, jazz and avant-garde music.—AG]

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Douglas Detrick
Douglas Detrick

Douglas Detrick is a trumpeter, composer and music writer based in New York City. Having worked as a composer and performer in jazz, chamber, improvised and electro-acoustic music, he is interested in the intersection of these forms and their resonance with our culture. Detrick has written for NewMusicBox, About.com and for his own blog at douglasdetrick.com.