Scene Scan: Bridging Streams in Portland

In recent years, Portland, Oregon, has earned a reputation as one of the capitals of indie rock, boasting musicians such as The Decemberists, Sleater-Kinney, the Shins, M. Ward, the late Elliott Smith, Dandy Warhols, and Pink Martini. But the city also reverberates to a surprisingly robust “new music” / postclassical music undercurrent, and recently, the two streams seem to be converging.

Classical to Post-Classical

Third Angle violist Brian Quincey performs in triplicate (with video assistance) at the group’s Frozen Music concerts.
Photo by Carolezoom

The most established new music groups grew out of the city’s classical music institutions. The most prominent ensemble, Third Angle, which just celebrated its 20th anniversary, has commissioned more than 20 new works (many by Northwest composers), sponsored residencies by composers such as Steve Reich, Chen Yi, and Zhou Long, collaborated with dancers and videographers, and performed works by many of the leading American new music composers, including Portlanders David Schiff and Tomas Svoboda. Though it regularly performs at Reed College and the downtown performing arts center, some of its most fascinating concerts have happened in such unlikely spaces as a glass factory and a bank lobby. Its first concert this season (Oct. 27-28) features a newly commissioned score by Vivek Madalla for the classic King Vidor film Wild Oranges.

Like Third Angle, Fear No Music draws its members from the Oregon Symphony and other classical orchestras, and also presents music by 20th- and 21st-century composers. This septet is a bit smaller than Third Angle, whose six-member core can expand to 15 or more members when necessary. It performs in downtown churches, at Portland State University, and, last year, in the performance space at the advertising firm of Wieden + Kennedy, which also hosts many events in the city’s annual Time Based Arts festival.

The major classical organizations play contemporary music only occasionally, although the Oregon Symphony is set to debut Oregon composer Robert Kyr’s Symphony No. 13 in the spring. Portland choral groups have been more adventurous: the Oregon Repertory Singers (for which Kyr served as composer-in-residence) have commissioned or debuted almost 20 new American works since 1980, and the David York Ensemble performs new music as well as old. The 60-year-old Portland Chamber Orchestra has scattered 20th century music throughout its recent programs, including this year’s debut concert featuring Viktor Ullmann’s 1944 one-act anti-fascist opera, The Emperor From Atlantis, and the world premiere of Ofer Ben-Amots’s Klezmer Concerto, featuring the dazzling David Krakauer on clarinet. PCO’s next show, in January, features two more world premieres.

Bandoneon virtuoso Coco Trivisonno joins Third Angle in music by Astor Piazzolla.
Photo by Carolezoom

Local classically trained composers also find outlets in a couple of regular concert series. Seventh Species, a composers’ collective led by Gary Noland that migrated from Berkeley to Eugene and then to Portland, will often showcase a dozen composers’ works (usually performed by the composers themselves or a few local musicians) and frequently include “older masters” such as Debussy, Schönberg, Messiaen, etc. The New West Electro Acoustic Music Organization (NWEAMO) started in Portland, where its founder, Joseph Waters, once taught college. He’s moved on to San Diego, yet maintains the series in both cities, and this year expanded it to New York as well. NWEAMO’s definition of new music also includes laptop composers and music that brings in jazz, hip hop, and other contemporary influences; it happily blurs the line between classical- and pop-influenced avant garde music.

Some of the Seventh Species composers record for North Pacific Music, a Portland-based record label founded by composer Jack Gabel that’s one of the city’s most important new music institutions. Gabel himself is a fine electroacoustic composer who often writes for dance. One of North Pacific’s newest groups, the East West Ensemble led by flutist Tessa Brinckman, specializes in Pacific Rim music (it includes a koto player) and is one of the most appealing new music groups to emerge in the Northwest in years.

College bound

Many of these composers and musicians also frequently perform two hours south in the college town of Eugene, home of the University of Oregon. The UO music school hosts a strong composition program, headed by Kyr, that includes a biennial new music festival (this year featuring Veljo Tormis), a new music performance series, a performance series for composition students, Future Music Oregon (an electronic music program run by composer Jeffrey Stolet), and percussion ensembles led by Prof Charles Dowd that play almost exclusively contemporary music by composers such as Portland native Lou Harrison, Frank Zappa, and other 20th century composers. UO music students have also founded a number of new music ensembles over the years that play student works as well as 20th century classics at campus concert venues. The university also hosts the Oregon Bach Festival, which has sponsored performances (often U.S. premieres) of music by, among others, Osvaldo Golijov, Tan Dun, Arvo Pärt, and Krzysztof Penderecki, and a biennial composers symposium, directed by Kyr, that’s hosted teaching residencies by those composers and others, such as George Crumb and Lou Harrison.

Daryl Groetsch of Pulse Emitter and Don Haugen of Warning Broken Machine perform at DIVA in Eugene.
Photo by Carolezoom

The Eugene Symphony under music director emerita Marin Alsop won a reputation as a haven for contemporary music and seemed poised to continue it during Giancarlo Guerrero’s tenure, when his second season featured music and appearances by John Corigliano, Jennifer Higdon, Aaron Jay Kernis, and John Adams. Pickings have been slimmer of late, however, save for an all-Michael Daugherty concert last year. Touring new music types like the Kronos Quartet, Rachel’s, Invert, Laurie Anderson, and others have made infrequent appearances at local concert halls. But a new scene appears to be coalescing around Eugene’s three-year-old Downtown Initiative for the Visual Arts (DIVA), an arts institute that has hosted a steady stream of increasingly prominent noise and improv musicians, multimedia productions, and local avant garde composers.

A couple hours west of Portland at the Oregon coast, the 15-year-old Ernest Bloch Composers Symposium, held annually in conjunction with the Ernest Bloch Music Festival in Newport, has presented the work of over 100 composers, led each summer by a different “master” composer, including among others: Chinary Ung, George Rochberg, David Del Tredici, and Chen Yi.

From Clubland

Back in Portland, a different new music scene appears to be emerging from various music clubs. The Creative Music Guild has for 15 years hosted out-there jazz and improvisatory music from around the country at jazz clubs and other venues. A number of bands play new music inflected by jazz, rock, or electronica, the most venerable—and fun—being the uncategorizable 3 Leg Torso, who bring their mix of violin, accordion, cello, and percussion to various venues around the region, including summer concerts in parks and neighborhoods. New, young groups like the cello-fueled trio Bright Red Paper are invigorating the indie club scene with music that’s still recognizably based in rock and pop yet appeals to new music types. For two years running, the leading local alternative newspaper, Willamette Week, has voted its best new band award to products of Portland’s long-burgeoning electonica/dance scene: the viola-and laptop/percussion duo Talkdemonic and solo artist Copy. Those performers, and others from the club electronica scene like the music/film ensemble Small Sails, play hip clubs like Holocene, Doug Fir lounge, and Mississippi Studios and are even beginning to tour.

Electronic musician Copy performs in September at Portland’s annual Time Based Arts Festival.
Photo by Carolezoom

The easiest way to experience Portland rock-related new music is to attend the city’s Time Based Arts festival, which happens in early September. Although TBA is best known for bringing in avant-garde performance artists, dancers, and theatre groups from around the world, it also hosts quite a few local bands that tend to be on the weird side. This year, TBA included street and warehouse performances by the Music Population Orchestra, whose mission is to “bring music that sounds like our time to audiences in clubs, bars, concert halls, streets and every other space that can contain live music in order to help familiarize those who are new to chamber music with what it means and to help broaden the horizons of those who already think they know it.” Founded by 20-something Norwegian immigrant Brede Rørstad, who’s also worked with Third Angle, MPO plays his chamber/electronic hybrid music along with other contemporary sounds.

MPO, a kind of a mashup of chamber orchestra and rock/electronica band, may signal the future of Portland new music. Portland is famous for its many bridges, and the city is just now beginning to see connections tentatively forming between its two major new music streams—the club/electronica oriented acts and the older, classically informed types. At the moment, it’s mostly visible in overlapping venues like the Wonder Ballroom, in the occasional electronic touches in Third Angle performances, in the use of classical viola or cello in club acts like Talkdemonic. Like new music anywhere, Portland’s version struggles from lack of support by cultural elites, such as arts grantmakers. But the flood of young, hip, creative 20- and 30-somethings moving to this happening city has roiled the musical waters enough to make it likely that Portland will soon see some welcome cross fertilization as musicians from various points of origin—geographic and musical—draw on the city’s increasingly diverse musical streams.


Brett Campbell lives in downtown Portland, Oregon, and covers West Coast performing arts for the Wall Street Journal and other publications.