Minimalist and locally grown music headlined this year’s edition of Portland’s annual summer new music marathon

Story by MATTHEW ANDREWS
Photos by MASATAKA SUEMITSU 

I walked into Northwest Portland’s Vestas building lobby just as Portland Percussion Group was leading the crowd in a Steve Reich clap-along, an exercise in audience participation that I’d love to hear more of at these types of concerts.

Actually, there aren’t enough of these types of concerts. Produced for the third summer in a row by piano duo Stephanie & Saar (Stephanie Ho & Saar Ahuvia), the June Makrokosmos presented five hours of contemporary classical music in a setting that allowed the audience members to move around, even leave and return, as they pleased.

Portland Percussion Group played part one of Steve Reich’s ‘Drumming’ at Makrokosmos.

The original of Reich’s Clapping Music calls for two players, although many other arrangements are possible (some of my favorites are the Evelyn Glennie rendition and this dollop of ridiculousness), and PPG’s enforced recreation had the audience split into halves to play the two phases of Clapping Music’s diverging pattern. Everyone seemed to be having a grand old time, which is reason enough to do something like this, but doing service as both Happy Hour Ice Breaker and New Music Process Demonstration made it a lot better than other pre-show talks I’ve endured.

I missed the actual opener, PPG’s performance of Steve Reich’s Drumming (Part One) but I can’t say I minded too much: I’ve seen that famous video of theirs, after all, and one of the very few things I’m stodgy about is performances of single movements of larger works. But all this was just the happy hour appetizer. The real action in Makrokosmos 3: Reichmokosmos! happened up in the open atrium/auditorium on the Vestas third and fourth floor, a bright, modern space I heard multiple audients comparing to the Wieden+Kennedy auditorium two blocks away. The stage area—little more than a wide walkway limning the bottom of a tiered wooden seating area covered in floor mats—already housed the six pianos, along with a vast amount of percussion.

Pianos dominated, as in previous years, but this year PPG came out to show us (came out to show us, came out to show us) the power of percussion with some marvelous new ensemble music. The resulting spectacle, for all its epic grandeur, somehow remained delightfully intimate.

Percussion Textures

The Makrokosmos Project started out in 2015 in Blue Sky Gallery, with performances of their namesake along with pieces by Kenji Bunch, Nikolai Kapustin, John Adams, and David Crumb. The following year, the burgeoning festival got split into three pieces, with one show each in Portland and Eugene featuring a profusion of new(ish) music composed by Gerald Levinson, John Zorn, Jake Heggie, Alexander Schwarzkopf, Ryan Anthony Francis, Philip Glass, David Lang, Samuel Barber, and more Crumb, Kapustin, and Adams, whose American Berserk provided year two’s title. The second grand finale piano piece at both concerts was to be Frederic Rzewski’s The People United Will Never Be Defeated, but due to illness the complete performance was rescheduled for the following November.

Stephanie & Saar conceived and directed Makrokosmos.

Makrokosmos splits these massive shindigs into roughly hour-long segments, separated by wine and cheese intermissions that remind me of the fellowship hour most churches practice, except at church you have donuts instead of cheese and the wine is served in thimbles.  The first segment of Makrokosmos Project Year Three was titled Textures and paired the 2013 Paul Lansky piano + percussion quartet of the same name with John Adams’ 1995 violin and piano duet Road Movies.

I’ve loved John Adams since my first composition teacher played me The Chairman Dances, but I’m most familiar with Adams’ grand orchestral works (Harmonielehre, Concerto for Violin, City Noir), so it was a real treat to hear and see two of his classic chamber works performed live. Third Angle’s Ron Blessinger clearly knows this idiom quite well. It’s not enough to perfectly execute all those exacting violin riffs, and Blessinger’s breezy, beautiful tone had this retired trucker thinking about the sunny highway horizon that never fades and never gets any closer, hovering eternally over Eisenhower’s interstate blacktop and those legendary amber waves of grain (now a wholly owned subsidiary of the Monsanto Corporation).

Ron Blessinger and Saar Ahuvia played music by John Adams at Makrokosmos.

It was hard to keep my attention on Blessinger, though, with Makrokosmos co-spearheader Saar Ahuvia at the piano. Adams does not write easy piano music, and it’s not just the stamina required: there are riffs and grooves and singable melodies in all that repetition, and Ahuvia sold the “congenial rolling, easygoing groove” with an exuberant verve more befitting a world-class jazz musician than a Serious Classical Pianist. I might not like to see a symphonic pianist singing his part while performing, but Ahuvia made it look like just another layer of the music. I was mesmerized, and wondered if he’s always so vocal.

The other half of DUO Stephanie & Saar, Stephanie Ho, brought out half of PPG for Paul Lansky’s Textures. We could call this a percussion quartet since piano is technically a percussion instrument, but no one in their right mind would buy that bullshit, besides which we would be obfuscating the Béla Bartók reference—the first of what will turn out to be several. Compositionally, Lansky’s quartet has almost nothing in common with Bartók’s 1937 Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion(even the percussion arrays are different, leaning heavily towards the vibes and marimba), but I still heard ample echoes of it.

It’s a little weird hearing Lansky’s music played by acoustic instruments. My introduction to the Princeton professor’s work was a study of his electroacoustic composition Night Traffic in Bonnie Miksch’s Aesthetics of Electronic Music class at Portland State, although I had of course heard the ten-second sample of Lansky’s gorgeous 1973 FM synthesis piece Mild und Leise which Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood sampled (with permission, gods bless him) way back in antediluvian 2000.

Funny thing about composers of electronic music: when they write for humans there’s always an element of outsider art, a synthesis of sophistication in some spheres (notes, sounds, timbre) and relative simplicity or novelty in others. In Zen Buddhism they call it “beginner’s mind”. Now, I don’t mean to suggest that Lansky’s orchestration technique was naive or at all sub-par: far from it. My point is simply that composers who are used to bossing around numbers and lines of code tend to bring a fresh perspective to what humans can and should do in an organic, acoustic space.

In Lansky’s words, “on the machine you work with spectral balance, envelope, timbre difference, etc. In the percussion world this near infinitude of possibility is matched by the vast potential among percussion’s families of woods, metals, mallets, skins, toys, etc.” It stirred my percussionist soul to see an assortment of contrasting mallets in each player’s hand, carefully selected to layer interlocking rhythms across several instruments (crotales, woodblocks, small drums) simultaneously. This is a composer who has spent time with real percussionists.

Portland Percussion Group joined Stephanie and Saar for Paul Lansky’s music.

Each of Textures’ eight movements bore some kinesthetically evocative title, from the straightforward “Granite” and “Round-Wound” to the enigmatic “Soft Substrates” and “Striations.” Ho’s program note citing the dictionary definition for “substrate” caught my eye: “Substrates: The base on which an organism lives. The soil is the ‘substrate’ of most seed plants.” The Vandermeeryovertones of terroir recalled the bounty of seed imagery I’ve been hearing from Chamber Music Northwest composers all week, and the dictum of erstwhile Seattle new music violist and composer Eyvind Kang: “I believe that music should be grown on trees, to be plucked like a fruit without the extravagance of harvest.”

The music itself is pure Lansky, who has always been rather pitch- and harmony-oriented for an electronic composer; compared to Pierre Schaeffer, Pauline Oliveros, early Morton Subotnick, Natasha Barrett, et al, Lansky’s music lies more on the other end of the spectrum with later Morton Subotnick, Laurie Spiegel, or Pierre Henry (who passed away a week after this concert). Textures is pretty squarely modernist in most ways, with its Towering chromatic riffage and its Glassy odd-metered arpeggios and its Bartóky acoustic scales (told you we’d come back to Béla). But the music was poppy as all get out, too, all shiny melodies and emo chord changes and groovy backbeats played on delicate little miniature crash cymbals. Hell, it’s even got a Super Mario Brothers quote. I struggle to hear this as the work of a seventy year old man.

Made in Oregon

Local composer and sound engineer Branic Howard had the two grand pianos all tied up and ready to go for his piece In The Nothingness, commissioned by Makrokosmos Project for this concert. Duo Stephanie and Saar took their places at the pianos, adjusted their antique cassette decks, nodded to Howard at his laptop, took up loops of string in their hands like stray cat’s cradles, and commenced making very, very, very sparse music.

Even when watching live electroacoustic music, there is an inherent mystery about how the music is being produced and manipulated. I could see the loops of string pulled across the piano strings, eliciting delicate bell-like tones and, apparently, resonating those into the tape recorders. I mean, that might be what was happening, but there was no way to be sure. I highly doubt the tape recorders were props, which is what Zappa would have done, but I really couldn’t discern their actual function. And I only know Howard was using MAX/MSP to apply delay environments to the amplified pianos because I asked him about it later.

Pierre Schaeffer called this inherent mystery the acousmatic situation, which we’ve discussed before in a similar context. Schaeffer’s problem was in trying to examine the contradictory nature of musical experiences and the question of how we might use sound manipulation to sidestep our visual-dominated sensory inclinations and start learning to listen. Pretty much everyone disagreed with this essentially Freudian endeavor. The debate has raged for decades (and by “raged” I mean “heatedly discussed by a handful of music geeks”) and no one ever really came up with a clear answer. Schaeffer eventually grew bitter over the whole affair.

The solution I saw and heard in Howard’s piece is this: because there will always be a tension between sight and sound, there will always be a tension between mystery and theater, between overt and occult, between esoteric process and exoteric experience, between intellectual structure and emotional pleasure. And ultimately, the strings and the tape recorders looked cool, the music sounded cool, everything was, like, groovy, man. Call it the acousmatic compromise.

Even without the question of audio-visual contradictions, though, this music is probably not for everyone. If you listen to enough experimental ambient music (Oliveros, John Cage, Éliane Radigue), it acclimatizes your ear to music that unfolds slowly, where silence and space are as important as cadential drive, where a melodic gesture can spool itself out over the course of several minutes rather than a few seconds. It ain’t Beethoven, that’s for sure, and I don’t want to listen to it every day, but in this context Howard’s music provided a nice relief from all the dynamic driving percussive brouhaha.

Monica Ohuchi played Kenji Bunch at Makrokosmos.

After Howard’s meditative duet, we were treated to a pair of solo piano etude selections composed by Kenji Bunch and Augusta Reed Thomas. Monica Ohuchi—whom the program notes labelled the “token Juilliard grad of the bunch”—played three etudes from Monica’s Notebook, each exploring some fine detail of piano technique, all in Bunch’s unique folk-classical idiom. I was quite taken by “Etude No. 3”, a bluesy study in repeated notes that made my fingers hurt from across the room.

Thomas’ Six Etudes strike me as less overtly virtuosic than Bunch’s. This, together with the subtitles paying homage to various 20th-century composers, suggested that these exercises were more compositional than pianistic in nature. Golandsky Institute teacher and Lewis & Clark College prof Deborah Cleaver played the first two with a studied and calm exuberance. “Orbital Beacons” pays homage to Italian experimental electronic composer Luciano Berio; “Fire Waltz,” to Béla Bartók. I encourage the curious reader to hear Thomas’ etudes alongside some piano music by their dedicatees (start here and here). Then, for comparison, listen to what Thomas sounds like when she’s being herself.

The Mostly PDX segment closed with Lewis & Clark professor Michael Johanson’s Grooves and Diversions for percussion quartet, with PPG returning to the Vestas “stage” to play the remainder of their battery of instruments.

There are basically three kinds of percussion ensemble compositions: those that revolve around the mallet instruments (such as the Lansky piece), those that center upon that infinitude of color instruments that includes gongs and sirens and wind chimes and sometimes literally the kitchen sink (Varèse’s Ionisation is a prime example), and those that focus on drums, big loud wild heavy drummer-loving drums. This puppy was one of the latter, and the best I’ve heard since Iannis XenakisOkho showed up at a Portland State recital last month (actually it might be the best I’ve heard since I first heard Christopher Rouse’s Ogoun Badagris at UCLA in 2000).

Portland Percussion Group performed Michael Johanson’s ‘Grooves and Diversions’ at Makrokosmos.

This was my first time hearing Johanson’s music and I was, as the program promised, electrified. There’s no question this is a composer not only in complete command of the percussion ensemble idiom but also well acquainted with the tastes and abilities of his performers. PPG commissioned the work from Johanson in 2013, and although these are very much dedicated and serious Classical Percussionists with a mandate “to promote the standard repertoire for percussion quartet, and to create new works in the repertoire through collaborations and the commissioning of emerging composers,” they are also a bunch of drummers (just like yours truly). Brian Gardiner drums with the retro soundtrack band Federale, Christopher Whyte works in the indoor marching percussionscene, and Paul Owen has spent the last few years drumming for Oregon’s double-platinum darlings the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies. I don’t know where Lewis & Clark prof Brett EE Paschal finds the time to keep up his drum chops when he’s so busy writing sweet marimba music.

It’s easy enough to write simple music for percussionists, and it’s easy enough to write excessively complicated music for percussionists (I’ve heard PPG play both just in the last month), but it’s not that easy to write music that’s challenging for the players, rhythmically complex enough to keep everyone on their toes, and groovy as fuck. There were a few tasty polyrhythms and metric modulations (though nothing close to Elliott Carter levels) and with all the drummy beefiness it was more like a Meshuggah drum solo, or something from King Crimson’s recent three-drummer line-up (or the earlier, more modest two-drummer incarnation).

Swinging Gates

After cleaning my ears out with more fresh air, I was ready for Makrokosmos 3’s last segment: Gates. Third Angle pianist and Lewis & Clark professor Susan DeWitt Smith learned John Adams’ Phrygian Gates—essentially his opus 1, composed in 1977—from the commissioning pianist, Mack McCray, and performed it with a familiarity most of us don’t achieve with our closest friends. I’ve never been the hugest fan of this one (see above regarding massive orchestral works), but Smith helped me hear it afresh.

Susan Smith played John Adams’s ‘Phrygian Gates’ at Makrokosmos.

The titular “gates” refer to a process in electronic music, and Phrygian refers one of the two modes the piece cycles through (the other is Phrygian’s opposite, Lydian). It was precisely this modal element that Smith made speak in her performance. The simple, semi-static harmonic sound-world that comes from eschewing conventional tonic-dominant relationships balances the non-directional busyness of the rhythmic layer, so that the music goes everywhere and nowhere at the same time. As with Howard’s work, the meditative aspect of all this provided a nice counterbalance to the evening’s powerhouses.

Phrygian Gates sounds the most classically minimalist of all Adams’ work, and fits comfortably with other late ‘70s electronics-inspired piano pieces such as Michael Nyman’s 1-100, Philip Glass’ Mad Rush, and of course Steve Reich’s Six Pianos.

Reich’s process music lends itself quite naturally to adaptation. Most of his earliest work involves phasing, a sort of compositional game that gives a musical phrase to two or more instruments and gradually desynchronizes them. The effect is instantly recognizable and ended up being very fruitful for Reich’s development. These phase pieces have appeared in various versions for soloist plus recording (a modular approach Reich has wisely used with much of his music), and Piano Phase has even been performed, quite incredibly, by a single pianist. Six Pianos has accordingly been heard in Vincent Corver’s 2011 arrangement for solo piano with backing tracks, Reich’s own 1986 version for six marimbas, Mie Miki’s 2010 arrangement for six accordions of all things, and a version (be still my beating heart!) for Javanese gamelan.

The six pianists who closed out the evening with Makrokosmos Project’s traditional “huge piano piece” showstopper—Ohuchi and Cleaver, composer and marathonist Alexander Schwarzkopf, PSU professor and Makrokosmos veteran Julia Hwakyu Lee, Chungwon Lydia Chung, and Fear No Musicco-founder Jeff Payne—brought this history, and the concert itself, full circle. We started with Reich’s most visceral, stripped down percussion music; we ended with a mbiric ode to the New York Baldwin Piano shop where Reich and the group of friends that made up his ensemble held their evening practices. When I picture those rehearsals (aided by the magic of technology), I imagine the kind of camaraderie-in-discipline I saw in Vestas that night.

Steve Reich’s ‘Six Pianos’ closed Makrokosmos3.

By the end, I felt I’d just run a music marathon. Audience members came and went over the course of the evening, but I was happy to see how many stayed til the exhausted end. As I collapsed onto my haunches up on the mezzanine, gazing down at the six pianists, marvelling at how deftly Payne tossed Reich’s beautifully angular motivic ideas across the room to Lee and thence around the circle, I soaked up the rhythmic wash floating up over the plexiglass railing and started dreaming about next year. Which Adams pieces will they play? Whose etudes? Ligeti’s, perhaps? Will they jump on the Lou Harrison bandwagon? What will the grand piano showstopper be? Perhaps portions of Gary Noland’s 75-hour chamber novel Jaglied? Will they bring back the Crumbs, perhaps George’s Vox Balaenae or David’s Kineticus? Will there be more women composers on the program? Will they be at Vestas again or some other PLACE altogether? Will there be coffee? Will some enterprising dispensary provide edibles to go with the lovely wine? Will there be comfy chairs, couches, and cots for us to chill out on? Honestly, if there had been a little coffee and cake break after Six Pianos, I probably could have kept going for another three hours. Bring it on, Makrokosmos Project.

Matthew Neil Andrews is a composer, percussionist, and editor at Portland State University. He and his music can be reached at monogeite.bandcamp.com.