A brace of November concerts in Portland

There were plenty of concerts in Portland in October, too, and in September and August, but Asymmetry was in Europe then, haring after festivals (nine of them) and hobnobbing with some of the greats and near greats of new music, reports on those forthcoming. And as soon as I got back to Portland, there were two very fine concerts, one on the eleventh at Worksound and one on the nineteenth at Enterbeing.

The concert at Worksound opened with a set by J.P. Jenkins, the range of whose imagination never ceases to amaze and delight. I have never seen him do the same thing, er even the same kind of thing, twice—and he has never presented anything that wasn’t technically and musically consummate. This evening, J.P. had two bare speakers attached face down, one on a bass drum, one on a tom. I wasn’t where I could see the tom, but the bass drum had some objects on it which would rattle or vibrate (and move around) as J.P. sent different frequencies through the speakers. Simple, elegant, and a treat to hear.

And speaking of treats, the next set was the sax duo of Kevin Pittman and Tyler Wilcox. Several times during my last trip, the topic of silence came up, some composers seemingly terrified of any silence (as indeed are most people, as witness both the proliferation of mp3 players and the ubiquity of “music” in every store), and other composers throwing in random globs of silence here and there, because that’s the cool thing to do. Kevin and Tyler are certainly not afraid of silence. And the smallest of small sounds that they made, when once they started to make any, never seemed anything but an integral part of the silence itself. Here, without a doubt, was an example of exactly how to do silence!

After a brief intermission, Jonathan Sielaff did an interactive set, bass clarinet and electronics, which was just sheer good fun. Noisy, glitchy, even melodic at times, it was a good ride while it lasted, and, like all good rides I suppose, it felt like it was way way too short. I know I’d like to hear this kind of thing for a good half hour at least—or more.

To close out this very enjoyable evening, bst.cr (Ben Bennett, Ryan Jewell, Wilson Shook) offered us another exploration of small sounds, but here the point was not silence but the interactions between three very different musicians. You couldn’t have found four more different aesthetics (as we say in the biz) than the four sets of this concert, but it all worked very well as one concert, partly because of the order of events (which was well chosen) and largely because of the uniformly high level of musicianship. A nice welcome back to Portland for me.

And just eight days later, there was another new music concert.

This one started with an outrageously sumptuous set by Warren Lee and Mary Sutton of Sound-Minds Fortress, a group that also includes Gabriel Will. For this set, Warren established a steady drone on the harmonium over which Mary played long tones on the violin. I wish the words to describe drone music weren’t so few. It’s a genre in which all sorts of subtle variety goes on, which one can tune into (and out of) at will, I can say that. And I can also say that I have never heard Mary play so well, not so much technically (though there was nothing amiss in that regard) as, well, passionately. I’ve never heard her put so much into a performance. And while it may not seem that a harmonium gives one much scope for sensitive and subtle musicianship, well you should have seen Warren playing it that evening, that’s all.

Next up was Travis John, whose set if it did nothing else illustrated the tremendous variety possible in drone minimalism, for his set was radically different in almost every way from what Warren and Mary had just played. Sitting behind his laptop (and assisted by a few other toys), Travis spun out long strands of electronic loveliness. Sound-Minds Fortress was a tough act to follow, and Travis took on the challenge with charm and grace, and a fine musical sense, too, just by the way.

The evening concluded with one result of Scott Stobbe’s recent trip to Europe, a piece for instruments and sound files, the sounds those he had recorded at various places on his trip. This was an interesting piece in many ways; I’ll only point out the very cunning way that the instrumental parts and the sound files would join up and break apart again as the piece progressed. This was no facile mimicking of effects in the instruments, or even of choosing sounds that would recall what an instrument had just done, but a skillful weaving of disparate materials—much of that skill consisting of oscillating between incidence and co-incidence.

The ensemble for Scott’s piece was Scott Brazieal, piano, Jesse Isaac, flute, Tyler Bragg, drums, Mary Sutton and Stella Roshi-Moles, violins, and Fletcher Nemeth, upright bass, with Scott Stobbe directing.

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