LIVE AT VALENTINE’S

valentines It’s the 2nd of October, 2007. We get to Valentine’s early, but already a small table set up in front of the bar’s only window is covered with synthesizers and other electronic devices, microphones, and a large metal salad bowl with crumpled-up bits of tin foil in it. Two gourds rest on the floor beside one of the two chairs. If looks are any guide, this looks to be an interesting concert. Of course, we have heard Matt Marble and J.P. Jenkins before, though never together. That’s a new twist of Portland New Music Society founder Brandon Conway for the 2007-2008 season.

It certainly worked this evening. Everything starts out strong, good low frequency thumps and growls, harsh feedback snarls swirling around the room, thuds and clicks and clatter from various closely-miked objects including, eventually, those little twists of tinfoil in the metal bowl—exquisite, sharp-edged metallic sounds. You could cut your ears on them. And the gourds. Into the mouth of one is placed a live microphone. Too loud. A knob is turned. Still too loud. And several times until the microphone is inside the gourd and hollow sounds echo from the speakers. The gourd is thumped against an also miked slab of wood lying on the table.

And all the while, J.P. sits quietly at the keyboard of a small synthesizer, his fingers deftly, gracefully plucking various wonderful noises out of the machine, almost as if he’s playing the guitar he has entertained us with so many times in the past. While Matt’s part is more theatrical, we come to realize that J.P. is supplying as much of the music as Matt is, and just as various.

It’s all terrific, terrifically noisy, terrifically exciting, terrifically expert music making by two extraordinary musicians. And that’s just the first set. Their second set, using the same assortment of gadgets and objects, is as different from the first set as…, as…, say Beethoven’s third is from his seventh. Not as tight as the first set, the second set starts out with more gestures—obvious, rhythmic ostinatos. More contrivance, maybe, than is altogether welcome in free improv. But then it loses momentum (though never having settled into a “groove”) and instead of becoming less interesting musically, becomes more interesting, and one starts to suspect that the whole set has been a setup, a gentle (albeit noisy) reminder of what live electronics (if not any music) is all about, making good sounds. Or at least that’s how it seemed to me.

And, oddly enough, the second half of the evening, though featuring Matt Hannifin on drums, seemed also to be similarly all about sound, sensual, tactile, reverberant sound.

Hannifin’s first set begins with one felt mallet on an LP compact conga. Then two mallets. Then one mallet shifts to a Korean kwaenggari gong lying flat on the floor. The beats are evenly precise, only the force of the blows varies—just as precisely, just as controlled. Subtle changes only. It’s a real stunner and over way too soon. Matt says he loses all sense of time when he plays, and so do we. We are just left feeling when the set is over that we could easily have listened for considerably longer.

The second set is just one drum, an Iranian tombak, played with the fingers, which create an intricate web of sound that snares all of us fortunate enough to have attended this first fall concert of the Portland New Music Society.

I attend a lot of concerts and am not all that easy to please. I had already heard two of these three and knew enough about the third to have high hopes for the whole evening. The reality simply, gracefully, effortlessly exceeded all my expectations.

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