New Music@Valentine's

Valentines Recently, I’ve been hearing laments (still!) for the diminishing audiences at symphony concerts, and one cannot help wondering if the lamenters really think that concert halls are the only places where great music-making goes on. And while one might wish that new music concerts were better attended, there is something quite engaging about sitting in a bar no bigger than your living room, only ten or fifteen feet away from the composers and performers. And though the atmosphere is laidback, I almost always find I listen more intently at gatherings like this than I do in a big concert hall.

April’s offering of the Portland New Music Society took place on Tuesday the 24th at Valentine’s in downtown Portland—a new venue for the peripatetic society, but perfect for its characteristic blend of casual and edgy.

The evening began with Matt Carlson’s The Thing Itself. Made up largely of occasional clunks and thuds (things knocking against a mic kind of sounds) over white noise, it is a hospitable piece, meaning that the also infrequent creaks of doors and clank of bottles in the bar fit in very naturally. There were also some bottle/jar sounds inside the piece, too, if “inside” makes any sense in this context. From the speakers, then. Given the logic of this piece, isolated events over a cantus firmus, I thought its ten minutes were too few. This is the kind of thing that needs more time to sprawl across our ears.

The next piece, so fresh it’s as yet unnamed, was performed by Matt at the keyboard. It starts out with a seesawing interval, very gritty, saturated sound. Slowly a low frequency enters in, or becomes perceptible, under the seesaw, which just as slowly becomes less gritty. Some very nice standing waves get set up, too, and eventually another motif aligns with the interval, a four note affair that rises on the second pitch, as the first pattern does, but then falls in the next two. It always amazes me how perpetually effective some of the simplest ideas can be. This was a real stunner.

Matt finished his part of the show with an early piece by Philip Glass, 1 + 1 for table with contact mic. You can’t help thinking of Reich’s Clapping Music and of how cool that early phase music still is.

After a short break, Freebox performed: J.P. Jenkins on electric guitar, Shane Ronet on alto sax and harmonica (second set), Heather Vergotis on tenor sax, Jerry Suga, baritone, and Asa Gervich on acoustic guitar (first set) and drums (second set).

At first there was just some noodling, with people still chatting, and more noodling…

…and then there’s that indefinable but unmistakable moment when the noodling turns into “something” and everybody in the audience goes quiet. For the first set, the schtick was alternation between non sequiturs (obviously careful responses to what the other players were doing) and overt coalescing. The movement from non seq. to coalesce is very satisfying, I find, and subsequent breaking off into unconnected gestures again even more so.

The evening ended with a first run performance of a graphic score by Scott Stobe. One would expect that a runthrough like this would be pretty scrappy, and indeed it was. But since the players (which included composer Bonnie Miksch doing vocals) were all skilled performers (members of Freebox also contributed), it was also pretty tight. I don’t know quite how to describe this convincingly except to state the fact of the contradiction: it was scrappy and tight, simultaneously. (I think it’s exactly this combination of ragged and clean that makes performances of graphic scores so satisfying to listen to.)

All in all, some very entertaining music, and, given the nature of the spread—through-composed, improv, graphic—quite consistently high quality as well.

Speaking of Bonnie Miksch, I have to insert a word here about the last Portland New Music Society I attended, in February at Apotheke in another part of downtown Portland. I fully intended to write up a review of this concert, which featured electroacoustic pieces by Bonnie Miksch and Christopher Penrose, but some travel plans interfered, so I never got around to it. Which was a pity, as this concert was a real treat for me, having already heard a piece by Bonnie at the Seamus ’06 conference in Eugene. I had not been overwhelmed then, but as my notes make clear, the suspicion nagged that that was my fault, not Bonnie’s. So last February was my chance to see if my suspicions were correct. Indeed they were. Bonnie Miksch’s music is very compelling and attractive; I can’t wait to hear some more. (Since there are some mp3’s on her site, I don’t really have to wait.) Plus there were those quite different but equally engaging pieces by Penrose as well. Another completely satisfying evening of new music.

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