two ground-breaking quartets

The Pyxis Quartet has just finished a month-long rehearsal and performance period that involved two of the most challenging pieces for modern string quartets (at least until we do an Elliot Carter or John Zorn cycle, that is) – Georg Friedrich Haas’ Third String Quartet and George Crumb’s Black Angels. The Haas was a reboot for us, with the quartet having performed it for two sets of concerts in prior years (the first time just about five years ago). Black Angels was a partial reboot, with Ron and Greg having performed it before (on an Asian tour as the Third Angle String Quartet), and with Marilyn and I having never laid eyes on it before this performance.

These two works are masterpieces of quartet composition. The Crumb is simply mind-bending. I’ve never had the occasion to take hallucinogenic drugs before, but I’m willing to bet that if I had, and listened to a mix tape of Bartok, Led Zeppelin, and Frank Zappa, this quartet is what would end up swooping around my swollen synapses. Playing the viola, held like a viol, bowing between my left hand and the scroll, and fingering backwards; bowing tuned glasses of water; yelling numbers in several different languages; and creating subsonic, croaking notes with the bow. These are all a part of bringing this sprawling, exotic piece to life. There are some pieces that you perform that are so much of the time in which they were written that they’re like period-piece dramas. I found that to be the case with John Corigliano’s First Symphony. It didn’t take too much away from its power, but it never succeeded in having its mechanics disappear behind its message. The Crumb, however, seems remarkably ‘modern’ to me. Even if I overlook my first (profoundly moving) experience of hearing it played by the Kronos Quartet in the mid-80’s when I was an undergraduate music student, it still seems incredibly imaginative and relevant today in its depiction of the horror and despair of modern warfare mixed with a drug-fueled counter-cultural explosion of the most traditional of musical formations, the string quartet.

Haas’ quartet is astounding through its use of darkness as a component of the musical experience. The piece simply wouldn’t work if it were performed in anything but total darkness. The expansion of the sense of hearing afforded by the lack of visual stimulus, both for the performers and the audience, makes for a heightened experience that is truly unique. In addition, the need for the performers to perform the piece – lasting roughly an hour – from memory is freeing, it allows us to be open to the aleatoric possibilities of the piece, and to luxuriate in its just tuning chords and eerie sound effects.

Both Crumb and Haas took a form that had been explored at length by the greatest composers of the previous two and a half plus centuries and saw what hadn’t been done before, and executed to perfection, relying on performers to complete their vision – in Crumb’s case with a spectacularly detailed and beautifully engraved score, and in Haas’ with a detailed (but sometimes frustratingly vague and contradictory) set of performance instructions.

So, it was very gratifying to read a review by Matthew Neil Andrews at Oregon Arts Watch of our recent performance of the Crumb as part of the Makrokosmos Project V festival marathon last Thursday, which said this:

“… That’s what it felt like last night walking in on the intrepid, inimitable Pyxis String Quartet playing George Crumb’s gnarly, wrathful, uncompromising Black Angels in the lobby of the vanilla-white Vestas building at NW 14th and Everett. Black Angels: “Thirteen Images from the Dark Land”—an alarming 1970 musical screed against the war in Vietnam which provided the bit of oyster grit around which Kronos Quartet coagulated—modestly and misleadingly claims to be scored for “electric string quartet” but is in actuality a monstrosity of deconstructed chants and songs and drones and noises and large helpings of frankly gorgeous music, all of it performed, on this rainy night, by an ensemble comprised of Portland’s best string quartet (there, we’ve admitted it) making sounds on a wide variety of instruments, some of which include strings.

A pair of tam-tams (the kind of big, flat, untuned gongs used in most orchestras) hung behind violinist Greg Ewer and cellist Marylin de Oliveira, who both got up every so often to strike them or evoke screeching, warbling harmonics using their bows. Everybody chanted numbers periodically—sinister whisper counting, not cute Einstein on a Beach counting. Maracas periodically stirred, dusty rattlesnakes in a clean lobby full of sleepy New Music Nuts.

Ewer, along with violist Charles Noble and violinist Ron Blessinger, also had wine glasses partly full of water on little tables in front of them, all marked with pitches (“C#,” “B”), like they’re getting ready for dinner at Lou Harrison and Bill Colvig’s house.

Those tuned wine glasses provided the one-day festival’s most enduring, haunting moment—the “God Music” movement—an outrageously beautiful recurring theme on bowed glasses, bizarre chord sequences across which de Oliveira played a melancholy, morbid cello line with a creepy, broken theremin panache. The fine balance and blend and the subtle separations between parts, and the way everyone articulated all this eldritch math music together so precisely, with apparently no need to even look at each other—it all got me thinking about hearing this lot do the same thing with Reichand Glass back when I fell for them in the first place. And it’s got me crazy for next May, when they’ll play Gabriella Smith’s difficult, poppy Carrot Revolution (heard at CMNW two summers back) and Andy Akiho’s quintet for strings and piano, Prospects of a Misplaced Year.

Oh, and the rest of Makrokosmos V was stellar—by turns pensive and contemplative (Takemitsu), outrageous and catchy (Frank), and above all superbly played and well-suited to a rainy June afternoon. We’ll tell you all about it in a couple weeks, after we’ve recovered.”

We worked long and hard on these pieces, and it was truly gratifying to see recognition of that hard work in this thoughtful review. We’re taking a break for summer festivals and vacations, but we’ll be back in the upcoming season, raring to go for season two of 45th Parallel Universe.

oregon bach festival saga continues

The saga of the seeming disintegration of the Oregon Bach Festival reached what might be called the early end-game this past week with the news that executive director Janelle McCoy was being laid off and that her position was being eliminated due to budget cuts by the University of Oregon.

Former Berwick Chorus member, OBF board member, and volunteer, Amy Adams had some thoughts that she posted on her Facebook page several days ago. I reached out to her and she agreed to let me reprint them here. Comments welcome.

I’m not currently privy to virtually anything related to the Oregon Bach Festival. When I sang in the chorus, however, I was invited to join the board of directors and immediately was placed on the long-range planning committee. This became the search committee for the new artistic director, a search that resulted in the unanimous selection of Matthew Halls to replace the founding director, Helmuth Rilling. I was pretty well placed to observe the transition as a musician, a board member, and a resident of Eugene. 

1. I’m not currently privy to virtually anything related to the Oregon Bach Festival. When I sang in the chorus, however, I was invited to join the board of directors and immediately was placed on the long-range planning committee. This became the search committee for the new artistic director, a search that resulted in the unanimous selection of Matthew Halls to replace the founding director, Helmuth Rilling. I was pretty well-placed to observe the transition as a musician, a board member, and a resident of Eugene. 

2. I was pretty well placed to observe the transition from Helmuth to Matthew – as a musician, a board member, year-round resident of Eugene and an alumna of the university. It went well. Some musicians reacted with angst, dissatisfaction – this was related more to the sadness of “no one is like Helmuth Rilling, and all things change.” And other musicians remarked, putting their instruments back in cases after a rehearsal…”I like him. That was fun!” I remember a particularly hot day in Portland that by all rights should have been full of very cranky musicians. Hot, crowded. Concert black. The mood was happy, buoyant. It was “A Child of Our Time.” (Tamara Wilson shone.)

3. A couple of summers later, I received a call from the festival saying there would not be a place for me in the chorus, in the upcoming season. Unsurprised, I thanked the administration, staff and board. I grieved. I kept the friendships. I reflected on what was permanent and what wasn’t. I learned as the months went by, what I had gained by long association with Helmuth Rilling and the high level of musicians who ran! to work with him. The moments, those jewels of everlasting joy. Mine, forever. 
And I continued to admire the hell out of Matthew Halls. 

4. When Janelle McCoy took the helm of the festival, I assumed it was the latest in Ways Things Change, and saw no reason from my outsider position for concern. I attended concerts, hugged those I love, schmoozed like I do, went to dinners and parties. Then this debacle unfolded. The festival had let Matthew Halls go.
When I’m interested in a story, I dig. I dug. The more I learned, the more something looked really wrong. Pushing back on all the usual salacious reasons a (popular, successful, valued) conductor might be fired…produced nothing. Nothing.
His character stands up. His work is great. People like him, respect him.
He does not club baby seals for amusment. (Any longer.) #thatwasajoke

5. And the University of Oregon released a statement, which said (in part):
“The transition is a strategic decision, made by OBF administrative leadership and the University of Oregon, and will keep the festival relevant in the ever-changing classical music industry. “There’s an emerging trend,” explains OBF executive director Janelle McCoy, “to plan a season from the perspective of a guest curator from a different field or genre and then invite conductors to participate, rather than programming from a single artistic voice. More and more organizations around the country, such as Ojai Music Festival, are using this model to expand the choices available to their audiences and participants. These choices may include disparate visions from a choreographer, stage director, or jazz musician, for example. We are eager to bring this approach to university students and faculty, as well as our patrons, musicians, and education program participants.” The change also comes as part of the ongoing process to integrate OBF more deeply into the UO community and align itself more strategically with the university’s goals. “We look forward to a wider range of programmatic choices, community events, and cross-departmental relationships with UO faculty, staff, and students – from the UNESCO Crossings Institute, the Department of Equity and Inclusion, and the UO museums, to traditional academic units such as the School of Music and Dance, food studies, classics, humanities, history, and planning, public policy and management. These partnerships,” says McCoy, “might include lectures, public seminars, classes, publications, interactive programming, and so on.” 

This was, in a word, utter bullshit. The Oregon Bach Festival had been sabotaged for this visionless vision of….public policy…where were the words about Bach and Concerts. I was not alone in recognizing this as utter nonsense.

6. I continued to dig. I wrote an editorial which was published in the Eugene Weekly. I was invited to speak on OPB’s “Think Out Loud” and share my concerns. I commented on public forums, using my real name.
What emerged over the next year was a portrait of a woman who inflates her own accomplishments (fluent? in four languages?!Well, that’s uncommon….) and skillfully places herself adjacent to the accomplishments of others (Pulitzer Prize in Music) (this is, I guess, much like the Grammy I won in 2001 for my recording of the Penderecki “Credo” right? Me and about 175 other people…) And reports of odd, brittle behavior. A firing of an absolutely beloved longtime festival artist liaison, with no apparent reason. Volunteers drifting away, not interested anymore. Board members leaving. Others staying, puzzled, sad. 

7. I couldn’t, in good conscience, attend events at the festival last year…or at any rate purchase tickets. I was too sad about the shape it’s in, its rudderless heading. 
Thing is, you see…good musicians still want to make good music. Good scholars still come together and do their professional best. Good people come and listen to it. Other good people make a hard decision and let it go, because they can no longer support it.

But the soul, the unified vision of an artistic director, was gone. This is how a festival-by-committee was going to look.

I went so far as to attend pre-concert events in the lobby, as there were dozens of old friends to see, and went to the same parties and dinners I always had. We talked, shared observations. Toasted what was. 

8. There things sat, really…until this spring, when a flurry of recent events occurred (if bureaucratic decisions can be described as a flurry.) These aren’t in chronological order, but they were announced closely together, which is interesting:

– Longtime OBF donors, Phyzz and Andrew Berwick give $5 million to endow the deanship at the UofO School of Music and Dance. (In the post-Halls festival reorganization, OBF is placed under the authority of the music school dean.) Phyzz Berwick commended Dean Sabrina Madison-Cannon on her “wise way of dealing with situations.”

– The same week, it is announced that the UofO Provost Jayanth Banavar was stepping….down…to join the physics faculty. Banavar signed the letter terminating Matthew Halls from the festival. 

– The Berwicks also underwrote construction of the festival’s home on the UofO campus, Berwick Hall. The investment there is deep and meaningful….and ongoing, it would appear.

9. Two last things, from my perspective as an outsider with opinions:

– The Oregon Bach Festival is headed officially in the exact opposite direction claimed by executive director Janelle McCoy in the widely derided public statement of August, 2017. Link: https://around.uoregon.edu/…/oregon-bach-festival-looks…

Rather than proceed as “guest curated” – they’re searching for an artistic director AGAIN, to replace the one they regrettably cut loose in Matthew Halls. (His conducting career is proceeding quite nicely, by the way.) The newly-endowed dean of the music school herself reports to the university provost…who is himself stepping down from HIS position, during the Bach festival on July 1. (!!!) A true “lame Duck” provost, if you will. *buffing my fingernails over that great line*

– I thought, during my time on the board, that the executive director and the artistic director were true partners. I thought there was an equivalence and balance to what they did. And with Royce Saltzman and Helmuth Rilling there was. 
But the truth is that the AD is a mere contractor at the university of oregon, with no more protections than “Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.” And no one could have imagined an executive director skillfuly collecting (curating!) thin excuses to cast a shadow on his employment. In a healthy organization, an executive director does the opposite of what’s been happening at OBF. 

Maybe….it’s not too late for the Oregon Bach Festival. 
I dearly hope so.

kids, parents, lessons, and music

I wrote recently about my own experiences with complex musical pieces involving extended techniques, and how much the process of learning them challenged me at a very basic level. Today Kenji Bunch, my friend, colleague, and wonderful composer and violist wrote this on his personal Facebook page. I thought that it was well-written, timely, and very necessary. Enjoy. – Charles

I’ve been asked enough times by other parents for insights into how we approach teaching music to our kids that I thought I might write some thoughts down in case anyone finds it helpful. *Huge disclaimer: I don’t pretend to know any more than anyone else, and parenting remains a wonderfully nebulous cloud through which I’m cheerfully flying blind and constantly bumping into things. This is just something that has been working for us so far, so I thought I’d share.

1. It’s not about the music.

It’s about work. And work is… fun? Setting aside for a moment the discussion of whether or not what we do for a living is rewarding beyond the paycheck it provides, let’s define work as any pursuit that requires effort, determination, discipline, and sacrifice, and hopefully rewards us with a sense of accomplishment and pride and maybe with recognition from others. Kids want something to do, and they want to be good at it. Like the rest of us, they also want to take pride in their accomplishments and be recognized for them. We’re still only roughly a few generations into the era of so-called “useless children,” whose main task is to appear adorable and stay easily entertained, rather than, say, work on a farm, in a factory, or for the family business. When the “work” kids do isn’t done explicitly for monetary gain, (thanks to child labor laws), it might as well be engaging, challenging, and labor-intensive.

2. It’s all about the music.

My parents never asked me if I wanted to learn how to read, and they didn’t wait to see if the English language was the one I would naturally choose as the best fit for my personality. They made those decisions for me based on the practicalities of the environment they were bringing me into, and the resources that were available to them. Even though musical literacy is no longer valued in our society writ large today, it can still absolutely be treated as an essential life skill within the culture of our households, and can be introduced early enough so that our young kids will just accept it as a way of life for their family. Before they turned three years old, our kids had been told many times that ours is a family of musicians, and so we practice music every day. They now thrive on keeping their daily practice streaks going (currently at 250 days in a row and counting). Whatever career path they end up pursuing, being a musician will always be a core part of their identity. 

Waiting around to see if it’s something kids somehow naturally take an interest in when they’re a few years older is a pretty effective way to ensure that it won’t be.

If our kids are frustrated or resistant to their musical studies, it doesn’t mean they’re not cut out for music and we’re ruining the experience for them; it just means they’re frustrated, because things that require work are often frustrating.

3. Kids don’t quit; parents do.

Parents often tell me they don’t want their kids to start lessons only to have a bad experience that will turn them off music. Or they’ll want to find a new teacher because they determined their current one “wasn’t the right fit.” Or they’re concerned that the music instruction isn’t “fun” enough for their kids to enjoy it. To me, this approach undermines the notion that music is work, and a way of life. We don’t debate whether math class will turn our kids off of numbers; we assume they’ll buy into the idea that it’s a necessary skill to develop. Opening the door to quitting works against the development of resilience and perseverance and sells our kids short, which brings me to my next point:

4. Our expectations for our kids are usually too low. Except when they’re too high.

As I said earlier, kids want to be challenged and are happy when they have to work at something. They can also take on more than we usually ask of them, and can do it at an earlier age. The kind of school music instruction kids typically receive in grades 2-3 should be introduced in kindergarten or earlier. If our kids are frustrated or resistant to their musical studies, it doesn’t mean they’re not cut out for music and we’re ruining the experience for them; it just means they’re frustrated, because things that require work are often frustrating. They can also take criticism- not everything is a “good job!” We can call out subpar effort just as freely as we can praise good work.

However, there are times we burden our kids with unreasonable responsibilities and expectations. Parents lament that their kids like music but don’t want to practice. Why would they? Why would kids want to drop whatever they’re doing and go practice an instrument by themselves? Are they being punished? What are they supposed to work on? 

I think daily practice is the time when our kids really need our parental guidance, or at least our companionship. Even if you don’t play music yourself, just sitting with your kids while they practice, to witness both their triumphs and setbacks, to hear their frustrations, to share in the process, makes a world of difference. Yes, it takes time and is yet another thing to plan in your already overburdened schedule. But if it’s not worth your time, how can you expect it to be worth your kid’s time?

Again, these are just some thoughts about this stuff, humbly offered here by a parent/musician/teacher who is passionate about it. I guarantee a full refund if you think this is nonsense. Thanks for reading!

Kenji Bunch represents his hometown of Portland, Oregon as “one of the leading American composers of his generation, best known for amalgamating traditional American musical forms.” (Oregon ArtsWatch) While conservatory trained at The Juilliard School, Bunch infuses his music with folk and roots influences achieving an authentic and seamless blend of classical and vernacular styles which has inspired a new genre classification. “Call it neo-American: casual on the outside, complex underneath, immediate and accessible to first-time listeners… Bunch’s music is shiningly original.” (The Oregonian) Sly, irresistible grooves pepper his work, revealing a deft ability to integrate hip hop, jazz, bluegrass, and funk idioms. With rich, tonal harmonies and drawn-out, satisfying builds, Bunch’s music has wide emotive appeal that easily lends itself to dance and film. Over sixty American orchestras have performed his music, which “reache(s) into every section of the orchestra to create an intriguing mixture of sonic colors.” (NW Reverb) Recent works include commissions and premieres from the Seattle Symphony, the Oregon Symphony, the Lark Quartet, the Britt Festival, Music From Angel Fire, Chamber Music Northwest, the Eugene Ballet, and the Grant Park Music Festival. His extensive discography includes recordings on Sony/BMG, EMI Classics, Koch, RCA, and Naxos labels among others. Also a outstanding violist, Bunch received both Bachelor and Master of Music degrees in viola and composition from the Juilliard School and was a founding member of the highly acclaimed ensembles Flux Quartet (1996-2002) and Ne(x)tworks (2003-2011). Bunch currently serves as Artistic Director of new music ensemble Fear No Music, and teaches viola, composition, and music theory at Portland State University, Reed College, and for the Portland Youth Philharmonic.

Kenji’s website is www.kenjibunch.net.