Review: 45th Parallel’s “Classical Crossroads” concert

  1. Intro: a concert’s contentious conceit
  2. Zorn channels Stalling
  3. Ives / DeNicola
  4. Safar, Yandell
  5. Sweet Child Oh No!
  6. Chen Yi
  7. Bliss / Requiem
  8. Alex Ross gets jazz so fucking wrong
  9. Post-requiem: the resurrection begins at home

1. Intro: a concert’s contentious conceit

I think of courage as more than bravado: it’s heroic vulnerability. There’s no courage if the outcome is tried and true.

There was a heated comment-thread’s worth of backstory for the concert that 45th Parallel produced last week at ART, a collaboration between artistic director Greg Ewer and composer Tristan Bliss. Those curious can still find the trigger material over at Oregon ArtsWatch, but the gist is: Bliss insisted that we need to see more courage, less “safe” programming, in concerts produced by local chamber musicians, and Ewer responded by inviting Bliss to compose and collaborate. “Classical Crossroads” was the result.

I think of courage as more than bravado: it’s heroic vulnerability. There’s no courage if the outcome is tried and true. We seek courage in the arts – the courage to feel deeply, to share meaning, to confront challenges, to risk loss for a more vital experience or more evolved awareness. It’s something we recognize and project in the artist who has gotten outside of a comfort zone (theirs, or ours). This is a fantastic topic to bring to bear on contemporary recital hall culture, to serve as the basis for a collaborative challenge. But comfort zones – those things that courage should challenge – are subjective, and subject to shifts.

If the club music you hear weekend after weekend is loud and aggressive, what takes more courage: louder aggression, or introspective lyricism? I think of the late Elliott Smith playing plaintive songs solo on a punk stage; in underground circles that was riskier in the post-punk 90’s than a searing amped guitar and a shouting front-man. Smith showed us that quiet courage can be more stirring and unexpected than making an ostentatious racket. There isn’t just one courage knob to twist on our cultural mechanism; we’re too multi-dimensional for that.

So what’s courageous today in notated music, which is the domain that we’re still casually labeling as “classical”? Is it the same sort of stylistic maneuvering that academics in the field considered courageous a century ago, or could it look like something really different? I was curious, both as a lover of the music and as a local composer, to see what Bliss and Ewer worked out.

I’ll mention up front that regardless of this concert’s specific solution set I was already delighted and inspired by the project, for the instinct of Ewer and Bliss in turning toward collaboration and germination where others tended to see only contention. For reasons that will hopefully become clearer below, I truly believe that community – looking to ourselves, having our own round-trips of meaning and experiment and shared experience – is where the humanizing renaissance always lives. It’s never at the top of the pyramid, nor in the output of the algorithm.

2. Zorn channels Stalling

Post-meaning is a close friend of post-truth. How do we know the difference between an avant garde in-joke, artistic weaponization, and empty virtuosic privilege?

In “Tex Avery Meets the Marquis de Sade”, John Zorn channels his hero Carl Stalling (of Warner Brothers cartoon music fame) with a dizzying stream of abrupt shifts of tempo, theme, tonal palette and idea. Some segments were clearly cartoonish while others could be excerpts from a range of romantic or twentieth-century composers. This piece is intense and difficult music even when humorous, but the Third Angle String Quartet pulled it off with expertise and clearly had fun.

Over the course of fifteen minutes a listener may eventually start looking past the musical jokes (and poignant micro-moments) and instead perceive a consistent, unfolding structure of incompatible juxtapositions of tropes and micro-themes. One can posit a ‘meaning’ here in terms of a critique on the pace of modern informational and emotional life – a series of non-sequiturs, a stream of miniscule attention spans, the prefigurement of a social media feed interspersing humorous cat videos and satirical memes with news of corruption, suffering, practical advice, fleeting sentiments and interpersonal exchanges.

That sort of meta-interpretation has some value, and I never mind hearing a little of Zorn’s cerebral brilliance, but I feel like there’s a next artistic step that is never taken. Beyond the virtuosity of the dizzying collage I’m waiting for the courage of an actual, earnest utterance. An artist can at least gesture toward renewal from the wasteland; if we stay in the deconstructed, no-time-for-utterance space, is it because world-puncturing satire is enough (cop-out), because we’ve evolved past that (really?), or because we’re teaching ourselves to adapt to the absurd, the abstract, the alternative-fact world? Post-meaning is a close friend of post-truth. How do we know the difference between an avant garde in-joke, artistic weaponization, and empty virtuosic privilege? As far as I know there’s still only one way: shared meaning. Zorn entertains and dazzles, he rends and he pastes, he crafts transient pensées and paints them into clowns. He does not sing here, because he’s not saying anything worth singing. Cartoon courage.

3. Ives / DeNicola

The living are more important than the dead and should be treated so.

Charles Ives’ Hallowe’en from 1907 is a gradual build of scales in staggered rhythms, running in seemingly random and conflicting directions, with accelerating tempos as instruments enter. After a few intensifying repetitions the Ives piece, for piano quintet, was abruptly halted, and attention shifted to an upright piano in the back of the room where the sparse, haunting solo-piano Notturna by local composer Thomas DeNicola emerged.

DeNicola’s work has been inspiring to me since his earliest lyrical piano pieces used to grace Classical Revolution PDX chamber jams. Quite in contrast to the belabored texture of the Ives, DeNicola’s compositional voice leaves room for quiet chord figures, single-note time-bending ostinatos and spritely motifs racing or trailing off.

But the Ives piece wasn’t done: before DeNicola’s final note can decay, Halowe’en comes comes back like Michael Myers for one final very fast repetition, about 30 seconds leading up to a noisy stretto and emphatic chords with a resolution-breaking fragment on the final one.

This mash-up of a living, local composer’s work with a piece of entirely different character written in 1907 feels arbitrary, and was unwelcome for two important reasons. First, the sparseness of DeNicola’s piano composition needed room to breathe, but cramming it without any space or pause into the busy Ives piece was like taking all its oxygen away. The work’s strength was undermined and DeNicola’s utterance was turned into a mere aside. Second, as a general rule, if you’re going to mash-up a living, local composer with a dead one, give the living the upper hand. The living are more important than the dead and should be treated so. I would also add, that a struggling local composer looking to connect with his community needs more space on the program than a long-dead insurance-industry executive who gave no fucks – and, we need DeNicola more than we need Ives at this point.

I’m sure diminishing DeNicola’s work was not the intention of the producers, but sometimes the outcome of arbitrary decisions does not mean what we think it will mean, and no layer of commentary on this can really make up for the missed opportunity to let a local composer’s work stand on its own before a new audience.

4. Safar, Yandell

Paul Safar’s “Intermezzo” was written for solo piano, with cello part added for this concert by Tristan Bliss (to connect it with the subsequent solo cello piece by Nicholas Yandell). Safar’s keyboard arpeggios layered consonant and whole-tone harmonies under lyrical, chromatic melodic phrases that felt fresh and improvised in places. The end of the piece floated a more repeating octave figure in the right hand which eventually ascended toward its exit while the cello played a low, sonorous line. As with Ives/DeNicola there was a little audience confusion invited at this point because no mention of the cello was given in the program listing of Safar’s piece, and the shift to the subsequent solo piece happened without pause.

“And the Surface Breaks” for solo cello was perhaps my favorite work of the night. Nick Yandell’s compositional voice is meditative and biological, at once natural and strange in its organic asymmetry and spontaneity. There is a shift back and forth between slow movements and flurries, between gliding repose and hungry predation. But gradually the frenzy subsides and the spirit prevails as we enter a more hymn-like and reverent tonal world. I felt as if in the span of a few minutes we heard the story of a melancholy evolution – from wings and teeth in the water to some human archetype on the shore – a basket in the reeds, a wounded king, a raft by the Mississippi.

It was wonderful to hear these three Portland composers featured together in the program. My only disappointment is that the DeNicola piece was not permitted to form a nice living, local tryptich with Safar and Yandell, but was instead hemmed in by the tangled lines of the Ives quintet.

5. Sweet Child Oh No!

Though valiantly shredded by Ewer, this fussy solo violin arrangement of an overplayed hit song from 1987 (thirty years ago!) was a classic example of virtuosic effort outstripping musical idea. Conservatory musicians will do well to guard against this lazy substitution, wherein the stale conforming content of the conservatory hierarchy’s tradition’s is replaced by stale conforming content of the corporate entertainment industry’s catalog. Swapping out one product for the other does not make either more compelling. If we must angle into the late 1980’s pop pool could we not at least get a little Janes Addiction or Public Enemy or something besides what was already hard rock radio schmatlz the day it came out? Guns N’ Roses was Aerosmith fifteen years later, minus a sense of humor.

6. Chen Yi

Kudos to this collaboration for including a piece by Chen Yi, who was “the first Chinese woman to receive a Master of Arts in music composition from the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing” [wikipedia]. I was a little worried that this concert’s program, ostensibly about addressing what’s broken in the white-male-dominated tradition of classical music, would involve a discussion between white males resulting in an evening of music by white males. Chen Yi’s piece means that only seven of the eight pieces on the program were by white males; I’ll leave as an exercise to the reader whether that’s sufficient or whether we can do better, given that white males make up about 15% of the population of the planet and that there’s no shortage of local female composers doing good work. But sincerely, I’m glad Chen Yi’s work was given a hearing; I’ve never encountered a live performance of her work before.

I felt there was some kinship between the accelerating and broken-scale figures along with tremolo glissandi in Yi’s “Global Outrage” and the earlier Ives piece, though the Ives was a bit more linear and predictable. Both works used frequent direction-changes to vary energy and texture, and both were fairly short.

The Yi work was energetically performed by the Third Angle quartet, with a brilliant finale that seemed a wisp of ascending smoke. While interesting and solidly crafted, I’m not sure that “Global Outrage” lived up to its title or conceptual subject however (The 9/11/2001 attacks), compared with other pieces about similarly intense geo-political subjects (I’m thinking particularly of Pendercki’s Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima, and Crumb’s Black Angels). While Chen Yi’s piece was written in 2003 it isn’t outside of the stylistic universe of much earlier musical language (cp. Elliott Carter String Quartet No. 1, “Allegro scorrevole”, from 1951). I feel that Yi and Ives were the most ‘conventional’ modern-chamber-music pieces on the program, solidly 20th century in style if not in fact.

7. Bliss / Requiem

I found my self wondering – after the requiem, is there a resurrection?

The instrumental “Requiem for a Tradition” by Tristan Bliss begins by unfolding slanted and altered quotes of a Bach Cello Suite, a Chopin Prelude, a Stravinsky ballet. Fragmentary motivic treatments of material produced some really interesting rhythms and trajectories, and the ensemble (which included drum set, gong, horn, piano, electronics, and strings) was used effectively for a wide variety of colors.

As this requiem struggled toward its bardo, I found my self wondering – after the requiem, is there a resurrection? In some ways I feel like we’ve had a hundred years of musical requiem, as wave after wave of calculating academic avant-garde have broken against these same puzzled, frustrating rocks, having no ecstatic living community to dance with, no shared ground to germinate from. It’s the soundtrack of T. S. Eliot’s 1922 poem The Wasteland, still on repeat after nearly a century. I hear this banging at the door in Bliss’ piece, frantically in the middle section, and I’m reminded of Cage telling Schoenberg how he’ll beat his head against his own musical wall. There’s an extended stretto of drum set flurries underneath the suggestion of a jazz funeral, but there’s no social club here to build community around, no New Orleans bordello or card room to germinate good times in, nothing to define the ritual as anything but still where we started: at a recital in a self-consciously new-music space. And then the sounds linger and become spacious, atmospheric, and a gong supported by electronics seems to sound the soul’s death knell and open the door to the underworld, followed by a brief descending, dissonant motif in strings and winds; the journey is done.

It was a good piece, and there was no resurrection. The soul went from dark to dark; as wasteland above, so wasteland below. Serious new music, same as it ever was.

8. Alex Ross gets jazz so fucking wrong

When you compare the birth of jazz in black social clubs in New Orleans with birth of 20th century serious music among highly academic white elites at the same time, you are not looking at two different phases of the same cultural lifespan; that is absurd.

During this concert there were several spoken-word segments, readings from Alex Ross’ 2004 New Yorker article entitled “Listen to This”, wherein Ross decides to vehemently address all that’s broken in classical music, which he deems a terrible, self-defeating marketing phrase for a music that is very much alive.

Some of Ross’ zingers are well-aimed, such as his swipe at “empty formulas of intellectual superiority.” But more often he indulges in alternative facts and wishful thinking, such as when he overstates the diversity of the classical music world (it remains predominantly white and male dominated, an is in no way equally distributed among “the high and the low, empire, underground,…”) Ross oversimplifies both the barriers to entry and the weight of academic groupthink by stating glibly that “the music is simply whatever composers create,” and he simultaneously claims it’s on the verge of a renaissance while making the depressing and fatalist assertion that “Music is always dying, ever ending. It is an ageless diva on its nonstop farewell tour.”

But the biggest crime comes in Ross’ myopic and culture-gutting characterization of jazz. Like most highly educated white dudes, Ross seems to think that just by talking about jazz and equating it with classical music he’s doing it some kind of favor. He isn’t. “All music becomes classical music in the end”, Ross claims, and he goes on to make the most generic sketch of a music’s “life phases”, name-dropping a few early New Orleans musicians to superficially convince us he’s aware of how it all began and then talking about the genre’s move through phases from “bourgeois grandeur” to pigeonholed avant-garde.

Ross has no clue how jazz began, or perhaps even how classical music began, because if he did he’d have to be an idiot to claim equivalence. Classical music developed as the music of aristocracy, where economic surplus and prestige permitted a cult of refinement and difficulty to show a clear difference between this duke and that duke, this king and that king. Most importantly, this musical practice emerged to show a clear superiority of the music of the court over whatever the peasants in the village had time and education and resources to produce. The literate church music that also fed the music’s development was similarly elite in proportion to the church’s resources and standing. Hierarchy and importance were part of this music’s germination and have remained part of its story throughout, even (or especially) in the years of elite academic dominance in the 20th century. As the self-anointed keepers of the western musical flame jettisoned meaning and shared expressive musical vocabularies in favor of an arbitrary race to gratuitous complexity, naked exclusivity was revealed the core of its musical social order, and indeed any strategic move that made it more difficult to play and consume became a mark of distinction. Meanwhile, masterworks of the past were treated to ever more hyperbole and Euro-centric cultural exceptionalism. Even Ross’ classical revolutionary archetype Beethoven, who certainly had a humanitarian rebel’s heart and the magic combination of chops and suffering to wrestle angels and demons into his work, was continually beating his head against a smug white aristocratic wall that treated him as a ‘mere piano teacher’, and that’s still what happens in the privileged fine arts world if you try to be fully alive in it without being of the caste.

The start of jazz is important for this discussion, for American history, for humanity. Jazz came from black and creole communities in and around New Orleans whose people were economically and cultural disenfranchised. They did not have the social services or cultural institutions of the politically and economically empowered white society around, so they turned to themselves and formed social aid clubs. These community aid organizations were cultural hubs, providing a way for this people at this place and time to recognize and care for themselves, and from that self-reliant community focus – beholden to no mass media or western tradition to define what culture was supposed to be – they created miracles. One of these miracles was called jazz, and it changed the world – but first and foremost, it reflected its community.

This is bigger than a genre, a style: this is a generative model for grassroots cultural development that one can argue is found everywhere in history and prehistory *except* in great cultural hierarchies like corporate mass media, conservatory fine arts, and imperial aristocratic classes. It’s a pretty simple idea: a people look to themselves and they invent, they celebrate, they transcend.

When you compare the birth of jazz in black social clubs in New Orleans with birth of 20th century serious music among highly academic white elites at the same time, you are not looking at two different phases of the same cultural lifespan; that is absurd. You are looking at two fundamentally different ways of understanding what culture means and how we share that meaning with each other in the world. Does culture mean an engineered product, a scientific theory, a footnote on the march of history toward its successive warlike hells? Or does culture mean our community here and now, with the means we can muster among ourselves, how we decorate this life and this path to the graveyard, shaking our Funky Butts as Buddy Bolden taught folks to do, and as Rebirth Brass Band 100 years later is still teaching folks to do? Is an artistic impulse or outcome legitimate because it has a pedigree or a discursive defense or an algorithmic complexity or a calculated deviation from what immediately preceded it, or is a work legitimate because it moves us and helps us build human meaning and human community?

Ross lies and whitesplains; there was never a moment in classical music comparable to the first twenty years of jazz in black New Orleans. (I hope he’s evolved his viewpoint since 2004). Our challenge is more than just to go back to some mythical “Go” square on the musical monopoly board. Our challenge is to appropriate in the other direction for once: to claim and liberate for the people, for community, what has traditionally been the guarded and exclusionary-by-design musical language of the privileged. And in that respect, it’s not the tradition nor the rejection of tradition that matters; it’s how our community feels about it, how our rituals embody and celebrate our humanity, how much delight and respect and shared meaning we can build. But this is pretty much the opposite of those “empty formulas of intellectual superiority” that dismissed audiences and communities in favor of experimental esoterica and alienation. Jazz never really succumbed to that fate – maybe in the pages of The New Yorker and in the fickle attention of white consumers it did, but on the streets and in the social clubs and barrooms of New Orleans it never stopped being about the spirit of the Buddy Bolden’s Funky Butt. And that tangible, local reality is more important than any critic’s theory or any record executive’s marketing strategy.

9. Post-requiem: the resurrection begins at home

There were four highlights to this concert, and their names were DeNicola, Safar, Yandell, and Bliss. Four local composers all producing interesting work and eager to connect with audiences – and yet, seriously, what’s up with the printed program? We get a confusing story that makes the pieces by local composers hard to even recognize, and on top of that, no highlight, bio, or attention at all explaining which of the composers are local and how to contact them or learn more about their work. I know the names because I’m a composer; how is a general-audience 45th Parallel fan supposed to form any connection with the talent in their community if we don’t even tell them who a local composer is when we’re presenting their works?

All composers except the famous (and cute ‘well-bred’ wunderkinder) are treated like second-class citizens in the modern classical world. For decades we were even taught in every music school in the country that the way to get your work performed is to put it in an envelope and submit it to a remote panel-administered contest – culture by anonymous lottery!

If arts leaders, producers, and curators want to help foster a Rose City renaissance that includes original composed-music performance that takes off with the variety and fecudity of the test garden at Washington Park, here are some addenda to the Oregon ArtsWatch demands Bliss made, inspired by what I didn’t see at this concert. You can call this the free fertilizer (happy to provide!) for the 21st-century Rose City School:

  • Give local composers more room and more prominent positioning on your programs. Don’t give them little token slots, and don’t jam them between the works of dead guys. Give them room to breathe and connect with audience.
  • Help composers build community and audience – at a minimum, give them segments in printed programs with URLs for their work, and encourage them to bring and circulate mailing lists. Better yet, put out recordings of their work and give them a cut of what you sell at the merch table or online.
  • Get to know, and work with, composers of color, women, locals of different national origin, and members of other less-privileged groups. It isn’t enough just to have a white male read an essay by a white male ensuring us that somebody has already done this. Work for it, don’t wait for it. Better yet, if you’re a white-male decision-maker in this field, advocate, collaborate, and empower those who don’t look like you to take on programming and artistic direction.
  • PAY COMPOSERS grand performance royalties for the right to perform their work live, even if it’s just a nominal amount (comparable to what you pay a performer). They need it, they deserve it, just do it! It will feel great when you do! (* No idea whether local composers were paid for Classical Crossroads, but mentioning because it’s so rare.)
  • Be conscious that you need living, local composers to build *your* reputation as an exciting and relevant performing group. Treat them at least as well as you would treat your most prominent performer.
  • Break out of the recital hall mold. More club concerts, house concerts, sultry speakeasies, dada-esque decadence, quaint cabin jams, whatever! Invent.
  • Reward and exchange expressions of meaning. We need it. This isn’t about one-way artist-to-audience communication; meaning is a round trip.
  • Affirm that the most important mission is local, cultural, and generative, not conformist replication based on established (and bygone) cultural hierarchies. Lead your audiences to understand this if they don’t already. Share meaning, understanding, emotion and experience. This is what art is for!

I’m looking forward to what Tristan Bliss cooks up beyond the bardo, now that the requiem is over. And I hope 45th Parallel will continue setting its sights on local, living work.

Christopher Corbell is the founder of Muse:forward. He writes and produces underground opera and art-song in Portland, Oregon through his company Cult of Orpheus.

Does Classical Music Support White Male Rage in America?

Racism and sexism in the arts isn’t a new topic. At least since the dawn of the civil rights movement, Americans have been increasingly willing to grapple with stereotypes and discrimination in art works and institutions. As a composer, I’m concerned with how the culture of opera companies and symphony orchestras might relate to the aggressive wave of misogyny, racism, and xenophobia that we see dangerously ascendent in our national government, in our discourse, and in our communities.

Token steps forward have often given people a premature sense of resolution. In the 1950’s it was big news when the Metropolitan Opera of New York hired its first black singer, contralto Marian Anderson. And yet the Met did not drop the controversial use of ‘blackface’ in performances until 2015. The company has never produced an opera written by a black composer; it remains almost completely a vehicle for works by white males — their voices, their stories, and often, their cavalier attitudes about gender, ethnic, and racial stereotypes. Here in Portland, a musician who has worked with some of the largest fine arts groups in town related surprise (and approval) that my underground opera Viva’s Holiday employs women in both the stage director and music director positions. This is almost unheard of in the big classical music organizations, even in this progressive city.

Symphony orchestras have less visible content than opera, but are not necessarily more progressive. Before Marin Alsop was appointed music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in 2007, there had never been a non-male director of a major American orchestra. A few black conductors were able to gain such appointments somewhat earlier, including the late James DePreist of our Oregon Symphony, but the director position remains today overwhelmingly white-male-dominated. And both major and provincial orchestras in the U. S. continue to focus programming mainly on works written by white males and associated with the most privileged castes of European patriarchal history. In the U. S. a company is touted as progressive in classical music circles if it occasionally breaks out of this paradigm. It’s a low bar.

I believe that art is not a product of culture; art is the fabric of culture. It’s a matrix of shared human experience and values. And it isn’t only the experience of the audience; it’s also the experience of everyone working to produce the art, which reinforces a community’s shared idea of itself. Programming, artistic direction, marketing, fundraising, production, board meetings, and feedback from audiences, press, donors — these all reflect values and assumptions which create and reuse shared languages and shared experiences. It is not a simple cause and effect equation; this artistic fabric both reflects and constrains who we are. And the more money and prestige and power the artistic production involves, the more it reflects and constrains the moneyed, prestigious, powerful segments of our culture.

Leinwand (um 1618)   Peter Paul Rubens [1577 - 1640]   Objektmaß 224x210,5 cm  Inventar-Nr.: 321

Peter Paul Rubens [1577 – 1640], The Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus

But it follows that the shared experience of our conservatory-fueled fine arts institutions is still mostly a white-male-dominance experience. Recently, we’ve been discussing it more. For example, the sexual assault that occurs in Mozart’s Don Giovanni has traditionally been depicted in a lighthearted way, but we seem to be at last questioning sexual violence in male-written, male-directed operas, as writer Micaela Baranella did in a New York Times article from 2015. But when our President-Elect is revealed to have bragged about sexually assaulting women and that doesn’t deter millions of people from voting for him, can we plausibly deny that it’s all part of the same story? Gender inequality, ethnic stereotypes, sexual violence — these features are not uncommon in the works of the canon, and most of the time we don’t address it directly. It’s there in the mix, like nitrogen in the soil, when support blooms for a racist, sexist, fascist demagogue.

In the wake of our recent electoral debacle, I saw a local arts admin vent online at ‘uneducated whites’ — and yet, Herr Drumpf carried a majority of voters who make over $100k a year. It’s not unreasonable to suppose that he may well have the support a large number of board members and season ticket holders of America’s dead-white-male-loving opera houses and symphony orchestras. There is virtually no way for those in a community concerned about growing misogyny, racism, and xenophobia to know if the programming, hiring, and decision-making of a local fine arts organization is partially motivated by deliberate or unconscious white-male superiority feelings. Token exceptions to this dominant paradigm may be sincere (if insufficient), or they could be driven by pre-emptive public relations, intentionally or habitually leaving the less-egalitarian patriarchal foundation unperturbed, usually in the name of abstractions like ‘quality’, ‘excellence’, ‘honoring the music’, etc. Most educated persons will not display opinions as tactlessly as our demagogue-in-chief does. But if we suspect any element of residual white supremacy is part of the story, now is the time to understand it and to explore ways to highlight, engage, and change it.

We are surrounded, particularly in a creative city like Portland, by outsider artists struggling to forge and share conscience, to resist regressive exhibitions of misogyny, racism, nativism, and authoritarianism. But these struggling artists, and the crucial work they are trying to do, are almost by definition working outside of conservatory fine arts institutions. A reason is signified in that word itself: conservatory. The conservatory process grooms people to laboriously absorb well-established practices rather that to utter, to generate, to experiment, to weave new meaning, to be individual. I dream of Generatories. Instead of instilling dead-white-guy veneration and workaholic habits, we should be teaching students how to creatively appropriate the techniques of the old ‘masters’ for their own new utterances that reflect contemporary issues, aspirations, and morals. (In this respect, I do think the 20th century new-music zeitgeist failed us, by letting a cult of shallow combinatorial algorithmic novelty eclipse, in academia at least, less-elitist community-centered creativity open to repurposing the tools of the past — which is more how the pragmatic world of technology actually works). In a generatory-informed fine arts culture, instead of eternally programming the greatest hits of the 17th through 19th centuries and falsely claiming that’s somehow a neutral act, we would as a community be much more devoted to empowering living creators of talent and conscience to make new works great and small and weave them into our present and future. And, those community-supported creators would deliver wonders; expressive and compassionate humans display genius when empowered.

screen-shot-2016-11-19-at-12-50-01-amIn the coming resistance and realignment, I urge decision-makers in our fine arts institutions to be as courageous as possible, starting today. Dare to more thoroughly and self-critically examine whether a practice or assumption permits or even abets the vile qualities of misogyny, racism, homophobia, and authoritarianism. Please do not hold up a fable of neutrality (as Oregon Symphony President Scott Sholwater did online, on November 9). The rise in hate crimes since election day in not a partisan issue that you can tactfully avoid in order to not ruffle donors’ feathers – and if that’s what you’re doing, you’re part of the problem. In the words of Elie Wiesel,

“We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”

I also urge progressive-minded donors and cultural facilitators to look around you for living artists who are working to weave a more compassionate, inclusive, and just community. Lend your resources to support active resistance and meaningful utterance. If your current favored cultural institutions remain tacit consenters to the toxic angry-white wave we face, move your dollars to the resistance. In culture as in politics, it’s an unfortunate truth that the winner will usually be the better funded. Do we want to see the culture of white-male superiority better funded than new, progressive, inclusive artistic vision? When we answer this question, we may also be answering the titular one.

Christopher Corbell is the founder of Muse:forward. He writes and produces underground opera and art-song in Portland, Oregon through his company Cult of Orpheus.

Income inequality and music

www-02-mahagonnyA highly esteemed, major-bank-funded fine arts organization puts on The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahogonny, an 86-year-old political satire against capitalism. After the brief, half-sold run they drink high-end cocktails at the cast party, congratulating themselves for attempting to be so progressive.

A major-label rock band with a $200k recording budget screams about the inexcusable greed of the 1%. They wreck the stage, and working-class union stage hands fix it.

Our eyes glaze over at these ironies; we don’t take it any further. Why? Because we’re consumers – not just of products and productions, but more importantly, of the social order. We swallow these hierarchies whole, ironies and all. We conform easily or with difficulty, but we conform.

We conform easily by using our privilege in the cultural upper class (our parents were professionals, professors, highly educated musicians, stable Atlantic Monthly readers) to assimilate ourselves to the placid rituals and institutional guard rails of the conservatory. Yes, we work hard at the art; we can afford to.

We conform easily by hiding our economic privilege behind a facade of indie band coolness, when there is clearly no way we’ve struggled from rags to the five 180g vinyl albums on our merch table, recorded impeccably in the most expensive studio in town in just as many years – somebody’s got family money or a sweet tech gig, but you’re a dick if you ask about it. The whole trick is to make this look easy, like twee indie magic, and to pretend we’re all starting from the same place. Yes, touring and selling all that merch takes dedication and effort and risk; good thing we have a leg up.

We conform with difficulty, taking on massive student debt, working a pointless work-study job when we should be practicing, and struggling with depression as we try to keep up with the rich kids who never fail to remind us, in the subtle cues of insiders, that we don’t belong and we’re likely to fail. Maybe we prove them wrong, and find our place at the table of elites. Was it worth it?

We conform with difficulty, saving up meager funds and scrappy equipment over a couple of years in the face of low-income ups and downs to do a rushed recording in a cheap studio that never gets quite right, only to run up against a friendly “keep trying” wall among the hyper-consumers who blog, review, and stream as gatekeepers of the fashionably conformist pseudo-underground. Maybe we keep at it for a decade, or more, and finally put out something that gets a little play, and we actually break even on one tour. Was it worth it?

My primary impulse is not condemnation but liberation and self-realization. I believe that’s what we’re here for, and that’s what art is for. I’m not looking to engineer some forced-equality system from the top down; I still agree with Bernie, real change always happens from the bottom on up. But what I see in music are social systems that, by design and by emergent behavioral patterns, empower a very few, excluding and implying struggle, failure, and illegitimacy for the many. How is it possible for us self-selected progressive creative types to address the forces of inequality at all in our world, if we don’t dare address them in art? I don’t mean address inequality as a topic, but as a fabric, in the way we share and produce and listen to one another’s work. Cooperative, inclusive art which fosters idiosyncrasy is not some fantasy; it’s been done. If we can’t break away from our addiction to pyramid-like cultural hierarchies in this most volitional and communal of all social activities, why should we expect anyone else to do so in industry, in finance, in government?

Do we need to have PhD’s to compose and play music? No, of course not; we can remember that the most transformative music of the 20th century came from brilliant, un-credentialed African-Americans in New Orleans who looked to their own community (in economic and social ways as well as artistic) and invented jazz, eclipsing with fecund exuberance and virtuosity all of the self-important and strained gyrations of rich white 20th century “serious music”.

Do we need to have commercial production values and exhaustive marketing on par with the entertainment industry to make records that matter? Not inherently: some of us still remember the golden age of college radio, or of various less-bankrolled phases in local undergrounds, when *real* idiosyncrasy and lo-fi production coupled with an actual message (not craptastic navel-gazing soaked in reverb) were embraced precisely because they were so evidently non-conformist and non-corporate.

Somewhere between the dry white paper of privileged fine arts and the unctuous shiny plastic of indie-tainment there are actual people. I.e., us. Maybe if we stop looking at what everyone else is looking at – the credentials and institutional committees, or the production values and precious marketing – and actually look at each other, we’ll find a way to build community with our art, and to include and empower everyone here, now, in this city and this scene. Art can lead the way in building new inclusive models of community; why should we accept the way of aristocracy or the way of the mass market? Maybe we’ll invent the next great cultural explosion because we reject the notion that an expert can tell us what’s possible based on a narrow aristocracy-first view of history. Or we’ll just buzz the really weird stuff and see it become truly original, while laughing at the conformity of records that all sound merely “current”. We’ll stop giving a shit about who’s got daddy’s money – where the buck of patriarchy truly stops – and find other ways to do things. If we can’t do this, then let’s stop pretending anyone else can.

Art is a symbol, a bellwether, not just in content but in how it is produced and shared. Look around: we’re all continuous enablers of systems of power where each person’s default identity is not creator but consumer. Our eyes and ears are like voracious demons from some Miyazaki film, gobbling up all that flows through our feeds and podcasts. We exemplify the pervasive assumption on which all the world’s pyramid schemes rely: we must swallow what’s given unless by some magical fiat we find ourselves in the board room or the control room, an insider at last, flush with enough cash to create something for the feeding frenzy.

In the shitshow of extreme wealth inequality, our hands – the hands of musicians known and unknown, working within these exclusionary systems and impulses, still trying to “make it” – are just as dirty as any Wall Street banker’s.

Christopher Corbell is the founder of Muse:forward. He writes and produces underground opera and art-song in Portland, Oregon through his company Cult of Orpheus.

Deflating your boost: how Facebook is misleading and cheating indie artists

Facebook delivered 3% of the marketing reach they touted – but kept 100% of my money.

Screen Shot 2016-03-12 at 1.35.58 AMLike many friends I know who produce shows or perform, at times I’ve paid money to promote Facebook ads and posts for events. A recent experience has convinced me that people are getting cheated, and the platform is delivering only a tiny fraction of what it promises when it pushes you to buy a boost. See below for the proof!

Here’s the scenario: a post on my music group’s page linked to an upcoming show, and I decided to pay to boost it. The page where you create your ad gives you an estimate of how many people it could reach. For $15, it said I would reach thousands. After about $10 of the $15 was spent, I noticed the boost had only added 180 views (it reached 80 people organically). Also for some reason around this time the ad automatically stopped.

So I decided to try an experiment, and document it with screenshots. I opted to boost this same ad a bit more by adding $5. At the outset this is where the ad stood in terms of views and money spent:

Screen Shot 2016-03-10 at 12.37.00 PM

Those 180 paid views were the result of spending just under $10.

Here’s the screen Facebook showed to add more boost budget:


Check out what it says below that $5 entry: by spending this amount, Facebook estimates 1,400 – 3,800 people will see the post. (The estimate for my original $15 ad was in the thousands as well). I realize that’s just for impressions – not all of those people are going to be interested or click on the link to my event – but those numbers seem fine to me and worth the cash. So I add the budget, and by the time the money’s all spent here is where we get to:

Screen Shot 2016-03-12 at 12.39.50 AM

That extra $5 boost, along with the $5.51 I had credited already, got this post from 180 paid views to 226 paid views. That’s 46 more views.

Offering 1,400-3,800 views for a set price, and only delivering 46 views: this is pretty bad. Forty-six is about 3% of the minimum estimate that was used to sell me on the boost. It’s like buying a bus ticket from Portland to New York and getting dropped off twenty miles past Hood River.

As a programmer I wonder about the estimate algorithm – maybe it’s just a bug – but this is such a big magnitude of error that it’s hard to believe there’s any connection between the estimate and the actual promotional implementation. I do know that the pool of people I could potentially reach with my chosen targeting is plenty big – there are over 350 likes on the page, and by promoting to friends of fans as well that puts the size of the promotional pool easily in tens of thousands (several of the fans have nearly 1000 friends; even an average of 100 unique friends per fan puts the total number of people the ad could target at around 35,000).

46 impressions is a joke for paid advertising. Facebook is ripping off artists and misleading them. I don’t think this is an acceptable way to do business.

Have others encountered this? Please share your stories. I will be sending a complaint to Facebook ad support, I’ll let you know what they say.

The promise of the “Pay Your Wage” sliding scale

A hallmark of post-punk underground culture has been the cheap show. A $5 cover for a night of 3-4 local bands and a $10-15 ticket for higher-profile touring acts in bigger venues became the norm by 90’s — and in Portland, it’s still the norm, two decades later.

While booking quasi-“underground” classical concerts for Classical Revolution PDX, it was really important to me to try and price things at a similar level. The mission of the group was access, and its ethos was irreverent and egalitarian.

And yet, there is the hard fact: cheap live shows are a hard way to break even (never mind make a living). We can cut overhead but at some point even the most DIY garage band will find itself resorting to a kickstarter or other self-funding source in order to record, buy new gear, get a tour-worthy vehicle.

Maybe that has something to do with the fact that $5 is not, in 2015, what it was in 1991. Back then, it was pretty close to the local minimum wage; the federal minimum then was $4.25. That’s half the minimum wage in Portland now, and that wage itself is deflated, with rising income inequality in the US (and gentrification in in the Rose City) not making the picture any rosier.

There are plenty of creative and/or bureaucratic solutions out there. Kickstarters are the viral, DIY option (with a cut going to the corporate tech company,  like everything these days), while small nonprofit-sponsored acts in the art-music space compete for the lottery of grants and ever-thinner streams of arts fundraising. There are limitations and downsides to these strategies.

Many people might not recognize how much at a disadvantage kickarters are compared to nonprofit fundraising. Donor’s can’t write off donations, and unless you’re incorporated that income is going to look like your personal income for your taxes at the end of the year. Moreover, if you don’t have enough business to convince the IRS that your music is a sufficiently profit-making venture, you won’t be able to write off any of your expenses paid for with that kickstarted money, because they’ll legally classify your artistic passion as a “hobby.”

Unfortunately as I found out with CRPDX, nonprofits are not a panacea: you are required to raise half of your funds through donations, you have to have a board of directors who can micro-manage or even fire you, and you’re going to face a lot of paperwork and administrative culture when what you really want to do is create and perform. But whether you’re kickstarting or fundraising, sooner or later you might start to feel like you’re spending all your time begging, which is never the best headspace for art.

Artists need to get paid, not bureaucratized. Some folks think this is the responsibility of the venues where shows happen. But venues often barely cover rent — we’ve seen a lot of great ones go under in the past decade in Portland — so trying to make them foot the bill for better musician wages off of their beer sales hasn’t gained any traction despite the ongoing efforts of groups like Fair Trade Music and the local Musician’s Union.

That’s where Pay Your Wage comes in. We need a fix that isn’t a lottery like grants, that isn’t s perennial begging system like kickstarter or fundraising, and that isn’t a coercive model that puts the pressure on the venues and makes everyone adversarial.

What if our $5-$15 ticket prices at least kept pace with wage levels and inflation? What if, further, those who were doing better than average and still coming to shows — professionals like attorneys, high tech workers, medical professionals — were given a framework that encouraged them (without demanding) to give a little more?

Here’s how it works:

  • Your show has a sliding scale for admission
  • The scale is called “Pay Your Wage”, which means: pay what you make in an hour
  • It’s an honor system; everyone pays what they will
  • You can use the minimum wage as a minimum — which will go up when our so-called leaders find the will in their cold little hearts to hike it — or you can set a lower minimum for the under-employed, or no minimum if you don’t want to turn anyone away.
  • For ticketed events, many systems like Brown Paper Tickets will let you set up several different prices of tickets, so you can even use the sliding scale for advance sales. Pick a small range of prices and have the purchase page say “Please choose a price closest to your hourly wage”. E.g., $10, $15, $20, $25, $30, $40, $50

That’s all there is to it. Once people encounter enough shows structured this way it will become second-nature to them; I’ve seen this happen among the audiences where it has been tried already.

Will everyone really pay their wage? Almost certainly not — but they will likely still pay more than what they pay now. And it only takes one generous person chipping in $50 to make a big difference for a band playing a small room. If the small-venue show averages $10 or $12 a person instead of $5, the bands playing will more than double their (still slim) income. Bigger venues that might currently charge $10-$15 can expect to get closer to a $20 average; when CRPDX used this model for a chamber performance in 2014 we didn’t turn anyone away, had a number of people come in for free or paying an “under-employed” $5, and yet we still averaged $19 per audience member at the gate.

This system also builds in a way for show promoters and venues to gradually shift prices up with wages without pissing most people off. If Portland follows Seattle’s lead and raises the minimum wage to $15, then a new suggested minimum of $15 won’t seem so crazy as long as “Pay Your Wage” is the buzzword.

If you’re in a band or producing a show, try it out! Let me know how it goes, what problems you encounter and how it changes what you make per-audience-member. If you’re running a bigger presenting organization that typically sells higher-priced tickets, maybe you could experiment with this model for a section of your audience or for special outreach performances. I believe the more that it’s tried, the more this system will succeed in changing people’s expectations, by letting them be part of better arts funding directly, at the show, supporting the bands and other performers they like with a few extra bucks — an hour’s worth.

What does it mean to Keep Portland Weird?

Getting back to some emerging-music think-tankery for tonight’s salon…

Our monthly Muse:forward event champions stuff that doesn’t fit into established genres. We’re not alone – there are many venue owners/bookers, impresarios and scene-makers in town who seem to just get it, and that venerable bumper-sticker mantra “Keep Portland Weird” still applies here, despite corporate TV’s attempt to co-opt its diversity for profit and cynical, passive amusement.

Weirdness is a natural part of being human. A person is existentially the strangest mash-up of transcendent consciousness and awkward animal. Anything imaginable is our natural, terrible, playful domain. This is what being human’s about, and what IMO art is about, if one can say it (like life) is “about” anything.

The impersonal is the domain of the institution. Set something up with a creed, a program, a hierarchy. The institution naturally normalizes, classifies, suppresses the weird so that some agenda can be met. “Normal” is the oxygen of the institution, it’s what allows it to predict and control and expand and maximize its interests.

So on this basis I think “Keep Portland Weird” isn’t about the surface, the idiosyncratic style or trend. It’s about making room for the individual to be natural, to be oneself, to be weird, to explore without being corralled by normalizing institutions. What I’m attempting with the monthly Muse:forward event isn’t to curate a preferred weird style, but to provide a forum that resists agenda and groupthink and gives anyone who wants to try something (mainly with music) a protected space to be themselves. And I think that’s not new in Portland; if we have a weird cultural ethos it’s because many have worked, and still work, to foster this kind of individuality that lets us remind ourselves we aren’t just consumers or taxpayers or subjects or TV audience.

Looking forward to discussion, tonight at the salon, and in comments!

Worldwide In C this Sunday at the Waypost!

The 50th anniversary of Terry Riley’s In C is being celebrated far and wide on Sunday Dec. 21, and Muse:forward is happy to be hosting a performance at our monthly emerging-music salon at the Waypost.

We will be setting up and talking about the piece at 6:30 and plan to start the performance pretty close to 7 pm, so please join us then – let’s see how full of musicians  and sound we can make the space!

You can find the score of In C here.

And of course we’ll have our usual emerging-music open performance time starting at 8 pm, so with all those musicians in the house I expect this will be a third Sunday to remember. See you then!

Oh, and if you like, invite your friends on the Facebook event page.



Great sounds at The Waypost

Thanks to everyone who participated and made the first Muse:forward emerging music salon a big success!

The Waypost hosts Muse:forward every third Sunday.

The Waypost hosts Muse:forward every third Sunday.

We had around 40 people in the Waypost at one point, with a few people standing in the entry hall or lingering out the courtyard door to take in the performances.

Matthew Fort morphs the intense soundscape of "Chernobyl '86"

Matthew Bambas mutates the intense sonic energy of “Chernobyl ’86”

Thirteen performers in all delivered their sound-craft, which ranged from the solo piano compositions of Thomas DiNicola and Josh Kreydatus to the sonic energy-wall of Matthew’s Bambas’ “Chernobyl ’86”.

The evening began with works by composer Emyli Poltorak.  The first piece, a dance collaboration with electronic composer Nikko Geise, featured live cello antagonized by cutting and shifting electronic textures. The second, “Alpha Beta”, was composed as a music game based on letters of the alphabet, with words taken from the Wikipedia article “History of the Alphabet.

John Berendsen's robophone textures are still playing as he adds piano.

John Berendzen’s robophone textures are still playing as he adds piano.

John Berendzen then filled the room with mesmerizing layers of sound from the robophone, an instrument he invented involving a horn, an arduino processor, bluetooth, sound-looping software and other geek secrets. Not your regular stage act, the ambient experience was heightened as Berendzen meandered through the room with the instrument, shifting the way sound filled space. The audience was entranced but also encouraged to talk and move about.

The total of thirteen performers also included composers Thomas DiNicola and Josh Kreydatus performing their own works on piano, the astounding piano/saxophone McCulley-Falconer Duo, song-craft by Kela Parker, accordion-and-voice performance by Liam Barnes, some haunting guitar and vocal work by Ethan Matthews, and a little computer-rendered randomized music by composer/software-engineer (and your Muse:forward blogger) Christopher Corbell.

Emily Poltorak and friends perform her game-piece "Alpha Beta"

Emily Poltorak and friends perform her game-piece “Alpha Beta”

We couldn’t have asked for a more fun and diverse kick-off to this monthly series. More to come in June!

Muse:forward welcomes musicians and sonic artists who might not fit into a regular acoustic open mic, new band night or genre-specific jam. Ambient, experimental, compositional, improvisational and electronic works welcome. To stay in touch with this emerging community, join our  mailing list on GroupSpaces.


Press Release: Muse:forward Emerging Music series begins May 18

attn: music, experimental music, arts scene
Portland, OR • May 2, 2014
Event Details:
Muse:forward Emerging Music Salon
Experimental, Ambient, Improvisational, Compositional, Mixed-genre
The Waypost – 3120 N. Williams Ave., Portland, OR, 97227
Sunday May 18
7 pm
21 and over
No cover • donations go to artists

Emerging-music think-tank hosts genre-defying new music salon

Monthly event at the Waypost will give underground new-music afficionados an informal meeting place
On Sunday, May 18, the first Muse:forward Emerging Music Salon night will take place at The Waypost. As described on the Muse:forward Blog, the event is being designed as common ground for experimental, ambient, electronic, improvisatory and compositional artists:
“There’s an energy underground striving to get aloft… Sonic textures, new composed works, improvisations, experiments, interactive events, songs that stretch form and genre.”

The event will include an hour of showcase performances by selected artists each month, followed by 90 minutes of open-mic-style ad hoc performances. As the blog announcement states, “Anyone who feels their sonic art would be better suited in an emerging-music context than in a traditional open mic or new band night is welcome to participate.”

Classical Revolution PDX director seeks to bring “chamber jam” success to new music
Composer and CRPDX Executive Director Christopher Corbell founded Muse:forward as an emerging music think-tank at the beginning of 2014. Devoted to “emerging music community and economy”, the nascent effort has begun to garner attention for its “Pay Your Wage” sliding-scale campaign to increase club musician compensation. With this new Emerging Music Salon, Muse:forward takes its first step into active new-music community-building and presentation.
As a composer of both classicist chamber music and new music in many genres, Corbell has actively encouraged local composers to participate in Classical Revolution PDX chamber jams during his year as director. The casual gatherings of the alt-classical group were creating something like a “club scene” for young emerging composers, even as more traditionally-minded members of the community began voicing displeasure with the eclipse of more traditional repertoire.
Corbell hopes the Muse:forward event on third Sundays at The Waypost will diffuse some of the contention between what pianist Maria Choban has referred to as “The Futurists and the Librarians” in the alternative chamber-music scene.
“Having a releatively unscripted and informal place for new music to emerge is really important I think. It’s why underground rock is perennial. It was a blast to see young composers start making things happen at CRPDX chamber jams, and kind of a bummer to see so many traditionalists respond negatively to what was emerging. I’m hoping these new music nights will protect the momentum of this scene. These composers are connecting directly with audiences and don’t have the rarefied air of the conservatories – in fact they seem to be allergic to recital halls.
At the same time I know some great artists who wouldn’t consider participating in CRPDX because of the word “Classical”, who are doing more avant-garde things, with more sonic exploration and improvisation. Muse:forward is definitely as much for them as for those who still have a good time putting dots on staff paper.”
– Christopher Corbell, Muse:forward founder
info (at)
Muse:forward is a Fractured-Atlas-sponsored artistic project in Portland, OR

Pay Your Wage table card PDF, BrownPaperTickets setup

Want to use the Pay Your Wage sliding-scale model for your next show? Here are a couple of things that can help.

This simple table-tent card explains the scale to your guests. Just print it out on heavy card stock, fold in half and set up at your admission table or box office:

Screen Shot 2014-04-06 at 8.01.23 AM


You can also set up online advance ticket purchase for Pay Your Wage sliding scale. Here’s a screenshot of a recent show’s configuration – it’s easy to set up, just enter tiers for various wage levels:

Screen Shot 2014-04-06 at 7.55.33 AM


With a combination of advance tickets and sales at the door the show above averaged over $19 per attendee. There were plenty of people paying only $5, and nobody was turned away.