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.