MusicWatch Weekly: Welcome to Digital Heaven

MusicWatch Weekly: Welcome to Digital Heaven

These days we’re toggling between two extremes: on the one hand, digitally mediated mass socialization via zoom, youtube, social media, and all the rest of the burgeoning digital (after)life; on the other hand, some truly next-level hermit action in the form of baking, yoga, quilting, meditation, prayer, journaling, self-reflection, self-recording, and the simple joy of sitting and catching up on all those books you’ve been meaning to read since, like, the eighties.

Of course, most of us are splitting the difference one way or another–for instance, we know dozens of musicians who are spending their quarantine listening to and sharing their favorite albums, a perfect example of how a fundamentally isolated endeavor can be transmuted into an eminently social experience. Same goes, mutatis mutandis, for book clubs and TV show binge-watching parties (let me know if I can spoil Battlestar Galactica for you).

We’ll be talking in some depth about this nascent digital afterlife starting next week, when we’ll discuss: 45th Parallel Universe’s new friend Kevin; defunct Portland cyberpunk indie trio Menomena; recent and timely Matrixy entertainment like Devs, Westworld, and Upload; and media guru Douglas Rushkoff’s “Ten Commands for a Digital Age.” That’s all in the first of several new series we schemers at ArtsWatch have planned for your next few months of quarantined music reading. Stay tuned.

For now, read on for this week’s updates: the premiere of 45||’s new Social Distancing Ensemble and the ExTradition Series’ ongoing Social Distancing Project; the latest in artist and venue relief, support, and mutual aid; and the unveiling of our new “Read the Comments” section, in which we’ll reach into our virtual mailbag and see if we’ve received any letters.

I’m afraid I can do that, Dave

Over the last few weeks, social media chatter was abuzz with the astonishing news that a couple of local symphony violinists had cracked the puzzle we’ve all spent the last few months banging our heads against: how the !%#&(@ are we supposed to play music over the $%!(%@ internet?

Conversations over the web are no problem, especially for those of us who like a little latency in our personal interactions anyways. But music is inherently predicated on a very fine degree of synchronization. With the exception of the sweet aleatoric stuff that our beloved ExTradition Series is known for (more on which in a moment), we absolutely need everything to happen at the right time. The problem becomes even more acute when you consider how much of the beauty of “live” music lies in the little extemporaneous rhythmic subtleties that make sensitive ensembles so rewarding to listen to.

Trying to do that over our overloaded wifi is Not Going To Cut It. And yet…all of sudden at the end of April we heard 45th Parallel artistic director Ron Blessinger putting out the call for volunteer musicians to beta test something they’d been working on. All of a sudden, we see a video of Blessinger playing the Bach Double Concerto with one of his former students…in Ireland. Then it’s symphony percussionists Sergio Carreno and Jon Greeney playing Steve Reich’s Clapping Music. What the hell? Then back to Blessinger, playing Telemann duos with Oregon Symphony principal flutist Martha Long. Finally, clarinetist-composer James Shields playing a Mozart quintet with a homebound string quartet.

Then, all of sudden, a concert scheduled: a live remote concert, in which a smallish ensemble would perform–of all damn things!–Terry Riley’s In C.

We were agog. Everyone pestered Ron and co-conspirator Greg Ewer (45||’s founder), and they finally told us all about their developer friend Danny Rosenberg. Danny had cracked it, see, with a program that could synchronize musicians over the internet. They named it Kevin, apparently after beloved PNW sportscaster Kevin Calabro. And all of a sudden we have the Portland Social Distance Ensemble (read more about that right here).

You can see the results for yourself below. We’ll be talking about this momentous event and its apocalyptic implications next week; for now, just soak up that C drone and bask in the digital miracle. And be sure to tune in tonight, when the Pyxis Quartet section of the Universe will perform some of the best living music in their catalogue: Philip Glass and George Crumb.


The other big news this week is the digitization of beloved long-running Portland classical music festival Chamber Music Northwest. You know all about good old CMNW, of course, having read coverage of their varied successes in these pages for years (our personal favorite: 2017).

We received the news last Thursday:

…it is with heavy hearts that Chamber Music Northwest is canceling upcoming spring concerts and all Summer Festival concerts and events. This would be a difficult decision any year, but it is especially difficult with 2020 being Chamber Music Northwest’s 50th anniversary and David Shifrin’s 40th and final summer as artistic director.

Terrible news, everybody! Chamber Music Christmas is cancelled! But the news continues:

Despite the cancellation of live concerts, however, Chamber Music Northwest will continue to bring music to our community through a five-part series airing on All Classical Portland 89.9 FM and a free Virtual Summer Festival on

So…the king is dead, long live the king? Outgoing clarinetist-director Shifrin and incoming violinist-pianist director dyad Gloria Chien and Soovin Kim will have their moments to shine online, and many of our CMNW favorites are getting up to their usual business in the coming series. Imani Winds, Kenari Quartet, the Kavafians, and string quartets aplenty: Verona, Harlem, Miro, Emerson, and Dover, oh my! Throw in a couple of composers–Edgar Meyer and P.D.Q. Bach expert Peter Schickele–and we’ve got a promising digital summer.

We have a confession to make, dear reader: the prospect of getting to spend the next few months covering these concerts for you without having to get out of my pyjamas is pretty literally a dream come true. We’ll miss the lovely acoustics and warm churchy vibe of Reed College’s Kaul Auditorium and Portland State’s various Lincoln Halls, and we do hope to hear our advice about the competitive advantage of programming living local composers being taken…but we figure it’s going to be a good time either way.

And it does matter, in our estimation, that CMNW went out of their way to partially pay advances to the artists contracted to perform in the upcoming concerts. Gotta make sure everybody is still alive this summer! We keep seeing memes going around, variations on “artist will work for food”–meanwhile, some bold artists are quietly seizing the means of production as a simple matter of necessity. Mutual aid funds and financial aid lobbying networks are springing up to help musicians and other service industry workers weather the storm. And on the larger scale, recent efforts involving Bandcamp and Spotify are showing that now is an ideal time to address and remedy existing structural weaknesses and inequities.

Anyways, by the time Chamber Music Digital Northwest rolls around, we’ll either have gotten sick of digital concerts or gotten used to them. We hope you’ve found a few local musicians to follow (we must again recommend Mike Hsu, Tomoki Martens, and Hannah Penn, all still doing excellent work from home). Metropolitan Youth Symphony and Portland Youth Philharmonic persist at doing their wonderful socioclassical pedagogy thing, with the inexhaustible Raul Gomez and David Hattner at the head of weekly streams and other good stuff on channels which you should totally subscribe to right here and right here.

And Artslandia’s Happy Hours have featured some of the most exciting concerts of quarantine. Our two favorites to date have been Nancy Ives playing her own music alongside Bach’s where it belongs, and Arwen Myers singing–gasp!–a whole set of music by local composers. And holy chao, Myers is doing another set of local composers next Monday, when she’ll perform work by nine University of Oregon students.

On the national level, a venerable old classical punk holiday recently got scanned and uploaded to digital heaven. The 2020 Bang On A Can Marathon happened in Meatspace New York at the beginning of May, supposedly it’s been scanned into BOAC’s digital heaven, CanLand, but if you can find it there or anywhere else please let us know. Otherwise, we’ll just have to tune in for the next one on June 14th. On the international stage, the Berliner Philharmoniker has performed its first live concert stream, with performers observing social distancing rules and stage workers in masks.

Our ability to watch these kinds of concerts from around the world (and, remember, throughout time) has always been an impending issue for musicians–among other things, it totally problematizes the entire issue of performance canon. Now that this is becoming increasingly the norm, we will have to finally start answering all those nagging questions about why we’re still performing Beethoven (and yes, Kirill Petrenko and company do get credit for performing Part and some refreshing chamber Mahler).

All of this brings us back round, finally, to the futurists in the ExTradition Series. We’ve been up close and personal with this tribe, and we can assure you that few musical societies in Oregon are better equipped for adaptation to this new cyborg culture. Their concerts and recordings have always been about finding silence in noise, beauty in randomness, peace in chaos. Their repertoire has long been built around sound-based music, aleatoric graphic scores, and works by Pauline Oliveros, Alvin Lucier, various semi-famous names from the experimental Fluxus and Wandelweiser scenes, and living composer-performers like Dana Reason and Mark Hannesson.

The aesthetic here couldn’t be better suited to remote and digital adaptation, because when you’re performing works like these you often find yourself struggling to do exactly the opposite of what 45th Parallel and Kevin have achieved. That is, you have to resist the urge to synchronize, that oh-so-human drive to impose artificial order upon natural chaos. The point is to open yourself to it, sublimate the energies, embrace the mystery, and find wonder in the magical accidents of curated strangeness.

At least, that’s the present author’s take. And so it came as no surprise that percussionist and ExTradition co-founder/curator Matt Hannafin was, along with ExT troupers like Collin Oldham and Juniana Lanning, among the first to start organizing experiments in socially distant music-making. You can subscribe to that right here.

Read the Comments

Back in the Before Times, we used to write out our emails on sheets of melted wood that we called “paper,” and we paid other people to physically carry these “letters” to our friends, enemies, local arts journals, and so on. We called it “snail mail” because the people who carried such non-electronic “mail” would go out, heedless of rain or other bad weather, and steadfastly stay at their work until all the communications in their charge were delivered to the intended recipients, no matter how long it took. It may sound incredible, dear reader, but it was a slower time and the internet hadn’t been discovered yet.

During this same era, when a local arts journal like Oregon ArtsWatch might receive such letters in their physical office, editors like the present author (dressed, no doubt, in suspenders, bowtie, and green visor) would open these letters and decide whether to print them in the next “issue.” You see, in those days websites like this one were periodically printed onto paper and distributed–yes, via “snail mail”–to readers for offline perusal at their convenience.

Naturally, this paper stuff used up a lot of trees, which is why half of Oregon is now a barren desert wasteland filled with roving gangs of barbarians. Fortunately, with the Digitization of Everything we’ve been able to quit all that nasty ecocidal paper business and switch to networked computers, which produce no waste at all.

But enough ranting–you kids get off my lawn! I have letters to read!

Thank you for this timely article, Matthew. I hope that as we make our way out of the pandemic over time, enough energy and money will be put toward live music (including revitalizing orchestras with new music performances). I think we are craving connection with community, creativity and culture. Hope you are well–Paul.

Paul Safar, April 4th, Send the fool further

Thanks for your letter, Paul! That’s a quintet of C’s we can really get behind–say, could we steal “Craving Connection with Community, Creativity, and Culture” for an upcoming column?

Brilliant column today. Much food for thought (and thank god I didn’t have to grocery shop for it), plus interesting video clips to enjoy and follow up. Thank you.

Judith Barrington, April 2nd, Send the fool further

Much obliged, Judith! We’re very happy to provide contact-free delivery of nourishing thought-meals for your enjoyment. Please accept this video of Paul Safar’s playing jazz last year in gratitude:

Since you asked about fave CDs these daze, well, I’m captivated by Michael Hersch’s “Violin Concerto.” The soloist is charismatic, Patricia Kopatchinskaja, & she has this to say about the work:

“There is no superficial beauty or decoration, and no compromises – everything is in the right place, crafted as if with a scalpel.”

Oh, the other work on the CD is entitled “End Stages” (2016) & is every bit as “festive” as the concerto.

Bob Priest, April 30th, La dérive symphonique

Thanks for the recommendations, Bob! You weren’t kidding about the soloist: she really knows how to sell that particular flavor of classical modernism.

For those listening at home, here’s the spotify album and a youtube video of Kopatchinskaja playing the first movement at the 2017 Lucerne Festival:

That’s all for now, folks!

What, you got something else to say? Leave it in the comments!

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