Contemporary Portland Orchestra Project: Flock of Strange Birds

march-music-moderne-logo-250wNew music enthusiasts gathered to experience “When Strange Birds Passing Meet: Memory and Mimesis in the Soundscape,” a unique concert event presented by the Contemporary Portland Orchestra Project (CPOP) on the chilly evening of March, 22, 2013, in Portland, Oregon. Inspired by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project (BMOP), co-artistic directors Lisa Lipton and Justin Ralls founded CPOP in 2011 to provide an avenue for young and emerging West Coast composers to have their work performed. Their Strange Birds concert consisted mostly of electronic and electroacoustic works, and was a part of March Music Moderne, a Portland new music series founded by composer Bob Priest. The month-long series consists of multiple concerts per day by a variety of performers, ensembles, and composers.

Contemporary Portland Orchestra Project (photo credit: CPOP blog)

Contemporary Portland Orchestra Project (photo credit: CPOP blog)

The concert experience began as soon as concertgoers entered the Bamboo Grove Salon in southeast Portland and were immediately greeted by an assortment of pillows and small wooden benches that lined the bare room. In the center sat several music stands. Audience members were encouraged to experience the music however they wanted to: lying down, sleeping, standing, etc. In the words of Ralls, “I encourage you to doze, fall asleep, get lost, contemplate, meditate, and remember. Let your mind wander and enjoy the primacy of listening.”

The evening began with a field recording Ralls had made from various parts of Portland. The recording played as people bought tickets, grabbed a beer at the bar from one of the many local microbreweries, and made themselves comfortable in the space. Many attendees created beds from the pillows and promptly closed their eyes, remaining in the same position until the concert had concluded.

Marking the formal beginning of the concert was Joseph Colombo’s Structure II, a piece for electronic drone and three glockenspiels. Colombo’s piece was magical, creating a wash of sound and color from minimalism-inspired techniques. The higher frequencies of the glockenspiels combined with the electronic drone to create a powerful auditory experience that at times bordered on overpowering but was always magnificient to listen to.

Following Colombo’s piece was Danny Clay’s When the curtains of night are pinned back by the stars for fixed media. The hauntingly beautiful work arranges sounds like colors in a painting to produce a wonderful and unique sonic world. There is a certain clarity to the work that seems hidden at times. It’s as if there is a veil between the audience and the music that the composer plays with in order to shape how the audience perceives the sound.

Composer Matthew Peterson (photo credit: matthew-peterson.com)

Composer Matthew Peterson (photo credit: matthew-peterson.com)

The final piece on the first half of the program was Matthew Peterson’s Näcken for solo violin. The title is Swedish for “naked” and the piece is about the Swedish folk tale of a male water sprite who plays a magical fiddle to lure people to the water because he is lonely. Those who follow his music into the water drown. The piece uses quickly arpeggiated passages to create a beautiful and delicate atmosphere that evokes the sense of searching and longing present in the story. Violinist Lucia Conrad gave a wonderful and compelling interpretation of Näcken.

The second piece on the program by Danny Clay was a premiere of his whether the lilies are white in the garden, or there is snow on the ground for clarinet, two violins, and fixed media. Like Clay’s earlier piece, there is a beautiful blend of sound worlds and timbre between the instruments and the electronics. Lipton, one of the co-founders of CPOP, played clarinet in the piece, showcasing a wonderful sense of delicacy and awareness of the sound in time.

The second world premiere was Charles Copeland’s two movement piece for multiple glockenspiels Don’t Rain on the Starlight Parade. Copeland’s piece is heavily inspired by minimalism, creating an evolving harmonic texture that was beautiful and intriguing to listen to.

A piece that stood out on the program was John Luther Adams’ Three High Places. It wasn’t just the fact that the performance by violinist Travis Chapman was great, but that it was the only work performed that was written by an older and more established composer than the other pieces on the program. Perhaps the programming of a well-known work was intended to draw in a larger audience. Regardless, it complemented Peterson’s piece for solo violin performed in the first half of the concert.

The final premiere and the last piece on the program was Ralls’ When Strange Birds Passing Meet. Written for fixed media with live solo clarinet and percussion, the work blends the acoustic and electronic sounds in such a way as to offer a truly unique and surreal listening experience. Both Ralls and Lipton played in the performance, Ralls on a cymbal drone and Lipton on the clarinet. Call and response figures in the glockenspiel and clarinet combined with the cymbal drone to weave in and out of perception, creating a wonderful tapestry of a sound when combined with the fixed media.

In a few short years, CPOP has emerged as a leading champion of new music in the Pacific Northwest. Their dedication to performing works by young composers showcases talent that might otherwise be overlooked. When it comes to presenting great music by emerging composers, CPOP has hit the nail on the head. I am excited to see where CPOP will be in the next couple of years as they continue their mission of connecting today’s composers with today’s audiences.

Sam Reising is studying music composition at New York University. Follow him on Twitter: @samreising.