Just as this year's kick-ass NXNW comes to a close, keep your ears open for another
music fest around the bend. This one brings with it close encounters of the third,
fourth and fifth kinds.
BY BILL SMITH
The Northwest Electro-Acoustic Music Festival
In 1939, John Cage, America's quintessential classical-music iconoclast, created
his Imaginary Landscape No. 1, a work for muted piano, Chinese cymbal and multiple
phonographs. In this short piece mixing the slow grind and whistle of the turntable
with ambient percussion fills, Cage was the first to explore the aural potential
in the new audio medium of the turntable. Ever the rebel, he jumped at the chance
to be the first to use "technology" as a musical instrument. Though
the composer was coming at this nominally from the classical music school, he
was never one to cozy up to music-academy purists. Call him DJ JC (or DJ Cage
aux folles), but his bold step--spawned more by curiosity than anything else--may
have inadvertently created a genre all its own.
Witness the upcoming Northwest Electro-Acoustic Music Festival. The three-day
fest celebrates the industrial, ambient, silly and downright strange of the burgeoning
musical idiom of Electronica. Exploring the alleged high- and low-brow elements
of the form by throwing classical, jazz, ambient, rock, hip-hop, blues and performance
art into the experimental stew, this just may be oddest music festival on the
planet. "Our goal," says Joseph Waters, festival founder and artistic
director of the Northwest Electro-Acoustic Music Organization, or NWEAMO, "is
to bring together the side coming at this music without a traditional music background
and the other side, coming from what I'd call an 'art music' perspective."
A Cagian goal if ever there was one. Waters, a fortysomething assistant music
professor at Lewis & Clark College and an electronic composer himself, is
pumped to pull it off. As he tells WW about his pet project, he bounces and gestures,
continually interrupting his festival partner Jeff Payne, the artistic director
of local classical-music comedians Fear No Music. It's that intensity that managed
to unite three of Portland's most adventurous musical forces--his own upstart
NWEAMO, Fear No Music and Third Pyramid, the local Hypno artist collective run
by James Boring. Through turntable wizards and nob twiddlers, tape splicers and
feedback aficionados, the joint collaboration offers an ardent army of believers
united in the common belief that electronic music is nothing short of the musical
bridge to the 21st century.
From a Fear No Music performance of Cage's Imaginary Landscape No. 1 to contemporary
pieces by local ambient-industrial heavies Smegma, the festival aims to cover
the entire history of the electronic music form. In Cage's spirit, the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink
lineup thumbs its nose at any academic notions of cerebral soundscapes. Fear No
Music's Payne has programmed the Saturday FNM concert while Waters handled the
music and gathered the artists for the Friday and Sunday shows. The resulting
three concerts present 18 performers performing the work of 24 different electronic
composers. Excluding FNM's Saturday-night concert, the majority of the pieces
will be performed by the composers themselves.
The variety is dizzying. To give you a flavor, here are a few that typify the
scope of the offerings. Internationally known Phillip Rhodes will present "Fiddletunes,"
an electronic hayride through Appalachian folk-fiddle forms that tosses Aaron
Copland in the loo with Yoko Ono. "Sarahnade," a piece by Louisiana
State University professor Stephen Beck, is a spliced tape of his baby daughter's
crying voice deftly arranged to mimic the trilling of an operatic diva. Local
artists Office Products will present their brand of workplace-related Dilbert
hypnotica. And the pretentiously named Philip Kent Bimstein will unveil his completely
unpretentious "Garland Hirsch's Cows," a down-on-the-farm taped chorus
of farmer and livestock that creates the effect of Steve Reich's Different Trains
with dairy cows standing in for the string quartet.
There really is something for everybody, and why not? "Technology has played
such a large role with almost all the music people listen to today," stresses
Waters. Payne agrees: "We're surrounded by technology in our natural environment."
Their view is that it's only natural then to embrace the "unnatural"
for musical inspiration. Waters first discussed the project with Payne in the
beginning of the year when the two were discussing an upcoming Fear No Music world-premiere
performance of Waters' video collaboration with animator Joanna Priestley. Both
were excited about the possibilities and the newness of the festival. "I
don't think anyone else has done anything with electronic music on this scope
before," Waters says, and he's probably right.
There may have been a good reason for that. "When electronic music first
started, the medium was relatively unforgiving," says Payne. "It took
composers a while to be expressive and personal with this stuff and get past the
beeps and squawks of the early work." Much of the computer-inspired music
of the '60s sounded, well, like music for computer operators, self-consciously
the sum of its parts. Over the past 30 years, there's been rampant electronic
experimentation from the likes of Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Robert Wilson, and
rock-influenced musicians like Brian Eno, Robert Fripp, Kraftwerk and even the
Beatles. ("The Beatles were really the first to realize that the studio itself
was a recording instrument," say Waters.) It took these innovations to make
composers understand the concept of letting the technology serve the music and
not the other way around.
So now not every piece has to sound like the soundtrack from Logan's Run. You
can have the moody, bittersweet yearning of Finnish composer Kaija Saariajo's
"Petals" for cello and electronics on the same program as "Machine
Music" by Lejaren Hill, a piece that according to Payne "pits the machine's
ungodly pace to live performers à la Chaplin's Modern Times." Both
pieces will be part of Saturday night's Fear No Music concert, a show that closes
with David Chandler (a.k.a. DJ Broken Window) accompanying the group on turntables.
"From Cage to a contemporary DJ," Payne says, "we kind of come
The Northwest Electro-Acoustic Music Festival schedule:
James Croson, A nat HEMA, Nancy Teskey, Craig Burk, Alex Bundy, Maggi Payne, Mary
Lou Newmark, C. Mathew Burtner and Smegma
Lewis & Clark College, Evans Auditorium
0615 SW Palatine Hill Road, 768-7460
8 pm Friday, Oct. 8.
Fear No Music
First Christian Church, 1315 SW Broadway, 224-8499.
8 pm Saturday, Oct.10
Ryan Wise, Bruce Hamilton, Stephen Beck, Office Products, Phillip Rhodes, Matthew
Mobberley, Keith Benjamin, Cyanosis/Atrophy, Nancy Teskey, John Hubbard, Carol
Lewis & Clark College, Evans Auditorium
0615 SW Palatine Hill Road, 768-746
5 pm Sunday, Oct. 11