Electric Bugaloo


Willamette Week

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.


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 full circle.”
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 Biel

Lewis & Clark College, Evans Auditorium
0615 SW Palatine Hill Road, 768-746
5 pm Sunday, Oct. 11