“To Beat or Not to Beat?”


Willamette Week


Joe Waters puts chamber music instrumentation in a room with computer-generated soundscapes. The result is the second annual Northwest Electro-Acoustic Music Organization Festival.


Lewis & Clark College, Evans Auditorium,
. 8 pm Friday and Saturday, Sept. 15 and 16. $5-$8.
$8-$12 for both nights.

Waters’ self-titled CD has just been released.Seattle’s 20th-century choral group the Esoterics will perform Waters’ Sulphur-Crested Cockatoos at the end of the month.Portland’s Fear No Music has chosen Waters as its first composer-in-residence and will perform three of his works as part of the Northwest Film Center’s tribute to video animator Joanna Priestley Sept. 22.

Joe Waters closes his new disc with a musical setting of Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s epic rant The Populist Manifesto: “No time now for the artist to hide above, beyond, behind the scenes–refining himself out of existence.”

The local contemporary composer takes Ferlinghetti’s mantra to heart. Though his “serious music” c.v. is in order–he studied under Jacob Druckman and Dominick Argento–he’s not content to write music for an allegedly educated elite. Music that, at the end of the day, nobody wants to listen to.

But in a world ruled by a tyrannical music academy that encourages its students to write scores with all the aridity of physics formulas, and symphonies whose idea of new music is Stravinsky’s Sacre du Printemps, what’s a rock-loving composer to do? If you’re Joe Waters you start a do-it-yourself festival and cultivate an audience. The founder of the Northwest Electro-Acoustic Music Organization, or NWEAMO, is bringing this hybrid musical form to the masses with its second annual electronic music festival.

“My purpose as a composer in society,” Waters says, “is to interpret feelings, dreams, thoughts that are current and to channel them so that other people can reflect on them. And you have to do it with a language people can understand.”

For many in the classical music world such talk is extremely controversial, but such critics have unfortunately missed the point entirely. There’s a sensual and emotional freshness to Waters’ creative appetite that turns its back on the conservatory and eschews gratuitous brain-tickling. Waters’ warehouse of influences–Prokofiev, jazz, Tangerine Dream, Beat poetry, ’70s-era Miles Davis, the paintings of Bosch and Australian Aboriginal song–creates a music that’s intensely playful and accessible.

Such culture-clashing is what it’s all about. “I’m a member of the first generation of composers who grew up playing in rock bands,” says the Yale-educated composer. “Rock is a very immediate and direct approach.”

Though his salt-and-pepper hair gives away his forty-something age, Waters maintains a boyish exuberance. Kicking through the doors of musical elitism gets him riled up. “Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, all those guys felt very free,” he says. “They depended on the folk music of their time to have this ingenious sense of melody that they could draw from. What is our folk
music? Rock.”

For Waters, rock is the entire popular music tsunami that swelled from the 4/4 hurricane of the ’50s that originally derived from African rhythmic roots. He includes factions from early R&B to ’70s electric funk, fusion and art rock to the hip-hop, house and techno of the past 20 years. Most of all, he includes the sonic experiments of this past decade’s ambient and electronica underground movements, much of which he’s been exposed to by his students.

“To Beat or Not to Beat?” is the question this year’s festival asks–a no-brainer to pop aficionados but something, in a world where rhythmic stagnancy was de rigueur in 20th-century serious music, that makes classical music heads look askance. “The pieces vary,” says Waters about the festival’s scope. “What I’m interested in are the people coming from the classical music background who are willing to embrace something new, and people coming from the rock world who are wanting to expand on that realm at the same time.”

Composers are joining in from France, Great Britain, Germany, Hong Kong and all across the States. They range in age from early 20s techno-tykes to people who were on the ground floor of techno’s development, now in their 50s.

Stanford University’s Michael McNabb brings his electronic golden oldie The Far and Brilliant Night, a visual-sonic astral project that uses the movement-detecting Buchla Lightning synthesizer wand to turn movement into sound. England’s Matthew Adkins presents “Breaking”–a pastiche of British telly colliding sound clips. Mark Applebaum forges “new” instruments from hardware and junkyard scraps, captures their sounds and then converts them to computer-speak.

Ryan Wise, of local band Wolf Colonel and a former student of Waters’, presents one of his own pieces along with one with his experimental hip-hop group, Pirates of the Caribbean. Waters himself is represented by Drum Ride, a frantic race between pianist Susan Dewitt Smith and the sizzling current of the composer’s electronic samples.

“In both my own music and the music selected for NWEAMO,” says Waters, “my goal is to create a contemporary music that has a place and that has a dialogue with the culture that surrounds it.” That dialogue, Waters feels, has been forfeited by the “rarefied and strange” serialism of musical academia, where people are playing unmusical music. This explains the impatience that many classical music audiences have for new voices like Waters’. “But,” he adds firmly, “that’s changing–it has to.”