By James McQuillen
Apart from the famous Paris fracas over the Rite of Spring, classical music has been an iconically genteel affair, but as anyone who’s seen Mozart in the Jungle knows, grand drama and petty squabbles roil beneath the surface. Locally, the latter arose in a teapot tempest a year and a half ago, when a high-pressure front collided with a blast of hot air at Oregon ArtsWatch. The result was the most contentious of commissions, and a concert.
The dustup began with a piece by the young composer Tristan Bliss that was vaguely about the “Forbidden Music” program that the chamber ensemble 45th Parallel presented a year and a half ago. The headline called it a “non-review,” Bliss subsequently referred to it as a review, and that was just the beginning of the confusion. It was not in any traditional sense a review—only one of the pieces, and little of the actual performance, got much of a description—but rather a tirade against the classical music establishment that programs stuff by the dead European guys who created the tradition we know of as classical music. Not even Kenji Bunch, whose Hambone for solo cello got its premiere, was spared, despite its being a new work by a local composer, the gold standard for people who tend to rage about dead European guys. It was “fun,” in Bliss’s considered estimation, but like a sullen classical-music Holden Caulfield, he dismissed Bunch as part of the establishment. Phonies, man.
Like a parent who knows better than to engage but is worn down by a toddler’s tantrum, 45th Parallel’s artistic director Greg Ewer got his back up. “Ok genius,” he replied, “If you’ve got the balls, write me a piece. 5-10 minutes. I’ll program it next season. You can try your hand at ‘saving’ classical music.” As the comment thread progressed, participants including composers, presenters and listeners seemed intent on proving that they were every bit as adept at vitriol and ad hominem attacks as the angry shut-ins who populate local newspaper sites, and editor Barry Johnson eventually shut it down.
But Bliss picked up the gauntlet. A meeting was scheduled, olive branches exchanged, a program conceived, and finally a performance delivered, on March 29th at Artists Repertory Theatre. Bliss and Ewer collaborated on the project, each suggesting three pieces, mostly recent, and Bliss offering his own contribution at the end. Interspersed were readings from Alex Ross’s 2004 essay in The New Yorker, “Listen to This.” (The format echoed Third Angle’s 2015 survey of the west- coast avant-garde with Ross himself reading from his book The Rest is Noise.)
Bite-sized pieces dominated the program. The Third Angle String Quartet—violinists Ewer and Ron Blessinger, violist Charles Noble and cellist Marilyn de Oliveira—opened with John Zorn’s Cat o’ Nine Tails (subtitled “Tex Avery meets the Marquis de Sade”), an action-packed bit of merry mayhem. Avery, animator and director, was one of the anarchic geniuses behind the Looney Tunes cartoons, and the Marquis, well, you know him. The music plowed frenetically through allusions ranging from old-time fiddling to Paganini, with lots of whipping and slashing and dissonances thrown in. Pianist Doug Schneider joined the quartet for a bracing reading of Charles Ives’ rhythmically thorny Hallowe’en, which likely sounded wilder a century ago than now, following Zorn.
Pianist Thomas DeNicola followed with a couple of airy short movements, the “Notturno” from his own Night-time Suite, #10 and Paul Safar’s Intermezzo: Geese in the Moonlight. De Oliveira then gave one of the night’s highlights, Nicholas Yandell’s And the Surface Breaks, a work for solo cello strongly reminiscent of Benjamin Britten’s cello works in its soulful depth and textural variety; the warmth and focus of her playing gave it shape and intensity. Ewer returned for a high-octane performance of Guns N’ Roses’ “Sweet Child o’ Mine” (in a violin arrangement by Adam DeGraff), and the quartet came back for Chen Yi’s brief, slashing, searing Burning: Global Outrage, denouncing terrorist attacks on 9.11.2001.
Then came Bliss’s commissioned piece, Requiem for a Tradition, which seemed an odd title given that the rest of the program strongly suggested that rumors of the tradition’s death had greatly been exaggerated. In a preview of the concert on OPB’s State of Wonder, Bliss said “I’m going to [bleep] with your tradition. I’m going to take your loved pieces, and I’m going to make them disgusting, and I’m going to ruin them. And in that process I’m going to turn them into something new, and something interesting.” The approach, which can be interesting but which isn’t remotely new, opened with a phrase from a Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, laid on the familiar Prelude to J.S. Bach’s G Major Cello Suite and proceeded to throw in a quote from Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, some electronica, lots of loud drumming and, toward the end, mighty crashes on a huge gong—perhaps an unfortunate coincidence, given the death of Chuck Barris just the week before. Not exactly heavyweight, for a requiem.
In the same OPB interview, Bliss said, “45th Parallel, almost all of them play with the Oregon Symphony, like, they’re good. Like I don’t need to tell you that they’re good. They just are.” Fair enough, but the point of criticism isn’t to say whether works or performers are good or not; it’s to say something about them, at the very least by way of description. He also referred to his low socioeconomic status as part of his feeling excluded from the establishment, which I can understand; I certainly wouldn’t have been able to hear the music I have with being comped tickets. But that has nothing to do with the substance of the music itself, as starving artists everywhere understand. “Nothing bad ever happens from being honest,” he also said, echoing the words of tactless friends and romantic partners since the dawn of time.
In the concert overall, Bliss and Ewer made up and made lemonade out of a lemon with an intriguing program and high-energy performances. But as for Bliss’s claims, set forth in writing and then in sound, perhaps they’re just a sign of the Zeitgeist. Incoherence, misdirection, grandiosity, cynical appeal to class resentment, trashing of tradition: does this remind you of anything? Perhaps he’ll get a commission for Trump’s second inaugural.