Instigated and composed by drummer, writer, and composer John Niekrasz, Five Hundred and Two unites a fantastic roster of many of the leading musicians and artists producing experimental and new music in Portland.
by Nim Wunnan
That orchestra includes Luke Wyland on keyboards, coming from rave reviews for leading the Camas High School Choir collaboration with AU at this year’s TBA Festival; violinist Maddy Villano, the newest member of Smegma, an outsider sound institution performing since 1973; Sage Fisher, on harp and voice, performs as Dolphin Midwives and directs the 26-member Dröna Choir, and singer Holland Andrews has just returned from a European and US tour with her solo project “Like a Villain.” They’re joined by Brian Mumford on guitar, Jonathan Sielaff on bass clarinet, Andrew Jones on the double bass, and Ben Kates on alto sax. And if that wasn’t enough, the accompanying video was done by Portland institution Vanessa Renwick, recipient of RACC’s 2016 Fellowship Award. Niekrasz will, of course, be on drums. In addition to the Orchestra, the Ian Christensen Quartet and Visible Cloaks (formerly just “Cloaks”) will be opening the night.
It was an impressive, disquieting demonstration of Niekrasz’s peculiar methods and talents as a composer on a larger scale than most of his previous productions in Portland. Writing for his former duo, Why I Must Be Careful, he used a practice he calls “syllabic composition” to create and synchronize the complex rhythms he played with keyboardist Seth Brown. If their sets sound like random noise to you, note that the keyboard and the drum are playing that complex noise in perfect sync. Niekrasz used the natural rhythms of spoken language to meticulously score the duo. If you listen carefully, rhythmic patterns and musicality emerge that are familiar to English speakers from language rather than music, reminiscent of the musical language episode of Radiolab.
For Orchestra Becomes Radicalized, Niekrasz unites this method with a variety of other compositional techniques as a method of reacting to current events. True to the name of the series, the result was an orchestra working within dissonance and conflict to respond to those same qualities in the world around it.
While /Reward Cycle/ was responding directly to violence and chaos, Five Hundred and Two promises to be a slightly more studied and musical affair. Niekrasz has been reading the writings of Subcomandante Marcos, and, like everyone in Portland, feeling the distressing shifts in our sociopolitical climate. Marcos, the leader of the Zapatista resistance movement, wrote extensively—and poetically—about the battles and trials of the movement, as well as the people he fought with and their stories. The title comes from one of his profiles of the anonymous officers in the resistance, most of whom were women, known only by their first names. Capitán Maribel, when asked her age in 1994, replied “Five hundred and two,” which was how long it had been since Cristobal Colon landed in the Americas. The remarkable thing about Marcos’s writing is that it doesn’t draw lines between politics and poetics and history. They exist on a continuum of community and struggle, as this piece is meant to.
Though he doesn’t technically live in Portland, Niekrasz has been part of more than a dozen shows in town this year alone. Despite a broken foot, he recently took part in Linda Austin’s The Last Bell Rings for You. Like many of Austin’s pieces, it involved a diverse cast of performers who shared in the struggle of creating the final piece. He told me that they were rehearsing on election night, and everyone had turned their phones off at 6 pm. By the time they finished rehearsal, the election had been decided. Nothing about that piece could have changed the outcome, but they had created for themselves a community around a shared effort and project. It was a little odd and a little funny, sweet and momentary. It was, at least, something to do.
Five Hundred and Two was conceived well before his involvement in Austin’s piece, but the collaborative development of the piece has fostered a similar community of performers. It’s a nice reminder that with all the changes and growth that Portland’s been through in the last few years, it’s still a place that can support the prolific community of artists and musicians that will be performing this piece. It’s worth checking out.
Orchestra Becomes Radicalized: Five Hundred and Two plays at 8:30 pm Wednesday, November 30, at Holocene, 1001 SE Morrison St.