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Black & White

Black Violin in Portland, OR


Apr. 22, 2017

Commotion at the corner of my right eye.  People standing in the rows of the concert hall. No, wait. Grey and white haired women pushing to get to the aisle. Eyes follow to...




Only a few feet away from me, the aisle is bopping to Telemann-like riffs thumping from Black Violin. Playing the posh Schnitzer concert hall, full of older white classical music appreciators and younger African Americans, the classical violin-meets-hip-hop band returned to Portland to promote their new album Stereotypes.  And oh boy did the mosh pit break ‘em!


From the stage, violist Wil Baptiste exhorts me to “Put Your Hands Up And Wave Them Like THIS!” His partner, violinist Kev Marcus, nods appreciatively, in rhythm, continuing to plow through noodly passages perfectly in tune. Nat Stokes, Black Violin’s secret weapon on drums, builds a propulsive engaging and LOUD narrative under the flashy strings. Meanwhile, DJ SPS turned this whole weird juxtaposition between straightahead rock-tight drumming and manic baroque strings into glass, dropping in today’s beats and disembodied vocals. Add columns of colored lights and a fog machine and you’d have to be dead or a snob to not giggle along with the infectious enthusiasm.

This concert was brought to you by Portland’5 and Chamber Music Northwest. The latter’s audience is mostly old, white, well-heeled and well versed in classical music. I have not cared for them until tonight. Thinking they were driving the old school, 19th century dominated CMNW summer programs whose shelf life expired at least 10 years ago, I expected them to exit the building with the decibel assault alone. As much as I was cheering Black Violin for their showmanship, I was cheering the CMNW crowd in the Mosh Pit for putting on their own show: “You’re Never Too Old To Boogie To A Brandenburg!” I wish they’d take over programming for CMNW.


“Welcome to YOUR Theater!” Portland’5 executive director Robyn Williams booms to the crowded noon audience of over 2500. Working with Title 1 Portland Public Schools, Portland’5 bused in elementary school students for a free noon concert with Black Violin. It was a ParTay the entire hour! Kids screaming, singing along while the showmen onstage turned their cheering knobs ever louder. Then the band filled it up again that evening for the ‘real’ concert.  This time the kids were onstage as Black Violin welcomed the BRAVO youth orchestra and guest soloist Luis for their rendition of Simple Gifts.

Since Tom Sessa took over Portland’5 programming in 2014, seems like the stodgy concert palace keeps getting hipper acts and younger audiences, and turning older audiences young with new music.

Next time Black Violin comes to town, I’m gonna buy me some youth and dive into the Mosh Pit with the Cool Kids!

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Horror Show

45th Parallel Takes Me for a Ride


Apr. 10, 2017

When you’re deciding what you’re doing tonight and your options are:


  • Blazers game

  • Fantastic horror flick like Dead Snow, Norway, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night

  • Beer at ABV

chances are a niche chamber music concert titled “Classical Crossroads” won’t even register. Unless you group it under horror flicks to stay away from because you’ll probably die of boredom.

Tristan Bliss and Greg Ewer Collaborate for Classical Crossroads

I had to go. A friend’s piece was on the program.


Show time. Players walk to their seats. We applaud. They fuss with their instruments and prepare to play the first note.


B A M ! ! !


Whathefuck??????????? Whatjustfell???????????


“I Hate 'Classical Music!' ”


OMG, YES!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!


Tristan Bliss, the friend whose piece is being played on this show, just interrupted with a bang, flinging a book to the floor then dramatically reciting the opening words from Alex Ross’s essay “Listen to This.”




Done ranting after what seemed like microseconds, the four musicians start scraping and pulling at their strings for real.  An homage to the Marquis de Sade. John Zorn’s “Cat o’ Nine Tails” plucks my guts every time the players pick at their stringed instrument. The churning tickly sensation in my abdomen stops after 3 minutes. After another 3 days, enduring polite insider tittering from the audience  and cute too-subtle ad hoc moves (like pretending to fall asleep) by the players, I’m ready to turn Juliette on Zorn's over-extended gimmick. Luckily the violist beats me to it. He’s had enough, stands up and air-lashes viciously at the 2 violinists with his bow.

Photo: Joe Cantrell

OMG, YESSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

“Hallowe’en” by Charles Ives sneaks in with layers of sound, a creepy merry-go-round where new players phantasmagorically enter with each verse. This “Hallowe’en” was more wacky than scary because the under-rehearsed players had to conduct the performance with clown-big gestures in order to stay together.


Just as I rolled my eyes at the lack of preparation, they stopped. They weren’t even finished!

Come Play With Us, Danny...

Remember the ghost twins in The Shining ?


At the back of the darkened stage appeared Thomas DeNicola, a young ghost at an upright piano, a single moonbeam of light on his back, playing his eerily serene “Notturno” I wanted to stay and listen. I wanted to run away. Scared of what was coming.


Of course “Hallowe’en” bombasted back from the dead like every great villain from Freddy Krueger to Chucky in beloved cheesy cult flicks.


Tristan Bliss and the show’s producer, Greg Ewer, carefully architected this show for maximum horror.

Serenity like dead Ophelia and I’m floating downstream, white light bathing DeNicola -- this time playing Paul Safar’s “Geese in the Moonlight.” He makes it sound so vulnerable, so sad. I float past cellist Marilyn de Oliveira at the front of the stage, the moon focusing on her luscious strokes, playing Nicholas Yandell’s “And the Surface Breaks.” I can’t shake the portent of Yandell’s disturbed ripples. Sadness mingled with terror.

And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance! Ezekiel 25:17 according to Jules - Pulp Fiction


You don’t see it coming. The distraction nearly eclipses the kill. Violinist Ewer fucked with our heads, shredding “Sweet Child o’ Mine” (Guns N’ Roses/arr. Adam DeGraff). “Burning” followed. Composer Chen Yi’s musical reaction to 9/11 starts like John Zorn but plows into the Twin Towers like a feather. It’s over before you can process the fatality. Unsentimental, brutal in a real-time, real-sound, real-dead way. No film-bullet-reverb, no drawn out opera death. I couldn’t breathe and kept pulling at the front of my bra to give my ribs more room to expand.


Having seen the music, I understood why Tristan Bliss’s piece, "Requiem for a Dead Tradition," ended the show, and had it worked, it would have exploded in a surreal catharsis of meteor-hits-earth-and-nothing-matters-anyway. But the microphones on the violin and cello never cut in except for about two seconds of cello near the end. I never heard the unremitting industrial chords that should have been pounding from Doug Schneider at the piano. The drums dominated. Too bad! Scored for multi-generations of instruments from classical strings, French horn, through pop drum set and onto electronica, what a fitting good-bye to civilization.


A few flubs aside, this was one of the funnest horror shows I’ve lived through!


Wanna get me out more?


  • Take me for a RIDE! I don’t give a shit about contrasting sonorities or chronological order or other left brained nonsense.

  • Arc your show as though it’s a movie script/story-board.  

  • Rehearse everything including tech stuff until you don’t  need a score or an excuse.

  • Take Chances!


Or hire team Bliss-Ewer.

Maria Choban sharpens her claws scratching out posts for CatScratch. Occasionally her fat brat black cat posts from his litter box under the stage name CS Eliot.  

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Big Sean Bounces Back

Why Making Good Pop is Murder


Mar. 20, 2017

Last night took a L (loss), but tonight I bounce back

Wake up every morning, by the night, I count stacks

Knew that ass was real when I hit, it bounce back

(You ain’t getting checks)

Last night took a L, but tonight I bounce back

Boy, I been broke as hell, cashed a check and bounced back

D town LAX, every week I bounce back

If you a real one, then you know how to bounce back

(Big Sean, “Bounce Back” 2017 -- annotated lyrics here)

Big Sean "Bounce Back"

Avant garde hip-hop, modernist anti-pop classical, prog rock. What they got that I don’t want?


Usually too much material for not enough concept and I have no idea how Ravel made it work with “Bolero.”


Frequently too arcane although David Mamet made me care about a nickel.


But for every "Bolero" there’s a freezer full of crap by the likes of Charles Wuorinen that leaves me cold and bored stiff. And for every American Buffalo I have to pretend like I care enough to figure out whether I actually care about the love story developing between a spaceship computer and its sole surviving passenger. And no, I’m not talking about Red Dwarf.

This is why I bless Billboard every day. It reminds me that the General Audience as an aggregate is MUCH smarter than any single creator. Pop does not equal stupid. Done right, it means murdering your darlings in order to create a tight, hooky masterpiece. Greats from play/screenwriter David Mamet to  Tin Pan Alley / Brill building songwriters from the 1920s through the ’60s to Big Sean espouse this philosophy.

Look, I cut that bitch off like a edit

My daddy a G, it's genetics (Straight up)

I heard ya new shit, it's pathetic

Ya contract should be shredded

Took my dogs on a private jet from the public housing

I kept it G, yeah, one thousand

Clique star-studded like the Paramount mountain

"It’s hard to simplify things sometimes, like that. And for there to still be some type of cleverness to it... I mean, you know the Paramount Mountain got all those stars around it. I just - when I thought of that line I didn’t know if it was like too much of a stretch. You know how some people be tryin’ to over-rap? It’d be like ‘okay, c’mon, we get it, you like to rap.’ Like I almost didn’t use that line, but then I thought about it, I was like ‘naw, that’s hard.’" 

Big Sean Breaks Down ‘Bounce Back’ on Genius/Verified series

It's not just that it's tight and concise but also that it's not simplistic. These lines are really smart, metaphorical but not esoteric. You need a quick mind to follow the sharp logic but you don't really need to know any secret code that most of Big Sean’s listeners wouldn't already understand just from normal life. Those listeners number from 500,000 (those who bought the single back in January) to 74 million (those who are listening to it on YouTube).


“Bounce Back” climbed to #6 on the Billboard chart in late February. Still at #9, it has been on the chart for 18 weeks.  But the Mahleresque Splendor and Misery by clipping -- a hip-hop sci-fi concept album -- also hit high at #2 three weeks after it released. It spent one week on the charts. Goes to show, there’s an audience for everything, from spun out stories with over-rap/over-angst like clipping and Mahler to short form tight dense diamonds like Schubert and Big Sean.  


In a way, writing short and sharp requires writers to be smarter because every word has to carry a lot of meaning, references, weight. And that means the writer trusts his audience to be smart enough to get it. Smart, not arcane.

You cannot “count to ten” me*

If I lose 1, I bounce back like 2, 3 did with 4, 5**

*(make me take a time out and count to ten when I’m angry, TKO me)

**(like Michael Jordan, wearing #23 jersey did when he came out of retirement and one-upped wearing #45 jersey)

That's the tension Big Sean’s talking about in his above quote, one that every artist faces: leave in too much information/darlings and you risk boring the audience and slowing down the story. But leave out too much and you risk being obscure. 


Screenwriters and songwriters, playwrights and prose writers are always asking, how much can we leave out? Especially dialogue but also even some action and our favorite witty and poetic lines if they don't advance the story. At three minutes and change, Big Sean tells you just enough to feel his story, but not so much that you stop caring. That's the darling-murderous beauty of the best popular art.

“We should be the best at what we do, man. What you think, you gonna go doin’ go to work sayin’ ‘Oh, he’s better than me at what I do?’  That’s some Buuulll Shiiit! Damn that’s some bullshit.” (Big Sean)

Maria Choban sharpens her claws scratching out posts for CatScratch. Occasionally her fat brat black cat posts from his litter box under the stage name CS Eliot.  

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Jacob TV:

Grab it!

When music goes too far.


Mar. 13, 2017






"this piece has some profanity. No, LOTS of profanity, and I will understand if you want to leave the room now.”  (Linse Sullivan - March 7, 2012)

Jacob TV  is for-real badass, as the amplified classical band ARCO-Pdx reminded me last month at their winter show.


I first heard the Dutch composer’s music almost exactly five years ago at a Classical Revolution PDX chamber jam when a waif in a plain white tee and blue jeans offered the above apology-for-profanity then belted the entire 10 minute virtuosic bebop diatribe on her horn. From memory. In perfect duet with her boombox.

Grab It! samples and loops voice excerpts from the 1978 prison documentary Scared Straight! - interviews with lifers in prison. Shoving the phrase "MotherFucker" at us relentlessly,  the sax player pushes back in tricky, often unison rhythm with these explosions for 95 percent of this piece. The rest of the time she sits out anxiously counting or feeling nonconforming rests, probably afraid she’ll be shot if she misses her entrance.

It’s a tense piece.

Grab It! 1999 for tenor sax and boombox by Jacob TV, performed by Matthew Levy

The Portland, OR amplified classical band, ARCO Pdx programmed Jacob TV twice. Both times with the obsessive compulsive keyboardist Mitchell Falconer presiding. Both times converting non-classical music crowds to this fresh explosive non-derivative genre -- alt.classical when it’s at its best.

ARCO-Pdx performing Jacob TV's Nivea Hair Care Styling Mousse

Feb. 2017

Nivea Hair Care Styling Mousse

It’s not a product. 

It’s a piece split into five parts with each part titled...


1. Nivea

2. Hair

3. Care

4. Styling

5. Mousse

Last year I had another chance to see/hear Grab it! when Portland’s Third Angle performed it on violin instead of sax. I passed, realizing I’d heard the greatest performance of this piece I’m likely to hear. I also feared this attempt was going to be dismally under-prepared. 


Here’s the thing, with a great band, Jacob TV is one of my top five composers writing today. Hearing him in the wrong hands, however, makes me want to jam a fork in my ear over and over and over. You can say this about any creator. What you can’t say is that in the right hands any creator can blow away 90 percent of anyone walking around outside; the General Audience. And this is something Jacob TV can do.

I’ve had the privilege of hearing the Dutchman's music in the right hands more often than I’ve had to look around for a fork, thanks to ARCO-Pdx.

ARCO playing May This Bliss Never End by Jacob TV Feb. 2016

This band, btw, is building a reputation for drawing and keeping a non-classical audience! How?? By treating us, the General Audience, with respect; by giving us well practiced (often memorized!), well rehearsed shows with lots of pop theatrics and props and hip music by composers as old as Vivaldi and as now as Jacob TV!  So…






Grab it! performed by Jeremy Barnett

You can catch ARCO-Pdx Saturday, May 6 at the Incredible Edibles plant show in Pioneer Courthouse Square, Portland. FREE! 


Maria Choban sharpens her claws scratching out posts for CatScratch. Occasionally her fat brat black cat posts from his litter box under the stage name CS Eliot.  

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