Different Cities Different Voices – Portland OR
Everywhere you turn, someone is brewing their own beer, bottling their own hot sauce, writing a novel, or building their social justice-driven non-profit from the ground up. The spirit of imaginative resourcefulness that keeps Portland “weird” and alive is exactly the reason the new music scene thrives. The music community is intimate and supportive of one another.
Different Cities Different Voices is a series from NewMusicBox that explores music communities across the US through the voices of local creators and innovators. Discover what is unique about each city’s new music scene through a set of personal essays written by people living and creating there, and hear their music as well as music from local artists selected by each essayist. For our latest edition we are putting the spotlight on Portland, Oregon. The series is meant to spark conversation and appreciation for those working to support new music in the US, so please continue the conversation online about who else should be spotlighted in each city and tag @NewMusicBox.
Portland’s signature "maker mindset” and love of all things handcrafted carries over into the way we approach music.
Instead of six degrees of separation, there are usually no more than two. That interconnectedness and proximity makes for some strikingly original ensembles, and has presented opportunities for me to interact with urban planners, scientists, political activists, entrepreneurs, winemakers, coffee roasters, chefs, and artisans from many fields.
During the summer of 2020, when things seemed to be at their most dire, I purchased a battery-powered amplifier and started hosting jazz concerts in my driveway.
This feels, and will always feel, at least for me, like the perfect place to compose.
The spirit of imaginative resourcefulness that keeps Portland “weird” and alive is exactly the reason the new music scene thrives.
I’ve found people in this community to be genuine and passionate. People like experimentalism and nerdiness here. It's cool to be nice here.
Alex Arnold a.k.a. !mindparade
I relocated to Portland in 2014, hoping to shift the “hustle culture” I had adopted in New York City and create a new framework for myself that emphasized balance and a slower pace. I grew up in Boston and have since lived in London, San Francisco, and New York – all incredibly rich cultural epicenters that I fully enjoyed being a part of – but the magic and beauty of the Pacific Northwest had always beckoned. The access to nature here is incredible (something I highly value), and for a smaller city, Portland is home to a remarkable number of talented artists and musicians.
The spirit of the Pacific Northwest emphasizes innovation and social responsibility. The synchronicities, connections, and integrations that abound in this community, and its strong sense of place and presence, are extremely special. Portland’s signature “maker mindset” and love of all things handcrafted carries over into the way we approach music. Energized by creating something new, both in the music itself and in the models through which we experience it, musicians here tend to program with meaning, intention, and a desire to connect deeply with the community. For example, I’m proud to be a member of Fear No Music, an organization that highlights the music of living composers while leveraging its platforms for healing, activism, and social justice. Also, the brand new Patricia Reser Center for the Arts just offered an impeccably curated grand opening spring season featuring all kinds of new music from around the world, dissolving boundaries and emphasizing inclusivity.
Although Oregon is a state that values the arts, Portland faces some challenges, including a dearth of appropriate venues for intimate multi-media performances. Thankfully, potential barriers only serve to fuel the resourcefulness and creativity of local musicians. As the PR representative for SoundsTruck NW, I’m supporting the launch of an unconventional mobile venue that will bring live concerts and enrichment programming into neighborhoods and institutions, increasing access and connection to the arts with a focus on underserved areas. Chamber Music Northwest also adds fantastic variety to the mix with their New@Night series, featuring shorter, early evening performances in the lobby of a major theater. These types of creative, modernized concert experiences sustain a vibrant new music scene.
As an artist whose career is split between freelance performance and running Aligned Artistry (the arts PR company I founded in 2018), the pandemic was very difficult. I lost all of my performing overnight, as did the vast majority of my clients. It was devastating and overwhelming; I applied for and received several artist relief grants, including one from New Music USA, which proved to be both financially and emotionally supportive, and for that I’m very grateful. With my performing at a standstill, I focused my energy on Aligned Artistry, working closely with each individual client to assess the best path forward, whether that involved putting agreements on hold, or creating new platforms to share work. At the outset of the pandemic, I felt a strong urge to make productive use of my time, and to try to “figure out” what the new paradigm should be and how to implement it. But a louder inner voice told me it was time to slow down and listen. Only after lots of observation, processing, and reflection did I feel equipped to break through the explosion of digital content, recontextualize my clients’ needs within this new framework, and develop what I hoped would be effective, thoughtful solutions that were also meaningful and sustainable. Through this process, I navigated very successful album releases (one of which received a JUNO Award nomination for Classical Album of the Year, solo artist – go Catherine Lee!!); helped clients secure transformative levels of funding; managed transitions to virtual seasons that resulted in exponential audience growth; and have begun to serve clients nationally and even internationally through Aligned Artistry. I’m passionate about using my knowledge and skills to help clients expand the impact of their work, and by staying the course and trusting in the process even when things became quite scary, I ultimately expanded my own impact and business. It’s my great privilege and joy to experience life as an artist, and I hope that my perspective, dedication, and uniquely aligned artistry adds to this community’s depth and resiliency.
My performance of Carlos Simon’s move it for alto flute
Recommendation: Remote Together by Catherine Lee; music for oboe, oboe d’amore and English horn with electronics, field recordings and fixed media by Canadian and American composers residing in the Pacific Northwest
I moved to Portland in 1997 to join the music faculty at Portland State University after ten years as a touring and recording jazz artist based in New York City. Ironically, I was not looking for a career change when I decided to make the move. I was seeking a sense of community and to feel like my work was making an impact. The series of serendipitous events that led to me accepting a tenure-track teaching position in Portland have always made my being here seem a bit predestined, despite my trepidation about saying goodbye to the New York jazz scene. A friend gave me an important piece of advice at the time that I have remembered ever since. “You don’t need to go in search of a scene,” he said. “Wherever you go, YOU are the scene.”
In my twenty-five plus years here, that has meant using music as a means to build connections, explore stories and history, and invest in serving the needs of this community by cultivating a practice of artistic engagement that promotes positive change. I have driven pianos deep into state forests to support the environment, arranged protest anthems, and shared the stage with Nobel laureate Bishop Desmond Tutu. I have curated live performances, started a record label (Lair Hill Records), launched jazz venues (The Typhoon Lounge and LV’s Uptown) and created a Jazz institute at Portland State. Being in Portland has also allowed me to shift outside the jazz genre as a composer. My 2012 chamber jazz commission “The Territory” explores the state’s geology and cultural history. A Black history month commission for the 100th anniversary of Portland’s Reed College spawned “Step By Step: The Ruby Bridges Suite,” a concert piece based on the life of the civil-rights icon Ruby Bridges. In 2017, I was commissioned by Portland’s Third Angle New Music to compose “Sanctuaries” a chamber opera exploring the racial and political underpinnings of gentrification and the experience of displaced residents of color in Portland, Oregon’s historically black Albina district.
The music scene here reflects a great deal about the city’s ethos. Portland’s progressive reputation attracts creative people of all stripes to the region. It is a large city that feels like a small town. Instead of six degrees of separation, there are usually no more than two. That interconnectedness and proximity makes for some strikingly original ensembles, and has presented opportunities for me to interact with urban planners, scientists, political activists, entrepreneurs, winemakers, coffee roasters, chefs, and artisans from many fields. Added to this is Portland’s DIY culture, which makes for a fertile environment in which to start and incubate new projects. On the downside, the lack of a substantial philanthropic base can make it hard to scale those projects beyond the startup phase.
Its dubious distinction as the whitest city of its size in America means Portland also has plenty of historical and cultural baggage to address. As a Black artist, I often have to look outside my own locale for artists with whom I share cultural identity. At the same time, I have had opportunities to share my voice at tables where folks are reimagining Portland’s future in terms of public space, policy and funding. These encounters have given rise to projects like The Soul Restoration Project’s Albina Arts Salon, a six-month residency in which I activated a historic space in the heart of Portland’s Black community that transformed a vacant storefront into an ongoing hub of arts and cultural activity. In all I’m grateful for the reception and recognition my work has received here. I was inducted into the Jazz Society of Oregon Hall of Fame in 2009. And was named Portland Jazz Hero by the Jazz Journalists Association in 2019. In 2020, I received the Governor’s Arts Award, Oregon’s highest arts honor.
In many ways Portland is still reeling from the twin pandemics of COVID and racial unrest that started in 2020. Our boarded up downtown still bears the signs of protests that turned our streets into an “anarchist jurisdiction”, and the economic impacts that increased homelessness. The past two years have also brought clarity regarding the critical role the arts have to play in reimagining our cities and healing the traumas we face as communities, as well as deepening my engagement with communities of color and my own role in challenging systemic racism. Even as these efforts have drawn me back to my roots in jazz, I have been fortunate to expand my own circle with creators of color from a number of artforms . I am seeing some organizational transitions from performative acts of inclusion to meaningful equity, and I am interested to see how the city navigates the rechartering of its leadership after the vote this fall.
Here is a link to the title track for my upcoming CD entitled The New Black. This piece is both a retrospective of my early years in New York City, and a statement of identity that celebrates the joy and unfettered possibility of Black artistic expression.
This is a link to a track from the latest CD by Blue Cranes, one of my favorite bands that embodies the ethos of generosity, collaboration and genre-crossing expression that defines Portland to me. From their 2021 album Voices, this piece “Tatehuari” is a collaboration with Mexican-American vocalist/composer Edna Vazquez, with whom I created a 2018 performance project around immigration called “21 Cartas.
I moved to Portland in 2011 because my husband, George Colligan, accepted a position as Jazz Area Coordinator at Portland State University. Currently, I serve there as an adjunct on the jazz faculty as well as at the University of Portland.
As far as what makes Portland unique, there are a lot of creative, innovative artists here fusing different genres and mediums; I think that’s really exciting. One organization that is tremendously supportive of original music and projects is the Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble (PJCE), which operates a record label (PJCE Records) and is also associated with the ten-year-old Montavilla Jazz Festival. This local festival features a wide variety and diversity of Portland-based artists. I will be headlining it this year with my quintet, as we are about to release my seventh album, In a Heartbeat (PJCE Records).
The pandemic has been challenging for all of us, of course. Many venues closed, and we really missed social and artistic connections. I had received a grant from Portland State University to host the excellent Brazilian pianist Cassio Vianna for a concert and master class, but everything went virtual. So, I instead enlisted the help of several musicians (including Cassio) to put together a YouTube mini-series about Brazilian piano legends.
During the summer of 2020, when things seemed to be at their most dire, I purchased a battery-powered amplifier and started hosting jazz concerts in my driveway. This turned into The Driveway Jazz Series, which is now in its third year and has received grants from the Regional Arts and Culture Council. The free series is live-streamed and continues to bring the jazz community together, not just in Portland, but around the country. The pandemic really brought home to me how important it is to build community and to share music together.
Here’s a track from my most recent album (not the one that will be released in October):
And here is a recommendation for my endlessly prolific pianist/drummer/trumpeter husband! (I designed the album cover.)
Below my feet are the glistening slabs of concrete leading me towards the waterfront. From my right arrives the compounded smells of 20 different food carts, each offering tastes of their own little worlds. To my left is “Big Pink,” the iconic pink skyscraper so often seen in Portland’s skyline. In front of me about five or six blocks down is the waterfront. If I were to follow the Willamette River along the waterfront towards the north, I could find myself at Saturday Market – a site for local artisans, artists, and food vendors to show off their goods, for folks to mingle, meet, learn, and support these artists – an open-air tapestry of creation. If I were instead to follow the river south, I could eventually find myself passing Salmon Street Fountain and arrive at the Hawthorne Bridge. From there, the entire East Side.
These are paths I’ve walked countless times, and I don’t know if I’ll ever get tired of them. But at the moment I still haven’t moved – instead, I’m looking at the concrete below my feet. There are these little chunks of glass embedded in it. They’re smokey with an airy hue of purple, and offer the faintest hint of what’s below the surface. As it turns out, this smokey glass was the only source of natural light for this section of Portland’s infamous Shanghai Tunnels. Right below my feet are the remnants of Portland’s darker pasts with a present day firebrand of activism that saw 150 nights of protests against the police built on top of it. This feels, and will always feel, at least for me, like the perfect place to compose.
I’ve performed in Portland State’s recital hall, a dance studio, a grocery store, a decommissioned steam boat, the middle of several fields, street corners, a graveyard, a warehouse, living rooms, coffee houses, and many, many other places across this city. I’ve been involved with a local new music organization called Cascadia Composers since 2008. They’ve been absolutely instrumental in getting tons of new music by local composers performed, and are just some of the loveliest people. I’ve also been incredibly fortunate to work with FearNoMusic and Third Angle – two absolutely top tier new music ensembles, both of whom have been leading the way in championing new voices locally and abroad. New Music is alive and well in this city, and remarkably adaptive to our world and our collective circumstances.
For myself, I’m currently in the middle of a graduate program in Computer Science. This has been my adaptation to the last 2 years. I suffered from major burnout at the start of 2020. I couldn’t compose, couldn’t build off old ideas, nor hear anything coming from that internal ether. It just… went silent. Like so many others, I also saw major projects fall apart, plans get canceled, opportunities vanish. The trajectory of the last decade and a half of my life suddenly stagnated. This was all in conjunction with losing my day job, so I needed to find a way to stay above water, if not for myself but for my daughter’s sake. Enter computers.
I’m a long way away from being done with music. I don’t think I ever will be. I still play nearly every day, and have managed to scribble some fragments here and there. I’ve spent the last two years using the skills learned through my CS program to develop algorithmic composition tools to aid me in my creative efforts. I can generate anything from purely random compositions to poly-rhythmic/modal canons (or really any process based composition) in seconds. I’ve been able to use these tools to generate hundreds of facsimiles – there will be ideas forever, and I plan to keep on building this framework. If the last two years have given me anything, it’s the ability to adapt and evolve my creative processes.
Portland is my home. The energy of this city has always fueled me, and I think it always will.
The People They Think We Are (2018) for piano, video, and fixed media. (Me). Performed by Kathy Supové
Your Absence, from Like Water, Like Sound, Like Breath by Bonnie Miksch. Performed by Renée Favand-See, mezzo soprano; Amelia Bierly, cello; Lisa Marsh, piano
I grew up in Seattle, so the Pacific Northwest has always felt like home to me. My husband, composer Kenji Bunch, is originally from Portland, so when we first met in New York City, we connected about this common background and shared desire to return one day. Soon after the birth of our first child, we took a leap of faith and decided to move back to be closer to our families. In a whirlwind, our Brooklyn condo sold in one weekend, I flew out and made an offer on a house, and just a few months later we found ourselves moving to Portland without any concrete work lined up, fingers tightly crossed that things would work out. We’re both so grateful to have landed on our feet fairly quickly, and were welcomed with open arms by the vibrant music community here. We’ve now been living and working in Portland for nine years, and moving home to the PNW is the best decision we have ever made. I’m currently wrapping up my eighth season as Executive Director and Pianist of Fear No Music, and my first as Program Director of Music Performance at Reed College.
Portland is well known for its vigorous DIY ethos that embraces creativity and grass-roots initiatives with a cheerful lack of regard for the credentials that traditionally grant “permission” for such undertakings. Everywhere you turn, someone is brewing their own beer, bottling their own hot sauce, writing a novel, or building their social justice-driven non-profit from the ground up. The spirit of imaginative resourcefulness that keeps Portland “weird” and alive is exactly the reason the new music scene thrives. The music community is intimate and supportive of one another. Portland new music groups mostly pull from the same roster of musicians, so we all feel like one big family and celebrate each other’s successes. And just as Portlanders love their books, there’s also a voracious appetite for experiencing live music, and open minds eager to discover new sounds and ideas.
While recognizing the tremendous difficulties so many of us faced during the pandemic, our music non-profit, Fear No Music, fared as well as we could have hoped. There were challenges at the beginning of the lockdown period, given the need for an immediate pivot to online-everything, and the steep learning curve and trial-and-error process to find the right people and resources to help solve various unforeseen difficulties. However, Fear No Music is a relatively small organization, which allowed us to be nimble enough to adapt quickly to the necessary changes, and as a result, we were able to flourish moving forward. Of course, in addition to the pandemic, the nationwide reckoning of our racial history and present-day culture has caused a tremendous upheaval in the music world, bringing long-overdue attention to composers and musicians traditionally overlooked from mainstream audiences. For our organization, this has meant an even greater push for equity and diversity in our programs and initiatives, and a move to a donation-based ticketing model for our concerts, to promote accessibility, while still maintaining excellence in our programming.
Fear No Music: Monica Ohuchi, piano, performing BQE by Hiromi Uehara:
Portland Taiko performing Dango Jiru by Kenji Bunch:
Alex Arnold a.k.a. !mindparade
I moved to Portland from my home town of Bloomington, Indiana in 2017. I’m a multi-instrumentalist, one of those musicians that played in multiple bands for years. I was lucky enough to travel and see much of the US via touring and independent road trips. I always felt drawn to the PNW; the mystical feeling of the mountains and the dynamic landscapes appealed to me. The mist whispered something important to me. I decided it was time to move to a major city with a larger music scene to grow my band/songwriting project !mindparade. As an outdoorsy person, I thought, well, if I’m going to move my whole life, I should probably move near mountains. I’m so glad I made that choice. As soon as I honed in on Portland as a potential place to live, I began applying for jobs here, and landed an internship at a music licensing music company that I had signed to as an recording artist. I moved as soon as I had the opportunity, and threw myself into every aspect of music in Portland that I could. I didn’t really know anyone here when I arrived, and just started biking around to shows, meeting musicians.
There is a high level of musicianship in the scene here. So many great artists doing their thing, and in so many different genres of music. The city lacks a robust music industry compared to places like NYC and LA, or Nashville or Austin. That means there are less of those kinds of industry jobs, less labels, etc., but maybe that means people in music here may be in it for other reasons than money or prestige. I’ve found people in this community to be genuine and passionate. People like experimentalism and nerdiness here. It’s cool to be nice here. It seems like so many people you meet are in a band or are music fans, and that means more people to connect with. The location is incredible as well, as the surrounding nature provides endless perspective and inspiration. The city is nestled between very tall mountains and a very deep ocean.
Moving here was definitely a good choice for me overall. I was lucky to find an inspiring and engaging community. When everything stopped during the pandemic, I found myself focused on songwriting. I’ve worked up around 4 albums of !mindparade material that I am now chiseling into completion. It wasn’t necessarily a choice I made, it was most likely a coping mechanism. It was definitely a challenge to not play live for so long, which is something I’m so happy is happening again. There is really nothing else in life like live music.
Here’s one of my songs to include…
(!mindparade: “The Vision”)
And a local recommendation:
(Paper Gates: “Ophiuchus”)