Festival Interdisciplinary Music Photography

Improvisation Summit of Portland Photo Journal

New worlds of improvised form were showcased at Creative Music Guild’s fifth annual ISP.

In the spirit of this festival, the following was developed in an improvisational manner. As the event progressed, I posted photos and thoughts that were gradually edited, revised, and distilled — when I was able to rouse myself back up. Two nights and one full day of improvisation and related activities can have a very interesting effect on the mind and body. Performance of this sort is rigorous work rich with expression. Combining movement and visual art to the music was the first innovation of the new Creative Music Guild. They’re still a very small non-profit with local artists comprising the Board of Directors. Building on that is key to fully exploring the possibilities of improvisation with Portland’s most prolific talent.

Portland has long enjoyed a jazz tradition. It is not unreasonable to suggest that Creative Music Guild spawned from it, and the diverse groupings of talent that I submerged into express that tradition of adventurousness from which Portland can be said to always have celebrated. We, as residents, are from Louis & Clark ancestry, after all. The jazz standard celebrates improvisation as something over predetermined chords, arrangements, intervals, and tonal centers. As that concept evolved, letting everything go broke through, and absolutely creative freedom in music became a form to itself.

Improvisers train on difficult technical music in order to be ready for the unknown, the deep sea of improv.

The discipline of free improvisation spans genre and breaks out of medium into dance, and even visual art. Together with music, dance especially has developed numerous strategies to guide spontaneity into form. Definitely, I noticed that most of the artists at ISP were not just “blowing,” as the beatniks would say. Vinny Golia put down his horn to conduct an elaborate piece for large ensemble. Vocalist Holland Andrews did the same with Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble, as did Golden Retriever conduct a large group. Each of them employed different methods to trigger musical parts and were performed extemporaneously. There is in fact written music, but like jazz, it helps set up options for improvisation. The more elaborate new style of composition provides further levels of chance and fluidity.

CMG itself has survived for 25 years, and this annual musical confluence of contemporary improvisers reached far beyond jazz, wrapping up its fifth annual program on Saturday. Changes are sure to come to ISP as Artistic Director Ben Kates announced his formal resignation from the volunteer position. His successor, Mike Gamble, an Oregon  State University music production educator and New York transplant, says he has big ideas and excitement for the next phase of CMG. He wants to expand into multimedia and simulcasting. I hope that he drags more local players into this, because I found that having just a handful of well-known players recycled into so many groups, it was a small, exclusive summit. I can think of at least a dozen great players that have never been invited to perform at ISP (or at least not in the three years I’ve been covering it). This, no doubt, alienates a portion of the audience at a festival that mostly draws other artists.

This year’s ISP was not well-attended. When I put myself into someone else’s ears who never was exposed to free improvised music, it makes sense why in a city of half a million (thrice that if you include outlying regions), that only a small core of maybe 50 weirdos would hang out in a warehouse and soak in unheard sounds for three days on a glorious pre-summer sunny weekend. It also reflects the difficulty of financially supporting headliners. Last year, it was Roscoe Mitchell, a legend in his own right that also hails from Art Ensemble of Chicago fame. He drew a number of weekend pass holders. Lacking someone like that — although Vinny Golia and Ava Mendoza were central to this year’s program — it was more difficult to pack in Disjecta.

Volunteer executives juggle many things. In fact, there was a therapeutic circle that accidentally formed per such low attendance, a panel discussion about balancing “real life” with artistic practice. The panel included both working artists and artists who work (those with day jobs and those earning their living mostly on music). The audience was entirely comprised of festival talent, staff, and media, so Ben Kates opened the conversation to everyone. I think I was eager to talk because it had been a major hurdle and issue in my heart and soul: I do not play music like I used to and that changed when I took on arts administration. It felt good to explain to some people who I used to play with why I’ve been taking prolonged time away from my craft, and with struggling to find adequate housing for my practice.

Improvisation is a study into specific areas of an artistic practice. Often improvisers train on difficult technical music in order to be ready for the unknown, the deep sea of improv. These are sophisticated players, so it attracts people who can listen to music on a technical level. To have the chops for it, you need space and time more than money, but of course in a world where space and time is costlier than hell.

The emotional experience of this music can be hard to enjoy. It brings up everything, however, in that way it appeals to the meditative personality. I find myself in a different mindset as the photographer. I start connecting to the music through the people playing it. If I can put down the camera and listen, and that is an if, then it feels like a psychic sea change. In that transition between hearing the chaos of it and honing in to the technical ear that I too have been trained to exercise, I totally hear why people say “musical masturbation.”

That could offend some of the players of this scene, so I just urge everyone to detach from their bias when possible. Ultimately, it’s some of my favorite music to rest into, and it’s a lot of fun to perform — but it’s not very fun to masturbate in front of people. Those who cannot get beyond their judgement also cannot hear beyond the self-absorption of free music. Sometimes it is transcendent.

One night, after ISP (this was years ago) I dropped in on a rock show at a dive bar. That is where I felt that I actually witnessed musical masturbation — sawing the guitar up and down, up and down, until that solo and the big ending.

I’m ranting. So let me explain what you’ll see below. This post is broken into three pages: Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. Below are photos and performance summaries from Thursday. Aside from Friday, when Stephanie Leet helped with photography, all images were taken by me, using a camera that just can’t seem to get the sharpness I’m looking for. But I humbly submit the best of what I obtained.


Pure Surface

Few could have expressed this spirit of improvisation, questioning what is music, more than Pure Surface, the curating collaboration of Stacey Tran and Danielle Ross. Repeating phrases spoken from every body on the floor, microphones and lamps were the moving parts of “A Tonal Service.”

Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble with Holland Andrews

I was just settling into the venue when this performance began, so all I remember were dynamic sections in part led by Holland Andrews and her vocal samples. She guided the composition with imagery projected against the wall — the only person to employ multimedia into their set throughout ISP. Andrews led a special performance with PJCE players. What started as a collection of composer-musicians to highlight original local work has evolved into a record label, capable of producing the complete artistic product to the market. An album from Holland Andrews would really be worth doing. She has over the last years, seemingly come into her own. I admit that I haven’t been closely following her, but the final performance on Saturday, “I’d Rather Not Talk About It” offered a beautiful ending to the festival, and a display of her range as a vocalist that truly impressed me.

Pebble Trio

This is free jazz at it finest — but don’t call it that. Thollem McDonas is not any kind of player, he is every kind of player. The world-roaming keyboardist (because he’s been traveling straight for over a decade) is propped up by two of Portland’s finest: music educator Andre St. James (bass) and cultural ambassador Tim Duroche (drums). As the rhythm section, they offer the stability McDonas can thrive in without needing to play jazzy sounds. This is music with little electronics, and last year, THRU recorded a live set from the group that was purely acoustic. Listen to it here.

Taka Yamamoto (sound by Jesse Mejia)

I wasn’t actually sure if or where Mejia was performing the soundtrack. This teetered the edge of the notion of improvisation, because Yamamoto repeated roughly the same steps over and over again. I’m not sure what was left up to chance. Repetition is nothing unusual for improvisers, every bit of spontaneity deviating from it has a way of standing out, expressing smaller details that might typically be overlooked.

Golden Retriever with Special Guests

Here is a band that has struggled a little bit with its identity — or at least thats what some reviewers think. About six years ago I had a radio program on KBOO, I was the first person to break them to the public, and it was live on the air. They were called False Entries or something like that…. I loved what they did, and they only got better at it. It was awash in synthesizer magic and waterfalls of electrified bass clarinet. But after a few years of repetition, I understood the disparaging critique, something along the lines of hipster Terry Riley imitators. But, they got full vindication from this performance! Their sound has taken new direction, and as composers, they led a group of fantastic players through a journey. As artists, Golden Retriever (Jonathan Sielaff and Matthew Carlson) demonstrate a refined, individualized taste. With a reed quintet led by Sielaff, against the percussion of Matt Hannafin, all guided by Carlson’s synthesis, I heard wide dynamics, sweetness, and fury. None of it should be considered controlled chaos, because it was calculated improvisation. It really climaxed the arc of the performances on opening night.

Ava Mendoza, Mike Gamble, Andrew Jones

Real honesty, after that Golden Retriever set, this just wasn’t hitting me well. I respect the players on the stage, and I know sometimes you get in a rut of an improvisation, so whatever, but I was too able to put on my unbiased ears and hear something kind of guitar-nerd-wank. I am biased because I don’t have love for the sound of electric guitars and pedals, otherwise I’d be stoked, because they all had some unique tone or evolving sound as they ripped up the fretboard. It was atonal and brash. It was a noise set. In that sense, awesome, but it was getting late and I bailed in the middle of it.

Friday and Saturday, Next Pages

Sean Ongley

By Sean Ongley

Co-Founder of THRU Media. A background in non-profit, music, and radio preceded my ambitions here. Now, I aspire to produce new media and publish independent journalism at this site and beyond.

One reply on “Improvisation Summit of Portland Photo Journal”

Looking forward to the video footage of Holland Andrews and Chris Johnedis.- the only part of the ISP I caught but I’d like to relive that. Holland has a strong voice even as it quivers, Johnedis on the drums seems to steady and ground the emotion – they make a thoughtful, moving performance.