Festival Music

Movement is the Summit of Improvisation

This year’s Improvisation Summit of Portland, produced by the Creative Music Guild, happened to fall on one of the busiest weekends of the year, marking the beginning of that marvelous summer season of arts in Portland. Opera, Symphony, and Theater schedules are gone with the end of spring, but Portland summers are fantastic with special engagements of all kinds, and ISP 2014 is an example.

It was easy to choose this against beer and food festivals close-in on the east side, or the parade and carnival of the Annual Rose Festival on the west side. I could have celebrated 11 years of the music and art venue, Holocene, dancing my ass off, but I just didn’t feel that. I could have attended the season closing work of Northwest Dance Project, but actually I can do that this coming weekend, and Paula Helen covered it, so here is that. When Sunday came and I should have gone to see friend and brilliant improviser, Thollem McDonas at Tabor Space, I decided that I needed a day to stay in, wondering why he wasn’t scheduled for the festival. Compared however to the Art & Social Practice event known as Shine a Light and it’s new weekend counterpart, Assembly, I was rather torn.

Going to #ISP2014, aside from hearing the click clacking, horn blowing, circuit bending, face-melting sounds of significant musical talent, for me personally meant rekindling the deeply repressed roots of my early life as an experimental, improvising musician. I led a band with almost thirty different players over five years. I let that go as I became engrossed with organizing non-profit festival events. I am grateful for the reawakening and vow to be conditioned and ready to perform for it next year, especially now that I am back to free agency.

To comment on the art & social practice movement mentioned above, something that I care a lot about and want to explore in my own work, I’ll point out that improvised music is one of the foundations of socially engaged art and performance. Same goes for dance. And that is what the Improvisation Summit of Portland is: a collection of dance and music performances bringing people together.

When John Cage forced the audience to listen, composing a four minute silence, he was commenting on our detachment to everyday life. When Ornette Coleman reinvented jazz by allowing musicians to express themselves freely, he was commenting on democracy and repression. They each felt that challenging the audience while embracing the artist was perhaps more important than embracing the audience. When Anna Halprin choreographed dancers with a sophisticated collision of those principles, she commented in a complete way, embracing the audience and the performer with love. So as a musician, I chose to enjoy a full weekend of improvised dance and music, because it simply expresses social practice without analysis. And I feel that by attending this, documenting, and presenting it to you, I am engaged with you, developing my social practice. That said, now the work.

The entire festival program opened with a screening of the film, The Reach of Resonance, which I have reviewed here. It was a soft opening for the festival, being the only even on Thursday. It kicked off with some youthful musical improvisation, as an opening act to the film, with some younger cats looking for new opportunities. But it is the weekend of performance that really defines ISP. With two makeshift stages at Sandbox Studio, hidden within some ancient warehouse of industrial NE Portland, twenty-one free flowing engagements took place over the course of two evenings (including a panel discussion and some workshops on Saturday afternoon).

Portland’s finest, including Mike Barber, Michael Stirling, Rich Halley, Lucy Yim, and many more were present. Some out-of-towners came to make noise, including Tim Berne and Bad Luck.. With almost no breaks and no formal intermission, the whole thing jammed non-stop as if one massive concert. The audience would simply migrate their chairs if necessary, but usually seating was ample on both ends of the open room.

Friday, I arrived in the midst of the second performance on schedule, which you can find here. I can not go through each and recount them individually with proper detail, due to the intense nature of this event and the sheer volume of names to recount. Instead I will convey my impressions in the order that they happened, much like the blurring of sounds and the impressionism of improvised music moves forward with linearity, but leaves you in a timeless state.

Friday. Three women work together toward implied rhythms and disjointed loops. A man softly blows the outer reaches of his horn. A duo seeks clarity in noise. A quartet hones in on dissonance discovering what is groovy, tightening what is loose. Two dancers and two electronic artists sculpt grace in holy space. A big band of master musicians swing through complex arrangement in the ever-expanding universe. Two dancers explore their environment, authentically playful, against the grain of daily life.

Saturday. Delicate composition for trio rediscovers jazz without self-awareness, focusing on beauty, like post-post Charlie Parker. Softly, a couple explores their own movement, discovering their relationship as quietly as the sound propell them in all directions. Like a gang of kids at a birthday party, musicians play with their own sound for sound’s sake. Woman sheds her layers in a duet of perfect isolation and it is so fucking suave. Traditional vocal raga meets analog synthesis, colliding live sitar and digitized electric guitar, vocoding heaven on Earth. Dual duets instantly produce and resolve tension as self, space, and relationship is rediscovered. Sax and drums rock the drone vibe with rock-and-roll-like energy. A dancer avoids the noise of his own thoughts.

On Friday, I missed out on the Welcome Ensemble, Scott Cutshall’s Phrasology, and Pinkish. On Saturday, I missed the panel, workshops, and Matt Hannafin with Loren Chasse. I wish that I had not missed that last one, especially because I was actually kind of early to arrive for the headlining act there. I rode as quickly as I could in a Car2Go, to meet my girlfriend in Kenton for a CD release party for Miss Massive Snowflake. I accidentally encountered the World Naked Bike Ride, punctuating just how endless the big events of the weekend were, drawing tens of thousands of people together for different reasons all over town. We sat there together talking about pop and rock music against the back drop of improvised music, watching a band of forty-something’s still doing exactly what they did in the nineties. She had never been to concerts like ISP 2014. She was impressed by it in a way that tainted the simple rock and roll band on display at Kenton Club that night (not MMS, it was the opening act going unnamed). I was impressed that she was so impressed. Because many people flat out reject unfamiliarity and that is what improvised music is supposed to be: unfamiliar.

There is something mind-splitting about this particular aspect of human expression: it can be messy and loving, antagonistic and sharp. I know that when I found that art scene, and was exposed to that music roughly ten years ago, it slowly eroded the assumptions that I built during the nineties, as a teenager. I recall discovering a pile of music one day and how that prompted me to get rid of a bunch of CD’s, like Creed and Korn. I remember turning my back against what I loved, like Radiohead and Pearl Jam. Through the discovery of disjointed, enharmonic but lacking melody, dissonant but oddly melodic, harmolodic, horns and oscillators, arrhythmic drums and all that which comes with improvised music-making,  I have actually come to terms with myself and know with certainty what I still love about pop music. The point is that discovering news sounds can be found in classical composition or John Cage, just the same. Know that is absolutely necessary to appreciate all forms of music and we all have the capacity to grow.

Moreover, the fusion of dance to what was strictly a music presenting organization is one of the best moves that they have made as an organization. I have to credit performer and board member, Danielle Ross, as well as the newest President of CMG, Alyssa Reed-Stuewe with that influence. Because before music, there was movement. Through movement, there came music. Dance is the ultimate reality and music is there to accentuate that.

Improvisation Summit of Portland has only been in effect for three years. As a recovering non-profit music and arts festival organizer myself, I need to take my moment here to recommend that the organization focus even more attention on that event, even if it means drawing back some of the regular programs. Because the opportunity is tremendous here. In past years, it was held a week or so earlier, allowing for the cooler, darker weather to potentially draw more audience members in to the cozy warehouse. The internationally renowned acts that are brought throughout the year, if they were altogether in this festival, would be huge and beautiful.

Regardless of my own recommendations, this was a pretty groovy event and it meant a lot to me. If only it could reach beyond the audience that already seeks this out, to convert new ears and scramble the brains of the masses. We can hope and we can try.

I also want to congratulate CMG on meeting their financial goal for the event and for concretely pushing their own boundaries, redeveloping one of Portland’s longest running post-modern arts presenters. The work they are doing is worth supporting and you can check out their ongoing programs at

 Please enjoy the photo gallery below. For select images naming each artist, please visit our Twitter photos here.

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.

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