Festival Music

Roscoe Mitchell Headlines a Generation of Improvisers

Creative Music Guild brought together dozens of unique performers every day at Disjecta, for their annual dance and music improvisation conference. Mostly, it is music, but the importance of dance and spoken word in the program is now irreversible. When inclusive community groups do something big, you can feel it. ISP is an event that you can feel when you’re there. Obscure as it is, as targeted to an audience smaller than the whole contemporary arts-loving audience, this is the biggest event of the year for improvised music and dance, in Portland.

This is a collaborative review and has been in the making since Saturday night’s closing performance, one week ago. Kathleen Dolan covered Friday while I am covered Thursday and Saturday. A photoset was published yesterday, featuring the work of Jenny Scholten and Jairus Dathan Smith. The best of those images can be found below.

DAY 1 – with Sean

Out on the front lawn of Disjecta there is a tiered grassy mound with built-in benches, a nearby fire hutch, and a small stage against the north wall. This is where three days of weird performances got underway, starting with Mike Barber (movement), Brandon Conway and Ryan Stuewe (music). Against the late-spring blue sky, the blips and bursts of electrified instruments, Mike gestured and balanced himself along the benches of the mound. His migration toward the stage was slow and deliberate, stopping to physically expound, contort, and slide every few feet.

Then it was Brumes on the second indoor stage. The main stage is larger and tends to host big ensembles. It all fits in the medium-sized warehouse space nicely. Brumes is an ambient group founded by harpist and instrumentalist, Desiree Rousseau. She was joined by a violinist, and both of them came prepared with a host of electronic effects. They worked out a set with tense peaks and soft landings, it was momentarily noisy but not harsh, with that soothing voice wrapped all up in a blanket.

Jonah Parzen Johnson
Jonah Parzen Johnson

Jonah Parzen Johnson is a pretty interesting fellow. He told a story about formerly sleepwalking, like heavily. His presence is that of someone not-typical to this world. This festival is full of those sort of people, but he has a certain combination of personal aspects that I find almost as compelling as his music. A solo tenor saxophonist tethered to electronic foot pedals, his work can get very thick and loud. He can also play rather quiet. He tends to work with drone structures, circular-breathing, and layers of synthesized, looped sax lines. It builds and crescendos. It pushes you against the wall and offers a kiss.

Linda Austin & Reed Wallsmith
Linda Austin & Reed Wallsmith

Linda Austin (movement) and Reed Wallsmith (alto saxophone) worked together (and have worked together before) and I could guess that it was completely from scratch. Their dynamic, whether planned or not, was like a fight. Push and pull, advance and retreat; neither played the aggressor all the time, nor was it a constant battle. I guess it even felt kind of sexy, like a couple’s dynamic. This theatre went along with the sound, so that the two artists were playing the story seemingly without a narrative and it was up to us to project that relationship. With Linda’s humorous approach to movement and Reed’s flexibility, not a dull moment.

CATFISH followed with something tied more closely to jazz, in fact to Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble, a record-label and collective-band, which recently put out their debut record. Joe Cunningham, Dan Duval, and Ken Ollis continue to push Portland’s jazz music into the national scene not just for its weirdness, but for its virtuosity. Jazz doesn’t have to end with bebop just because fusion killed it. These guys prove that. Their sound is jazz. It consists of arrangements spread out by long improvisational sections. The new techniques for jazz composition are employed, offering all kinds of moods. The only feeling (or technique) left out most of the time was swing, something that many jazz players believe has to be there.

Finally, closing out the night and bringing back the swing — or perhaps more of a swagger — was the Secret Drum Band. They use composition and it all seems tight, like not improvised, but perhaps it is cycled indeterminately. It is creative composition. Weird to see two thirds of Explode into Colors (the defunct all-girl indie rock trio) performing formally with sheet music. It looked like they had polished their techniques.

The band is over three years old but this was my first viewing of them. It consists of one drum kit player, two more percussionists, and electric-prepared guitar. This harmonic backdrop, provided by Sam Humans on guitar — a long-time Portland scene hero — gives that mystical feeling to a series of rhythms that often feel tribal, ancient, even pagan, lending the listener an opportunity to become entranced. One must welcome the opportunity. It’s a matter of listening actively until the music needs you to be passive and immersed at once.

Secret Drum Band
Secret Drum Band

DAY 2 with Kathleen, photos by Jenny

Friday night was pleasantly dry and warm, and an early, small crowd gathered in groups around Disjecta’s courtyard. The dark rooms and their climate-controlled coolness was refreshing. I was able to immerse in the show.

Eric Garcia (left) Dawn Stoppiello (right)
Eric Garcia (left) Dawn Stoppiello (right)

Eric Garcia on guitar with Dawn Stoppiello moving alongside him opened up the program. Sitting on the edge of the shallow stage, Stoppiello began in a pose that would look at home outside in Disjecta’s sun-dappled courtyard, reclining with her arms stretched back as if bathing for the moon in the dark room. While Garcia’s fingers moved in precise, short jabs on the guitar, the sound ranging from steadily jolting like a low, slow-motion siren to elongated chords, Stoppiello moved her body like a light, porous instrument, sometimes with the sinuous rhythm of a dancer, and then with the spontaneity of a tree swaying in the wind.

This first performance exemplifies one of many compelling elements of the ISP. Music and movement occur side by side, but there is an emphasis on their existences as separate and distinct of each other. Slowly however, while experiencing the two happening together, whether in direct collaboration or simply occurring at the same time in the same space, music begins to augment movement, and vice versa. Limbs bend and reach, backs arch to percussion and strings. It’s not dancing, it’s not a response to the music necessarily, and this spurs thoughts of relationships in the mind, between sound and motion, and between the senses altogether.

The Crenshaw was next on stage two. It is a duo: drums and upright bass. Drummer, Chris Johnedis brings verve and cool beats to back Andrew Jone’s unadorned poetry. His words are penetrating with concise lyrics, not sung so much as spoken in key.

Kat Macmillan
Kat Macmillan

Next and just beside the stage, percussion instruments were set up on the floor, arranged so that Matt Hannafin kneels to play them, surrounded and somewhat obscured by the circular units hanging in a way that makes me think of an arrangement of kitchen pots and pans in a tiny kitchen. Kat Macmillian moves to the hum and pulse of Hannafin’s doing, beginning completely obscured and crouching low to the floor, enrobed by a brown dress with thin, satin-looking material. In her starting stance, completely still, she looks like a statue. Her feet are the only visible flesh at first, thin with toes out-stretched. To Hannafin’s low, dense sounds reverberating around the small spotlight that shines on her, MacMillan emerges slowly from the dress to reveal her face to an audience who have pulled their chairs closer to form a huddle to fixate on the shrouded, moving figure. The dress falls right into place eventually when she is tall and straight. The dance continued very slowly.

Next was Rich and Carson Halley, on the saxophone and drums, carrying the poetry of Dan Raphael. Raphael’s poetry is funny and inquisitive, spoken in his melodic and gruff voice, the lines naturally fall and rise on the notes of his sax and drums.

An ensemble performed the music of festival headliner, Roscoe Mitchell. It was like several instruments performing solos at the same time, the piano, the drums, the flute, the sax among them. I guess you could say that about any song but here, the detection of each instrument’s sound, nude and unobscured by the others brought a coherence to the piece that felt chaotic but right this way. I kept thinking of people in a conversation, several people but no one speaking the same language. Beautiful and strange accents rising together but distinct and somehow without knowing the meaning of each other’s words, there is understanding amidst the confusion.

Roscoe Mitchell's composition featuring (left to right) Tim Duroche, Dana Reason, John Savage, Clark Spencer, Andre St. James, John Gross, Lee Etlderton, Catherine Lee
Roscoe Mitchell’s composition featuring (left to right) Tim Duroche, Dana Reason, John Savage, Clark Spencer, Andre St. James, John Gross, Lee Etlderton, Catherine Lee

I moved downtown recently from the small town feeling of North Portland with towering trees and expanding gaps of sky. It has been quieter and more peaceful than I expected downtown to be. Perched on an upper floor, I listen to all kinds of city sounds from the windows. The music of Matt Carlson and Gordon Ashworth reminded me of the ambience of the city: the stretched hums, hollow bells, unidentifiable screechings and varieties of distant noise. Their music struck me as a syncopation of those sounds and a dwelling on the peculiar silences unique to the urban landscape — and really, a lack thereof.

I thought of the Max trains running by, the wind whipping down and around buildings, the resonating traffic, the occasional siren cutting through and above it all. The sounds cover a wide range, from jarring to alleviating, and although I am grouping them here, the two musicians are distinct from each other. Where Carlson is minimal, Ashworth seems prone to density. I haven’t heard much of either but I look forward to listening, but with my city’s backdrop.

Daniel Menche performed with Jin Camou in another interesting coupling of voice over sound. Tying the night together at the end was this Round Robin Improvisation featuring an array of musicians and instruments, testing the range of sound and their breath in an exhibition of experimentation. It was a fitting late show for the festival and a cap for my night. I left amidst it.

DAY 3 – with Sean, photos by Jairus and Sean

I arrived a bit late on Saturday, for the dissection of Nonaah, by Roscoe Mitchell. He sat from a table with his laptop taking questions and expounding upon the process. Audio clips were played and we enjoyed the opportunity to interact with someone who directly or indirectly influenced every performer at ISP, through his decades of work, including an historical stint with the Art Ensemble of Chicago.

The content, I can’t summarize, but I did get one question in. I asked if he had a non-musical practice that benefits his music. After a brief remark of gardening, he got into describing this man who invents all kinds of weird musical instruments, a reclusive genius that he knew from way back in Chicago. He talked about percussion devices designed to keep the wrists exercised that this guy would make to carry on airplanes and stuff. That is when I realized that Roscoe is all music — music may be his sole practice. His improvisation is founded in technique, his capability on the instrument is totally practiced, and nothing about him tells me that he lacks discipline. Having missed the ensemble that Kate reviewed (so that I could stay up alone and write a report about Yemen), I was excited to see him later as a soloist.

Roscoe on laptop while Arrington De Dionyso starts early show
Roscoe on laptop while Arrington De Dionyso starts early show

Very quickly after his lecture did recent podcast guest, Arrington De Dionyso perform and I was able to snap off a panoramic picture of him playing while Roscoe hung around the laptop. Arrington is someone that goes into exploration and develops technique. He brought several distinct pieces to comprise a set. A throat-singing section was performed with two microphones panned hard left and right. The stereo field allowed opened another dimension for his soulful haunting voice. Bass clarinet, some plastic extensions, a toy raga machine, and another ancient flute instrument that I sadly forgot the name of, completed the repertoire for Arrington. After twenty years out in the scene doing this kind of stuff, so far, I have a feeling that when Arrington is as old as Roscoe, whether he achieves legendary status or not, he will be playing wherever he feels like playing.

The Tenses was described as “noise royalty” because they go back in Portland virtually as far as Roscoe does in Chicago. The Tenses are almost half of Smegma, the group that broke up from the aftermath of making the cover of The Wire magazine. It is Jackie Stewart with phonograph and other noisy bits and Ju Suk Reet Meate on electric guitar and pedals. Whatever Jackie does, it seems to float over Ju Suk. Like it all works, no matter what he does. It’s like two independent monologues colliding, or like having TV and radio on in two separate rooms.

A panel discussion followed, concerning the state of experimental music and venues in Portland. Journalist Robert Ham moderated a talk with musicians from the summit, Dan Duval, Gordon Ashworth, Mary Sutton, and Lisa Schonberg. I’ll just say that everyone stressed the importance of keeping the regeneration of non-commercial music going while simultaneously being confounded how any of this type of stuff ever happens at all.

Get Smashing Love Power is a quartet of heavy-hitting long-time Portland improvisers, Andre St. James, Noah Bernstein, Reed Wallsmith, and Tim Duroche. All of these players are perfect at inverting the music. By that I mean, if one person is playing something “inside” another will compliment by playing what is “outside” so that they’re always covering the scope of an improvisation. They are energetic. They aren’t so in their head. It’s about chops, it’s about energy. It gets quiet, loud, slow, fast, the whole thing.

Allie Hankins
Allie Hankins

It was a busy weekend, I had to go across town for Small Acquisitions by Cinema Project. I had some errands to run along the way so I missed everything from 5pm until 10pm, so that was Seth Nehil, ALTO! Catherine Lee, Either Neither, FAXES, and Allie Hankins/Caley Feeney. Jairus got some pictures of these performances, but I missed them, which brings me to the final act in review: Roscoe Mitchell.

Roscoe nails it. Usually when an artist performs a solo set with so much repetition, so much focus on the timbre of reed instruments, I am usually bored and annoyed. But Roscoe’s harmony is perfect, his technique is precise, and the exploration develops very naturally. There is no self-consciousness as he stands eyes closed, still, concentrated. I’m not a follower of his, so I wasn’t sure what to expect.

Roscoe Mitchell
Roscoe Mitchell

Seeing Roscoe Mitchell was like receiving a transmission, a sonic message from the people of mirth. Yes mirth. There is a joy in what he does, but it doesn’t sound pleasant. It is not about beautiful sounds nor is it about resistance to a format or anything rebellious, in fact, he embraces his approach fully. Immersed in it, it is a positive message. Getting down to it, it just sounded like a very nice collection of quality saxophones. If it was a product demonstration, he would have sold some saxophones by showing every single tone available to the instrument. This audience gets it, it is an expression of will, of determination, of certainty. I don’t know, maybe I don’t get it. But after 45 minutes, roughly one hundred fifty folks gave the standing ovation, myself included, and he jumped on for another short piece.

I took a break outside and ended up in conversations that didn’t stop. I could hear Jonathan Sielaff’s amplified clarinet and its soothing looping cascading harmonies. It is something I always enjoy and it was kind of perfect to follow Roscoe. I regret not going back in to hear Mary Sutton on piano with Taka Yamamoto’s movement. Hopefully another time will come.


ISP is a bare production, informal and intimate. An audience member can easily feel like they’re involved in or privy to the process of the creation as nothing here feels like its ultimate goal is to be performed as a completed piece. Rather, the performance provides a wider place for experimentation and testing, the artists grateful and open to an audience which can act as a gauge. Work at ISP continuously draws and diverts your attention, the music and movement in front of you lures your immediate awareness while inspiring plenty of zoning out.

Thru Collaboration

By Thru Collaboration

Sometimes it's good to work together. That is what this article is all about. Not one author can be attributed to this work, so it is a collaboration. Details are in the text.

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