State of Wonder

Crossed Swords Lead To 'Classical Crossroads' Concert

By April Baer (OPB)
Portland, Oregon March 25, 2017 5:37 p.m.

We’ve all seen this way too many times. A sharp review, words are exchanged online, things get personal. And the next thing you know everyone’s typing in all caps, using death’s head emojis and … well, it's just getting out of hand. We love a good art feud as much as anyone, but usually nothing much comes of them.

Greg Ewer (left), artistic director of 45th Parallel and violinist with the Oregon Symphony, and Tristan Bliss (right), musician, composer, and sometime reviewer for Oregon Arts Watch.

Greg Ewer (left), artistic director of 45th Parallel and violinist with the Oregon Symphony, and Tristan Bliss (right), musician, composer, and sometime reviewer for Oregon Arts Watch.

April Baer / OPB

Next week might be an exception. 45th Parallel will present a program of modern and contemporary music inspired by the testy comment exchange that followed a review of a 45th show on Oregon Arts Watch.

In one corner: Greg Ewer, artistic director of 45th Parallel, a violinist with the Oregon Symphony, and occasional player in other ensembles like Third Angle New Music. Lots of Oregon’s marquee players regularly sit in — the concertmaster for the Oregon Symphony, the conductors of several other chamber orchestras. It's kind of scene where really talented straight-ahead classical musicians go to challenge themselves and have fun.

And in the other corner, sporting work boots, tattoos and trucker cap, Tristan Bliss. He just finished coursework for his B.A. in music at Western Oregon University, and has been composing for several years, starting on classical guitar, moving into piano trios, before settling into electro-acoustic works and pre-recorded electronica. Brett Campbell and pianist Maria Choban recruited him to write reviews for Arts Watch, in hopes of broadening the dialogue. And that’s exactly what he did. Here’s what happened.

Q&A with Tristan Bliss and Greg Ewer

April Baer: Greg, can you explain what was on the bill at [the show Tristan reviewed] “Forbidden Music” in November 2015?

Greg Ewer: 45th parallel is very community-based chamber music organization. I'd talked with 45th Parallel's composer-in-residence, Kenji Bunch, quite a bit  about concerts that he had always wanted to put on. And he said, "Yeah, I had this idea about doing music that was forbidden for either religious or political reasons." He suggested a few pieces like the Shostakovich piano trio No. 2, the [Czech composer Erwin] Schulhoff, we put on that program, a piece by Fritz Kreisler — here's a historical context for all of these pieces. We also wanted to do the 45th Parallel thing [and bring in a different kind of music]. In this case it was a traditional Persian band. There's so many talented musicians in this community. And so many of them have nothing to do with classical music, like 3 Leg Torso, Jackstraw, Kevin Burke and Tony Furtado. What I always wanted to do was present classical music alongside something from different genres.

Baer: Tristan, tell us about your musical orientation.

Tristan Bliss: I started playing guitar when I was 13, 14, and got really into classical guitar — just because of the technicality of it, not necessarily the repertoire. I phased out of classical guitar relatively quickly. That world isn't super interested in modern classical music. But that was really my gateway. I met Nicholas Yandell and started getting music theory lessons from him. I started going to Cascadia Composers shows a couple of years before 2014 and got really into avant-garde classical music, and other music like Tyler, the Creator or Death Grips. And so I had talked to Maria Choban, a local pianist [who's written for Oregon Arts Watch and advocated for a broader understanding of contemporary classical] a lot about attracting young people. I don't want to speak for Maria too much, but her big thing with classical music is that it has to start reconsidering the relationship to audience. What we perceive as classical culture did not exist when this music was being written. It was music for everybody, being written by composers who had to pay bills. So this idea that we created, this ivory tower existence, is just not true.

Baer: So you had seen Oregon Arts Watch and read reviews there and had been thinking about who else is out there, who maybe should be showing up at these concerts.

Bliss: Exactly. I wanted to see my demographic represented more at the shows that I like, but I wasn't seeing other versions of me.

Baer: Tristan, how did you decide to write about this particular show?

Bliss: [Oregon Arts Watch's] Brett Campbell really just asked me to go. I believe there was another reviewer who was going to go, but couldn't make it, and I had the night free.

Baer: What did you think of the show?

Bliss: I feel like there was some misinterpretation of what I was writing. The show was fine. It was performed very well. There were some people who are annoyed at me for not reviewing the performers. My whole point was: In 45th Parallel almost all of [the musicians] play with the Oregon Symphony. They're good. I don't need to tell you that they're good. They just are. My review was more about the culture, the musical culture that those concerts are existing in. I could go to every chamber music concert being given in Portland traditional repertoire, and write this review about it. It wasn't so much about that specific concert.

Baer: What did you want people to hear?

Bliss: I think the opening paragraph really could've been the whole thing. Everything else was an expansion on that. "Excluding Kenji Bunch's premiere, the music and 45th Parallel's concert doesn't need reviewing. It's already been premiered, reviewed, reviewed again, mentioned in scholarly columns and in the various composers collected works, published shortly after their obituaries. In short, what new is there to say about Schulhoff, Kreisler, Cowell and Shostakovich? Am I to seek out that one obscure fact about their lives that is still not published that some poor doctoral student is going to try and turn into a thesis?" So, the critique is also on reviewing the show. Because, really, what was I supposed to say about things that have been played over and over and over? That doesn't mean they shouldn't be played again. It does mean, "What is there to be in a review about it?"

Baer: Tristan, the review goes on, you had to know you were firing a shot across the bow — if not at musicians, then certainly at institutions.

Bliss: Definitely at the institutions! I don't feel the need to hold any punches about that. They're indifferent to bringing in new audience members, I guess, indifferent to being relevant.

Baer: Greg, there was a, shall we say, healthy exchange on social media after this, some from people who were in the audience, some who weren’t. What was your feeling?

Ewer: My feeling was: This needs to be discussed. So the first thing I did was put it on my Facebook page, saying, let's see what's going to happen. Tristan did not pull any punches. There was a lot of meaty stuff that I thought might get people riled up. And they responded fairly quickly.

Bliss: I felt like in some of the comments — not all of them — my review was basically ignored. People went to [my] bio. And there was some pretty classist s--- that came out. I was like, "Damn, you're right. I do have a minimum wage job, and I'm not super upper class." They didn't really help [refute] my point about the classical music world not incorporating new people. And then there were also people who I think really responded to the musical things I had to say.


Ewer: The thing that stuck out at me most was the idea that this conversation ... absolutely needs to be had. He was struggling about, "What do I talk about? Do you want me to talk about the pieces? Do you want me to talk about the performers?" [But] why use the output of one particular group to do this? It's a little bit like going in to review a Chinese restaurant, and then writing a review that was complaining about the fact that you couldn't get pizza.

Baer: But is it a Chinese restaurant in an Italian neighborhood?

Ewer: Regardless, you know the address before you go in, so if that's the case, I think you have to adjust your expectations going in. It's not as if there wasn't something that was worthy of taking in for the first time and describing. I just thought it was a really terrific piece in a lot of ways, and there are a lot of things we should continue to discuss, I just question whether we were the appropriate example.

Baer: So what happened next? How did you guys start talking?

Bliss: Greg responded to the Arts Watch comments with, "OK, genius, if you have the balls, write us something." And so I responded, "Game on." I actually didn't think he was being serious. To this day, I don't know! Were you serious, Greg?

Ewer: I absolutely was! Look, you can respond to something like this by being defensive, digging in your heels, defending what you already do, but what are you going to gain out of that? It's my instinct to engage, not to dig in my heels and say, 'I'm right about this, how dare you?' Who's going to learn anything from that? Yes, the invitation was very real and very sincere. I didn't think you were going to say yes so quickly! But I'm glad you did.

Baer: How did you make it something more than just an exchange in the comments?

Ewer: Well, by the time Tristan and I met for coffee, correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe the piece was finished or almost finished.

Bliss: Yeah, I started it the night you gave me the challenge, and finished it probably four weeks later.

Ewer: What I like about that is that it's a very raw response to everything that was going on.

Baer: Tristan, what was on your mind when you sat down to write?

Bliss: The title is "Requiem for a Tradition." Hot off Greg giving me the challenge, my thought was "I'm gonna f--- up your tradition. I'm going to take your beloved pieces and I'm going to make them disgusting. And I'm going to ruin them. And in that process I'm going to turn them into something new and something interesting. Not just ruin something old, but decompose it and use it to create something new." So that's what the first half of the piece is.

Baer: Do you want to explain some of that some of the musical quotations that you built into this?

Bliss: So the opening line is is Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto in E minor, Opus 64, and it's just the bare violin line. And then it's Cello Suite No.1 in G major, BWV 1007. I didn't seek out those pieces specifically. I just came into pieces that are vital to the tradition of famous melodies. The next quotation is Chopin's Prelude in E Minor, and then Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. That's when the tonal structures start collapsing.

Baer: How do you move the piece forward from there?

Bliss: Sure, the opening is harmonically structured as a set class where each instrument's tonal center builds a vertical set class, 0-1-4-5, and then I stack another  vertical 0-1-4-5, so it has — what's it called? Webern did it a lot.

Ewer: Oh, like a palindrome.

Bliss: Yeah! And so each individual line is tonal. The vertical harmonies are representative of the pitch set. Each scale system collapses, via moving out from the fifth of each key, to represent the palindromic effects of the set. The harmony is secured, and then I develop the rhythmic activity using 0-1-4-5 using different manipulations and variations.

Baer: Greg, how did you decide to frame this?

Ewer: If you have a piece with a very strong philosophical point to make, Tristan and I kind of came up with this jointly. We've got a collection of pieces that reflect what has happened recently in terms of contemporary composition. What subject matter is the catalyst for the work? We've got a piece by John Zorn called "Cat-o'-Nine-Tails," with a lot of caustic, sarcastic writing. We also brought to the table "Burning" by Chen Yi. It's a piece about 9/11 which ends with a very powerful image of ash and paper floating up into the air after the buildings collapse. It's a very, very powerful piece. There's also — and I'm going to kick myself for programming this, because it's one of the hardest things I've ever learned — but a really great arrangement of "Sweet Child of Mine" for solo violin. It's kind of a mix between a Paganini caprice and a Bach fugue.

Bliss: I want to say something about how Greg is really a badass artistic director. He definitely had the upper hand in this whole scenario. He could have dismissed me as a punk-ass kid, but he didn't. And secondly, when he agreed to meet up with me, he said, "You know, we could just plug your piece into any program and go our separate ways, but that's that doesn't really get at it." He extended it: "Help us put on a show that you want to hear." Which is what we did. It's a fair representation of both of us, I think. "Halloween" by Charles Ives, which repeats the same idea four times adding another instrument each time it repeats, adding Thomas DiNicola's "Nocturne."

Baer: Tristan, your initial point in the essay was: "What are we saying to a wider audience?" The work that you wrote has a ton going on. Is it possible that it's something that would not speak to a wider audience?

Bliss: Yes and no, I think. There's definitely some underlying facetious jokes that, if you're not in on them, you won't like it, but I do think it's also very visceral. And that will speak to a wider audience.

Baer: What have you two got out of this whole conversation?

Bliss: Nothing bad ever happens from being honest.

Ewer: I have no idea where this was going on we started it. It could've been a situation where we say, "OK, that was a fun exchange. We tried. Let's just go our separate ways." But if you retreat into a fetal position and expect to convince somebody else. You're not going to succeed. You have to step out. That brings you outside of your comfort zone, so be it. I'm glad a lot of people know about it. It's not a foregone conclusion that in 100 years people are going to really care about unless we give composers the support they need to feel like they're not going to be ignored.