Opening Our Ears: Fear No Music Asian Music Concert

Percussionist Michael Roberts performs Viet Cuong’s “Well-Groomed” during Fear No Music’s “Asian Resilience and Joy” concert at The Old Church on May 9, 2022. Photo courtesy of FNM.

fear no music“Asian Resilience and Joy” concert on May 9 at The old church in downtown Portland was partly about the surprising bliss that comes when we open our ears to more than Western sounds and rhythms. What a pity that only 50 spectators sat on the benches, especially since Fear No Music does not charge for tickets (donations only). Portland State University is just around the corner; music lovers with small bank accounts should have been everywhere in this gig.

Artistic director Kenji Bunch – celebrating FNM’s 30th anniversary season and Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month – has done a spectacular job curating contemporary music from three generations of seven composers, including four women, all from various regions of Asia: Japan, Vietnam, South Korea, Taiwan, China. What Bunch has done best is find tracks – none longer than 10 minutes – that express exuberance and good humor rather than ones that delve into trauma and tragedy.

Where to start? Maybe in the beginning, when Bunch made the bold choice to put a snare drum center stage until Michael Roberts played it, not with sticks and brushes, but with a credit card and a comb. The aptly named 7.5 minutes Well-groomed by 31-year-old Vietnamese-American Viet Cuong (praised by Washington Post music critics for being one of those “sounding like tomorrow” composers) was a lot of fun. It was an inventive and playful soundscape to behold, aural and visual. Wow, so many things a good drummer can do with a comb and a credit card.

flautists Amelie Lucas and Adam Eccleston played the complex rhythm Haiku by the prolific Japanese composer of concert and film music Paul Chihara. The 8.5-minute track was rhythmically complex, with undertones of jazz and folk music, but while it had the 5-7-5 pattern (haikus are three-line poems consisting of a first line of five syllables, of a second verse of seven syllables and final line of five syllables), I could not understand this pattern despite the crystalline playing. Haikus, a traditional form of Japanese poetry, are so compact and intense, like flowers distilled into perfume, that the end result is far greater than the parts, just like in this piece. The flautists moved up and down a mountain of notes at the end of the track, and landed together. (Lukas played both alto and standard C flute; Eccleston only C flute). “With all the note and air sounds, there are a lot of references to shakuhachi-style playing,” which focuses on bamboo flutes, Lukas explained via email after the gig.

Flautists Amelia Lukas and Adam Eccleston perform Paul Chihara "Haiku" at Fear No Music "Asian resilience and joy" concert at The Old Church, May 9, 2022. Photo courtesy of FNM.
Flautists Amelia Lukas and Adam Eccleston perform Paul Chihara’s ‘Haiku’ during Fear No Music’s ‘Asian Resilience and Joy’ concert at The Old Church on May 9, 2022. Photo courtesy of FNM.

My favorite piece was the Japanese-born composer/pianist by Hiromi Uehara BQE interpreted by Monica Ohchi, who has the fastest fingers and the surest piano hands. She is such a virtuoso.

Uehara, now in his early 40s with quite a jazz following, met the late great pianist Korea chick when she was a teenager in Japan. She eventually studied at Berklee College of Music in Boston and worked with jazz musicians like Ahmed Jamal and Stanley Clarke. So no wonder she BQE– which depicts the Brooklyn-Queens Freeway, which cuts through Manhattan with sweeping views of the skyline – was imbued with the relentless frenetic feel of jazz.

The only composer present at the concert was South Korean Jiyoun Chungnow lives in Seattle and teaches composition at Central Washington University. His Freestyle Battle was an energetic back-and-forth, mirroring “b-boy dancing”, described as an acrobatic dance style that combines intricate footwork with twists and somersaults, usually to funk or hip-hop music. Musicians following the fast pace included clarinetist James Shields, violinist Ines Voglar Belgiumcellist Pansy Chang, and Ohuchi, again, on the piano. Shields is a master clarinetist who can play five types of clarinets, as he did in a Willamette Valley Chamber Music Festival gig in 2021 playing by Osvaldo Golijov The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind. Do not isolate shields; each Fear No Music musician, several of whom play with the Oregon Symphonyis superb and dedicated to bringing new music, often never-heard-before tracks, to the world.

Clarinetist James Shields performs Jiyoun Chung "Freestyle Battle" at Fear No Music "Asian resilience and joy" concert at The Old Church, May 9, 2022. Photo courtesy of FNM.
Clarinetist James Shields performs Jiyoun Chung’s ‘Freestyle Battle’ during Fear No Music’s ‘Asian Resilience and Joy’ concert at The Old Church on May 9, 2022. Photo courtesy of FNM.

Other work included At Ke-Chia Chen’s fanciful in four movements Taiwanese children’s games (performed by pianists Ohuchi and Jeff Payne at the same piano) and Chinese composer at Wuman Glimpses of Muqam Chebiyatwho fused traditional pipa influences with Western motifs – among others (this stuff is complicated!) Pianist Payne played Dai by Fujikara Akiko’s piano, a touching 4-minute piece centered on a Baldwin piano that survived the Hiroshima atomic bomb and its 19-year-old player who didn’t. As Fujikara wrote, “There must be stories like that 19-year-old girl in every war in history and in every country in the world. Every war will have had an ‘Akiko’.

Let’s hope FNM continues for at least another 30 years, bringing us cutting-edge contemporary music and giving us the courage to present us with tracks as wildly offbeat as Well-groomedanimated with a single snare drum, a beater, a comb and a credit card.

This concert, available live online on May 23, was sponsored by Oregon rises above hate, Anne Naito-Campbell and Ronni Lacroute.

Lyle L. Maltby