Saturday, April 29, 2017


You won't get much blogging from me for the next couple of days as I will be traveling and recovering from traveling. After that, though, posting should be pretty frequent. But I did just run across something that struck a few resonances with me. The Wall Street Journal today has one of their travel pieces, this one titled "How to Spend a Perfect Long Weekend in Portland." Sample:
BEFORE PORTLAND, ORE., established itself as a hipster utopia and beleaguered punch line—a land of vegan tattoos, fastidious food-truck chefs and all things crafty and pickled—visitors were already taken with its abundant natural attributes. The Willamette River divides the city, forest trails wind throughout it, and Mount Hood and the coast each sit just over an hour’s drive away. A cleverly planned long weekend in Portland will tap both aspects: sampling urban obsessiveness and the abundant verdure of the Pacific Northwest.
You should especially look at all the photos that accompany the article, like this one:

Let me hasten to say that I have never been to Portland so what I am really going to critique is just the image of the city represented by the article. I also know quite a few really lovely people from the area. But what resonates is how very much Portland seems to resemble a place I was very familiar with: Victoria, British Columbia, something of a Canadian Portland with its own very similar natural beauty and cultural amenities. The same kind of rustic hipster vibe seems to emanate from both. Must be a Pacific Northwest thing.

So what do I think? I would really, really hate to spend any time there. Why? For me, all the cultural values are wrong--and likely false. These places reveal an emptiness in our culture precisely because they seem to enshrine a kind of secular paradise.

Now there is nothing wrong with any individual element: natural beauty in the form of gardens, forests, mountains and oceans (in the case of Victoria, if not Portland) is a Good. So are things like locally-sourced gourmet foods, craft breweries, cycling around town, shopping for all sorts of odd things and so on. Portland also has a very large and famous bookstore, Powell's.

What I want to point out is what is missing. This is hard to do without sounding like a snob, but here goes. Apart from that bookstore (which I haven't visited so cannot comment on), there really doesn't seem to be any actual culture here. By culture, I mean "high culture". Of course, they don't want any of that stuffy crap. That's why they are hitting the craft brewery tasting rooms, the gourmet locally-sourced donut shops and cycling around town to the vegan mini-mall. I know this culture quite well. Just look at that photo of the craft brewery tasting room. Everyone is relaxed, laid-back, casual, just enjoying life. A life entirely free of anything challenging or intellectual or genuinely aesthetic. This might seem a low blow, but c'mon, these people have absolutely no idea how to dress, but they are likely quite smug about it! They're hicks in logger shirts thinking they are sophisticates. That room is like an empty warehouse with no aesthetic pretensions whatsoever.

The last photo in the WSJ photo gallery on Portland is what really clinches my argument: it is of the Arlene Schneitzer Concert Hall, a renovated 1927 theater. So what cultural events are presented there? Here is the list from now until October. Standup comedians like Patton Oswalt and Jerry Seinfeld, progressive activists like Shaun King, popular musicians like Lyle Lovett and Bryan Ferry, crossover artists like the Piano Guys. And in all that long, long season there is one and only one classical music concert: the Portland Youth Philharmonic. This gives us a pretty good insight into the cultural values of Portland. They like entertainment like popular music and comedy, they like some crossover because that is, again, popular entertainment, they like social activists and they are willing to tolerate a bit of classical music if the justification is education and "for the children." All of this is flattering to the attendees, both culturally and morally, while demanding absolutely nothing from them. It's kind of like a cultural craft brewery tasting hall, all hoppy and vacant.

Isn't all this perfectly and absolutely vacuous and banal? Well, not if you have never known anything different, no. And that's the problem. This is a lovely and paradisiacal environment where no-one is consciously aware of what they are lacking. Any curmudgeonly bitching about the programs at the concert hall such as I have just engaged in is going to be greeted by simple puzzlement or outright denial.

What I believe is that the beauty and consolation of art must always be earned. You can't just suck it up like craft beer. In music, beauty, without the fraught journey towards beauty, is just melodrama and kitsch. Everything worthwhile has to be earned.

Let's see if we can find an envoi that illustrates this, sonically. Here is a challenging symphony by the Swedish composer Allan Pettersson, this is the Symphony No. 7 with the Stockholm Philharmonic conducted by Antal Doráti:


Marc Puckett said...

Oh my. Portland is also the city where a couple of anonymous emails can force the cancellation of a public event because, horror of horrors, members of the GOP were to have participated in it and of course the right-thinking can't have that. (There are also several other music ensembles in Portland, beyond the Oregon Symphony, whose home the Schnitzer is, Cappella Romana and Portland Baroque Orchestra coming immediately to mind. But your point isn't that there is not enough music available.)

Augustin Hadelich, Garrick Ohlsson, your favorite Yuja Wang, Joshua Bell, André Watts, the St Lawrence String Quartet, Kirill Gerstein-- the upcoming Oregon Symphony season at the Schnitzer features a number of wonderful programs, I think (although the ratio between serious classical music and pop up there is worse than here in Eugene, probably because the concerts in total are fewer here than there): but largely I agree with the cultural criticism you make, of course. You hit the nail on the head: the understated piercings-cum-flannel shirt brigade show up at the Hult (Eugene's counterpart to the Schnitzer)-- although in my experience they put aside the flannel if not the piercings-- to be entertained and because there is an aura of adulthood settled over the venue, the music in itself being a secondary concern. While I'm glad they come-- they support the Symphony financially & are generally quite conscientious about turning off their electronic devices & not talking during the performances (taking care in the unusual surroundings, I'd imagine-- they are nice people, after all)-- I don't delude myself into thinking that those folks care much about Beethoven or Bach or Bieber, or the more contemporary composers, either, for that matter.

(Eugene Symphony has a new MD/conductor just the other day, the kalends of July officially: Francesco Lecce-Chong. We shall see.)

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks, Marc, for fleshing out the picture for us. Yes, the season showing now is actually the "off season" and the serious programming falls between October and May. I also should mention that Oregon is home to the Bach Festival in Eugene, as you mention, and the Shakespeare Festival in Ashland. But thanks also for acknowledging my point.

Marc Puckett said...

I see I wrote 'Bieber', tsk. :-)

Bryan Townsend said...

But you meant "Heinrich Biber" of course!

Will Wilkin said...

Biber: one of my very favorites! I hack away at his violin sonata #2 a few times a week. Maybe in 10 years I'll make it sound like the most gorgeous music I know it is!

And Bryan, I instantly understand your critique of the secular paradise. What I'm about to say might make me seem sexist, but at the end I'll explain why that is not the case. But at this point, let's just say I understand your critique of the spiritually and intellectually void spaces where consumerism and light pleasures dominate. The fact that I think like you is probably why I can't get a date! Virtually all the women my age (and younger I'm sure) who I meet on dating sites (or just read their self-descriptions) tend not to know anything about classical music or opera and have zero interest in discovering it. And the Portland you describe seems the perfect place to go with the one I lost a year ago, she who knows all the brands and all the restaurant trends and made 5+ x my income, but eventually made comments she's "just ordinary" to express her indifference when I would describe the Biber sonata I'm trying to learn!

But not sexist. After all, besides you as my internet friend, I have only 1 real friend who loves classical music (and even made copies for me of the Biber discs I don't have). So the monastic solution is, culturally at least, where I am headed. Though I won't give up the search for the right woman to take there with me!

Bryan Townsend said...

Yes, Biber is one composer who should not be as neglected as he is!

I may have a problem similar to yours! It is difficult for me to find the right partner where I live as well. It might be that very, very few women have similar levels of education, but perhaps not. If I were still on a university campus I might have a rather different problem that my views might be at odds with the prevailing ones. But perhaps not again, as I suspect that most people on campus probably do not share the views of the noisy extremists. In actuality, the real problem is likely that I missed my opportunity to find a suitable life partner during my 20s and 30s because I was entirely devoted to my music career and really had little left over to devote to building a relationship. And now, it is rather hard to make up for that!

Will Wilkin said...

Yesterday was my 2-year anniversary trying teach myself violin. I expect it will start to sound like music within the next few years. Meanwhile, Bryan, please don't pop my bubble: I am sure women LOVE musicians....

Bryan Townsend said...

Congratulations! I strongly recommend taking some lessons with a good teacher--it can save you years of doing things the wrong way. So much of instrumental technique is not written down! Yes, women do love musicians. I knew (and went out with) a girl in first year university who only went out with guitarists. But she went out with all the guitarists...