Early on in our conversation, Bob Priest, the curator behind March Music Moderne, a monthlong celebration of 20th and 21st century sounds, started to quiz me on what spawned my interest in modern classical and experimental music.
I cited the Stanley Kubrick classic 2001: A Space Odyssey, a film that famously featured the opening of Richard Strauss' Also sprach Zarathustra, and the somewhat terrifying dissonance of Gyorgy Ligeti's Atmospheres and Lux Aeterna.
"Me too!" Priest explodes joyfully over the phone. "I saw that movie at a Cinerama theater in 1968 and was absolutely blown away by what I was hearing."
The film sent us both off on our individual journeys into the world of modern and experimental classical music. But whereas I have only ever approached it from the view of a curiosity seeker, Priest has followed the thread into a long, fruitful career. It led him to Paris in 1976 where he studied composition with Olivier Messiaen and then to Warsaw to work with composer Witold Lutoslawski. From there, he helped found two performance ensembles, Marzena and the Free Marz Trio, and for five years was the creative director for the Seattle Spring Festival of Contemporary Music & World Arts.
The path of Priest's life as a music lover and performer (the guitar being his chosen instrument) has taken him here to Portland where, since 2011, he has wrapped up a series of classical, experimental, world music, and jazz events and performers under the umbrella of March Music Moderne.
"The idea is to try and cross fertilize each other's audiences," he says in reference to various ensembles playing as part of this year's MMM. "From the well-heeled like the Oregon Symphony to the shoestrung organizations like Classical Revolution PDX. We want to introduce our respective audiences to what each of is doing. Get our music to more ears and more butts in seats."
Certainly, even if you have a passing interest in modern music of some stripe there will be something for you to enjoy. For the classical enthusiasts, there is a four night stand by the Jerusalem String Quartet playing all of the quartets written by Dmitri Shostakovich. Fans of world music will thrill at the Javanese gamelan performance by Venerable Showers of Beauty or the flute and koto duets by Tessa Brinckman and Mitsuki Dazai. And the evening of work by local pianist Gordon Lee, as well as the strange big band interpretations by the PDX Jazz Composers Ensemble are must-see concerts for local jazzbos. [For more suggestions, check out my Top Five Must-See Acts from the print edition.]
While the scattershot nature of all the performances this month plays well into Priest's cross-pollination hopes, there is some connecting tissue to the MMM, with some events falling under this rough rubric.
Closest to Priest's heart is a 100th birthday celebration for his former teacher Lutoslawski, who will have some of his work performed on the first two nights of the festival. But one of the more exciting prospects is another birthday celebration for former L.A. Symphony conductor and composer Esa-Pekka Salonen.
"He's such a huge force in all of our lives," Priest says. "And he's such a huge new music advocate."
Priest encouraged some of the participants to take on some of Salonen's compositions, including the string quartet Homunculus (which will be taken on by the Arnica String Quartet) and a solo flute piece that Brinckman will include in her set.
This Salonen celebration also has a bit of a ulterior motive, says Priest. "We're hoping to build a relationship with him and then invite him to Portland as a composer in residence for one of our March Music Modernes. The earliest he might be able to come is 2016."
Priest has plenty of other plans for the future of the event, from a centennial celebration of Portland-born composer Lou Harrison in 2017 to a deeper look at the work of Dutch pianist/composer Louis Andriessen.
"I'd like to think that this is going to become a destination for music lovers," he says. "It's already one of the biggest new music festivals going, but Portland, this global village...this is the place to be!"