It started as a typical internet flame war. Writer criticizes something. Target reacts with inflammatory defensiveness. Comment thread explodes, grows simultaneously nastier and less relevant to the original subject. Site moderator cuts off comments to avoid alienating disgusted readers.
Pretty much par for the online world these days—but not in the cloistered confines of classical music.
That changed in 2015, when Tristan Bliss, a Western Oregon University student and composer, sparked the tempest in an antique teapot, calling out local chamber music ensemble 45th Parallel for continuing to present, in his words, "the same old shit."
"Why would those institutions change a system they're benefiting from? Why would they stop throwing concerts of dead composers' music when they can sell the same stodgy audience members tickets season after season?" Bliss wrote for Oregon ArtsWatch. (Full disclosure: Brett Campbell contributes to the site.) "I don't know, but I have an answer for why they should: They're killing the tradition they claim to love."
"I got a lot of pushback from people frustrated that I used the review format as a way to explore and comment on larger issues in the classical music world," says Bliss, 23, whose own compositions are influenced by everything from modernist avant-garde music to metal. "The classical music world is uninviting to people that don't have an in into that culture, who weren't raised in it, and don't have a reason to be there. That's a hindrance to it growing."
A bit chagrined at the intemperate course the comments had taken, 45th Parallel artistic director Greg Ewer issued a challenge. What, he asked, would a 45th Parallel show look like if Bliss were in charge?
The two decided to collaborate. The upcoming Classical Crossroads program will include new music by young composers from Portland and Eugene, as well music by composers who are very much still alive: Chen Yi's 9/11 response, "Burning," John Zorn's cartoon-inspired "Cat o' Nine Tails," and even an arrangement of Guns N' Roses' "Sweet Child o' Mine." The centerpiece, though, is Bliss' own aptly named "Requiem for a Tradition," which quotes from famous classical themes, then manipulates those melodies in modern ways.
"I wrote the opening after the commission challenge came up," Bliss says. "It was meant to be a 'fuck you' to the classical tradition—distorting these beloved heirlooms. The overall structure is an attempt to move through different eras of music history and use those recognizable things to create a new and unrecognizable thing. I'm not saying any of that music doesn't have value. It's just that the world has changed wildly since those pieces were written, so the way we interact with them needs to change."
The way Bliss and Ewer—two musicians from different generations—resolved their conflict suggests that maybe such change is actually possible. And maybe beyond the cozy classical music world, too.
"We have a really good relationship now, which is a really interesting and cool development," Bliss says of his former antagonist. "It's worked out way better than I ever imagined."
SEE IT: 45th Parallel presents Classical Crossroads at Artists Repertory Theatre, 1516 SW Alder St., on Wednesday, March 29. 7:30 pm. $10-$25. All ages.