Composer Christopher Corbell

A composer pushes for less Beethoven and more experimentation—and stirs tension in the indie-classical scene.


Classical Revolution PDX

Nowadays, you might still get some scrappy Beethoven, but you're as likely to hear original music: minimalist chamber compositions, solo saxophone sound sculptures, or impressionist evocations of Portland neighborhoods. And instead of the charismatic Kaiser, you might hear a few soft-spoken announcements by her successor, Christopher Corbell, a composer who's leading CRPDX through an occasionally turbulent time—several board members departed last year—as it transitions from Bach-with-beer amateur nights to a vital spawning ground for new sounds.

Corbell, a 46-year-old with black polish on his finger nails and a crow tattoo on his right forearm, is a Nashville native, self-taught guitarist, conservatory dropout and one-time New Orleans street busker who moved to Portland in 2000. While raising his daughter here, he sat in with several bands and formed his own trio, performing what he calls "Gen-X troubadour-style music." But a few years ago, he started thinking beyond that.

"I wanted to delve back into a musical form that's more fractal than pop forms," Corbell says. "I'd had this fantasy of composing an opera, so I needed to get into these classical techniques and learn how to work with classical musicians and singers."

Volunteering with CRPDX—which in 2010 was still finding its footing in the city's small indie-classical scene—provided a way. "Coming to it as a classical outsider, it was so refreshing to work with these great players," Corbell says. When Kaiser departed for New York City last year, she offered Corbell the executive director position.

He encouraged musicians to bring in more unconventional music, including their own compositions. The result: Each jam was less a museum of amateurishly played oldies and more a source of original sounds. "I'm not certain the demographic is younger, but I'm certain it's weirder," Corbell says. "More Portland, more diverse, less fresh-from-conservatory-mingling-with-wealthy-hobbyists. As a result, donations are down, but mojo and attendance are both up."

But it also led to friction. The pushback came to a head at a fraught board meeting last spring. "Our first name is 'classical,'" Corbell recalls one member saying. Several board members departed, and Corbell reconceived the organization as a hub of indie-classical spinoffs. 

This summer, he created a monthly salon separate from CRPDX called Muse:Forward that invites composers from other scenes—electronic, experimental, improvisational as well as classical—to showcase their work. That salon and CRPDX's new direction owe much to the anti-gatekeeper, open-source philosophy that Corbell, who makes his living as a software engineer, embraces. He continues to compose, and he's on course to complete stage an opera—based on a memoir by Viva Las Vegas, beloved local stripper—next year.

But he's already left his mark on the city's chamber and classical music scenes. "It's starting to feel like not the same old siloed scene," Corbell says, "but a place where different people can mix and incubate their ideas."

WWeek 2015

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