Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Magic at the Aladdin

A gray Friday afternoon—too chilly for May it seems, & the afternoon has opened up to a real driving rain—not the persistent drizzle for which Portland is known. The cool air takes my breath away as I hustle between buildings at OHSU, trying to avoid the downpour & get under cover after my weekly appointment; meanwhile, planning my route home, hoping to avoid this soaking rain as much as possible.

But it lets up by the time I’m waiting for the MAX train by PSU, & I take my usual springtime route, walking home from the Overlook Park station in a light drizzle—the rush hour traffic roaring under the Failing Street bridge, the air still cold & wet in a way that causes my lungs to balk.

I have a ticket for the Zoë Keating show at the Aladdin Theater over in the southeast—a show that’s excited me since I first found out about it on the internet a couple of months ago. But by 4:30 there’s another hard rain, & I know there’s going to be walking & standing out waiting for buses, so this weather has to calm down within the next hour or so.

Which it does. I wait for the bus in a light drizzle; by the time the #9 bus has dropped me at the corner of SE Milwaukie & Powell, the rain has stopped, & since I’m early, I talk a walk thru the Brooklyn neighborhood, a quiet corner of the southeast just barely removed from the bustle of Powell: gardens, a little league ballfield, a neighborhood tavern, an old Hires root beer sign in a parking lot. For the first time in a few days, I begin to feel something like contentment.

The concert itself is a revelation. The Aladdin is a large & beautiful old theater, opened as a vaudeville house in the 1920s, then later as a movie theater—at times with a rather unsavory reputation. Now it’s back to its old glory as a live music venue.

The first act, FearNoMusic is an avant-garde string quartet that also brings in a percussionist for one song & a pianist for another. The song involving the pianist is the third in their set, a duet between piano & the first violinist, the piece by a Japanese minimalist composer; the impossibly keening tone of the violin over the rippling piano arpeggios draws me in, & from that moment on the concert transports me.

Zoë Keating herself is everything I expected & more. If you’re not familiar with her work, I did review her album Into the Trees a while back; briefly, Ms Keating is a classically trained cellist who uses looping technology to deploy a virtual cello orchestra when performing her intricate & moving compositions. Self-effacing onstage, she explains that she suffered from severe stage fright as a teenager, & it wasn’t until she got “off the page”—composing her own music without the need to use a score—that she was able to get beyond this. When a song crashes, she handles it with aplomb, & with genuine emotion—“damn,” she exclaims as she cuts the loop feed from her foot strip; then she plays one of her compositions with FearNoMusic, & takes us all back into the deep & complex soundscape. Her announced last song, “Optimist,” a composition dedicated to her young son, brings a rousing ovation, & she returns to absolutely nail “Exurgency,” the piece during which she & her technology had come uncoupled earlier.  All in all, it was an evening of transcendent music.

By the time I wait for the bus on Powell, there’s not even a hint of rain—I feel like for once I somehow beat the odds & discovered beauty.



  1. I must have missed your earlier post on her. Listening to this was incredible; I love how she uses the looping technology. I can imagine how much more wonderful it was to hear her play live, even with the technical glitches.

    1. Hi HKatz: Very wonderful! & the one technical glitch shouldn't be over-emphasized, which perhaps I did in writing the post as I did. Yes, if she plays near you, I'd definitely recommend going to hear her!

  2. So beautiful and moving. The way she interacts with her instrument is mesmerizing.

  3. Great post. Fear No Music is a great name. Can't remember listening to ZK before (I'm listening now). I'm surprised this way of making music appeals to one prone to stage fright. Any mash ups would get repeated and multiplied! However, I can sympathise: I much prefer writing music to performing it.

    1. Hi Dominic: I think you would have loved this show. I believe she is going to be in the UK this summer, so you might be on the lookout. & yes, you have a point about the variety of things that can go wrong playing in this manner, starting with the most mundane, as in computer crashes--which she says used to happen fairly regularly, but now with faster processors are quite rare. But I know she also has a tech background, & so is clearly comfortable with that aspect.


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