The fourth annual Quiet Music Festival hosted by Disjecta, curated by Chris Johanson, softened hearts and ears last Friday and Saturday (June 27-28). Surrounding a stage only two feet above the concrete floor are layers of pads, blankets and pillows, accommodating an audience of roughly one hundred, which may have swelled up to almost two hundred, on Friday night. Children with hip parents populated the inner circle, because those are the ones who plan ahead.
Part of my experience centers around a personal duty to photo and tweet every act. This became an example of how the quiet music intention changes dynamics as a whole. One antithesis event that I have covered is SXSW. It provides journalists an area for the first fifteen minutes of a performance to get up close and rattle shutters. But here, no such media blitz can be seen. In fact, I felt obtrusive crawling quietly on the floor to get close up shots. Standing stage side with my glowing iPhone screen was socially unacceptable. I felt obtrusive just tweeting. The event feels human. People are mindful. For attendees, it is a welcome break from the cliché of loud and obnoxious music festivals.
Jonathan Sieloff’s opening solo was the sonic ground from which the range of talent pivots. His work is basically half of Golden Retriever (Portland’s avant-garde gatekeepers) with that bass clarinet tethered to soothing effects and looping counterpoint. A mix of acoustic and electronic—yet all of it quiet—defines the QMF experience. Christine Shield’s acoustic set, voice with ukulele and guitar was fun and I recall enjoying it, but nothing stands out anymore—its not my thing, I guess. Neal Morgan+Pulse Emitter was my highlight, my headliner for the night. Pulse Emitter has evolved over the years, his sounds are more nuanced and gentle. He brought his full modular synthesizer system for this one, something he has all but replaced with keyboards in recent years. Morgan quietly tapped on his complete kit with massive cymbals, fitting right in to the middle of all that modular tone.
The vonTrapps jumped in for a 3-song acappella that shook up expectations. They are fine singers. I like instrumental music the most but the undeniable human spirit that works through voice is touching to the heart. When it comes to lyrics, I tend to hear timber and emotion within the voice, so words don’t set in for me right away, unless that unique strike occurs which brings all things together.
On Friday, I missed only Mark Eitzel and Marisa Anderson. I have only seen Anderson once (not counting Evolutionary Jass Band) and that was at Ham & Eggs in Los Angeles, last year. She is from Portland, ironically. But there and then she displayed mastery of the solo acoustic guitar with her folk-blues-like style and soft touch; no 12-bar obviousness or misplaced field songs.
I caught everything on Saturday. Sally Timms was backed by the Sun Foot band, featuring Johanson himself, Sam Coomes (Quasi), and QMF veteran Brian Mumford (Dragging an Ox Though Water). Timms’ passionate vocal performance and long career helped her stand out as a headliner. From Leeds, England, fans welcomed her presence. She rolled with her sometimes out-of-step back up band well and they managed to hit some choice, psychedelic moments, keeping enticingly angular and forward music together most of the time.
Sun Foot took the reigns by opening the show on Saturday. They were cute. Chelsea Rector was a little drab as a performer, but sometimes funny. Her stage time lasted exactly as long as it needed to. I enjoyed Hush Arbors. His singer-songwriter styling was not always original, but his personality was pleasant and perfectly matched for the room as he humbly strummed his tunes. The electronic-oriented performance of Tujurikkuja was nap inducing. The fellow right behind me snored through the final, increasingly quiet set at the end of Saturday. They dimmed the stage lights while audience members voluntarily switched off their lamps. It was soothing. It could be a drone but it didn’t suck you in the undertow. It could be glitchy but was never jarring, always soothing.
Two gallery exhibitions are also up at Disjecta and were open throughout the festival. In the main room, by the beer, a mix of strange cartoons and geometry, black on light color paper and faded pastels across three walls were presented by William Keihn, for an exhibition titled “The Poster is the Show.” The antithesis to the standard concert poster, much like QMF, these pieces are generally subdued, abstract forms and texture. Event posters, especially generic club shows, pop out immediately on the street but leave nothing to look at after first glance. These posters did the opposite. For that, I enjoyed it.
My personal bias against volume is perfectly in line with this festival. I am truly tired of going to simple dive bars and lounges and feeling blasted, not only by live music, but also the bartender’s iPod mix. Less art on the walls these days as televisions become standard. This idea that louder is better has become prevalent and permeates everywhere, to the extent that you cannot escape it at all if you’re participating with urban nightlife. I have grown nostalgic for lower-wattage p.a. systems and often marvel at the idea that early nightclubs, like the ones Miles Davis and Thelonius Monk played, were not even amplified. That sounds marvelous to me. So an event that is amplified, involves electronic and rock music artists but sets the intention, and the audience agrees with that intention of shutting up and enjoying the sounds, is pretty well aligned to my bias.
What did not align with me points toward my deep craving for diversity. In Los Angeles, a place that I called home long before Portland, you cannot avoid diversity. If you are a millionaire, there is a good chance you have a blue-collar Hispanic neighbor or African-American teacher, educating your children. This trend extends in to the art scene. At this festival, in Portland, the audience is alarmingly and un-apologetically white dominated. I do not understand why quirky white indie songwriters are picked above a city full of talented hip-hop artists—especially at a venue in Kenton. If rock musicians on stage and children in the audience could tone it down, surely hip-hop artists would rise to the occasion. I do not understand why there is no jazz, because it is not just about ethnic diversity, it is about diversity in sound. There could be a Brazilian guitarist. There could be a Russian flugelhornist. Anything else.
Let us admit this; this art scene insulates itself as much any American suburb (certainly more than Gresham). However, I admit to falling in to this category, and personally have made no proper effort to push myself in to other territory, so I had a great time at the Quiet Music Festival. It was my first time and I would go again. And I would recommend it to any music lover, anywhere.