Bobby Priest, Claude Debussy, Gamelan, Highway 101, Jennifer Wright, Julie Lary, March Music Moderne, Music at the Speed of Sound, Music in the time of Absinthe, Portland, rajalary
In September, Rich was hired by Island Transit to drive a commuter bus on Whidbey Island. When he applied, the bus only ran during the work week, but in late January, Saturday service began.
To fill the “gap” left by Rich’s driving, he encouraged me to get involved in the community, and also plan mini trips to fill the time. Following his advice, I decided to venture down to Portland, OR to attend my cousin’s concert series March Music Moderne, visit grandchildren, and also save paying Washington sales tax on several items Rich wanted at Home Depot.
After asking for a Friday off, my next challenge was getting down to Portland during a work day. The answer came from an associate who recommended I take the Coupeville ferry to Port Townsend, at the tip of the Puget Sound and Pacific Ocean, and then drive down Highway 101. Even though the highway is mostly 2-lanes, it’s sporadically traveled, mostly by people who live in the tiny towns along the highway, and local delivery trucks. More importantly, it skirts over 60 miles of ceaseless congestion from Everett through Seattle, Tacoma, Lewis-McCord Air Force Base, and Olympia.
My trip began at 6:30 a.m. with Rich insisting I leave a little early to catch the ferry even though I had a reservation. I’m glad I did because the lanes filled up quickly. Usually, the first two or three lanes of cars and trucks are instructed to park on the lower deck, which means you get to debark the ferry sooner. Happily, I ended up in the middle of the ferry, which is always first to leave.
The ride from Coupeville to Port Townsend was a bit rocky, owing to the heavy wind. The magic of ferries is everyone is on the “same boat,” dispensing with formalities as strangers greet each other, commenting on the weather and their trip, getting food from the cafeteria or vending machines, or finding an empty booth to sit back and relax, catch a few “z’s,” read a book or fit several pieces into one of the many unfinished jigsaw puzzles on the ferry.
When the ferry reached Port Townsend, the wind was joined by light rain. Windshield wipers on, smart phone plugged in, and Google Maps “tuned” to Highway 101, I started driving. The west side of the Puget Sound is sparsely populated with a handful of tiny towns, the largest being Shelton with less than 10,000 residents. Other towns like Hoodsport have barely 375 residents.
Despite their small sizes, the towns along Highway 101 are quaint, catering to tourists with a breadth of activities from camping to kayaking, hiking, biking, sailing, fishing, scuba diving (in hope of spotting a giant octopus), attending music festivals, winetasting, and slurping oysters, fresh out of the Puget Sound. There are no big, fancy hotels. Just simple inns, Airbnb’s, and a few rustic resorts.
With several waterways and bays, and the Hood Canal, a 60-mile long glacier-carved fjord, to the east, life in the area centers around the ebbs and flow of the ocean. As you drive, you catch views of the sound, and then quite suddenly, you’re thrust in the drippy nearly million-acre Olympic National [rain]Forest. Much of the forest is to the west, extending across the peninsula. To give you an idea of its size, there are over 250 miles of walking trails in the Olympic National Park. It could take a year to explore every nock and cranny.
Within 20 minutes or so of driving through the drippage, I emerged from the forest and came upon Duckabush, a tiny town near the Duckabush River. The Duckabush comes from the Native American word do-hi-a-boos, meaning “reddish face.”
Along the Hood Canal are several Indian reservations, including Skokomish (big river people) and Kamilche Squaxin (people of the water). In 1854, the Squaxin Island, Nisqually and Puyallup Tribes were coerced into signing the Treaty of Medicine Creek, which ceded 2,560,000 acres (4,000 square miles) to the United States. The tribes were left with three small reserves, and a small, four and a half mile-long, and half-mile wide island, called Squaxin Island. Today, no one lives on the remote, wooded island.
After two hours of driving, I reach the outskirts of Olympia, and did a “happy dance.” If I hadn’t taken Highway 101, It could have taken over two hours just to drive through Seattle, and another two hours to Olympia. After a quick break at a truck stop, I had a nearly uneventful drive down Highway 5 to Portland. There was a 10-minute delay in the middle of “nowhere” due to a stalled car, which moments earlier had been towed off the freeway.
Most of the towns between Olympia and Vancouver, WA are small, rarely causing congestion unless there’s an accident.
As I approached Vancouver, WA I veered east, and took Interstate 205 across the Columbia River on the Glenn L. Jackson Memorial Bridge into Portland. I’ve always enjoyed driving over this bridge, which is a spacious 8-lanes across and 1.4 miles long with a beautiful view of the river and surrounding area below.
My first stop was Home Depot to pick up an electric garage door opener, which Rich had ordered in advance, along with several garden supplies. We save sales tax when we make purchases in Oregon.
I then headed to my hotel, which was near the Portland International Airport. I was thrilled that I could check-in early and change out of my driving clothes (athletic pants and several layers of shirts) into something more suitable for the rest of the day. Rested, I drove down to Sherwood to check on the house I inherited from my mother, now leased to a single mother and her two children.
I then backtracked to Tualatin to buy some “tax-free” craft supplies at Michael’s and food items at Fred Meyer’s for making pizza on Saturday and satiate the hunger in my tummy. I purchased from the deli counter a scrumptious wrap of turkey, provolone cheese, olive tapenade, and shredded lettuce. Some of the best (and most affordable) food can be found in grocery deli sections.
I then zipped onto the freeway and headed to Tigard to get gas, and also “kill time” at a giant Value Village. A couple hours later, I left with two pairs of jeans, two long-sleeve shirts, two short-sleeve shirts and three CDs. I vowed not to listen to the CDs until I made the trek back to Washington.
Leaving Value Village, I was hoping the rain had ceased, but it continued, just as it had since the start of my trip nearly 12 hours earlier. Highway 5 going south towards downtown Portland was bumper-to-bumper, but since the distances are much, much shorter in Portland than Seattle, I reached the Ross Island Bridge within half an hour.
You don’t realize the size of Seattle until you drive in their horrific traffic and barely move at 5 to 10 miles per hour. When I go into the office for my work, it takes me at least an hour and a half to go 14 miles from the Mukilteo ferry to Eastlake, north of downtown Seattle. It would take another twenty minutes or so to go a few more miles, deep into the heart of hellish South Lake Union and Seattle’s Central Business District.
Music at the Speed of Sound
As I crossed over the Ross Island Bridge (spans the Willamette River), I did my second “happy dance” of the day. Driving down Powell Boulevard at a signal-timed pace, I found the Music March Moderne venue, the Community Music Center, within 15 minutes. A historic, brick fire station, the center now provides music lessons, concerts, and instrument rentals.
Having arrived an hour early, I explored several of the neighborhoods. With blue-collar roots, the area now houses a variety of cultures and nationalities. The turn-of-the-century and mid-century houses are tightly wedged together on narrow, tree-lined streets, often in perfect perpendicular. When cars are parked on both sides of a street – as is the usual case with most of the houses having no garages or a very small one, barely large enough to accommodate a modern-day SUV – it’s necessary to pull to the side, allowing a vehicle in the opposite direction to pass.
Box stores — chain pharmacy, grocery and home improvement – are few and far-between, found only on main drags. In between are small businesses, the kind you’d walk to on a pleasant evening and spend your weekends frequenting. Being carless isn’t an issue when everything you need is a short jaunt or bus ride away.
These tight-knit neighborhoods are lush with plantings, sowed decades earlier. The houses are inviting with porches, and large front yards and paved walkways from the sidewalks to the front doors. Despite the age of the houses, they’re expensive, a hundred thousand less, and several hundred thousand more than Portland’s medium home value of $413,000.
In-between the older homes are new construction. I passed by several “compact” houses that are snuggled so tightly together, there’s no need to knock on your neighbor’s door to get sugar when you can pass it between the houses by leaning out a window. Listed for $524,950, they’re 1,615 square feet in size with 3 bedrooms, 2.1 baths, and no garage.
More traditional houses, like this one built in 1904, are more common. Even so a 2,548 square foot house with 3 bedrooms and 2 bathrooms, depending on condition, starts in the mid $400,000. A few blocks over, a 2,000 square foot house built in 1907 with just 1 bathroom and 3 bedrooms is $525,000. The updated kitchen, larger lot, and one-car garage probably pushed up the price.
After driving around for 20 minutes or so, finding street-side parking, and talking to Rich for 15 minutes, I decided to wander over to the Community Music Center, which was a hubbub of activity, 45-minutes before the concert. My cousin, Bobby Priest, was rushing around, checking details while musicians warmed up their instruments in practice halls.
Bobby is the grandson of my grandfather’s oldest sister Rose Ridnor who married Morris Blumberg, hence Morris and Rose Blumberg were his grandparents. My grandfather, Morris Ridnor, was the sixth child born to Samuel Ridnor. He too married a “Rose,” making my grandparent’s Morris and Rose Ridnor. I was the youngest great grandchild of Samuel and Celia “Wolfe” Ridnor and Bobby was one of the oldest.
As soon as Bobby was out of high school, he moved to Warsaw, Poland as a Fulbright scholar to study music composition. Many years later, he earned a Ph.D. in music composition from the University of Victoria, where he taught the world’s first college course on the music of Jimi Hendrix. He’s also the founder and artistic director of Marzena, March Music Moderne (MMM), Free Marz String Trio & Ear Trumpet.
This year’s MMM consisted of three concerts, a film, and several radio programs inspired by composer Claude Debussy, who passed away a 100 years ago at age 55. Debussy is associated with impressionist music, which breaks with traditional composition. He’s best known for Clair de Lune, Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (Afternoon of a Faun), Deux arabesques, and Reverie.
The concert I attended on Friday evening, titled, “Music at the Speed of Sound II, featured pieces by Debussy, along with composers who were influenced by Debussy, including Maurice Ravel and Igor Stravinsky. There were also pieces by several contemporary composers, who wrote in the style of Debussy.
My cousin Bobby wrote a piece called Shhh, Chouchou, Shhh in remembrance of Debussy’s daughter Claude-Emma, who was affectionately called Chouchou. She inspired his work, in particular Children’s Corner, written in 1908. A year after Debussy’s death, she passed away after a physician gave her the wrong treatment for diphtheria.
Here’s my recording of my cousin’s world premiere of Shhh, Chouchou, Shhh.
Robert McBride, the radio host of All Classical Portland for the past 17 years also composed a piece for the festival called “Mr. Quaver’s Slight Return” for viola and harp.
One of the hallmarks of March Music Moderne festivals – at least, divulged to me by the gentleman sitting next to me who’s attended several of them over the years – is the unexpected variety of compositions, music, readings, and performers. The Friday night concert was no exception with a reading by multi-disciplinary performer Anet Margo Ris of an excerpt from Hammerklavier, a collection of autobiographical sketches by Yasmina Reza, a French playwright, actress, novelists, and screenwriter.
Dances of the Bulls by Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer was a spirited arrangement for harp. The final piece of the evening was a sonata for flute, viola and harp written by Debussy in 1915. Debussy planned to write six sonatas but passed away in 1918 before he could finish the last three.
Having had a full day from leaving Coupeville at 6:00 in the morning to nibbling on French food, after the concert, I was happy to return to my motel room. Thankfully, it was a short jaunt to the motel, and I was safe-and-sound in bed by 11 p.m.
Babysitting Munchkins to Absinthe
Rich woke me at 6 a.m. on Saturday morning, since I needed to be in Camas, WA by 7 a.m. to babysit grandchildren, Coen (5) and Caitlyn (3). Their mother Shawnie is a nurse and works 12-hour shifts on weekends so she was long gone by the time I arrived. Their father, Chris, is usually home on weekends, but needed to work Saturday morning.
The kids were up within a few minutes of my arriving, and the four of us – Chris, Coen, Caitlyn, and myself –chatted for a few minutes before Chris headed out the door. For the next few hours, the kids and I read books, did art projects, built castles, played with trains, had fun with their Leapfrog LeapStart, and talked about their friends in preschool.
It’s always fun to spend time with Coen and Caitlyn and marvel at their development. In September, Coen will be in kindergarten. Caitlyn has another year of pre-school but is probably smart and mature enough to also start kindergarten in the fall.
Around noon, Chris returned with Mexican take-out food, and the news that his step-sister’s family, who live a few miles away in Vancouver, WA, would be joining us for lunch. I was super excited to see them since they had an adorable baby girl, Maisie, on February 1st. She weighed less than five pounds when born but was 100% healthy with a thick head of hair, sparkling eyes, and a cute smile. Less than two months old, Maisie, had finally reached the weight of a usual full-term baby, 8 whooping pounds.
Maisie was so much fun to hold!
Also joining us for lunch was Maisie’s parents Bryan and Chiemi, and her sweet, nearly 3-year old big brother, Sawyer. Check out the pictures.
After lunch and visiting for a while, it was time for a nap. Bryan, Chiemi, Sawyer, and Maisie went back to Vancouver, Chris, Coen, and Caitlyn went upstairs, and I bid everyone adieu, sliding into the front seat of my car for the trip back to my motel room.
Feeling a bit tired with itchy eyes, I decided to find a pharmacy or grocery store where I could get some eye drops and vitamin C. My motel was off N.E. Killingsworth Street, which turns into N.E. Sandy Boulevard in the Parkrose neighborhood. Historically, it’s been a blue-collar area with lots of manufacturing, distribution, and warehouse facilities due to its proximity to the airport, freight rail lines, and Highway 205. Nevertheless, I thought I’d only need to drive a few blocks to find a pharmacy.
I was in for a surprise.
I drove for miles past empty shops, strip joints, small automotive and parts shops, car lots with late model cars and trucks, mini strip malls partially filled with small restaurants, cigarette and vape shops, marijuana dispensaries, furniture and electronic rental stores, and nail and hair salons, run-down one-story motels (probably available by the hour), and lots of abandoned or possibly occupied cars and RVs on countless vacant lots. Considering N.E. Sandy is a main road, it was surprisingly empty on a Saturday afternoon.
After driving for what felt like half an hour, I came across a Kmart/Sears Outlet, partially surrounded by fencing, which made me believe is was empty. However, I saw someone walking towards the store, so I decided to investigate. Indeed, it was open despite having less than ten cars parked near the entrance.
The destitution of the parking lot was echoed inside with sparsely stocked shelves, often with only a box or two of an item, and limited selection. Happily, they had a few boxes of eyedrops of one brand. The vitamin section was depleted. No vitamin C’s or other cold-fighting medicines like Airborne. I settled for a bag of Halls Vitamin C lozenges.
Large areas of the store had no shelving or display units. There was so much empty floor space, you could have driven a car through the store and not hit anything. After grabbing a few more items, including microwavable macaroni & cheese (comfort food), I headed for the register. On the way, I passed a teeny, gray-haired woman who was looking down the aisles. I can only imagine what she was thinking, perhaps recalling when the store was bustling with shoppers, and the shelves, racks and displays brimming with merchandise. No doubt, she lives in a humble house, and depends on Kmart for much of what she purchases. What was once a pillar of the community, and major employer is dwindling towards permanently locking its doors.
Distraught by the poverty and hopelessness along N.E. Sandy Boulevard, I did some research. In the 1970’s, the poverty rate in the area was 10%.1 By 2010, it reached 30%. Today, one in three residents in Multnomah County, which encompasses Portland and the metropolitan area, don’t have enough income to meet their basic needs. Within this group, 123,434 people (17% of the county’s population) meet the federal definition of poverty, and 7% live in deep poverty, as defined by incomes below 50% of the Federal Poverty Level.
In the past two decades, the number of people living in poverty has increased at a much higher rate than the growth of the county’s population. The increase in poverty is attributed to a decline in family-wage jobs, increased economic inequality, impact of the recession, and erosion of social safety nets.
When Rich and I lived in Oregon, we were aware of the poverty in Portland. But at the time, it was confined to certain parts of Portland. Today, it’s widespread and heartbreaking to think in a progressive town like Portland, the gap between the rich and the poor has dramatically widened with people working in high technology, finance, healthcare, apparel (Nike), and legal fields immune to the drop in blue collar jobs, coupled with stagnant wages in most working-class industries.
I was relieved to get back to my motel room, where I could unwind for a few hours before the Saturday evening concert, Music in the Time of Absinthe. While the concert hall was packed on Friday night, every seat was taken on Saturday with people standing along the sides and back, and sitting in the aisles.
The stage was filled with unique instruments, which I later learned were gamelan, an ensemble of percussion instruments from Java and Bali in Indonesia. Claude Debussy had been inspired after hearing gamelan, which is why they played a role in the concert. More about gamelan in a little bit…
Also on the stage was a grand piano, an ornate child’s piano, and unique bells, drums, and other percussion instruments. In front of the stage was two large harpsichords, along with music stands and chairs.
Paul Roberts, a pianist, writer, lecturer, artistic director at Music at Albignac in France, and leading authority on the music of Debussy and Ravel, talked about the three Debussy pieces he was going to play. La Cathedrale engloutie was based on a Breton (Celtic language spoken in Brittany, France) legend of a sunken cathedral, that rises from the sea on fair mornings. If you close your eyes, you can hear the tolling church bells, chanting priests, and pipe organ.
Influenced by the street performers in England, Debussy wrote Minstrels. Roberts also played Debussy’s most famous piece Clair de lune, which always makes me cry because it’s so beautiful, and even more moving when played a few rows away by a renowned concert pianist.
The next piece, Absinthe Minded, was written by Linda Woody for the festival. It featured a flute, viola, and harp, and was dreamy, invoking a trendy Parisian bar with men in top hats and silken vests, and women in skimpy dresses, slim cigarette holders loosely held in their manicured hands, sipping the green fairy.
Unbeknownst to me, music can be rewritten so it can be performed with other instruments, such as Debussy’s Arabesque No. 1, written for the piano, and played by The Quadraphonnes, a saxophone quartet of four women. And because my understanding of music is darn close to zero, I didn’t realize that there are various types of saxophones.
The Quadraphonnes played three pieces using soprano/alto, tenor, and baritone saxophones. The pieces were fun because the tones emanating from saxophones is very different than violins, viola, and cello for which the piece was originally written. Here’s the piece they played – String Quartet, Opus 10 – as played by a traditional quartet.
Super accomplished pianist, teacher, composer, product, and graphic artist Jennifer Wright wrote the piece, Relatively Minor Infraction, for the festival. Wright played the harpsichord and auxiliary percussion along with Evan C. Paul on the harpsichord, and Patrick McCulley on the baritone saxophone (listen to his original compositions, such as Buffalo Bill’s Defunct).
It’s hard to describe Relatively Minor Infraction, which included sharp notes on the sax, lyrical melodies on the harpsichords, unusual dinging, donging, clanging, and sassy ruckus.
Wright also wrote the last piece of the evening, Flora, Fauna, Humans, Gods, which featured her playing a modified toy piano along with The Venerable Showers of Beauty Gamelan Orchestra. This was a lovely piece that ignited every cell in my body. The toy piano makes a lovely pinging sound, which is complemented by the gamelan.
Here’s Wright’s unexpected piece, Women’s Work, which features one of her toy pianos along with a typewriter.
Towards the end of the evening, the gamelan orchestra performed. The ensemble consisted of a dozen players, versed in playing multiple instruments. The performers sit on the floor on cushions, and primarily use mallets and their hands to strike the instruments. Gamelan is rhythmic, soothing, intriguing, and engaging. It’s like a giant music box with colorful instruments and musicians instead of a twirling ballerina. Check out this video.
The gamelan that was used for the concert was sourced by Lewis & Clark College ethnomusicologist and composer from a village near Semarang, Central Java, Indonesia. The instruments were constructed around 1880 for a wealthy Chinese Indonesian family.
Debussy was introduced to gamelan music in 1889 at the Exposition Universelle (World Fair) in Paris and wrote of the experience, “… there still are, despite the evils in civilization, some delightful native peoples for whom music is as natural as breathing… And if we listen without European prejudice to the chart of their percussion, we must confess that our percussion is like primitive noises at a country fair.”
The Venerable Showers of Beauty Gamelan Orchestra honored Debussy’s adoration for gamelan by playing a traditional piece called Ladrang Sri Karongron, laras slendro pathet sanga. “Landrang is a form that cycles 32 beats per stroke of the big gong. “Laras slendro” refers to the Indonesian “slendro” scale, which divides an octave into five approximately equidistant tones. “Pathet sanga” denotes which notes are favored as the tonal center (in sanga, note 5), and which notes will be used less frequently. I have no idea what that means, I simply copied it from the program.
After a truly delightful evening of music, I headed back to my motel, had a great night’s sleep, and was crossing over the Columbia River by 8:15 the next morning. Happily, the rain ceased half an hour outside Portland, and resolved into clear, blue skies. Two hours later, I was outside Olympia, at the Clinton ferry terminal by noon, and home a little after 1 o’clock.
A few hours later, Rich and I took a lengthy walk around Penn Cove and downtown Coupeville. It was the perfect ending to a memorable three-day trip, filled with music, family, and picturesque scenery.
1 Poverty in Multnomah Country, Multnomah County, Department of County Human Services, Community Services Division, Kristina Smock Consulting, April 2014, http://www.oregonlive.com/portland/index.ssf/2014/06/poverty_in_multnomah_county_a.html
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