Angela Allen

Blown away and overwhelmed.

Those twin feelings dominated my response to the sold-out multimedia performance Celilo Falls: We Were There June 5 at St. Michael’s Lutheran Church in Northeast Portland. The Patricia Reser Center’s June 4 concert was sold out, too, and another was performed at 2 pm June 11 at the Granada Theatre in The Dalles. Native Americans could attend any of the shows for free, and quite a few people with various tribal heritages and affiliations were in the June 5 audience.

This three-year Portland Chamber Orchestra collaboration was sparked by a conversation at the 2019 Siletz Bay Music Festival. The animated discussion included composer/Oregon Symphony and Cello Project cellist Nancy Ives, poet/storyteller/consultant/tour guide Ed Edmo, photographer Joe Cantrell and PCO director Yaacov Bergman. Edmo and Cantrell have Native bloodlines, and Ives has said the mid-century flooding of the Columbia River’s Celilo Falls that decimated Native fishing grounds was not her story to tell, being without a drop of Native blood.

Still, Ives wrote in an email that though she is descended from “four generations of colonizers,” the project gave her a chance to “literally amplify the voices of two amazing Indigenous artists (Edmo is Shoshone-Bannock and Cantrell has Cherokee heritage) by creating an orchestral setting for their work, and in the process, brought out the best in me.”

Is it my story to review, being in Ives’ non-Native DNA boat? If reviewers shy away due to cultural-appropriation jitters, a lot of stories would not get told or be disseminated. And this one, about the 1957 Columbia River damming that flooded Celilo Falls–a onetime vibrant center of Native fishing and traditions east of Portland–needed to be told.

Ives’ stunning, assiduously crafted, and mostly melodic music in 11 movements, interspersed with Edmo’s poetry, which he recited, is truly American. What does that mean, American?

Ives said that her great-grandfather’s cousin, composer Charles Ives–whose The Unanswered Question, an early 20th-century piece (revised in the 1930s), preceded hers on the program–was ahead of his time. As Nancy Ives said of her distance cousin, “he believed that American composers should write music inspired by the people and culture around them and not try to imitate Europeans. I suspect I’ll be pondering this for a long time, but having just done this project with collaborators whose ancestors were the original Americans, is certainly something to add to the hopper.”

Some of the program’s highlights:

  • Played by Matthew Tutsky, the harp–for which Ives has never composed before–shone as a glittering musical character. “The harp knits together certain music elements,” Ives said, “but most of all, the sound of the harp felt extra useful when evoking the water and wind.”
  • Woodwind and brass players blew into their instruments (without pitching a note) to evoke the sound of the wind. That is how the piece ended and it was both melancholy and calming to be left with that sonic landscape. The roar of the falls and its absence, as Ives pointed out, were essential sounds.
  • Native drummer/dancer/hip-hop artist Fish Martinez’s performance before the concert was a show-stopper — or starter. His voice, singing an “honor song,” was rhythmic and energetic. At times he broke into enthusiastic war whoops, which he explained later as “a way for us to let out what our spirit is feeling in a good way. In some ceremonies, or when dancing or singing pow-wow style music, we are expressing positive feelings with this style of performing.” It was a thrilling way to start the concert, followed by the more contemplative Celilo Falls music.
  • Edmo’s reading of his poem “What I Miss Most Is the Mist,” which he recited as the fifth movement, pulled us back to his childhood on the river. He recited what it was like to wake up in the river’s and falls’ blurry morning shadows. “What I miss most is the mist,/ a slight breeze pushing against my youthful cheeks.” Edmo’s book is called These Few Words of Mine (Celilo House, Portland, OR, 2006), and he was signing copies at the concert.
  • Cantrell’s photos, where he showcased brilliantly colored jumping salmon and underwater creatures, the river’s moods, skies, vistas and the She Who Watches petroglyph on the Columbia, were gorgeous. One of his petroglyph photos shot against a bright clear blue sky appeared at the moment the sky cleared outside of St Michael’s high arched window, the fir branches danced on the window, and yes, the experience was spiritual. It was too bad the church couldn’t have been darkened to better show the spectacular photos that Cantrell has been taking from years of shooting the Gorge and the falls, but such is the consequence of an afternoon concert in a spacious sun-lit church. Apparently the photos showed much better at the Reser on June 4.
  • In the 11th movement, “There Has Been Something”— the number, 11, had no significance, Ives said—Edmo read “There has been something come to me in my dreams, like the smell of salmon cooking.” I was fortunate to be sitting close to from where Edmo recited, but some folks in the back of the church missed his words due to poor amplification.
  • The short Charles Ives’ piece, The Unanswered Question, required trumpeter Bruce Dunn to play from the church’s back balcony while the strings went about their haunting accompaniment. Bergman thought the works by the two Ives from different generations had parallels, so he playfully—and seriously–programmed the piece. Yes, many questions are unanswered, including the treatment of Indigenous people.

The merging of these elements with images of salmon hitting the rocks matching the tok-tok of percussion blended into a many-splendored artistic experience.

But about those twin feelings: blown away and overwhelmed. I was blown away because of the high quality, authenticity and eye-opening nature of Celilo Falls: We Were There. I was overwhelmed because to fully listen to the music, to absorb the art, and to concentrate on the words simultaneously was a tall order, and I was pulled in several different sensory directions. But such is the nature and risk of multimedia performances.

In his 20th year of conducting PCO, Bergman has been a stalwart champion of new music that reflects contemporary life. PCO’s previous piece, My Words Are My Sword, presented in April, was another multimedia mind-bender that spoke to the Black experience, and now, Celilo Falls, to the Indigenous one. Both proved universal in their artistic, social and political impact. No matter your race, tribal affiliation or beliefs, good world citizens will be better off exposing themselves to all kinds of cultures and listening to the music that goes along with them.

PCO will celebrate its 75th anniversary next year, claiming that it is the oldest chamber orchestra in the country. Keep an eye on them.