Art Beat: Music, masks seek to connect art, science and understanding

Mike Dunham
The Wassillie Trefon Dena’ina Fish Cache at Port Alsworth has been added to the National Register of Historic Places.
Matthew Burtner gathering sound at Mendenhall Glacier.

The annual EcoSono Institute, led by Alaska-born composer Matthew Burtner, has wrapped up two weeks of field work in the wilderness and will present new music "composed in collaboration with Alaskan ecology" today at 7:30 p.m. in the Grant Hall auditorium at Alaska Pacific University.

Participants from around the world associated with Burtner's Virginia-based project studied and recorded natural sounds, including those emitted by whales, seals, fish, glaciers and so forth. The composers, who will double as performers for today's hour-long concert, include Lemon Guo, Sophia Shen and Hua Xin, all from China, Daniel Blinkhorn from Australia, and several Americans, including Burtner himself.

It may be the most intriguing music concert in Anchorage this year, and perhaps the most restorative. The press release says the project aims to cultivate "peaceful, sonorous relationships between people and beautiful places on our planet."

Admission is $10, $5 for students.

Masks of death

An "infectious" exhibit, "Aggravated Organizms," is on display at Out North. The show consists of several dramatic wood masks, 3 by 5 feet, carved by Drew Michael and painted by Elizabeth Ellis, each addressing a particular disease or dysfunction -- diabetes, cancer, fetal alcohol syndrome, etc. -- that ranks high in the list of causes of death or diminished life for Alaskans. Each comes with a placard describing the scientific background and social ramifications of the malady.

Michael's masks are based on a traditional Yup'ik form, most with an "O" mouth. Chevak artist Earl Atchak told me that in the old days shamans used such masks in healing rites. Feathers were often attached to the mouth and represented the disease being spit out by the shaman after he had absorbed it from the patient.

I was also reminded of Jerry Lieb's "Mask of Healing," which is popping up in clinics and other medical facilities around Alaska. Lieb, who signs his work "Sivaluaq," has created a face design half black, half white and focused on alcoholism. It reflects the person in the grip and then free from the disease.

Michael and Drew said they hoped to find funding to tour the show around the state, perhaps in conjunction with health fairs.

'Become Ocean' in Seattle

Unfortunately, I missed the world premiere of John Luther Adams' large orchestral work "Become Ocean" in Seattle last weekend. But so did Adams, due to an indisposition, according to reports in reviews that we now cite:

Melinda Bargreen of the Seattle Times called it "a pleasant soundscape, one that deployed the full orchestral palette of colors. But after the first 20 minutes or so, the musical ideas had pretty much run their course, and there were no further developments to justify sustaining the piece. (Some listeners in the balcony areas made a discreet but early retreat.) At least the music fell gratefully on the ear, delivering consonance rather than dissonance, and in its very length, 'Become Ocean' evoked a sense of vast oceanic scale."

Writing for the online magazine Sunbreak, Dana Wen noted the constantly shifting sounds "like clouds" and the work's "meditative mood."

"Unlike many works in the Western musical tradition, which emphasize the build-up and release of melodic and harmonic tension, 'Become Ocean' creates musical drama by adding and subtracting layers of musical sound," Wen wrote. "This isn't music that will sweep you away with soaring melodies or startle you with unexpected harmonies. Instead, Adams' work drifts along, its ambient, drone-like qualities inspiring meditation and relaxation. I emerged from Adams' soundscape feeling refreshed and more aware."

"Galen," the blogger at a site titled "Lutoslawskian: A teenager's thoughts on classical music," said, "I really did enjoy it, but I had to put myself in a very quiet state of mind to understand it. In the concert hall, we're used to stimulation rather than introspection. ... The reason the Adams is less accessible is that it is the essence of what our fast-paced civilization is moving away from; while nature is in many ways incomprehensible, quick technology offers a quantifiable version of our lives. It's an interesting thought for residents of the Pacific Northwest, because we pride ourselves in our appreciation of the trees, mountains, and ocean around us, and that very mindset is what is necessary to appreciate Adams' music. Would the effect of this piece on the audience, which would be different in contemporary music taste and lifestyle, have been different in Los Angeles? New York? Paris?"

It's hard to swallow the assertion that residents of Washington and Oregon, who gag their rivers with giant walls of concrete, have any serious appreciation for trees, mountain, oceans or anything else in nature. But we will have the chance to find out the reaction in New York next year when Seattle Symphony conductor Ludovic Morlot plans to present the work again in Carnegie Hall as part of the orchestra's tour to that city.

Perhaps we don't need to wait that long. Critic Alex Ross, a New Yorker who has been attentive to Adams' music, will have a review of the work in the July 1 issue of The New Yorker magazine.

Fish cache historic

Cabin caches raised high on four spindly legs are a stock item in Alaska art. But finding a real one, built to store food rather than decorate a lawn, is a lot harder. Now comes word that the Wassillie Trefon Dena'ina Fish Cache standing at Port Alsworth has been added to the National Register of Historic Places.

According to the press release from the National Park Service, the cache, which sits in a clearing outside the Lake Clark National Park and Preserve visitor center, was built around 1920 and "is one of the last examples of a traditional, well-crafted log cache in the Bristol Bay region."

The cache is 9 by 10 feet in dimension and made of hand-hewn, square-notched logs. Trefon, a master woodworker who made similar caches and cabins around the area, built it without nails or spikes. It was originally erected at Miller Creek but was moved several times before winding up at the visitor center, which suggests that Trefon also designed it with the expectation that it would be portable.

Opera change announced

The performance of the monodrama "Soldier Songs" originally planned for Anchorage Opera's upcoming season has been canceled due to "conflicts" with members of the production team. (We think that means scheduling issues.) In its place, the company will present Franz Schubert's song cycle "Die Winterreise" in a multimedia staged production. The approach sounds interesting and Schubert's terrifying, sombre and beautiful songs are certainly worth hearing. Baritone David Adam Moore will sing, accompanied by pianist Richard Gordon. The production is designed by Vita Tzykun. Performances will take place at the Wilda Marston Theater March 12-16, 2014.

Reach Mike Dunham at or 257-4332.