Indie Rocking

Voices Carry

Flash Choir delivers depth

April 9, 2009

Things happened last weekend. Things beyond getting a sunburn.

One of the most inspired moments occurred indoors. At Mississippi Studios on Saturday afternoon, the unique and scrappy Flash Choir performed Caesar’s Gate, local musician Sarah Dougher’s hour-long composition inspired by poet Robert Duncan’s book of the same name.

Some background: Dougher has been writing, teaching, and making music in Portland for more than a decade. She’s had a venerable career as a solo artist (releasing records on K, Mr. Lady, and her own label Cherchez La Femme) and has also played in the Lookers, Cadallaca, and the Crabs. Her lyrics are cunning and her melodies are catchy, her style simultaneously intellectual and full of heart. Flash Choir is an ever-evolving group of mostly untrained singers led by Dougher and Live Wire! gal Pat Janowski. Since it started in 2007, the choir has steadily gained notoriety, performing as part of PICA’s Time-Based Art Festival, PDX Pop Now, and more recently at 24/7. Dougher was commissioned last year by Reed College to adapt Robert Duncan’s poetry into the libretto for Caesar’s Gate. Duncan is a pre-Stonewall gay poet who was famously partnered with Jess Collins, aka Jess, a renowned collage artist whose work was on display at Reed College last year. (Whew.)

Popular musical entertainment rarely offers depth or multidimensionality. More often it relies on posturing and cliché. Dougher and the Flash Choir delivered much of the former to the elegant Mississippi Studios space on Saturday. Over Marisa Anderson’s suspended electric guitar chord progressions, thirty-plus singers belted out lyrics like "How intense and troubled/This boundary becomes/As it marks the outline/Of our true selves." The melodies looped around themselves and often evolved into rounds. It sounded like pop music melted into choral music, like the trio the Roches with ten times the voices.

Choir member Jason Mitchell’s solo on "To Run With the Hare and Hunt With the Hound" pretty much killed me. His wavering voice evoked the best of British folk, and Dougher’s occasional harmonies complemented Mitchell’s airy tones with weight and strength.

It was incredible to see Dougher’s ambition embodied so tangibly in this performance. Though there is a good possibility Flash Choir will not perform Caesar’s Gate in its entirety again, the Saturday performance was recorded, and perhaps someday will be made available. In the meantime, keep your ear to the ground for more Flash Choir shows. One of its next projects involves an autumn performance of songs inspired by the poetry of William Stafford. I’ll be waiting.

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