Ryan Meagher posed a few questions to composer Andrew Oliver about his new piece for the Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble that the band will premiere this Friday, February 21st at Secret Society.

andrew-oliver-3Ryan Meagher: The Bonneville Dam affects everyone in the Pacific Northwest in one way or another. But, do you have personal connection to the dam?

Andrew Oliver: As a Portland native I recall going to visit the dam as a kid numerous times – my dad is an engineer and used to work for the Bonneville Power Administration so he would explain the massive generators and equipment to me which you could go down inside the dam and check out.  Other than that, I don’t have any other personal connection to it besides its imposing fixture on the landscape.

Ryan Meagher: Were there any aspects of the dam’s presence in Oregon to which you chose to capture in your composition? If so, how did this aspect of the dam translate into music for you?  If not, please tell us why you avoided this approach.

Andrew Oliver: I initially wanted to write a piece based on Celilo falls, an important fishing and Native American meeting place and commerce center of the ancient world which was covered up by the construction of a dam – but when I did more research I realized it was the Dalles Dam, not Bonneville, that submerged the falls.  However in doing that research I stumbled upon a diagram of the dam and was impressed by its construction and numerous sections.  I learned that one of the 3 islands separating the various sections of the dam was artificially constructed and I realized that my typical conception of a dam as a huge wall (i.e. the Hoover dam) is totally inaccurate in this case as the Bonneville dam has all these various sections separated by islands…more on that in the next question.

As far as the dam’s presence in Oregon, I think the grandiosity of its construction and its importance in generating power for the region is reflected in the more triumphant sections of the piece and the motion of water and of power is reflected in the later sections of the piece with repetitive figures and grooves.  The title, Path 66, is the name of the branch of the national electricity grid that takes power from the damn to Oregon and California.

Ryan Meagher: What should the audience listen for when the band plays the piece?

The piece is based on the physical makeup of the dam – it starts with a representation of the powerhouse, with huge waterfalls and generators churning out electricity for the region.  Then it moves into a reflective section representing the islands which split the dam into sections.  The slower tempo and vibe represent the stillness of the islands in contrast to the flowing water around them as well as the stillness of the concrete structure contrasted with the rushing river.  After the guitar and piano have some improvisational dialogue, the third section starts, representing the spillway.  This section is more about forward motion – there are repeating figures which change subtly each time, just as the river moves forward but also remains constant.  Then the powerhouse theme emerges again, and we finish the picture of the dam with the small shipping channel allowing boats to pass through – listen for the horn of the large boats as they pass by.


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