This year’s TBA began with quiet, with calm, with a gathering of Portlanders at Pioneer Square. It was peaceful. When I arrived, the square was filled, a low murmur rising from the young families and artists who were sitting, for the most part, on the ground or on the steps. Eventually, the singers came, holding a variety of books, and took their places. I was excited by it, by the promise of what might happen when people come together in the city to sing.
As a preface to everything else I have to say, I think I should repeat what I heard one man say later on about this performance: “It was really beautiful and everything, but I couldn’t hear a thing.” Unfortunately I think this was the experience most people had. Among the whistling, the rustling and the song that I could hear there was significant dead space. Too much was drowned out by the ambient sound. I tried to convince myself that the city soundscape was interwoven with the performance, that the Max, the interminable construction, the cars, were all a part of the migration. But honestly, they drowned out more than I wanted them too.
The performers, a motley Portland crew wearing bright scarves, occasional sunglasses, and carrying books in their hands, sang beautifully, whistled and murmured convincingly, and raised their arms in the air, their hands bobbing for all the world like the curious heads of a flock of birds.
As the singers looked up to the sky, shading their eyes, watching the imagined migration, I couldn’t help but look too. A few pigeons did their part to represent the actuality of flight, but otherwise the sky was still. Nonetheless, I found myself staring into it, noticing the largeness of the city, aware, as I rarely am, of the tops of the buildings, the clouds streaking the sky, the cranes reshaping the landscape. I felt a little silly. Every time the singers looked upwards, so did I, like a child believing each time that those excellent birds would appear. They did not, but I enjoyed that twenty minutes of seeing the topside of Portland, of staring up into the sky. What surprised me most was that almost no one else was staring up into the sky with me. They resisted the impulse to follow the eyes of the singers. I wonder how, and I also wonder why.
I’ve noticed in the first few days of this year’s TBA that we are a very mannerly group here in Portland. The lyrics that were sung were included in the programs for “Great Migration,” with a note that they might be of use. It took me a moment to figure out what this meant and then, just as I was straining to hear, and thinking it would be nice if the singers were spread around the square, I realized that it was an oblique invitation to join in. I wanted to, or rather I wanted us, the collective audience, to be moved spontaneously to song. A woman behind me did begin singing along in a low voice. I considered it but decided against it, as did most of the audience if it had occurred to them at all. Perhaps it was the intrusion of the city noises, and the dead space they created, but the performance felt as though it just didn’t become what it could.
Nonetheless, it was beautiful and quirky and fun. I have not yet lost the image of the singers all raising their arms like the long necks of cranes. As the singers filed out after the performance I glanced at the titles of the books they had chosen. The first few books were bird related: Refuge, Wild Ducks Flying Backwards, but then Jane Eyre. I have to admit that I’m an English teacher, and I was intrigued by those book choices. Perhaps it was the preponderance of Tom Robbins, but I was reminded, on my way out, of those peyote-eating cranes in Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. The sheen of the pink and green and blue scarves the performers wore, and the tattooed forearms morphing into an excellent flock in the square: a good image for Portland, and for TBA.
Posted by: Taya Noland