Crazy Jane and Third Angle New Music reviews: Inspired by Nature

New Oregon music responds to nature's beauty — and humanity's threats to it.

Living in a bountiful land where so many of us spend as much time in nature as possible, it’s no surprise that Oregon composers have devoted so much music to environmental themes, just as New Yorkers and Chicagoans often incorporate urban influences in their music. (“New York is a very percussive place,” the great American composer and New York native Steve Reich, once told me about the source his pioneering percussion music.) A pair of November Portland concerts showed how contemporary Oregon composers are also embracing the environment — sometimes including actual recordings of natural sounds — in their music.

Marsh and Miksch performed at Crazy Jane.

Marsh and Miksch performed at Crazy Jane.

Field Music

“The world is a huge composition going on all the time,” said the pioneering Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer in a brief film Listen played immediately before Third Angle New Music’s “Afield” concert at southeast Portland’s Zoomtopia Studio 2 November 6. Schafer, who invented the notion of the soundscape (a musical evocation of an environment rather than, say, an attempt to tell a story or express a feeling via music) urged us avoid the noisy distractions of our bustling modern world and tune into nature’s sonic beauties.

That posed an implicit challenge to the three young Oregon composers (all University of Oregon graduate students) whose music Third Angle had, to its credit, commissioned for this latest entry in Third Angle’s innovative Studio Series: why should Northwesterners venture indoors to hear human-created sounds that sought to imitate nature, when we have so much of the real thing all around us?

The greatest living Northwest composer, Alaska’s John Luther Adams, has been persuasively answering that question for decades, as Third Angle showed last year in a vivid performance of his Earth and the Great Weather. Adams’s 2014 Pulitzer Prize suggests that the rest of the country is catching up to his and Schafer’s expansive vision of music and nature in harmony. Third Angle and Crazy Jane’s programs demonstrate that nature will continue to deeply and delightfully inform 21st century classical music.


Third Angle artistic director Ron Blessinger kicked off Nayla Mehdi’s Five Scenes by pushing a button (hardly a natural phenomenon) which started a recording of sounds from nature — dripping water, chirping birds and more — soon echoed in short, wispy phrases played by Blessinger on violin, flutist Sarah Tiedemann (effectively the star of the show, since she was often called upon to imitate bird calls on piccolo and flute) and bass clarinetist Louis DeMartino; they also contributed nonstandard (whooshing, tapping, squeaking) sounds with their mouths and instruments. The sounds sometimes grew bigger, longer and louder, but always surrounded by swaths of silence. In a brief talk before the piece, the soft-spoken Mehdi said she layered the three instrumental lines (high to low pitch) to imitate the pitch ranges of different natural sound sources. Her program note explained that she was inspired by Japanese esthetics, and her spare soundscape evoked both quiet natural environments and the arrestingly austere music of the great 20th century Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu.

While Mehdi used instruments and recordings to summon a sylvan soundscape, Justin Ralls enlisted nature as orchestra and chorus in his Night-Psalm, an homage to the Northwest Hermit Thrush, whose songs (recorded in the Siskiyou National Forest) made an alluring duet with Tiedemann’s flute melodies. Blessinger joined her and Pacific chorus frogs Ralls recorded in Portland’s Oaks Bottom Wildlife Refuge (a natural oasis in the middle of the city along the Willamette) in Ralls’s newly composed companion piece, Afield. The frogs’ rising and falling chirps shaped the piece’s formal structure, while the songs of robins, Western meadowlarks, and song sparrows provided Ralls melodic material for the instruments. Yet Afield is more than an audio documentary; a gifted melodist, Ralls gave the musicians (who respectively switched between flute and piccolo, and bowing and plucking) memorable tunes that could easily stand without the soundscape accompaniment, but really blossomed within it — a beautiful blend of natural and human-made music.

Blessinger and Tiedemann played Ralls at Third Angle's November concert.

Blessinger and Tiedemann played Ralls at Third Angle’s November concert.

I confess to a nostalgic reaction to Andrew Stiefel’s Five Ways to Listen to a Mockingbird (whose title plays on the Wallace Stevens poem about a blackbird); the title avian is the state bird of my (and Stiefel’s) longtime home of Texas, and its recorded voice and the choruses of chirping crickets or tree frogs recalled steamy summer childhood evenings. Stiefel (a field recordist and composer in residence at Crater Lake in 2012 who has worked with ornithologists) reminded us in his pre-concert talk, the mockingbird steals its song from other sources, natural and not, “recording the soundscape around it,” which guided the way he used and re-used live and recorded tunes for clarinet, bassoon, flute and violin in different combinations. DeMartino’s furious opening attained the evening’s highest levels of intensity, and along with braying, pitch-bending bassoon tunes (skillfully rendered by Evan Kuhlmann), nicely contrasted with the other composers’ more pastoral sounds. What initially seemed like almost random snatches of sound eventually joined in an interlocking melody when the three instrumentalists finally played together, with recorded sounds woven in and out of the sonic scene.

After almost an hour of roughly similar instrumental textures, though, I did grow a tad restless in the last couple of movements, but when the Mockingbird glided to a landing on a long decrescendo featuring Tiedemann’s flute repeating a mournful phrase ever more softly, I regretted having to leave the rich sound world the composers and musicians (including the animals, plants and other natural “performers”) had conjured.

Listen by David NewNational Film Board of Canada

The concert validated the thinking behind Third Angle’s new Studio Series, whose intimate surroundings made it much easier to feel as though we were in a different environment than a standard concert hall, and the comments from composers and performers, delivered from a few feet away instead of a stage on high, made the show feel like we were at a campout in the woods, basking in nature’s sweet sounds while a few friends played tunes around a fire. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help wondering what it would be like to hear this music played outdoors (in the summer of course), as some of Adams’s music has been performed. Maybe that’s where a future Third Angle journey afield will take us.

Inner Nature 

Another set of Oregon composers, female members of Cascadia Composers, annually showcases some of the freshest, hippest contemporary classical music made in Oregon at their Crazy Jane concerts.  But the diverse music at their November 14 concert, which benefited Environment Oregon, shared little beyond the environmental theme and the XX chromosomes of its creators.

As its title and rhythms suggested, Christina Rusnak’s alternately perky and pastoral brass trio Going Rogue was inspired by her frequent journeys along the Southern Oregon river. The trumpet often seemed as though it was referring a heated debate between horn and trombone, but at times they never quite resolved which one was actually in tune. Karen Bates-Smith’s simple duo for cello (played by the composer) and piano, “Swift’s Delight” caught the former’s joy in spying the latter on a visit to British Columbia.

“A vast similitude interlocks all,” sang mezzo-soprano Megan Mattoon as she strolled down the aisle from the back of Lincoln Recital Hall toward the stage, which held a cellist (Hannah Hillebrand), pianist (Jeongmi Yoon) and a projection of a beach scene in Stacey Philipps’ poignant setting of On the beach at night alone from Leaves of Grass. At a time when human greed threatens colossal climate catastrophe, Walt Whitman’s wisdom, conveyed by the two warm, melancholy melodic voices, reminded us of the interconnectedness of nature’s systems — including us.

Interconnection has long informed Susan Alexjander’s collaborations, which often yoke music to dance, visual art, projection and more. Her new Portal, with sculptor Rebecca Kamen, running in Virginia and soon at the National Academy of Sciences, celebrates the 100th anniversary of Albert Einstein’s theory of General Relativity. Almost all the sounds were derived from NASA and other scientific data (pulsar emissions, stellar object trajectories) or terrestrial natural sound samples (whale song to frequencies produced by natural phenomena), but as in the composer’s other evocative work, you didn’t need to know any of that to enjoy the four-channel soundscape’s mysterious flutterings and haunting long tones. Unfortunately, the audience members sitting in front of me kept me (and probably others) from seeing Kamen’s small light sculpture, placed on the floor near the front of the stage.

Jan Mittelstaedt’s passionate Beaches, Echoing Beaches set an angry text by poet Roberta Badger-Cain lamenting the notorious industrial pollution of Lake Erie and the incendiary Cuyahoga River. Rain stick, Native American flute, whistles, drum, as well conventional instruments (all deftly played by percussionist Florian Conzetti, flutist Janet Bebb and oboist Ann van Bever, from Northwest New Music and the Mousai, respectively) closely tracked the didactic text (“Restore clean water, restore cleaner, restore our heritage and that of the ancient ancestors….”) dramatically delivered by narrator Jane Van Boskirk.

Jennifer-Wright-Skeleton-Piano-3Lisa Marsh and Bonnie Miksch’s dazzling La Mer Plastique (The Plastic Sea) slyly expressed its outrage against environmental devastation less blatantly, at least in its sounds if not its projected images. Miksch’s radioactive green wig and neon pink bustier, and the music generated by her and Marsh’s toy instruments (along with synthesizer and computer-generated sounds, natural coastal sounds and samples from plastic bags, balloons, and other human-made plastic objects) ironically contrasted the frivolous fun of our plastic-permeated world with lovely nature scenes, then heartrending images of waterways choked and animals killed by our addiction to consuming and producing ever more deadly junk.

Marsh then moved to piano, joining violinist Chris Fotinakis and cellist Hillebrand in Elizabeth Blachly-Dyson’s arresting Lament of the Red Tree Vole, which interwove sliding, call-and-response wails from the strings with with silences and staccato piano phrases to evoke both nature’s seemingly random outbursts of birdsong and other sounds, and (subtly enough that you wouldn’t necessarily know it without reading the program) the chainsaws that have destroyed the vole’s old-growth Douglas Fir habitat, and silenced some of the forest’s native voices.

Jennifer Wright’s instrument, the “Skeleton Piano,” also made a statement very different from La Mer Plastique’s disposables; it was rescued from a landfill and recycled into an instrument whose inner workings are revealed. In her two-movement Obscure Terrain, which also used electronic delay effects, Wright knocked on wood with one hand while using the other to peck out and vary short phrases on the keyboard, then strummed the exposed strings with hands and foot, over repeated driving rhythms inspired, her program note said, by early U2 records. Like several of the other works on the program, Wright’s music (the only non-world premiere of the evening) drew on contemporary non classical influences and would likely appeal to broader audiences. I wish this concert could be repeated in a less academic/classical setting.

That’s usually been the case with Crazy Jane concerts, which, more than most by Oregon composers, look to the present and future, as well as to the classical music of the past, for inspiration. Let’s just hope our future is less bleak than the dangers that sparked this show portend, and that the natural sounds that inspired both of these intriguing concerts will resound for future generations, too.

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One Response.

  1. bob priest says:

    what a lovely review of two very fine sounding concerts.

    and, an especially big thanx for the short film of my old friend, murray schafer! he has scads of wonderful music & revelatory books on listening that are well worth the time of everyone here.

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