Fear No Music & Third Angle reviews: discoveries

Portland new music ensembles open Oregon ears to music from beyond the usual sources

I love going to a concert with exactly zero familiar composers. In Oregon classical music programs, the standard is still usually one new composer per concert, sandwiched between the dead white guys. Even in Portland, it’s relatively rare to hear a concert with music by composers who are all new to me. In the last few weeks, veteran Portland new music ensembles Fear No Music and Third Angle delivered two such concerts that led me to new discoveries.

Fear No Music played recent music by Middle Eastern and emigrant-diaspora composers at Portland’s Old Church Concert Hall. Photo: John Rudoff.

FNM’s October 9 concert at Portland’s Old Church, The Fertile Crescent, featured music by six composers rooted in the Middle East. Although they were new to me, they are all accomplished international composers. Gity Razaz studied at Juilliard with Corigliano, Beaser, and Adler; Kinan Azmeh is a member of Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble; Reza Vali, Kareem Roustom, and Franghiz Ali-Zadeh have all composed for Kronos Quartet (I’m sure they’ll get around to Bahaa El-Ansary eventually). Although the music performed at the concert didn’t always satisfy me, I liked most of it, and the pieces that left me cold still led me to discover other enjoyable music by the same composers.

I appreciated the performances even in music that didn’t thrill me. I was astonished by Nancy Ives’ playing on Bahaa El-Ansary’s Circles for cello solo, seven minutes of intense extended techniques that brought out an avant-garde side of her playing that I hadn’t really heard before. After watching her rehearse Gabriella Smith’s Carrot Revolution last summer I take it for granted that she can play anything. But I’m far more accustomed to hearing this sort of experimental music from Sound of Late, and I suppose I’ll always associate Ives with the more conventional string writing of my fellow Cascadians Tomáš Svoboda and Bonnie Miksch.

Paloma Griffin Hébert, Joël Belgique, Ives, and Jeff Payne played the hell out of Reza Vali’s Love Songs for Piano Quartet, but I just couldn’t get into it. Perhaps it’s Vali’s capital-R Romanticism, which seems to please everyone else but normally leaves me a little wanting.

The real highlights of the show for me were Hébert’s solo violin + electronics performance of Kinan Azmeh’s How Many Would It Take and the perfect show closer: Payne, flutist Amelia Lukas, and guest soprano Arwen Myers on Frangiz Ali-Zadeh’s Three Watercolours.

Hébert often seems positively Björk-like in her avant-pop sensibilities (small wonder: she did spend nearly ten years touring and recording with Pink Martini), and her performance had all the intimacy and immediacy the music demanded. Azmeh’s brief, devastating elegy was composed following a visit to his home country, Syria, in 2011, and the title refers to the 10,000 innocent civilians killed in the civil war by 2012, a number which now hovers around the half million mark with no end in sight. You can hear Azmeh himself playing the piece on his clarinet right here, and there are a ton of other videos of him playing around with Bartók, leading his City Band in some 15/8 wedding music (or playing the same tune with the Silk Road Ensemble at Tanglewood), hanging out with Yo-Yo Ma, and so on.

Ali-Zadeh’s Three Watercolours consisted of not three but six little movements: three songs, all in Azeri on texts by Nigjar Rafibejli, and the brief instrumentals preludium, interludium, and postludium. Myers, whom I had most recently heard singing Mozart’s Requiem with Cappella Romana and Portland Baroque Orchestra, shone as a soloist. Her voice could have overpowered Lukas’ low flute and Payne’s delicate prepared piano, particularly in the small and resonant Old Church, and I was as impressed by her restraint as by her focused performance of Ali-Zadeh’s strange, difficult, flourish-adorned melodies. I adored the prepared piano effects and rhythms, which reminded me more than anything of Arvo Pärt’s Tabula Rasa.

One of the great advantages of living in the digital age is that I can go to a concert like this, enjoy the fleeting, momentary, immediate intimacy of the performance, and then spend the next month following up on everything I heard. I was sufficiently intrigued by FNM’s West Coast premieres of Razaz’s Chance Has Spoken for string quartet and percussion (performed by Hébert, Belgique, Ives, Keiko Araki, and Michael Roberts) and Roustam’s Aleppo Songs for solo piano (a sixteen minute suite performed with customary alacrity by co-founder Jeff Payne) that I had to go searching for their other music. Razaz, it turns out, is a subtle and sophisticated composer of string music: her cello octet The Strange Highway, piano trio A Prayer for the Abandoned, and cello solo Legend of Sigh all exhibit the same sublimated, refined passion I heard in Chance Has Spoken. Roustam’s orchestral Dabke, cello solo Hanjale, and Three Klezmer Dances for violin, strings, and tambourine have little in common with Aleppo Songs aside from his strong, pluralistic melodic voice; it’s always informative to approach a composer from multiple angles.

I ended up finding El-Ansary’s other music considerably more to my taste than the spare, spectralist Circles: tons of chamber music for string quartet and mezzo-soprano, string quartet and flute, string trio and actor, string quartet with contrabass, plus a variety of duos and trios, some sort of double concerto for a clutch of saxophones, and even a couple of pretty sweet electroacoustic tracks.

Vali, too, has composed a lot of excellent music. His Concerto for Flute and Orchestra and his Double Concerto (for ney, kamanche, and orchestra) are simply magnificent, substantial pieces of hybrid music that would definitely have pleased Lou Harrison (and dig that deceptively simple percussion scoring!) His Three Calligraphies for String Quartet are much more overtly Persian, with complex rhythms and melodies based in the Dastgah modal system, and this adaptation of a movement from his ninth set of Persian Folk Songs (originally written for flute and cello) ought to get your head bobbing.

Ritualistic Recital

I walked into the New Expressive Works studio on Belmont and thought “crap, I’m late, as usual”—the Third Angle strings (violinists Ron Blessinger and Greg Ewer, violist Charles Noble, cellist Marilyn de Oliveira) were already out at the edges of N.E.W.’s dance/art space, scribbling musical doodles on the walls, passing sparse motives around the room like some kind of Lutoslawskian controlled aleatorism, building up a soundscape one scratch at a time. I am string quarteting in a room.

But no, the ushers weren’t shushing anyone, people were milling around talking, sipping wine, schmoozing. I spotted one of the evening’s composers, Gabriela Lena Frank, cheerfully chatting away with a couple of audience members. I guess I wasn’t late after all. Of course, once the music “started”—started to become fuller, less scattered, sustained tones overlapping and overriding the silence and the talking—those of us who were still talking started to get stern looks from the people who had started listening in earnest. The familial vibe I had felt (as always) with Fear No Music at The Old Church immediately dissipated from N.E.W. These would be the last spoken words I would hear for the next hour and a half.

Singer Tony Arnold joined Third Angle New Music for three concerts. Photo: Jacob Wade.

The lights went down, the spotlight went up, and Tony Arnold strode in, confidently chattering up the dada clicks that begin Luciano Berio’s Sequenza III. I was totally mesmerized. I hadn’t actually heard a whole lot of Berio, so my frame of reference was all the music he had a hand in influencing: Diamanda GalasThe Litanies of Satan, Mike Patton’s Adult Themes for Voice, Yamantaka Eye, anything by Meredith Monk. It was like watching The Long Goodbye or Giant or some other classic movie for the first time. Suddenly I understood who everyone else has been referencing all this time. Arnold had her hands all over her face, generating an astonishing variety of indescribable sounds and all the bizarre facial expressions and hyperventilating body movements to match. It was a deeply shamanic performance, a ritualistic invocation of post-war experimentalism and the profound meanings of Markus Kutter’s lyrics: “Give me a few words for a woman / to sing a truth allowing us / to build a house without worrying before night comes.” Afterward, I felt like I hadn’t needed a smoke that badly since Turangalîla.

It turns out Arnold cut her teeth on this exact music, which Berio composed in 1965 for his wife Cathy Berberian. Arnold explained at the post-concert Q&A that she began her career as an orchestral conductor, doing that for ten years out of grad school before finding a vocal coach in Chicago, a lieder singer and “very unorthodox teacher” who was willing to dig into Berio’s insanely challenging a cappella contemporary art song and “opened my body to the experiences I wanted to have,” she said. “For many singers it takes some time for the body to catch up with the musician, and I knew I wanted to sing contemporary music.” Arnold has since become notorious for her expressive renditions of Crumb, Schoenberg, Webern, and a whole slew of contemporary composers.

Composer Gabriela Lena Frank. Photo: Mariah Tauger

The ritualistic recital continued with Gabriela Lena Frank’s Iberian Songs, written for Arnold and string quartet, with text adapted from anonymous Spanish gypsy songs. The music was immediately worlds away from the Berio, but certainly in the same universe, like two episodes of Black Mirror. Frank, an unabashed Bartók enthusiast, made very Bartóky use of the whole-tone scale, and brought the distinctive Bartók-style snap pizzicato to new levels of percussive flatness. The second movement was more dance-like than the first, with a rocking minor third riff passed between viola and cello and groovy odd-metered patterns evocatively chromatic and rather Zwilich-like. Arnold sang out the closing lines—“¡Déjame salir con mi hijo condenado! ¡Mi hija, condenada! / ¡Su hermana, condenada! / ¡Su hermano, condenado!” (“Let me leave with my son, condemned! My daughter, condemned! His sister, condemned! Her brother, condemned!”)—punctuated by pizzicato glissandi, haunting the dimly lit space with echoes of the grim fortune and despair of the songs’ tragic, ironic end.

Frank composed these songs specifically for Arnold, and it’s not the first time they’ve collaborated. When the Los Angeles Philharmonic invited Frank to compose something for its Green Umbrella series, Arnold was one of the two sopranos who joined the two pianists and two percussionists (Bartók again!) for Frank’s New Andean Songs. “It was an arranged marriage,” Frank joked at the Q&A. “Musicians love working together: if it works you keep doing it.” Another commission followed, this time from Arnold herself. The result was Seven Armenian Songs for violin, percussion, and voice. Arnold joked that Frank’s musical anthropology and dedication to Nahapet Kuchak’s Armenian texts made her “an ABC: Armenian By Choice!”

Composer Gabriela Lena Frank and Third Angle pianist Susan Smith

Another vocal solo followed the Frank songs, the polyglottal “game format” piece Récitation nº9 by Xenakis pupil Georges Aperghis. This one was the most overtly reminiscent of Galas and Monk, Arnold’s extended technique chopping up and rearranging the text’s many languages in a cut-and-paste expansion that grew by internal additive process toward a sudden but inevitable resolution. It seemed to me that de Oliveira was gazing up in awe, perhaps feeling blissed and blessed to be in Arnold’s commanding presence. Maybe I was just projecting.

The concert closed with Australian composer Brett Dean’s String Quartet No. 2, “And Once I Played Ophelia”a delirious trip into the mind of Hamlet’s first victim. It was almost jarring hearing Arnold sing in English, and Dean’s eerie Viennese-style expressionism felt a little like Munch transplanted to the age of digital madness and environmental collapse. The lights went up and I glanced at my watch: just over an hour, no talking, no fuss, just an intense musical ritual in the dark.

Singer Tony Arnold performed with Third Angle. Photo: Jacob Wade.

At the post-concert Q&A, Arnold explained that “for me to do anything…to be able to address anything we do…the way I can most effectively do any of these jobs is to come from a place of the clean slate, a place of calm, and be in this moment. I’m just doing this right now.” She added that the reason she likes contemporary music is its complexity: “there’s so much to do that I can only think about this right now, and that’s very attractive.” All the groundwork and administrative details and the grueling practice make all that possible. “Then I can be free to be expressive in that moment.”

Frank joked, “I don’t know how to follow that!” She agreed that it’s worth all the muck and the admin. “Such a high for us…this is how we got hooked!” Frank’s take on the question addressed her compositional motivations: “Why do I compose? It’s changed over time.” She talked about facing mortality, doing the math of “12 months in a year, six months to do a piece justice, call it 40 more years, I have 80 more pieces.” Frank called herself an “Immigrant Success Story” because of her Chinese-Peruvian and Jewish-Lithuanian heritage, and also noted that because she is partially deaf “I’m a disabled American.” Her work with other languages also drives her, especially indigenous American languages like Nahuatl and Quechua. “There’s something so beautiful about the music of the dirty people—it speaks to all of us.”

Life is especially vital in the margins of society, where the dirty people, the oppressed and marginalized, the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” survive and persist and, above all, create. To borrow Third Angle’s season motto, this indeed is the kind of world in which we want to live.

Fear No Music and Third Angle both have concerts coming up. FNM’s Common Threads concert at The Old Church on November 27 features a collaboration between four Portland composers united by music derived from Liszt’s “Bagatelle Sans Tonalité”. TA’s next concert is November 10-11 at Design Within Reach’s NW studio, where they will perform string music by Philip Glass.

Read Gary Ferrington’s ArtsWatch story about Frank’s work with Third Angle and emerging composers.

Matthew Neil Andrews is a composer, singer, percussionist, and editor at Portland State University, and serves on the board of Cascadia Composers. He and his music can be reached at monogeite.bandcamp.com.

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Want to learn more about contemporary Oregon classical music? Check out Oregon ComposersWatch.

12 Responses.

  1. bob priest says:

    Wonderful review, Matthew, thanx!

    Both 3A & FNM are to be soundly congratulated on their decidedly non-hackneyed programming in the concerts reviewed here.

    Ah, Berio!

    One of my more molto glorioso live concert experiences was seeing/hearing Berio conduct his great “Coro” for voices & instruments in Paris 40 years ago. This is a work that generously repays multiple listenings. D-Bob sez, check it out!

    • Thanks Bob!

      Berio’s another one I’m just scratching the surface with, I appreciate the recommendation. I’ll get to it as soon as I’m done with that Noland novel 😀

  2. delia rodriguez says:

    No no no no.
    Cathy Barbarian improvized all the vocal work
    with and without electronics to accompany her.
    Berio never influenced any of the singers
    you mention. You must do your research
    before coming up with such nonsense.

  3. delia rodriguez says:


    is almost impossible
    to type on the all-censoring spellecheck,

  4. Jeff Winslow says:

    Ali-Zadeh’s Watercolors were indeed wonderful, both in composition and performance. But “Circles” was about as enjoyable as fighting off the same mosquito for ten minutes. David Lang is a master of dramatic narrative by comparison.

    • bob priest says:

      Jeff, becoz I like you soooo much, I simply won’t say that to mention BERIO & lang anywhere near each other is . . .

  5. Brianna T says:

    Why do we continue to marginalize contributions from the likes of William Grant Still, Scott Joplin, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Chevalier de Saint-Georges, Fanny Mendelssohn, Clara Schumann, Barbara Strozzi, Pauline Oliveros and SO many others by using the term “dead white guys” to describe the classical canon? Glossing over history with a hatchet actually makes you part of the problem.

    • Barry Johnson says:

      He wasn’t describing the “canon.” He was describing the general classical music program in Portland (and elsewhere). Did you read the rest of the review? You’re attacking someone who is on your side, not someone who is “part of the problem.”

      • Thank you Barry. That was exactly what I was trying to say, and I was specifically thinking of OSO’s Gershwin-Schoenberg-Rogerson concert. It was a truly wonderful concert, and an important one, but when are we going to hear a program with a Tower tone poem sandwiched between a Zwilich symphony and a Higdon concerto?

        Brianna, you make a fair point about my alienating use of the term “dead white guys.” My intent is never to gloss over history or marginalize anyone. Do you have any advice on how I could have used more inclusive language here?

  6. Brianna T says:

    I apologize if my comment was harsh. I did read the entire review, and it is clear that you do care about both new music and diversity. However, the term “dead white guys” is problematic, whether it refers to the “canon”, Oregon’s programming tendencies, or most anything else.
    “Dead” imprecisely addresses whether the music is new or old. “White” obviously addresses race. “Guys” addresses gender. That’s a lot of philosophical territory to cover, and a label that lumps everything together robs each disparate element of its singular importance. “Dead white guys” is a term commonly used to establish a historical foundation of intolerance and privilege against which living composers can favorably regard themselves.
    I don’t mean to be unnecessarily cynical here, but even the example you offer above, a program of Tower, Zwilich and Higdon addresses “dead” and “guys.” It doesn’t address “white.” So why even bother to use “dead white guys” if you don’t really, really mean to say it? (Maybe you do, and if so, bravo to you!)
    Please don’t think for a moment that I find anything lacking or insincere about your review. In fact, I think it’s truly wonderful! I just find the use of the term “dead white guys” to suggest a level of “wokeness” that most people cannot live up to on a consistent basis. And, as I mentioned before, it ignores many courageous, talented composers throughout history who were neither white nor male.

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