Andrew Stiefel

Sound of Late review: free to have fun

Northwest new music ensemble delights in music by star composer Missy Mazzoli and more

There is a certain liberation in the post-tonal, post-post-tonal, post-modern, post-post music Sound of Late specializes in. Music can be chromatic without being serial; it can be complex without being acrobatic. Academic classical music took a long strange turn to the ridiculously hypercomplex from about 1950 onward, and although a few notable rebels found ways to break away from all the Babbittness and Boulezerie the stench of ivory tower still leaves a bad odor in some noses. So it’s something of a relief when a virtuosic, experimental musician like SoL ensemble director Andrew Stiefel says something like “it’s okay to be rhythmic, it’s okay to be melodic, it’s okay to have fun.”

As one of the Pacific Northwest’s newest new music ensembles, Sound of Late has been carving out a nice young niche for themselves here and in Seattle, celebrating living composers, putting on 48-hour composition competitions, and generally behaving like the bunch of brash young academy trained badasses they are. They’re just as experimental as Creative Music Guild’s Extradition Series, though perhaps less sparse and quite a bit poppier. Their usual line-up consists of flutist Sarah Pyle, clarinetist Colleen White, horn player Rebecca Olason, violinist Bryce Caster, violist Stiefel, cellist Elizabeth Gergel, and bassist Milo Fultz—not all of whom play every piece or even every concert—plus various guests and substitutes. I’ve written about them before and expect to do so again next season.

Violinist Thao Huynh, cellist Keith Thomas and violist Andrew Stiefel played music by Missy Mazzoli in Portland and Seattle.

Violist Stiefel, exhausted from playing Seattle and driving back down for this show, introduced SoL’s Magic with Everyday Objects, the last concert of their first season as a group. Stiefel talked a bit about the first piece of the evening, Mazzoli’s 2006 trio Lies You Can Believe In: “Lies in this piece are not so much a falsehood as embellishing a story.” How right he was. Cellist Keith Thomas and guest violinist Thao Huynh joined Stiefel for lots of dissonant drones, complex meters played against open strings, tightly sculpted dynamics, talea-color interplay a la Messiaen and Harrison, and a recurring ascending theme that reminded me of Masada String Trio’s The Circle Maker or King Crimson’s “Talking Drum.”


Northwest Arts Exchange: Collaboration and community building

New artist-run online resource helps artists help each other.


When the mom and pop corner grocery served as a neighborhood center, it was common to have a bulletin board where needs, offers, and concerns were posted by people who simply signed their posts as Bob, Sandra K., or Jake at the garage. These exchanges helped in forming a sense of community where people could browse postings and make needed connections.

Easy to access and use, the NW Arts Exchange builds community. Photo: Andrew Stiefel.

Easy to access and use, the NW Arts Exchange builds community. Photo: Andrew Stiefel.

That corkboard with scribbled notes has been replaced by social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. These are important community building tools, but their strengths are also their weaknesses. For groups such as artists in need of that neighborly bulletin board connection, these social media are too time-sensitive and not purpose-specific, which means if you aren’t online at the time of a post, it is likely that you’ll miss it, given the subsequent flood of competing feeds of vacation pictures, videos and news stories.

Creating a sense of community between artists in a region separated by distance, as in the Pacific Northwest, became the challenge that Oregon composer/musician Andrew Stiefel, in collaboration with the Sound of Late ensemble, has attempted to address with the development of the Northwest Arts Exchange Switchboard. Based on the belief that “members of a community should ask for what they need and offer what they have,” Stiefel says, the NWAEX is a “place to connect, lend others a hand, and cheer on the successes that result from working together,” according to a pre-launch announcement. Think of it as a place where creative professionals throughout the region can go to exchange ideas, post a call for performers in Eugene, or look for a venue in Seattle, a photographer in Boise, an ensemble in Portland, a graphic designer in Spokane. “It’s a place to start conversations about the issues and questions facing our community and a way to spark new collaborations and connections that might not otherwise happen,” Stiefel explains.


Sound of Late preview: New music for new generations

New Pacific Northwest music collective debuts with performances in three states.


A few years ago, Eugene composer Andrew Stiefel was talking to a talented fellow composer, who lamented that she hadn’t started studying composition earlier. While growing up, she played a lot of classical music, but never thought about writing music herself. It wasn’t until two years into her undergraduate degree that she started experimenting with composition.

“What stuck with me from her story,” Stiefel remembered, “was the reason why she thinks she didn’t start writing music earlier: none of the composers looked like her. I believe if we don’t reach out to children and introduce them to music by a variety of living composers and give them opportunities to experiment with creating their own music, we’ll miss out on whole generations of unique voices.”

Reaching out to younger generations of listeners and connecting them with today’s voices is a big reason why Stiefel helped found Eugene-based Sound of Late, a new collaborative organization that describes itself as part modern music collective and part classical chamber music ensemble.


Sound of Late debuts at Broadway House Concerts on April 24. Photo: Broadway House Concerts


Sound of Late’s ensemble debuts its “Points of Departure” performance series at 8pm Friday, April 24 at the Broadway Avenue House Concerts venue in Eugene. In a concert that the group’s press release says will “explore the nature of sound and memory, their intimate connection to location, self-discovery and personal journey,” the quintet will play 20th- and 21st-century music by Ada Gentile, Nayla Mehdi, Benjamin Penwell, leading Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho, Italian composer Salvatore Sciarrino, popular American composer/violinist Daniel Bernard Roumain (sometimes known as DBR), and a set of improvisations inspired by the great 20th century American composer Pauline Oliveros.

Eugene is the first stop in an initial four-city April-May tour that includes Boise, Seattle, and a house concert in Portland on May 3. See the ensemble’s event calendar for details.

This debut series features musicians who have frequently performed together, including Stiefel (viola), Rebecca Olason (horn) Milo Fultz (double bass), Sarah Pyle (flute), and Bryce C. Caster (violin). As a collaborative ensemble, Sound of Late is “developing a flexible roster of leading instrumentalists who can perform as a trio one evening and as a small orchestra the next in order to meet the demands of a diverse repertoire.”

Sound of Late represents an emerging community of musicians and artists from across the Pacific Northwest that draws on the “collaborative nature of chamber music to develop thought-provoking concerts and creative educational programs that build, challenge, and ignite” communities throughout the region. Its ambitious mission, as enunciated on its web site, also includes interdisciplinary collaboration, new musical techniques, alternative concert spaces,  self-management, transcending genre and stylistic boundaries, and “fostering new partnerships between composers, audiences, and our community.” ArtsWatch explored the development of this new ensemble in an email exchange with Stiefel,  a founding member of Sound of Late.


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 New Music preview: The Sound of the Pacific Northwest

Young Oregon composers' soundscapes evoke the region's sonic splendors.


Composers have long tried to replicate the sounds of nature through music, as in Antonio Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons and An Alpine Symphony by Richard Strauss. Given the Pacific Northwest’s natural beauty, it’s no surprise that Oregon composers would turn to nature for inspiration too.

On November 6 and 7, Portland’s Third Angle New Music ensemble, now celebrating its 30th year, hosts a Studio Series  concert featuring the world premiere of new works by three young Northwest composers who have pursued the study of nature’s soundscape as a catalyst for their work. The hour-long, no-intermission Afield program features music that actually incorporates the sound of the Northwest environment by Justin Ralls, Andrew Stiefel, and Nayla Mehdi, all whom have studied at the University of Oregon School of Music and Dance.

Pacific Northwest landscapes are rich in sound sources. Photo: Gary Ferrington.

Pacific Northwest landscapes are rich in sound sources. Photo: Gary Ferrington.


Soundscape and Acoustic Ecology

Instead of imitating natural sounds with instruments, 20th century technology made it possible to actually include nature’s sounds in compositions.  Research into recording technologies in the 1930s-40s made possible French composer Pierre Schaeffer’s musique concrete in which any sound can be a part of the music vocabulary a composer explores. Schaefer used very early audio recording technologies to manipulate sound by splicing and creating tape loops forming new acoustic montages such as in his Études de bruits (1948).

Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer coined the term “soundscape” in the late 1960s when he became interested in the complex acoustic environment in which we live. Out of his curiosity emerged the World Soundscape Project, which undertook one of the first serious investigations of the world’s soundscape environments thanks, in part, to the development of portable field recording. The study of the soundscape is now known as acoustic ecology.

Schaffer’s graduate students Barry Truax and Hildegard Westerkamp are both renowned today for their soundscape compositions. Truax follows in Pierre Schaeffer’s tradition of using electroacoustically modified and articulated natural sound in his acousmatic compositions. Westerkamp uses field recordings to create a sense of place and time with little electronic modification of the original source recordings.

Another composer who has influenced the young composers heard in this concert, is 2014 Pulitzer Prize winner John Luther Adams, whose music has been inspired by nature and the landscapes of his long time residence in Alaska. “My music has always been profoundly influenced by the natural world and a strong sense of place,” Adams explains in a biographical statement. “Through sustained listening to the subtle resonances of the northern soundscape, I hope to explore the territory of sonic geography—that region between place and culture…between environment and imagination.” This philosophical concept well describes the sonic relationship between the music and the soundscape audiences will hear in this concert.

Composers Justin Ralls, Nayla Mehdi, and Andrew Stiefel collect soundscape field recordings. Photo: Afield Composers.

Composers Justin Ralls, Nayla Mehdi, and Andrew Stiefel collect soundscape field recordings. Photo: Afield Composers.

ArtsWatch conducted an email interview with the composers that explores their interest in nature sounds, its influence in their work, and the music that Third Angle will perform November 6-7.


News & Notes: Catching up on Oregon music and dance news

Oregon Symphony gets out of the concert hall; University of Oregon awards; community support for Oregon composer

Symphony musicians chat with the crowd at Classical Up Close.

Symphony musicians chat with the crowd at Classical Up Close. Photo: Joe Cantrell.

Around the country, orchestras are connecting with their communities (particularly members who don’t already frequent their concerts) through various outreach and education programs. Led by Resident Conductor Paul Ghun Kim, the Oregon Symphony this week concluded its “Concerts on the Go” series in Portland-area schools. Last week, orchestra members played a concert built around Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf at two schools whose districts have committed to keeping music in the schools: North Clackamas School District’s Verne A. Duncan Elementary and David Douglas School District’s Gilbert Heights Elementary School, where two young Suzuki students played short violin solos. Yesterday, more than five dozen orchestra member performed a different concert at St. Mary’s Home for Boys that showed “the healing power of music” and the fact that young Oregonians can make a career in making music.

Oregon Symphony  members performed at Portland's St. Mary's School.

Oregon Symphony members performed at Portland’s St. Mary’s Home for Boys.

In another admirable community connection program, tonight (Wednesday), members of the Oregon Symphony Players Association head over to Brunish Hall in the unpronounceable Portland5 Centers for the Arts in an event co-sponsored by MetroArts, Inc., principal percussionist Niel DePonte’s arts education organization. They’ll perform music by Bach, Telemann, Portland’s own Kenji Bunch (what a great example for young Oregonians of how it’s possible for an Oregon native to make a successful life in music!) and more. Oregon Public Broadcasting’s April Baer will ask the musicians questions from listeners and audience members.

It’s the second of eight evening programs the orchestra musicians will present over the next week and a half in the return of last year’s free Classical Up Close programs; they’re also perpetrating “blitz” events in various spaces around Portland, including one at the downtown Powell’s Books last week, others at Portland City Hall and Portland State University and, today at noon, at the Symphony ticket office, 923 SW Washington St, featuring the splendid cellist Nancy Ives, with more to come.


ArtsWatch guest post: Tomorrow’s music today

Gary Ferrington reviews the University of Oregon's Music Today Festival.

Alyssa Tamayo alto saxophone, and Ednaldo Borba, piano perform Brandon Scott Rumsey's "Sacred Spaces" at the Music Today Festival. Photo: Gary Ferrington.

Alyssa Tamayo alto saxophone, and Ednaldo Borba, piano perform Brandon Scott Rumsey’s “Sacred Spaces” at the Music Today Festival. Photo: Gary Ferrington.


The second half of the closing concert in the University of Oregon’s biennial Music Today Festival opened with a film clip depicting nature recordist Gordon Hempton’s search for one square inch of silence in the Olympic National Park. As the camera pulled back, listeners could clearly hear the forest soundscape of birdcall and natural sounds. Composer Andrew Stiefel used those sounds as a theme in his composition, “Echoes of a Sonic Habitat II,” creating the sense of a dense reverberating forest by spatially placing flutist Sarah Pyle and Jacob Walls, trumpet, in different locations within the darkened auditorium. Commissioned by Crater Lake National Park, the multimedia work was based on field recordings Stiefel had recorded there.

Stiefel’s work exemplified Monday evening’s theme, “Signal in the Noise,” featuring music focused on the influence of the natural soundscape, performed by the Eugene Contemporary Chamber Ensemble (ECCE) with guest artist Estelí Gomez, soprano and created by emerging composers David Eisenband, Diana Rosenblum, Jacob Walls, Nicole Portley and Robert Chastain, as well as prominent composers John Luther Adams, Tristan Murail and Emily Doolittle.

Held at venues at the UO music school, the biennial Music Today Festival was founded in 1993 by UO composition professor Robert Kyr. This year it offered over 40 premieres of new music – mostly by young composers born after 1985 and who are completing their undergraduate or graduate studies in the UO School of Music and Dance.


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