brian mcwhorter

Cascadia Composers and Third Angle reviews: Northwest inspirations

Oregon composers create music inspired by the sounds of their home

With all the natural beauty that surrounds us, it’s no surprise that so many Oregon artists, including composers, turn to it for inspiration. Two spring concerts showed that despite this common impulse, the state’s natural and other sights and sounds are simply too diverse to sonically stereotype.

In celebration of the National Park Service’s 100th anniversary, Third Angle New Music commissioned three Oregon composers to write new works inspired by nature. It’s a testament to our state’s musical and natural variety that the three pieces performed in April at Third Angle’s Solo Hikes concert in southeast Portland’s Studio 2 @ New Expressive Works came out so utterly different.

As it turned out, the hikes weren’t really solo. Each composer relied heavily on contributions from the performers, and they in turn had help (projections, pre-recorded sounds, the audience) that augmented their instruments. The concert was a reminder that you’re never really alone, in music or in nature.

Marilyn de Oliviera at Third Angle’s ‘Solo Hikes.’ Photo: Jacob Wade.

Christina Rusnak’s Glacier Blue came closest to what you’d expect of nature inspired sounds. (Think Vivaldi and other Baroque composers, Debussy, and others who sought to evoke nature’s sights and phenomena through sound painting.) Maybe abetted by the projections of the northern Montana wilderness that inspired it, I could feel the expansiveness of the mountain lake, thrill to the starry sky (evoked by plucked notes), hear the rushing waterfall. To cellist Marilyn de Oliviera (who displayed a lovely, rich tone throughout) and Rusnak’s credit, the piece sounded like an organic whole rather than a succession of programmatic devices.

In fact, the performers, who were deeply involved in the realization of these creations, really deserve equal credit for the success of all three compositions. In Matt Marble’s Arachnomancy, saxophonist John Nastos (plus pre-recorded soundtrack that emitted different electronic textures, from metallic bells to staticky drone) brought a similarly evocative tone and atmosphere, a bit reminiscent of In a Silent Way era Miles Davis’s band or some of Charles Lloyd’s more pastoral passages. Eschewing the complex virtuosity I’ve heard Nastos deploy in jazzier contexts, his long-breathed phrases evoked the orderly beauty of the spider web patterns that inspired it.  I can imagine different interpretations by different instrumentalists with different backgrounds and styles, but this one worked persuasively.

John Nastos at ‘Solo Hikes.’ Photo: Jacob Wade.

Even more than Marble’s, Brian McWhorter’s Outside In depends on the performer and the performance. And it’s even more distant from nature sound painting, because it’s a process piece that, unbeknown to the audience, asks the performer to respond to the ambient sounds he’s hearing in the moment. So if someone dropped a program, say, Oregon Symphony percussionist Sergio Carreno would respond by smacking something that made a similar sound, and incorporate that sound into his repertoire. He entered, sat, and waited.

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Third Angle preview: Natural sounds

New music ensemble's 'Solo Hikes' shows feature nature-inspired commissions from Oregon composers

Oregonians love nature as much as they love music, so to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service, Third Angle New Music artistic director Ron Blessinger commissioned three Oregon composers to write solo pieces for members of the ensemble. “I told them that the subject was nature,” he says, “and they could take that word and run with it in any direction they wanted.”

A hallmark of nature is its diversity, so it’s appropriate that for Third Angle’s “Solo Hikes” concerts Thursday and Friday, the trio chose divergent paths. Portland composer Christina Rusnak, who has participated in various programs that put composers into national parks and other natural spaces, might equip her backpack with staff paper or a digital recorder to help her recall sounds she encounters on a hike. But rather than directly imitating the crackle of a campfire, she’s likelier to write music that conveys “the feeling of the fire… more like the sound of the experience” rather than the fire itself,” she explains. “As artists, we interpret the landscape.” Read Rusnak’s ArtsWatch story on landscape music.

Composer Christina Rusnak.

Rusnak’s Glacier Blue opens by evoking the feeling of approaching the mountains of Glacier National Park earlier this year, “a trip I’ve been wanting to take for at least 10 years, so there’s a lot of anticipation in the first movement,” she explains. The second movement uses plucked strings to suggest twinkling stars in the night sky over the mountains. Her composition’s emphasis on the highest and lowest ranges of the cello, performed by Marilyn de Oliveira, reflects the mountains’ soaring heights and the depths of the park’s waters.

The common element, she later realized: “the idea that mountains look blue, glacial ice looks blue, the waters can be teal or aquamarine.” When she would visit Oregon from Texas, Rusnak noticed that “Most places don’t have skies this blue. And in Glacier, they’re even bluer. So I decided to write about the night sky.”

Two nocturnal movements from Mahler’s seventh symphony proved inspirational, as did advice from a cellist friend in Pennsylvania — and substantial input from Third Angle’s cellist herself. “I told her, ‘Make it your own.’ How you communicate the feeling, the essence of the piece to the audience is more important than getting that dotted eight note perfect. It’s been great to work with her. She’s a tremendous musician.”

Weaving a Web

Even before he left Portland for graduate study in 2008, Matt Marble’s music followed an ancient tradition of music influenced by nature’s patterns, drawing inspiration from botany (such as the ways leaves grow on stems), geometry, crystallography, village design, and Western esoteric traditions like alchemy.

A page from Marble’s graphic score for ‘Arachnomancy.’

“A lot of the music I was doing before I left here was so rooted in Portland’s natural environment,” like using natural objects for instruments and performing outdoors, recalls Marble, who, like Rusnak, has contributed to ArtsWatch. “I stopped doing that once I got to Princeton. As soon as I moved back here last year, I was drawn to doing that again,” as well as frequenting Mount Tabor and other Oregon natural spaces. “It’s been great to reunite with that.”

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Snow Queen 6: Scenes into sounds

Recording the new show’s soundtrack album

Story and photos by BOB KEEFER

Editor’s note: Eugene arts journalist Bob Keefer is tracking Eugene Ballet’s creation of a new version of The Snow Queen.  ArtsWatch will repost the series here after each installment appears on Keefer’s Eugene Art Talk blog.

Something that most people don’t realize about orchestral music is this: It’s very hard for composers ever to hear what their compositions actually sound like.

I’m the first to admit I didn’t fully understand this until recently. Having been fascinated by the idea of computer music ever since I bought an Amiga 1000 computer back in the Bronze Age, I’ve always assumed that all you have to do is lay down MIDI tracks for all your instruments, hit a button, and then the computer plays your new symphony for you.

The occasional dissenting voice I’d hear from people who knew anything about music, I managed to dismiss as elite audiophile grumbling. Boy, was I ever wrong.

Recording engineer Lance Miller runs the sound board at the Snow Queen recording session.

This all came to light this month, when Eugene’s OrchestraNext sat down in a spacious studio at the University of Oregon School of Music and Dance to play – for the first time it’s ever been performed – and record Portland composer Kenji Bunch’s brand-new score for Eugene Ballet’s brand-new production of The Snow Queen.

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Orchestra Next and Eugene Ballet: Creating the total dance experience

Orchestra brings live music to dance, training to musicians, a complete experience to audiences.

By GARY FERRINGTON

When the Eugene Ballet Company performs Sergey Prokofiev’s 1944 ballet Cinderella at Eugene’s Hult Center next weekend, it will do so with live music provided by Orchestra Next, a Eugene-based ensemble founded by UO associate professor of music Brian McWhorter.

The Grand Ball with Yoshie Oshima as Cinderella, Brian Ruiz as Prince Charming. A guest (Isaac Jones) and stepsister Clarinda (Beth Maslinoff) look on. Photo: Toni Pimble.

Live music performances with the Eugene Ballet started three years ago when McWhorter learned from EBC Managing Director Riley Grannan that the 2012 production of Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker would use pre-recorded music as it had in past seasons. McWhorter proposed that he organize an orchestra to perform live with the ballet during its two-day run. Grannan and Artistic Director Toni Pimble agreed and the idea for the orchestra was born.

“We had to put things together very quickly — I think about three months or so,” McWhorter recalls. “There were all sorts of challenges that included getting all the principals on board, auditioning for the student positions, getting the website up and running, generating a buzz, making sure we had all the sheet music, getting insurance, arranging rehearsals, and, of course, raising all the money to pay everyone. The administrative team was just myself and (general manager) Sarah Viens … who continues to be an invaluable asset for the orchestra.”

McWhorter saw an opportunity to both benefit the ballet company by bringing its listeners live music, and to benefit local musicians by creating a long-needed training ensemble that bridges the experiential gap between student and professional musician. “The most iconic examples of training orchestras are the Civic Orchestra of Chicago and New World Symphony — but even these orchestras don’t provide the students the chance to regularly sit next to professionals,” McWhorter explains. “Orchestra Next does. And I think our collaboration with the Eugene Ballet makes us all the more unique.”

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Film Preview: I Live For Art

Oregon-made film chronicles creativity's ups and downs.

By GARY FERRINGTON

“One of the primary revelations that came as we worked on this film was that creativity takes courage.” Renee Slade and Ri Stewart, filmmakers.

Anything that exists must be first imagined, suggests Stanford University professor and composer Mark Applebaum, who along with colleagues musicians-composers Brian McWhorter from the University of Oregon and Juilliard and Manhattan School faculty member Mark Gould, share their “prolific and innovative” creativity with viewers in a new documentary, I Live For Art: A Journey Into Meaning and the Creative Process,  by co-directors/producers Ri Stewart and Renne Slade of Bluedot Productions from Yachats, Oregon. The film shows Wednesday, September 17 in Eugene and Thursday, September 25 in Portland.

Photo 1: Brian McWhorter shares, “Maybe it’s not really the creative insight we’re looking for, but the dark night of the soul,” with Mark Gould. Photo: Bluedot Productions.

Photo 1: Brian McWhorter says, “Maybe it’s not really the creative insight we’re looking for, but the dark night of the soul,” with Mark Gould. Photo: Bluedot Productions.

Contributing perspective to understanding the creative process are mythologist, storyteller and author Michael Mead, theoretical quantum physicist Amit Goswami, and festival/event producer Elliot Rasenick.

It is the creative risk takers, Applebaum and McWhorter note, who are willing to let go of and challenge their own limitations. And that allows them to enter a state of flow in which problems are clarified and solutions imagined — sometime easily, often not. Although they seemingly disagree on specific sources from which inspiration might arise, they both agree with University of Oregon physics professor Goswami’s observation that this ability to imagine, or image solutions, is one of the wonderful attributes that makes humans, human.

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