christina rusnak

Composing in the Wilderness 2: on distant hills

Three Oregon composers journeyed to the Alaskan wilderness, and returned with new music and new perspectives

by BRENT LAWRENCE

Editor’s note: Now in its sixth year, the Composing in the Wilderness program led by adventurer-composer Stephen Lias, is a joint venture between Alaska Geographic, Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival, Denali National Park, and Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve. Nine composers — three from Oregon this year — spend four days in Denali National Park, accompanied by scientists and naturalists as they draw inspiration from the wildlife, geology, scenery, and adventure of their surroundings, then over the next few days, compose new works premiered in Denali National Park and at the Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival. ArtsWatch asked the three Oregon composers to share their response to this unique experience. Here’s Brent Lawrence‘s account. Read Rusnak’s report here and Wright’s next week.

Brent Lawrence, Christian Dubeau, Libby Meyer, Jesse Budel, Aaron Keyt, Christina Rusnak, Sarah Stehn, Dawn Sonntag, Corinna Hogan and Jennifer Wright at 2017 Composing in the Wilderness.

I don’t think it’s any coincidence that three Oregonians happened to participate in this year’s workshop. In fact, I chose to participate in Composing in the Wilderness at the recommendation of three other Oregon composers that had been in years prior.

I’ll admit that I’m a pretty new to Oregon; I’ve only lived here a year. But one of the things I love about this state is the deep connection people have with the outdoors, our public lands, and the existence of wildernesses. Don’t get me wrong, Alaska is impressive no matter who you are, but from my view, as a new Oregonian, this trip gave me a lot of perspective on why people feel so connected to the wilderness. True wilderness, not something I experienced growing up on the east coast, where there are less protected areas.

Brent Lawrence at Composing in the Wilderness.

People seek out wilderness for a variety of reasons. Being a musician, I’m always interested in how things sound. What I found most striking is the silence. Upon moving to Oregon, the first time I got out of the car near the McKenzie Pass, I was shocked at the quiet—and also realized how noisy daily life is.

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Composing in the Wilderness 1: tundra tapestry

Three Oregon composers journeyed to the Alaskan wilderness, and returned with new music and new perspectives

by CHRISTINA RUSNAK

Editor’s note: Now in its sixth year, the Composing in the Wilderness program led by adventurer-composer Stephen Lias, is a joint venture between Alaska Geographic, Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival, Denali National Park, and Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve. Nine composers — three from Oregon this year — spend four days in Denali National Park, accompanied by scientists and naturalists as they draw inspiration from the wildlife, geology, scenery, and adventure of their surroundings. They are then flown by bush plane to the remote Coal Creek Mining Camp in Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve where they spend four more days in intense composition. Finally, they are flown to Fairbanks where they join the other participants at the Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival, where their pieces undergo a few days of intense rehearsals, and then are premiered in Denali National Park and in Fairbanks.

The final concert included Brent Lawrence’s On Distant Hills, Christina Rusnak’s Tundra Tapestry, and Jennifer Wright’s From the Darkness, We Sing the Mighty Land into Being. The three pieces, composed in less than a week, focused on the vastness of the mountains, the tiny detail of the tundra plant life, and the magical nature of the wilderness. ArtsWatch asked the three Oregon composers to share their response to this unique experience. Stay tuned for Brent Lawrence and Jennifer Wright’s reports next week.

When I decided to attend Composing in the Wilderness for a third time this year, many people asked me why. Mostly, I was going again because I needed to.

Portland composer Christina Rusnak at Composing in the Wilderness 2017.

At age 12, I wrote a song titled “A piece of Wilderness.” Who knew how prophetic that song would become for me? In college, a field botany class in Big Bend National Park literally changed my life. I gained a greater appreciation for nature and became a passionate hiker. So, when I met composer Stephen Lias in 2009 and heard his presentation of his first National Parks piece, River Runner – about the Rio Grande in Big Bend National Park, I realized that a significant part of my compositional path would be to compose for, and about, nature, wilderness and place.

When Lias launched Composing in the Wilderness in 2012, I eagerly signed up. Actually, I may have been the first to sign up. My blogs for that trip and for my second foray in 2013, are filled with nearly daily details of the my awe and adventures, of the weather, the scientists, their stories, and of the challenge to compose something meaningful in such a short time span. In 2012, only eight days separated our first step in Denali and the concert! The compositional process, with such a tight time frame, is arduous. Fortunately the Alaska summers are accommodating. (Editor’s note: Listen to Rusnak’s first CitW composition, Flow.)

Since then, I’ve composed for a National Monument, four National Parks and Preserves, a National Forest, a Wild and Scenic River and Oregon State Parks. My personal ethos and actions match my creative output. I’ve written articles and given presentations at the Intertwine Alliance and at the University of Iowa on the importance of Music, Place and Nature. Our public lands are a treasure that requires our care. But going to CitW for a third time? What was I looking for?

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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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A Cascadia Composer in Cuba

A Portland composer brings her music to Havana, and returns with a new perspective on music in everyday life

by CHRISTINA RUSNAK

Editor’s note: with Cascadia Composers bringing Cuban contemporary classical music to Portland for a Friday concert performed by FearNoMusic, we’re sharing Cascadia Composer Christina Rusnak’s experience exploring the Havana music scene and recording her music there last year.

Politics may divide us, but music unites us. In 2015, I was invited by Parma Recordings to come down to Cuba with four other American composers to record our pieces in Havana, Cuba. The focus of much of my musical work is at the intersection of place and culture. To experience Cuban culture and music at this historic juncture – it seemed like destiny called! Along with supervising the recording two of my compositions, I was able to explore Havana and gain some insights on Cuban music, art, and life.

Approaching Havana. Photo: Christina Rusnak.

The piece I submitted was a short work to be sung by the women’s choir Vocal Luna. Written for a wedding, Parma asked if I could I write a companion piece for them to sing. “Yes” is a composer’s best friend, so I finished a funeral piece in January and sent them both off to be rehearsed for the Havana recording session in April 2016.

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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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Landscape Music

The environment inspires today’s composers who write music advocating its protection 

By CHRISTINA RUSNAK

Places, and increasingly wild landscapes, are inspiring, even compelling today’s composers to create a diverse array of new music in a wide breadth of styles. From chamber music to inter-media pieces, from major orchestral works to sound art installations, new music is engaging audiences in compelling ways as composers seek to connect with the world around us — not by replicating the sounds of nature, but by interpreting the landscape and expressing it through sound.

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.

Landscape music has lately been a growing part of Oregon’s musical landscape. For example, Third Angle New Music has showcased sounds of nature in recent shows, including last year’s “Afield” concert featuring composers Justin Ralls, Andrew Stiefel and Nayla Mehdi; a 2013 concert featuring Northwest composer John Luther Adams’s Earth and the Great Weather; and another show with Cappella Romana in A Time for Life, University of Oregon composer Robert Kyr’s “environmental oratorio.” Crazy Jane Composers have often featured environmentally oriented works, including an entire “Inner Nature” concert in 2014. Many Cascadia Composers concerts have featured music celebrating the Northwest’s natural beauty. You’ll find plentiful other recent examples in the ArtsWatch archives.

Other works celebrate our national environmental treasures. Stephen Lias’s orchestral work transports me to the gates of the Arctic. I can feel the cold tidal waters through Northwest composer Alex Shapiro’s string quintet, Current Events.  Michael Gordon’s Natural History, premiered in July 2016, immerses us into Crater Lake’s multilayered geological and cultural landscape. On September 14 at Portland’s Old Church Concert Hall, Eugene composer Justin Ralls will present a reading of Two Yosemites: An Environmental Chamber Opera that he says explores “a pivotal moment in the history of the American environmental movement.”

Crater Lake, during the July 2016performance of Michael Gordon's "Natural History." Photo: Christina Rusnak.

Crater Lake, during the July 2016 performance of Michael Gordon’s “Natural History.” Photo: Christina Rusnak.

By creating works that look to the diverse landscapes in which we live as a foundation, composers expand our musical palette. Today’s composers are innovative—not merely in musical practice but also in exploring different approaches to new music, by examining the roles in our society, civic engagement, our connection to nature, and in celebration of heritage. They are connecting with audiences in musically new ways.

Perpetual Transition

Our environment — the physical landscape — has influenced musical creation for eons. For centuries, people have orchestrated their lives by the chaotic and transitory nature of the sea, the landscape, and its arteries. The environment is not a merely a rigid, static location, but a highly nuanced layering of shifting, transitory elements: buildings, natural spaces, waterways, transportation and commercial systems, and our shared human experiences. Whether we are walking, biking, floating, or driving, the nature of experiencing place is also transitory.

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Cascadia Composers and Northwest Piano Trio reviews: The Color of Magic

Two concerts featured contemporary Oregon classical music. One succeeded.

by MARIA CHOBAN

Lights out. In a dark cavernous church, twinkling blue Christmas lights bob their way to a harpsichord. They tilt over it, no doubt praying. They un-tilt and lower onto a bench. The instrument emits a long sustaining moan.

THE HARPSICHORD SUSTAINS??!!??? What spell has been cast?

Je

Jennifer Wright.

No time to think, the blue lights are driving the instrument to react. Like T-cells attacking an infection, the notes bombard the drone. Above, a screen displays the sound waves — oscillating, colliding, and my growing anxiety isn’t “How did composer, Jennifer Wright, achieve this?” It’s “OMG, Who or What is going to Win? How will this play out?” In You Cannot Liberate Me, Only I Can Do That for Myself, the composer/performer has managed to translate a creative concept/challenge (how to sustain a percussive sound) into a universal dilemma (how to deal with the new: fight it, ward it off, accept?). To be fair, I figured this out long after the performance, but only because the gnawing anxiety pestered me to work through it, to come to closure.

Science transcends process. Houston, we have Magic.

Lately more and more Oregon indie classical and even establishment classical groups are starting to realize the value of programming new and locavore music. It’s a really good sign of a developing homegrown alt.classical scene that’s not depending on dead Europeans and insular New Yorkers. I want all these groups who are playing homegrown 21st century music to succeed because Oregon draws outlaws, visionary DIYers who don’t just want to make it in New York and LA—they have something to say to today’s audiences. Oregon can be the role model for LA, New York, Paris.

But new and local are only the beginning, necessary but not sufficient if classical music is to (re)connect with broader Oregon audiences. The events need to appeal broadly, unless you just want a niche audience. And niches won’t sustain new classical music.

Multimedia helps. Taking the performances out of churches and auditoriums and staging them in bars and black box theaters helps. Dressing down or up (anything but black nightgowns) helps. Choosing a program that takes the audience on a ride helps.

Alas, even these ingredients are necessary but still not sufficient. To draw broad audiences, the essential element that must be cultivated is Magic.

Magic is not learned; it is omnipresent — there for the taking. It is the thing we often discount, the first feeling that comes up, the first glib utterance out of our mouths when throwing around ideas. Magic can only be welcomed in when she subtly drops a bomb in your ear. Or not; one can opt out, thinking the voice is too crazy, will offend too many people or the wrong person, and do the safe, sane, currently-in-mode thing and hope it’s enough to generate ticket revenue to cover what the RACC grant doesn’t. And the creative concept itself is only a start — much more Magic, courage to support the magic inspirations and lots of grunt work (including practice/rehearsal hours) are needed on this yellow brick road to the Emerald City.

Two concerts featuring new music by Oregon composers showed what can happen when presenters listen for Magic and then vest themselves in the quest of fulfilling that inspiration … and what happens when they don’t.

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