third angle new music ensemble

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.


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.”


Third Angle reviews: Memory pieces

New music ensemble members give sympathetic performances of contemporary compositions of varying emotional impact


Third Angle New Music aims to be Portland’s picture window to the big ideas and trends in contemporary classical music. They’ve started off the current season with strong outings in both “concert” and “studio” series: in the former, all three Steve Reich string quartets, and in the latter, indefatigable pianist Susan Smith in this week’s solo showcase of works by Bang on a Can co-founder David Lang, Portland’s own Michael Johanson (a colleague of mine in Cascadia Composers) and New York composer Timo Andres.

I’m not sure all the works presented count as successes, but that’s no fault of the performers. In particular it’s hard to imagine a more faithful presentation of composers’ work than Smith’s, and you can still catch her performing tonight in Portland’s Studio 2@N.E.W.


Third Angle preview: Reich on Rails

Portland new music ensemble's concerts celebrate the 80th birthday of one of the world's greatest living composers

When Steve Reich was a child in the 1940s, his parents separated, one living in California, the other New York. The young Jewish boy rode the rails back and forth across the country to see them.

Meanwhile, in Europe, other Jewish children were riding very different trains, taking them to their death in Nazi concentration camps. Had circumstances been different, Reich, now one of the world’s most revered composers, might have been one of them.

Third Angle string quartet. Photo: Evan Lewis.

Third Angle string quartet. Photo: Evan Lewis.

Reich musically portrayed these different fates in his 1988 composition Different Trains, which blended the recorded voices of Holocaust survivors (including one from Portland), the governess who accompanied Reich on those journeys, and a Pullman porter of the time with string quartet music whose rhythms were based on the rhythms of their speech.

This weekend, just days before his October 3 birthday, Portland’s Third Angle New Music performs that work and Reich’s two other string quartets in concerts that celebrate the composer’s 80th birthday, joining a long list of orchestras and ensembles around the world honoring one of America’s most revered musical originals.


Weekly MusicWatch: Space frogs, party operas, new music

It's time to celebrate in Oregon music this week

On stage this weekend around Oregon: pair of opera parties—one set at a masked ball, the other featuring music for wedding parties and drinking songs—joins new music by Oregon composers in no fewer than eight shows, a pair of top choral concerts, and a musical for horns about interplanetary frogs. Plus chamber music, orchestra music, Indian music, Japanese music and more.

Third Angle New Music
April 21-2
Studio 2@Zoomtopia, 810 SE Belmont, Portland
Multitalented Oregon Symphony bassoonist Evan Kuhlmann programmed, arranged and stars in a show featuring music by Pulitzer Prize winning American composers Steve Reich (his zingy Electric Counterpoint, composed for jazz guitar god Pat Metheny, here somehow transformed into a bassoon showcase) and David Lang (the wittily titled Press/Release, which refers not to media relations but to operating a keyed instrument), plus compositions by Frank Zappa and Kuhlmann himself.

Northwest Horn Orchestra
April 21
Alberta Rose Theater, 3000 NE Alberta, Portland
For their tenth anniversary party, a dozen and a half of the region’s top horn players play music by Bach, Barber, the Beach Boys, the Beatles, Debussy, and more — including the world’s first French horn musical, Marshification, about alien amphibian invaders. Does Trump know about this?

PICA brings Japanese sound artist Tetsuo Amide's latest creation.

PICA brings Japanese sound artist Tetsuo Umeda’s latest creation to Portland.

Tetsuya Umeda
April 22
Old Freeman Factory, 2638 NW Wilson St., Portland
Portland Institute of Contemporary Art brings the Osaka-based sound and installation artist to “create a sonic landscape from characteristics found above the ceiling or behind the wall, in lighting systems and structures, and construction of the building.”


Third Angle New Music and FearNoMusic reviews: Midcentury Euro-modernism

Portland new music groups' excursions into 20th century Italian and Dutch sounds don't always connect with 21st century American ears.

On paper (or, this being the 21st century, screen), Third Angle’s March Made in Italy concert shouldn’t have worked for me. The program consisted of post-World War II Italian music, and with some exceptions, I’m generally no fan of European mid-century modernist sounds, which often sought to avoid the kind of emotional expressivity that many postwar artists connected with the horrors of the two world wars.

That music has its American fans, and some of it does connect with broader audiences, even me, but many midcentury composers’ renunciation of traditional notions of melody, harmony and rhythm tended to drive many American music lovers away from classical concert halls and into the sultry arms of vixen jazz and rock, which were eager to lavish upon music lovers those now forbidden fruits. And plenty of other composers were still writing equally innovative music that didn’t eschew those virtues, but the cool kid midcentury academic modernists tended to lump them in with the actual throwback conservatives, so their music often failed to receive the attention accorded the Euromodernists.

Third Angle New Music played Italian music at the Portland Art Museum. Photo: Christopher Peddecord

Third Angle New Music played Italian music at the Portland Art Museum. Photo: Christopher Peddecord

So my expectations were low as I settled into my seat at the Portland Art Museum’s Kridel Ballroom, and they sank further as we endured not one but two introductions before hearing a note played. Someday, classical musicians will understand what many other musicians have realized: that talking before the first sound emerges usually punctures the inherent drama of the opening number.

That turned out to be the most conservative and ultimately least interesting piece on the program, Luigi Dallapiccola’s 1951 homage to his Baroque predecessor Giuseppe Tartini. Composed just before hair-shirt modernism took hold, the piano and violin duet reminiscent of other 20th century homages by, for example, Stravinsky and Respighi, and made an easy transition to the stranger — and surprisingly for me, at least — strangely compelling works to follow.


Chamber Blast ready for takeoff

14 days, 14 concerts, two earfuls of great music


Portland’s first ever Chamber Blast rockets off this month, catapulting the city out of its post-holiday doldrums. Kicked up by an impressive roster of chamber musicians, this whirlwind of musical energy seemed to surprise even the five Portland organizations involved in the scheduling. “Five of us – Chamber Music NW, Friends of Chamber Music, Portland Piano International, Third Angle New Music Ensemble and Portland Youth Philharmonic – realized we were offering 14 different chamber concerts over 14 days in January,” said Chamber Music Northwest’s executive director Peter Bilotta to ArtsWatch. “Compete or collaborate? It’s much more fun to get together and celebrate this fantastic music together – and we hope audiences will enjoy it as well. Our wonderful Oregon Community Foundation provided us a little help, and we were off and running!”

Friends of Chamber Music open Chamber Blast with a return of the Takács Quartet, the only string quartet to be inducted into Gramophone’s Hall of Fame. Other highlights to the Chamber Blast include Third Angle’s presentation of Vedanā, Thai composer Narong Prangcharoen’s horn trio commissioned by Third Angle in 2011. The Portland Youth Philharmonic’s Camerata Ensemble, made up of advanced music students performing more challenging repertoire with an eye towards modernity, will present 20th-century Romanian composer George Enescu’s Octet for strings.

Chamber Music Northwest teams with North Portland’s gastropub staple The Old Gold to pair whiskey tastings with a concert benefitting The Protégé Project, CMNW’s initiative to bring the best young musicians to Portland. And because everyone understands that a piano is a small orchestra unto itself, Portland Piano International’s solo pianists are included on the Chamber Blast schedule. PPI gets an additional gold star for presenting the only free concert during Chamber Blast: Rachel Kudo, the first pianist presented in PPI’s Rising Star Series, performs Saturday, January 31.

A quick guide to all the Chamber Blast events infusing this first month of 2015 with musical vitality:


Oregon ArtsWatch Archives