TBA Preview: Flying Blind: Third Angle’s “In the Dark”


What you'll see at Third Angle New Music's concerts this week.

What you’ll see at Third Angle New Music’s concerts this week.

Portland’s Third Angle New Music ensemble has been investigating the frontiers of contemporary classical music for more than a quarter century, but this week, it’s exploring territories none of its members have glimpsed before. They won’t see much this Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday nights, either, inasmuch as they’ll be performing 60-year-old Austrian-Swiss composer Georg Friedrich Haas’s third string quartet in the utter darkness of the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry planetarium. Yet musicians and audience alike will have a musical experience like no other. “I think everyone in the performance is going to be seeing a lot in their mind’s eye,” says 3A music director and violinist Ron Blessinger.

While, as usual with the 28-year-old ensemble, the 2003 piece certainly gives listeners a taste of one of classical music’s current directions, Third Angle’s performance, presented by Portland Institute of Contemporary Arts’ Time-Based Arts Festival, also offers points of connection to fans of older music, including its original inspiration: the haunting old Catholic tenebrae service in which candles are extinguished one by one, which has been the genesis of music by composers for centuries. For all its modernist process and concepts, “I was really impressed how [Haas] uses contemporary techniques to evoke old primal ideas — heaven and hell, grace and sin,” Blessinger told Oregon ArtsWatch. “At times it sounds like you’re in oldest church in the world, then there’s a [musical] quote from Gesualdo,” the innovative Italian Renaissance composer and murderer.

That ending gesture, and the opening, are the only explicitly prescribed moments in the score, really more of a set of instructions, which in lieu of traditional notation offers 18 “invitations” that any of the four musicians can accept – by playing one of the musical phrases – or not, and in any order they choose at the moment. Once one of them makes one of those gestures, the other three must follow through by improvising on chains of specified chord progressions, until one of the players signals that it’s time to move on to the next.

Ron Blessinger performed at Third Angle's Porch Music earlier this summer.

Ron Blessinger performed at Third Angle’s Porch Music earlier this summer.

“It’s not random but not predetermined, either,” Blessinger explains. “We’re selling tickets to a performance of us having a conversation,  and we need to have faith that our conversation will be interesting. We rely on Haas to give us a map of that conversation, but it’s not strictly interpreted.”

If that sounds a little like jazz, well, it definitely leaves more choices up to the players than classical musicians are accustomed to, which is one reason why it’s impossible to say just how long the performance will last – from 35 minutes to much longer, depending on the choices the musicians make. And that challenge is what inspired Blessinger and his colleagues (violinist Greg Ewer, violist Charles Noble, cellist Marilyn De Oliveira), all experienced in classic and contemporary music, to accept Haas’s invitation to explore unknown territory — not just limited improvisation, but also physical separation from each other,  score-less playing, unusual timbres and effects, and the tuning system known as just intonation; there are moments when the players leave the compromised standard equal temperament used in Western music for the past century or so and play instead in “natural” tunings common in pre-industrial age music.

“We like to stay fresh and stay alive in music,” Blessinger says, “and this gives us that opportunity.” You can read more of Blessinger’s explanation of the quartet at Third Angle’s blog.

But while it’s brave and valuable for veteran musicians to encourage their artistic growth by pushing themselves to try unusual (for classical players) techniques, what’s in it for the listeners? In fact, “In the Dark’s” in-the-moment spontaneity may be what transforms the Haas quartet from merely another conceptual modernist “process” work into a musical adventure implied by the title: the musicians and audience alike are in the dark about exactly what comes next. “That comes through,” Blessinger says. “The audience appreciates the fact that that moment is unique to them, and to us. It’s not a Brahms sextet that you’ve heard for the hundredth time.”

Third Angle New Music performs “In the Dark” Tuesday and Wednesday night at 7:30 pm, and Thursday night/Friday morning at midnight at OMSI Planetarium, 
1945 SE Water Ave


Jonathan Sielaff and the Julians joined Nick Hallett at TBA Sunday.

Jonathan Sielaff and the Julians joined Nick Hallett at TBA Sunday.

On Sunday, another TBA performance gave audience members an immersive, partially improvised experience. A couple weeks earlier, at vocal workshop at PICA, singer/composer/keyboard player Nick Hallett, who studied both music and linguistics in college, described the various inspirations behind his aesthetic. Drawing on the concept of “paralanguage” (the non-verbal aspects of communication like ironic tone of voice — “yeah, right”) articulated by Roland Barthes, “I’m interested in art that moves in and out of language,” Hallett said, and specifically “liberating singers from relying on language without throwing out language altogether… I’m expressing meaning through paralanguage not words.” So, what was the beyond-words meaning articulated by Hallett’s blissful multimedia “Rainbow Passage” performed at TBA Sunday night? Roughly: the ’70s are back. See my Willamette Week review.

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