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Third Angle New Music preview: The Sound of the Pacific Northwest

October 29, 2014


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.

AW: Tell us about your interest in the soundscape and how your interaction with it has influenced your work.

Ralls: “I have always felt a deep connection to nature and for awhile considered this incompatible with what I was doing musically,” Ralls remembers, until he heard John Luther Adams’s Strange and Sacred Noise, a composition about melting ice, rivers and thunder. It represented for Ralls “an alternative to the aesthetic philosophy of most composers I’d experienced creating traditionally oriented instrumental works that had direct relationship to nature.”

“The natural soundscape became relevant musically and I soon adapted my own approach, imagining works that would be performed outdoors; the physical journey for performer and audience analogous to the spiritual journey of reorienting cultural roots to the sonic environment (I found later that JLA had actually done this as well!). Until I can convince performers and ensembles to go hiking with me, pre-recorded soundscapes will have to do.”

Mehdi: “I’ve always enjoyed the notion that any sound could be source material for a piece of music. My first field recordings were of traffic sounds collected in my hometown of Beirut, Lebanon. Since then, as I’ve learned more about field recording techniques and studied issues in acoustic ecology and soundscape composition, I haven’t been able stay away from the organic nature that field recordings bring to a piece of electronic music.”

Stiefel: Interest in field recording and nature sound came about the time Stiefel went on a UO School of Music and Dance soundwalk. Stiefel knew that he would be spending a few weeks that fall as an artist-in-residence at Crater Lake and found that the sound walk “really opened up for me how sounds constitute and create a unique space.”

After his stint at Crater Lake, Stiefel realized how much more he needed to learn about field recording. The following summer he worked with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology at their annual field recording workshop in the Sierra Nevadas of California. “This was probably the most influential experience,” he notes. “The opportunity to learn and work alongside scientists making an effort to preserve animals and their habitats by studying soundscapes was incredibly inspiring.”

AW: What is it about the acoustic environment of Pacific Northwest that influences and/or is reflected in your work?

Ralls: “The Pacific Northwest is the most relevant environment for me, since I’ve lived here all my life. The first piece I composed for Third Angle, Anthrophony, was inspired by Portland’s Oaks Bottom Wildlife Refuge. Listening to the natural soundscape of a wetland, with birds, trees, and critters all juxtaposed with distant city sounds was revelatory. I came to the conclusion that if humans have to make noise in these places it should be music, which has the ability to commune with the environment rather than dominate and disrupt it.”

Mehdi: “My first experience of living in a place with little or no traffic noise was in Eugene. Being able to quietly sit in my apartment, I was able to appreciate the sounds of birds, frogs, rain (of all different kinds), and the distant sound of trains. In addition, there were many hiking excursions in the woods, around creeks, and waterfalls. And while walking on secluded paths I’d hear wonderful new sounds. I became a more attentive listener while living in nature’s patient quietude.”

Stiefel: “I think it depends on the piece and the source material. My work as the artist-in-residence at Crater Lake is intimately bound to that location, but the piece on this program extends beyond the Pacific Northwest. It particularly references where I grew up in the South, although the sounds are also tied to the changing landscapes of Oregon. In a larger sense, though, I think the acoustic and physical environment here have influenced my taste and perception of music and sound. In Texas, I was very much interested in expansive sounds—orchestrations using large intervals to cover the range of the keyboard or large, leaping melodic phrases. I think this reflected the expansive skies and light that fill that part of the country. Here, I have become much more interested in how sounds might be obscured, layered, or blended, similar to the way the shifting rains and fog here obscure the hills and trees and refract the light.”

AW: Do you consider your work to be more in the soundscape composition tradition of Hildegard Westerkamp, the acousmatic/musique concrete form of Pierre Schaeffer, that of John Luther Adams, or other?

Ralls: “When I was studying in Boston, I was very interested in acousmatic music and was particularly influenced by Pierre Schaefer’s sound object and the idea of any sound having musical possibility.” But, Ralls adds, “My interest in natural soundscapes originally came from Bernie Krause, who is a compassionate advocate for the primacy of listening to the natural world, not as sonic resource per se, but something that must be communed with. In this way my music is most aligned with John Luther Adams.”

Mehdi: “I believe most of my early work was in the tradition of Pierre Schaeffer; manipulating field recordings and removing them from their original context.” Mehdi notes, “I recently read an essay by Barry Truax that touches on the idea of merging the study of acoustic communication with composition. It mentions that listening is a multileveled endeavor that involves various degrees of conscious attention, and by using the artificiality of electroacoustic techniques, one can better amplify the meanings and relationships that sound creates for a listener in environmental contexts. That methodology has stuck with me and I try to explore and experiment with it in my piece for this concert.”

Stiefel: “Of the three, I would place my work closer to the soundscape compositions by Hildegard Westerkamp, although since I tend to work primarily with acoustic instruments reinforced by acousmatic sound, I think it exists in a slightly different space. All three composers listed have influenced my work, but unlike any of them, I build from how sounds function in a soundscape. All sounds carry information, and I find these networks of meaning and intersection fascinating. They bind us to locations but also to each other and specific moments in time.”

AW: Are there soundscape, acousmatic, or other composers inspired by the sounds in nature who have influenced your work?

Ralls: “John Luther Adams has been, by far, the largest influence philosophically.”  Ralls then adds, “There are many other composers who incorporate natural soundscape with live acoustic performance. I believe the first occurrence was the end of the third movement of Ottorino Respighi’s Pines of Rome (1924), where a recording of a nightingale plays along with the orchestra. It’s one of my favorite musical moments ever. Other orchestra works that developed this idea include Cantus Arcticus: Concerto for Birds and Orchestra by Einojuhani Rautavaara and And God Created Great Whales by Alan Hovhaness, both works composed in the early seventies.”

Mehdi: “I’ve been most challenged by the writings and philosophies of various composers and writers, such as Barry Truax, Morton Feldman, Phill Niblock, and Kaija Saariaho. I believe I enjoy my flow of work when all the ideas that I’ve been reading about come together and are translated into my music.”

Stiefel: “The French spectral composers have particularly influenced me, although their work is not strictly related to soundscapes. What I love about this music is how they take an individual sound, say two harmonics on the cello, and by expanding that moment can create an entire world within a sound. This sort of poetic relationship with sound—expanding moments and opening up spaces we might not have heard otherwise—is what I love about soundscape composition. Kaija Saariaho is probably the composer from this school who has influenced me the most. American composer Benjamin Broening’s work has been influential as well—I really love how his music can seamlessly blend electronic and acoustic instrument sounds. The list would also include David Monacchi, Salvatore Sciarrino, R. Murray Schafer and Toru Takemitsu.”

AW: Please tell us about the works we will hear in the Afield concert.

Ralls: “The Third Angle ensemble will be presenting two pieces of mine: the first, Nightpsalm, is for solo flute and soundscape. The second piece, Afield, is a piece for flute, violin, and soundscape and will act as a companion piece to Nightpsalm, expanding on its themes of using the soundscape as a place for human musical expression.” Ralls notes that his preference is for the audience and performers to experience his music as if they were outdoors in the soundscape itself.  “I seek to recreate a part of what it’s like to experience nature through its sound, as the beautiful expression of life that it is, and to remind through music how much we are also part of this beauty,” he says.

Mehdi: “My Five Scenes is for flute, clarinet, violin/viola, and multimedia. These miniature scenes represent thoughts that merge the sights and sounds of nature with the different ideals of Japanese aesthetics that include simplicity, modesty, sensitivity, subtle refinement, and the understanding of and engagement with impermanence. The sounds of nature, as reflected in the acoustic instruments, is merged with electroacoustically manipulated field recordings.”

Stiefel: “Five Ways of Listening to the Mockingbird is a new work commissioned by Third Angle and is scored for flute, clarinet, and bassoon with electronics. Every sound carries with it a multitude of information and connects us to the soundscape around us, and to each other. We use sound, or music, to define who we are—which in turn is often bound to perceptions of class, ethnicity, and education, whether we are aware of it or not. Sound also tells us about a location and can be an indicator of the health of an ecosystem. How, then, do we listen? Are we listening to the interconnected ecosystem around us? Are we listening to each other? What does the mockingbird’s song mean?”

Third Angle New Music performs music by Justin Ralls, Andrew Stiefel, and Nayla Mehdi Thursday and Friday at 7:30 pm, Studio 2 at Zoomtopia, 810 SE Belmont, Portland.

Gary Ferrington is a Senior Instructor Emeritus, Instructional Systems Technology, College of Education, University of Oregon. He is currently the Secretary for the World Forum for Acoustic Ecology and author of several articles on soundscape studies. He is also an advocate for new music and coordinates OAW’s Oregon ComposersWatch.

Zoomtopia Studio 2 is a new location for Third Angle concert events. Credit: Zoomtopia.

Zoomtopia Studio 2 is a new location for Third Angle concert events. Credit: Zoomtopia.

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