Two people are walking through a bare, cold wood….
The moon moves along above tall oak trees
A few years ago, Hunter Noack invited trees to an indoor concert. The Oregon-born pianist was performing Transfigured Night at London’s Barbican Center, and Arnold Schoenberg’s famous 1899 composition musically depicted a poem set in a dark forest — so Noack brought in 50 trees, playing the music as audience and actors dramatizing the story wandered through the impromptu indoor arbor.
“People responded to hearing classical music in a different environment,” Noack recalled, “so I thought ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to to use the actual outdoors?’” in a performance.
This month, Noack, who now lives in Portland, is realizing that idea with “In a Landscape,” nine performances of classical and contemporary music in outdoor locations in the Portland area. Instead of bringing the trees to the music, he’s bringing music to the trees. But the series, which began this past weekend and continues through September 1, is more than just alfresco classical music. It also uses today’s technology to augment the musical experience and connects today’s listeners (including some new to classical music) to a vital part of America’s artistic heritage, and to its perpetrator’s own childhood.
It’s no surprise that the 27-year-old Noack, who was born in Newport, would want to connect nature and classical music. They were the two most important parts of his life growing up in Sunriver and Bend. His mother directed the Sunriver Music Festival, which brought classical musicians, including medalists from the famous Van Cliburn piano competition, to his hometown every year. “Those are the people I looked up to,” remembers Noack, who started playing piano at age 4. And “when I wasn’t practicing, I spent all my time outside.”
Those idyllic Oregonian days ended when the 13-year-old Noack departed for high school at Michigan’s renowned Interlochen Arts Academy to develop his prodigious pianistic talents. He followed his teacher there to the prestigious San Francisco Conservatory of Music, then moved to Los Angeles to study with another respected teacher at the University of Southern California.
His closest friends there were involved in theater, a long time interest of Noack’s, and he began writing music for their college plays and films, while they would sometimes dramatize poems and stories at his piano recitals. When he moved back to the Bay Area after college, Noack says, he and a friend from Interlochen created an immersive play based on music by Ravel, which Noack played on a piano perched on a central platform while the audience walked through the set around the room.
Noack chose London’s Guildhall School for graduate study from 2012-14 precisely because of its dual emphasis on music and drama. He earned acclaim from the likes of composer/pianist Thomas Ades in performances there.
Noack’s path back to Oregon began in 2013 when a friend who also knew Pink Martini founder-pianist Thomas Lauderdale invited Noack to the band’s 2013 London show, where their mutual friend introduced them. When Noack caught their Paris show a few months later, he mentioned that he’d be back in his — and Pink Martini’s — home state in summer 2014 to play Robert Schumann’s piano concerto at the Sunriver Festival. Lauderdale offered an Oregon practice space: his downtown Portland loft and piano, which Noack was welcome to use while the band was on tour. The two pianists’ friendship blossomed, they began dating, and after the festival, Noack moved to Portland, where he now lives with Lauderdale, who, along with fellow Martini members China Forbes and Nicholas Crosa and other guests will join Noack for some In a Landscape performances.
As he’s explored the city’s burgeoning music scene, Noack admires the fact that so many classical musicians are “experimenting and trying different things,” he says, and “people are so enthusiastic and willing to support” experimental fare like the Time Based Art Festival. “Of course, the classical concert experience is so far behind any other contemporary music experience, which might have a light show, dancers… it’s like a circus. The fact that classical shows are starting to try things now is great but a lot of the execution is terrible,” he says. “In Portland, there are good ideas, but not all of them are well thought out. People tend to stop with a good idea and be a little lazy about their art.”
Noack doesn’t hesitate to apply his high standards to his own “In a Landscape,” the first time he’s attempted an outdoor project without benefit of production touches like lights and amplification. Playing music outside may look beautiful, but the acoustics can pose challenges, with the sound easily dissipating or being distorted by amplification. Noack’s solution: passing out wireless Sennheiser headphones (made possible with support from the Regional Arts & Culture Council and arts patron Jordan Schnitzer) to attendees who want to use them, beaming the music he’s playing to them via radio frequencies, even enhancing the sound a bit with digital magic to make it sound even more like a concert hall.
“There’s no barrier between your brain and the headphones,” Noack explains. “There’s something powerful about having a personal experience but also sharing it with other people. It’s not isolating.” Audience members are free to listen to Noack’s performance with only their own ears, of course, but the headphone system potentially provides an immersive, intimate listening experience richer than what you’d hear in the wind-whipped Columbia Gorge. Listeners can escape the confines of chairs and gaze out at Oregon’s natural splendor, while hearing great, often nature-related solo piano and chamber music by composers like Debussy, Mozart, Copland, longtime Oregonian Ernest Bloch, Mendelssohn, contemporary Turkish composer/pianist Fazil Say, Schubert, Ravel, and John Cage, whose evocative piano solo gave the series its name, interspersed with texts by Opal Whitely, Hilda Conkling, Walt Whitman, and Oregon poet laureate William Stafford.
That’s the idea, anyway. But despite having obtained the system from LA’s acclaimed The Industry, which won national acclaim for staging operas in the city’s train station and even in cars, the first two performances somewhat disappointed Noack’s exacting ears.
“The technology has been a major sore spot,” he admits, noting that the headphones suffered from some radio interference. “They’re good headphones, but not as good as I wanted them to be. I wanted for you to put them on and they’d transport you into another world. It’s only worth doing headphones if we can have that kind of experience. We’re gonna figure out how to make that happen… so in the next phase we’ll know we’re getting the absolute best equipment.” After some scrambling, Noack has obtained a different headphone system for the performances beginning Thursday, August 25.
Bringing Music to the People
Despite the technical difficulties, the project has achieved Noack’s primary goals, including making high level classical music accessible to new audiences. In this respect, Noack was inspired by the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration, which among many other economic stimuli helped fund artists during the Great Depression of the 1930s, helping them survive and bringing their work to broad audiences via free and low cost performances and exhibitions. Noack wanted to remind today’s listeners of the role public support can play in the arts.
“In the spirit of the WPA, I wanted everything free or donation based,” he explains. “I think it’s important for it to be non-exclusive from a both financial and location perspective.”
Thanks to the RACC grant, performances are by donation, making it possible for anyone to experience them. (Tickets are still needed for seats, and all the remaining shows are sold out except for the August 29 show at downtown Portland’s Director Park.) Portland’s Michelle’s Pianos contributed brand new Steinway B pianos. At the performance at Vista House in the Columbia Gorge, a couple of boys asked if they could play it. One started hesitantly playing a J.S. Bach prelude, then stumbled a bit. Lauderdale, who was performing in the show, helped him get straightened out.
“Most people don’t get to play an $80,000 piano,” Noack says. “When it’s on a stage, you wouldn’t hop up from the audience and try it out. But here, people feel comfortable approaching it. People light up — it brings them so much joy.” (Noack is also performing in another outdoor effort to bring pianos to everyone this weekend, PianoPushPlay’s final 2016 summer concert.) He says audiences have responded warmly to the opening performances.
Audience members helped out at Timberline when the winds kicked up, holding the music fast to the music stands during cellist Pansy Chang and violinist Nicholas Crosa’s performance. The gusts also intruded on Noack’s performance of Franz Liszt’s “A Sigh,” a clutch of motorcyclists rumbled by as he pounded out Frederic Rzewski’s “Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues.” Didn’t faze him.
“I was smiling for half the concert, loving the chaos,” he says, in contrast to the headphone headaches. “Part of the adventure is letting the wildness of every venue play into the experience.”
The WPA model offers another lesson for today, Noack says: the value of commitment to craft. After the show at Mt. Hood’s Timberline Lodge, which the WPA paid local artisans (stonecutters, weavers, carpenters, landscapers, architects, and even less-skilled locals willing to learn) to create during the Depression, Noack and friends marveled at the handmade chairs and other furniture, the “amazing detail that woodworkers took to create the posts at top of the stairs. We were lamenting how this kind of thing would never be built today,” Noack recalls. “None of this stuff could be done by hands that hadn’t done this for 10,000 hours. I think it’s unfortunate that so much is being built today that lacks that amount of taste and craftsmanship. By bringing people to Timberline Lodge, I hoped that it would light a spark of curiosity about what inspired a group of people to get together and make something like this.” Today, he notes, most such work is outsourced to places like China and “there’s less value placed on becoming a craftsman.”
The same goes for musicians. “To be an amazing classical pianist or violinist, you have to work on it and spend hours and hours practicing,” Noack insists. “You couldn’t just franchise it out. I would like this project to remind people that it’s more precious to dedicate your life to a craft than to make a lot of money running a chain of cheap stores. The part of the American dream that says we can choose what we want to do, that we can dedicate our lives to that passion whether building chairs or leading people … that’s the part of the American dream that WPA embodied.”
Noack’s own art and craft will be on display this October in Portland, where he’s working with Oregon Ballet Theater in a live performance of Franz Liszt’s music, delivered from a nine-foot Steinway on a platform amid the dancers onstage, during a new dance by Resident Choreographer Nicolo Fonte. June finds him with Northwest Dance Project’s revival of its Chopin Project, with Noack performing all 24 of the composer’s Etudes to dances by a quartet of choreographers.
Then next summer, he hopes to return to the original vision that produced In a Landscape: a portable pop up stage on a trailer, with a nine foot Steinway, 50-100 (better) headphones, and the other gear. “We cruise around the state from the Steens Mountains to the desert to the coast and bring classical music to Oregon,” Noack says. “We roll into a park or town square or schoolhouse, and I do what I love to do,” reliving his idyllic childhood combo: classical music and outdoor Oregon.