by JEFF WINSLOW
Composers often have fraught relationships with text, unlike songwriters, who cheerfully shoulder the familial responsibility of marrying text to music, popping out song-child after song-child. Some composers emulate monks, staying as far away as possible, while others only let text into their creations as a domestic servant, forced to repeat mindlessly while the music comes and goes as it pleases. (Of course, as many a barstool debate on the subject brings up, a number of composers have fallen in love with text and become supportive songwriters too.) Then there are the bad boys and bad girls, the texts your parents / teachers warned you about. They seduce composers into dangerous, even impossible relationships.
Third Angle’s latest concert celebrating the spoken word, Hearing Voices 4.0, at southeast Portland’s Zoomtopia studio 2 on November 13-14, was full of such texts. Violinists Ron Blessinger and Emily Cole, violist Charles Noble, and cellist Marilyn de Oliveira gave committed performances of works by Portland composer Jay Derderian, Chicago composer LJ White, and recently passed Boston composer Lee Hyla. But the poets not only had the last word, they also left a trail of, if not broken hearts, at least spurned overtures.
Derderian came off the most understanding lover. His nervous, atmospheric music for violin and viola duo, Frozen Smolder, deferentially framed acclaimed West Coast writer and architect Sandra Stone’s charnel house of a poem, which lavishes the same kind of richly evocative detail on scenes from the trenches of World War I that the Romantics once reserved for babbling brooks in sighing forests. Any attempt to match the poem image for image would have been melodramatic at best and futile at worst. Instead, Derderian’s music left us space for the kind of stunned response that seems the only humane one possible. Stone’s absorbing narration was underscored by a backdrop on which some of the poem’s most striking phrases were written in giant script. (The room-spanning backdrop, designed by PLACE studio, was an inspired addition, cutting off visual and acoustic dead zones and creating an intimacy missing in previous Third Angle concerts here.)
Wilder Shores, a near-sonnet sequence by Lents twin-brothers-made-good Matthew and Michael Dickman, has a different kind of poetic richness. Its idyllic images, which might be from a story of love or maybe just obsession, gradually split up and rejoin in multifarious ways, giving both depth of perspective and sheer kaleidoscopic beauty. The brothers split up the reading while stationed on either side of Blessinger and de Oliveira, who charged through a highly colorful score that seemed to incorporate about every way of getting sound out of a violin and cello anyone has ever imagined. White made the most distinctive musical statement of the night, but its relationship with the text was a stormy one, as they often seemed at odds.
The Dickmans also gave a refreshingly clear and well-paced reading of Allen Ginsberg’s larger-than-life, breakout poem / prayer / harangue Howl. The full quartet of musicians gave an incisive performance of Hyla’s accompanying score, and I wish the composer, who passed away last year at only 62, could have heard them — especially since the rather harum-scarum performance he (and I) heard in Portland some 20 years ago, when the piece was new, could not have been one of his happier experiences. However, the poem still blows the music out of the water. I may be a text-loving composer, but the key word is composer and for me music always comes first. Even so, I barely paid attention to Hyla’s. The overwhelming music of Ginsberg’s hypnotic rant was the baddest baddie of all, brazenly living life to its fullest with barely a nod to the distant admirer serenading its heart out. It was sweet in its way, but as the hard saying goes, ain’t never gonna happen.
Nonetheless, Third Angle is to be congratulated. Even when “things didn’t work out,” none of the relationships were boring. And while most of the works were completely new to me, it seemed the performers did all anyone could ask to put them across. We want domestic tranquility for ourselves, but its absence among others often entertains us more.
Jeff Winslow is a Portland pianist and composer, and serves on the board of Cascadia Composers, as does Jay Derderian.