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.”

A dream about communicating with a spider inspired Marble’s Arachnomancy, so he used “a spider web form to devise scales and phrases,” he explains. “The score itself is geometrically arrayed, like a spider web.” Almost “a meditation or a hymn,” it includes pre-recorded electronics and leaves ample room for interpretation by veteran Portland jazz saxophonist John Nastos. “The way it’s notated, the duration, tempo and rhythms can be freely interpreted,” Marble explains. “It contains simple melodic phrases that are altered in diverse ways.” It’s part of an ongoing series of nature-influenced works that also contain electronic textures and drones drawn from field recordings. Read Marble’s blog post about the influences on his music.

Breaking Boundaries

Though he was a promising composer during his student days at the University of Oregon in the 1990s, Portland native Brian McWhorter gravitated more toward performance after study at the Juilliard School, when he became one of New York’s most in-demand new music trumpeters. Since 2010, he’s focused more on teaching at the UO and directing Eugene’s OrchestraNext, which performs with Eugene Ballet.

For his Third Angle commission, McWhorter pondered artificial boundaries — between the nature that lies inside a park and that outside those arbitrary lines; between stage and audience at conventional concerts; between composition and improvisation; between human and natural worlds, even though people are part of nature; even between music itself and the larger performances it often accompanies. Most of his composition involves other media such as film.

Brian McWhorter conducts Orchestra Next. Photo: Bluedot Productions.

“I like that notion that music is in the service of a larger vision,” McWhorter says. He settled on “a score that looks less like a core and more like a script,” he explains. “I wound up composing a character more than a piece, and the letting the music that results be subservient to the character.”

The script for McWhorter’s Outside In assigns Oregon Symphony percussionist Sergio Carreno a “generative idea” that McWhorter won’t disclose so as not to spoil the audience experience, and guides the character/performer’s responses.

Creative Collaborations

Like Rusnak and Marble, McWhorter credits the soloist in his piece with contributing mightily to his composition’s final shape. “I like working with a different rule book that can elicit a whole different way of feeling or listening to or performing music,” he says. “What I worry about is: will my cool idea work with the performer? There are classically trained musicians who’ll roll their eyes at something like that, so I was happy that Sergio was right on board from the get go.” Solo hikes can be gratifying, but it’s even more rewarding to share the experience with a hiking buddy.

Third Angle musicians perform Solo Hikes: shared solitude at 7:30 pm Thursday & Friday April 6 & 7, at Studio 2 @ N.E.W. 810 SE Belmont St. Tickets and information online. A shorter version of this story appears in The Oregonian/O Live.

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