by JEFF WINSLOW
Third Angle New Music aims to be Portland’s picture window to the big ideas and trends in contemporary classical music. They’ve started off the current season with strong outings in both “concert” and “studio” series: in the former, all three Steve Reich string quartets, and in the latter, indefatigable pianist Susan Smith in this week’s solo showcase of works by Bang on a Can co-founder David Lang, Portland’s own Michael Johanson (a colleague of mine in Cascadia Composers) and New York composer Timo Andres.
I’m not sure all the works presented count as successes, but that’s no fault of the performers. In particular it’s hard to imagine a more faithful presentation of composers’ work than Smith’s, and you can still catch her performing tonight in Portland’s Studio 2@N.E.W.
Last night, in response to a question from the audience, Smith revealed that she’s been working on Lang’s 1992 Memory Pieces for most of the year. It takes nothing away from all her hard work – and make no mistake, despite the apparent simplicity, even simple-mindedness of this work, it’s difficult to learn – to raise the question whether it was worth it from the audience’s angle. Each of the eight movements seems to obsessively work out some inscrutable compositional process, but it only takes seconds to get each one’s schtick. After that, you may get antsy for it to end like I did, or you may zone out and enjoy it, or even nod off as a few audience members seemed to. A few movements are enlivened by rhythmic play, as tiny musical snippets overlap unpredictably. But the final slow movement seemed interminable, and the opening movement, “cage,” apparently conceived by Lang as a memorial to John Cage (who had just died), proceeded with absolutely somniferous regularity from beginning to end.
Cage was, above all, obsessed with durations in music; turning a piano into a metronome makes a perverse tribute. The only thing that saved it as long as it did was that Smith had been playing various short works by J.S. Bach as the audience arrived, and she segued directly into it from an ambiguous moment in another regularly paced work, the very first prelude from the first book of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier.
Johanson’s 1998 Rhapsody is rooted in the mid-20th century modern esthetic that many classical audiences over the years have loved to hate, particularly when it was the dominant esthetic, but after the overlong Lang work I clutched at it as if it were my savior. The harmony may be pungent, but the slower sections’ mysterious atmosphere and the faster sections’ jazzy inflections kept me listening intently all the way to the final, delightfully offhand gesture disappearing into the mist. This is not easy music to play either, but here Smith’s hard work paid much happier returns.
Andres’s 2007 How can I live in your world of ideas? takes a simpler and much less obsessive stab at musical process than Lang’s work, and succeeds at being entertaining at the very least. Gradual variations of a chorale phrase are interrupted more and more frequently by apparently unrelated “ideas,” snippets that sound quoted from the music of past centuries but that are generally too generic to identify. They pop in and out, on offbeats and off-offbeats, and Smith laid them all down to maximum effect including the final surprise.
It’s this element of surprise that makes music come alive, whether Andres’s almost slapstick way with it, or Johanson’s more subtle approach, pushing a narrative forward. In Memory Pieces on the other hand, by the end of each movement, I’d forgotten such a thing as surprise exists. Did Lang really forget the dictum of early 20th century super-impresario Sergei Diaghilev, “Astonish me,” which propelled Igor Stravinsky into the pantheon of the century’s most famous composers, and supercharged the careers of composers as different as Maurice Ravel and Sergei Prokofiev?
Growing up, I was fascinated by model trains. Not just the look and the action, but the smell and the sound of them too. I had too many interests, was too scatterbrained (what today they call attention deficit) to ever approach the highly detailed layouts committed hobbyists create, but a basic setup filled my bedroom for years. In more recent years, I’ve enjoyed countless trips on Amtrak between Portland and Seattle.
So Third Angle’s performance of Steve Reich’s Different Trains along with Reich’s two other string quartets, WTC 9/11 and Triple Quartet, at the Oregon Rail Heritage Center the first evening in October was a perfect opportunity to leverage my own childhood memories to reach a deeper level of appreciation and sympathy for an acclaimed composition that, when I first heard it many years ago, made me wonder what the fuss was about.
Of course I appreciated its conceptual coup: the linkage of trains carrying children safely across the American landscape during World War II with trains carrying Jewish children to their deaths in European concentration camps. And it worked for me as an abstract piece of music from the developing minimalist esthetic, but listening to it, I didn’t feel much.
The setting played along perfectly – not only was the audience arrayed between two ranks of locomotive behemoths, but my seat was practically under the wheels of one, close enough to be bathed in the heady smells of big machinery.
The Third Angle quartet – artistic director and first violinist Ron Blessinger, second violinist Greg Ewer, violist Charles Noble, and cellist Marilyn de Oliveira – easily pulled their weight too. To deal with the, shall we say, unusual acoustics, all were miked. They blended well with each work’s accompanying pre-recorded track to make a unified sound source emanating from the raised stage between the two halves of the audience. Reich wisely avoids loading the players up with virtuoso parts, but the rhythmic riffs are tricky enough all by themselves, and must be tightly synchronized to the string quartets on the recording. The group kept, well, “on track” at all times.
The recordings for the two works that reference memories of historical events, Different Trains and WTC 9/11, include spoken voice parts that their melodic material imitates. WTC 9/11 uses recorded air traffic monitors (NORAD), fire department (FDNY) dispatches, and recollections of people near ground zero during the World Trade Center attacks, while Different Trains uses recollections of Holocaust survivors, train porters, and Reich’s own nanny from the time he was a child and riding the trains between his divorced parents on opposite coasts.
In a few places these voices make devastating commentary, as when a porter, nostalgic for the days before widespread air travel, says of the myriad trains that used to cross the US, but could also say of the millions of Jews who thrived in pre-WWII Europe, “now… they’re all gone.” But these are conversational voices, not intended to project, mostly they’re obscured behind string parts which lie directly on top of them, and strings have a vocal quality all by themselves. As a result, the words are usually hard to understand, at least at first. Reich repeats not only musical gestures but these vocal snippets too, and that, like repetition in traditional operatic aria lyrics, helps comprehension eventually.
For all that, I have to say, the works still didn’t generate much emotional momentum in me. In WTC 9/11, it’s possible that raising the volume of the vocal track to gain immediacy in people’s alarmed and stunned reactions, and imparting a harder edge to the sound of the live strings, would have more powerfully evoked imminent danger, and ultimate feelings of catharsis. I felt the need for something more intense than the the detached and distant historical haze that Different Trains seems to travel inside. But to be fair, it was enough for some folks. At intermission, just after the end of WTC 9/11, a woman in the row behind me was in tears.
Why these differing reactions? Some folks may know these pieces much better than I do, and can better read the face of the music, like that of an old friend. Or they’ve learned, over time, to find the sympathy they seek mirrored in it. Often, listeners are content to let language cue their emotions. That’s how a huge mass of pop music can reach people as well as it does, even though it presses standard harmonies and turns of phrase into service time and time again.
But Reich’s music inhabits a more rarified world, where expectations for the music itself are higher. His habitual blanketing of unsung words under strings boldly lays claim to this territory. Somehow, between the stylized repetition of the texts, the unconscious effort expended to understand them, and most critically, the hypnotic effect of compositional processes gradually revealing themselves, even with a sensory assist by evocative aromas wafting from the many lubricated parts of the locomotive looming over my left shoulder, the music just didn’t make it through my brain-heart barrier.
Reich’s most recent string quartet has no words to accompany it, or to indicate what its intended emotional impact might be, but it doesn’t need them. Triple Quartet’s musical heart is a mysterious hybrid between Eastern scales and Western harmony, and the result feels like a timeless lament wafting out over a rugged Middle Eastern landscape. (In contrast, the composer’s dryly technical program notes for the piece read like an exercise in high irony.) Processes are there, carried along as much by myriad melodic filigrees – with a certain enchanting quality all their own – as by chugging rhythms like the two earlier quartets. But even so, and even without overt surprises beyond occasional sudden harmonic shifts (always by Eastern scales’ most mysterious step, known roughly to Western theorists as the augmented second), the music effortlessly charmed me from beginning to end. If music does not always astonish, let it at least delight. In Third Angle’s strong, sympathetic performances, Reich’s Triple Quartet, like the best music in Smith’s recital, did exactly that.
Jeff Winslow is a Portland composer and pianist and board member of Cascadia Composers.