Cascadia Composers and Third Angle reviews: Northwest inspirations

Oregon composers create music inspired by the sounds of their home

With all the natural beauty that surrounds us, it’s no surprise that so many Oregon artists, including composers, turn to it for inspiration. Two spring concerts showed that despite this common impulse, the state’s natural and other sights and sounds are simply too diverse to sonically stereotype.

In celebration of the National Park Service’s 100th anniversary, Third Angle New Music commissioned three Oregon composers to write new works inspired by nature. It’s a testament to our state’s musical and natural variety that the three pieces performed in April at Third Angle’s Solo Hikes concert in southeast Portland’s Studio 2 @ New Expressive Works came out so utterly different.

As it turned out, the hikes weren’t really solo. Each composer relied heavily on contributions from the performers, and they in turn had help (projections, pre-recorded sounds, the audience) that augmented their instruments. The concert was a reminder that you’re never really alone, in music or in nature.

Marilyn de Oliviera at Third Angle’s ‘Solo Hikes.’ Photo: Jacob Wade.

Christina Rusnak’s Glacier Blue came closest to what you’d expect of nature inspired sounds. (Think Vivaldi and other Baroque composers, Debussy, and others who sought to evoke nature’s sights and phenomena through sound painting.) Maybe abetted by the projections of the northern Montana wilderness that inspired it, I could feel the expansiveness of the mountain lake, thrill to the starry sky (evoked by plucked notes), hear the rushing waterfall. To cellist Marilyn de Oliviera (who displayed a lovely, rich tone throughout) and Rusnak’s credit, the piece sounded like an organic whole rather than a succession of programmatic devices.

In fact, the performers, who were deeply involved in the realization of these creations, really deserve equal credit for the success of all three compositions. In Matt Marble’s Arachnomancy, saxophonist John Nastos (plus pre-recorded soundtrack that emitted different electronic textures, from metallic bells to staticky drone) brought a similarly evocative tone and atmosphere, a bit reminiscent of In a Silent Way era Miles Davis’s band or some of Charles Lloyd’s more pastoral passages. Eschewing the complex virtuosity I’ve heard Nastos deploy in jazzier contexts, his long-breathed phrases evoked the orderly beauty of the spider web patterns that inspired it.  I can imagine different interpretations by different instrumentalists with different backgrounds and styles, but this one worked persuasively.

John Nastos at ‘Solo Hikes.’ Photo: Jacob Wade.

Even more than Marble’s, Brian McWhorter’s Outside In depends on the performer and the performance. And it’s even more distant from nature sound painting, because it’s a process piece that, unbeknown to the audience, asks the performer to respond to the ambient sounds he’s hearing in the moment. So if someone dropped a program, say, Oregon Symphony percussionist Sergio Carreno would respond by smacking something that made a similar sound, and incorporate that sound into his repertoire. He entered, sat, and waited.


Unfortunately, on this night at least (the performance reportedly different dramatically in length and character on successive nights and rehearsal), the Portland-nice politeness of the too-damn-respectful audience made for a very sparse performance. (I wonder what it’d sound like in, say, Italy?) For the first and certainly last time ever, I found myself actually yearning for some inconsideramus to unwrap candy from one of those insufferably crinkly wrappers, or sneeze (note to McWhorter: schedule future performances during cold/allergy season), or revving car or Harley engine (it was past rush hour, and besides, we were in the land of bikes) or even streetcar rumble (too far away). I rejoiced at the hungry growls from the stomach of the woman sitting next to me, though we were a little too far from Carreno for him to hear it and play it back.

Sergio Carreno at ‘Solo Hikes.’ Photo: Jacob Wade.

Alerted to the scheme in advance, I (and I suspect but can’t prove members of Third Angle’s staff, and possibly Russian hackers) deliberately made our chairs squeak. A water bottle toppled. Car keys gently jangled. Each time, Carreno grinned and  pounced like a cat spotting scurrying prey. I’m not sure how many audience members figured out the game, or even if I would have had the composer not told me the rules in advance when I interviewed him for ArtsWatch’s preview. And the lack of input made the performance too diffuse  — this time. Nature is unpredictable like that.

Setting Memories to Music

Last month’s Cascadia Composers Sense of Place concert at Portland’s Colonial Heights Presbyterian Church was also dedicated to natural sounds, specifically those of our Pacific Northwest home. Dawn L. Sonntag’s transported us to Alaska with Postcards from Denali, three short pieces for string quartet inspired by a four-day hike in that wilderness with other composers as part of a program that other Cascadia Composers have also participated in, where “we set our memories to music,” she wrote in a program note.

The slow, solitary opening of Braided River sounded like an evocation of dawn but according to the notes, evokes the first tiny threads of glacier run off that gradually changes course in picking up debris (twinkling sound) as flows down. The principally pastoral music occasionally erupted as it coursed. Sonntag’s second piece, Upon Seeing Caribou Grazing on a Mountainside, began with a solo violin over plucked cello, then more melodic lines joined the herd. This was the first Sonntag music I’ve heard, and its beauty displays a lot of promise.

After a few minutes of watching people move a piano came another composer new to me, William Toutant, whose Songs for Nan set poems by Apollinaire and Sully-Prudhomme, which made me wonder about their ostensible Pacific Northwest provenance, particularly since one, Le Pont Mirabeau, is about a bridge over the Seine. Seeming to gaze back to turn of the 20th century music, their darker, Old World tone (captured effectively by singer Arwen Myers) contrasted nicely with Sonntag’s Americana pastorales.

John Bilotta’s piano trio Beauty From Forgetfulness maintained the dark, even anguished mood, which didn’t really resolve until the compelling ending. The program note indicated no Oregon connection to this music — maybe it fell victim that beautiful forgetfulness.

“Damn that traffic jam!” announced ArtsWatch contributors and Cascadia Composers Jeff Winslow and Matthew Andrews and pianist Maria Choban, while a prepared audience member delivered scripted lines about the Banfield — Oregon’s first freeway and also the title of the first piece in Liz Nedela’s suite PDX for Solo Piano. Actually it was an inappropriate exclamation as that motoric music really moved, while traffic on the Banfield usually doesn’t. The rhythmic drive so enthralled me that I didn’t realize until it was over that was written using that stereotypically discordant 12-tone system.

The mysterious, drifting next movement, Fog, Rain, Wind, based on a nine-note mode, provided the most beautifully spellbinding music of the evening; just go click on the video below and listen. The concluding Tilikum Crossing, a tribute to Portland’s newest bridge, turned the crossing into a lilting waltz. This is the finest and most entertaining music I’ve heard from this veteran Cascadia Composer.

I was about to get impatient again with the interminable between-performance set up (a persistent problem in Cascadia and other local classical concerts) until I realized it had slyly morphed into the beginning of Andrews’s whimsical Portland Suite, a little prelude of performance art that led into a trio for bottle caps in a paper bag plus gong, dirty electric bass and Zappa-ish sax, followed by a little trio for mallets on bottles, and concluding with a cartoonish (in a good way) movement for sax, marimba and bass. This is another one worth watching as well as listening to. And it did capture the quirkiness that’s come to define at least one side of its dedicatee.

The mood veered back to darkness again in Jack T.Gabel’s Sturnella Neglecta “Impromptu” for piano, inspired (naturally) by Olivier Messiaen, the 20th century French composer famous for his transmutations of bird songs into music. Commissioned by Portland Piano International, its subject (coauthor?) here is the titular Oregon state bird, the Western Meadowlark. Its almost threatening atmosphere achieves that Messiaenic mood, and you may be able to hear the accompanying chorus of actual birds chirping along (quite loud from where I was sitting), for which the piece’s brief silences afforded ample space. Not sure how Cascadia arranged that, or whether the actual birds were paid union scale for their performance. Update: Gabel may need to write a sequel.

The concert almost ended where this story began: with a composition by ArtsWatch contributor Christina Rusnak, whose Coal Creek was inspired by its namesake 1930s Yukon gold mining camp. Rusnak’s program note says that the music is about the struggles of the camp and its people rather than just the surrounding natural environment, and unlike her earlier piece, I couldn’t really hear obvious “nature” sonic imagery. But judging by the bubbly final stretch, it must have had its enjoyable side. ([Re-] read Rusnak’s ArtsWatch stories about the sounds of nature and of Oregon.)

As a kind of encore, the ominous clanking, sawing, rising, chittering, whooshing sounds of Mei-ling Lee’s vivid Combustion emerged from the speakers. Her note said she drew its inspiration from the mechanisms of a wood burning stove — “the clanky metal sounds of vents, flues, and air intake dials as well as the burning fire and consumption of fuel.” The single piece on the program not performed live but instead on “fixed media” (i.e. a recording) sounded cinematic, and specifically like Alien, with a hissing and scraping like something hungry was trying to get in. Eerily effective, it would make a great Halloween piece. Let’s hope it doesn’t reflect another sound of natural Oregon: the approaching forest fire season.

That composition isn’t on the Cascadia YouTube channel, but to hear the others embedded here and see the list of performers, click on the respective videos, and please leave your impressions of this Northwest music in the comment section below. What a treat it is to see Cascadia’s ranks — and Oregon music — being refreshed by these new emerging composers.

Taken together, these two concerts based on the sounds, sights and experiences of the Pacific Northwest shows it to be an exceptionally diverse region, teeming with fascinating wildlife — including its composers. And like nature itself, Oregon’s music scene seems to be replenishing itself with new growth. May our state’s diverse richness, natural, urban, and otherwise, inspire many more concerts like these.

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