Catching up with: Third Angle New Music

3A goes farming; Sarah Tiedemann and Lisa Volle discuss the past year and its “different framework of possibilities”

Bike northward up the road a spell, northwest of Northwest Portland, a few miles past historic St. Johns and the historic St. Johns bridge, past the historic Linnton speed trap, and you’ll come to historic Wappatoo Island in the wobbly waters where the Willamette exhausts itself into the Columbia and starts its home stretch seaward. There, on what you no doubt think of as “that island with the nude beach and the pumpkin patches,” you’ll find Topaz Farm: 130 acres of former Multnomah land where you can cut your own flowers, pick your own berries, and listen to live music outside.

Yes, dear reader–as you already know, Live Music Is Back, and this Sunday you can catch up with Third Angle New Music as they squeeze an entire season’s worth of rescheduled chamber music concerts into a single hot afternoon (well, hopefully not too hot). Outdoor venues are, of course, the norm now, and there’s nothing odd about live music on Sauvie Island. It’s especially not unusual for 3A, who have been known to take their shows onto rooftops and into basements, and whose usual concert hall is a dance studio in the back of a real estate office.

The aptly-named Fresh Air Fest (which hopefully has you hearing Terry Gross in your mind’s ear) consists of three hour-long concerts and two massive intermissions–ideal for picknicking, refreshing your food and drug supplies, or just generally moseying around mulling over the music. And the music will be grand, all “new” stuff, in the sense that the stodgiest, oldest dinosaur across three programs is a bit of Takemitsu from 1992. And the newest stuff is very new indeed, because it just wouldn’t be a 3A concert without a world premiere.

We’ve spilled enough digital ink over newly-local composer Andy Akiho, who dominates the 3:30 set Sticking Power with fellow percussionist Ian Rosenbaum; the duo will mostly be playing Akiho’s earlyish synesthesiac pieces, collected on Akiho’s awesome first album NO one to kNOW one. If you know who Akiho is, you already have your picnic basket packed for Sunday. If you don’t…well, catch yourself up right here–and then pack that basket.

There–since you’re going anyways, now the other two concerts are pure gravy. The third features another percussionist/composer, Chris Whyte, performing a set with the lovely, obvious, perfect name The Whyte Album. That one happens at 7 p.m., several hours before dark, and will feature cellist Valdine Mishkin (on Akiho’s 21) and flutist Sarah “Not Bossy Just The Boss” Tiedemann (on Andrew Rodriguez’s re:Write). The big showcase for percussionist Whyte is Christopher Cerrone’s impossibly weird Memory Palace, but the real showcase is Whyte as composer–that world premiere I mentioned earlier is one of his, a new work with the winey title A Cold Stability.

Between those two dudely percussion sets, at the ridiculous time of quarter-past-five, it’s all Technicolor with the Debussy-trio of Tiedemann, violist Wendy Richman, and harpist Sophie Baird-Daniel. This set will no doubt be the riskiest, musically speaking, which means it will likely also be the most rewarding.

Two composers stand out on what looks to be an excellent program. You probably remember local composer Yuan-Chen Li from her particularly memorable Chamber Music Northwest performance of Shore, Island, Chelonia a few summers back; she composed one of 3A’s Soundwalks, and this weekend you can hear her trio The Source. The set opens and closes with two aughts-era compositions by Angélica Negrón: Drawings for Meyoko and the title-bestowing Technicolor. Check out Negron’s “vegetable synth,” which surely won’t be on display at Topaz Farm but perhaps should be.

The long day’s journey out of night

As we move out of the extended quarantine and into the sunshine of a long summer, I am reminded not only of the 3A show that got me through last summer (read about that here), but also of a 3A concert I haven’t told you about yet, a video concert you probably missed last December, the mid-winter glow of The Place We Began. When I first heard about that one, I thought it sounded like bullshit–why would I want to watch John Luther Adams on a screen? Especially when that particular composer is: 1) so excruciatingly “natural” and 2) my own personal Public Enemy Number One of contemporary classical music.

Naturally I had to watch it (journalists are obliged to be contrary, not least with themselves)–and, naturally, it was not Bullshit but The Shit. “What a lovely surprise,” I thought as the dark, weepy strains of JLA’s new, 3A-commissioned string quartet Noctilucent came trickling out of crappy TV speakers and spooked around my living room, seeping blissfully over rugs and blankets, scaring the paperbacks into hushed submission. That long winter was pretty hard on this particular music writer, and for some reason the strongest injection of hope I received that season was the shocking discovery that JLA could write music for a moody Elfmaniacal dope like myself.

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The next day–shortly before noon on December 4th, a month after someone dropped a house on Orange Julius–I called up the Third Angle folks, Sarah T. and Lisa V., and we chatted for an hour or so, catching up and reading tarot cards and talking music and quarantine and The Weird Times.

Tiedemann and Volle’s answers have been condensed and edited for clarity and flow, with

Working on the hygge

Sarah Tiedemann, Third Angle Artistic Director: I do a lot of teaching–I teach at PSU and Lewis & Clark, and I have private students–and teaching online is not my favorite thing. I miss actually being able to work with my students in person; that has felt like quite a loss. However, I have some new students that started lessons because of all this, and it’s rewarding to be able to give them a place to have a musical connection when they can’t be in band and such.

I miss playing with people. It’s just not the same going on an app and recording your track and sending it to someone else. I’ve shied away from performing into software and into my iPad, because I just don’t want to do versions of what I normally do and have it not feel the same. I’m mostly playing along with YouTube videos for fun, like some Music Minus One. I got rear-ended driving a couple months ago, so I’m playing in very short snippets, and mostly play the Franck Sonata over and over again, which is obviously not new music. At the end of my senior year of college, a friend passed away unexpectedly, and I went into the practice rooms right after I found out and I played the Franck Sonata. After all these years, it’s still my coping mechanism.

I’m also listening to a lot of different music putting together the Spotify playlists for Third Angle this summer. That’s been great—it gave me a reason to dig into mix tapes like I hadn’t since high school. I’m trying to make space for myself to do whatever feels right in the moment. I know I’m eating a lot, and I just don’t care. I know I haven’t been jogging, and I just don’t care. I’ve been letting myself watch some extra Netflix and cooking good food. We have to do whatever we have to do to keep our serotonin up, so this year is just whatever it’s going to be and we’ll pop back into reality when it’s over. And it’s nice to have a creative outlet where we’re deep into brainstorming, even if we’re working around what’s going on. It helps take your mind out of it in a certain way.

Lisa Volle, Third Angle Executive Director: I’m listening to a ton of stuff, but I’m watching very little. I’m not enjoying the sitting-live-steaming. Even though it’s nice to have access to around-the-world opportunities by some of our great friends and collaborators, personally, it’s just not the right platform for me. I don’t want any more screen time than I’m getting. So I get up very early, get out of my house and do an outdoor workout or go on a run or a bike ride almost every day, and I usually do that again at some point later in the day. Moving my body is super helpful. Then I come back and start my day. The privilege to be able to do that isn’t lost on me, especially because we’re surrounded by great outlets. We’re in December and we’re able to play tennis outdoors safely and ski, garden. I got 400 bulbs planted last week.

Lots of privilege, but also giving space to what Sarah’s mentioning: If we need to take time, we take time. Cook nine meals if you want. I danced around my house; I had the best dance party of my life after Biden won. That was a fun day–we had forgotten what real joy looks like. It’s a gorgeous day, the sun’s out. We’re lucky to be working for Third Angle and working in the new music field, and just giving space for all that and other things that bring us joy. 

Tiedemann:  I lived in Stockholm for a year and came up with coping mechanisms at the time, with four hours of dusk for daytime. I’m kind of back in my Sweden mindset. I’ve been working on the hygge. I’ve gotten used to holing up and being cozy.

The A-ha moment

Tiedemann: In grad school at New England Conservatory, I played with a group called the Callithumpian Consort that was led by Steve Drury, an amazing contemporary pianist. We did a semi-staged performance of the Peter Maxwell Davies piece, Miss Donnithorne’s Maggot. A maggot apparently is a rant and not just an animal that crawls out of half-rotten food, although it’s a double entendre, because it’s basically the Miss Havisham character from Great Expectations, but it’s based on a real-life woman from Australia who was left on her wedding day and went all Grey Gardens about it and locked herself up. She went around in her wedding dress with a wedding cake rotting on the table for years and years. 

So we each dressed up as a different part of her psyche–the female characters did, and the male ensemble members were running around the back of the hall throwing the doors open and interjecting words. And right before that the group, without me, had also done the Davies Eight Songs for a Mad King with a singer from NEC, Brian Church. He went full method-acting madness for a few weeks, and none of us knew what was going to happen. He stumbled into the hall looking as if he were homeless, with a plastic grocery bag stuck on his foot, and he was all up in the audience freaking everybody out.

Those two pieces were the most spectacular thing I’d ever seen. I remember being onstage mid-Maggot, and I had a whip tucked into my boots or something, and thinking, “This is it. This is what I’m doing, it’s not going to get any better than this. I thought I wanted an orchestra job. Nope. This is what I do now.”

Volle: Mine is so PG compared to yours. Thank you for that visual! I’m a recovering horn player–that probably paints a different picture. I love the intimacy of chamber music so much, and I remember being really touched by the Brahms Horn Trio growing up, and realizing that I never wanted to sit in an orchestra but always wanted to be in an intimate space listening and creating. I also love new experiences probably more than anything in the world, and they’re hard to come by the older you get. Music, especially new music, presents an opportunity to have them.

I remember driving through Montana and listening to Music for Eighteen Musicians–the first time I’d ever heard it. I’ve been really lucky to hear so many world premieres. I love the taste of something new, a new activity, seeing something new, being on the side of a mountain in crampons. I’m a big adventure-seeker, and I think that translates well to Third Angle. We constantly are asking people to move forward on the edge of their seat and experience the unexpected. And I actually love when people don’t like everything in a show — there’s interesting dialogue. I never want to hear from an audience member, “Yeah, it was fine.” Then we haven’t done our job. I love hearing the critique, I love hearing the dialogue, and I like when people are pushed outside their comfort zone.

Listening for pleasure

Tiedemann: I just did my little Spotify 2020 top five and my number one song was Brandi Carlile’s “The Joke.” I love Brandi Carlile. So I listened to that, and I really love the Icelandic band Sigur Rós. I grew up in Hillsboro, and at the end of high school, I worked in a little music store downtown called Music Village with a guitarist and a drummer. They got me listening to Primus and Captain Beefheart, and I still listen to that. As far as classical music, I’ve been on a Ligeti kick, obviously Franck, John Luther Adams. Some of my favorite playlists are the ones that are the weirdest, kind of a mish-mash.

Volle: Mine is so mood-dependent. I’m obsessed with Mountain Man. It’s kinda like Dixie Chicks but way better. But then I got into listening to a couple bands from South Africa in the last couple weeks. I’m all over the map. I don’t have even a genre I’m drawn to, I’m very eclectic.

Tiedemann: My problem, too, is that I just really like my job, so I find it relaxing to listen to music we could do later. It’s helping to get me out of where I am now to imagine concerts in the future, so I don’t want to say exactly what that is and spoil the surprise. I would say two-thirds of my music listening is repertoire like that, and it ends up on lists of things that would be cool for us to do.

The light of mid-winter darkness: commissioning JLA’s Noctilucent

Tiedemann: When the concert initially was programmed, obviously we didn’t realize a number of things were going to happen in the world. The idea was, we’re going to have an election, people are going to be stressed out, and there’s obviously a schism within the community, so we want a chance to have a peaceful moment, a time when politics isn’t on anyone’s minds. And it was supposed to be the Thursday right before the election.

Then came the pandemic, and protests, and wildfires. And in the middle of all that, John Luther Adams came to us because he knew we were going to be doing a concert of his works, and he said, “I’m working on this string quartet, and I’d love to work with Third Angle on it.” So we made it all happen; we have a generous donor, Betsy Russell, who agreed to underwrite the commission.

We were initially going to include The Place We Began as the first piece on the concert, as a sort of pre-concert where people could wander and sit and have some meditative time. That translated into video in a really cool way. Our video production company, Straw to Gold, really nailed it.

We did a few of our Wine Wednesdays online as live streams early in the pandemic, but we don’t want to rely on doing what we would do in the concert hall and popping it online without re-tailoring everything to the new medium. So that piece was a particular advantage, and the concert ended up really making good sense online. We could’ve had a projector with a screen in live performance, but that piece was actually better online. I also loved that we were able to use the space in different ways and have each piece show the venue in a different way.

Volle: John was actually scheduled to be in Portland for our show at the end of October, when we were going to be in person. When we realized that wasn’t going to happen, that initiated the whole, “If I can’t come, would you like to commission the string quartet?” process. We’ve had such a long relationship with him–we’ve been with him almost since the beginning of his career. We did Earth and the Great Weather at Lewis & Clark in the chapel, we did Everything That Rises in the planetarium a couple years ago. I think he’s really appreciated deepening the relationship with the organization and the musicians.

Tiedemann: I like the sense of place in what he writes. The new piece, Noctilucent, is about clouds that happen in north latitudes–you can take the boy out of Alaska, but you can’t take Alaska out of the boy. His tie to Alaska feels very Northwest in many ways—it’s reflective of the way we look at our environment and our connection with nature.

I think his music has gotten a little edgier over the past few years, and I enjoy our group being a part of his evolution. Noctilucent is darker than some of his past works; Everything That Rises, which we performed in the planetarium, was similar. He told us that in his twenties he would’ve scoffed and maybe even been a little offended if you had suggested that he would write string quartets someday. The novelty of that doesn’t escape me–it’s incredible to be a part of his artistic evolution, because he’s one of the finest composers of our time.

Volle: I really appreciate that he can move between chamber music and orchestral work so fluidly. That’s a really unique set of skills, and also challenges. I went up to Seattle to see the premiere of Become Desert, the second in his trilogy with Seattle Symphony, and I love the way his music transports you into a different space. And I appreciate that he doesn’t shy away from presentation — he has some pieces that explore outdoor performance in a very authentic way. One of my favorite things about our mission at Third Angle is that we really push the boundaries of presentation, incorporating space into projects. Not a lot of composers want to have their music performed outside, because it adds so many different variables, but he composes some pieces specifically for that experience.

Incorporating space, technology, partnerships

Volle: Sarah and I made a pact when this pandemic started that we weren’t going to just do everything the way we had been, but be responsive to the time and what was going on both globally and locally. There’s something really special and unique about live performance, and we’re not trying to play with that piece of it. Because we’re really looking forward to getting back to that moment. My favorite sound in the whole world is the space at the end of a concert before the clapping starts. It’s so beautiful to me. And you don’t get that on any of these platforms. Even what we did last night, you’re not going to get that experience. 

So we’re not trying to push up against that, we’re trying to find space and beauty in redesigning things here and there that can speak to the moment. Our Soundwalk Series does a nice job playing with that. We’re trying to approach it with a different kind of framework and possibilities. That’s what we’re learning as we’re going through this. We can’t have the same kind of producer or artistic role-like vision as live performance. It has to be different.

For the maximum success and impact, it has to be redefined and reimagined–that’s what new music is. We’re lucky that we’re constantly playing with tradition and experimentation in presentation and everything else, so it comes sorta naturally to us.

Tiedemann: I’m one of those people who picks a word of the year every year, and back in January I picked the word “opportunity.” In retrospect, that seems like incredible foresight and also sad irony. We’re now in a box we never would’ve foreseen, and this can push us toward things we otherwise might never have thought of. We never want to just do a version of what we’ve done before, one that makes people feel like there was a piece missing. We want to try something new.

Volle: I think we were super lucky. First of all we’ve had a very good relationship with Branic. We really trust him, he’s our secret weapon. We trust him with our life, and I’d trust him more than any other artist. He’s on all our projects. We do not mess around. We were lucky that Branic and Straw to Gold had been in Temple Beth doing a recording project two weeks prior to when we engaged them for this work, so they learned so much about the space working on a different project that translated. We were very grateful that they had a different expertise going in. Every space is very different, and Branic can tell you for days what the resonant frequency of the building is. Just having that sort of trial run, having time in the space before really benefited this project, because the music is so different and challenging. 

Tiedemann: I would say you dream of having team members who will come up with things that you didn’t know that you wanted until you see them do it, and you say, “You read my mind,” or, “You came up with something better than what was in my mind.” Whatever we give him an opportunity to do, we can trust him. There’s Lisa and myself, and then there’s Branic. He’s a completely integral part of the team. He records our albums, he does sound for our concerts, and when we have something that works with live electronics, Branic runs them. He knows exactly what we’re doing, how we play, and he pushes the buttons. And truly, he’s just a lovely human. 

We were glad to use a local film crew and a local sound engineer. You can see with the Soundwalks Series, too, all of the composers are local. We understand people’s financial situations and artistic outlook right now, so we’re trying to keep our work and financial contributions in the community. 

I’m really excited about our Soundwalks. Because when you look at the roster, everyone is so different. When you commission a piece, you approach the composer and say, “We’d love to work with you,” and sometimes there’s some back and forth, and sometimes you have some idea of what you might get. With this, we said: “You have an hour, pick a park, do something. We like you, we like what you do, we have no idea what this is going to look like. We can’t wait.” 

That’s the best part. We have Amenta [Abioto], who does solo shows with a looping pedal. We have no idea what she’s going to do. We have Darrell [Grant], and there will obviously be some jazz involved—I know he’s composing. Branic’s was all of his audio prowess coming out in the most dialed-in form possible. If we have a role in all this, it’s that we’re giving people something to be excited about, and that includes a reason to get out of their homes and back in touch with their senses.

Volle: And what a gift right now to be able to go walk and listen to something. For the complete hour that I did it, I was transported outside of everything that’s been going on and totally took a break. That’s such an amazing gift right now. 

Tiedemann: In Branic’s, you pace your walk with the sound of footsteps on the recording. My favorite thing about it is that instead of feeling isolated and lonely, there’s another person in your mind. The earbuds are in, and it doesn’t feel like you’re on the walk by yourself.

Volle: It is sort of like chamber music, in that it’s very intimate but connected.

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About the author
Editor / Correspondent | Website

Music editor Matthew Neil Andrews is a composer, writer, and alchemist specializing in the intersection of The Weird and The Beautiful. An incorrigible wanderer who spent his teens climbing mountains and his twenties driving 18-wheelers around the country, Matthew can often be found taking his nightly dérive walks all over whichever Oregon city he happens to be in. He and his music can be reached at monogeite.bandcamp.com.

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