Composing on this side of complexity

Third Angle “Homecomings” program showcases Oregon-connected composers--but takes too few risks

By DANIEL HEILA

Contemporary classical music composers–whom we might define as “those who look to the classical canon as root”–are frequently self-conscious about the historical and perennial shortcomings of modern art music (“that which seeks to transcend the history of western music”–again, my definition). Hyper abstract structures, gratuitous dissonance, obfuscated rhythmicality, and self-indulgent conceptualism can all alienate the audience and performers–although minus the adjectives these approaches are all fertile ground when used objectively. So it is understandable that a goodly portion of the genre’s repertoire is in opposition to a perceived aesthetic toxicity.

Many composers seek to traverse the morass of complexity to access an elegant simplicity on the far side (tip of the hat to Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.). This journey is deceptively arduous and involves coming to terms with the very complexity to be transcended. Third Angle New Music’s concert Homecomings of October 17th and 18th, held in Studio 2 of New Expressive Works (N.E.W.), evidenced varying degrees of success in this endeavor, with a program of work by composers who have come up in Oregon and then gone out into the world (or stayed local in two cases) to establish themselves in professional careers.

Percussion and audience at Third Angle's "Homecomings" concert at New Expressive Works, October 2017. Photo by Kenton Waltz.
Percussion and audience await Third Angle’s “Homecomings” concert at New Expressive Works, October 2017. Photo by Kenton Waltz.

Over the lengthy, single act evening I became aware of two prominent features of the music. One was a tendency toward reliable structures on which hung thin forms (the shape of the music that fills out the structure) which were in some cases almost anemic. The other feature was, for lack of a deeper analysis, the presence of the above-mentioned self-consciousness, perhaps what could be called risk aversion.

Watch that whizbang

Andrea Reinkemeyer’s Wrought Iron (2012) for flute and percussion (commissioned by New York’s Albany Symphony Orchestra) is a tribute to architectural features of the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, which features prominent iron work and an ingenious application of metal to mimic stone. The music reflects this with a strong foundation laid down in the percussion battery by Chris Whyte, overlaid with filigree spun by Third Angle flutist and artistic director Sarah Tiedemann, who nailed frequent extended techniques.

Sarah Tiedemann and Chris Whyte performed at Third Angle's "Homecomings" concert at New Expressive Works, October 2017. Photo by Kenton Waltz.
Sarah Tiedemann and Chris Whyte performed at Third Angle’s “Homecomings” concert at New Expressive Works, October 2017. Photo by Kenton Waltz.

The harmonic canvas of Wrought Iron is accessible, but with enough depth and breadth to keep the audience on their toes and interested. There is an obvious connection to the programmatic element, and the composer allowed the subject–the architectural details–to influence her compositional technique. For example, geometric shapes on the facade dictated her choice of percussion instruments. 

Although Reinkemeyer’s textures are fairly monochromatic–lots of sound bits and gestures strung together–I feel that this formal structure represents the subject matter effectively; think building with bricks or blocks. However, the work is marred by an only-too-common-in-contemporary-classical-music trite ending–a bit of showboating or cleverness to signify the ending and maybe elicit an appreciative response (however genuine) from the audience. I call this phenomenon “whizbang” and dislike it with perhaps too much intensity. It is a hallmark of the self-consciousness that pervades the contemporary classical genre, and it reared its ugly head more than once in the program.

Mario Díaz’s Peace Offering (2019) for flute, cello, guitar, and percussion (one of four works commissioned for the concert by Third Angle) includes dynamic use of fixed audio–pre-recorded readings of Kim Stafford poems–and an arresting arrangement of live sounds. At one point, it seemed that bees were issuing from Valdine Mishkin’s cello. The voice aspect of the fixed audio was well recorded, avoiding the all-too-intimate mouth noises that plague NPR broadcasts, and migrates within the stereo field to great effect, with whispers moving between the performers and out into the audience.

Mario Díaz, Sarah Tiedemann, Valdine Mishkin, Chris Whyte performed on Third Angle's "Homecomings" concert at New Expressive Works, October 2017. Photo by Kenton Waltz.
Mario Díaz, Sarah Tiedemann, and Valdine Mishkin performed on Third Angle’s “Homecomings” concert at New Expressive Works, October 2017. Photo by Kenton Waltz.

But after the performance, I was left with several questions, some of which carried over to the remaining pieces on the program. For instance, why was the guitar miked for this piece, and for Lisa Neher’s work later in the program? I can understand amplifying an acoustic instrument within an ensemble if it is at risk of being overwhelmed by the other instruments, but in this case there really was no need. The guitar sound was routed to the PA system, which stood in front of the ensemble–thereby isolating the guitar in the monitors, away from the ensemble.

This created balance issues, since the musicians–including guitarist Díaz –were not aware of the level of the guitar in the monitors. Better to allow the instruments to create a balance by way of unamplified ensemble acoustics, which might also have ameliorated the often limited ensemble interaction. If amplification absolutely must be used, then it is more effective to locate an amplifier within the ensemble grouping–behind the guitarist, for example. There are many brands of sophisticated acoustic instrument amplifiers well-suited to this purpose. Better yet, simply ambient-mic the whole ensemble.

Díaz crafted his beautiful piece with reserve and precision, employing tried and true methods that bordered on the facile. Many moments were precious and fleeting to the point of being innocuous. I did not feel challenged; I felt that no risks were taken, and I wondered whether the piece would stand up to repeated listening. There was an aura of incompleteness about the work. Was the composer pressed to finish the piece prematurely, thereby limiting the time necessary for editing that could have deepened its content? Or was this another sign of self-consciousness, the composer loathe to alienate the audience? I started to get anxious about the remainder of the program.

Whyte began Kenji Bunch’s Triple Jump (2001) for marimba with a barely audible entrance that focused the audience’s attention and placed the piece front and center in the acoustic sphere. Whyte exhibited excellent dynamic control throughout the performance, and Bunch is to be commended for not giving in to the tyranny of the tremolo that so much marimba repertoire falls prey to. Triple Jump is a study in varying articulations, voicings, and mood. Whyte’s dynamism countered the stodginess of the marimba’s tone, working each line individually to bring out the counterpoint in the multi-mallet sections, angular melodies vogueing over descending bass lines.

At the finale, just as I was expecting the mallets to travel off the top end of the keyboard–which would have been an excellent effect–that whizbang gremlin tricked Bunch into penning an aggressive cadential conclusion to the otherwise satisfying listening experience. Why, why, why do contemporary classical composers sabotage their authenticity? Instead of the thrill of the unexpected, the audience is left with a knee jerk response to the familiar.

Dessicated offerings

Beautiful, ethereal, subtle, elegant to the point of frailty, accessible. Lisa Neher’s Tidepooling (2019), commissioned by Third Angle and Gabriela Lena Frank Creative Academy of Music, is all of these things–and although those are its strengths, they are ultimately the very aspects that weaken its integrity. Though the piece is easy to listen to, I felt tired by the end of it. The harmonic palette is so spare and neutral, and the phrasing so symmetrical (almost predictably so), that I found myself straining to find more content, waiting for the piece to coalesce and bloom.

But it never did. Reliable coloristic effects grace a simple arc form: water percussion, “seagull” harmonic glissandi in the cello, wind chimes, bowed crotales. If this was an abstract, objective work, these elements might be heard for themselves or ironically, but due to the strong programmatic nature of the writing, they border on cliché. Again I wondered whether the work was completed in haste. Toward the conclusion I realized I wasn’t going to get more, so I settled back and was pleased that the ending, a return to gulls and water, is free of whizbang.

Chris Whyte performed at Third Angle's "Homecomings" concert at New Expressive Works, October 2017. Photo by Kenton Waltz.
Chris Whyte performed at Third Angle’s “Homecomings” concert at New Expressive Works, October 2017. Photo by Kenton Waltz.

Each of the four movements of Phil Taylor’s Mobiles (2019) for flute, cello, and percussion (also commissioned by Third Angle) is dedicated to a different member of the composer’s family: Stillness “for my father,” Caprice “for my sister,”  Pulse “for my brother,” Bells “for my mother.” Mobiles opens with a moody idyll whose harmonic language harkens back to American works of the mid-twentieth century, and progresses into an edgier sound palette with coarser textures: sul ponticello cello bowing near the bridge producing eerie breathy tones, flutter tongue technique producing an aggressive flute tone. As the writing became denser and more contrapuntal, all parts soloed at once.

But then, somewhere between Taylor’s sister and brother (I lost track of the movements), the space between the notes broadens to a wide open feel and keeps going to the point of almost falling apart. Just as in Neher’s piece, here is a spare, fragile canvas of waif-like sounds that struggle not to fall into silence. There just isn’t enough substance to warrant the space.

Unfortunately, the excellent performance of Taylor’s work was almost ruined by a witless photographer, set up at the top of the bleacher seating, whose ultra-loud shutter (did he pay extra for that feature?) hammered away through the subtle first movement. Surely photos could have been taken in dress rehearsal. What a drag for audience, performers, and composer.

With Neher and Taylor, I wonder if I was hearing a reaction to the wall-of-sound characteristics of classic minimalism and postminimalism? Or perhaps a misstated emulation of Morton Feldman, whose harmonic language alone bore the weight of the extended length, immense spaciousness, and morphing patterns characteristic of his work. Neher’s and Taylor’s music is definitely uncomplex music, but it emanates from the simplistic side, the near side of complexity, like George Winston’s new age pleasantry compared to the postmodern elegant simplicity of Laurence Crane or Peter Garland. Though the pieces were well crafted and the instrumental writing idiomatic, their cores were undiscovered, suppressed, or perhaps empty–a situation that risk taking may have remedied. Indeed, it turned out the element of risk was missing from all but one of the works.

Substantial piping

Aaron Helgeson’s An island we never leave (2019)–the last of the evening’s Third Angle commissions–is a work that speaks clearly in a language of the times: competently electroacoustic, sample- and loop-driven, experientially derived, and culturally appropriate. Helgeson’s work pushes the audience to open up to a torrent of music, sound, and noise–a risky proposition. Helgeson is a flutist as well as composer (and, to be transparent, he was a high school composition student of mine twenty years ago), and his work employs folk flute techniques and modified samples of folk flute recordings from Japan, Ireland, Norway, and Slovakia.

The acoustic, miked, and processed sounds were all mixed accurately and worked well within the dimensions of the hall. The blend of sounds induced sympathetic tones–nonperformed tones that emanate from the interaction of performed tones–thus creating a third acoustic sphere in my ears. Tiedemann turned in an exceptional performance of an endless pattern of ornaments, trills, grace notes, and gestures. This was a performance about performance, the flutist drawing breaths of breaths and playing ornaments made of ornaments: a meta performance.

The demanding writing drove Tiedemann toward the risk of failure as she switched between instruments (c flute, alto flute, piccolo) producing novel sounds. At one point her alto sounded like rice paper buzzing on a Chinese dizi flute. After several minutes of the dense texture, I started wanting something to shift, and just at the point of becoming a workout the piece ended. Proper length by default. As exhilarating and refreshing as An island… is, I wish Helgeson had delved deeper and further into his rich materials.

Apologia?

Of course, any one of the 80 or so enthusiastic, supportive audience members may have had a radically different experience of the evening than me, and that is utterly valid. But as a writer/composer/performer, and as a listener, I am willing to take a risk: I endeavor to critique. I listen hard, think deeply, feel fully, and expect the best. It is not enough to pleasantly commend and congratulate hard working performers, ensembles, and arts organizations. They deserve respect and honesty and the expectation of excellence.

As well-presented, competently performed, and comfortably entertaining as the Homecomings program was, it could have been arresting, challenging, and unforgettable. In my experience, the most satisfied and stimulated audiences are those that stuck with challenging material, gave it their full attention, held their judgement, and came out at the end different people for having witnessed the performances: they had vital experiences.

And that would not have been possible without composers and performers willing to put themselves on the line, take risks, and lead the way into new territory. Emulation, imitation, facility, and self-consciousness suppress contemporary classical music’s incredible potential. Portland’s new music scene can tap that potential if it is willing to push boundaries, challenge itself, and take risks. Especially with such solid talent at hand.

Mario Díaz, Sarah Tiedemann, Valdine Mishkin, and Chris Whyte backstage duringThird Angle's "Homecomings" concert at New Expressive Works, October 2017. Photo by Kenton Waltz.
Mario Díaz, Sarah Tiedemann, Valdine Mishkin, and Chris Whyte backstage at Third Angle’s “Homecomings” concert at New Expressive Works, October 2017. Photo by Kenton Waltz.

Upcoming Third Angle concerts include Genghis Barbie, the world’s “leading post-post-feminist all-female horn experience, on Feb. 6&7, and music of Composer, instrumentalist, and vocalist Caroline Shaw, on Mar. 5&6. Visit the website for more information.

Daniel Heila writes music, plays flute, and loves words in Eugene, OR.

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