Third Angle on the farm: If else, go out

Goats, pigs, and people help the new-music group get back in the swing of live performance at its Fresh Air Fest on Sauvie Island

Third Angle is coming out swinging for the return to live music, kicking off on July 11 at Topaz Farm with the three mini concerts of Fresh Air Fest. It was a much-needed retreat up to Sauvie Island for a midsummer Sunday afternoon, taking in the island’s pastoral hills and cool breeze, meeting the Farm’s goats and pigs, and listening to New Music.

Third Angle New Music Fresh Air Fest at Topaz Farm. Photo by Sara Wright.
Third Angle New Music’s Fresh Air Fest at Topaz Farm. Photo by Sara Wright.

The last major concerts Third Angle hosted were in–come on, say it with me–March 2020, the performances by Caroline Shaw at New Expressive Works on the 5th and 6th (read the ArtsWatch report here). I remember the moment well: an uneasy reticence quickly turned to uncertainty once the gravity of the situation began to settle in. I remember standing outside in the fresh winter air and piercing sunlight, thinking about how suddenly the darkness creeped in, creating this sort of tense light-dark duality within me. After Kate Brown announced the state of emergency on March 8 and the contours of our new reality began falling into place, I saw someone on Twitter remark, “wow, what a crazy year this last hour has been.” 

It’s clear that the world before the pandemic is not coming back, and the hard-learned lessons will inform the new directions Oregon’s artistic community takes in the coming years.

Third Angle New Music Fresh Air Fest at Topaz Farm. Photo by Sara Wright.
Valdine Ritchie Mishkin and Chris Whyte. Photo by Sara Wright.

But Oregon still loves its outdoor concerts, from the Zoo and Edgefield to this month’s Waterfront Blues Festival and last weekend’s Cathedral Park Jazz Festivals–and Third Angle’s Fresh Air Fest fit neatly into the wave of summer festivals, mini or otherwise. Around the Topaz Farm stage, sounds from the surrounding area permeated the music: evening bird calls, leaves rustling through the giant oak tree shading the audience, planes taking off from PDX, chatter from people who didn’t seem to know there was a concert happening sixty feet away.

Staging concerts outside presents a fair amount of logistical and acoustic problems. Foremost is amplification: without the resonant space of a hall or amphitheater to direct the sounds towards the audience, artificial means of projecting sound are needed, such as PA systems or the 100-watt tube amplifiers and 4×12” speaker cabinets that defined the sound of rock music in the late 60s. Many familiar instruments, such as brass and percussion, were originally designed specifically for outdoor use–unsurprising, given that much of our orchestral percussion has its ancestry in instruments meant to be played outside, from West African mallet instruments to Turkish janissary drums to Carribean steelpan.

Third Angle New Music Fresh Air Fest at Topaz Farm. Photo by Sara Wright.
Ian Rosenbaum and Andy Akiho. Photo by Sara Wright.

Wood, metal, wind

The festivities opened with the music of steelpan player and composer Andy Akiho, performed by the composer with longtime musical partner Ian Rosenbaum on marimba (one of those African-descended mallet instruments). It doesn’t take long to figure out what Akiho’s “thing” is as a composer. Thankfully, what he does is really cool: he builds up layers of polyrhythms and grooves, often based on simple, repeated melodic phrases, with the occasional flurries to mix things up. In Karakurenai I think I caught a 5/4 over 31/16 groove, which if my math is correct, would take 31 measures of 5/4 to line up again.

I find his music to be most invigorating when he stretches beyond his usual style to experiment with a wider breadth of gestures, such as the marimba’s synth-like arpeggios in Murasaki. The combination of steelpan and marimba is one you won’t hear often, if at all, outside Akiho’s music–it’s a pleasant change from the more common wood-and-metal combo of marimba plus vibraphone.

Akiho’s rhythmic acuity and penchant for polyrhythms draws little from the rhythms of classical music; like almost all popular American music, Akiho draws upon African rhythms, in this case Trinidadan music. His use of polymeters reminds me of some of the polymetric playfulness of rock and metal bands like King Crimson, Tool and Meshuggah. I was unable to find footage of him with drum corps such as Carolina Crown and the Cadets, especially since the home-movie quality of these early drumline lot videos doesn’t lend itself well to facial recognition. You can, however, hear his music in the 2014 show by the Bluecoats, TILT, which prompted Bloo’s rise into the top tier of groups of Drum Corps International. In other words, Akiho writes music that is easy to nod your head to, despite its rhythmic density.

One standout part of the second set was Sarah Tiedemann performing composer and conductor Evan Williamsif/else. Williams states in the program notes that he took inspiration from the conditional statements that underlie many computer programs: “if x is true, then do y. If else, do z.” My study of programming never got much further than “Print ‘Hello world!’” but I understand enough to know what Williams was trying to do. Musical phrases prompt responses from the computer’s sound manipulations of the flute, not unlike the music of trombonist George Lewis. Regardless of the programming that inspired the piece, there are enough cool sound manipulations and wondrous flute playing to keep interest beyond trying to identify which node of the Markov Chain we’re on at this particular moment.

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Yuan-Chen Li’s early piece The Source, performed by 3A’s resident violist Wendy Richman, was full of tricky harmonies and forceful gestures. The Source uses many idiomatic violin techniques, with harmonies more like Berg than Paganini. Li’s concerto for cello and chamber orchestra, Wandering Viewpoint, introduced me to her work as a plucky undergrad, and I hope to eventually hear it played live in Oregon.

Third Angle New Music Fresh Air Fest at Topaz Farm. Photo by Sara Wright.
Sarah Tiedemann. Photo by Sara Wright.

The best piece on the second program was Toru Takemitsu’s And Then I Knew ‘Twas Wind (its title, appropriate for Fresh Air, comes from a poem by Emily Dickinson). Takemitsu’s loose approach to rhythm allows for external sounds to permeate into the texture, especially as the wind picked up on Sauvie Island in the afternoon. His music is often categorized as a cross-cultural blend of Japanese folk music and western classical, particularly Debussy, Messaien and Webern. The timbral richness of gagaku music and the koto repertoire feature heavily in Takemitsu’s music. It is thus unsurprising that he’s one of the most well-known Japanese composers on this side of the Pacific.

I didn’t want the piece to end, as what was happening was so invigorating and beautiful. Takemitsu found his true colors through his musical language, and he has created something poetic with Wind. I am surprised that the piece is only around twelve minutes long–I felt like it must’ve been at least twenty. I would love to hear more Takemitsu in Portland: he is a favorite of my young composer cohorts and myself.

Third Angle New Music Fresh Air Fest at Topaz Farm. Photo by Sara Wright.
Wendy Richman and Sophie Baird-Daniel. Photo by Sara Wright.

Winding down

The final set was the strongest–that the sun was setting and cooling the audience helped quite a bit. Chris Whyte’s commissioned composition, A Cold Stability, was a highlight of the entire festival. It featured live sound processing, with a linear movement from drums to metals, woods and then glass. This mimics the process by which winemakers operate at the dozens of vineyards across the Willamette Valley. The music enacts a sort of auditory maceration, as the instruments disappear into an ambient wash that blends each section together smoothly. If Whyte can find the time in his busy schedule as a performer and teacher, I would love to hear him play more of his compositions.

Christopher Cerrone’s Memory Palace ended the day’s festivities, a piece for electronics and an assortment of instruments “to be fashioned by the percussionist” according to the score. Like with the Takemitsu piece, our ambient surroundings complement and reinforced the music: a passenger jet taking off from PDX flew overhead at the beginning of the piece, which I thought was an oddly appropriate bass for the sampled crickets and slow, plaintive chords on a prepared guitar (an honorary percussion instrument in this piece). Each movement provided a wide space for contemplation and close listening, letting the listener bask in each movement for just the right amount of time. Memory Palace provided us with the sort of texture where the setting sun, evening bird calls and distant traffic became part of the music. It was an enjoyable listen and a perfect way to end the evening’s set.

Third Angle New Music Fresh Air Fest at Topaz Farm. Photo by Sara Wright.
Photo by Sara Wright.

Third Angle continues its return with a couple more soundwalks: Akiho’s Soundwalk at Hoyt Arboretum premiered July 15, and the August 15 Powell Butte Soundwalk was composed by their man behind the boards, Branic Howard. The long-awaited, oft-rescheduled premiere of Darrell Grant’s opera Sanctuaries will finally take place September 7-9 at the Veterans Memorial Coliseum Pavilion. Sanctuaries is about the historically Black Albina district, one of the few neighborhoods that did not exclude Black residents during the early twentieth century. It was among the worst-hit neighborhoods of the gentrification of the 90s and 2000s, as Black families who had lived there for generations were priced out. For those who didn’t have to experience gentrification first-hand, you can read more about Portland’s long history with the phenomenon here, here and here.

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About the author

Charles Rose is a composer, writer and sound engineer born and raised in Portland, Oregon. He graduated from Portland State University with a degree in Sonic Arts and Music Production in 2019. His piano trio Contradanza was the 2018 winner of the Chamber Music Northwest’s Young Composers Competition. He releases music on BandCamp under various aliases. In addition to composing, he is a sound engineer for chamber music group FearNoMusic and is an editor of the Portland State music journal Subito.

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