Loving the chaos

Portland pianist Hunter Noack’s annual traveling summer series In A Landscape brings classical music to Oregon’s wild places, helps bridge urban-rural divide

Hunter Noack grew up in Sunriver cherishing both classical music and outdoor Oregon. His mother, Lori Noack, directed the Sunriver Music Festival, which each year included top American classical pianists. “Growing up in central Oregon, I spent all my time outside when I wasn’t practicing,” Noack remembered. 

For the past few years, Noack, now 30, has found a unique way to combine his twin passions. Beginning last month and extending through September, Noack will be bringing a 9-foot Steinway piano and 300 pairs of wireless headphones to some of Oregon’s most beautiful outdoor spaces. While audience members gaze out onto scenic vistas, they’ll hear him performing live piano music by Romantic composers like Liszt, impressionists such as Ravel and modernists including John Cage, whose placid 1948 composition In a Landscape gave the series its name. 

From his Sunriver childhood, Noack followed a prodigy’s path: Michigan’s famed Interlochen Arts Academy for high school, then music conservatories in San Francisco and London. In 2013, a mutual friend introduced him to Portland pianist Thomas Lauderdale after a concert there by his band Pink Martini. They became friends and then partners, which brought Noack back to Oregon to live with him. Since then, Noack has performed in various settings, including shows with Oregon Ballet Theatre and Northwest Dance Project. Read my ArtsWatch feature on Noack and IaL’s origins.

Hunter Noack at Oregon Trail Interpretive Center. Photo by Bridget Baker.
Hunter Noack at Oregon Trail Interpretive Center. Photo by Bridget Baker.

Another World

But his passion project has been In a Landscape. The wireless headphones (funded by a grant from Portland philanthropist Jordan Schnitzer) allowed him to re-create a concert hall sound (for “persnickety classical music fans”), unimpeded by ambient noise such as wind, bawling babies and arid open-air acoustics. And it permitted listeners to enjoy classical music amid natural beauty, rather than confined inside a formal concert hall.

“Outdoors, you really feel the preciousness of being here now,” Noack explained. “I wanted [listeners] to put them on and transport them into another world. There’s no barrier between your brain and the headphones.” 

Of course, anyone can listen to music outdoors on smartphones, but “there’s something powerful about having a personal experience of listening to music in a landscape, but also sharing it with other people,” Noack says. “It’s not isolating, and it gives you a heightened sense of being present.”

Alfresco performances also pose unique challenges, from the roar of passing motorcycles to tuning issues, high desert heat, rain- and smoke-sparked cancellations. Once, a desert gust ripped sheet music off Noack and guest performers’ music stands. Audience members responded by holding the music in place, providing an intimate connection to the performance. Noack smiles his way through it all. “I love the chaos,” he said. “Part of the adventure is letting the wildness of every venue play into the experience,” he said.

Hunter Noack at Columbia Gorge Hotel. Photo by Bridget Baker.
In A Landscape and pianist Hunter Noack at Columbia Gorge Hotel. Photo by Bridget Baker.

The wireless tech sometimes didn’t initially live up to Noack’s insistence on a consistent, accurate sonic environment. “We’re still learning,” he admitted. “It’s still an imperfect situation. You have to deal with the wind and miking” and varying signal strength. Some audience members at first prefer to listen to the music sans cans. But “the experience with the headphones has been surprisingly effective,” Noack said. “By the end, everyone is wearing headphones and wandering around.” He’s just ordered a batch of the newest headphones.  

Intimate Shared Experience

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In survey forms, audience members frequently reported feeling “this sense of peace,” Noack said. “The landscape does as much as if not more for people than the music. We’re playing incredible works of art, but also giving people that window into observing the natural world, which is infinitely more complex and beautiful than the music. They have this way of working together.” 

He aims for audiences of 200-250 at each performance. “More than that loses the sense of intimacy that’s so important for people to feel like they’re having a personal experience in touch with nature, rather a festival experience,” Noack explained.

The outdoor venues can be more welcoming than formal concert halls for many listeners, including one woman who brought her young daughter, a child on the autism spectrum whom she wouldn’t bring to a recital hall — but who could clamber up trees while listening to the music through headphones.

Hunter Noack performing at Oregon artist community Playa. Photo by Ed Schmidt.
Hunter Noack performing at Oregon artist community Playa. Photo by Ed Schmidt.

“It meant so much to her,” Noack recalled. “It’s so easy for me to forget how powerful music can be, because I get so swept up in practicing and the other parts of this project. For people like her that crave it love it and don’t get to hear it, it’s really special.”

Noack also insisted that the performances be available to all Oregonians. Inspired by the 1930s’ Works Progress Administration’s (WPA) Federal Music Project, which brought free and low-cost performances to Depression-impoverished Americans everywhere. With free or donation-based admission, the program eliminated another major barrier to hearing first-class recitals: high ticket prices. 

“It’s important for it to be non exclusive from both a financial and location perspective. We make half the tickets available for free. Those are meant to be for locals,” which in sparsely populated Eastern and Central Oregon might mean listeners from 50 miles or two counties away.

In the past three years, the project has steadily grown, drawing nearly 6,000 people from 29 of Oregon’s 36 counties, with 57 percent attending for free, according to Noack. (ETB card holders and local residents of rural venues attend the concert free of charge after registering online.)

Noack also invites local poets to read their works between the musical pieces. “They’ve added so much to the concert series,” he said. “I never felt like I really understood poetry before, and now, figuring out which poems would go well with which pieces and which landscapes have made me fall in love with poetry.”

After a year trying out the concept in the Portland area, a donated piano and trailer from Jordan Schnitzer and a grant from the Oregon Community Foundation enabled Noack to take the project statewide. The second year offered 14 concerts, which grew to 22 last year. This year’s schedule, which began last month, features 31 shows in natural venues from Mt. Ashland to Mt. Bachelor to the Columbia Gorge, Wallowa Lake to Alvord Desert to Cannon Beach.

Hunter Noack in Alvord Desert. Photo by Bridget Baker.
Hunter Noack in Alvord Desert. Photo by Bridget Baker.

Across the Great Divide

Taking In a Landscape statewide broadened its audience both geographically and demographically. “It’s a pretty mixed group of people,” Noack said. Some are drawn to the music, others to the scenic vistas, still others to their favorite fishing spot. 

While many audience members are classical music fans — half are between ages 50 and 70— “I’ve been really surprised that about 39% of our audience has never been to a live classical concert before,” Noack says. “I’m struck by the openness and appreciation expressed by people that have no experience with classical music. Many are local people who have a relationship with a park, and hearing it with this soundtrack gives them a different perspective on the landscape. The music can have an impact in a place where they’re on their turf and they feel comfortable.”

Last year, Noack received a letter from a Willamette University student whose self-described cowboy cousin told her he didn’t give “two figs about classical piano. But after that evening, she said that’s all he talked about.”

“My favorite mix is for half to be tourists and half from the area,” Noack said. “I love seeing matrons from Portland mixing with cowboys on horseback with cigarettes dangling from their lips, and mountain bikers from Eugene. It makes for an interesting dynamic because we’re bringing together people who wouldn’t ordinarily be in the same space. It wasn’t necessarily something I had intended, but to see everybody come together and be participating in something that is positive and unifying instead of divisive is one of the coolest things about this project.” 

Hunter Noack performing at Smith Rock in Southern Oregon. Photo by David Lindell.
Hunter Noack performing at Smith Rock in Southern Oregon. Photo by David Lindell.

Last year, Noack invited guest artists like Lauderdale and other area musicians to join him on almost every performance. But while he enjoyed the collaborations, the lack of rehearsal time frustrated his high musical standards, so now the guest artists (20-25 this year) mostly perform for about 10 minutes on their own, allowing Noack to don headphones and experience what the rest of the audience does.

Collaborating with guests like Native American flutist James Greeley from Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs this year also take him happily out of his comfort zone, including improvising, Noack said, and he’s hoping to do more collaborations with Native artists.

Another change this year: Noack gets to perform with a virtual orchestra. The new Salem Orchestra recorded the orchestral part of Ravel’s exuberant Piano Concerto in G, which Noack pipes through the headphones while playing the solo piano part live. 

 “I’m excited to see what people think of that,” he said. He’s surprised that other musicians with more portable instruments haven’t yet taken advantage of technology’s ability to bring any acoustic to any space. “The sky’s the limit for what we can do in the future,” including perhaps virtual reality goggles that would bring not only recorded sound but also imagery to individual listeners, collaborating with other artists and musicians who can’t be at every performance, maybe even making virtual performances available to audience members (bed-bound or otherwise disabled seniors, for example) unable to access scenic spots. “There are only so many places I can perform,” he says.

But he wants to do it as much as possible. In a Landscape has been as rewarding to its creator as to its audiences. “I could do a show every day, he said. “It gives me as much energy as it takes. I love just being outside and meeting people all over the state.” Just as important in Oregon’s vast outback: “I also love driving.”

When he decides what repertoire to perform now, “I imagine playing it in a specific landscape,” Noack explained. “I imagine squirrels chasing each other, a distinct smell in the air, that perfect breeze or the river or the ocean and those memories somehow get embedded into the music and change the way I perform in the concert hall. It’s reinvigorated my love of the music.” 

A piano on a trailer in Oregon's Alvord Desert. Photo by Bridget Baker.
Piano on trailer in Alvord Desert. Photo by Bridget Baker.

In a Landscape continues through September 21 at various scenic sites across Oregon. New performances and guest artists may be added. Some events already sold out. Visit https://www.eventbrite.com/o/in-a-landscape-classical-music-in-the-wild-10898118534 for a complete listing of locations and guests artists.

A shorter version of this story appears in The Oregonian/Oregon Live.

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About the author
Senior Editor | Website

Brett Campbell has been classical music editor at Willamette Week since 2008, music columnist for Eugene Weekly since 1996, and West Coast performing arts contributing writer for the Wall Street Journal since 2000. He is a frequent contributor to San Francisco Classical Voice, Oregon Quarterly, and Oregon Humanities and has also written for The Oregonian, Portland Monthly, West: The Los Angeles Times Magazine, Salon, Musical America and many other publications. He is a former editor of Oregon Quarterly and The Texas Observer. He is co-author of the biography Lou Harrison: American Musical Maverick (Indiana University Press, 2017) and has taught news and feature writing, editing and magazine publishing at the University of Oregon School of Journalism & Communication and Portland State University.

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