lee hyla

The Meanings of Music, Part Three: Community grooves

In part three of three, we consider the meanings of instrumental music and community with Third Angle's "Back in the Groove"

Several questions haunted this journalist’s mind during a series of fall concerts put on by three of Portland’s most excellent classical groups: Fear No Music, Resonance Ensemble, and Third Angle New Music. The music was all good, but was often upstaged by the concerts’ messages and the questions they raised. These questions ended up being so big we’ve decided to dig deep and interrupt your Thanksgiving weekend with a three-parter.

We started our investigation of music and meaning on Thursday with FNM’s “Hearings” and continued yesterday with Resonance’s “Beautiful Minds.” Today, we conclude with Third Angle New Music’s “Back in the Groove.”

Third Angle Artistic Director Sarah Tiedemann carried her flute up onto the Jack London stage and asked the dimly lit, comfortably tabled audience: “any Jethro Tull fans in the audience?” A lone, enthusiastic “woo!” made Tiedemann raise her eyebrows and chuckle. ”Really?” She went into a little rap about Tull’s Ian Anderson, something of a maverick hero to flutists who admire his wild, chaotic energy and his contributions to discovering, inventing, and road-testing a toolkit of useful extended flute techniques.

Tiedemann didn’t get up on one foot, but she did take her shoes off: “to manage my ipad.” Pulling up the score for Ian Clarke’s Zoom Tube, she said, “I encourage you to have a very relaxed time–applaud when you like!” She then proceeded to shoelessly stun the audience into silence with an angular, effects-laden, transparently difficult, insane flurry of strangely melodic modern flute music.

It was the sort of thing that, if someone like Anderson (or Rahsaan Roland Kirk, or Eric Dolphy, or whoever) were to be discovered on some old French TV show busting into something like this it would be all over the damn internet with comments about how “outside” it is. On the other hand, compared to something like Varèse’s Density 21.5 or Babbitt’s None but the Lonely Flute–that is, to coming at it from the other side of complexity–it was commendably smooth, accessible, melodic, groovy. Such is the joy of crossing the streams.


Third Angle New Music review: Text Fatale 

“Hearing Voices” concert illuminates rocky relationships between words and music


Composers often have fraught relationships with text, unlike songwriters, who cheerfully shoulder the familial responsibility of marrying text to music, popping out song-child after song-child. Some composers emulate monks, staying as far away as possible, while others only let text into their creations as a domestic servant, forced to repeat mindlessly while the music comes and goes as it pleases. (Of course, as many a barstool debate on the subject brings up, a number of composers have fallen in love with text and become supportive songwriters too.) Then there are the bad boys and bad girls, the texts your parents / teachers warned you about. They seduce composers into dangerous, even impossible relationships.

Third Angle’s latest concert celebrating the spoken word, Hearing Voices 4.0, at southeast Portland’s Zoomtopia studio 2 on November 13-14, was full of such texts. Violinists Ron Blessinger and Emily Cole, violist Charles Noble, and cellist Marilyn de Oliveira gave committed performances of works by Portland composer Jay Derderian, Chicago composer LJ White, and recently passed Boston composer Lee Hyla. But the poets not only had the last word, they also left a trail of, if not broken hearts, at least spurned overtures.

Poet Sandra Stone, flanked by Third Angle's Blessinger and Noble, read her own text. Photo: Jane Jarratt.

Poet Sandra Stone, flanked by Third Angle’s Blessinger and Noble, read her own text. Photo: Jane Jarrett.

Derderian came off the most understanding lover. His nervous, atmospheric music for violin and viola duo, Frozen Smolder, deferentially framed acclaimed West Coast writer and architect Sandra Stone’s charnel house of a poem, which lavishes the same kind of richly evocative detail on scenes from the trenches of World War I that the Romantics once reserved for babbling brooks in sighing forests. Any attempt to match the poem image for image would have been melodramatic at best and futile at worst. Instead, Derderian’s music left us space for the kind of stunned response that seems the only humane one possible. Stone’s absorbing narration was underscored by a backdrop on which some of the poem’s most striking phrases were written in giant script. (The room-spanning backdrop, designed by PLACE studio, was an inspired addition, cutting off visual and acoustic dead zones and creating an intimacy missing in previous Third Angle concerts here.)

Wilder Shores, a near-sonnet sequence by Lents twin-brothers-made-good Matthew and Michael Dickman, has a different kind of poetic richness. Its idyllic images, which might be from a story of love or maybe just obsession, gradually split up and rejoin in multifarious ways, giving both depth of perspective and sheer kaleidoscopic beauty. The brothers split up the reading while stationed on either side of Blessinger and de Oliveira, who charged through a highly colorful score that seemed to incorporate about every way of getting sound out of a violin and cello anyone has ever imagined. White made the most distinctive musical statement of the night, but its relationship with the text was a stormy one, as they often seemed at odds.

Portland's Dickman brothers performed their own text at Third Angle's concert.

Portland’s Dickman brothers performed their own poetry at Third Angle’s concert.

The Dickmans also gave a refreshingly clear and well-paced reading of Allen Ginsberg’s larger-than-life, breakout poem / prayer / harangue Howl. The full quartet of musicians gave an incisive performance of Hyla’s accompanying score, and I wish the composer, who passed away last year at only 62, could have heard them — especially since the rather harum-scarum performance he (and I) heard in Portland some 20 years ago, when the piece was new, could not have been one of his happier experiences. However, the poem still blows the music out of the water. I may be a text-loving composer, but the key word is composer and for me music always comes first. Even so, I barely paid attention to Hyla’s. The overwhelming music of Ginsberg’s hypnotic rant was the baddest baddie of all, brazenly living life to its fullest with barely a nod to the distant admirer serenading its heart out. It was sweet in its way, but as the hard saying goes, ain’t never gonna happen.

Nonetheless, Third Angle is to be congratulated. Even when “things didn’t work out,” none of the relationships were boring. And while most of the works were completely new to me, it seemed the performers did all anyone could ask to put them across. We want domestic tranquility for ourselves, but its absence among others often entertains us more.

Jeff Winslow is a Portland pianist and composer, and serves on the board of Cascadia Composers, as does Jay Derderian.

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