Portland Opera Puccini in Concert Keller Auditorium Portland Oregon

The seeming darkness from which we emerge: Sarah Tiedemann’s ‘Atmospheres’ concert with Third Angle New Music

The 3A artistic director’s solo flute show featured new music–including commissioned works by two Oregon composers–and a multimedia aura of spiritual mystery.

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Sarah Tiedemann at New Expressive Works for her Third Angle 'Atmospheres' concert. Photo by Sara Wright.
Sarah Tiedemann at New Expressive Works for her Third Angle ‘Atmospheres’ concert. Photo by Sara Wright.

Third Angle New Music ended the month of January with two nights of Sarah Tiedemann’s Atmospheres at New Expressive Works off Belmont. The program featured contemporary works for flute and electronics, including two world premieres by young local composers Daniel Vega and Elaina Stuppler. 

The concert leaned into the “New Music” part of Third Angle’s moniker. The oldest piece on the program, Pray by Allison Loggins-Hull, was from the far off year of 2010–the year of the Deepwater Horizon and the iPad. There was nothing one might expect from a collegiate flute concert, such as a Mozart flute concerto or Debussy’s Syrinx. Another difference from expectations were the elaborate electronics and lighting, courtesy of lighting designer Jenessa Raabe and audio engineer Chris Whyte (normally 3A’s resident percussionist). All you really need to stage a flute concert is a flutist, a flute and an audience, but the extra elements turned the show into something else. 

The audience at New Expressive Works for Sarah Tiedemann's Third Angle 'Atmospheres' concert. Photo by Sara Wright.
The audience at New Expressive Works for Sarah Tiedemann’s Third Angle ‘Atmospheres’ concert. Photo by Sara Wright.

A deeper state of mind

Clapping etiquette is one of the stranger parts of attending concerts for new audience members: when do you clap? When should you not clap? Are we clapping too much? Too loudly? Here, there was not a peep from the audience until the very end. This seemed deliberate on their part: the low lighting–dare I say the atmosphere–of the show made each of the six pieces flow into each other, uniting them into one holistic experience. We sat witnessing on folding chairs placed in rows on plywood risers, with a few of us seated on mats semi-circled around center stage. 

Tiedemann opened and closed the show with a tone from a Tibetan singing bowl. I initially assumed this was part of the first piece, but when she repeated it at the end that made it clear the sound was meant to bookend the show, to bring us in and out of a deeper state of mind. She began seated on a beige mat in the center of the floor behind a lone candle, covered in a warm orange glow that refracted off the frills on her ballet skirt. As the show progressed she moved to different stations around the warehouse-like stage, adding purples, blues and pinks to the palette of spotlight colors. 

Sarah Tiedemann at New Expressive Works for her Third Angle 'Atmospheres' concert. Photo by Sara Wright.
Photo by Sara Wright.

If one were so inclined, one could interpret this movement around the stage to different “stations” as being akin to the movement along the Kabbalistic Tree of Life, ascending from the mat in the center at Yesod (“Foundation”) up and sideways towards Hod (“Glory,”) Netzakh (“Victory,”) and finally Tiphareth (“Beauty”). I doubt this was intentional, and I’m hardly an expert on mystical symbolism, but given the movement and overall vibe of the show it was one thing that came to mind. The other thing it reminded me of: A seance, communicating with a recently deceased spirit. 

Maybe it was meant to be. In ArtsWatch’s pre-concert conversation with Tiedemann, she pulled the Hierophant tarot card before the show; in my admittedly limited understanding of tarot, this card represents the sacred and divine. In that interview she said on the theme of the concert: 

The works I’ll perform are thematically linked, but also quite diverse within that theme. The broader vision for the show is atmosphere and air and the sky, but within that the music is about everything from the souls of the departed to a new piece we commissioned that’s about the sky as it has shifted during wildfires.

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Cascadia Composers May the Fourth be with you Bold new music for winds and piano Lincoln Recital Hall PSU Portland Oregon

The show is dedicated to Tiedemann’s flute teacher and mentor John Heiss, who passed into the aether last summer. Here I quote the program notes, where Tiedmeann puts it into words better than I could: “This night is a healing gift about the air and the way we flow through it. It is about the souls who linger both before and after their candle grows, about the seeming darkness from which we emerge.” 

To hear more, you can also check out 3A’s audio program notes. In it we hear Tiedemann reading her notes from the program, voice cracking in the middle of unassuming sentences. 

To return and rejoin

The term “electronics” can mean so many different things. The broad category can include analog synths, “stompbox” pedals, digital effects processing via programs like Max/MSP, tape backing tracks, and countless other gadgets for making and manipulating sound. In Atmospheres we heard a wide variety of electronic sounds come through the stereo set-up. Tiedemann’s flute was also mic’d up the whole time, primed and ready to be sent through digital modulations.

The opening piece, In the Refuge of a Cave by Nicholas Denton Protsack, introduced us to the hour of music. The duality of caves as both shelter for the scared and a home for danger served as the work’s inspiration, according to Protsack’s program notes. Protsack composed the piece to be played on any instrument alongside the live electronics part. The score (available on the composer’s website) leaves a lot open to the discretion of the performer, only indicating general contour and “play this 2-4 times, then move here”–that sort of thing. 

Additionally, Tiedemann decided to play this piece on a wind synthesizer (the Aodyo Sylphyo in particular), the first time the instrument was chosen for In the Refuge. “What is a wind synthesizer?” the intrepid reader asks. It is a synthesizer you play like a wind instrument, using keys on an instrument that looks like a clarinet or soprano saxophone. It’s a cool device, since most prior synths use a keyboard for choosing pitches.

The second piece was the aforementioned Pray by Allison Loggins-Hull. The tape part keeps a slow beat for Tiedemann to hold out steady tones that sit atop muted drums, distant whispers, spectral pitch clouds and a quarter-note bass line. The flute occasionally broke out into more lyrical phrygian passages, weaving triplets around in the flute’s luscious middle register. 

In the center of the program were the two world premieres by our young local composers, Stuppler and Vega. Stuppler’s Inferno is about not taking fresh air for granted, after the last few years have granted us some hellish weeks of orange and yellow skies, ash dusting every surface. Compared to the other works on the program, this one was the most groovy, with deep sine wave bass tones, 16th-note scale runs in C minor and medium tempo. It could work very well as the score for a contemporary ballet. Stuppler shows a lot of promise and talent for a high-school composer. 

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Chamber Music Northwest Imani Winds and BodyVox Beautiful Everything The Reser Beaverton Oregon

In a Facebook post that essentially amounted to program notes, Vega shared his inspiration for the piece along with a poem. The subject is a dragonfly that in an act of serendipity stared at Vega while he and his mother were preparing to spread his late father’s ashes in Youngs Valley. The poem reads as follows: 

Heart of the Siskiyou
Possessed by the sky
Glimpsing the veil
Flickering away
Granting us passage
To the heart of the Siskiyou
The Dragonfly knows your quest
A sacred promise
To return and rejoin
When my father is gone
My mother and myself
We will listen from old-growth trees
The flickering of dragonflies
One in the heart of the Siskiyou

Musically, Heart of the Siskiyou sounded like a flute trio, Tiedemann harmonizing with two other flute parts on the tape, gong-like sounds in the background over an oppressive pitchless drone. Vega also judiciously makes use of extended techniques such as key clicks.

Chole Upshaw’s Prismatic Wind sets the flute above a tape part of stuttering synth bass in E minor and soft string patches before evaporating into a wash of twinkling bells and wind-like synths. The flute part utilizes bird call-like textures, drawn out breathy Shakuhachi-like notes, and quick runs across the flute’s full range. This was one of the more impressive pieces on the program for Tiedemann’s flute performance, though the next piece took us a step higher.

The final stop on our trip around the stations of this tree of life was my favorite: Hōrai by Keiko Devaux. The inspiration for Hōrai comes from a collection of Japanese ghost stories, collected by Lafcadio Hearn, titled Kwaidan. The feeling of descending deeper into the subconscious was most palpable here, with the most spacious and existential music we heard all night. We also got a video projection behind with thin bands of smoke, as if rising from burnt incense. The piece drew us in, leaving a lot of space for contemplation. The most startling part of the piece was the recurring motif of (click) sssss… momentarily snapping us back into the rational mind to remind us that we are in fact at a concert, and that the air conditioning has been humming to the back and right of us this whole time. 

This was truly one of the most unique concert experiences I’ve had in Portland. It felt like a ritual taking place in the deepest chambers of an ancient temple, bringing forth the souls of the dead. It would be wonderful to hear and see Tiedemann’s performance again and be sent back to the spirit realm for a while.

Sarah Tiedemann with Tibetan singing bowl at New Expressive Works for her Third Angle 'Atmospheres' concert. Photo by Sara Wright.
Sarah Tiedemann with Tibetan singing bowl at New Expressive Works for her Third Angle ‘Atmospheres’ concert. Photo by Sara Wright.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Charles Rose is a composer, writer and sound engineer born and raised in Portland, Oregon. In 2023 he received a masters degree in music from Portland State University. During his tenure there he served as the school's theory and musicology graduate teaching assistant and the lead editor of the student-run journal Subito. His piano trio Contradanza was the 2018 winner of the Chamber Music Northwest’s Young Composers Competition. He also releases music on BandCamp under various aliases. You can find his writing at Continuousvariations.com.

 

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