All Classical Radio James Depreist

Where the air is dense with souls: Third Angle artistic director Sarah Tiedemann discusses her solo concert ‘Atmospheres’

The program of music for solo flute and electronics features music by Keiko Devaux, Alison Loggins-Hull, Nicholas Denton Protsack, Chloe Upshaw, and Oregonians Elaina Rae Stuppler and Daniel Vega.

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Flutist Sarah Tiedemann performing on a different instrument at a Third Angle concert. Photo: Jacob Wade.

About a year after flutist Sarah Tiedemann took the reins of Third Angle New Music, the present author ran into a favorite local composer at the bustling Jack London Revue, where Tiedemann was performing in 3A’s “Back In The Groove” concert, which you can read about here. “I’ve been enjoying Sarah’s run as artistic director,” the composer (whose name you would recognize) said. “She’s brought a lot of female energy to the group.”

Now, I don’t know what “female energy” means to you, dear reader, but to me–and especially in this context–it means music which is daring, complex, complete, conscious; difficult but not for difficulty’s sake; socially responsive but not performatively so; novel, but with nods to tradition; a balancing act; the present defined as the eternal tension between past and future. We’re thinking of Eve Beglarian, Valerie Coleman, Alison Loggins-Hull, Jessie Montgomery, Caroline Shaw, Joan Tower. We’re thinking of Björk, Kate Bush, PJ Harvey, Imogen Heap, Nina Simone. You get the idea.

In terms of the Oregon School of Composition, we have to mention (at the very least) this terrifically diverse cast of characters: Amenta Abioto, Nicole Buetti, Dianne Davies, Renee Favand-See, Deena T. Grossman, Nancy Ives, Lisa Ann Marsh, Bonnie Miksch, Lisa Neher, Stacey Philipps, Andrea Reinkemeyer, Kirsten Volness, Jennifer Wright. Some of these composers have appeared on 3A programs since Tiedemann took over. Most have appeared on Cascadia Composers concerts. One of them is the composer mentioned above–and she knows who she is.

On the next level up we find women bringing their “female energy” to various leadership roles, as conductors and performers and “administrators” (artistic and executive directors and such). A few big names will suffice: Inés Voglar Belgique, Katherine FitzGibbon, Monica Huggett, Lisa Lipton, Monica Ohuchi. Again, you get the idea.

By now, Tiedemann has more than earned her place in this pantheon of Oregon musical leaders. One of her first concerts as 3A director showcased Indian classical music; another was focused on Oregon composers. In the summer of 2021 we caught up with Tiedemann and 3A’s longtime-but-now-departed executive director Lisa Volle to discuss hygge, a-ha moments, commissions, and Soundwalks. That fall, 3A produced and premiered Darrell Grant’s opera Sanctuaries.

Last May, Tiedemann picked up a wind synth for a 3A performance of the bizarre Philip Glass science fiction music drama 1000 Airplanes on the Roof–under the wings of Howard Hughes’s wooden Spruce Goose at McMinnville’s Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum. She’s using that wind synth again this month in a solo concert January 25 & 26 at 3A’s usual venue, New Expressive Works in Southeast Portland. The concert, Atmospheres, features Tiedemann on flute and electronics performing music by almost all Pacific Northwest composers: Chicagoan Alison Loggins-Hull (half of the duo Flutronix), Washingtonian flutist Chloe Upshaw; British Columbians Nicholas Denton Protsack and Keiko Devaux; and two composers from Oregon, Daniel Vega and Elaina Rae Stuppler.

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So we called Tiedemann up last week to talk about the concert, and the wind synth, and all these composers, and how she’s managing it all in the wake of executive director Carissa Burkett’s recent move to North Pole Studio.

Tiedemann’s answers have been condensed and edited for clarity and flow.

Three hats: artistic director, executive director, solo flutist

I am currently doing both jobs in the middle of prepping for a solo show. Luckily I’ve been here a while so I know how things go–I’m not trying to figure stuff out from scratch. Luckily we just hired a production manager, which we have never had before. Her name is Lori Trephibio, and she’s amazing! Lori was the stage manager for the Oregon Symphony when she moved here, but now she has since left the symphony, and we’re thrilled to have her join our adventures on Team 3A. She has a degree in technical theater and is experienced working in diverse venues, so she’s ready for the many disciplines and unique locations that we incorporate into our site-specific shows. We’re very lucky to have her! She’s also Diné (Navajo) and was featured in the Cully Park Soundwalk that we released back in June 2021. It includes interviews with local Indigenous people at the Native Gathering Garden there.

The road to a solo show

Every season I’ve been trying to feature one of Third Angle’s core musicians with a solo show. We had Valdine Ritchie Mishkin perform a solo cello show last year, and Chris Whyte did a percussion show the year before that. I figured it was my turn. And percussion and cello are quite different from flute–with a few exceptions, I can only play one note at a time. Solo flute for an hour becomes less exciting without any harmony, so I really wanted to incorporate electronics into what I’m doing. The show includes electronics on every piece, but they’re a mix of playback tracks and live processing. I have to say I’ve never felt more inept than navigating the tech on this show, but it’s coming together. I’m also playing wind synth on a piece! I learned the ins and outs of it for the Philip Glass show last year and loved it, and the audience really seemed to enjoy it, so I’m playing that on one of the pieces that has open instrumentation. The work has never been played on an electronic instrument before, so the composer and I are both excited about that.

And then there’s the magic of the show’s lighting design. The central piece, Keiko Devaux’s Hōrai, is even written to include a video of smoke. 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. Each piece’s character and subject matter will be reflected in Jenessa Raabe’s lighting design. We’re fortunate, too, because the show is at New Expressive Works, which has an amazing color LED lighting system.

I explored the world of wind synths when trying to figure out what I wanted to purchase as I was prepping for the Glass show last year, and I came across a French company, Aodyo. They make an instrument called a Sylphyo, which I like because it most closely resembles an actual woodwind instrument. It kind of looks like an electronic clarinet, and it’s very responsive to my air, so I’m playing dynamics by blowing harder and softer. The range is wide, so it feels like I can be really expressive through it. It has the synthesizer patches that allow a wind synth to create a huge spectrum of sounds, and it also has a bunch of other features built in, where if I roll the instrument to the side or up and down or use the little slide bar on the back, I can alter the sound and distort it and slide between pitches. It gives me a lot of options. That’s on the Nicholas Denton Protsack piece, In the Refuge of a Cave.

Choosing the composers

Nicholas submitted the piece to us a few years ago when we had an open composer submission. That one’s really interesting. I have not played a lot of music like this to begin with. I’m someone who loves what electronics and processing sound like, but I’m intimidated by actually using the technology. This is definitely not equipment or software that they taught us about in the early 2000s at music conservatories. The world has gotten more DIY, obviously: you can watch YouTube videos on how to do anything and everything. So there are resources, but it’s a whole deal to have to learn the music and play my instrument at a high level and also to be neck deep in Ableton and have my practice space at home covered with cables. I’m sure it’s good for my brain, and it’s going to sound really cool and absolutely be worth it, but it has definitely been an intimidating process.

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Especially for In the Refuge of a Cave–that’s been the most challenging to get set up. There are virtually no pieces for wind synthesizer. The instrument is most often played by jazz musicians who are gifted in picking up any woodwind and just playing. That is not a skill that I have. On my end of the spectrum, where we like to have sheet music, there’s just nothing written for it. So having this piece that existed and having the composer give me his blessing to play an instrument he’s not really familiar with and just figure it out–I feel really lucky that he’s excited to have me do that. And I feel really fortunate to be able to shift this work into the potential wind synth rep, because it seems like an instrument that should be played, given everything that’s going on in the contemporary music world.

A couple of the composers on the show are flutists, Allison Loggins-Hull and Chloe Upshaw, and so those are really idiomatic. They just feel very natural. I love playing flutists’ music.

The two people we commissioned are Elaina Stuppler, who is 15 years old, and Daniel Vega, who finished his graduate degree not too long ago.

Elaina is my husband’s trombone student. At one point during the pandemic she had sent him a piece that she wrote just for fun so he could listen to it. I remember hearing it in the backroom and going, “What the hell? Who is that kid?” because I think she was 13 at the time. We helped her get involved in the Fear No Music Young Composers Project, and now she’s gone through the national Luna Composition Lab. The Oregon Symphony has even played her music. It’s fun to be able to commission this up-and-coming artist who also takes trombone lessons in my living room.

She has it so together. Composers tend to be a little flexible with their due dates. She turned this thing in six weeks early with every variation of backing track—with flute, without flute, with click track, without click track. She is one of the most professional people I have ever worked with in my life, and it has been such a pleasure. I mean, not only is she very talented, but just the way she carries herself—she’s going to go so far in life. Also, in my experience when big things start happening for people, they can lose a little of the joy, and she seems to be having fun with everything all the time. That’s so rare and blissful to be around for, you know, a mid-career jaded musician. She’s injected her youthful sunshine into the show.

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Daniel is also a Portlander, and when I was teaching at PSU, the flute ensemble played a work of his. I knew I liked him and his music, so I asked him, back in winter or spring, to write something about the sky. He ended up writing the piece about his father who passed away, and it’s beautiful and heartfelt, not to mention well crafted. We always talk about how every show will have some big surprise that comes in and leaves us scrambling a little bit, and he was the bearer of that this time. Luckily we like him and the music is good! He gave us a piece that is for three of me, so I ended up having to quickly learn and record two extra flute parts for the backing track. It has been a little bit more involved a process than I had originally thought I was signing up for, but I’ve been in this particular situation multiple times. It’s all worth it, and I’m honored that he’s trusting me to be a part of expressing such an important event in his life. It’s also wonderful to be a part of extending the flute repertoire and commissioning this piece through which his father lives on.

Hōrai is the most contemporary work on the show. It’s filled with extended techniques–but often when contemporary flutists get extended techniques we’re playing a lot of beatboxing or active, rhythmic music. This is exactly the opposite. It’s ethereal, a musically open space. It’s full of long multiphonics, mostly fingered multiphonics. There’s a video of smoke behind it, and the music sounds like it has that quality of smoke and of souls in the air. It’s in five sections that are each triggered in Ableton, and the smoke grows and fades for each section. I love being able to bathe in the flute’s sound and not feel active while I’m on stage. It’s rare and beautiful when you play a piece of music that calms you down while you perform it, and that’s what Hōrai is.

Where the air is dense with souls

I think it’s important for us to provide educational, experiential professional opportunities to young composers, and also to be paying them as professionals and to work in this more formal environment, to help them launch their careers with that kind of experience where they’ll be really supported. I’m a teacher, so I enjoy helping guide younger people.

I came up with the idea for this concert because of the central piece on it, Hōrai, which was played at a music festival that Third Angle folks attend every year. It’s called Music on Main in Vancouver, BC. I thought, “Oh my gosh, that’s amazing, I want to do that.” That one’s built around the idea of a mythical Japanese land called Hōrai where the air is dense with souls. Then I programmed more repertoire around it that is about the sky or space or what have you. I was just programming music I liked.

And then my most influential flute teacher passed away over the summer, and all of a sudden I went, “That’s why I came up with that show.” We all connect with time and art in ways that we don’t always understand, and I think the idea popped into my head in sort of a nonlinear way and is connected to my teacher passing, six months later.

So now I’m happy to be in that role where I can pay the guidance he gave me forward to younger artists. This was the person who got me interested in contemporary music. He was a composer and a flutist, he coached my chamber music group, he coached the contemporary ensemble I played with, all in grad school at New England Conservatory. And all of that guidance is a part of the show that we’re doing. I’m convinced it was meant to be.

The Pitch Doctor

John Heiss is a legend that not that many people have heard of. Everyone who’s passed through New England Conservatory knows him, and I think most of us would list him among our most influential mentors. He was a brilliant composer, a brilliant flutist. He passed away at 85, so he would have been in his early sixties when I was there. He wasn’t performing much anymore, but he coached the chamber groups and the contemporary ensemble, and he gave flute masterclasses and taught music theory and history. He was everywhere in the school.

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And for the genius he was, he was very unassuming. He always wore this old baseball cap everywhere, even when he conducted. He was just the sweetest man. When he coached and you played something just as he was describing, he would do a chef’s kiss and say, “It’s never been played better.” He said it all the time, but somehow we all believed him every time he said it. He just made us all feel good about ourselves.

When I was there, I was studying with Jeanne Baxtresser, who was a retired principal flute of the New York Philharmonic. My second year I knew that I wanted to get more into the contemporary music side of things and move away from orchestral playing. And so I asked Ms. Baxtresser and Mr. Heiss if I could study halftime with each of them. Surprisingly, they both went for it. I was Mr. Heiss’s only flute student, and I built a special fatherly relationship with him after my father passed away during the first few weeks of school that year. He was so sweet and kind and supportive and there at just the right moment, and he shifted the trajectory of my life 180°. I thought I was going to follow that orchestral pathway that was what we all did by default, and he showed me that I could do something else, be myself. I think he showed a lot of people that we could strike out on our own paths.

I would say there’s one ultimate John Heiss-defining story—this was his favorite story. He was a student, and Stravinsky was coming to town and having a piece of his done by the orchestra there. I believe Mr. Heiss couldn’t get out of an exam, so he couldn’t play in the orchestra, and he was devastated. His teacher said, “You can sit in the audience with the score during rehearsal, and you’re going to listen and find all of the wrong notes.” So Mr. Heiss sat there with his score and wrote down all of the wrong pitches he heard, and at the end of rehearsal he went up and showed the conductor. As he was leaving, Stravinsky himself went up to Mr. Heiss to say thank you and called him “The Pitch Doctor.” Stravinsky would later ask for him when his next piece premiered later on—he said, “Where’s The Pitch Doctor?” And so Mr. Heiss told everyone he ever met how Stravinsky called him “The Pitch Doctor,” always with the same reverence and humility, and a twinkle in his eye. Maybe the most dear thing I’ve ever seen in my life. So I made a little “in memory” slide for the preconcert that says “Mr. Heiss, The Pitch Doctor.” He was also a sailor and took his students sailing, so I have some photos of when he took us out on the Charles River. He was just … he was the best.

So I hope when I’m working with young people to do what he did for me—teach them that they can find their own voices, and also help them find a balance of professionalism and hanging onto that youthful joy that gets us into music in the first place. That is probably the easiest thing to lose when you move into the later stages of your musicianship.

Every conversation needs a tarot card

I just pulled one for the show and got the Hierophant! To paraphrase my book, that card is about mentorship and a hunger for knowledge, “whether it is in the practical or the spiritual realm.” The entry ends with, “Open your heart, and your teacher will appear.” Couldn’t be more perfect.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Music editor Matthew Neil Andrews is a composer, writer, and alchemist specializing in the intersection of The Weird and The Beautiful. An incorrigible wanderer who spent his teens climbing mountains and his twenties driving 18-wheelers around the country, Matthew can often be found taking his nightly dérive walks all over whichever Oregon city he happens to be in. He and his music can be reached at monogeite.bandcamp.com.

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