Monday, May 4, 2015

Third Angle teams up with Alex Ross to play and explain West Coast music

Guest review by Jeff Winslow

Music is sound first, then emotion. The partnership remained a largely unquestioned part of European music tradition until the early 20th century, when two massive wars and a variety of other traumatic social turmoils seemed to wear out interest in the emotional part. Some composers began to look back to the music of what they imagined were simpler and less fraught times. Others, particularly on America's west coast, simply imagined less fraught sounds. Third Angle New Music, last Friday evening (May 1) at a nearly full Alberta Rose Theatre, celebrated their 30th anniversary fittingly, with a season finale that featured the latter, back in a time before the whole idea of a musical "avant-garde" became worn out in turn.

Providing a low-key but engaging narrative for the evening was special guest Alex Ross, music critic for "The New Yorker" magazine, and writer on how we got to today's "classical" music, the most famous example being his award-winning book "The Rest is Noise". Ensconced at a mid-century modern chair and table (he made a point of letting us know just how comfortable the chair was), he introduced each number and drew it into a picture of the West Coast scene. This was especially intriguing because many if not most of the evening's composers achieved their eventual fame (or notoriety) in other parts of the country. Many people associate John Cage with the invention of the "prepared piano"; how many know he first "prepared" a piano in Seattle? Or that he was born in Los Angeles and spent his early creative life in California?

The scene was set by the only work with a recognizable European pedigree. California native Henry Cowell's "Quartet Euphometric" for strings, finished just after World War I and seven years after Arnold Schoenberg's seminal atonal "Pierrot Lunaire," came across as a mostly euphonious exercise in that style. Its supposed rhythmic difficulties have been so eclipsed by other music since that they were barely noticeable. Even more euphonious was the movement "Bowl Bells" from "Varied Trio," a later (1987) work by Portland's own Lou Harrison, given a relaxed performance by Third Angle artistic director Ron Blessinger on violin, Susan DeWitt Smith on piano, and percussionist Chris Whyte on... rice bowls.

Harrison and California composer, inventor and hobo Harry Partch shared an interest in unusual percussion instruments, but Partch was represented by a work that could hardly be more different. An excerpt from "Bitter Music: XX. November 15 – Leaving Santa Barbara" interspersed Ross's straight narration, a "piano enhanced" narration – Smith following the inflections of her voice on the keyboard – and hymns sung by Blessinger, who happens to have a fine voice in addition to his other talents.

The concert simply had to include generous helpings of Cage and pioneering 1960's minimalists LaMonte Young, Terry Riley and Steve Reich. (Reich was born in New York, but has deep roots in California too.) Idaho native Young's "Composition 1960 #7," just a couple of long-held notes – the title is almost longer than the score – ushered the arriving patrons to their seats. Californian Riley was represented by an excerpt from his free-form masterpiece "In C" that was unfortunately too short to get into the most fascinating parts, which are not actually in C. Reich fared somewhat better, in an excerpt from his tape loop work "It's Gonna Rain" and Blessinger performing "Violin Phase" as a solo against a taped "phased array" of the other violin parts. Possibly because of the time constraint, I got the impression "Violin Phase" was getting a bit of the bum's rush. Reich might have been better represented by that work only, in a longer, more gradually developed rendition.

I have to admit I don't have much use for Cage, outside of one or two ground-breaking concepts and earlier works such as his magnum opus "Sonatas and Interludes", but "Imaginary Landscapes no. 1" from 1939 was a pleasant surprise. A conversation seemed to develop between Smith, repeatedly diving down the strings on the inside of the piano and insinuating occasional muted ticking, Whyte playing a Chinese cymbal (even noisier than a typical Western one) in multifarious ways, and Nancy Ives and Charles Noble (normally on stage as fine string players) doing proto-scratches on two turntables loaded with test tone vinyl. Two themes which came to dominate Cage's work were clear: interplay of gestures' durations, and repression of the expressiveness of pitch content. But unlike most of his late work, I still felt a great interest in how it would all play out.

Aside from the early Cowell, however, there was little impetus for emotional response to any of these works, no matter how attractive or intriguing they were. (To be fair, when I first heard "In C", in full performance by Third Angle nearly 30 years ago, it was indeed a moving experience. And Harrison was a wide-ranging composer who wasn't shy about emotional expression.) So I looked forward to the final work of the evening, John Luther Adams' string quartet "The Wind in High Places", written in the present day, when composers are once again fully engaging the emotional sphere. The emotions in Adams' music tend toward subtle responses to nature, which isn't surprising, because he has spent most of his professional life in Alaska, a place where nature is very hard to avoid. Indeed, I sometimes think the emotion his music expresses best, paradoxically, is a kind of emptiness, a response not so much to the surrounding beauties of nature but the simple lack of human presence.

Unfortunately, at this climactic point, I have to say it – Third Angle stumbled. One thing composers have always been and probably will always be interested in is pushing the ever-expanding boundaries of virtuosity, and Adams in 2011 set string players a treacherous challenge. It doesn't sound complicated (check out the JACK Quartet tracks on YouTube), but the work is chock full of harmonics. Harmonics are tricky enough: fingers must not only be in exactly the right position along a string, but must also exert the right pressure or unwanted sounds will be added, usually in the most distracting, wobbly-sounding way. Even so, players of Third Angle's caliber have little problem with them, in moderation. The challenge here is that they must transition flawlessly between them, occasionally several in quick succession, for minutes at a time. For nearly 20 minutes, there is almost always at least one player walking the tightrope, and often all four. Even if each player is perfect most of the time, there's likely always going to be a distracting scratch or wobble somewhere. And so it went – human nature in this particular landscape was, ironically, all too present. It was a valiant effort, but it just didn't get the work across.

Still, this is the world of new music. It's much better to be ambitious and risk failure than plod along in the safety of the same old channels. Third Angle is nothing if not ambitious, and over their 30 year history they have usually succeeded in fine style, as indeed they did for the rest of the evening. I wish them all the best for the next 30 years.
Jeff Winslow is fourth-generation Oregonian who studied music and electronics at University of California-Berkeley, getting serious about composition in the mid-1990s as High Modernism finally relinquished its death grip on the world of art music. His work has been performed by fEARnoMUSIC, Portland Vocal Consort, and the Resonance Ensemble, and also at Cascadia Composers, Seventh Species, Cherry Blossom Musical Arts, and Oregon Bach Festival concerts, as well as several other locations around the region, often with the composer at the piano. A recent piano work, “Lied ohne Worte (lieber mit Ligeti)” received honorable mention from the Friends and Enemies of New Music, a New York-based composers’ group. He is a founding member of the Cascadia Composers, a chapter of NACUSA centered on the lower watershed of the Columbia River.


Nancy Ives said...

Incredibly minor correction: The narration in the Partch was actually done by me. I agree about Ron's singing voice; you should hear him do karaoke!

James Bash said...

Thanks for setting the record straight Nancy!