These Composers Channel Our National Parks in Sound

Third Angle presents Solo Hikes: three specially commissioned pieces, two nights, one passion.

By Lauren Kershner April 3, 2017

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Last year, the contemporary classical music fans at Third Angle decided to celebrate the National Park Service's centennial birthday (the big day was August 25, 2016) by commissioning works from three Oregon composers. The premise? Each piece would explore a relationship to America's national parks.

As we approach spring 2017, the Portland-based group might seem a little late to the party, but it certainly knows how to make an entrance. Third Angle's had practice: three decades, in fact, during which it's created and presented over 125 contemporary works (and commissioned over 66). To date, 12 Third Angle recordings have received critical acclaim, including Chen Yi: Sound of the Five, which National Public Radio named as a top 10 recording  in 2009.

Now Third Angle's Solo Hikes—the performance name for the debut of these three park-inspired works—aims to strike another chord. Solo Hikes debuts on April 6 and April 7 at New Expressive Works. Written for solo instruments, the new pieces explore nature from–of course, three–different angles. Here's a peek at each. 

Outside In (Composer: Brian McWhorter)

As a child, Brian McWhorter’s family had a mining claim in the Siskiyou National Forest, not far from Crater Lake National Park. He recalls spending a lot of time there, not just panning for gold, but also spending time in nature. As a composer, McWhorter says his inspiration lies in life's divisions—between nature and humanity, performer and composer, audience and presenter. “Visiting national parks is something that begs us to forget these divisions,” he says in his piece's “note to performer.” 

McWhorter's work for Third Angle, titled Outside In and performed by percussionist Sergio Carreno, is inspired by “those moments when we feel we are not so much a part of the natural world, but that the natural world is part of us... [The piece] is more of a homage to the phenomenon of a national park.”

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Christina Rusnak at Glacier National Park

Image: John Rusnak

Glacier Blue (Composer: Christina Rusnak)

Christina Rusnak traces her relationship with nature back to her senior year of college when, to quickly fulfill her science requirements, she signed up for a Field Botany/Biology class. She describes the class—mostly spent backpacking in Big Bend National Park—as “life-changing.” She’s since composed many pieces inspired by national parks.

Rusnak's piece, Glacier Blue, is divided into three movements–mountain, water, and sky–inspired by her solo hikes through Glacier National Park. “What struck me most,” she says of her recent visits to the park, “was the diversity of each of the elements.” Her composition for cello, performed by Marilyn de Oliveira, depicts the height of the mountain, the depth of the water, and the twinkling of the stars. 

Arachnomancy (Composer: Matt Marble)

Harboring a long-time fascination with nature, Matt Marble's experience in America's national parks began in the Blue Ridge Parkway and the national scenic trails of the Natchez Trace. “The [trails] were important landmarks in my teens and 20s,” he says. “It was along the Blue Ridge Parkway that I developed an interest in the geometry of crystal forms.”

These days, Marble can be found exploring Mount Hood National Forest and other Oregon nature preserves, identifying patterns in nature–like the arrangement of flowers on a stem–that inspire his musical compositions. Arachnomancy, performed by saxophonist John Nastos, draws inspiration from the geometry of spider webs. 

Solo Hikes: Shared Solitude

7:30 p.m. Thu–Fri, Apr 6–7, Studio 2, New Expressive Works, $25

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