By James Bash
For The Hollywood Star News, February, 2010
Expect the unusual and carry a sense of humor if you come to the Hollywood Theatre on the evening of March 5 at 7:30 p.m. When you step into the lobby you’ll see a fish tank and four performers playing music or reading poetry in response to where the fish swim. That piece, called the “Tropical Fish Opera,” is one of several oddly enjoyable works that Third Angle New Music Ensemble will present at the concert.
“Our program is called ‘Chance/Perchance,’” explained Ron Blessinger, artistic director of Third Angle, “so each piece has something to do with the idea of chance principles determining the form of the music. We are calling the concert a ‘musical happening.’”
The fish-tank performance is part of “Tropical Fish Opera,” a whimsical piece written in the 1960s by Ramón Sender.
“Sender’s ‘Tropical Fish Opera’ uses a real, four-sided fish tank with music ledger lines on three of the sides,” said Blessinger. “The fourth side has some poetry arranged according to I Ching principles. Each of the four players is assigned one fish; and when the fish swims by their ledger line, they play the note. So the fish determines the piece, and the reader’s fish determines which poems are narrated.”
It sounds a little wacky and a lot of fun, especially if you’re looking for a new and different musical experience. Third Angle, which began with a group of freelance musicians in 1985, has acquired quite a reputation for pushing the boundaries and collaborating with other Portland-based arts groups.
“We don’t take an attitude to contemporary music that says ‘We know better; and if you don’t get it, you’re an idiot,’” said Blessinger. “We take the attitude that says, ‘We need you to get it.’ We like to see ourselves as the hub of a wheel that extends out to other disciplines and all sorts of styles. We like to highlight the artistic resources of our region. That has included the Jefferson Dancers, Body Vox, the Portland Art Museum, the Halprin Conservancy, the Oregon Symphony and many other organizations. So we are about celebrating Portland culture via music. We are kind of like that stuff in a Petri dish. We’re the goo that helps to grow the culture here.”
Besides Blessinger, who plays violin, Third Angle consists of violist Brian Quincey, cellist Hamilton Cheifetz, flutist GeorgeAnne Reis, clarinetist Todd Kuhns and pianist Susan Smith. The ensemble’s latest CD of new music by Chinese composer Chen Yi has garnered rave reviews and made National Public Radio’s top-ten list for classical recordings in 2009.
Blessinger was born in Hermiston, Oregon, and received a Bachelors degree from the Oberlin Conservatory and a Masters degree with distinction in performance from the New England Conservatory. He has been a member of the violin section of the Oregon Symphony since 1990 and joined Third Angle in 1992, becoming its artistic director in 1999. Blessinger and managing director Laura Grimes are residents of the Irvington neighborhood.
Although Third Angle has performed in almost every public venue in Portland, the group’s March concert will be its first at the Hollywood Theatre. The program will include Mark Appelbaum’s “The Metaphysics of Notation,” which consists of a roll of paper with images on it.
“This is music that asks you to respond,” said Blessinger. “You respond to the image that you see. The length of the piece depends on how the performer responds to the images. Some performances might be faster, some slower. There’s no standard length. It could last 20 minutes or an hour.”
The March concert also will include a new piece, “Mountains and Rivers” by David Schiff, who teaches at Reed College. The concerto will feature improvising soloists, with members of Third Angle providing jazzy background.
The performance at the Hollywood Theatre will conclude with one of contemporary music’s most famous works, “In C” by Terry Riley. The score consists of one page. That’s all. That one sheet of music includes a number of musical phrases. All the players get a copy of the same sheet of music but they play whatever sequence of notes they want.
“The musicians move through this piece like a flock of birds,” said Blessinger. “An individual doesn’t get too far ahead or too far behind the group. He or she senses where the group is.”
According to Blessinger, “In C” may be the piece Third Angle plays in a future concert in China. To top off a busy year, the ensemble has been invited to perform at the Beijing Modern Music Festival.
“We are really looking forward to playing in China,” said Blessinger. “You just never know where new music is going to take you.”
For more information, visit thirdangle.org.