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In 'Frozen Music,' Performers Merge Sound With Architecture

Inspired by Goethe’s quote, “music is liquid architecture, and architecture is frozen music,” the Portland new music ensemble Third Angle will team up with the choir group Cappella Romana to transform one of Oregon’s most famous buildings — one you might not even know exists — into an interactive soundscape.

The Mount Angel Abbey designed by Finnish architect Alvar Aalto.

The Mount Angel Abbey designed by Finnish architect Alvar Aalto.

Arthur Hitchcock

The Mount Angel Abbey library in St. Benedict, Oregon, is one of only two buildings in the U.S. designed by noted Finnish architect Alvar Aalto. From its facade, it looks like an unassuming, one-story structure on the edge of a hill. But as you enter, the building opens up like a giant fan, two floors spreading out in a big arc with each aisle radiating from the circulation desk. And despite the “Quiet” signs, it’s no stranger to music: Duke Ellington and his orchestra played its opening in 1970.

“We love context and we love telling stories,” said Ron Blessinger, the artistic director of Third Angle. “ We love the way that music can function at the center of all these disciplines and enrich the experience of a visual space.”  

The show will open in a small theater with a performance of Magnus Lindberg’s Clarinet Quintet. The audience will then enter the library, and that’s when it gets unusual.

The idea came when Blessinger and some others were first exploring the library.  

Director Jonathan Walters bows a glass of water during a rehearsal at the Mt. Angel Abbey library.

Director Jonathan Walters bows a glass of water during a rehearsal at the Mt. Angel Abbey library.

Aaron Scott/OPB

“We’re going down into a stairwell and we started singing, and we found a pitch that really resonated the hell out of the building,” Blessinger said. That pitch is B flat, and performers will play crystal glasses throughout the library tuned to create a chord with speakers in the stairwells.  “We want this to be, in effect, a harmony of the building. We want to re-imagine the building as an instrument.”  

The performance will invoke architect Aalto’s voice, too. Third Angle tracked down recordings and also had a voice artist record some of his quotes, which will be played out of speakers hidden in the bookshelves. Singers will wander the aisles, translating the Finnish lyrics to English. Meanwhile, in several side rooms, monks will read stories from Aalto’s childhood. Finally, the Cappella Romana singers will come together to perform a Benedictine psalm and a work by Einojuhani Rautavaara.  

Members of Third Angle, Cappella Romana, and Mt. Angel map out the performance.

Members of Third Angle, Cappella Romana, and Mt. Angel map out the performance.

Aaron Scott/OPB

Inspired by the interactive performance “Sleep No More,” they’ve set the program up in one-hour cycles, so the audience can experience it multiple times from different spaces in the building.

For Ron Blessinger, it all comes back to Aalto’s architecture.  “I just like the idea of personalizing Aalto as a human being, because this is what Aalto is about,” he said. “The thing that makes him most remarkable as an architect is that the experience of people in the buildings is what matter, and not theories.”

Third Angle and Cappella Romana will perform “Frozen Music” on Oct. 3-4 at the Mount Angel Abbey Library.

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