A piece of music by the composer Philip Glass will soon be performed under the tail of Oregon’s iconic Spruce Goose airplane. The piece, “1,000 Airplanes on the Roof,” has rarely been performed in full. It features numerous wind instruments, synthesizers, a vocalist and an actor performing scenes. Sarah Tiedemann, artistic director of Third Angle New Music, and actor Ithica Tell, join us to describe the performance in more detail and share its history.
The piece will be performed on May 20th and 21st at 8 p.m.
Note: The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: From the Gert Boyle Studio OPB, this is Think Out Loud. I’m Dave Miller. You can watch a performance this weekend of a piece by the composer Philip Glass while sitting under the tail of Oregon’s iconic Spruce Goose airplane. The piece is called “1,000 Airplanes on the Roof,” and according to the organizers of the concert, the one act sci-fi melodrama has rarely been performed in full. Sarah Tiedemann is the Artistic Director of Third Angle New Music. She joins us now, along with Ithica Tell, a long time Portland actor who plays the only role in this production. Welcome to you both.
Sarah Tiedemann: Thank you.
Ithica Tell: Glad to be here.
Miller: Sarah, how did it come to be that you’re doing a concert under a huge airplane?
Tiedemann: Well, every year I spend some time on the internet as I’m doing our programming and for some reason, I was drawn to look at the Evergreen Museum’s website. I have never been there before, at that point. I had never seen the Spruce Goose. I didn’t know very much about the Spruce Goose, but I just felt kind of compelled. And then saw that it was the 75th anniversary of the one flight that it had made and the project kind of spiraled from there.
Miller: So you, you called up the museum and said, can we put a concert on there?
Miller: It was that simple?
Miller: And clearly in the end they said yes, otherwise we wouldn’t be talking now. Was it hard to get that yes?
Tiedemann: Well, they do host events there. They host things like proms, which is very cool. So they had the infrastructure set up, but they definitely hadn’t had anything like this take place. But it is a big year for them. So they are actually really excited about the idea, too.
Miller: So why this particular piece, “1,000 Airplanes On The Roof”?
Tiedemann: It is such a huge piece and such an important piece in Philip Glass’s repertoire, but it’s almost never performed. When it was first written in the late eighties, the Philip Glass Ensemble, which is a kind of quirky instrumentation, took it on the road. But then it just didn’t get played very much after that, largely because of the strange instrumentation. It’s for two synthesizers, three wind players playing saxophones and flutes and I’m playing something called the EWI, which is an electronic wind instrument, wind synthesizer and then a vocalist and an actor. So it’s kind of a theater piece.
It’s kind of not really a classical piece, an orchestra wouldn’t really do it. It’s kind of like a cross between classical music and Depeche Mode, I’ve been saying.
Miller: Yeah, you mentioned your electronic instrument. We’ll hear that in a second. But you also mentioned the actor, Ithica Tell is with us. What interested you in coming back to Portland from Atlanta where you live now, after 20-plus years in Portland, to take part in this production. Why do you want to take part in it?
Tell: The Third Angle New Music is the reason that I came to do this. My first production after the pandemic was a show with Third Angle and I love this company a lot. They’re really fun to work for. They have deep respect for their artists, and site specific performances are so much fun. The last one we did was at the Moda Center and I was hooked, just the whole nugget of Third Angle made me say, yeah,. Plus I wasn’t busy.
Miller: That also helped. Can you give us a sense for the character you play?
Tell: Yeah. Emma is sort of an every person. They are an individual with a regular job,
with a regular life and with some possible, regular mental illness. And that manifests into some regular possible fantasy and possible life experience.
Miller: My understanding is that the audience is not necessarily gonna know if your character has been abducted by aliens or not. What’s reality? What’s not? What’s it like to play with that, to give audiences that level of just not being sure.
Tell: It’s a lot of fun for me because it sort of lends into my whole philosophy of everything, everywhere all at once, in that everything’s possible and we don’t know what’s going on for Em, but just because it isn’t going on for you doesn’t mean it isn’t going on for them. And maybe they had something happen to them that connects their mental energy to other energies that resonate in on their same harmonic frequency. You know what I mean? It could be as simple as that, it could be that they took some drugs that they are irrevocably changed from. We don’t know. And David Henry Hwang didn’t really tell us.
Miller: Let’s have a listen to a clip of the music from this piece. This is from a rehearsal I think, from earlier this week. Let’s have a listen.
Miller: Sarah, you said that this has not been performed often since it was written in the late eighties. Did that lead to challenges when you wanted to actually put it on?
Tiedemann: Oh, yes. First of all, the synthesizers that were used back then are really hard to get a hold of now and tend to not be in good condition. So the process of obtaining synthesizers and buying them and the batteries didn’t work. And are we gonna have to solder in new batteries? It has been months.
Miller: There are synthesizers today. You can go out and buy 1,000 different ones. But, you want the specific ones that Philip Glass wrote this for? Because you want those specific sounds?
Tiedemann: Yeah. And we ended up making adjustments because we just had to, but we do have that sound in our ears now and we’ve been trying to match it as closely as possible.
Miller: Speaking of synthesizers, you’re holding one of them, a wind-based, wind-powered one. What is it? And can we hear a little bit of it?
Tiedemann: Yeah. So EWI stands for electronic wind instrument. Mine is a European model. They look very different depending on the company you get it from. Yamaha makes them, they look kind of like electric guitars that you hold in front of your chest and push buttons. Mine looks like a clarinet that’s electronic. So I have keys but they’re more like keypads that I push and it sounds like a synthesizer.
Tiedemann: And I can actually play six octaves on it, which is fun.
Miller: If you want to talk to the whales.
Miller: Does it go lower than the last note you just played?
Tiedemann: That’s it. That’s the bottom one.
Miller: So there were challenges in terms of the instrumentation. I understand that there were also challenges in terms of just the score itself. So what did you get in the mail?
Tiedemann: So it is handwritten, I assume in Philip Glass’s hand. It clearly hasn’t been revised other than scribbles on it in the last 40 years. So there was a process with me on the floor with all of the parts, photocopying and cutting and pasting and transposing the instruments and the parts were not the ones they were supposed to be. So we’re calling this my own arrangement of it. I’ve never had to do this before. But we wanted to make it happen, so.
Miller: Are there recordings? So you can have a sense for how other groups have done this in the past?
Tiedemann: We’ve really dug deep on this. So, there is an album with the Philip Glass Ensemble, but it doesn’t have the actor on it. So the music is slightly different. It would have been a little boring in its original form without an actor. We managed to track down one archival video from a group in Scotland, who did it 12 years ago, but that was just for a reference and that’s all we’ve got.
Miller: Let’s listen to one more clip from a recent rehearsal. We’ll hear again, the instrumentalists as well as a singer, the soprano Arwen Myers.
[Music playing and singing]
Miller: Ithica Tell, what’s it like to have this repetition and this sort of trance like music for you to work with as an actor?
Tell: It’s fascinating for me because I’m not a musician in this process. And so I am listening to the same thing. It changes in increments and we decided that we’re just gonna get someone to cue me, because we’re gonna have a musician, someone who’s incredibly capable at reading this music. And oh man, I’ve seen the score and it is beautiful in its intricacy, but you can’t read it unless you’re a professional. And I genuflect deeply, lowly, to this group of musicians. They’re amazing. So I am following along, someone’s gonna tell me when to go, and I’m gonna go. I’ve taken the time to figure out how long, based on the rehearsals, my speech should take. And, I’m gonna put myself inside that time. So I’m doing the meticulous stage managing part of keeping myself on track as well as being handheld by will.
Miller: You talk about liking site specific productions, the Moda Center before, now this. What’s it like to perform underneath this huge airplane?
Tell: Just standing in the shadow of the Spruce Goose. It’s so massive. And she’s beautiful, like you look at this plane and it’s silver and it looks like wood, it looks like metal, but it’s wood and there’s something vibrant about that still, in an earth and sky sort of way.
Miller: You can feel the wood.
Tell: Yeah, she’s just there hanging out over me. It’s brilliant. I get to go inside it, which is a real honor for me to get to do that. And it’s super exciting to be able to participate at this event with this historic piece of equipment.
Miller: Ithica Tell and Sarah Tiedeman, thanks very much for coming in.
Tiedemann: Thank you for having us.
Tell: Thanks, Dave.
Miller: Sarah Tiedemann is the artistic director of Third Angle New Music. Ithica Tell is a long time actor, one time Portland actor, now based in Atlanta. They are taking part in this one-act, Philip Glass sci-fi melodrama, hard to describe work, this weekend underneath the huge Spruce Goose airplane at the Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum in McMinnville. Performances are Saturday and Sunday at 8pm.
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