Yale Percussion Group picks the most important sounds, old and new
As Seth Colter Walls wrote here yesterday, New York has lately been an excellent place for exploring the "difficult music," the Stockhausens and Cages, of the past 50 years. Much of this music—which can tend towards the forbidding—features percussion instruments with a prominence, and in combinations, that are rare in traditional classical music.
If you missed the past week's Darmstadt festival and Pierre Boulez' 85th birthday celebration, it isn't too late to get your fix. This Sunday at 8 p.m. at Zankel Hall at Carnegie, the Yale Percussion Group, an ensemble of graduate students at the Yale School of Music, will perform four pieces from the '70s and '80s. The group is known for developing great artists—the renowned Sō Percussion quartet is made up of alumni—and their show will be a fascinating (and cheap) concert. Capital asked each of three of the members to tell us a little bit about the works on the program, as well as a traditional classical piece whose percussion part he enjoys.
Mauricio Kagel’s Dressur (1977) is one of the few pieces of percussion repertoire that has left a huge impact on my growth as a musician and artist.
As a performer, this piece of instrumental theatre requires three idiosyncratic skill sets relating to instrumentation, staging, and memorization. Before we even rehearsed a note, each member of our trio had to learn (and in some cases construct) a wide array of around 45 instruments spanning from marimba and castanets to anklung and wasamba rattles to clapper boxes and coconuts. To add an even higher level of difficulty, each performer has to follow detailed staging instructions that require them at points to scoot, dance, and freely move to different stations during the performance. It was one of the first times in my life where I was instructed to not only play a fandango, but to also wear a pair of clogs on my hands and feet while dancing a fango!
This high level of instrumental performance and movement it made it virtually impossible for our trio to use printed music on stage. This essentially meant that as a group we had to memorize over 30 minutes of music and staging, which was not only daunting to learn but also difficult to execute under pressure. However, with all these demands the laughter, excitement, and engagement I feel from the audience during every performance makes Dressur one of the most rewarding musical experiences in my life so far.
One of the most rewarding and interesting standard pieces of chamber repertoire I have encountered is Bartok’s Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion.
Although the piece highlights in many ways the virtuosity of the two pianists, it tends to downplay the role of the percussion, in particular the timpani. However, any timpanist who has played this part knows of the high level of fluency the part requires, such as the timpani’s tuning changes, glissandi, and overall orchestration within the piece. For those who see a performance, watch the percussion throughout this work. If the timpanist is not trying to blend the sound of the timpani against that of two pianos, he or she is busy at work retuning the drums or changing mallets for the next big entrance.
Village Burial with Fire is one of a trilogy of percussion pieces that James Wood composed after a formative trip to Bali.
Here, the sights, smells and sounds of a Hindu funeral ceremony—from a noisy funeral procession to the passing of the deceased and combusted soul into the spirit world—are refracted through Wood’s own compositional voice. At first glance, Village Burial with Fire, from 1989, has the necessary ingredients of the typical, eye-rolling “percussion ensemble” piece: a stage covered with strange instruments, loud and virtuosic playing—a chaotic mélange of exoticism that overwhelms the senses and beats the listener into submission. Fortunately for us, Wood’s musical scenes are multifaceted and nuanced: the music is alternately forceful and sinuous, at turns a sweaty celebration and the disembodied wailing of a lost soul. I hope our performance invites listeners to move beyond the number of instruments on stage and hear Wood’s remarkable and potent music.
Playing Village Burial is a challenging experience for a percussionist both because of the multifaceted demands Wood places on us and the extremes in focus and energy required. The piece is not only sonically diverse and rhythmically complex, but also requires extremes in expression, from the joyous celebrations of the living to the haunting calls of spirits—places classical percussionists are not usually asked to go!
The first half of Village Burial alternates between chanting and instrumental tutti sections. The chanting is a variation on Balinese Kecak (monkey chant), and depicts a dialogue between the protagonist (the deceased) and the people of the village. During the instrumental sections, the marimba and xylophone play with and rub against rhythmic cycles from a drummer and a high, floating, metallic melody. Rehearsing these sections is a combination of an extremely detailed investigation of the connections between each of our parts, and the physical calisthenics of actually playing it. The music requires tremendous rhythmic skill, dynamic control and open ears!
What follows is one of the most unique collections of musical scenes in the percussion literature. After a smoky ritual, Wood deconstructs the material he’s used until this point, using the members of the quartet to seamlessly morph one instrument’s sound into another’s. Here, we have to communicate as an ensemble, and focus on speaking with one voice. This is difficult to achieve but supremely rewarding in effect. At this point, Wood utilizes an instrument he invented called the Microxyl: a microtonal xylophone that fill in the spaces between half-steps on a normal keyboard, and is played only as glissandi, depicting the cries of the departed soul from the spirit world. Although these sections of Village Burial with Fire are softer and sparser than the first half, they require just as much energy and intensity to perform, and are supremely expressive, and no less daunting than the rhythmic complexity of the opening.
As far as a standard piece with an overlooked percussion part, the cowbell part in Gustav Mahler’s Sixth Symphony (1906) springs to mind.
In a piece that is already a virtual encyclopedia of orchestral instruments, the cowbells stand out. Mahler takes these humble bells, normally not considered musical instruments, and uses them as a sonic memory, a way of transporting the music to the wide open spaces of the Alps.
A listen to John Cage’s Third Construction (1941) will demonstrate just how far the cowbell traveled in the years between both pieces’ composition.
Far from being a gentle tinkling in a sea of instruments, Cage uses the bells as an integral part of the polyrhythmic grooves of this percussion quartet classic, in the process giving all percussion instruments just a little bit more legitimacy. What a difference a few decades makes.
Steve Reich's music grooves from start to finish and evokes a truly unique physical reaction from both the player and the listener. When I’m playing it, and when it’s going well, my body can’t help but dance along. To me, any music that evokes that strong a reaction is worth paying attention to.
Sextet (1985) is a 26-minute piece divided into five movements—fast, moderate, slow, moderate, fast. It is scored for marimbas, vibraphones, crotales, bass drums, pianos, synthesizers and a tam-tam. In this performance, I’ll be playing one of the piano/synthesizer parts. It’s quite a workout—I never stop playing for more than 10 or 15 seconds. Throughout the first movement, I play straight eighth notes at a very fast tempo for almost 10 minutes without a break.
One piece from the standard repertoire with a wonderful percussion part is Debussy’s La Mer.
The cymbal part is particularly special. When I played it, I used things like knitting needles, coins and of course mallets to try to mimic the sounds of waves and the sea.