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Joe Gramley’s “Made in America”

Joseph Gramley

After a long summer, students have returned to the University of Michigan. With all the excitement surrounding a new year of school, I found myself most eager to resume my role as an audience member at the School of Music, Theater and Dance’s perennially fantastic concert and recital offerings. The season opened up in a big way last Friday evening when Joseph Gramley – Michigan’s beloved, charismatic and preeminent Professor and Coordinator of Percussion – graced the stage of the Moore Building’s McIntosh Theater with a program this concertgoer is not soon to forget.

The evening’s theme, “Made in America”, was designed to highlight the contributions of American composers the percussion repertory. First in the lineup was Meditation Preludes (1970) by William Duckworth, a friend of Steve Reich’s and pioneer of post-minimalist music. One of my favorite things about Mr. Gramley’s recitals is his preference for oral program notes, which note only reveal the thought process behind his decision to perform a given work but also offer many interesting facts about the music and its composer. The most relevant ‘tidbit’ for Meditation Preludes is the work’s use of bitonality, which Duckworth drew from Darius Milhaud’s piano work, Saudades do Brasil. The tonal areas are divided instrumentally between a set of tuned almglocken and marimba, creating harmonic and timbral tension between Duckworth’s opposing sets of musical materials. Unity is the ultimate goal of the piece, which – after ponderously exploring the conflicting harmonic areas – weds them together in a more upbeat, more melodically expansive concluding section.

Two premiere performances followed Meditation Preludes, with one work by Mr. Gramley’s friend Kojiro Umezaki and the other by esteemed University of Michigan Assistant Professor of Composition (and Mr. Gramley’s friend, too) Kristin Kuster. Ms. Kuster also performed the piano part to her new work Sweet Poison (2011), which was a musical illustration of how her knee ‘sounded’ when she was stung by a stingray in Mexico a few years ago. The piece reflects Ms. Kuster’s inspiration with extreme clarity by means of a dissonant, biting ostinato figure in the piano that first appears in the highest register of the instrument and then – in the final stages of the piece – spreads to cover a much wider range. Interrupting the ostinato’s growth is a beautiful interplay of instrumental colors, which, despite the presence of melodies and harmonies, all felt very percussive in character. Mr. Gramley alternates between vibraphone and unpitched instruments including drums and a woodblock, while booming low notes in the piano part ring out like a church bell combined with a tam-tam. It is only when previously opposing material merges that we hear the ostinato – just like the stringray poison coursing through Ms. Kuster’s leg – come back and take over the piano part and, ultimately, the final bit of  music.

Kojiro Umekazi’s For Zero (which actually preceded Sweet Poison, for those of you keeping score) stood out on the evening’s program because it was the only piece to pair percussion with electronics. The piece was written to commemorate Mr. Gramley’s 40th birthday (hence the pun in the title…), but For Zero (2011) is not exactly celebratory and was additionally isolated among the night’s musical offerings by its static, somber mood. The music starts with a descending major-mode scale on the vibraphone that ends up repeating as a loop in the electronics part, allowing for many layers of decorations to be stacked upon it. The melodies are rigidly loyal to this initial scale, creating a pan-diatonic wash of harmonies broken only a few times by a single chromatic pitch dropped into the melodic sphere of the work with extreme care. My favorite aspect of the piece was the subtle blending of the electronics part and Mr. Gramley’s sensitive, elegant performance. Moments of bowed vibraphone and cymbal stick out as timbral events designed to meld the electro-acoustic elements into a more singular sound through which the performer conveys For Zero’s gentle and unobtrusive musical personality.

The last piece of the concert’s first half was David Horne’s Phantom Moon (1993) for two percussionists and flute. Though much of the piece shared the delicate atmosphere of For Zero, the music Mr. Horne composed to contrast with those gentle moments is wild, direct and unabashedly demotic. As Mr. Gramley explained, Phantom Moon is rooted in Mr. Horne’s love of House Music, something that surprised me when I saw the piece was almost 20 years old. That particular kind of polystylism was introduced to me as a proclivity of a younger generation of composers; not only does Mr. Horne predate all of them, he also assimilates the styles much more successfully than the other pieces I’ve with the same goal. Phantom Moon has a long, static introduction where the flute runs through improvisatory melodies while a very restrained vibraphone part provides a soft, nearly unmoving accompaniment. When the music jumps to the first groove featuring tongue thrusts in the flute and hand-beaten djembes and bongos, it feels like the piece is impulsive, but really it is still building to the most climactic moments of the piece. These are grooves featuring a booming timpani part, hi-hat and an impish triangle solo that is solo mischievous Mr. Gramley grinned at the audience as he performed Phantom Moon Friday night

The last two pieces on the concert were John Cage’s Credo in US (1942) and William Russell’s Made in America (1932). I’m going to go out of order and discuss Made in America first because the Cage piece was so special and beautiful, it deserves to close this review. The two works, in fact, shared a great deal in terms of their general eclecticism and use of found objects (radios, a phonograph, a buzzer and tin cans for Credo in US, a steamer trunk and washboard for Made in America). According to Mr. Gramley, one of William Russell’s goals when writing his piece was to evoke symbols of American industrialization. Train whistles, ratchets and metallic percussion instruments come together in the work to represent the “roar of machinery” Russell aims for. Rhythmic allusions to jazz and other American folk music produce an air of populism, which I imagine was also on Russell’s mind as he penned this piece in the heart of the Great Depression.

Now we get to Credo in US, written for percussion quartet wherein two players play tin cans, a third plays piano and a fourth operates a series of radios and a phonograph. Knowing this, it shouldn’t surprise anyone when I describe the piece’s sound world as “rich”. Never before had I appreciated the nearly limitless orchestrational possibilities of music like this, and I appreciated the coloristic breadth of Cage’s typically daring instrumentation to an unprecedented degree during Friday night’s performance. I was moved by how the work combined a crackling phonograph with piano, or tin cans and nipple gongs because – I know this was at least part of Cage’s goal – the sounds come together as they would in real life. The most profound and exemplary moment of Friday’s performance happened when the radio part – totally by chance, of course – came on to share the speaker (a political pundit) saying, “these things are all perfectly good”. A giggle spread across the audience not because we thought it was absurd but because we agreed that the bizarre, seemingly random sounds we were hearing were – truly, deeply – perfectly good and harmonious. The coincidence possessed unparalleled beauty because it happened by chance, exactly as Cage would have wanted it. Exactly as he designed it to happen.

Of course, these pieces only came off so strongly because of Mr. Gramley’s enormous technical and lyrical abilities as a multi-percussionist. The variety of music on the program was only matched by the range of instruments Mr. Gramley handled (including the piano part in Credo in US!) over the course of the evening. His inclusion of friends, students and colleagues (not just Kristin Kuster but Professor of Flute Amy Porter, as well) in the performances reflects both his affability and his dedication to University of Michigan’s music community, two qualities I feel like are only overshadowed by his incredible musical prowess.