Line Upon Line Percussion

Line Upon Line Percussion


In a contemporary music world where percussion is stereotyped as high-volume and high-action, Austin-based percussion trio Line Upon Line’s first CD boldly focuses on something other and speed and volume: color. Featuring the work of four local, Texas composers – James D. Norman, Steven Snowden, Zack Stanton and Ian Dicke – the self-titled album is a remarkably diverse journey in sound and expression. Each work revolves around contrasting, evolving relationships in timbre and employ a variety of pitched and unpitched, commonplace and specialized percussion instruments. Exquisitely produced and performed, the album is limitlessly captivating and stimulating thanks to the deft, elegant work the composers and the constant variety of colors present in their pieces.

James D. Norman’s Redshift (2010), the album’s first track, crystallizes the aforementioned emphasis on timbre: from its explosive outset, a crucial dialogue emerges between wooden and metallic sounds. As his program note explains, Mr. Norman armed each member of the trio with the same materials – “six metal plates, six wood planks (tuned to the same pitches for each player)”. This allows him to create multiple layers of essentially the same sound and develop fascinatingly detailed variations on a consistent foundation of timbre. Another consistent element in the work is a persistent rhythmic/melodic idea that repeats heavily, but with increasing irregularities as the work moves forward. To my ears, the agent for this variation is a distinct metallic sound – what Mr. Norman calls a, “modified crash cymbal” – that breaks the rhythmic energy of the aforementioned rhythmic/melodic idea over the course of the piece, causing it to restart itself and seemingly precipitating the turbulent and thrilling evolution this tightly-knitted work undergoes from beginning to end.

The next piece on the CD – Steven Snowden’s A Man with a Gun Lives Here (2010) is the only work of the four I had already seen performed. My language is intentional I watched a DVD of the performance, much of which is deliberately choreographed to add an extra level of drama and to connect to the work’s back-story. The title refers to the signal system hobos developed during the Great Depression to inform wanders about dangerous and generous residences; moreover, the scoring of the piece – three percussionists play on and around a single bass drum – is deliberately aimed to suggest hobos gathered around a trash can fire. Although I loved the piece the first time I heard it, I worried, without the visual element, the music would not mesmerize me as much as it had before. This was not the case in the least. In fact, losing the ability to see the performance heightened my awareness of Mr. Snowden’s subtle decisions about timbre, foreground/background and the temporal spacing of the music. These qualities, on their own, project a compelling dramatic tale of action and reaction and inter-ensemble conversation united by the highly original and ominous way the trio exploits the shared bass drum.

The written description of Zack Stanton’s Echoes of Veiled Light (2009) epitomizes the unabashed boldness with which Line Upon Line and their collaborators approached this project. “When line upon line approached me about writing a new piece for them, they had a terrifying request: ‘write us a quiet piece’”. To me, this account demonstrates the trio’s understanding of their supreme expressive ability and the resulting composition, with its beguiling delicacy, meets their challenge with unquestionable success. The work has a twinkling, metallic sheen to it, using unpitched and pitched instruments to construct a chrystalline web spangled with unobtrusive harmonies that meld seamlessly with the other sound elements of the work. I was very fond of the way Mr. Stanton used pitch in Echoes because his harmonies are very affective, not stylistic, along the lines of the low piano clusters in Varese’s Ionisation and – to be a little more obscure – the droning trumpet in Donald Sur’s Red Dust. The pitched material adds inviting, soothing warmth to an accompanying texture of cymbals, gongs and bongo drums that, otherwise, would seem a little stoic.

The final piece on the album is Ian Dicke’s Missa Materialis, a musical response to Austin’s ‘Cathedral of Junk’, a massive environmental folk art exhibit created by artist Vince Hannemann. Mr. Dicke calls the work a “soundtrack” for the art, employing a variety of traditional percussion instruments and found objects over the course of five movements. The extra-musical framework for the piece is twofold: the found objects – namely plastic bags and water bottles – represent the environmental destructiveness of our material culture, and the pitched material, form and title mimic the traditional Latin mass. These influences emerge in different, intriguing ways – the fourth movement, ‘Plastic Deity’, climactically features the smashing of bottles and bags directed by an imperious egg timer, while the work’s infrequently appearing melodies (including contrapuntal singing by the trio!) are heavily referential to, if not direct quotes of Medieval chant. Overall, the work has the feeling of post-apocalyptic ritualism, made uncommonly memorable by Mr. Dicke’s bizarre ‘instruments’.

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