Posts Tagged “percussion”

Music of Philip Glass and Mohammed Fairouz NoTowers

University of Kansas Wind Ensemble

Paul W. Popiel, conductor


Concerto Fantasy for Two Timpanists and Orchestra (transcribed by Mark Lortz) – Philip Glass

  • (Ji Hye Jung and Gwendolyn Burgett, timpani)

Symphony No. 4 ‘In the Shadow of No Towers’ – Mohammed Fairouz

The Naxos collection of “Wind Band Classics” has consistently delivered strong performances and this recording of two large-scale works by the University of Kansas Wind Ensemble under the direction of Paul W. Popiel is no exception. True, I am an alum from KU but I don’t think any of the praise I am about to extoll on this disc can be led back to some kind of Jayhawker loyalty. Everyone should be able to agree that the performances on this disc are top notch.

The Concerto Fantasy by Philip Glass is a bit of an odd work. Featuring the timpani can be quite tricky and while the performances by the timpani soloists are precise and impressive, I think that this piece rarely sounds like a fully completed composition. The timpani are certainly active in the piece but there is little to my ears which makes them foreground material. The recording is clean and clear and preserves the physical separation between the pair of soloists but at the end of the day the piece just sounds like an accompaniment lacking a focal element. Glass’ harmonic vocabulary seems even more conservative than usual and I found little to engage in either texturally or rhythmically. I am not overly familiar with the original orchestral version of the piece so I am in no way trying to compare the wind ensemble sound to the orchestra (see apples v. oranges, books v. movies, etc.). And honestly, the piece doesn’t intrigue me enough to track down more recordings of it.

My general dislike of the Glass is made up for, however, with Symphony No. 4 ‘In the Shadow of No Towers’ by Mohammed Fairouz. Inspired by the Art Spiegelman graphic novel of the same name, Fairouz delivers as powerful and evocative a work for wind ensemble as Karel Husa’s Music for Prague 1968. Beginning with “The New Normal,” this four movement symphony draws in a wide array of creative and affective ensemble colors but none more colorful as in the second movement “Notes of a Heartbroken Narcissist.” In this second movement, metal percussion, harp, piano, and double bass scrape and groan through a grey-inspired aural landscape. The not entirely playful third movement “One Nation Under Two Flags” portrays a “Red Zone” and “Blue Zone” through musical juxtapositions of a sort which would make Ives proud. The final movement, “Anniversaries” uses a ticking clock motive throughout to highlight the notion of passing time but also to imply a ticking time bomb. The composition rides this metaphor well by transforming a simple steady rhythm into something ominous and foreboding. Throughout the entire disc, the University of Kansas Wind Ensemble sounds fantastic. All the musical layers are clear and articulate but their precision does not come through sacrificing emotion and lyricism (such as it exists in either work). Rock chalk, Jayhawks!

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Neither Anvil Nor PulleyCD cover

music of Dan Trueman

performed by So Percussion

Cantaloupe Music

So Percussion: Eric Beach, Josh Quillen, Adam Sliwinski, Jason Treuting

Neither Anvil Nor Pulley

  1. Another Wallflower [from Long Ago]
  2. 120 bpm [or, What Is Your Metronome Thinking?]
  3. A Cow Call [Please oh Please Come Home!]
  4. Feedback [in Which a Famous Bach Prelude Becomes Ill-Tempered]
  5. Hang Dog Springar [a Slow Dance]

Trueman’s percussion/laptop quartet Neither Anvil Nor Pulley derives its musical core from fiddle tunes and string timbres. While a percussion ensemble might seem like an odd choice of instrumentation for string sounds, So Percussion is the perfect fit for Trueman’s musical ideas. Neither Anvil Nor Pulley is a perfect example of composer/performer collaborations. The score is almost inconsequential in terms of specificity and exactness. Instead, the pages contain a mixture of precision and vagueness which allows So Percussion to inhabit and interpret the piece. Since music notation wasn’t of primary importance to performers in the folk fiddle tradition, it seems wholly appropriate for rote/community learning to be the foundation upon which this album was constructed.

The first, third, and fifth movements are the most true to the fiddle inspiration. Each movement begins with a “drop the needle” on a turntable (a real turntable is needed, even among the four laptops) and So Percussion provides accompaniment and interaction with the recordings. A lot of the instrument choices and dynamic shaping is left up to the performers and So, as always, makes every choice sound like the right one.

The rest of the movements are substantially larger and contain more elaborate drawn-out formal shapes. The second movement, “120 bpm,” transforms through chaotic/structured clicking into sustained string samples being triggered by tether controllers. This transformation is smoothly done and even though I never could have predicted that the movement was headed in that direction the formal shape feels perfectly balanced. “Feedback,” the fourth movement, is a show-stopping aural exploration of the famous G major Prelude from the first cello suite by Bach played via feedback excitation of a concert bass drum. The rhythm of the original piece is stripped away entirely which makes the score seem more like a Schenker sketch of the work then realized over the course of 16 minutes. Philosophically, it reminds me of 9 Beet Stretch or Call Me Maybe slowed down 1000% except this is done acoustically. Again, you might not think of a percussion quartet as the perfect instrumentation for this kind of sonic treatment of the material but So Percussion frequently demonstrates that they make the unexpected sound perfect.

The computer/percussion interaction goes along with the piece’s larger philosophical idea about the man/machine relationship (I’ve been using a lot of slashes in this review, haven’t I? I’ll stop). The computer doesn’t really SHOW the user what it does (as opposed to an anvil or a pulley). In that way, the integration of the laptops within the percussion quartet is extremely well balanced. Just listening, one is never sure if it is “live or Memorex.” And, after following the score, I can say the same confusion holds. Furthermore, this recording is not physically available; downloads only. But Trueman and So have gone the extra mile to make a physical release matter. You can get the recording with a recycled LP, a speaker driver, or even a tether controller like those used in “120 bpm.” Given the amount of creativity and artistic thought that went into the creation and performance of Neither Anvil Nor Pulley, it is encouraging to see the same level of interest go into the packaging of the work.

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Makoto NakuraCD cover

Wood and Forest

works by Jacob Bancks, Kenji Bunch, Robert Pateron, Carlos Sanchez-Gutierrez, and Michael Torke

American Modern Recordings

  • The Trees Where I was Born for solo marimba – Jacob Bancks
  • Duo for Viola and Vibraphone – Kneji Bunch (with Kenji Bunch, viola)
  • Forest Shadows for solo marimba- Robert Paterson
  • Arbor Una Nobilis for marimba and violin – Jacob Bancks (Jesse Mills, violin)
  • Winik/Te’ for solo marimba – Carlos Sanchez-Gutierrez
  • After the Forest Fire for marimba, flute, and cello – Michael Torke (David Fedele, flute; Wilhelmina Smith, cello)
Makoto Nakura has assembled an impressive array of compositions which feature not only his fluid solo playing but also his superior collaboration and chamber musician skills. The solo marimba compositions by Bancks, Paterson, and Sanchez-Gutierrez each draw on different kinds of virtuosity from Nakura and he delivers wonderfully compelling performances of each. Banck’s The Threes Where I was Born is fairly disjunct in texture yet cogent in thought throughout the three movements. Nakura is nimble and graceful as he zips around the whole range of the instrument and connects the musical dots in a salient manner. Forest Shadows by Paterson is less theatrical and notey, using sustained chorales to build and resolve tension. Nakura does a wonderful job creating a musical through-line and solid sense of emotional trajectory. Winik/Te’ stands out from the pack with its brighter, crisper gestures and groovier rhythmic structures. Nakura plays the piece with admirable amounts of spunk and vigor.
This is not just a solo recital recording, though. Nakura’s chamber collaborations are just as excellently performed as the solos. Bunch’s Duo for Viola and Vibraphone is probably my favorite composition on the disc (right up there with Winik/Te’). The warm, throaty sound of the viola pairs well with the cooler vibraphone and Bunch’s music embraces simple musical textures and moods over complex virtuosity. Bancks’ chant-inspired Arbor Una Nobilis puts the violin in the primary role adding sparse yet important flourishes in the marimba. The final composition on the disc, After the Forest Fire by Michael Torke, casts the marimba in an even more traditional role than the Banck’s work. The marimba is an erstaz-piano providing conventional boom-chicks and arpeggios of functional harmony while the flute and cello do their best to hog the melodic spotlight. Regardless of where Nakura is in the musical texture, featured soloist or in various stages of the collaborative relationship, he is an impressive performer who knows how to pick music that features his many skills.


CD cover

Robert Paterson

Six Mallet Marimba

music of Robert Paterson

American Modern Recordings

  • Komodo
  • Piranha
  • Stillness (with Sarah Schram, oboe)
  • Clarinatrix (with Meighan Stoops, bass clarinet )
  • Duo for Flute and Marimba (with Sato Moughalian, flute and alto flute)
  • Tongue and Groove (with Jeremy Justeson, alto saxophone)
  • Braids (with Victoria Paterson, violin)
  • Links & Chains (with Robin Zeh, violin)
  • Fantastia (with Dan Peck, tuba)

Also released last week by American Modern Recordings, a disc of the music of Robert Paterson using Paterson’s unique six-mallet marimba technique (and featuring Paterson on marimba throughout). The addition of two more mallets is actually more subtle of a change than I expected. The texture is mildly thicker but what really comes through are more nuanced shapes on the inside voices rather than a bombastic “listen to all those notes!” kind of effect. The solo works Komodo and Piranha are great compliments to each other (Paterson wrote them to be so) in that Komodo fixates on the lower range of the instrument while Piranaha surfs and splashes nimbly in the upper register. I must confess that oftentimes I have difficulties with the form of solo marimba music since a lot of it sounds (to me anyway) as inspired by a stream-of-consciousness narrative that never connects with my ears. Paterson’s works do not suffer from this ailment, however, and his fluid forms are well communicated.

The bulk of the disc features the six-mallet marimba as an accompaniment instrument for a wide variety of performers: oboe, bass clarinet, tuba, violin, and flute. In each case, Paterson largely regulates the marimba to the background of the texture, providing harmonic support for facile and enjoyable melodic writing. Paterson is adept at mixing and matching the timbre of the marimba with these various instruments so it never sounds as if he is recycling materials or techniques from one piece to the next. The feature of the disc, after all, is the six-mallet technique. Paterson’s range of music expressions show variety in using six mallets, whether it be ominous dark chords with Stillness or the sultry bass lines of Clarinatrix and the middle movement of the Duo for Flute and Marimba. Nuanced arpeggiations are possible and displayed in the Duo as well as Tongue and Groove. I am particularly fond of Links & Chains for violin and marimba with its tightly woven accompaniment and edgy yet lengthy violin melody. I’m not sure how wide-spread the technique of using six mallets is but this disc and Paterson’s music show lots of potential for those willing to try.

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So PercussionCD cover

Where (we) Live

music by Grey McMurray

Cantaloupe Records

  • This Place the Place
  • Five Rooms Back
  • Strange Steps
  • Moat
  • Room and Board
  • In Our Rooms
  • All Along
  • Strangers All Along
  • Five Rooms Down
  • Thank You

So Percussion: Eric Beach, Josh Quillen, Adam Sliwinski, Jason Treuting; Guitar and vocals: Grey McMurray

Where (we) Live, a collaborative composition/performance/event by Grey McMurray and So Percussion, does everything in its power to communicate a sense of place and space. The first track sets McMurray as the leader of a guided meditation asking the listener to think about various places he/she has lived and how it felt to move into a new place. It is the kind of metaphor one might expect someone to build a piece around but it is a narrative which would require ample program notes (and listeners who would read them) in order to communicate the piece’s true intent. McMurray cuts right through that and after 20 seconds, you know exactly what he is shooting at. Even before his narration comes in, though, we get a sense of space. The scratchy LP sounds and the distant piano recording established a sense of space and mood immediately. Being asked to think of the places we’ve lived just takes us deeper inside.

So Percussion and McMurray keep all details focused on mood, tone, and event throughout the disc. All details, from subtle timbres to large formal designs, all point back to the whole composition. Even a track like “Moat,” which contains some jarring shifts from loud and percussive moments quickly dropping into subdued delicate textures all seem to convey the very idea of what a moat is and what it does: a drastic shift in the landscape meant to isolate one thing from another. As this particular track continues, the disparate elements are unified into one cohesive unit.

“Room and Board” walks that fine line between a work for narrator and ensemble and a story on This American Life with a slightly more exuberant soundtrack. “All Along” is a straight-up groove for a while but gives way to spare electric piano chords at the end. While the disc has a mostly ambient sound world about it, So Percussion gets plenty of rhythmic and driving moments to contrast the pointallistic and quieter moments. Everything blends so well together, every sound is so perfectly chosen, each component is exactly where it needs to be.

It can be difficult to talk about this disc as a collection of tracks or songs. Where (we) Live is a complete and unified whole. It is equal parts groove and sparse points, equal parts spoken and sung, equal parts soloist feature and ensemble playing, equal parts acoustic and electronic, equal parts of all things. It isn’t casual listening, either. I can’t have this on in the background. It becomes the foreground, takes over my listening space, and puts me in its world. When the disc is playing, it is where I live.

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Ironworks Percussion Duo CD cover

Dave Gerhart and Axel Clarke, percussion 

  • Uncompression – Ming-ching Chiu
  • Volume – Missy Mazzoli
  • Tribute – Dave Gerhart
  • Arc & Current – Roger Przytulski
  • A Cosby Sweater – Axel Clarke
This intriguing disc of works for percussion duo covers a wide gamut of color and style. Two pieces, Uncompression and Volume were award winners in Ironworks’ first percussion duo composition contest held in 2009 and it is easy to see why both pieces were given honors (Uncompression won 1st prize, Volume took 3rd). Uncompression is a simultaneously focused yet sprawling work for unpitched percussion. Gestures and textures shift from driving drums to ambient cymbals and tinkles. Rhythmic ideas keep the composition coherent without using an obviously underlying motive or germ. Things fit together in this duo because everything feels right. In contrast, Mazzoli’s Volume uses steel pans, wine bottles, vibraphone, and kick drum to create a tightly woven cloud of harmony over a twitchy and energetic rhythmic language.
Two pieces are also composed by the duo. Dave Gerhart’s Tribute is a three movement piece based on African drumming. The first movement is bound with a hypnotic groove of drums and stick clicks, the second movement is wonderfully sparse with whispers of shakers, lightly brushed drums, and other softer sounds. The final movement is a barn burner of driving drums. A Cosby Sweater by Axel Clarke begins with bold and dramatic metrical gestures and unfolds in what sounds like a rather strict metrical environment (as opposed to the metrical freedom found in Tribute). Tempo becomes the most motivating factor in the various sections of A Cosby Sweater. Having these various groove zones stitched together is somewhat reminiscent of the title’s source…

Arc & Current is the most pitch-based work and uses only steel drums as its instrumentation. Irregular rhythms and punchy homophonic accents motivate the Arc movement while a more tender and slower (although not THAT slow) melodic line winds through Current. Under these irregular melodic phrases come moments of pop-inspired cadential harmony which work very nicely. This final movement reminded me of harmonic and structural moments in the Levitan Marimba QuartetArc & Current contrasts with the rest of the works on this disc but, come to think of it, so does every other piece on this disc… At any rate, Ironworks makes all of these musical styles sound natural to them and manages to relate the sound world of each piece to the others. Each composition sounds different yet the entire album sounds coherent. Both Dave Gerhart and Axel Clarke should be commended on their performances, recording, and programming of this disc. I can’t wait to hear 2.

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