David Cossin is an artist first, a percussionist second.

David was in town this weekend to perform Tan Dun’s Water Concerto, so we had him visit with our percussion and composition students. I love having people here who have followed paths very different from mine.

He started off by playing Ir Shel Shalom by Yoav Gal, a lovely piece for vibraphone and electronics that evoked the world of Bach chorale preludes – a series of tightly knit canons with a recurring, simple phrase sung by a prerecorded soprano over vibe notes transposed into deep bass regions.

Then he demonstrated and improvised on an instrument of his own devising, which he calls, appropriately enough, the Cardboard Tube. Taking a long cardboard tube, available at any fabric shop, he hammers down one end to make it soft and pliable, like a drum head. He then attaches a plastic tube extension, which slides up and down the cardboard tube to get a trombone-like pitch malleability. Finally, a pickup mike is attached to the inside of the extension. Applying tabla drumming techniques to the soft end, he gets a wide variety of pitches and rhythmic patterns. By standing in front of the speaker, he can pull specific pitches out of the feedback, bend them, give them vibrato and squeeze out overtones, all while maintaining a complex rhythmic pulse with his fingers and palms. The effect is mesmerizing, virtuosic – and very beautiful.

Finally he showed a dvd of his brilliant interpretation of Reich’s Piano Phase. He performs one of the parts on a set of drumpads set up on either side of his body, then superimposes (on a scrim) a video of himself playing the other part, so what you see is a four-armed percussionist, with arms that gradually go in and out of phase with one another. The result, as he hoped, is a stunning visual equivalent to the sonic phasing that happens in the music. It was great for the students – and for me – to hear him explain how it all was conceived and designed.

He talked with the students about the issues of the profession: touring with the Bang on a Can All-Stars, his work with Tan Dun on the film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and the concertos. He urged them to take advantage of their time now to develop their technical chops, because once out in the real world, time and resources for improving oneself get increasingly scarce. He spoke of the difficulties of trying to work in noisy hotel rooms, or without proper instruments to practice on, etc.

We all hear plenty about how conservatories stifle creativity – the truth is, the entire world stifles creativity. We have to take responsibility for not allowing ourselves to be stifled. Wherever you go, you have to carry within you a strong enough spark to persevere under any circumstances.

David Cossin is a great example of a conservatory product who honors his training without being defined by it.

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