Monday, October 14, 2013

Present Music's Percussive Season Openers

Third Coast. L: Skidmore, Connors. R: Martin, Dillon.
Present Music photo by Angela Morgan.


On Sept. 6, Kevin Stalheim and his Present Music Ensemble expanded to 99 percussionists, who filled the Lynden Sculpture Garden with sounds both raucous and delicate in John Luther Adams' Inuksuit. Present Music's autumn of hitting things continued Saturday (Oct. 12), as Stalheim and company welcomed Chicago's Third Coast Percussion Ensemble to Marcus Center Vogel Hall.

Third Coast, comprising David Skidmore, Robert Dillon, Peter Martin and Sean Connors, opened with the chiming delicacy of Augusta Read Thomas' "Prayer" from Star Dust Orbit. Read Thomas scored this second movement of a much larger work (involving 500 separate pieces of metal percussion) for a variety of pitched bronze standing bells. Such Asian bells have many names, but my favorite is "singing bowls." Long decays and a couple of audible overtones cause their voices harmonize exotically. Read Thomas exploited this phenomenon to charming effect, and I use the word with its connotation of magic. But a chill came with the charm, in the occasional distant howl of the "wolf," the pulsing waver that occurs when two pitches almost but not quite the same sound at once.

This music makes no argument for us to track. Star Dust Orbit surrounds you; you float within it, you inhabit its mental space, and that's engaging enough.

Steve Reich's Daniel Variations, though rhythmically propulsive in a way that Star Dust is not, seized the mind more or less the same way and worked as a state-of-mind piece. Stalheim conducted this concert finale, for four singers, string quartet, four pianos, five percussionists and two clarinets.

Its layered rhythms, slowly shifting ostinati, and chords drifting in and out of consonance through endless suspensions and anticipations immersed and mesmerized. The variations flowed by without breaks, and the music remained always the same but always different, in the way of the swirls and eddies in the flow of a river.

I'm not certain that Reich would want the music perceived as I perceived it, as a meditation on sonic beauty. He wrote it in memory of Daniel Pearl, the American journalist kidnapped and murdered by Islamist extremists in Pakistan in 2002. Reich chose Biblical texts from the Book of Daniel and from Pearl's own words, but not one of them came through the dense mix of voices and instruments. The voices were just musical sounds that helped to carry the mind away. I imagine that Daniel Variations would be a different and more specific experience with the words legible.
Kevin Stalheim conducts Steve Reich's Daniel Variations. Present Music photo by Angela Morgan.


Violist Erin Pipal and pianist Cory Smythe played the very difficult Road to Memphis, a 2008 duo by Kamran Ince, Present Music's long-time composer in residence in everything but name. Read Thomas and Reich invite you in and surround you; Ince is all up in your face, jabbing and feinting through jumpy, punchy bits of phrases and throwing haymaker tone clusters throughout the first movement. Ince soothes you after he knocks you around, with a second movement of more lyrical, longer lines that often open with very consonant leaps of an upward perfect fourth followed by a perfect fifth down. The finale starts off with a bang, and we think we'll have a wild ride to the finish line. But it dwindles away, returns with less energy, dwindles again, rises with still less energy, then fades away. Entropy never sleeps -- until it sleeps forever.

The music of Timothy Andres, a more recent Stalheim favorite, returned in the form of Trade Winds (2010), a chaconne for clarinet doubling bass clarinet, string quartet, percussion and piano. The middle portion features a steady tick-tock woodblock as comic as a cuckoo clock in a curiosity shop. Andres packed the shop with odd bits of overlapping lines and percolating rhythms, all of it over repeating harmonies (it's a chaconne, after all). The finale resembled the comically awkward exit of a lovable, stuttering, hesitating character in a play. The fluttering introduction evoked the massed beating of wings.

You know you're at a Present Music concert when something by John Cage is the most conventional piece on the bill. Third Coast played Third Construction (1941) on an array of tom-toms, a log drum, a couple of lion's roar effects achieved by pulling a rope through a tom-tom, cymbals, shakers, claves and tin cans, with toms and tins being most prominent. The Third Coast boys played without a score; the piece apparently unfolds spontaneously within Cage's rules for improvisation.

Game theory no doubt informed the creation of the piece, but Third Construction is no puzzle for the listener. You can't figure out the rules by listening. Better to hop on the thrill ride of the rhythms and effects and the power of purposeful, joyous playing of four excellent, energized percussionists.

Next Up for Present Music: The annual Thanksgiving concert at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist, Nov. 24.

Coming Tuesday to Tom Strini Writes: Review of the Frankly Music opener.