Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond
Drums Along Grand Avenue
April 24, 2012
The longtime Los Angeles outpost of 20th-century art music downtown, Monday Evening Concerts concluded its current season this week with a show dedicated to percussion performance. Percussionists have had their artistic field expand more dramatically than that of any other musical specialist in the last decade with an overwhelming array of instruments and techniques placed at their disposal by just about every major composer you can name during the last half-Century. But this program, which focused on performances led by Bang on a Can All-Star alumnus Steven Schick and the music of composer Aldo Clementi was not what you might expect. Thunder and high drama are stock-in-trade for percussionists, but this show was devoted to works that intentionally played against type with quieter blooming subtitles of gentle oscillating rhythms and slowly unfolding patterns.
The night started off with an early work from Helmut Lachenmann, Intérieur I. Lachenmann is best known for his works for piano and string ensembles so this piece for solo percussionist may be an outlier in terms of instrumentation, yet it speaks clearly from the composer's sound world. Schick gently struck, swiped and tapped the collection of gongs, drums and other instruments for a collage of muted, almost meditative, rhythmic sound. It was this meditative sense that would infuse the rest of the evening, growing increasingly important in each of the works. Schick’s most arresting performance of the night followed with an adaptation of Kurt Schwitter’s Ursonata from the 1930s. Schwitter’s original performance work calls the performer to repeatedly utter various sounds familiar in German speech patterns, but never actually forming words thereby emphasizing the natural musicality of speech while divorcing it from linguistic meaning. Of course, no separation is ever that easy and words will tend to congeal from the flow of sound or at least words emulating those of non-English languages. Schick, along with video artist Ross Karre and electronic processing from Shahrokh Yadegari, created a massive wall of sound and images making those human beatbox tricksters seem like little more than rote amateurs. The visual elements of the performance could overwhelm the sound at times. But Schwitters himself was a mutli-media artist of his day, so such a collaboration certainly made artistic sense and was engrossing to watch.
And then things got mysterious. Aldo Clementi died almost exactly one year ago and MEC paid tribute with two percussion works - Madrigale for a prepared piano four hands and L’orologio di Arcevia for a small ensemble including pairs of piano, celestas, glockenspiel, vibraphone, and chimes. Clementi’s works have a simplicity and particular preoccupation with musical symmetry. They avoid the emphatic in favor of the sustained and modulating over a period of time. Both pieces were hypnotic, an unusual thing for the particular instrument combination with ringing patterns fading in and out of focus all under the guidance of Schick and his slowly pulsing gong. It produced one of the sensations in music that I most love, the feeling of something natural that is following a predetermined path of development and eventual decay via its own set of predetermined rules. They were the kind of works that feel like they contain whole worlds just underneath the surface, busily moving along talking about one thing while harboring something else just below the surface. The performance from the percussion ensemble red fish blue fish tapped into the unexpected mysteries of Clementi’s work making for a fascinating if subtle evening. Those mysteries and their memories will have to last a long time, however, while the series goes on hiatus for the rest of the year.