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Twisting melodies and Percussion Phasing at Bard

Music review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Sun Apr 23rd, 2017

Percussion teacher David Degge with student performers

Sō Percussion put on an afternoon concert nearly two hours in length at the Lásló Z. Bitó Building Sunday afternoon to a packed audience. The first forty minutes featured a première by talented Jason Treuting entitled paper melodies (my music box music). A video of a clock was projected on the base of a marimba and the piece began a pinging countdown from one to sixty then sixty to one before players struck up a clatter of wind-down melodies that twisted into other countdown melodies with ingenious progressing links. This was a contemplative piece about perceiving time to slow down, becoming aware of how it passes. I thought of John Calvin and Tibetan Buddhists as the piece wended on its varied pilgrimages to another perception of time and how we assume we know how it is passing.

This dreamlike progression on the verge of sleep reminded me that we really don’t know anything about time no matter how self-conscious we become or attempt to shed self-consciousness. The evolving melodies appeared as lost keys to the world of dreams, which we may or may not recall, as luck would have it. This was structure leading to randomness. Treuting offered a brief, eloquent, and charming introduction to this wind-up world of dreams and left its application on marimbas to the frantic sticks of David Degge, Samuel Gohl, Christoper Gunnell, Dániel Matei, and Meilin Wei.

The second part of the program was devoted the Steve Reich’s now-canonical Drumming (1971). Reich had visited Africa in the summer of 1970 and experienced the vitality of drumming sessions to a twelve-beat pattern. Reich had been a drummer since he was fourteen; he realized that this pattern was a universal form of folk music and he had been searching for a more universal language for his compositions. Melodic patterns are built up by inserting attacks for rests or the reverse procedure in percussion without pitch. Reich begins with a single note while replacing other notes with additional rests, then the remaining notes are gradually substituted for rests, but not in any linear order. Each new rhythmic patters is generated by a new note and repeated before the new note is added, then the whole process goes backwards in reverse. Reich called this process “working in phases.”

Nine players alternated on drums, marimbas, and glockenspiels.  The effect of this constant drumming in slightly changing patterns conjures trance and the elimination of a sense of time passing—it becomes a mystic portal to what is sometimes referred to as the Otherworld. Reich has structured unstructured tribal drumming into aesthetic trance.  The effect was deliriously hypnotic.  At crescendo there are simultaneously nine players, two singers, and a slide-whistle going full-tilt while the climax becomes an etiolated dwindle into silence.

The previously named players were augmented by Benjamin Malinski on percussion, Rachel Doehring soprano, Elaine Dailber alto, and Bridget Bertoldi on whistle and piccolo.

Describing this event, or how it is technically done, appears somewhat irrelevant: you have to be there and hear it—for it is an experience not to be missed.