Talujon Percussion Ensemble, May 12, 2006

by Christine Palladino

On May 12th, I attended the Talujon Percussion Ensemble’s concert entitled "Percussion Discussion II." The Talujon Percussion Ensemble is a NYC based ensemble that strives to perform twentieth-century percussion music. Although there were a few composers on the program that I knew such as Cage and Xenakis, I was happy to find that three of the composers, David Cossin, Charlie Schmid, and Justin Ahiyan attended the performance and discussed their pieces. The performance took place in St. Peter’s Church, which is quite a small venue. To make the setting more intimate, only about twenty non-performer audience members were present. This turned out to be a great advantage because both the performers and composers were thrilled to stick around after the concert and talk about their music, their performance, and show me their scores!

The most interesting piece on the entire program was entitled Corporel and was performed by percussionist Alex Lipowski. Unlike any of the other pieces, this piece called for the percussionist not only to be quite skilled with his hands but also with his entire body. The piece started out with the entire church being put in the pitch dark. When the lights went on, Mr. Lipowski was on stage without his shirt on and looked quite startled. He then started rubbing his face and made vocal percussion sounds of nonsense. After a little while the nonsense vocal percussions changed to the repetition of certain consonants such as "p" or "b." All the while, Mr. Lipowski was rubbing his face, sitting on the floor, or playing body percussion on his bare chest. The facial expressions made by the performer and the odd nature in which he moved about the stage often made the audience members chuckle to themselves or look at their friends in disbelief. It was obvious that the performer was being his own torturer and inflicting his own pain and misery during the piece, as indicated through the drumming and acting. At the height of the piece, Mr. Lipowski jumped up (from laying down on the floor) and clearly spoke a sentence that was something to the effect of "Human history is a long sequence of synonyms for the same word. It is our duty to contradict this." After this clear sentence, the performer went back to hitting and striking himself in a frenzy of vocal percussion and body percussion until, at last, he plunges an imaginary knife into his stomach and the lights again black to leave the audience in the darkness. This piece was highly moving, fascinating, and unbelievable at the same time. The piece reminded me both of George Crumb’s Ancient Voices of Children and Ligeti’s Aventures. The guttural sounds of Corporel and the repetition of one syllable or consonant was reminiscent of Ancient Voices of Children. Both pieces sounded primal, instinctual, and used the voice in an abnormal way to create an impulsive native character. In both pieces, the main character starts out with repeating just one word or phrase and then takes that little spoken motive and expands upon it to see where it can go. Also in both pieces the audience understands the experimentation the character is making with sound and silence. In Aventures, Ligeti uses drama to have his characters create different moods on the stage. The performers are asked not only to perform their part, but as in Corporel, act out their part as well. Both pieces also use vocal percussion, especially sounds that sound like crunching leaves or whispering. Although the sounds are not understood as sentences, in both pieces the sounds are used in a speech-like manner, and along with the drama, communicates volumes.

Nixkin was another piece that held my interest. Written David Cossin, a Manhattan School of Music graduate, Nixkin combined tape and percussion. Mr. Cossin has become a famous percussion composer and both plays with and writes for the new music group Bang On A Can. We had the advantage of having Mr. Cossin present during this performance and he discussed his piece with the audience during intermission. Cossin first got the idea for this piece from his visions of "drumspeak" or "drum language," thinking that certain drumming patterns could translate into language patterns and communicative sounds. While a recorded tape played the Nixon resignation speech, a drummer interpreted his speech patterns into drum patterns. When Nixon paused in his speech, the drum quickly finished his last statement and then waited for Nixon to resume his speech before going on with the drumming. The drumming mimicked Nixon’s voice and became quite declamatory at times when Nixon’s voice was heightened with tension. The drumming was quite expressive and speech-like but was free from any set meter or pulse. I found the use of the tape along side the drumming to be quite moving and effective. Mr. Cossin’s interpretive ideas were very clear to the audience and were met with great approval.

I was quite excited to hear the pieces Music for Four and cComposed improvisations for snare drum and one-sided drums with or without jingles both by John Cage. The first of the two, Music for Four, was a treat for the eyes and the senses. The performers each set up their percussion stations at four different corners of the church. The lights of the church were dimmed so that you didn’t pay attention to just one performer but took in all of the performers in surround sound. The sounds seemed to come at you from every direction and at times it was hard to tell which performer was creating the eerie sounds being heard. In this Cage piece, each individual instrument rang out clearly because there was hardly ever a time that instruments played together for more than a second. The piece had no layers and often left silence in between each instruments little solo. The piece also had the instrumentalists using extended techniques on their instrument. One player in the back played made interesting sounds by playing a violin bow on a cymbal, wood block, and a chime bar. The same percussionist also used a green swinging tube that emitted three different pitches when it was swung high in the air, and I had never seen anything like that before! Another percussionist was asked to scream in the middle of the piece and rolled one of his instrument down the isles of the church several times. The percussionists also used several non-traditional instruments during the piece such as a duck call, Chinese finger bowls, and a harmonica. This piece was very much in the same standing of other Cage pieces I have heard before. The use of surround sound, silence, and extended technique made for a very interesting experience. In fact, the audience was so used to the long pauses and silences of the piece that it took about two minutes of silence before the audience realized that the piece had ended! I have to say that hearing a Cage piece live is quite a different experience than hearing it on a recording. I have a greater appreciation for John Cage’s music now after hearing it in its proper environment.

The second Cage piece, cComposed improvisations for snare drum and one-sided drums with or without jingles, also utilized the idea of mixing sounds and silences. The pieces was extremely sparse and simplistic, often only using a single drum hit to break up a long silence. At first, it was even hard to tell that the piece had begun because the performers would hit the drum once and then stop, and many people just assumed they were tuning or warming up. The one snare drum percussionist also used about five different sets of mallets during the performance, but only used each set for a hit or two before having to change sets. The only extended technique used during this piece, however, was when the snare drum percussionist used a triangle stick to scratch the outside of the snare drum. From what I know of John Cage, his music is filled with silence because he believed that everything sound you could hear during a performance became part of the performance. When this particular piece was over, my boyfriend looked at me and jokingly said "Wow. Did you hear all that music? The trees in the wind, the guy down the street selling hotdogs, what great music!" I laughed at him and said, "that is the point," and then gave him a pat on the back for understanding Cage without realizing it. It is true, however, that during the piece the hotdog vendor down the street certainly made an appearance and became part of my listening experience!

Duet is a piece for two frame drums and was composed and performed by Charlie Schmid and Justin Ahlyan. The two composers briefly explained their piece as “a prolonged jam session written down,” and then proceeded to play their composition. The piece used two amplified frame drums, one of which had bells on the inside of the frame to create an additional sound. Although the piece was rather short and highly repetitive, it was also trance inducing. The piece started with both percussionists introducing their own motive and then repeating that motive until the two of them got into a groove. Once a groove was established, one of the drummers would make a slight alteration to their rhythm and then a new groove was established and played for a while. The rhythms themselves were quite difficult and often involved playing the side of the drum, snapping on the drum to create a sound, or playing both the jingles and the drum at the same time. Although we did not study Philip Glass in class, the repetitive nature of Duet reminded me of many glass pieces which work from a single repetitive motive.

The Xenakis piece entitled Okho was the one piece that surprised me the most. After hearing Xenakis in class, I was expecting this piece to be filled with strange sounds, electronic music, or extended technique. On the contrary, this piece for three djembes was quite "standard" for a piece written by Xenakis. The piece was highly rhythmic and often called for extremely hard meter shifts and changes by all three performers. There were individual repetitive motives for each player. Each motive must have lasted ten or twenty measures and then were repeated over and over. The tight polyphony of the repetitive motives were then broken up by homophonic rhythms which often were just three or four notes followed by a brief silence. It was a very fast-moving piece that hardly gave the performers time to rest or think for that matter! This piece was highly entertaining, wild, and interesting but not at all what I expected to hear. The Xenakis pieces we heard in class were filled with silence and lingered on one or two strange sounds. In class, your ear really focused on the use of one sound or a sound cluster rather than the use of rhythm and polyphony. Although a date was not listed with the concert program, I would venture to say that this might be one of Xenakis’ earlier works.

Overall, I would have to say that the Talujon concert was an extreamly eye-opening experience for me. I rarely experience new music in a live setting and I am amazed to see the difference a live experience makes on the musical enjoyment of a piece. I am highly excited to attend another live new music concert in the future!