PSU’s Percussion Ensemble doesn’t miss a beat

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At the crack of noon on Thursday, April 5, Portland State’s Lincoln Recital Hall hosted an uncommonly sparse audience. The music department’s weekly free concerts are usually packed—not least because they are a requirement for music majors—and we almost always end up sitting on the floor. Well, we thought as we got comfortable, it’s everyone else’s loss. The PSU Percussion Ensemble can’t put on a bad show, and this one turned out to be even better than usual.

Percussionist Brian Banegas and pianist Karey Miles started the recital with a miniaturization of Emmanuel Sejourne’s 2006 Concerto for Marimba for marimba and string orchestra. Miles, a graduate student pursuing a master’s degree in collaborative piano performance, played a piano reduction of the original accompaniment, a daunting task considering she has approximately 95 percent fewer fingers than your average string orchestra.

Banegas, four mallets in hand, neat beard over sharp white Western shirt, ripped through Sejourne’s rolled chords, brow creased in devoted concentration and sheer love for the massive, five octave marimba before him. The first movement’s Eurojazzesque refrain, redolent of Kapustin and Jacob TV, had Banegas spread all over the eight-foot behemoth, legs wide, mallets flying, moody harmonies sparkling all arboreal in the little recital hall. The Concerto’s second movement, with its piazollizo 11/8 ostinato, had Banegas leaping around performing quick triplet chords and wild runs like something off a Paco de Lucía record.

The audience roared to their feet, shouting and hollering. A composer of our acquaintance, Nicholas Emerson, leaned back and cried, “That was awesome, dude—awesome!”

Next was a bit of traditional early 20th century percussion music by Ohio State University School of Music professor Susan K. Powell. The Gilded Cage was composed in 1998 but sounds 50 years older, like the foundational West Coast percussion ensemble pieces composed in the ‘30s and ‘40s by Lou Harrison, John Cage, Henry Cowell, Johanna Beyer and Harry Partch; the work combines references to Cage’s 1941 percussion ensemble work Third Construction with references to the old song “A Bird in a Gilded Cage.”

Four players—Guinevere Duncan, Maxwell Kolpin, Risi Murphy, and Dr. Joel Bluestone himself—gathered around a tight cluster of instruments. In the center: a quartet of tuned brake drums, a special favorite of Cage and Harrison. Clustered around this little metal rosetta were four toms and four little cymbals, one each per player, Murphy holding it all down with a kick drum on the floor.

What killed me about this piece was the degree of interlocking between parts. Percussion music often features composite rhythms, but in Powell’s quartet, we heard melodies and patterns deconstructed and reassembled in a stratified, collaborative, interwoven fashion we normally associate with Balinese gamelan and handbell choirs.

The kicker was the stick play, the four players clacking their sticks against their neighbors’ sticks for yet another layer of rhythmic and timbral variety. Tricks like this, standard in marching band drumline performances, added a nice bit of theatricality. And I couldn’t help chuckling at how perfectly the red drum sticks matched Dr. Bluestone’s habitual red sneakers.

Powell’s piece earned the quartet a loud, earnest “yay!” from the audience, and Bluestone was grinning when he welcomed us to spring term. “Only nine weeks left!”

It wouldn’t be a percussion ensemble concert without a set change—in this case, a brief floor show resulting in a long row of concert toms nestled between two marimbas, with wine bottles carefully cradled in foam core atop music stands. Banegas returned with Christopher Haynes, Jessica Vaughan, and Virginia Webb for Australian composer David Pye’s 2003 Rebana Loops, a 17-minute suite of complex polymetric bliss inspired by Indonesian drumming. If Sojourne’s Concerto represented the modern-jazz-classical tradition in percussion music, and Powell’s Gilded Cage represented the West Coast junkyard tradition, Rebana Loops represented the electrified, world-music inflected, New-York-y postminimalist tradition associated with Terry Riley, Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Laurie Anderson, Glenn Branca, and more recently Michael Torke, Julia Wolfe, David Lang and Andy Akiho.

Reich’s was the name that first burst into my head when the opening marimba chords started pulsing pandiatonically like so many passages out of Reich’s landmark 1973 Music for 18 Musicians. It got even more Reichian when the four players started reaching in and riffing on that shared row of toms, all tuned to distinct pitches. It’s relatively uncommon to tune toms to specific notes, but it worked beautifully, the interlocking drum patterns creating a melodic ostinato in counterpoint to the duelling marimbas’ harmonic groove. In keeping with the Indonesian motif, a smattering of “ha!” and “tchak!” shouts colored the texture, and then the drums took over awhile and got all Afro-Cuban with a bunch of polymetric 12/8 against 3/2 grooves, which is when the wine bottles got their moment.

In the end, the pulsing chords took over again, and it was at this point that I noticed a jolting detail: no sheet music. No music stands at all, other than the ones holding the wine bottles. These kids had just played all 17 minutes of that percussive gorgeousness from memory.

I stayed after to get some student musicians’ thoughts on what had just transpired. I’ve already mentioned Mr. “Awesome,” Nick Emerson. “That was fantastic,” Emerson said after the last piece. “I want a score for that. When they made the marimbas pulse back and forth, and the way they were creating harmony with the toms…amazing!” He called Powell’s Gilded Cage “intense, vibrant and—mm!—it was thumpin’.”

I asked Charles Rose, a sharp-eyed composer who recently transferred to PSU from Reed College, which piece he liked the best. “I think the middle work was my favorite,” he said. “It seemed like it was very performative, and there was a lot of cohesion between the group members; a really meticulously crafted piece, performed very well.”

Julia Kinzler, a student of composer Renée Favand-See, was effusive. “You can just put a big giant OMG with exclamation points on either side,” she said. “In the Pye piece, at the beginning and the end, when the overtones started blending together and filling the room, I was in complete awe and ecstasy. I just wanted to writhe around on the ground.”

“I don’t know if you can print that,” Kinzler added.

For more information on the School of Music & Theater’s free weekly Noon Concert Series, including a complete schedule, visit www.pdx.edu/music/noon-concert-series.

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