Meridian Experiments with Percussion

Katherine Dye, Staff Writer

Experimental percussion trio Meridian played to a small but engaged audience last Thursday in Fairchild Chapel. The group, comprised of University of Alabama faculty member Tim Feeney and UA students Nick Hennies and Greg Stuart, experimented with the boundaries of traditional percussive music by using unconventional methods to create otherworldly soundscapes. The trio employs traditional percussive instruments in their work but relies on unusual techniques such as tapping on the underside of a drum or rubbing the rim of a bell with the strings of a violin bow to create bizarre and intriguing sounds that one would not usually associate with percussion music. The songs were slow — almost painfully so — but in their best moments this aesthetic created a transcendent, meditative atmosphere.

This atmosphere was enhanced by the venue itself. Fairchild Chapel has superb acoustics due to its small size and high ceilings, creating the ideal environment for such a performance. The small audience and the beautiful but somberly ecclesiastical interior added a monastic flair to the evening. The performers themselves, as a result of their intense focus and simple mode of performance, contributed to this impression; after speaking familiarly with a few members of the audience, they sat down to their instruments and looked down in unison, as if entering a trance.

The music itself was trance-inducing as well, beginning on a single tone that resonated throughout the chapel for what seemed like minutes before being joined by equally uncanny sounds. The trio continued in this vein for about 15 minutes, each sound building on the other to create a pleasant sort of background noise. The music had no discernible melody, which was not altogether unpleasant for the first half of the performance but made it more difficult to listen to during the latter half. This growing inaccessibility in the last 15 minutes of the half-hour performance had much to do with a change in tempo and sound. Instead of staying in a slower, calmer vein, the tempo picked up and the tones became more sudden and dissonant, increasing to an almost danceable rhythm. This felt incongruous with the pace of the music that came before. The abrupt screeching sounds and loud bursts of noise seemed gratuitous and bordered on the unlistenable.

Meridian also made creative use of silence in their performance, oftentimes playing a note and letting it ring to a waning echo before playing another sound. This added an interesting dynamic to the performance wherein the silences in between sounds were just as important as the sounds themselves. The performance ended with an overwhelming silence, as one member of the trio made one last, incredibly drawn-out sound and letting it fade away while the group remained still with their heads bowed. It is doubtful that one could ever encounter a situation in which the cliché “deafening silence” was more appropriate. The trio remained with their heads bowed for about a minute, letting the silence absorb the space before acknowledging the audience’s applause.

Meridian’s performance was a fascinating experimental exercise that had far more of an impact as a live event than it would have as a recording. The music itself would be suitable as background music or perhaps even as a film soundtrack, but difficult to listen to on its own. What makes Meridian’s music stand out is their unique method of playing their instruments and the unusual sounds they produce. This music in particular belongs to the time and place where it is performed, as the performance of it is so integral to the experience in its entirety. Whether or not their music is successful on its own terms is debatable, but the performance itself was powerful.