Percussion Group Showcases Diverse Range of Rich Harmonies

Katherine Hamilton

Successfully compelling the audience to rethink and reimagine the capabilities of percussion, the Oberlin Percussion Group showcased its diversity, range and musicality at Tuesday night’s concert in Warner Concert Hall. The group, composed of 16 Conservatory percussion majors, is conducted and directed by Director of Woodwinds, Brass and Percussion and Professor of Percussion Michael Rosen.

The first piece, “Second Construction,” is a composition for four players by the avant-garde, essential American percussion composer John Cage. The piece was played by double-degree sophomore Ben Rempel, Conservatory sophomores Daniel King and Brandon Hall, Conservatory junior Sean Dowgray and Conservatory senior Jake Harkins. The piece explored various genres, rhythms and instrumentations. A prepared piano, an instrument that John Cage pioneered, opened the piece and created eerie, metallic and percussive sounds that defied the classical Western musical tradition entirely. A large gong added to the imposing yet foreign sound of the piece. Cage also reinvented the sound of the smaller gong, as the gongs were struck and dipped into buckets of water to temper their brazen sound, scattering droplets of water onto the stage. The piece shifted from calypso melodies and rhythms on the xylophones to a marching band style with straight-ahead beats on a snare drum, and shifted from moments of unison to moments of chaos.

The excitement in the room mounted, with the second piece, the world premiere of a composition by Josh Levine, assistant professor of Composition. The piece, titled “Four places, many more times,” was played by four musicians: Conservatory senior Christian Smith, double-degree fifth-year Neil Ruby, Conservatory senior Isaac Fernandez Hernandez and Dowgray. The piece was a large and impressive feat — both in its composition and performance — as it required the musicians to pause several times to flip through the tens of sheets of music the composition covered.

Rosen entered the stage to conduct the four musicians, who played sets of makeshift metal pipes laid horizontally on foam-covered metal stands. The sets of pipes, though homemade, produced a brilliant sound reminiscent of church bells. Levine also reinvented the sound of the glockenspiel, a tiny xylophone-like instrument with metal keys, by stroking the keys with bass bows to create a searing metallic tone. At times the piece took on a tranquil sound like that of a chapel sanctuary, while at other times, in accompaniment with glockenspiels and pitched cymbals, it created rippling, resonant and awe-inspiring tones that sent chills up the spine.

The third piece, another Cage composition titled “Amores,” delved into an exploration of an even wider array of genres, incorporating elements of jazz and Eastern music. Double-degree sophomore Matt Young opened the song with a solo on prepared piano, playing a percussive, Japanese-influenced motif. After the piano solo concluded, the three additional players, Conservatory senior Kevin Scollo, Dowgray and Ruby, played nine Japanese shime drums, unconventionally tapping the drums with their fingers to produce a muffled sound. One section featured seven pitched woodblocks playing in frantic unison. At the end, the prepared piano concluded with a solo that nicely tied up all the elements of “Amores,” incorporating syncopated, Gershwin-like jazz motifs with the meditative Japanese rhythms that had opened the piece.

After an intermission, the group returned with Percussion Sonata No. 2 “Woodstock,” a composition by contemporary American composer Peter Schickele. Five players, Smith, Dowgray and double-degree sophmore Holden Lai, seniors Zach Mathes and Matt Moench, showcased an encompassing range of pitched, mallet percussion instruments, including vibraphones, xylophones, marimbas and glockenspiels. It also featured a diverse family of wind chimes, as all five musicians played one of a different size and timbre. Similar to Cage’s compositions, the two movements of this contemporary sonata also successfully melded together a variety of genres. At times, the piece rallied momentum with building tones, not unlike a Beethoven sonata, while at other times the piece made use of a strong, pop-funk-influenced motif.

The final piece, another Cage composition, titled “First Construction (in Metal),” featured six players, the largest group of musicians on stage yet. Featuring Conservatory first-year Randy Chaves-Camacho, double-degree first-year Justin Gunter, Conservatory first-year Chris Cabrera, Rempel, Harkins and Scollo, the piece again opened with a prepared piano — characteristic of Cage’s works — in a Jaws-like, suspense-building and persistent bass line. The use of the prepared piano differed in this piece, however, as two musicians played it together: one sitting at the keys and the other sitting at the back of the piano near the strings. As one struck the keys, the other manipulated them, sliding a metal rod up and down the length of the strings to create a bending pitch reminiscent of an airplane taking off. Both Japanese and Balinese gongs accentuated “First Construction (in Metal),” adding an Eastern flair. The piece also made use of several non-traditional instruments all made of metal; for example, Cage employed anvils, automobile brake drums and brittle metal sheets struck with a soft mallet.

The vast range of instrumentation and stylistic influences created incredibly complex and rich harmonies as well as rhythms that straddled the line between the familiar and the foreign. As such, “First Construction (in Metal)” successfully wrapped up all the thematic elements of the performance, leaving the audience stunned by the impeccable execution of these compositions that provided a window into the exciting and expansive percussion repertoire.