Each year, the Columbus State University Percussion Ensemble premieres a new work written specifically for its spring semester concert tour. Some of these works have been released on major recording labels, including Matthew Welch's The Self and The Other and Eric Moe's I Have Only One Itching Desire.
The CSU Percussion Ensemble just released it's first full length CD entitled Shifting Cells on Albany Records. The CD features brand new works commissioned by the ensemble, either through the Carson McCullers Foundation or the Schwob School of Music. The CD is available through iTunes, at Amazon.com.
Of the many other works commissioned by the ensemble, several have been released on major recording labels, including Matthew Welch's The Self and The Other and Eric Moe's I Have Only One Itching Desire.
SHIFTING CELLS Ÿ Matthew Price, cond1; Robert Rumbelow,
cond2; Amy Griffiths
(sax)3; Jonathan Ryan (org)4; Paul Vaillancourt (perc)1; Columbus State Univ Perc Ens
Ÿ ALBANY TROY 1375 (59:16)
Fist Through Traffic. J. M. DAVID Shifting Cells. 3The
MUHLY I Shudder to Think. 1CHERNEY In Gottes Gärten schweigen die Engel.
Nico Muhly (1981– ) is both the youngest and the most
recorded of the composers represented here. Surely his six-year
association with Philip Glass as a MIDI programmer and his studies
at Julliard with Christopher Rouse and John Corigliano have not
hurt. He is now a leading light of New York's so-called
alt-classical scene, much beloved of the city's young trendy
audiences, but more ambivalently received by traditional critics. I
Shudder to Think shows influences of minimalism in the segments of
shifting ostinati, but I have not heard enough of what Rouse or
Corigliano might do with a battery of drums and mallet instruments
to assess their
influence. Be that as it may, a percussion ensemble seems a good fit for Muhly, as he has created a tightly constructed and colorful work for the quintet: alternately mesmeric and explosive.
James Michael David (1978– ) is also a well-known
composer, especially but not exclusively among wind and percussion
aficionados. He is the assistant professor of composition and music
theory at Colorado State University, but is a favored son in his
native Georgia as this commission and this arrangement attest. The
Locomotive Geryon addresses itself to intimidating
and seductive power and speed, as in Dantian monsters from The Inferno and large motorcycles. A 2002 work for saxophone and piano, it was arranged for saxophone and percussion ensemble by Columbus State University Percussion Ensemble director Paul Vaillancourt in 2008. It is highly persuasive in its new garb, but ironically the work has been softened a bit by Vaillancourt,
making it less percussive than the original with piano. In 2008, the ensemble also commissioned Shifting Cells, a gamelon-like exploration of rhythms and colors for percussion quartet. David creates an illusion of constantly shifting tempos within a constant beat, while constantly altering the pulse to keep the music agreeably offbeat, and utilizing the pentatonic scale to add an
attractive multicultural (i.e. exotic) feel to the music.
Charles B. Griffin (1968– ) was working on his doctorate at the University of Minnesota when he composed Fist Through Traffic (1993), a three-movement homage to life in his native New York and to the pop musical style of Paul Simon. High energy, jazzy, and using the ensemble as a driving, often minimalist, ostinato under the soloist, it is an immediately appealing work. Columbus State University saxophone professor Amy Griffiths captures the edginess and bluesy casualness perfectly, while revealing an attractive sound that I assume came in part from her studies in Paris with Delangle and Fourmeau.
The title that Canadian composer Brian Cherney (1942– ) chose for his 2006 work for percussion soloist and ensemble, inspired by a line of Die Engel, a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke, can be translated as In God's Garden the Angel's Grow Silent. Bits and snatches of Bach's Sheep May Safely Graze appear as if floating on the wind from afar. Bells ring as if from distant carillons. The serenity is disturbed only twice, most seriously about two-thirds through the work, but silence and repose are restored again accompanied by hints of birdsong. Of course, these characteristics, while common to many Cherney works, are not necessarily something one might expect of a work for percussion ensemble; yet, such are the interplay of textures and the evocation of timelessness and vast spaces that the work never ceases to be absorbing.
Only one work failed to fully engage me. Robert Rumbelow (1965–) is Director of Bands at the University of Illinois, but prior to that he held the same position at Columbus State University and led their wind ensemble in an earlier CD release on Naxos (Fanfare 33:5). He is relatively unknown as a composer, and Soundscape (2009) is the first piece by him I have encountered. The unusual sonorities, announced with drums pounding out over dissonant chords from the full organ, initially seize the attention. However, the piece soon thereafter turns atmospheric and then ruminative, and it is neither melodically or rhythmically distinctive enough to maintain that interest over its 10-minute span.
That is not enough, however, to detract from the excellence of the whole. Production values are high, with sound that is vivid and detailed. Paul Vaillancourt, an active performer in his own right with an impressive résumé, plays in the ensemble for two of the works, and is soloist in the Cherney piece. The happy news is that I cannot determine from listening who is teacher and who is student, as all of the artists appearing on this release are superb. Clearly CSU and Vaillancourt have a percussion program of which they can be proud. With such talent, and a program of innovative and appealing music, this is a release that any fancier of percussion music will want to explore. Ronald E. Grames
The collaboration with Matthew Welch in 2004, entitled The Self And The Other (a double concerto for bagpipes, piano and percussion ensemble) serves as the cornerstone for the composer's CD Dream Tigers, released on John Zorn's TZADIK label renowned for its support of contemporary music.
Excerpt from The Self and The Other - I. Mirrors
The Self and the Other is a meeting place of many sets of ideas. The piece initially sprung up as an idea from Paul Vaillancourt regarding the possibility of a composition for smallpipes (a quieter, sweeter variant of the highland pipes) and harpsichord. This combination was of interest because of their uses of ornamentation. The pipe's use is for breaking up and accenting its continuous sound, while the harpsichord's use is to sustain a continuous sound composed of discreet gestures. The idea of continuity seen through two very different views simultaneously was the guiding metaphor for the piece. The solo instruments for the concerto expanded he initial idea of smallpipes and harpsichord to their more grandiose hybrid between the tow musics I cherish most, piobaireachd (or pibroch) music of the Highland Bagpipe and the percussive gamelan traditions of Indonesia. I have always seen s connection between these two practices and felt the two fit the metaphorical topic of the piece perfectly. Piobaireachd's repetitive ornamental variations on the continuous tones of melodic streams is set into motion by the dual interlocking techniques, stratification roles, melodic expansion/contraction and heterophony found in Balinese and Javanese gamelan. The title comes from a celebrated collection of poetry by Jorge Luis Borges. In my reading of Borges, it became apparent that his recurring motifs (embodies by the titles of the three movements: mirrors, memory and heraclitus) of encounters, the self as fragmented, identity as elusive and the limits of memory, had an uncanny relation to the ideas surrounding this piece (incidentally we share the same birth date, August 24). Borges' use of fiction as a vehicle for philosophy encourages me in the creation of a concerto atmosphere that has a philosophical fantasy of its own.
Liner Notes - Matthew Welch
The first recipient of the Carson McCullers Composer Residency Program was Dr. Eric Moe from Pittsburgh University. The commissioned work I Have Only One Itching Desire (2006) was based on the drumming from the Jimmy Hendrix song “FIRE”. The ensemble's recording was recently released on the NAXOS recording label this past January to rave reviews.
Excerpt from I Have Only One Itching Desire
CD NAXOS AMERICAN
Here is a challenge, indeed. How to describe this wonderfully inventive, often joyful, occasionally melancholy, highly rhythmic, frequently irreverent, absolutely eclectic, and always high-octane music? Read the titles. Check the instrumentation. No tuxes and evening dresses here, folks. This is “classical” music for those who revel in the ingenious and the uncommon. Eric Moe is professor of composition and theory at the University of Pittsburgh. He co-directs a new-music series called Music on the Edge. Another CD of his works is called “Kicking and Screaming.” Indeed. There is something almost graphic novel about these works: serious aims with pop means, and a quirky sense of humor. I bet his composition classes are a hoot—unless perhaps one is incompetent. That steely gaze and shaved head in the booklet photo suggest a no-nonsense drill sergeant more than a long-suffering professor. Or maybe not. He is smiling winningly on the Web site.
Speaking of which, here is what he says there about his music: “Eric Moe's music has been variously described as 'maximal minimalism,' 'Rachmaninoff in hell,' and 'music of winning exuberance.' The New York Times says [sic] recently that Moe 'subversively inscribe[s] classical music into pop culture.'” Although the surfaces and genres are varied, his works share a concern for rhythmic propulsion and a disregard for stylistic orthodoxies. Sometimes tonal, sometimes not, harmony (generally crunchy) and melody (often angular) play privileged roles in his work.” That gives one some idea.
This is music without boundaries. Strange Exclaiming Music starts out sounding like a Bach unaccompanied violin sonata, but before long it has become demented swing, wistfully romantic, edgily Bartókian; it takes off like a Nancarrow piano roll, adds a touch of Stravinsky, slips into a elegiac reverie, and fades away without ever really resolving. And that is just the first movement. This sounds patchwork, but it is not. The work is completely organic. Transitions are entirely unforced, the moods and styles somehow complementary. The last movement, “Sorbet of Regret,” is as lovely a movement for violin and piano as one can imagine, with decidedly modern harmonic wanderings, but an unabashedly nostalgic essence.
The other works are as varied as the composer's many influences. Teeth of the Sea (the translation of the Italian title for the movie Jaws) is a three-and-one-half minute tone poem for congas. Rough Winds Do Shake the Darling Buds revels in the wide expressive abilities of the saxophone, the gale and the endangered blossoms both deftly characterized. And down the stream, merrily bubbles exuberantly on two marimbas. I Have Only One Itching Desire starts with a drum lick from a Jimi Hendix song and freely develops in the style of African drumming, with a little jazz and rock thrown in. Flex Time is an imaginative set of transformations for solo violin on an unlikely theme. Market Forces uses traditional musical structures, like the sonata form, in decidedly non-traditional ways. It is all unpredictable, all very engaging. The performers are splendid, the sound uniformly fine. All I can say is that when the CD was over, it left me wanting Moe. Ronald E. Grames
This article originally appeared in Issue 33:3 (Jan/Feb 2010) of Fanfare Magazine.