Percussion for Professionals—And for Amateurs April 19, 1976

At concerts of contemporary percussion music one generally expects certain things: a stage overloaded with the usual battery of commercial percussion instruments, a conductor to do a lot of intricate cueing, a zillion pages of carefully notated scores, and a repertoire oriented toward Varese, Cage, Harrison, and other familiar names. Recently, however, I heard two concerts of percussion music that broke all of these rules, and also differed a great deal from one another.

One was the March 26 appearance of the Black Earth Percussion Ensemble at the Kitchen. The three players from Illinois had brought along quite a few instruments they had made themselves, as well as the standard ones. There was no conductor and not much sheet music, since many of the pieces were memorized, and everything had been rehearsed down to the split second.

Black Earth specializes in the sort of intimate ensemble sensitivity that I occasionally hear from string and wind groups but had never heard in a percussion ensemble. Much of their finesse is due to the simple fact that the group has been together for quite a few years, and perhaps some of it is because they are based in De Kalb, Illinois. Black Earth is in residence at the University of Northern Illinois, where they all have some teaching obligations, but otherwise they are free to spend most of their time constructing instruments in their workshop, exploring new repertoire, planning concerts, and just playing together. It’s a kind of togetherness and commitment which seems hard for percussionists to develop amid the distractions of urban life.

The program had a broad and unusual range. There was a work by Martin Farien that was realized mostly on neat homemade instruments, a comical interpretation of graphics by Herbert Brun, and a structured improvisation, along with more conventional works by Elliott Carter, Russell Peck, and Gerald Strang. But two pieces were especially striking.

Frederic Rzewski’s ‘Les Moutons de Panurge’ is an exciting composition in which a highly charged melody gradually grows from one note to over 40 and then back to one again, and Black Earth’s trio version of the work is spectacular. I don’t think there are many mallet players anywhere who could cut the piece at all at such a fast tempo, but these three zipped through it with remarkable accuracy, and kept right together at the same time.

Also gratifying was a ‘Marimbastuck’ by a young Japanese composer, Maki Ishii. This is a tour de force for a solo marimba player, which depends on subtle inflections, colorations, and nuances, all of which is embellished now and then by soft effects played on various instruments by two assistant players. Here too there was the kind of ensemble sensitivity that only comes after years of working together.

Of course New York is supposed to be the place where one finds high gloss professionalism, but curiously, a percussion concert presented by a New York group on the following night turned out to be a homespun, homemade, unpretentious sort of affair. This event, which featured Skip La Plante and Carole Weber, offered a melange of homemade instruments which were simpler and junkier than Black Earth’s constructions, but often sounded better. They were made out of bowls, pans, cardboard tubing, jugs, table legs, saucers, jars, fire alarms, roofing material, and junk metal, not to mention a large collection of wind chimes which incorporated all sorts of ringy and jingly things.

So much care had gone into the instruments that the music had to sound attractive, and it did. Admittedly La Plante is limited as a composer. One piece combined seven rhythmic motifs in a way that was hard to follow and did not always seem appropriate to the instruments used. In another segment, which had been written as accompaniment for dance, he had not quite managed to turn the music into a convincing concert piece. Yet the sounds were so arresting that they didn’t really need much in the way of compositional skill or performance polish, and La Plante’s conducting of one audience participation segment turned out to be a high point of the evening. Perhaps 30 delighted volunteers (myself included) selected small instruments and formed a circle, and La Plante gave cues from the center.

All in all it was a stimulating concert, which made me vow to get down to Canal Street soon and pick up some odds and ends for making my own wind chimes. And that, incidentally, is not a bad idea for anyone, now that open-window season is so close at hand. Of course wind chimes don’t provide much in the way of performance precision. But that’s Black Earth’s department.