More Than a Percussionist: Bob Becker July 3, 1978

I had not intended to write about Bob Becker. I was well aware that he was one of the more accomplished percussionists around, but that in itself did not seem particularly noteworthy, and when I went to his program with dancer Kyra Lober at the Open Eye on June 17, it was simply because it seemed like a pleasant way to spend a Saturday evening. I didn’t even bother to try to obtain a press ticket. By intermission, however, it became quite clear that Becker is much more than just a fine percussionist and that someone ought to say so.

One thing that sets Becker off from other percussionists is the stylistic breadth he has attained. He has played an extremely varied repertoire with Paul Winter, Steve Reich, and Chuck Mangione as well as at Marlboro and the Casals Festival, and is a key member of the percussion ensemble Nexus. But he has also studied tabla and mridangam with Indian teachers, and Ghanaian drumming with African teachers. And somewhere along the line he also became proficient on the mbira, sometimes referred to as a kalimba or thumb piano. With this kind of background, it is a simple matter for him to take on Japanese temple bowls, or Pakistani cowbells. I’m sure that he could even make my kitchen table sound good were he so inclined. But I doubt that he’d bother. If one thing is more important to him than fine percussion playing, it would be fine percussion to play on. Some of the instruments he worked with in this concert were themselves works of art.

Another thing that sets Becker off from other percussionists is his creative approach to playing. He doesn’t seem to refer to himself as a ‘composer,’ and none of the pieces he played on this occasion had the pretensions of actual ‘compositions,’ but most of them were not really improvisations either. Generally he works with simple structures, perhaps merely as a long crescendo, or a sequence of isolated tones, or a set of permutations. Compositionally, such procedures might even seem simplistic if played by an ordinary percussionist. But in Becker’s highly skilled hands, they never do.

Another special thing about Becker is the way he has learned to work with dance. He and Lober work together with the kind of mutual concern that one senses between guitarists and flamenco dancers, and which I seldom feel between ballet companies and their pit orchestras, or between modern dancers and their tapes. At this concert the music and dance seemed equally important. Each was to some degree subservient to the other, both seemed to involve equal amounts of preparation time, and probably neither would have evolved without the other.

Several times I have heard musicians present long, meditative pieces that consisted solely of rolling on gongs or cymbals, but I have never been so captivated by this kind of music as I was when Becker played his ‘Cymbal.’ Working with two extremely resonant Zildjian cymbals, he began so soft that at first all one could hear was two deep humming tones. Very gradually, and with exceptional steadiness, these tones became louder, and a few overtones faded in. Occasionally Becker would underline one of them by tapping subtly on a bell of a particular pitch. Eventually the rich resonances of hundreds of overtones became audible, as they do on fine cymbals, and I could even hear sirens wailing somewhere deep within the sound. He stopped suddenly and allowed the cymbals to begin dying away just as the church bells outside began to ring nine o’clock. It seemed almost as if Becker had timed the piece to end that way, and judging from the care with which he handled everything else that evening, I wouldn’t be surprised if he had.

Lober joined him in ‘Stillpoint,’ which began with the lights very low. It took me some time to realize that the extremely soft hum I was hearing was not the result of some distant fan, but was being produced by Becker. He was caressing the rim of a large Japanese temple bowl in slow steady circles, and continued to do so throughout the piece. Four smaller temple bowls eventually made brief entrances, but that’s all that happened musically. It was enough.

In ‘Windings,’ Becker played a set of Pakistani cowbells. They klunked along happily, like all cowbells, but produced precise pitches at the same time. Here, the enticing thing was the peculiar scale that contained Becker’s improvised cowbell melodies. I heard it as C, C-sharp, D, E, G, A, C.

‘Astral Light’ was an unstructured improvisation that included a little bit of everything. The piece lacked the discipline and clarity of the rest of the evening and was, it seemed to me, the weakest segment for both dancer and musician. It was a pleasure, however, to see how closely the two could follow one another in an unstructured context.

Becker’s ‘Seven Variations’ were performed on seven Chinese tom-toms without the dancer. Right from the beginning the drumming was much too fast for me to ascertain whether the music really was ‘based on the number seven,’ as the program claimed, but as a performance the variations were another tour de force. Becker is more fluent with two sticks than most musicians are with 10 fingers, and if you think I’m exaggerating, just listen to the lead mallet lines in the Umbrella direct-to-disc album, ‘Nexus Ragtime Concert.’ The program ended with ‘Mbira,’ in which Becker plucked out polyrhythmic patterns on a traditional mbira with a large gourd resonator, playing variations on a traditional melody from Zimbabwe with as much ease as the African musicians I have heard in field recordings.