Category Archives: Jen Shyu

Percussive Musicking, in Ecstatic and Juilliard Flavors

“Maybe this is what some guys feel like when they go to a baseball game,” it occurred to me as I settled into my seat at Alice Tully Hall on Tuesday evening.  The Juilliard Percussion Ensemble, directed by my long-ago Tanglewood classmate Daniel Druckman, would be starting soon.  I felt relaxed, happy, curious, full of anticipation for what I was sure would be an evening of unexpected pleasures.

Juilliard Percussion Ensemble (from juilliard.edu)

I just love percussion ensemble concerts (including the student and professional ones at DePauw, where I teach). I’ve had a good music education and can follow what’s going on. I’ve played a little hand percussion, but I don’t have a desire to be a percussionist. A really enthusiastic, appreciative audience member, that’s what I am. There’s almost always some instrument or two I haven’t heard about.  The teamwork and non-verbal communication among the players is always something to watch.

And it was the second percussion night in a row for me.  I love New York!

Monday, I’d been to the final concert of the Ecstatic Music Festival at Merikin Hall, a very full evening of five concertos, composed by Bobby Previte for soloists plus the four members of So Percussion. It was broadcast live as part of WQXR‘s New Sounds Live series.  You can hear the webcast for yourself.

Here Bobby talks about the piece is a promo video:

 

And the members of So Percussion. [Update: oops--for some reason when I first saw this video I thought it was about their Previte concert.  It's actually about their Jan. 20 show.  But it's cool, anyway, so I'm leaving it here]:

 

The two programs couldn’t have been more different.  The Juilliard concert, “Ceremony and Ritual: Percussion Music of Japan/Part of Carnegie Hall’s JapanNYC Festival,” set in the gorgeous Alice Tully Hall, had a certain dressy-casual elegance to it. Everything was fully composed, the music often elegant and spare. Definitely contemporary concert-hall music. The Ecstatic Music Festival, meanwhile, has focused on a sense of music felt by curator Judd Greenstein, described by its education director Argeo Ascani in a program note.

Born and raised in NYC, the melting pot of all melting pots, Greenstein’s musical upbringing resembled the diversity of the city around him–hip hop “popular” music and the piano-lesson “classical” music of the conservatory.  For him, there was no differentiation–it was all just music. . . . And he’s not alone.

And so you get things like Previte’s wildly eclectic “Terminals, Part I: Departures,” five concerti for percussion ensemble and improvising soloists.  Jen Shyu (voice and er hu), DJ Olive (turntables and computer), Zeena Parkins (harp and electric harp), John Medeski (Hammond organ and piano), and Previte himself were the center-stage protagonists.

Since I go through phases where I improvise a lot (and others when I don’t), I was especially interested by the improvisational aspect (which made this a must-attend event for me). Improvisation, of course, is not an all-or-nothing thing.  Much music throughout the world has a improvisational component while having some sort of fixed framework, composed or passed down through oral/aural traditions. Such is the case with Previte’s Terminals;  the ensemble music was fully composed, while the soloists had much room for extemporizing.

In an on-stage interview with New Sounds Live host John Schaefer at the start of the concert, Previte explained he originally intended to use motives from 35+ years of his own drum solos as the basis for the compositions.  He put out word “on the Internets” and friends and fans sent him recordings, many bootlegged, from throughout his career.  It must have been fascinating to hear all those collected improvisations.

Many times I’m soloing in the context of someone else’s band . . . some [solos] are informed by other people’s music. You write music and then in the music you have someone improvise.  Now whose music is that?  Is it your music, is it their music? You know, you get kind of genius people to play and it becomes your music, interestingly.

Great question.  Is it the composer’s music, the improvising performer’s music, or does it all somehow become the music’s music?

The program started with a (recorded) mash-up of some of those Previte solos, put together by DJ Olive.  And mash-up describes is the perfect description of the evening.  A tremendous amount of fascinating, effective ideas. For me though, they were thrown so closely together that the music often felt aimless or, at other times, chaotic. I often found myself wondering what the musical point was. Where the structure was.  There certainly was an experimental-music feel to the evening, and experimental music by its nature rarely features a Beethoven-like motivic development.

As far as the improvisations go, while it was possible to surmise what sections (especially the unaccompanied ones) were improvised, you couldn’t tell for sure what was composed and what wasn’t.  So in the context of the pieces, the improvisations were really effective, as was the space and context created for them.

But I just didn’t get the music.  I’m listening to the webcast as I write.  On second hearing, the music still feels as it did that night: brilliant yet self-indulgently overly-long.  (Like my blog entries, at least in the self-indulgent, overly-long aspect.)  My overall impression was of an extraordinarily talented composer who, inexperienced with crafting long forms, packed in too many ideas and didn’t have a sense of what to cut out. But that’s me; this may well have been something where I have a blind spot and just didn’t get it.

It was, in any event, a great experiment. The very fact that this concert, and the entire festival, happened, and happened at a mainstream, Lincoln-Center area venue is cause for celebration. It’s something I’m really glad to have experienced (and wish I’d been able to make it to more of the festival’s concerts).  And maybe if I had been stoned I would have loved it this concert.  (Those were the days.)

If Monday night felt like too much of too many things, Tuesday exemplified the “less is more” virtues of Zen-like simplicity.  Not that all of the music was simple by any means.  Allan Kozinn’s Times review gives an excellent summary, which I won’t try to repeat here.  These were beautifully crafted pieces by composers not finding their way in a new medium, but clearly at the top of their games.

Being there had its amusing moments unrelated to the activities on stage.

“It’s all Japanese music!  It was supposed to be half Japanese and half something else,” announced the strong-voiced lady seated to my left, thumbing through her program before the concert started.

“Who told you that?” asked her companion, perhaps wondering, like me, why anyone would have expected a concert that was part of the Carnegie Hall JapanNYC festival to have anything but Japanese music on it.

“I have a paper at home about it,” she replied.  “I’ll have to look it up when I get back.”

If she’d been a sitcom character, she’d have seemed too much of a caricature, a stereotype  of a an elderly New Yorker who talks too much, too loudly.  “I’m all discombobulated,” she announced as she struggled to take off her coat.  “Oh my, I’ve somehow lost my program!”  I had ended up with two, so I offered her one.  “Thank you.  I just don’t know . . . oh, there it is, under the seat!”  Reclaimed item in her hand, she returned mine.  “Here.  You keep it your extra in case I lose mine again.”

“Oh, Takimetsu!  I remember he did something weird over at Philharmonic Hall (the original name for the space now known as Avery Fisher Hall) years ago.  It was very weird.  Oh, my.”

To my right, two children, brother and sister about 11 and 9, I’d guess, with their grandfather between them.  They were quiet and fascinated, and the family softly discussed the music between pieces.  What a special night for them, I imagined, and thought as well that they’ll likely be concert-music patrons in the future.

Toru Takemitsu’s Rain Tree was ethereal, not “weird,” and the concert-opening Masakazu Natsuda‘s Wooden Music exemplified the virtues of space and silences.  Akira Nishimura‘s rousing Ketiak, with congas, yellow maracas, headsets, and rhythmic chanting, was the most exciting piece and would, I thought, have made a more rousing finish to the program then Jo Kondo’s cowbells and gong Under the Umbrella.  But obviously Daniel Druckman wanted to end not with a bang but a . . . cow bell.

Sorry, I can’t help but write more about being there that night.  “I wonder why they have those things on their heads!” my voluble next-door neighbor for the evening, , spotting the head sets with microphones several of the players were adjusting, wondered out (very) loud before the Nishimura.

“It will be obvious once it starts,” came the forceful, annoyed-but-trying-to-be-polite voice of a man in the row ahead of us, who twisted around to explain, hoping, it seemed, to quiet her.  She obviously believes in offering color commentary right until the music starts (but she was always silent during the music). Druckman raised his hands to begin one piece, the audience quieted, and her voice rang throughout the hall.  “I wonder if we’ll get free wine again after this?” (She’d obviously been to one or more of the Tully Scope concerts, where there was a free glass after the show.)  “Probably not.”  Beat.  Music.

My son loves the UConn men’s basketball team, has watched every game he could this season. Passionate about it. The fabulous Juilliard Percussion Ensemble is like a top college sports team.  Maybe even better.  Because just to get in to a place like Juilliard as a percussion major, you have to play as well as many professionals. The level of skill is a joy to behold. (And some of them look so young that people around me wondered if those players might be in high school.)

Several pieces had no conductor.  So, as in all good chamber music, you could see the leading and following, the attentiveness to each other, the swirling energy. Percussion music, with the players standing and often moving from one instrument to another, has a unique athleticism to it.

And as in a good game on any level, there are errors and saves.  During the second-half opening piece, the premiere of Hiroya Miura‘s Mitate, a drum stick slipped off a music stand, and, while rotating, was caught deftly in mid-air. At the final note of the same piece, the same fellow’s cymbal flew off its stand. With almost superhero speed, he bent over and grabbed it just before it hit the floor, freezing in position.

Who was he?  No numbers or names on the shirts, so I’ll never know.  To me, he’ll forever remain the amazing adroit, if a bit clumsy, young man in the gray shirt.

It’s music.  And, sometimes it’s sport, too.  I love percussion ensembles.  I love the Juilliard Percussion Ensemble.  And I love New York.

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Filed under Alice Tully Hall, Bobby Previte, concert ettiquete, DJ Olive, Ecstatic Music Festival, Improvising Performers, Jen Shyu, John Medeski, Judd Greenstein, Juilliard Percussion Ensemble, Percussion Ensembles, WQXR, Zeena Parkins