Program Notes by James Doyle
Deep and Distant Thunder
Having spent the first 22 years of my life living in the Midwest, springtime meant eerie skies, vicious thunderstorms, and taking shelter at the sound of tornado sirens. When I first heard the Pulitzer Prize-winning American composer John Luther Adams’ work, Deep and Distant Thunder, I was immediately transported to my youth. Just one movement from Three Drum Quartets From Earth and the Great Weather, Adams wrote Deep and Distant Thunder as a representation of the “elemental power and natural forces in the Arctic,” and the “ecstatic power of Iñupiat Eskimo drumming and dancing.”
Adams State University Art Professor Dana Provence invited me to collaborate by selecting and performing music for his Performance Bronze Pour and Powder Drawings earlier this spring. While considering the primal quality of molten bronze and burning gunpowder, the music of John Luther Adams came to mind. My students performed this work, as well as …solitary and time-breaking waves from Adams’ collection of works titled, Strange and Sacred Noise.
For tonight’s performance, I chose to set our performance of Deep and Distant Thunder to time-lapse photography and video captured by storm-chaser and Houston-based musician, “Pecos Hank.” His videography exhibits the terrifying beauty of Midwestern spring storms while the drums emulate the visceral cacophony of nature’s violent wrath. In order to provide a relatively antiphonal soundscape, each performer is dispersed throughout the anterior of the auditorium, providing sonic space for this bombastic work.
Perhaps the most unique and difficult to pronounce title for a composition, Marco Schirripa wrote this short piece for the unusual combination of solo snare drum and marimba ostinato. The snare drum soloist must possess complex rudimental drumming abilities with the finesse to balance with the more mellow, rosewood resonance of the marimba.
Escape: Sextet for Triangles
New York-based percussionist, composer, and collaborator Drew Worden wrote Escape: Sextet for Triangles for a concert combining early avant-garde film with live percussion accompaniment. Worden paired his work, for six unclipped triangles, to Mary Ellen Bute’s 1938 film, Synchromy No. 4. Filmmaker and producer Cecil Starr explains Bute’s film portrays “a story in abstraction of an orange/red triangle imprisoned behind a grid of vertical and horizontal lines under a sky-blue expanse, perhaps representing freedom.”
Bute set Synchromy No. 4 to the Toccata from J.S. Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, an organ work written approximately 200 years prior to the creation of her film. I first became aware of Worden’s composition while researching original chamber percussion works for silent or, in this case, silenced film in live performance. While percussionists have improvised or adapted scores for film accompaniment, the pairing of silent/silenced film and original chamber percussion compositions has a modest body of repertoire. The multi-media aspect of film with live musical accompaniment is as old as film itself, yet original composed scores, particularly for chamber percussion, number in the single digits.
The cajon, an instrument with numerous claims of ancestry, is little more than a resonant box and has become the “acoustic guitar” of the gigging percussionist. The commercialization and development of this simple instrument has propagated over the past fifteen years and provides percussionists with an alternative to a complete drum set sound. With less volume, floor print, and providing a built-in seat, percussionists have developed new techniques and adapted others to this wildly popular portable instrument. The cajon has grown in value both musically and commercially as builders have continued to advance the instrument in design, construction, and expressive possibilities. Rancho Jubilee, written as a trio, demonstrates the available timbre, dynamic range, and virtuosity of the trained percussionist
The advent of motion pictures and the peak of ragtime took place concurrently at the turn of the 20th century. It would not have been uncommon for American cinemagoers to hear pianists performing the latest ragtime hits of the era to accompany the onscreen action.
Xylophone virtuoso, composer, and recording artist George Hamilton Green (1883-1970) paved the way for percussion soloists since the early 1900s when he would perform for crowds numbering in the tens of thousands. His compositions, orchestrated for marimba band by members of the percussion group NEXUS, have become common performance ensemble standards.
Dr. Steve Hemphill, Director of Percussion at Northern Arizona University, took Buster Keaton’s 1923 short comedy and set George Hamilton Green’s Charleston Capers, Valse Brillante, Cross Corners, Ragtime Robin, and Triplets, Joe Green’s Xylophonia, and Frank Silver and Irving Cohn’s Yes! We Have No Bananas to accompany the film.
For tonight’s performance, we have three performers providing the sound effects, or “Foley” for the film, and seven other members rotating between four marimba parts, drum set, and as xylophone soloist.