Time-bending percussion strikes a novel note

Last Friday’s Percussion Ensemble Concert, Same as It Ever Was, ostensibly hinged on the concept of time. In the program notes, Percussion Ensemble director Matthew Gold noted that the works were unified by their state of arrival in a sort of temporal entropy. Playing with randomness and order, with dynamism and stasis, served as the organizing principle for these composers.

That aleatoric quality was put on display early in the program, when an unfortunate technical error forced the group to skip the first piece on the program, György Ligeti’s Poème Symphonique for 100 metronomes. The Ligeti, a piece that begins with cacophony and ends with the ticking of a single metronome, perhaps would have helped to place the others more in context.

Instead, the concert proceeded straight to the second piece on the program, Julia Wolfe’s Dark Full Ride. Scored for four full drum sets, visually the piece promised to be big. Its beginning, however, seemed more akin to the mechanization of the Ligeti that never happened, building and easing but never quite reaching the peak you would expect. The piece is insistently longer than you think it should be, refusing to justify its length with a full-blown climax. It is a piece that maintains a state of suspension, holding it out for no other reason than to hold it out.

In this piece and throughout the concert, the ensemble was immensely impressive technically. These are works that are hard to listen to, let alone play, and their focus and execution (the temptation to screw up after playing straight sixteenth notes for pages and pages must be immense) was continually excellent.

Alfred Schnittke’s Quartet for Four Percussionists was my favorite piece on the program. Glacial and austere, it is the work that most succeeded in creating its own sense of time. Whereas some of the other works felt like an imposition on ordinary time, forcibly slowing it down or speeding it up, the Schnittke was organic and natural. The chimes, resonant and striking after the hammered repetitiveness of the Wolfe, grew and disappeared, occasionally exploding in activity only to fade away again.

The premiere of Julian Mesri ’09’s aptly named Factory I came next. Strikingly short after the previous two pieces, it sought industrial homogeneity by a contrastingly wide range of means. It hovered between the world of acoustic instruments and filtered sounds, never quite touching down in either, less intent on creating its own sonic and temporal space than the other works on the program.

The following piece by Karlheinz Stockhausen, a composer whose works consistently defy expectations in pursuit of their own more opaque goals, seemed less revolutionary than usual within the context of this program. It seemed to sum up the previous pieces, including their various techniques within its range of instruments and techniques. Stockhausen’s explanation of the piece (included in the program) evidenced a wealth of thought and planning that went into its creation. Upon first listening, that thought is less evident than the work’s breadth, carrying it towards some grander and more enigmatic purpose than can be immediately understood.

The final piece was Drew Krause’s Ding for piano and percussion ensemble. The excellently named piece was more active than the preceding Stockhausen, and featured piano playing by Brian Simalchik ’10. The interplay between the piano and the ensemble provided some new interest, but it adhered largely to the structures established by the previous pieces.

After listening to so much music that toyed with notions of entropy and randomness, it all began to seem, well, random. As a whole, the works in this concert did effectively create a different world than the everyday, compressing and expanding time, inhaling and exhaling through their tempi. But it is hard to begin to make sense of such a world without any obvious point of access.

The works presented in “Same as It Ever Was” were challenging, and I wasn’t convinced by all of them. But there’s something to be said for being a little lost and confused, for being forced to think and try to understand – even if it does seem like an impossible task –