Percussion explores a musical universe

On Friday night, the pulse of musical ingenuity beat loud and strong in Chapin Hall. The Percussion Ensemble gave a compelling spring concert, Invisible Systems, where it unveiled the range of its talents by deftly executing compositions scored by contemporary masters. Conducting auditory experiments, the works the ensemble performed startled audience members and eroded their expectations. The unpredictable trajectories that these new age pieces took fell into place by the show’s end, boldly establishing a new future of sound.

Program notes by director Matthew Gold spelled out the visions of the composers that the Ensemble strove to realize with their interpretations. The program was punctuated with parts of Karlheinz Stochkausen’s Tierkreis (German for “Zodiac”). Conceived in the 1970s, Tierkreis has 12 movements that correspond to the 12 astrological signs. The Ensemble performed the movements – all but “Taurus” individually arranged by students and faculty members – between the longer pieces.

The concert began with the high pitch of “Taurus” before shifting to the tinkling, measured beginnings of John Cage’s “The Imaginary Landscape No. 1” (1939). Its introduction of squeals and hums baffled the audience. A range of pitches, played directly from the original single-frequency vinyl records, wailed and modulated eerily under Gold’s direction. A Chinese cymbal and a string piano grounded the tuning of the signal as the musicians molded the white background noise into artistry.

The next piece, “Pattern Transformation” (1988), relied on the work of four players on two marimbas. The composer, Lukas Lugetti, had been inspired by court music from Uganda. The players layered progressions up and down the scale to echo one another. They gave the impression of jumping across the keyboard; the plunk of notes alternated between delivering drizzles and downpours of noise. Each distinct component meshed into a cross-stitched harmony. There followed another round of Tierkreis, with the arrangements of visiting artist‑in‑residence Steven Dennis Bodner, Brian Simalchik ’10 and Jacob Walls ’11 – all born under summer signs of the Zodiac. The plaintive trumpet and string sections, interspaced by blasts from the saxophones, fluctuated and wafted off the stage.

Crystalline notes from chimes resounded through Chapin in John Luther Adams’ “… and bells remembered …” (2005). The waxing and waning notes tolled like a bell according to the “sonic geometry” that Adams sought. Its slow, resounding tones circulated as a round robin of notes.

The ensemble then set course for a synthesized, techno jumble. The artistic personalities of Associate Professor of Music Ileana Perez Velazquez, Professor of Music David Kechley and Senior Lecturer in Music Andrew Jaffe channeled the autumnal signs, as xylophones mingled with the booming of drums. The throb of percussion functioned to unite a starkly kinetic dissonance into purposeful cacophony.

N. Cameron Britt’s “Aybabtu” (2008) is an innovative endeavor, set to the sounds of buzzers, that pays homage to classic eight‑bit video game music. It began as interplay of harsh components. The sharp brass elements thrown in eventually overtook the shrill sounds, almost approaching the construction of a traditional composition. Rich and intricate sounds from the marimbas soon absorbed the focus of the melody. During the piece, some performers came out towards the audience to strike the cymbals between the aisles to piano accompaniment and even to take seats. The flow of music into the listeners’ arena added a novel dimension of engagement to the performance.

Continuing in the vein of pursuing Stockhasen’s show‑binding theme of Tierkreis movements, different auditory temperaments of Simalchik and Gold emerged for the Zodiac signs of the fall. Pairing trembling, hovering sounds with somber undertones of percussion, the ensemble circulated elements that closed in, then drifted apart, to contrast the frenzied and relaxed extremes of the musical emotive range.

Getting off to a swinging, brass‑studded start, the performers embarked on “All Corners Strewn With Dandelions” (2010). The piece, Daniel Miller’s first composition for percussion, was inspired by grappling with the concept of the divine. Utilizing a myriad of percussion, bassoon and cello sounds, the Ensemble “pollinated” the air around the audience with particles of inspired noise. At its conclusion, the Tierkreis cycle came full circle with the final signs, including arrangements by Kechley and Alex Creighton ’10, and a return to “Taurus.”

Christopher Rouse’s commission from the New England Conservatory Percussion Ensemble, “Bonham” (1988) provided a fitting finale as praise to seminal drumming. Like an essay set to musical meter, the work echoed Led Zeppelin songs to honor the eponymous drummer, along with the Butterfield Blues Band and Bo Diddley’s hambone rhythm. Roaring, crashing waves of hard sound struck the audience with the weight of the music’s origin, in contrast with what the medium later evolved to.

Invisible Systems rolled together the wide range of new percussion, keeping in pace with admirable execution. The ensemble vividly realized the fresh tangents that the composers of today have taken as networks to new aural worlds.