As finals approach and tensions rise, the desire to hit or break things can become almost overwhelming; thankfully, this Saturday the Williams Percussion Ensemble (WiPE) provided some degree of catharsis by performing their latest show, never odd or even. The ’62 Center for Theatre and Dance’s Centerstage was for two hours filled with the sounds of various items or instruments being struck, caressed or shaken under the direction of Williams Artist Associate Matthew Gold and his retinue of accomplished student musicians. The bill presented a number of experimental percussion pieces, using a combination of traditional instruments and unconventional sounds to produce innovative, challenging musical performances.
The ensemble began with the first of six recitals belonging to the Rrrrrrr… series described in the program as “autonomous pieces,” that can all be performed independently and that all begin with the letter “R”: These works by Argentine composer Mauricio Kagel were interspersed throughout the concert.
The first, entitled Railroad Drama, was an eclectic fusion of sounds from the most unlikely of sources; sheets of paper, dead branches, even birdcalls constituted only some of the unexpected instruments employed to produce this slow, arrhythmic composition. Next up was Signals Intelligence by the musician-cum-mathematician Christopher Adler: Influenced by the traditional music of Thailand and Laos and mathematical algorithms, the sounds produced were alternatively chaotic and disorderly, or light hearted and melodic, creating an overall frenetic continuum.
The next two installments of Rrrrrrr…, entitled “Ranz des Vaches” and “Rigaudon,” were similarly unusual. “Ranz des Vaches” especially provided a bizarre musical experience. It was performed by pouring beads onto a set of large bells while the pre-recorded sounds of the outdoors filled the auditorium; two dressed-up performers ambled the balconies speaking fragments of conversation in German to each other so that this piece, more than any other, blurred the lines between musical recital and performance art. Despite its calming, relaxed outlook, the serious, unemotional voices coupled with the continuous sound made the overall effect somewhat unsettling and almost frightening. The second, “Rigaudon,” translated elements of French fold dance from the 17th and 18th centuries into a more stripped down form. Subsequently, the ensemble played 2 and Radio Music, by Keeril Makan and John Cage, respectively. Both of these are fast-paced, erratic pieces that shun expected structure and composition to instead surprise and challenge the listener.
After two more “autonomous pieces,” Little Eye by prolific Pulitzer Prize winner David Lang changed the direction of the concert by introducing some more conventional melody; after what could only be described as an excited conversation between two loud drums placed behind the audience, a lone cello, the first strictly melodic instrument employed, set out with a somewhat hesitant, repetitive tune to a backdrop of off-kilter percussions. The deep sounds of the lonely string instrument lent gravity and focus to the initial disparity of the sound. Afterwards, following the last piece of the Rrrrrrr… series, “Rutscher,” Gold took a second to address the crowd while the set was being moved around, and insist on the particularly exciting nature of the following composition, Straitjacket. A very recent work by Stanford academic Mark Applebaum, this series of four movements was performed by five musicians, including Gold himself and a solo percussionist of renown, Alex Lipowski. Without a doubt, this constituted the most musically original moment of the evening; the musicians went from drumming in unison with earphones playing them unheard music, to Lipowitz guiding them with obscure signs and gestures, to a moment when they all hit the xylophone in unison, after which he quieted certain notes by touching the blocks. Finally, all of them stood before sheets of paper, and as they began to draw their own specific images at predetermined speeds, microphones amplified the sounds of their markers and filled the room with an odd, yet clearly enthralling and orderly music.
Other than showcasing talented musicians that we dispose of in our very own community, this performance by WiPE was eye-opening in that it exposed the audience to modern and contemporary music in ways that we are rarely used to. The profoundly experimental nature of the pieces performed added an intriguing and challenging musical aesthetic to the panoply of acts existing on campus.