Atypical instruments star in WiPE performance

Last Friday evening, the dimmed lights of Chapin Hall played host to an array of percussion instruments filling not just every corner of the stage, but scattered among the audience and throughout the hall’s various balconies. This meant only one thing of course: the presentation of Williams Percussion Ensemble’s (WiPE’s) latest performance titled “SKINS,” directed by Artist Associate in Percussion Matthew Gold. WiPE’s small group of performers took command of the hall with a diverse range of sounds and rhythms to bring the audience on an intimate journey through the unexpectedly broad horizons of percussion.

The first piece proved to be one such presentation. Titled “Babybot” and composed by Andrea Mazzariello ’00, this piece featured a quartet hitting, lifting and scraping objects like cans and flowerpots to create a swinging beat, starting the concert on a haunting, lulling note. The four performers proved that traditional instruments are not necessary to create a sophisticated and layered piece, as the piece’s rhythm built up and faded away, devolving and then returning full force several times over the course of the piece. The alternation between each instrument in unison and a more layered sound kept the audience on their toes and finally progressed into a complex, but surprisingly structured, beat, ending the concert’s first song on a strong note.

The next arrangement, “Four Organs,” also seemed to highlight an exploration into work with layers of sounds and an overall progression from one end of the song to the other. Consisting unsurprisingly of four electric organ players, accompanied by Gold holding a constant background pulse on the maracas, this ensemble began with a very steady rhythm. What initially seemed to be a repetitive series of chords, however, slowly evolved into a calculated lengthening of certain keys. Juxtaposed with the always short and untiringly repetitive maracas, the eventual loss of structure in the organs from a strict and predictable rhythm into one much more flowing and volatile initiated a gradual buildup of tension. Indeed, the abrupt end of the sound of all five instruments was shocking as the audience had almost come to depend on the maracas continuously rattling in the background.

This was followed by the premiere of “Circadian Rhythms I,” another piece that highlighted the use of unconventional instruments and methods of playing them. Hitting cymbals of varying size, splashing buckets of water and crinkling sheets of brown paper to the tune of prerecorded creaks and feedback, the performers managed to surprise not only with new types of sounds, but through a wholly 360-degree experience: About halfway through the song, the audience realized that performers were joining in not just from the stage, but also from behind and above.

The spotlight of “SKINS” took a brief quarter turn away from percussion for the next two pieces, “Syrinx” and “An Idyll for the Misbegotten (Images III),” played in tandem with solo flute by Phoebe House ’16. The flow between the two pieces was almost unnoticeable, with ethereal flute floating down from the balconies in the first, only to be cut in by the booming sounds of drums. The second piece saw the drums rumbling underneath as a tense and foreboding underbelly the almost wolf like call of the flute, which morphed into the performer actually whispering into the flute, lending an eerie and haunting quality to the piece.

“Parse/Concat,” the next song, was composed by percussion teaching assistant Casey McLellan ’14, who watched from the wings as the piece was played and was acknowledged by Gold at the piece’s end. The piece itself was played for the first time ever that evening, and started as a sort of rousing march, which devolved into a slower, ominous but still constant creep.

The concert’s grand finale, “Dark Rooms” was a six-part piece for percussion quartet and stretched the most boundaries in the concert. True to its name, the song did see the walls of Chapin literally darkened, the performers on stage lit dramatically only from behind. The first, untitled movement was dominated by a humanesque vocal noise, which seemed to be made by placing pressure on sticks. The rattle of the cymbal in measured waves undercut the plaintive wail of the “voices.” The second movement, “Agitated, tense, sensual,” continued the vocal experimentation, with performers whispering and breathing into the microphones. Using found sounds like a cowbell and the ripping of paper, the energy of the voices was framed by a flurry of calculated but frenetic activity. The third and fourth movements found some more involved, swinging rhythms, while the fifth was a far cry from its precedents, with little rhythm to speak of, dominated rather by the occasional ringing and feedback to invent a much more echoing, bleak mood. “SKINS” ended with a repeat of the first movement of “Dark Rooms.”

Without a doubt, WiPE’s latest performance once again brought to campus a new level of avant garde experimentation whose boundaries continue to challenge and stretch our ideas of conventions in music and the ways we can create it.