Percussion passion

Zsuzsanna Soboslay

The significance of The First Australian Percussion Symposium and Eisteddfod cannot be underestimated. It was a gathering of around 100 students, performance groups and teachers of national and international standing in a week of workshops, eisteddfods, scholarly papers and celebrations of the variety and virtuosity of recent contemporary percussion practice.

In many cultures, percussion music (whether generated via instruments, or directly from the human body) has a spiritual and cultural significance that lies well outside Western parameters of ontology. In Bali, China, Japan, Africa and the Middle East, percussion is often intrinsically linked to the calling up of gods, spirits, daemons and the appeasing of illness. Perhaps the closest parallels in Western experience are practices such as raves and dance parties, where participants enter different states of consciousness from those of habituated daily perception.

Perhaps what John Broomfield (Other Ways of Knowing, Inner Traditions International, 1997) calls our propensity to classify knowledge as either “scientific” (provable) or “hysterical” (indigenous, intuitive) is part of the reason why percussion has traditionally stood as the dogsbody at the “poor man’s desk” of the orchestra. Despite the extraordinary versatility of percussionists (they seem able to play everything, from broomsticks to sirens, Chinese zithers to Taiko drums), players talk of traditionally disparaging attitudes from conductors and other instrumentalists. The attitude of composers also reflects this disparagement, with only the most recent of compositions calling on much more than 15 minutes playing time within a 3 hour performance or rehearsal call.

Yet, like architecture, percussion has the potential to communicate some aspects of knowledge and experience more directly than artforms reliant on structures of melody, harmony and narrative. This leaves percussion open to exciting cross-cultural improvisations.

At the symposium, international players Michael Udow, Mark Ford and Steve Schick were generous in their teaching and performances, demonstrating the extraordinary scope of performance work available for percussion. Local teachers/performers and composers included Gary France (Symposium Convenor and Head of Percussion, ANU), Michael Askill, Daryl Pratt, Peter Neville, Tim White and Vanessa Tomlinson. The astonishing variety and virtuosity of compositions included works from Udow, Ford, Schick, Endo, Bartok, Lim, Smetanin, Pollard, Antheill and Pye, as well as improvisations.

The final concert was a highlight, showcasing conservatorium/university and independent professional ensembles from across Australia, such as the engaging portable-drum-thrumming Karak Duo (Brisbane) and the dynamic and hyper-energised Tetrafide Percussion from WA, who proved as capable with broomsticks as with South Indian drums.

Steve Schick embodied the intensity of Iannis Xenakis’ work, performing Psappha as if he were strung and pulled with high-tension wires.

Ford’s Stubernic transposed Caribbean street performance practices into a joyful yet delicate composition which saw 3 players on one marimba slipping like butter around each others’ bodies. Wyana Etherington and Jessica Dai from ANU performed with remarkably cool aplomb.

Udow’s Coyote Dreaming explored the Colorado canyons as if the marimba were an animal, played with dynamism and an admirable combination of discipline and release by Elder Conservatorium’s Fleur Green. Udow’s solo piece, Tennei-ji, based on a Noh drama, is virtuosic in its demands, with 3 speaking/singing characters embodied in one performer playing marimba. Garbed in kimono, wig and painted mask, Udow displayed an extraordinary combination of discipline and transformation, rendering the marimba a trans-cultural instrument both Oriental and Occidental. Michael Askill, a long-standing inspiration as performer, composer, teacher and mentor to generations of Australian percussionists, composed and directed the Finale. This finely-staged work combined a knowing theatricality (dozens of church bells travelled from all entry-points in the auditorium towards the stage) with an exploration of sound densities. The roaring, rolling final movement saw all 120 participants in the symposium playing at once. The miracle of this piece was that despite its extraordinary volume and power, it managed to remain as intimate as a string quartet. The work ebbed and flowed, alternating between a meditative delicacy (a short, integrated reading of Calvino poems dropping like liquid from Udow and Schick quietly sitting at the front of the stage) with vibrant, Taiko-like volume and passion. That such a dynamic and edgy performer as Schick could rest in such quiet in his role was a symbol of the humility that characterised the week as a whole.

This was a week of great complexities that explored the peculiar and special place that the lowly percussionist, emerging into virtuosic realms, now holds. The symposium provided a valuable forum for the peculiar risk involved in percussive improvisation.

The First Australian Percussion Symposium and Eisteddfod, director/convenor Gary France, ANU School of Music, Sept 22-29, 2003

RealTime issue #59 Feb-March 2004 pg. 46

© Zsuzsanna Soboslay; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 February 2004