As members of the University of Kentucky Percussion Group rehearse Jennifer Higdon’s Splendid Wood, conductor James Campbell notes a recent New York Times piece that said percussion ensembles are the new string quartets.
Later, he exhorts the six musicians to be more “theatrical” in their playing.
Violins and theater are not topics that the musicians often hear discussed in their percussion studies. But the topics are welcome.
“As percussion majors, we’ve played with bands in high school,” says Michael Hardin, 21, a senior music major from Pickerington, Ohio, “and when you’re in an ensemble like that or an orchestra, where there’s 60-plus people and you’re in the back of the room with four to eight other people, all playing the same thing or similar instruments to what you’re playing, you get hidden a lot.
“In chamber ensemble, everyone is a soloist.”
A chamber ensemble is exactly what Hardin and his fellow percussionists will be Thursday night in the Singletary Center for the Arts’ Recital Hall.
The chamber percussion performance will feature small ensembles playing works on various instruments, including three marimbas played by six musicians in the Higdon work, from 2006. They’ll also perform John Cage’s Third Construction, an iconic percussion work from 1941 that employs found objects including the jawbone of an ass.
“Hear how the teeth rattle,” says Campbell, UK’s director of percussion studies, tapping UK’s jawbone. “You can’t manufacture that.”
The Cage piece is iconic for its structure — 24 sections of 24 measures each — and the use of cricket calls and conch shells in addition to the jawbone.
“A while back, we said, ‘Before you guys get out of here, we have to do Cage’s Third Construction,’” Campbell says. “We’ve been collecting instruments for a year.”
That piece and the overall concert are important experiences for the musicians, Campbell says.
“This is a very different kind of playing for these guys,” he says. “They’re without a conductor, and there is a lot of movement and choreography. And since there are so few people on stage, everyone is under a microscope and everyone really has to communicate.”
They don’t just have to communicate with one another. An emphasis in this concert is communication with the audience.
“Percussion instruments are very physical, very theatrical things,” Hardin says. With most other instruments, “you don’t have the freedom to throw your entire body into what you’re doing. So I think we have a really special thing going on here.”
Sophomore Matthew Geiger, 19, says, “I’ve had people tell me percussion is a visual art. People come to see percussion because you’re hitting something with sticks, mallets, and that seems like it would be something really entertaining to watch.”
Campbell says that even martial arts can come into play, when some pieces they are playing occasionally fall into silence. The musicians must create some sort of physical action to indicate that the music is still in progress.
To junior Alvin Lane, 20, an important part of the concert is putting percussion music front and center, without the band or orchestra.
“We’re able to be more than an effect,” he says. “Normally, when we’re in a band situation, we’re just a sound effect. In this setting, we’re able to create music.”