On Friday January 15th I managed to catch the Seattle Percussion Collective in performance at Seattle’s Chapel Performance space. I was drawn to this concert for a rare chance to see some Christian Wolff performed but reveled in the opportunity to see other older and newer works. It turned out to be a great concert, of course some pieces appealed to me more then others.

The program was:

Set 1:

Christian Wolff Metal and Percussion , movement 1A
Toru Talemitsu Cross Hatch
Christian Wolff Metal and Percussion , movement 3B
James Ronig A slightly Evil Machine:
Christian Wolff Metal and Percussion , movement 1B
Jeff Aaron Bryant The Raccoon King of Plastic and Tin

Set 2:

Stuart Saunders Smith Mornings
Christian Wolff Metal and Percussion , movement 2A
James Ronig Sonnet IV
Christian Wolff Metal and Percussion , movement ‘s 3A and 2B
Greg Campbell The Light in Amsterdam
Milton Babbitt All Set
Christian Wolff Metal and Percussion , movement 4 and coda

Seattle Percussion Collective members are
Rebecca Baggenstoss, Greg Campbell, Dale Speicher, Bonnie Whiting Smith and Denali Williams
For All Set they were joined by Brian Cobb, Harumi Flesher, Stuart MacDonald, Greg Sinibaldi, Chris Stover, and Matthew Swihart, conducted by Jonathan Pasternack

The Christian Wolff piece (from 2007) did not disappoint. It was made up of multiple parts most with several sections. These involved a change of instrumentation and sometimes number of musicians for each part so they broke it up, playing a section between each of the other pieces. In the first set the opening portion of this piece was played with half a dozen triangle players all surrounding the audience. They played slowly at first letting the chiming sounds die out before playing the next, but slowly sped up until it was an invocation of ringing sounds. This was followed by Crosshatch Toru Takemitsu’s piece from 1982, which was another I was really looking forward to as he didn’t write a lot of percussion music. It was a pretty short piece with all of the players on tuned percussion (marimbas and related) and had a rather jaunty interlocking feel. The next part of the Wolff was four players all using rather disposable “wind” instruments: bottles, a top of a plastic recorder, party buzzers and the like. It had that indefinable Wolff structure to it with a bit of a comic element from the instrumentation. I often am not so into these kind of sounds but I think Wolffs composition really kept it interesting. The next piece was a solo marimba (I think) piece by James Ronig called A Slightly Evil Machine (2006). I’d seen another one of his pieces with this title and like that one, it just isn’t my thing. His pieces seem to be made up of these clusters of sounds that are played with little space with dynamic bursts rising out of the continuous sound. In the kind of plinky marimba soundworld, with its forced melodic tones this just doesn’t do much for me. The final bit of the Wolff was my favorite a trio of musicians playing various pieces of metal, from what looked like car parts to metal boxes and various other detritus. The combination of the intriguing sounds these parts create along with Wolff’s structures made this so compelling. The sounds are giving room to breathe and the overlap and interact in unpredictable way. Fantastic. The final piece of the first set was Jeff Aaron Bryant’s The Raccoon King of Plastic and Tin (2009, World Premier) which was played on metal interspersed with sections where they’d shake plastic bags. This piece was okay but overly busy and I thought wore out its welcome well before it ended.

Stuart Saunders Smith’s Mornings (2007, World Premier) for marimba and 3 cymbals opened the second set. The composer was in the hall and he introduced the piece telling us that it was an attempt to capture his mornings (in which he regularly composed). A soft spoken, gentle man the music gave a clear impression of a slow, contemplative and serene entry into the day. The soft details of sun, fog perhaps some rain came through. The marimba kept it melodically rooted and did with the sedate nature of the piece remind my a bit of the tiring soft piano that Mister Rogers would use to end his show. A nice enough piece that I think did what it set out to do. The first part of the second section of the Wolff followed this part utilized various bits of struck metal, blown things and some vocalizations. Another nice bit with a nice contrasting amount of sounds. At this point I really began to want to hear this whole piece contiguously, though I completely understood why they presented it this way. It worked well weaving through the evenings music, but it clearly would be rewarding to hear the parts one after the other to catch the structural relationships. Hopefully the SPC will record it at some point. Greg Campbell’s The Light in Amsterdam (2002) was next, which was a quintet for gongs and cymbals. Mostly roled sounds in the begining with some light brushes on one cymbal. It was pretty dense with these sounds and it would increase in density from this base line for quite dramatic bits. After one crescendo it backed down from this and became more spare utilizing more struck sounds and becoming increasingly softer and softer as it came to a conclusion. I really enjoyed this piece with it’s washes of sounds and dramatic elements. This was followed by two parts of the Wolff which utilized the previous instrumentation of blown objects and struck metal. The breath section was a bit longer then the previous with each of the five performers equpped with 2 or 3 objects amongst which they’d often quickly switch, almost overlapping their own sounds. Again there was also some vocalization almost always of an abstract restrained nature. The next part was a duo for the metal objects and was again constructed out of small spacious sometimes very quiet sounds. This last metal section was my favorite part of the whole evening. Next was another solo marimba piece again by Romig whom I think I can say with some certainty is not really my cup of tea. Just too busy and solo marimba is just not rich enough to do much for me. People did seem to dig it though, so clearly YMMV. After this was Babbit’s All Set in which they added bass, piano, alto sax, tenor sax, trombone, trumpet to two of the percussionist one on marimba the other on a sort of simple trap kit, plus a conductor. It pretty much was white, big band serial swing. Amusing and sort of fun, but square and sort of tedius. Luckily it wasn’t too long so it remained mostly a fun novelty. The show concluded with the entire expanded ensemble playing the final movement and coda to the Wolff piece. Structurally it clearly was the same but with some many players it had a completely different density. Not being familiar with the score it seems that perhaps there is an amount of sounds or events the players each need to do as there were a couple of players who really stretched it out so it became increasingly less busy and dense. The code again featured all the players through perhaps with fewer events to play. A strong ending I thought but not the best of the sections. Most likely with fewer musicians more in tune to the piece (some of the expanded “band” seemed on the edge of bad acting) it would be a great culmination. Like I said earlier I’d love to hear a recording from the SPC of the piece.

So all in all a great evening with some great music and nothing gratingly bad, if not always to my taste. Great to see new music and some rarely played music performed here. With Cornish here its not surprising that there is such strong percussion here in the city and I can’t say how glad I am that they are here.