King of Denmark Score
King of Denmark score (first page)
from Aspen Magazine no 5/6 on UbuWeb

January, 11 2008
Dale Speicher, Music for Solo Percussion
Chapel Performance Space at the Good Shepherd Center, Seattle WA
The beginning of this year is looking particularly good for music in the Pacific Northwest. Feldman at SAM, Lachenmann in Vancouver, the massive SIMF and so on. It is particularly a good year for new composed music as there has been somewhat a drought of modern composition here. The cavalcade of great music began with a solo percussion night at the Chapel performance space. I’d seen Dale Speicher in a few ensembles in the past but this night of music brought him squarely into the limelight. I went based on the strength of the pieces that were being played by some of my favorite composers: Feldman, Wolff, Xenakis and Ashley. The three other pieces were by composers I was unaware of and one of them only a couple years old. So I chance to see new music as well as some old favorites live was not to be missed.
The stage of the chapel had several percussion “stations” scattered around it, plus a collection of percussive objects right among the front row of the chairs. A vibraphone, gongs, hand drums, a huge red-white-n-blue bass drum, various cymbals, triangles and objects were among the large collection of percussive tools on stage.  A little leary of being right in front of one of these stations as sat in the second row. Not too long afterwards the lights dimmed and the show began.

Links No. 1 (1974) Stuart Saunders Smith
Basic 10 (1987) Robert Ashley
Delusions of Grandeur (1975) Charles Lipp
King of Denmark (1964) Morton Feldman

The first piece was one I was unfamiliar with by a composer I was also unfamiliar with. The first of a series of eleven percussion pieces this one was for solo vibraphone. A nice piece that utilized the shimmering tones of the vibraphone well and seemed to mostly rely on the sweet harmonic possibilities of this instrument. It rather reminded me of wind chimes mixed with the piano noodling of Mister Rogers. I don’t recall much dissonance and overall I found it a little saccharine. Next up was Ashley’s Basic 10, a piece I was not familiar with from a composer that I am fairly familiar with. Dale moved to the far right edge of the stage and picked up a single snare drum. He began tapping this with his fingers as he walked around the stage. Usually a pattern of four fingers individually then a more resounding downbeat. He slowly made his way to a chair in the center front of the stage where he sat down and continued playing with his fingers. He’d turn the snare wires on and off, rotate the drum on it’s side all the while tapping away. The piece ended with the same pattern repeated on his chest.  Again Charles Lipp is a composer, whom though being active for a number of years, was one I was unfamiliar with. This piece used the vibraphone and several smaller drums primarily as well as some other percussive elements. It seemed to rather switch between instruments, at least at first, beginning with the vibes and then a set of mounted hand drums. Toward the end there was some overlapping sounds between these but it mostly seemed to be one thing after another. Not too memorable a piece, or perhaps just overshadowed by the final one.

The final piece was the King of Denmark by Morton Feldman, which along with the Wolff piece I was most excited to see performed live. I have recently been listening to the Max Neuhaus, The New York School cd so I had heard this piece several times in recent weeks. In order to play it, Dale first moved the bulk of his percussion arsenal to the station in the audience. The vibes, the hand drums, a xylophone and a set of bells and triangles were all mounted in a tight circle around a space where Dale stood. He told us a story of performing this at a living room concert which was his impetuous for doing this as close as he could to the audience. The piece, the only percussion one that Feldman wrote, is for a number of percussion instruments all played by hand. As Dale states in the liner notes: “In many ways the King of Denmark is an anti-percussion piece. It is to be played very softly using only the hand and fingers – no sticks or mallets.” He began by tapping a glass bottle and other objects; little bells, the triangle before moving on to drums, the vibes and occasionally the gong. Little sounds, twinkling out of the space, the very faint hum of traffic and rustling of the audience as a backdrop.  The dynamics were uniformly low, as called for by the score, but of course there would be the occasional slip or miscalculation and sound would rise above the normal levels to stunning effect. In a way it reminded me of Cage’s Atlas Eclipticalis with these little sounds coming out of space and overlapping and colliding in seemingly random, but satisfying ways. The performance was gorgeous and could have gone on twice as long as far as I was concerned.

-intermission-

A Slightly Evil Machine (2005) James Romig
Pairs (1968) Christian Wolff
Rebonds Part A (1987/8) Iannis Xenakis

There was a short intermission (during which I took a look at the King of Denmark score a bit of which is reproduced above) during which Dale reorganized the stage a bit. There was now three stations, the big bass drum with five other drums descending in size from right to left, on of the center of the stage was the vibes and then on the right a set of african drums and wood box of unknown objects. The show began with another new to me piece one from only a couple of years ago. Appropriate to the title the piece sounded like a machine that had something off-kilter about it. There was this constant rhythm of hitting a wood block (perhaps) and the drums but it was constantly subverting itself in an almost sickening kind of way. It takes advantage of our expectations in how something rhythmically works and by subverting that is almost disorienting. The next piece was the other one I’d been highly anticipating and it was the only one that wasn’t solo percussion. This piece is for 2,4,6 or 8 players and is one of the Wolff score’s with these disconnected little modules that the players work through in (IIRC) an indeterminate fashion. Dale was center stage with a clarinetist, on the far right was bass clarinet,  and double bass on the far left was a french horn and guitar. I love Wolff’s music and this piece had those features I so often associate it with it – these little passages fading in and out amongst gaps of varying lengths, almost random seeming harmonies and disharmonies, complex and simple at the same time. The wide separation of the players really worked to great effect in this piece I think it really made the sounds come from all around the sound stage. If you didn’t look at the players as you listened it almost was like listening on headphones so separated were the sounds. The final piece was again for solo percussion and Dale cleared the stage and finally went to that All-American Bass drum that had dominated the stage like a refugee from a Souza event.  This Xenakis piece began slowly, with a a pattern of hitting the bass drum and then two or three smaller drums. It slowly built up to greater and greater density till it became quite a tour-de-force of playing. Definitely the most energetic and dense piece of the program it was a good way to conclude the evening. Symmetrically the piece slowed down and ended as it began and this concluded our evenings program.

A real fine evening of music and I have to say I was impressed by Dale’s performance. As I said at the beginning I’d only seen him a couple of times before in ensembles so really I was pretty unaware of him. He played brilliantly and he selection of programs was right up my alley. Perfect music to for the acoustic space of the Chapel. I’ll definitely be keeping my eye on Dale’s upcoming activities. You can hear a bit of his playing and keep up on his activities yourself on his myspace page.