Drums along the Pacific

Drums along the Pacific

Early this spring, Seattle’s Cornish College of the Arts put on a four day festival, Drums Along the Pacific, celebrating the music of Henry Cowell, Lou Harrison and John Cage.  While I am usually quite aware of what is happening vis-à-vis new music performance in the Seattle area this one took me completely by surprise. I actually first heard about it a couple of weeks before the festival as a sponsor on my local NPR station.  While I was happy to learn about it I was devastated to find out that it corresponding with some family business that I was not going to be able to work around.  I was free for the first night of the festival and circumstances aligned themselves so that I was able to attend the second day as well.  The third day was four sets of the music of John Cage and it kills me that I wasn’t able to attend that.  Ever since the Vancouver New Music’s Silence: John Cage festival I have become increasingly obsessed with his music and I have found so much of interest and enjoyment.  Even though I have seen performances of the bulk of the Cage pieces they were going to play, it is still a fairly rare event to get to see his music  live. Also they performed Ryoanji which is a piece that I love that I have not yet seen performed. The fourth day featured Gamelan Pacifica performing Cage and Harrison gamelan pieces which I also would have loved to have seen.  Additionally there was a series of presentations on Saturday and Sunday that it was a shame to have missed. The two days I was able to attend were highly interesting and they were important music historically both in the development of contemporary composition in America and as influences on Cages music.

The basic background to this festival was John Cages stint as a professor at Cornish College of the Arts from 1938 to 1940.  It was here that he developed the prepared piano in an attempt to bring the sounds of percussion into confined spaces, for at this phase in his musical development percussion was the focus of his interests.  One could argue that this planted the seeds of much of his later musical development but that is another post.  Percussion was a major interest of many American composers at this point in time, with Henry Cowell being in the vanguard. Percussion music is of course inherently sound oriented and the diversity of sounds available from the basic notion of striking an object is limitless.  Historically percussion was used as punctuation, as a rhythmic device and for sound effects. When you work with percussion on its own there has to be a shift in focus as it must provide all the elements that the music requires.  Cage and Harrison both turned their attention toward percussion in the late 30s inspired by the classes they had taken with Cowell which had introduced them to the sounds of Gamelan, Gagaku, Kulintang and other percussion traditions.  They organized a series of percussion oriented music festivals first at Cornish, then at various Pacific Northwest colleges and finally all up and down the west coast which Henry Cowell dubbed “drums along the pacific”.  Cornish put on this festival in celebration of the seventieth anniversary of these concerts.

While the original “drums along the pacific” concerts inspired this festival they did not exclude the performances to just the featured composers works for percussion.  For these concerts Cornish relied on both local and nationally recognized performers.  Local groups, the Pacific Rim Percussion Quartet and Gamelan Pacifica represented the percussion side of things while  Seattle Chamber Players, NYC pianist Stephen Drury and opera singers John Duykers and Kathryn Weld were brought for the other elements. All of the performances were in Cornish’s Poncho recital hall which is a very nice sounding small theater that was packed on both of the nights that I attended. The stage wasn’t overly large but it was deep and between each piece they’d transfer instruments from backstage to the front and close a curtain behind it.  All in all I found the musicians, the space and the organization of the event top notch.

Thursday March 26th, 2009
Drums Along the Pacific Day 1: The Music of Henry Cowell

Going into this festival it was the music of Henry Cowell that I was least familiar with. I’d heard a few of his pieces here and there and I was aware of his influence on the early music of Cage but I had yet to really explore his oeuvre. This night was to give a nice taste of a number of his musical concerns: songs, of which he wrote nearly two hundred, the string piano, which pioneered inside piano playing, the music of other cultures and of course his percussion works.

The first set of music began with an announcement that the first and last pieces of the program would be swapped which is not reflected if you check out the excellent online program notes.  Also a note of thanks was given out to an antique automotive associate for help in finding period appropriate instruments. The first piece was thus Ostinato Pianissimo performed by the Pacific Rims Percussion Quartet, Stephen Drury, Jarrad Powell, Paul Taub and Adrienne Varner. The pianos were played on the inside (thus “string pianos”) often muted by the performers and were mostly used as additional rhythmic elements  The percussion was hypnotic and driving led by melodic figures on the marimba.  The piece had a driving rhythmic pattern that continued until right before the end in which the tempo changed and all the musicians were playing for a a dense and energetic conclusion.

The stage was cleared of all of the percussion elements leaving only a single piano which Stephen Drury came out to play. He was joined by mezzo-soprano Kathryn Weld for three of Cowell’s songs.  Cowell wrote songs throughout his life many of them virtually lost or buried in obscure publications.  This first set of songs, Sunset, Rest and Night Fliers was interesting in that Drury would use his arm to crush dozens of keys in the lower register emitting  thunderous roar which contrasted strongly against the rather typical operatic singing.  I wasn’t very taken by the  content of these songs, most of them from obscure poets. This trio of songs was followed by a second set of songs based on the poems of Langston Hughes: DemandMoonlight Night: Carmel and Fulfillment. For these the piano was replaced with a trio of flute, clarinet and ‘cello from the Seattle Chamber Players. While the source material was a lot stronger for these, the music was much less interesting; it mainly was used to underscore thematic elements, or echo the melody line of the singer.

Following the songs was what I thought was the highlight of the first set: three pieces for solo piano preformed by Stephen Drury. He began by telling us that “there will be no exultation, hopefully only a program change and not a metaphor”. The first piece, The Tides of Manaunaum, began with massive, often dissonant,  bass clusters generated by the whole hand and forearm but eventually became much more melody driven with a hymn-like character. The following piece, The Banshee, was the first piece Cowell wrote for the string piano, which was played entirely by stroking, rubbing and occasionally plucking the strings  while an assistant kept the sustain pedal down the entire time. This was a wonderfully dreamy piece of overlapped shimmering sounds, rich with overtones and colliding sounds. This was my favorite piece from this night of music. The final solo piano piece, Aolian Harp,  was nearly as engaging, with Drury standing in front of the keyboard playing both the keys and the strings while he worked the sustain pedal.  This piece had a really charming combination of tentative melodic fragments and ghostlike shimmers. The way he worked the pedal would damp the sounds and perhaps was meant to evoke the wind that an aeolian harp depends upon.

The final piece of the first set was Homage to Iran an example of Cowells integration of the music of other cultures into his compositions.  This piece was written for piano and violin and three of its four movements featured a “middle eastern drum” that  in this case looked to me like a djembe. The first movement began with this drum solo sounding ever so much like your typical hippie drum circle. The violin entered with a jaunty melodic line and the two play together for a while until they come to a sudden stop. At that moment the piano starts up and plays for a couple of measures in an equally jaunty manner. The other two join in again and shortly the piano drops out again. The second movement does not feature the drums but retains the poppy character of the previous movement at one point a little rhythmic turn even brought appreciative chuckles from the audience. The third, short movement was just the violin and djembe while the entire trio played in the final movement. This movement was the most energetic, with a much less relaxed and driving rhythm. It had a dervish quality to it, joyful and in constant movement. It ended with a flourish that brought much applause from the audience.  A good way to end a set.

After a short set break in which the percussion instruments were brought back to the stage (this is where my sad cameraphone picture above comes from) setup for Return, which features three percussionists and a “wailer”.  This piece was quite active, with the percussionists changing from item to item as it progressed.  There was a section where there was a lot of bowed metal including a music stand.  The wailer was a no-show until the very end where a member of the audience in the front row let out a long warbling “whoaaaaaaa”. This was followed by a shake of a rattly object to conclude the piece.  The next piece, 26 Simultaneous Mosaics, from 1963 is indeterminate in form, making one wonder if the bi-directional influence between Cage and Cowell continued beyond percussion (Cowell also composed for Cage style prepared piano) though an earlier Cowell piece also allowed for a changeable structure at the group instead of this pieces more variable indeterminacy at the  individual level. This piece for piano, percussion, violin, ‘cello and clarinet made up of  the aforementioned 26 parts which the instrumentalists can play in the order of their choosing thus causing each performance to be unique. In this realization the piece was spacious and meandering with the various mosaics taking on many different characteristics.  A nice piece with hints of romanticism here and there.

We return to songs at this point, this time with tenor John Duykers accompanied by Stephen Drury. The Donkey, The Dream-Bridge and Spring Pools, weren’t too dissimilar from the songs heard earlier again based on published poems the last by Robert Frost.  Unlike the earlier piano accompanied songs, the music for these was on the whole uninteresting.  Rather staid and for the most part simply underscoring what were rather traditional vocal melody lines.  John Duykers though was quite charismatic, opening up by addressing the audience informing us that there would be no changes to the program. This laugh-line was of course in response to all the program change announcements that had preceded him. After these three songs he then introduced the final set of songs, Three anti-modernist Songs. These songs, written while Cowell was in prison on morals charges, were based poems sent to newspapers collected in Nicolas Slonimsky’s,  Music Since 1900.  These songs were hilarious:

A sharp, where you'd expect a natural,
A natural, where you'd expect a sharp;
No rule observed but the exceptional,
And then (first happy thought!) bring in a Harp!

No bar a sequence to the bar behind,
No bar a prelude to the next that comes;
Which follows which you really needn't mind --
But (second happy thought!) bring in your drums!

For harmonies, let wild discords pass;
Let key be blent with key in hideous hash;
Then (for last happy thought!) bring in your Brass!
And clang, clash, clatter -- clatter, clang and clash!

As the song progressed, song in a declamatory style, the piano music would underscore the sentiments expressed by the author – strumming sounds for the harp, crashes for the drums and brass and so on. Definitely the most entertaining of the songs, read the full text to all three on this site.

The final piece (formerly intended to be the initial piece) was Pulse written in 1939 for the original Drums Along the Pacific tours. This piece is for five percussionists each whom have two sets of three similar sounding objects.  The sixth performer moves throughout the ensemble and damps instruments presumably in a scored manner.  This piece, like the first piece, utilized melodic percussive elements to setup a rhythmically structured melodic line. While it was marimba in that piece that drove the melody in this one it was tuned drums.  Other players added more accents to this structure using their blocks, gongs, bowls and brake drums (another Cage invention that Cowell utilized). I had definitely noticed the “dampening” performer but it was hard from the audience to see what he was actually doing, it wasn’t until I read the program notes that I figured that out.  This piece had a real driving rhythm and you could clearly sense the influence of gamelan and other Asian percussion traditions in its nature. I thought this was the most engaging and successful of the Cowell percussion pieces played, a really enjoyable piece.

A really nice night of music, most of which I was entirely unfamaliar with.  Prior to this I’d heard some of his string piano and songs and it was the later that rather turned me off to his music.  I’m definitely interested in exploring more, first with more of his solo piano music and then through some of his percussion works. In general I tend to prefer to go right to the source (gamelan, gagaku, etc) as opposed to musicians “inspired” by such musics, but I think there is something in Cowells mix of traditional musics and modernism that is pretty appealing.  As this ended up being quite long, I’ll report on day 2 tomorrow.