Saturday, May 04, 2013

Percussion Ensemble, World Percussion Group & Calypso Band Concert Notes by Eugene Novotney

As the centerpiece of this concert, the Humboldt State Percussion Ensemble will be performing an extremely revolutionary work by Edgard Varese entitled Ionisation. Written in 1931, Ionisation is widely considered to be the most important composition in the entire history of the percussion ensemble repertoire.

 Featuring 14 performers playing over 47 different instruments, the sound mass and texture fields heard in the piece are both colorful and dense. As well as a grand piano and all of the standard instruments of the percussion family, Varese also calls for Afro-Cuban instruments such as maracas, guiros, cow bells and bongos, and exotic instruments such as gongs, sleigh bells, castagnettes, a glockenspiel, a lion's roar, two anvils, and, perhaps the most unique of all, two hand crank sirens. The low-pitched siren used by the Humboldt State Percussion Ensemble is the exact Sterling type II hand crank fire siren that Varese specified in his 1931 score. The high-pitched siren is an authentic combat field siren issued by the US military and made by the Federal Electric Company in Chicago, Illinois.

 Often considered a radical futurist, Varese claims that he was interested in sound for sound's sake alone, and for that reason, considered all sounds as valid. As early as the 1930s, Varese heard the sound of the siren as a result of the modern world, and as such, he used it as a musical instrument in his composition. Many scholars have noted that Varese’s ideas and experiments with sound, which predated the invention of the first synthesizer by almost 40 years, had an extensive effect on the development of electronic music.

The Percussion Ensemble will also be presenting one of John Cage’s most famous and innovative works from the 1940’s entitled  Second Construction. This highly experimental work calls for percussionists playing traditional Western percussion instruments combined with exotic instruments from around the world, including Balinese Gongs, Indian Oxen Bells, African Pod-Rattles, and Chinese Temple Bells. One of the more unusual instruments employed is Cage’s infamous “water gong,” where the percussionist submerges a Chinese “Feng” gong in water to alter and manipulate its pitch.

 Also featured in this work is Cage’s famous “Prepared-Piano,” an instrument created by taking a classical grand piano and adding nuts, bolts, washers, rubber, and other objects to the piano strings and sound-board. The effect creates an instrument that sounds more like an electronic synthesizer than an acoustic piano, and the effect is both stunning and surprising.

Another special feature on the first half of the show will be a fascinating performance of the Mr. Bungle hit,
Ma Meeshka Mow Skwoz, composed by HSU alumni and Mr. Bungle founding member, Trey Spruance. Ma Meeshka Mow Skwoz was featured on the 1995 Mr. Bungle album entitled, Disco Volante, and soon became a cult classic. This arrangement calls for 18 percussionists playing almost every percussion instrument imaginable, and will be sure to bring down the house.

 Additional works on the concert include Nigel Westlake’s Kalabash, Michael Udow’s Strike, and Austin Wrinkle’s Wart Hog #3. The first half of the show will end with a suite of traditional Mandeng Drumming from West Africa, and a special presentation by the HSU World Percussion Group of the the folkloric “Bantu” music of Cuba.

 The second half of the show will feature the festive dance music of the Humboldt State Calypso Band. One of Humboldt County’s favorite ensembles, the Calypso Band will feature several high-energy dance compositions from the Caribbean in their set. The Humboldt State Calypso Band prides itself in maintaining an accurate and authentic connection to the roots of the steel band movement and the innovative musicians of Trinidad, the island on which this unique percussion phenomenon was born. The band is dedicated to the performance of traditional and contemporary music from the Caribbean, Africa, Brazil, Cuba and the United States. The band has just returned from their spring tour, where they played to packed houses and standing ovation audiences in Fresno and Los Angeles.

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