Saturday, February 18, 2006

Free Percussion

Monday I saw the Juilliard Percussion Ensemble perform a free concert titled "Rhythm and Process" at Alice Tully Hall. I never knew how much I liked percussion until last May, when K and I saw Evelyn Glennie and Steven Schick in LA. I wrote about it then, back when I was a better blogger.

I loved the Juilliard show. The pieces were varied, the young players were amazing, and two hours of hypnotic rhythms hit me like a ctrl-alt-del. Among the highlights: Lukas Ligeti's "Pattern Transformation" (written when he was 16!) and the closer, Wolfgang Rihm's "Tutuguri VI," a powerful half hour or so of six people whanging away at bass drums, gongs, tom-toms, and wood blocks the size of a dishwasher and a hot tub.

Midway through, an elderly couple decided to leave. They apparently didn't think much of the music or the audience either, for they chatted loudly while inching down the aisle. Had the percussion been nonstop, noone would have noticed, but Rihm wrote a lot of silence between the thunder. And it was in these gaps that the hall filled with the loud gabbling of a senior moment. They looked the part, too, classic "longhairs." He wore horn-rimmed glasses and a black beret over stringy gray locks, and her coat was a cheery faded pink. They eventually made their way out, and Gotterdammerung regained its power.

By the cataclysmic end, after about ten minutes of mind-altering, pounding violence, all six percs laid down their mallets and started whooshing and shushing cymbals together. Foreshadowing the likelihood that, for all their versatility and power, they'll spend the lion's share of their careers waiting 40 minutes a night to smack a pair of brass plates together.

Underground Music

As any subway rider knows, busking is everywhere these days. I've seen two Chinese guys on a single train platform coaxing howls from erhu's (a Chinese string instrument). The seven-man Peruvian panpipe ensemble is a commonplace now in the larger stations, as are the guy hitting buckets, the girl with a violin, Mr. Sax, and of course, the singing guitarist. Last night, changing trains at 34th Street, I heard an unfamiliar percussive blend in Herald Square's underground echo chamber. Source? Two graying guys playing hammered dulcimer, congas, and reindeer bell anklets. The crowd was thin and spread out -- keeping their distance -- but the upended drum case nearly brimmed with greenbacks. I walked past, stopped, listened, walked back, looked at the CDs, reached for a dollar, and then decided to buy a CD. I'm on a percussion jag, remember? The dulcimerist opened his eyes and asked if I needed change. I did. The music stopped as he found a ten and I thought again, as noted last August in these pages, "The very act of enjoying something destroys it."

The two guys, Paul and Marc Mueller, form the core of Mecca Bodega, and "Skin," the CD I bought, is their seventh. I'd seen their name associated with former Soul Coughing singer M. Doughty, who sang on the soundtrack they did for the HBO movie "Subway Stories." Mecca Bodega have played at Lincoln Center, they were onstage at the revived Woodstock in 1994, and they seem to hit the regional festival circuit pretty consistently, but there they were, two accomplished percussionists busking on a Friday night. The artist's life. Maybe they went to Juilliard.

I really should learn a trade.

Meanwhile, the CD is a winner. Parts are a little New Age-y for my tastes, but big tribal throwdowns balance out the yoga studio moments. You can order your own copy at the website and help keep these guys off the streets. Or out from under them.


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