One of the major innovations of 20th-century music has been the liberation of percussion from its limited role as orchestral jewelry. Californian composer Henry Cowell was one of the first to write for percussion independently, in a chamber music setting. He, John Cage, and Lou Harrison made up a sort of West Coast school of percussion experimenters. Cowell's 1934 Ostinato pianissimo is an early classic, with a place in the percussion repertory comparable to Haydn's Op. 20 string quartets in their genre.
Seattle Creative Orchestra and Pacific Rims
Shorecrest Performing Arts Center,
Later, in his 1958 Concerto for Percussion and Orchestra, Cowell brought the percussion from the back of the stage to the front. To open its third season, the Seattle Creative Orchestra is including this concerto in a concert spotlighting percussion. The soloists for this concerto and for the program's two other percussion works are Gunnar Folsom, Paul Hansen, Matthew Kocmieroski, and Robert Tucker, who for a couple years now have been giving brilliant performances under the name Pacific Rims.
Christian Asplund composed his Symphony no. 4 just for them and the SCO. The piece is scored for a large number of traditional orchestral percussion instruments, mostly pitched—marimba, vibraphone, xylophone, and the like. But Asplund also asks the percussionists to assemble their own battery, specifying only range (high, middle, or low) and material: ceramic, skin, metal, or paper.
"I've been wanting to write a percussion piece using paper for a long time," says Asplund. Rather than exclusively choosing instruments of conventional sonorities, he relished the challenge of writing for a material with "the least sonic potential." SCO manager Christopher Shainin reports that in rehearsals so far, the Rims have been doing some ear-opening things with fast-food bags. This symphony, like much of Asplund's music, will explore violent contrasts—loud, unrelenting repetitive sections vs. long-tone string-glissando passages. His background in composing opera, and his taste for unsettling yet lyrical subjects, suggests that Asplund's concerto will also have a dark theatrical edge.
A work even more indeterminate and improvisatory is Key Ransone's A Tangible Bridge for four singers (Courtney Aguirre, Lara Candland, Patrick Barber, and Will Dean) and orchestra. To start, Ransone provided only a text (Plato) and a verbal description of the intended effects. He and the musicians together are working out the piece's details in exploratory rehearsals. With lots of cross-cueing and close listening among musicians, expect an electric atmosphere—the work "composed" before your ears. Fourth on the program is Ghost Dance, one of a set of five works collectively titled Cathedral by Bucknell University composer William Duckworth. The works are inspired by five spiritual milestones in human history—in this case, the 1889 founding of the Native American Ghost Dance religion. The work's hallmark, Shainin suggests, is its energy and motorized rhythm, a natural language for Duckworth, whose music Bucknell colleague Kyle Gann has given the label "post-minimalist."