American Music for Percussion, Vol. 1by New England Conservatory Percussion Ensemble
This album has five pieces written solely for percussion ensembles and features a tour of composers and their ideas on how to use tone color, rhythm, and even silence to create melodies based mostly in percussion. Joan Tower's "DNA" begins with silence, progresses to rhythms on bells and the symbol, and then adds wood blocks for timbre. The wood blocks present what could almost be called a theme, with a pentatonic-sounding pattern. Tower certainly has a good sense of timbre in her orchestration for percussion, perhaps the result of her having lived in South America as a child. This is a visceral piece, one in which the listener can truly feel the rhythms. Felicia Sandler's "Pulling Radishes" is less accessible, though it is cleverly composed around patterns involving the number 45. Schuller's "Grand Concerto" is fairly inaccessible, for it has very little apparent structure, and little use of timbre, save some moments here and there, such as in its joyously cacophonous cascade ending with its jazz echoes. One cannot help but ask why he did not choose to compose the piece more in this vein, instead of in the way he did (which sounds rather like children let loose with instruments). The highlights of this album are Jennifer Higdon's "Splendid Wood" and Robert X. Rodríguez's "El día de los muertos." "Splendid" is indeed splendid; it features three marimbas played by six musicians, creating a textured, musically rich atmosphere that is played with such accuracy and motion that the listener cannot help but feel carried away into its world. After much motion, Higdon leads the listener to a place of calm, and then quickens the tempo into a blooming atmosphere from the marimbas. There are echoes of Terry Riley or Steve Reich now and then, but this is clearly Higdon's own work. It is certainly a rare treat to hear such an ensemble. The most programmatic of the pieces is "El día" (the composer's notes explain the story), in which the dead are awakened by children and then celebrate with the living before returning to their graves. One can clearly hear the breeze blowing in the cemetery, the sparkling bells that awaken the spirits, and a folk melody that seems to be buried underneath the music. It all feels rather like an odd children's fairytale world, full of fantasy and whimsy, which is Rodríguez's gift to the listener through his skillful orchestration. In sum, there are enough exciting musical experiences on this album to make it a worthwhile addition. ~ V. Vasan
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The New England Conservatory is the oldest independent music school in the country, and their percussion ensemble has begun a wonderful series of recordings of percussion works by living American composers. Tuned and untuned instruments are used in these five works (the first four are single-movement pieces, the last is a four-movement work for percussion and keyboards). All of the compositions are unique to this disc, so no need to worry about duplicate recordings of any of these remarkable pieces. The second volume of the series will be released only a month after this disc. 'El día de los muertos' by Rodríguez was especially intriguing. Prepare yourself if you have the volume turned up - the dynamics change throughout. The CD was expertly engineered, and anyone listening in headphones will get a great listening experience!
"American Music for Percussion, vol. 1" with the New England Conservatory Percussion Ensemble is a terrific start to what should be a great series! There are hundreds of ensemble works out there for multiple percussion, many of which were intended for collegiate or instructional use. The best thing about this set is that these are high quality works written by "name" composers whose output is normally concert hall or orchestral material. Joan Tower's "DNA" for a quintet playing multiple instruments, largely unpitched, is so titled because of its structure that relies on pairings of instruments and of motives that weave and blend to form larger structures. It is a very active and exciting work that becomes quite complex and really tests the ensemble. Felicia Sandler is a new name for me and her "Pulling Radishes" which takes its title from a one line Japanese poem. Sandler treats the concept of the poem in somewhat wry fashion using drum sticks as a metaphor for radishes. Her use of the exact number of letters in the poem - 45 - as an organizational device is also quite clever and helps to create the various rhythmic motives found in the piece. Not being a percussionist, I admit to liking - and understanding - pitch and melody and pieces where pitch rows and tonal centers of any sort abound. Therefore, I especially enjoyed Jennifer Higdon's "Splendid Wood", a completely buoyant and propulsive work for three marimbas with six players. Higdon calls this a "celebration" of the splendor of the marimba and the timbre of the wood percussion. A very engaging and fun work to listen to! "El dia de los muertos" by Robert Rodriguez does have its roots in the folk music and atmosphere surrounding the "Day of the Dead" Through the use of some authentic folk melodies and their permutations, Rodriguez creates a captivating, atmospheric sound throughout. The biggest piece in this set is the Gunther Schuller "Grand Concerto" for percussion and keyboards. This large, four movement work uses eight players, plus a harp, celesta and piano Its scale and impulse reminded me a bit of the Bartok "Concerto" for two pianos and percussion - only bigger! This is an exciting and truly demanding work All of these works, to me, were new and in a genre that I am familiar with but I found it terrific! The NEC Ensemble under the direction of Frank Epstein is very skilled and clearly puts energy and heart into their playing. I am anxious to hear additional collections in this series and - once again - applaud Naxos for delivering great music that might not otherwise get recorded to our attention!