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ISSUE 121 VOL 18 PUBLISHED 4/25/2008

Percussion Ensemble experiments with sounds, instruments

By Meg Granum
Contributing Writer

Friday, April 25, 2008

When you hear the word, "percussion," the first thing that often comes to mind is a drum or cymbals -- things that clang or make big booming sounds.

People associate percussion with things such as rhythm and beat or perhaps even the pulse of a piece of music, which while accurate, don't fully encompass all that percussion is and can be. Rarely do people consider musical tones and melodic line in conjunction with percussion instruments, which is a shame because as evidenced by the St. Olaf Percussion Ensemble recital on April 17th, percussion instruments can do so much more.

The first piece performed by the ensemble, "Woodcuts," incorporated a multitude of colors and beautiful tonalities. Featuring Amanda Thorstad '09 on the marimba, "Woodcuts" showcased the melodic abilities of several different marimbas and drums along with other percussion instruments as they accompanied the lead marimba.

As the piece opened, the different hits of the instruments sounded more like droplets of water as the notes vibrated through the room but then became more obvious as the "chip, chip, chip" sound became articulated. This piece also incorporated an African thumb piano, which, while uncommonly used in traditional western music, added an extra texture and bit of interest to the piece.

While St. Olaf houses many percussion students who perform with the major concert groups, it also has a percussion methods class which many music students elect to take. This class performed the second piece of the evening: the world premiere of "Marching up the Mountain" by class member Eloise Kale '10. This short and sweet composition allowed for many of the different qualities of a multitude of percussion instruments to shine.

"Canticle #1" by Lou Harrison included cow bells, a metal plate and, of course, K-Mart flower pots. As percussion and theory professor David Hagedorn explained, the composer wrote this piece during the Great Depression and because he lived over a Chinese restaurant, he was greatly influenced by the sounds of non-Western music and thus incorporated the sounds he heard into his music.

Though Hagedorn conducted the percussion methods class, student conductors Greg Sylvester '08, Christoph Dundas '08 and Levi Comstock '08 led the other three pieces beautifully. In many traditional cases, it is the demeanor of the performers that initiate the atmosphere before a piece but when Comstock got up to conduct the final number, "Volume Pig" by Gareth Farr, it was he who had the audience chuckling nervously.

While the four performers were setting up Hagedorn insinuated that this was to be a thunderous piece, but the exaggerated and grim sight of Comstock securely placing ear plugs in his ears is what keyed the audience members into the intensity they were about to face. Quite possibly one of the loudest and most exhilarating pieces ever performed in Urness, "Volume Pig" blew the audience away both literally and figuratively.

The performers would periodically yell out "Ha!" and "Eee-yah!" as they kept the lines intensifying and crashing together.

The best part, however, came during a pause when all five people on stage began to strip of their outer most layers before jumping back into the music. The only disappointment of the evening came at the end of this piece. Instead of ending ferociously, as expected, the piece closed on one of the "pitter-patter" sections with marimba.

It did not seem like the most appropriate ending to such an energetic piece. However, "Volume Pig" had everyone ensnared in the music and the recital left all with a greater appreciation of all things called percussive.

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