April 25, 2019
by InfoDad Team
Minimalist music would be more readily dismissible if it did not occasionally stop taking itself so seriously. But give credit to Philip Glass, a master of the form: although much of what he has created sounds like New Age-y background music (which is readily dismissible), Glass often proffers a glimmer, or more than a glimmer, of amusement and cleverness that sets his work apart from similar material by other composers. Such is the case with Perpetulum, Glass’ first-ever work for percussion ensemble – and one whose portmanteau title (“perpetual” plus “pendulum”) gives a pleasant hint of its structure and approach, and of the fact that it is quite an enjoyable piece that does not include any deep emotional or intellectual material or expect major analysis from the audience.
Third Coast Percussion, which commissioned Perpetulum, is an avant-garde group that also does not take itself too seriously (at least not all the time), and the pairing of these percussionists with this music is exceptionally apt. Perpetulum is in three movements plus an extended and very interesting three-minute cadenza; the work as a whole runs about 22 minutes and, like much of Glass’ music and minimalist music in general, is hard to pay attention to for its entirety, since its endless swells, arpeggios and repetitive themes (and non-themes) quickly blend into each other. But the character of percussion, especially keyboards such as marimba and xylophone contrasted with drums and similar instruments, is such that the sound itself provides variety in Perpetulum in a way that keeps the work interesting – which it would not be to nearly the same extent if played by, say, a string quartet.
Orange Mountain Music, Glass’ own label, offers Perpetulum as part of a fascinating (if rather uneven) two-CD collection of percussion works, most of the rest of which were created by Third Coast Percussion members themselves. The only work by an “outsider,” Gavin Bryars’ The Other Side of the River, is the least-interesting piece here, going on as long as Perpetulum but lacking the cleverness and variability-within-sameness that make the Glass opus intriguing. The longest work on this release, though, is neither by Glass nor by Bryars but by David Skidmore. Aliens with Extraordinary Abilities runs 35 minutes and takes up the whole of the first disc in a series of seven sketches with such intriguing titles as “Torched and Wrecked,” “Don’t Eat Your Young,” and “Things May Be Changing (But Probably Not).” The use of titles of this sort is typical in contemporary music and often takes the place of genuine cleverness in the music itself; but not here. These are pieces that take Third Coast Percussion through many paces and many pacings, showcasing the instrumental complement in a wide variety of sound mixtures, tempos and rhythms. It is as interesting in its way as Perpetulum is in Glass’ way.
Two shorter works fill out the recording nicely, and both show how members of Third Coast Percussion take their music-making seriously but do not seem to take themselves seriously all the time: Peter Martin’s BEND is relentlessly bouncy and upbeat, while Robert Dillon’s Ordering-instincts has a kind of witty insistency about it that comes through very well. Listening to this entire release straight through may not be the best idea – an hour and a half of percussion ensemble is a bit much – but by and large, the individual pieces are worth hearing on their own and worth returning to repeatedly.