September 20, 2019
by Various Authors
“The apparent simplicity of execution is revealing of the very high level of understanding of the quartet, the high degree of virtuosity and the kinetic energy that they know how to create on stage…”
“…all the love that the quartet has for what it is playing is evident…”
When in 1933 Edgard Varèse presented his Ionisation, for the first time we realized that the percussion in an orchestra had the ability to be something much more than a simple, so to speak, rhythmic motor. And today, after almost a century and many other composers – including Iannis Xenakis, to whom, moreover, we owe the rediscovery of Varèse in 1958 – the ensembles of solo percussion proliferate, devoted to a mostly twentieth-century and contemporary repertoire.
It is a story that in the Milanese stage of MiTo, at the Elfo-Puccini theater, is intertwined with minimalism, that musical current that revolutionized the compositional conceptions of our recent past, although it was never really true: the four great fathers (Young, Reich, Glass, Riley) came to the same destination from different and independent paths. As always happens with the purest and most spontaneous revolutions there was something in the air that awaited only the right antennas to be picked up.
The author of this extraordinary encounter is the American quartet Third Coast Percussion, which presented itself to the public with a program full of interesting works, never heard before in the old continent and comparing two generations of minimalists. But the highlight around which the whole evening revolves – and with a well-deserved pride on the part of MiTo who contributed to the commission – is the European premiere of Perpetulum, the last composition of Philip Glass written for Third Coast Percussion.
It is a very different Glass from the usual one to which we are accustomed: a work in four movements that flow into each other without pauses, giving life to a warm, variegated and compact music very far from the minimalist technique that here appears only as a patina in the thematic development: there is no shortage of typical Glassian themes, those melodies that seem to have been designed specifically for easy memorization by the listener. However, they do not seem to be the fulcrum of the piece, a fulcrum that seems to reside rather in the polyrhythmic and poly-mythical fury of both the instruments with definite sound (marimba, vibraphone, bells) as well as those with an indefinite sound such as snares, drums, triangles and gongs.
What a contrast to the Madeira River, performed at the beginning of the concert! The latter is a typical Glassian work, in the wake of the recipe that made it known and appreciated; Perpetulum is an act of courage, the paw of an eighty-year-old who, at his first attempt at percussion, wanted to say something different from the usual.
And – but this is pure speculation that should be supported by an analysis of the score – the feeling that emerges from listening to Perpetulum is that Glass has looked precisely at the Varesian Ionisation rather than at the works, for example, of his “minimalist colleague” Steve Reich, one who worked very hard with percussion. Mallet Quartet, composed in 2009, plays on the typical Reichian rhythmic delays, taking advantage of the two marimbas that play the same rhythm at a quarter of a beat, while the two vibraphones develop melodies that chase each other and intertwine as in a Baroque canon. The apparent simplicity of execution is revealing of the very high level of understanding of the quartet, the high degree of virtuosity and the kinetic energy that they know how to create on stage grappling with a work that in the most classic minimalist tradition is static only in appearance.
“Static dynamism”, just like in The Other Side of the River, of the third great minimalist composer host of the evening: Gavin Bryars. Written in 2016 also for Third Coast Percussion, his is a contemplative work, where lush harmonies build an evocative and nostalgic atmosphere. His music, characterized by a slow and constant evolution, always appears to be less suited to concert halls and more suited to places of meditation such as Indian ashrams.
Crushed by the three giants, the two young composers Devonté Hynes (1985) and David Skidmore (1982) show all their deference and their love for minimalism: Hynes’ work, Perfectly Voiceless, does not appear particularly original in following the stylistic elements that Glass and partners set in the 1970s. It should perhaps be judged in the original context in which it was produced, as an intermezzo between two actions of a dance show. However, considering the history of Hynes (aka Blood Orange, one of the most famous and requested rap and pop music producers in circulation, collaborator of Glass and Florence + the Machine, Solange Knowles and many other pop stars), we can say that to be all ‘debut as a “pure” composer, like it. But he still has to find a personal voice that frees him from the cumbersome shadow of the Fathers.
Similarly we could write for the two small works by Skidmore, who is also a member of the quartet: love and devotion for minimalism shines through in his music, as in the performance all the love that the quartet has for what it is playing is evident; but perhaps a leap is still missing that highlights the composer’s personality. Listening to the works of the two young people we doubt that, born as a “break” with respect to official music, after fifty years minimalism is now a sclerotic path. And perhaps even Perpetulum, precisely because of its peculiarity compared to the rest of Glass’s catalog, could be a signal.
In one of the symbolic novels of the Beat Generation a saying appeared: “the old master cannot be taught a new motive”. Third Coast Percussion made it clear to the Milanese listeners how true this is: the old Glass, Reich and Bryars, clearly come out winners from the generational comparison.