Percussion on mode

Grant Chu Covell

[August 2015.]

Mode specializes in Cage but also has strong percussion inclinations. You can’t go wrong with any of these four. Mode’s expansion into videos means that Save Percussion Theater and the Stockhausen release present a more complete perspective than audio alone.


Save Percussion Theater.” Georges APERGHIS: Les guetteurs de sons (1981)1; Le corps à corps (1978-79)2. Mauricio KAGEL: Dressur (1977)3; L’art bruit: solo for two (1995)4. Vinko GLOBOKAR: Toucher (1973)5; ?Corporel (1985)6. Javier ALVAREZ: Temazcal (1984)7. Jean-Pierre DROUET: Variations sur un texte de Victor Hugo (1991)8. Aiyun Huang1,2,4,5,6,7,8, Diego Espinosa1,4, Sandra Joseph1,8, Ben Duinker3, Eric Derr3, Parker Bert3, Shawn Mativetsky8, Fernando Rocha8 (perc). mode 242 (1 DVD) (

Huang (re)introduces a particular genre of percussion music, works written for Trio Le Cercle (Jean-Pierre Drouet, Willy Coquillat and Gaston Sylvestre). Combining traditional performance with vocals and often highly scripted actions, the result may be opaque without French fluency, but the energy and imagination are indisputable. These films use close-ups, overlays and subtitles, so that the DVD experience is far richer than a live one. The entire program exceeds two hours.

Aperghis’ Les guetteurs de sons establishes the genre. Three drummers play, pantomime and talk. We see drum strokes without sound, and sometimes sounds appear to originate from motionless players. The script is about actions and reactions. Le corps à corps (a solo written for Drouet) involves a vocalizing percussionist with a zarb. The score requires infrequent glancing to one side as if astonished. In contrast to other performers such as Françoise Rivalland, Huang’s surprise is present via a split screen throughout, but until she reaches for it at the end, it’s not clear what it’s there for.

Globokar’s Toucher is a solo for speaking percussionist. Here a vivid Huang delivers excerpts from Brecht’s story of Galileo. Vowels in the text are converted to percussion sounds, so the performer plays and speaks two concurrent variations. ?Corporel requires no instruments. Huang must rub, tap, slap and literally play herself: “… a sonata for clavicle rather than clavichord,” says Steven Schick in the notes.

Kagel’s Dressur is an elaborate trio. The players work exclusively with wooden objects such as marimba, wood blocks, castanets and maracas, but there are also chairs, sticks, blocks of wood, clogs, and as we expect from Kagel, elaborate choreography as the percussionists assist and interfere with each other. The score indicates 44 instruments, but in this video there look to be more. The title, the central circular platform and various motions suggest dressage. L’art bruit is less intricate. The “solo for two” actually has one musician and a silent assistant who brings objects and instruments to the solo performer. The piece requires a pre-recorded tape here satisfied with a record.

Two bonus tracks are hardly diminutive. Alvarez’s Temazcal isn’t part of the Trio Le Cercle’s repertoire, but as a piece for percussionist playing complex maraca patterns along with tape, the work is greatly enhanced seeing Huang create it. Drouet’s Variations ask for four players. It looks to be the zaniest, comfortably wearing its humor. Starting with drums, the quartet must sing and swivel on stools. Eventually, they use their elbows, flamenco dance, and simultaneously play on the same marimba (eight-handed) sometimes from beneath the bars.

mode_243 mode_272

John CAGE: Third Construction (1941); Second Construction (1940); First Construction [in Metal] (1939)*; Trio (1936); Quartet (1935); Living Room Music (1940). Third Coast Percussion: Owen Clayton Condon, Robert Dillon, Peter Martin, David Skidmore; Gregory Beyer*, Ross Karre* (perc). mode 243 (1 CD or 1 DVD) (

John CAGE: five versions of ¢Composed Improvisation (1990); Child of Tree (1975); One4 (1990); Branches (1976). D’Arcy Philip Gray (perc, guit). mode 272 (1 CD) (

Mode’s identity is inextricably linked with Cage. Approximately one out of every six releases is devoted to the American composer. Volumes 45 and 50 in the ongoing series offer the second and third installment of percussion works. Cage’s early percussion-ensemble items display a composer in discovery (rhythms aligning to unseen grids in Quartet, the gentle wooden reverberations in Trio) on his way towards mastery (the gallant Third Construction). Cage had been searching for a method to marry micro- and macro-structures, and create sturdy relationships between sound and structure. I admit other Construction recordings are stuck in the ear, e.g., Nexus’ Third Construction (Nexus 10251) and First Construction on the 25-Year Retrospective Concert set (Wergo WER 6247-2). Compared to the admittedly wacky Nexus, Third Coast Percussion plays with less desperation and intensity. It’s easy to cut corners in Cage, and the percussion inherently permits flexibility in sound choices. Third Coast Percussion takes its job seriously; I suspect older recordings are actually sloppier.

I’m always surprised that Living Room Music employs the Construction’s cellular techniques but creates such banal results. Third Coast combats the experimental piece’s inherent goofiness and realizes this performance in an actual house (the Ruth Van Sickle Ford house in Aurora, IL, designed by Bruce Goff). The ensemble “plays” the home’s physical surfaces and decoration. Perhaps reflecting this piece’s corniness, within Melody, the third of four movements, we hear Apple Macintosh chimes.

Volume 50 introduces fragile works whose magic nearly vanishes upon explanation. Child of Tree and Branches were realized together: Branches is Child of Tree played three times concurrently. The works require amplified plant materials (see cover). Here are some of the pieces that famously include amplified cactus. A thick-skinned performer determines the works’ events and durations following Cage’s instructions. We hear small gestures writ large, and are encouraged to listen close.

The ¢Composed Improvisation (the score shows the slash through the big C, but here on the web we take a shortcut) appears in five versions to reflect the multiple instruments: snare drum, the uniquely shaped Steinberger bass guitar, and multiple one-sided drums with or without jangles. Two multi-tracked versions combine three solo versions. Like the pieces for amplified plants, the performer must follow instructions to create an individual performance score specifying durations and events. For One4 Cage provided durations and events, but asks the performer to supply the instruments. There are “long notes” in this piece: tremolos or similar repeated actions that permit the chosen percussion object to sound for many seconds.


Complete Early Percussion Works.” Karlheinz STOCKHAUSEN: Refrain (1959)1; Schlagtrio (1952; rev. 1973)2; Kontakte (1958-60)3; Zyklus (1959)4; Mikrophonie (1964)5. red fish blue fish5, Pavlos Antoniadis1, Steven Schick1,3,4, Justin DeHart2, Fabio Oliveira2 (perc), James Avery1,3, Katalin Lukács2 (pno). mode 274/75 (2 CDs or 1 DVD) (

This enviable collection of Stockhausen’s percussion works reveals the composer’s deepening exploration of group actions and how music may result. Notation, while specific, is really an intermediary or starting point. Mikrophonie has but one instrument, a giant tamtam around which six players create sounds, capture them with microphones and manipulate the results real time. The video suggests an untranslatable ceremony or scientists busying at an intricate experiment.

The oldest piece here, Schlagtrio, is the collection’s most straightforward, prescribing conventional techniques. A pianist joins with two percussionists playing six timpani modestly supplemented with a few triangles, bongos and crotales. Even when it becomes abstract, the pointillist but constant pulse unleashes great energy. Motion is less predictable in the other trio, Refrain. The players also shout syllables suggesting a pagan activity or audience interference. This score has a particular design: The notated music revolves around a circle. The group agrees consistently to align a superimposed rotating strip which determines progress and activity.

Kontakte contains a great, visceral tape part sometimes heard on its own, here presented in a new high-resolution transfer from the original analogue tapes. The sounds remain blippy and reflective of mid-20th-century equipment. Even without the antique sinusoidal and transistor qualities, the work is still bold. Zyklus might please more if it were completely unpitched. I find the marimba and vibraphone glissandos distract from what is otherwise abstract and non-sequential. Schick has memorized a preferred way through the “start anywhere” 16-page cycle.

I hope a video release of Mantra is in the works.


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