Davis Square was a ghost town on Monday night, but that didn’t keep a small but enthusiastic crowd from gathering in the Davis Square Theater in Somerville to hear the Boston Percussion Group’s “Ragas, Reich and Radiohead.” The first un-interrupted-half interleaved works by Joseph Schwantner and Robert Aldridge among the three parts of Steve Reich’s Music for Pieces of Wood. Reich’s work is early, having been written in 1973 in the wake of Drumming. It stands with Clapping Music (with which it shares a third of its material) as the purest, simplest expression of his minimalist aesthetic. Written for five players, each of its three parts is built out of the same process: two players begin, one marking a steady pulse, the other playing a brief rhythmic motive. One by one the others begin playing the motive as well, but rhythmically displaced, and built up one note at a time. This simple method creates music of surprising density and complexity with an infectious beat. The entrances are always surprising, as is the way the partial motives work against the established texture. Reich’s music is best heard live: the processes are often quite difficult to keep going, and the players cannot falter for a moment without the piece collapsing, so there’s a sense of tension and suspension in the air. The five members of BPEG (Brian Calhoon, Jonathan Hess, Dane Palmer, Matt Sharrock and Greg Simonds) were almost absolutely perfect. The few times when an attack was just a touch early added a sense of danger: that tiniest fraction of a second of imprecision could be heard as a threat to the communal effort needed to support the work. Reich’s music often gives the listener the sense that he is observing a unique musical community; the organizational simplicity combined with the extreme concentration needed binds the players together. Officially written for five pairs of claves, the BPEG used claves only for the steady pulse; the other players struck what looked to be pieces of 1×6 pine boards, all with a slightly different pitch, giving the experience both a wider range of timbre and an appealing rusticity.
Joseph Schwantner is best known for orchestral works with evocative titles and vivid instrumental colors. Black Anemones, had both qualities despite minimal forces. Adapted by Dane Palmer from a song originally for piano and soprano, here it was performed by Palmer on marimba with guest artist Lawren Hill singing a somewhat lurid poem by Agueda Pizarro (“Mother, you watch me sleep…/You walk with silver lions/and wait to estrange me/deep in the rug/covered with sorrow…”). The basement space of the Davis Square Theater is exceedingly dry, but Hill’s dark-hued tone had more than enough presence, and she gave flexible and suave reading of the text. The marimba part was filled with undulating figures that shifted color and rhythm to match the soprano. Palmer played with grace and discretion, creating a subtle rippling that supported and gently urged the vocal line forward
The other piece, Robert Aldridge’s threedance, never quite came together. The composer might be known to you through his opera Elmer Gantry, which won a couple of Grammys; this is my first encounter with his work. Threedance is for violin, marimba and tabla, and appears to obliquely emulating the texture and processes of a raga: In this performance, the three parts are filled with high-energy rhythmic motives, driven mostly by the tabla player (Hess), supported by the marimba (Sharrock). The violin, played by guest Lilit Hartunian, plays above the rhythms in phrases that return again and again to the same material. It was all very busy and the surface was attractive; the percussion was expert and vivid, but the effect was disconnected, as if the players couldn’t quite hear each other. The room might be partly to blame, as it devoured Hartunian’s tone, especially up high.
The second half opened with Toru Takemitsu’s Rain Tree, which explored sound colors typical of the composer, here executed on two marimbas (Palmer and Calhoon), a vibraphone (Simonds), and augmented small chimes. The predominantly gentle piece focused on reverberation and attack in gently delineated sections, beginning and returning with fragile music on the chimes. BPEG made the choice to use the all-color LEDs available in the theater to wash the stage with saturated hues. They changed colors as the sections of the piece changed, a decision that seemed heavy handed compared to the subtlety fashioned by Takemitsu. The performance was luminous enough on its own, full of shading and detail. It never lulled—it engaged and calmed.
The second movement, “Story,” from John Cage’s Living Room Music came next. Written during Cage’s early fascination with percussion, the work is written for four players who are asked in the first and third movements to make sounds using the room they are in. “Story” takes a brief piece of prose and turns in into a spoken-word percussion piece. A lot of creativity is stuffed into its relatively brief timespan, with catchy phrases and s-sounds used as cymbals. It had been previously recorded by Hess, Calhoon, Sharrock and Palmer and was used as a cover for the change from Takemitsu to the final work. I’ve heard Cage’s music used this way before; Alarm Will Sound has “performed” one of his environmental works by putting contact microphones on stage while moving around chairs and percussion. I’ve tried playing it before with friends; it’s trickier than it sounds. As with the Reich, part of the charm and interest of Living Room Music is having it happen in front of you and I felt disappointed not to get to see it performed live. However, the recorded performance lacked nothing in execution, and struck just the right note of deadpan so that Cage’s systematic breaking apart of the text hovered on the edge of comedy. There was some post-production distortion and panning added to the recording by Hess, which wasn’t necessary but didn’t detract from the effect.
The concert finished with some nifty piece of ventriloquism, BPEG’s arrangement of Radiohead’s Kid A. In the fully acoustic rendition of the heavily processed song, the five percussionists joined by Hartunian, evinced enough professional panache that the sight of the drum set player simultaneously playing kazoo was not at all comical. I’ve never quite understood the popular success of the pleasant-enough tune, which is neither experimental enough to seriously challenge the listener nor catchy enough to whistle. The range and skill of the players impressed, but on balance the programming left one feeling a little undernourished. One can look to May for something more substantial, when BPEG promises a house concert including premieres by Thomas Oboe Lee and Daniel T. Louis.