On Tuesday evening, percussionist Caleb Herron, who is the founding artistic director of new music ensemble Chamber Cartel, performed a solo recital that primarily focused on music involving the use of gongs, at Georgia Perimeter College’s Cole Auditorium in Clarkston.
Herron says he instantly fell in love with the sound of Thai gongs when Chamber Cartel performed Hans Thomalla’s “The Brightest Form of Absence” this past June, a work that called for many Thai gongs among an array of percussion instruments.
He opened the recital with “Meditation on the Eve of John Cage’s 100th Birthday for Five Tuned Gongs” (2012) by Anthony Donofrio, who was introduced to Cage’s “Litany for the Whale” and was struck by its simplicity: five diatonic pitches placed in different orders using chance operations. With the Cage centennial in mind, Donofrio composed a piece of similar simplicity for five tuned gongs. The gongs used in the work’s premiere, by percussionist Bill Salak, were not all the same type of gong. For this performance Herron used four Thai gongs plus a Javanese gong as the lowest.
In great contrast was “Quilyaun” (1998) by John Luther Adams, the Alaskan composer who received this year’s Pulitzer Prize for Music for his symphonic work, Become Ocean. Herron was joined by Chamber Cartel percussionists Paul Stevens, Chris Gravely and Brandon Dodge for “Quilyaun,” performed on four large bass drums positioned around the auditorium, surrounding the audience within the intensive drumming.
The original version for solo performer, written for percussionist Scott Deal, employs an electronic digital delay to create the equivalent of multiple parts. This performance at Cole was completely acoustic, but because of the large space between the performers, the reverberance and darkness of the hall would have made it impossible for them to stay together, so the performers used a click track (an electronic metronome, heard only by the musicians). Chamber Cartel member Thomas Avery, a guitarist and composer, assisted the quartet with that technology.
The mostly thunderous 15-minute score allowed for some softer passages punctuated here and there with loud strokes of a mallet, and acceleration and deceleration among the parts playing a significant role. The performers gave the piece a powerful visceral performance. In a foreshadowing, Chamber Cartel keyboardist Amy O’Dell had handed out chartreuse foam earplugs to the audience in advance of the recital.
There was a return to the focus on gongs with “Having Never Written a Note for Percussion” by James Tenney for solo tam-tam, otherwise known as a chau gong, the most familiar kind of gong to Western symphonic audiences. Tenney was among the early American minimalist scene as well as a founding contributor to the “sound art” movement, where lines between music composition and conceptual art were often blurred.
“Having Never Written a Note for Percussion” is the final installment (number 10) of Tenney’s Postal Pieces, short compositions written on backs of postcards. The score only instructs the performer to perform a long roll on a single note from quadruple pianissimo through to quadruple fortissimo, then decrescendo back to silence, basically a singular dynamic arch that’s meant to be very long. Listening to the sonic process proved interesting. The overtones the instrument generated in sympathetic resonance with the hall emphasized one or more harmonic partial at any given moment, creating at times an almost melodic interplay between them.
The final piece on the program was “Karakurenai” (2007) by Andy Akiho. The work was written for solo “prepared tenor pan” (steel drum), but the instrumentation is variable. It has been performed as a duo — as in a YouTube video by percussionist Ian Rosenbaum on marimba and the composer on steel drum. Herron first played “Karakurenai” as part of a trio with Rosenbaum and violinist Domenic Salerni earlier this year at Eyedrum.
In Tuesday’s iteration, Akiho’s piece was again a solo. The spirit of the piece, says Herron, encourages the performer to manipulate the sound sources for each hand. Herron used small Thai gongs laid flat on a foam pad for the left hand part. The right-hand part was played on an array of crotales (also known as antique cymbals) but struck with a mallet that is softer than normal, affording a kind of dreaminess to the intimate tapestry of sound.