Stereo is King @ City of Sounds Festival

The percussion department is always busy doing something, whether it is putting on a concert for schools using everything you would find in the cupboard under the stairs to travelling to Brazil to train with one of the country’s top samba schools. June 20th sees them take part in the final week of the City of Sounds Festival performing classics by Cage and Reich alongside new works by Bates and Norman in what will be a rhythmic and sonic feast.

Birmingham Conservatoire percussion students and Sophie Hastings (Head of World Percussion) in Brazil

Birmingham Conservatoire percussion students and Sophie Hastings (Head of Drum Kit, Rhythm and World Percussion) in Brazil

The title, ‘Stereo is King’ is taken from the Mason Bates’ piece of the same name which will be performed alongside works by Steve Reich (‘Music for Pieces of Wood’), Cage (‘First Construction (in Metal)’), Chick Corea (‘Sicily’), Christopher Tyler Nickel (‘Firedance’) and Mark Norman (‘Longshore Drift’).

Bates’ composition is a collection of six pieces by the young American composer, most of which were written during a residency with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. With an overall emphasis on rhythm, his work can be described as distantly rooted in the minimalist tradition – fitting then to have the masters of that great school of composition, Cage and Reich in the same programme. Bates also includes electronics in two of the pieces, and also manages to evoke popular styles such as blues or funk, but carefully avoids falling in to the realms of “crossover” by developing his rhythmic ideas rather than allowing them to firm the structural basis of a piece. He also, in the title track, uses electronics within the acoustic ensemble to effectively evoke the ‘concertante’ style which was prevalent in Baroque music which all contributes towards his post-minimalist language.

Cage’s ‘First Construction (in Metal)’ was composed in 1939 and is written for six percussionists and an assistant (whose job it is to apply a metal rod to the strings of a piano). The percussionists use, among other things, Japanese and Balinese gongs, Chinese and Turkish cymbals, brake drums, anvils and a water gong (which is a gong placed in water whilst vibrating) and the set up is a spectacle to behold.

Set up for John Cage's 'First Construction (in Metal)' on stage at Symphony Hall, Birmingham

Set up for John Cage’s ‘First Construction (in Metal)’ on stage at Symphony Hall, Birmingham

Steve Reich is one of the world’s greatest living composers, this year celebrating his 80th Birthday. The percussion department performed his iconic masterpiece ‘Drumming’ back in December 2015 which was inspired by his studies in Ghana using the transcendent and dramatic tapestry of bongos, marimbas, glockenspiels and females voices, with an irremissible sense of momentum. ‘Music for Pieces of Wood’ on the other hand uses a much simpler instrumentation, five pairs of tuned claves, and is a fine example of how only using basic elements can still produce something of great interest and impact. The composer describes the piece as “one of the loudest” he ever composed, but uses no sort of amplification whatsoever. With 58 kaleidoscopic shifts of pattern, the pieces consists of three sections, each one progressively building the density of the music based upon a simple quaver (quarter note) pulse laid down by the first player.

Tickets for ‘Stereo is King’ featuring the Percussive Sounds Ensemble of Birmingham Conservatoire’s percussion department are available from here. The concert is on 20 June at 7pm.

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