Aspen Percussion Ensemble beats a local drum |

Aspen Percussion Ensemble beats a local drum

Andrew Travers
The Aspen Times
The Aspen Percussion Ensemble will give its annual recital tonight at Harris Concert Hall. The program includes a performance of "Abyss of Time," accompanying a film by artist Rita Blitt.
Aspen Times file |

If You Go …

Who: Aspen Percussion Ensemble

Where: Harris Concert Hall

When: Monday, Aug. 4, 6 p.m.

Tickets: $25,

A sonata inspired by Aspen, an Aspenite’s film and the voice of composer Elliot Carter will complement the musical talents of the Aspen Percussion Ensemble at its annual concert Monday night at Harris Concert Hall.

The film is “Abyss of Time,” by local artist Rita Blitt, with a score by Michael Udow. They have been collaborating since the early 1980s. When Udow was commissioned last year to write a new piece for the Shenyang Conservatory in China, he sent Blitt photos of rocks formations, trees, and natural scenes from around the world.

“He wanted to inspire me to create a film from which he would compose music,” Blitt explained. “This film became ‘Abyss of Time.’”

Blitt’s film blends her painting with photographs — a sun-like figure, for instance, dissolves into a close-up photograph of patterns in tree bark, which match-dissolves into a painting of the formations of tree branches, then tracks across abstract panting on canvas.

“I realized if I’m going to produce a film, I must use my art,” Blitt said. “So I collected all that I could that related to nature and — it may sound pompous or crazy or something — but I felt like I was creating the world.”

Blitt has been a summertime Aspenite since 1960 and a fixture in the Benedict Music Tent for decades, drawing during orchestral performances — often in her self-styled two-handed technique.

Percussion Ensemble director Jonathan Haas staged a performance of “Abyss of Time” in December at a New York University retrospective of Udow’s work, and is reprising it with his Aspen students.

Udow scored the film using pre-recorded folkloric Chinese instruments along with Western percussion. To perform it live with the film, Udow found creative ways to replicate the recorded sounds. Monday’s performance will include four percussionists playing on the inside of a piano, hand bells played with mallets and Swiss cow bells tuned to the piece’s tonal scale, and marimbas played with bamboo chutes.

“It’s really something,” said Haas, “because he was able to find ways use modern Western instruments to replicate the sounds of the Chinese instruments.”

In another local touch to the annual Percussion Ensemble recital, Haas has included a performance of Peter Schickele’s Percussion Sonata No. 1. Titled “Aspen,” Schickele wrote the piece through a commission from the Festival and School in 1996. The composer was an Aspen student in 1959 and has been a frequent guest of the festival since.

Best known for his parodies and comedy albums, recorded under the nome de humor “P.D.Q. Bach,” Schickele takes a serious approach on “Aspen.” The sonata includes depictions of the Maroon Bells, Aspen Mountain and the Big Burn.

“He knows Aspen backwards and forwards, so he wrote a piece that was very evocative of the outdoors in Aspen,” Haas said. “It ends our concert and it’s a really barn-burner.”

The recital opens with Edgard Varese’s “Ionization,” and also includes Joseph Pereira’s rollicking all-drums composition “tied to the past.” Pereira, principal timpanist for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, is in town performing during the last two weeks of the Aspen Music Festival and School’s season.

“I thought, what better way to get my students to know him than though his music,” Haas said of the selection.

The program also includes Eliot Carter’s solo timpani composition “Canaries,” performed by student Carley Yanuck. The concert’s multimedia approach continues on the Carter piece. Haas recorded an interview the composer about 10 years ago, and will feature clips of Carter — who died in 2012 – talking about his approach to his solo timpani pieces before the ensemble plays them.

Six percussion students will perform John Harbison’s “Cortege,” a complex piece played without a conductor.

“It’s on the level of difficulty of doing a Bartok quartet, and of equal intensity and density,” said Haas.

This summer, which began early for percussion students as they prepared for their July tribute to Frank Zappa, has been the first for the ensemble rehearsing in the new percussion building on the refurbished Music School campus on Castle Creek Road. It has given the 16 percussion students their own devoted practice space through the summer.

“I think the new facilities have already paid off,” Haas said. “But, of course, the resources don’t mean anything without these talented students.”