Aspen Percussion Ensemble: Following the beat of the drummer |

Aspen Percussion Ensemble: Following the beat of the drummer

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

ASPEN – As the classical music world opens up to new influences, new audiences, new ways of presenting itself, it might try looking to the back row of the orchestra to lead the way. That’s where the percussionists are located, and they are accustomed to being flexible, innovative and open-minded.

“In the orchestral world, you’re not going to be able to get a cellist to play a sitar instead of a cello, or a violinist to play an oud,” Jonathan Haas, who has headed the Aspen Music Festival and School’s percussion department and directed the Aspen Percussion Ensemble for 26 years, said. “But when you tell a percussionist, ‘I need a doumbek,’ they’ll go find one, find a teacher and learn to play it.”

Haas believes that percussionists are generally the composer’s best friend in the orchestra. As composers have strived to adopt influences from various folk traditions, from rock ‘n’ roll, from the electronic realm – from anything outside the usual classical world – the percussionists are the ones most apt to go along. Part of this has to do with world culture: Drumming is central to the music in places – Africa, South America, the Caribbean – where music-making is not as formalized as it is in Western Europe and the U.S., so percussionists naturally keep one eye focused outside the Western classical realm. And part of this has to do with repertoire: With a tiny portion of classical repertoire devoted to percussion instruments, percussionists have had to be innovators in programming, adapting material, and collaborating.

“You can go up to a percussionist and talk about anything, make any request, because we’re the new guys on the block,” Haas said. “We’re the most willing to change, evolve and add to what we’ve already brought to the table.”

Haas thinks this mentality puts percussionists on the leading edge of what is happening, and of what should be happening, in classical music – a reaching out for ideas.

“This is the way of the world for percussion students and for other musicians,” said Haas, who came to drums through rock ‘n’ roll – especially Ginger Baker’s timpani rolls that open the Cream song “White Room” – and has drawn on Zappa and Zeppelin, theater and jazz, Dada and the Beat poets in the annual Aspen Percussion Ensemble concerts he directs. “The chance to play these exotic instruments, instruments of indigenous cultures – steel pans, steel drums, gile, which is an African marimba. And what comes with these instruments is the ability to sing and dance, because in these cultures one doesn’t just sit and play; you sing and dance. The musician of the future is going to have to be an expert of many different instruments, different understandings of cultures other than what we’re born into. It’s the fall-out from the Internet. It’s both an opportunity and a requirement for being a successful musician.”

This summer’s Percussion Ensemble concert, set for 6 p.m. Monday, Aug. 1, in Harris Hall, is, as usual, a showcase for such ideas. Among the pieces is “Omphalo Centric Lecture,” by Australian composer Nigel Westlake. The piece, which had its U.S. premiere in the Aspen Percussion Ensemble concert 22 years ago, draws on music of the didgeridoo, an Australian wind instrument.

“It’s didgeridoo music, which is always about natural surroundings – a kangaroo jumping, birds, sunsets and sunrises. But it’s played on marimba,” Haas said. “When I asked if they were familiar with this music, they said no. And I said, ‘OK, it’s time.’ Because if any of these percussionists take it to the next step and learn didgeridoo, they’re going to make some money. Someone’s going to say, ‘I need some didgeridoo music.'”

Along with going somewhat out of bounds, the programming of “Omphalo Centric Lecture” stays inside this summer’s Aspen Music Festival theme of Art Inspires Art. The piece was based on a Paul Klee painting.

Likewise connected to the theme – and especially to the Music Festival’s current Shakespeare mini-festival – is Harrison Birtwistle’s “For O, for O, the Hobby-Horse is Forgot.” Haas notes that the piece, whose title comes from “Hamlet,” was written just after the composer created incidental music for the Globe Theatre in London, where Shakespeare staged his plays.

Haas adds that Birtwistle was known not to be pleased with the piece. So Haas, demonstrating the spirit of innovation, has stepped in.

“What was missing was the true essence – it needs the Shakespeare put into it. So I’m taking a huge leap of faith,” he said. Haas, along with his wife, Anna, a classically trained actor, has taken three soliloquies from “Hamlet” and inserted them into the piece, and drafted three opera students to do the recitation. The addition shouldn’t take away the drum-centric aspect: “For O, for O” features six percussionists – two playing the King and Queen, and four serving a s a Greek chorus – and 120 instruments.

The performance of Lou Harrison’s First Concerto for Flute and Percussion features Nadine Asin, a member of the Music Festival’s flute faculty, and a fan of the Percussion Ensemble. “She has been a champion of the Percussion Ensemble, plays with us nearly every year,” Haas said. “She reaches out to us – says, ‘Here’s the piece we’re going to play this year. And her flute, the melodious sound of the flute, cleanses the palate like a sherbet before a fine meal.”

“Tak-Nara,” by Serbian-born Nebojsa Jovan Zivkovic, is the ensemble’s chance to get loud. “It’s the quintessential rocking-out, percussion ensemble piece,” Haas said. “If you combine the Grateful Dead, Zappa and Cream, this is it. Zivkovic is a percussionist, so he knows how to get an audience going. And there is vocalizing in the piece, a sound like Darth Vader, and it makes the piece exciting, foreboding at times. It’s a power piece.”

Rounding out the program is David Friedman’s “20 Minutes Off the Pavement,” for vibes and marimba. Haas says the piece is a tribute to the distinctive sound of the jazz label, ECM. Each section is a tribute to an ECM artist – bassist Jaco Pastorius, guitarist Pat Metheny, percussionist Dom Um Romão.

Haas programmed the piece for the Percussion Ensemble concert some 20 years ago, with the composer Friedman sitting in as a performer. “He was the only guy who could play the vibes part,” Haas said. This year, Matthew Lau, a student of Haas’ at NYU, takes the honors. And even if he doesn’t know a thing about the ECM label, he’s willing to embrace the concept.

“They didn’t know what ECM stood for. But they took to it right away,” Haas said of his students. But percussionists need a broad musical language. A huge language.”