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Jonathan Haas turns music for percussion on its ear

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Jordan Curet The Aspen Times
ALL | The Aspen Times

ASPEN ” Over his 23 summers as director of the Aspen Percussion Ensemble, Jonathan Haas has approached the ensemble’s annual concert with uncontained zeal.

Haas estimates he has programmed some 300 pieces over that span, and used upward of a gazillion instruments. A hallmark of those concerts is how obscure and out-there the works can be: Last year’s performance, for example, featured a Duke Ellington piece, “Malletoba Spank,” that required a massive effort of excavation. Ellington recorded the work in 1959, then never played it again; Ellington’s sister in the early ’90s gave the charts to Haas.

Haas has programmed pieces by Frank Zappa, and by Edgard Varese, one of Zappa’s avant-garde idols; there have been compositions that lean toward jazz, rock ‘n’ roll, film, music and more.



And it’s still not enough of an adventure. “The days of playing a piece, wait 12 minutes to reset the stage ” I’m done with that,” said Haas, a Chicago kid, and now New York City resident, who got turned onto drums by hearing Ginger Baker’s timpani intro to the Cream rock classic, “White Room.” “There’s got to be something more.”

Haas wants lights, drama and action, and this year he’s providing it. The highlight of the Percussion Ensemble concert, Tuesday at 8 at Harris Hall, is a theater work, “The City Wears a Slouch Hat.” The piece was written as a radio play in the early ’40s by Kenneth Patchen, whose ideas coincided with the Dada and later became identified with the Beats. The music was composed by John Cage, and instantly rejected by the radio station as being too complex, with its barrage of sounds that included oxen bells, tin cans, ships’ horns and more. Cage turned in a drastically revised, and acceptable, version a few days later; Haas put all of the original sound effects back into the piece for tonight’s performance. He is also planning to project the recorded parts ” car, boat and airplane noises ” in Surround Sound, the first time the effect will be used in Harris Hall.



Haas’ adaptation of “The City Wears a Slouch Hat” features seven percussionists ” and four actors: locals David Ledingham, Adrianna Thompson and James Coates, plus Anna Kepe, a Latvian-born, classically trained actor who is also Haas’ girlfriend and frequent collaborator.

The piece has an antiwar theme, but delivers it more with music and movement than a concrete narrative. “It’s not so much storytelling, but a philosophical treatment of the play,” said Haas, who next year will open the percussion department, with a specialty in the music of Cage, at upstate New York’s Bard College Conservatory of Music. “It’s a scene collage from American life. It’s very American, with a 1942-era, film noir style, set in an unidentified city. It’s like a visual imagination of what the scene is.”

The piece allows Haas to continue his thread of presenting little-known works. He says Tuesday’s performance will be only the second or third production since it premiered in 1942. It also builds on a more recent direction Haas has been exploring, allowing percussionists ” and all musicians ” to participate in productions far removed the standard orchestral concert.

“Alternate forms of expression are becoming more and more available, combining the musical art form with theater. And percussion is the centerpiece: Blue Man Group, Stomp,” said Haas, who has worked with Kepe in creating percussion/theater crossover works for Blessed Unrest, the Off-Off-Broadway physical theater company of which Kepe is a member. “Playing in an orchestra ” is that all there is for a percussion student? I say the answer is, absolutely not. When musicians collaborate with other artists outside their disciplines, it’s amazing. When my percussion ensemble works with a theater company, everyone learns.”

Tuesday’s concert opens on what might be an even less conventional note: a performance of French composer Emmanuel Sejourne’s “Bic.” There are no actors, no narrative ” and no musical instruments, either. Instead there are 40 Bic lighters, played by 20 Bic flickers.

“It’s very clever, fun to play,” said Haas, who directs the percussion departments at New York University and Juilliard. “And they actually take a high degree of coordination to play these things. Cage was always interested in sound and silence, and this deals with that in the visual world. You hear something, and then you don’t. You see something, and then you don’t. And both are equal events. Through that flame, you start hearing the music of it. The notes become the flames, or the absence of it.”

Another Cage link in the concert is in “Ostinato Pianissimo,” by Henry Cowell, a colleague of Cage’s at Mills College, in Oakland, Calif. One of the most famous percussion works, it features xylophone, eight rice bowls, African bean pods, tuned gongs from Thailand, gourds, part of a tambourine, and the inside of a piano. Cage himself is represented again, with “Imaginary Landscape #3,” a 1942 work for three percussionists.

Also on the program: Irwin Bazelon’s “Propulsion,” a musical approximation of the Super Bowl crossed with the Kentucky Derby that uses 70 instruments; a solo marimba piece by Michael Burritt, performed by percussion competition winner Justin Doute; and a solo flute piece, Debussy’s “Syrinx,” played by Nadine Asin, which segues into George Crumb’s “Idol for the Misbegotten,” for flute and three percussions.

“The ideal location that Crumb wants it played is on a hot August night, in the middle of a lake. That’s his dream of the ideal spot,” said Haas. “So it’s a dream piece. Anna is creating lighting to make the idea of the middle of a lake.”

stewart@aspentimes.com


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