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Review: Not Here, But There

April 3, 2009

Review of Not Here, But There, a new album by the University of Houston Percussion Ensemble released by Albany Records.


I can’t exactly say that the best new music today is being made for percussion as opposed to string or wind chamber groups, but I can say that the music on Not Here, But There really helps make the case for the musicians in the back row of the orchestra.  The quality of playing on the album also goes a long way in showing the expressive and technical possibilities of an ensemble who has no fixed instrumentation and is essentially just hitting things to make music (I kid!).

            The eight pieces recorded for the album are all from the Twenty first century, and the works manage to run the gamut of possibilities for a percussion ensemble.  As the title implies, the short opening work Sprint (excerpt) by Rob Smith , is a display of technical ability that you could miss if you aren’t ready for it.  The piece was written for the ensemble and its strength at, essentially, playing mallet instruments really fast.  Its place on the album certainly is meant to send out the warning shot to say, “get ready!”

            As the album goes, there is a lot to get ready for, demonstrating technical facility and much more.  Wood/Metal Music, composed by Pierre Jalbert, is able to set up the opposing sounds in a sort of calm conflict that was felt as much as heard.  Written by Chritopher Deane, Vespertine Formation creates the image of birds flying past in all sorts of fashions – large flocks whizzing by and solitary birds meandering through the sky, and the work somehow manages to end before you realize it, the closing quiet moments of the piece looping in your head after their last utterance. 

The following piece, the album’s title track by David Heuser, eventually finds its stride in contrasting sections, with the ensemble creating a very moving experience as it takes the listeners from peaks to valleys.  Both Exploration of Time by Eckhard Kopetzki and Circus Plenus Clamor Ingen Ianuae Tensae (say that six times fast!) by Lane Harder are studies in time and patterns before other elements and complement each other very well.  My only misgiving about Circus… is that despite having the words “Circus” and “clamor” in the title, it is not really loud and zany.  Apparently the composer was more interested in writing a piece exploring the number six, hence a piece with at title of six words of six letters each.  I think I can forgive him. 

Following my disappointment, I was treated to David Maslanka’s piece Hohner, which while being really good throughout, has one section midway through of particular note, where Maslanka is able to create a feeling of calm jubilance.  The final piece, Marcus Karl Maroney’s Pantheon ends in a much different way than the album began.  The work is full of mystery and a controlled exploration through that experience. 

            In case it wasn’t clear, the performances of all of these pieces are excellent.  Music isn’t just about reading dots on a page, which too often school ensembles become consumed by.  It is much harder to teach, and learn to play, music that is expressive and really makes the most out of the platform that the composer has created.  The members of the University of Houston Percussion Ensemble are able to overcome that barrier, no doubt through the help of Blake Wilkins, and find a way to communicate a complicated and powerful message through these new works recorded on Not Here, But There.  Pretty good for a group of kids who are just banging and hitting things, I say.

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