Monday, August 6, 2012

The (classical) beat goes on at NCMF

You never really know what the Meehan/Perkins Duo is going to throw at you, or even what instruments they might be playing, until the program is in your hand — and even that might not help because the music tends to be, well, either a bit obscure, or so aggressively modern that it’s not even on the pop culture radar. The music could be anything from Joanna Beyer, the grand dame of American percussion music, or, for that matter, anyone from that circle of, sadly, largely unknown composers from the ‘30s, to new music guru/composers like David Lang, best known for his work with Bang on a Can All Stars, or the “superstars” of new music, people like Steve Reich or John Cage, both of whom will be represented when the duo pulls into town this weekend to kick off the second decade of the Newburyport Chamber Music Festival with a slightly stripped-down concert at St. Paul’s Church, a decision based on the size of the venue — or, more accurately, "how big of a box it is, how many of my toys I can fit on the stage," says Todd Meehan.  The instruments could be marimbas, could be gongs. Could be congas, could be flowerpots. Could be anything they can get their hands on. Could, in fact, be their hands. The duo has a “big tent” view of percussion. Anything is possible.  
But, one thing is certain: this weekend’s show will be one that turns everything upside down. Like, you know how people usually listen to the music and then clap.  Well, that’s not how it will be at the Aug. 11 show, when the duo performs Steve Reich’s “Clapping Music,” where two performers, well, clap their hands, one performing a fixed rhythm, and the other dropping in and out of the structure — in front of the rhythm, behind, circling around, creating what some have called a garden of rhythm. The second piece, Nathan Davis’s “Diving Bell,” turns the traditional tables on concertgoers, allowing audiences to experience music the way the musicians do. “Audiences miss the best part,” says Perkins,  “the undertones, those cool little sounds that only the performers hear. “ The piece calls for triangles and electronics. The triangles are struck and scraped at different points. The musicians use hand-held microphones, routing the signal, changing the sound, and the experience. Making, perhaps, for a different experience for regular chamber music buffs.  

In addition to Reich’s “Clapping Music” and Davis’ “Diving Bell,” the only composition from either of Meehan/Perkins’ two albums on the program, the duo will perform “In a Landscape,” one of John Cage’s most accessible compositions, a piece that describes, musically, the choreography of a performance by dancer Louise Lippold. Also on the program is “Davis Once Removed” by John Fitz Rogers, a composition for two marimbas and click track, a series of audio cues used to synchronize sound recordings, with both musicians playing the same score, basically, but one note removed from each other — a staple of the MPD repertoire, visually and sonically interesting, easy to get lost in the rhythmical complexities — and to over-analyze it instead of just enjoying.  Which can also be said of “XY” by Michael Gordon, a piece all about rhythmic interaction, the letters in the title referring to X and Y axes: As one hand gets faster, the other slows, as one gets louder the other gets quieter. Same story with  “Twitter Music,” the Scott Lindroth piece the duo premiered earlier this year at Duke University, a piece built last year after the death of Osama bin Laden, when the composer began tracking all Tweets containing the name "Osama," then, one week later, doing the same with the name “Obama,” grabbing more than 1.5 million Tweets and “sonically transforming” them into music in a process more interesting to experience than to talk about, assuming one has the mathematical chops to do it, allowing the art to speak for itself.

Different? Sure is. But what do you call it, this music? NCMF Artistic Director David Yang offers up “contemporary classical” for lack of a better term. Which the duo “reluctantly” accepts, says Meehan, assistant professor of percussion music at Baylor University School of Music in Texas. Not because they dislike the company, or have some philosophical problem with the term, because it doesn’t really fit. "I can't wait to hear them play," says Yang.  ”Some cutting-edge stuff and some more, relatively speaking, traditional things. It will all be new to all of us, I am quite sure. But music is music. It speaks to the soul and through the blood.”

Whatever you want to call their sound, the Meehan-Perkins Duo mostly performs at classical music or university venues, which, regardless of the fact that the categorization does not accurately reflect what they do, actually provides a good stage for the duo. Their work is so different from, well, pretty much from everything out there, visually, stylistically, that they stand out no matter where they are — but even more so in the rarified world of classical performance or university engagements. “We like to shake things up,’ says Meehan. But, instead of finding sniffy resistance from the nothing-after-the-romantics-please crowd,  "people come up after the show and want to see the instruments up close,” says Perkins, a percussion professor at Dartmouth College. “They want to touch them. They want to know how you get this sound or that sound. They seem to be excited and curious about everything.”

Meehan and Perkins were both founding members of So Percussion, the New York-based percussion ensemble. Which is how Yang caught up with them. “They are pretty well known and VERY good,” says Yang. “I did a lot of research, asked around. I originally asked So Percussion, a percussion quartet, the most well known and hottest ticket right now in that field.” They put Yang on to MPD. Since forming in 2006, the duo has focused on the creation and performance of new music. The duo has recorded two very different albums. The first, “Restless, Endless, Tactless: Johanna Beyer and the Birth of American Percussion Music,” focuses on the body of percussion work from the 1930s — “largely ignored or forgotten music,” says Meehan, “like an old relic in the attic. Amazing music.” “Travel Diary,” their second album, came out late last year. It’s a collection of new music from Lang and Davis, as well as Tristan Perich and Paul Lansky, compositions that are challenging, and, in the end, irresistible. The duo has just completed its largest commission, “Concerto for Two Percussionists and Orchestra,” which premiered last month with the Texas Festival Orchestra at the Round Top International Festival.

JUST THE FACTS, MAN: The Meehan/Perkins Duo will perform at 7:30 p.m. Aug. 11 at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, 166 High St., Newburyport. The program includes "Clapping Music" by Steve Reich, "In a Landscape" by John Cage, “Twitter Music” by Scott Lindroth, "XY" by Michael Gordon and "Diving Bell" by Nathan Davis. Tickets are $25; students under 18, free. For information, visit or call 978-463-9776.

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