New England Conservatory Percussion Ensemble

American Music for Percussion, Vol. 1

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This album has five pieces written solely for percussion ensembles and features a tour of composers and their ideas on how to use tone color, rhythm, and even silence to create melodies based mostly in percussion. Joan Tower's DNA begins with silence, progresses to rhythms on bells and the symbol, and then adds wood blocks for timbre. The wood blocks present what could almost be called a theme, with a pentatonic-sounding pattern. Tower certainly has a good sense of timbre in her orchestration for percussion, perhaps the result of her having lived in South America as a child. This is a visceral piece, one in which the listener can truly feel the rhythms. Felicia Sandler's Pulling Radishes is less accessible, though it is cleverly composed around patterns involving the number 45. Schuller's Grand Concerto is fairly inaccessible, for it has very little apparent structure, and little use of timbre, save some moments here and there, such as in its joyously cacophonous cascade ending with its jazz echoes. One cannot help but ask why he did not choose to compose the piece more in this vein, instead of in the way he did (which sounds rather like children let loose with instruments). The highlights of this album are Jennifer Higdon's Splendid Wood and Robert X. Rodríguez's El día de los muertos. Splendid is indeed splendid; it features three marimbas played by six musicians, creating a textured, musically rich atmosphere that is played with such accuracy and motion that the listener cannot help but feel carried away into its world. After much motion, Higdon leads the listener to a place of calm, and then quickens the tempo into a blooming atmosphere from the marimbas. There are echoes of Terry Riley or Steve Reich now and then, but this is clearly Higdon's own work. It is certainly a rare treat to hear such an ensemble. The most programmatic of the pieces is El día (the composer's notes explain the story), in which the dead are awakened by children and then celebrate with the living before returning to their graves. One can clearly hear the breeze blowing in the cemetery, the sparkling bells that awaken the spirits, and a folk melody that seems to be buried underneath the music. It all feels rather like an odd children's fairytale world, full of fantasy and whimsy, which is Rodríguez's gift to the listener through his skillful orchestration. In sum, there are enough exciting musical experiences on this album to make it a worthwhile addition.

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