A chorus of clicks whirrs through the trees. Chirruping birds elaborate twittering textures over the harsh chatter of insistent wooden rhythms. Sunlight streams through the boughs of this natural echo chamber. I’m in a forest in Friesland, and Bulgarian-born percussion master Tatiana Koleva and her merry troupe of rhythmonauts are leading myself and the audience through the trees to an uncertain fate.

Tatiana Koleva and the Youth Percussion Pool © Hans Jellema
Tatiana Koleva and the Youth Percussion Pool
© Hans Jellema

It’s both a bucolic and an unexpected setting in which to experience the three works of rhythmic experimentation on offer this afternoon. “A forest surrounding the palatial retreat of the old Dutch Royal family” doesn’t often spring to mind when discussing works of classic NY minimalism - here represented by Reich’s Clapping Music and Music for Pieces of Wood, or the French avant garde in Xenakis’ Rebonds. Then again, this is Oranjewoud festival we’re talking about, an annual festival geared toward adventurous audiences keen to experience music in new ways. The afternoon’s performance, simply entitled “Drumming”, is just one installment on a programme that features, amongst other novel concepts, Monteverdi reinterpreted as sultry jazz in a nuclear bunker, sound art installations and solo oud concerts in a teepee.

That’s not to say that “Drumming” was a performance for chin-stroking intellectuals: the assembled audience gathered at the entrance to the woods were a diverse mix, truly living up to the seven-to-seventy cliche. Once everyone arrived, Koleva talked us through the basics of Reich’s Clapping. Then they split the audience into two sections. Wait, nobody told me that audience participation was going to be involved! In actuality, the processes behind Clapping Music are a lot less complex than those behind some of his other works - particularly the mind-bending effect of his phase shifting technique. It was a joy to see even the most rhythmically challenged of us (read: myself) eventually get into the swing of things and help create the interlocking polyrhythms of the work - helped along by the Youth Percussion Pool, whom Koleva led for the performance.

A signal from one of the percussionists and the press-ganged ensemble stopped in near-unison. Next, we took a backseat as the performers jumped into Reich’s Music for Pieces of Wood. But we had to keep up - literally. After the few opening bars, Koleva led her ensemble down a path through the forest, and all we could do was follow. Experiencing the piece mobile and in nature as opposed to a recording or concert hall added innumerable facets to the work. Volume fluctuated as we moved variously closer and further away from the performers in the duration of the walk and piece. The crunch of the undergrowth, the alarmed chattering of the birds and the rustling of the leaves added their own ambient textures to the sound palette, acting as an arrhythmic foil to the percussion ensemble’s machine-like precision. What’s more, the natural reverberations of the surroundings modulated as we moved through varying densities of trees, the resulting effect encouraging us to think about the environment as part and parcel of the composition. And that’s to say nothing of the work itself: a dizzying swirl of polyrhythms, the entranced audience could do little more than follow the performers further into the wood.

The audience experiencing <i>Rebonds</i> © Hans Jellema
The audience experiencing Rebonds
© Hans Jellema

But where were they leading us? Suddenly we came to a clearing. Luckily, there was no sacrificial altar in the centre, but there was an idiosyncratic drum set featuring bass drums, bongos and woodblocks. These were Koleva’s weapons for Rebonds, Xenakis’ notoriously difficult piece for solo percussionist. Written to be almost unplayable, the composition forces the performer to impose personal decisions on what is ostensibly a precisely-notated piece. Koleva’s octopus-like movement around the kit was a spectacle in itself, the resulting sound bringing to mind both Japanese taiko drumming and the free improvisation of Milford Graves. With the unpredictable rolls of booming bass drums and high, alien-sounding woodblocks, one got the sense was listening to music either from the very distant past or a very distant future, and for my money, I’d say that even the most whimsy-resistant among the audience imagined that they were in some primeval forest. There was one last surprise for the piece - while we watched Koleva play, the percussion ensemble had surrounded the audience, and they interjected with flurries of shrill woodblock at crucial points, adding an almost alarming feel to the performance. In diverging from Xenakis’ direction, they brought out the feeling latent in the original work: panic.

After Koleva’s hypnotic performance, she let the Youth Percussion Pool take on Reich’s Drumming on their own. In a far more complex manner than Clapping, Drumming requires the performers to play at different speeds, falling in and out of synch with each other and creating headspinning aural effects. Battered into submission by the muscular indeterminacy of Rebonds, our minds were fully open to the inexorable onward drive of the ensemble’s drums. The piece wound down, and another audience-involved rendition of Clapping bookended the performance. An apt ending to what had been an immersive experience in rhythmic experimentation.