The centrepiece of Nonclassical’s “Pioneers of Percussion” festival was a rousing marathon of a concert at Scala, a large (mostly) rock venue near King’s Cross. It was a rich, varied, high-energy, happily chaotic affair that lasted into the wee hours of the morning.
Nonclassical is known for presenting contemporary classical music in not traditionally classical venues, and Scala certainly took this to new heights. It has the layout, look, and feel of a rock club, complete with a huge sound system, state-of-the-art lighting, and even a fog machine. Nonclassical utilized the smaller upstairs balcony bar in addition to the main room, and even had some music going on in the lobby area (called “the den”) to create a fully immersive festival experience.
To be honest, at first I wasn’t convinced. I wanted to sit down, but there were no seats, just an open floor. I was annoyed by the 30-minute-late start time, and the subsequent continued drift from the printed schedule. And I found the substantial bleed between the performance spaces maddening, as I strained to hear some of the quieter pieces over the din coming from upstairs. But eventually I was won over by the joyousness of the crowd, the general excitement of the event, and most of all by the sheer awesomeness of the music. I surrendered to the spirit of the occasion and thoroughly enjoyed myself.
In addition to innovative 20th- and 21st-century Western percussion composers, the show wisely featured several non-Western percussion ensembles as well. Until well into the 20th century, the West’s use of percussion could only be described as rudimentary when compared to much of the rest of the world. As the West spent centuries obsessed with the development of harmony, other musical traditions in parts of the world, ranging from India to Indonesia to Japan to West Africa, developed highly sophisticated and complex rhythmic languages in which percussion played a central role. These traditions in turn were highly influential on 20th-century Western composers when they finally became interested in rhythm and percussion.
The most electrifying of these non-Western ensembles was Joji Hirota’s five-person Japanese taiko drum ensemble. It’s no exaggeration to say that I have never seen such a physically alive musical performance. The ensemble members used the strength of their entire bodies to strike the drums of varying size with precise and powerful strokes in intricately organized patterns. It seemed almost as much dance or martial art as it was music. The disciplined ecstasy of the performance elicited an exuberant response from the packed house.
Other non-Western acts included tabla virtuoso Shahbaz Hussain’s five-man percussion group playing Indian music, the Southbank Gamelan Players performing Indonesian music, and Abass Dodoo’s African drumming ensemble One Drum (who I did not get to hear, as they were scheduled to perform toward the end of the show, after I had already left). I’m not especially qualified to judge any of these groups, as I am no expert in the musical traditions behind them. The Southbank Gamelan Players performed as well as any Gamelan ensemble I’ve heard, filling the space with the glistening, silvery resonances of their gongs and metallic mallet instruments. Hussain’s ensemble displayed a playful virtuosity that thoroughly delighted the audience.
It was, in fact, a bit of a tough act for the Western ensembles to follow. After the ecstatic power of Joji Hirota’s taiko ensemble, the RCM Percussion Ensemble’s rendition of Edgard Varèse’s Ionisation seemed a bit tepid and pale. The George Barton Ensemble faired a bit better with incisive, colorful renditions of Henry Cowell’s Ostinato Pianissimo and John Cage’s Second Construction and Credo in US, as well as several other works later in the evening that I didn’t get to hear. The eight-piece London Triangle Orchestra also made its debut in two short, whimsical movements that featured a stunning array of different sounds coaxed from these unexpectedly rich instruments. Although I was in the other performance space when it happened, a number of people I spoke to were floored by Emma Arden’s performance of Jacob TV’s Grab It! I was sorry to have missed it – though I didn’t completely, as the loudest moments of it drifted into the main stage, nearly drowning out the George Barton Ensemble. I also caught the tail-end of the captivating virtuoso hand drum duo DumTak.
There was lots more that I unfortunately did not get to see, both because of the impossibility of being in two places at once, and because as I neared my fifth hour at the show, the 1am hour, and my appointed departure time, the show was far from over. The house was still packed with excited young people. Exuberant percussion music continued to boom from all sides. I returned home, exhausted and happy. It was a bold move for Nonclassical to tackle a project as ambitious as this. By all accounts, it was a smashing success, and I hope it inspires them to continue to aim high.
Find Concerts now