The 1960s and 70s are famous for breakthrough developments in rock music, but the story was really no different for the field of art music during those decades. The advent of electronics seems to have instilled in composers a fresh thirst for sound-exploration and conceptual writing. Take for instance the eclectic selection of pieces from that era performed by Iktus Percussion on Tuesday night, written, as percussionist Chris Graham put it, by “three heavyweights of the 20th century”.

© Iktus Percussion
© Iktus Percussion

The evening began with ...sofferte onde serene... for piano and pre-recorded piano by Luigi Nono. Written in 1976, the piece is pure abstraction, running the gamut of mood and color. Pianist Julia Den Boer gave a powerful performance, pounding and cutting the air in the ferocious moments, conveying the listlessness of the more languid moments. The pre-recorded component created a sort of eerie duet, like a ghost playing four-hands with her.

Kontakte (1960) by Karlheinz Stockhausen followed, expertly performed by pianist Denise Fillion and Graham, the pair coordinating perfectly with the accompanying four-channel electronic recording. Unfolding like the musical version of stream of consciousness, Kontakte shares with sofferte a vigorous exploration of the loud and quiet and everything in between. The recorded sounds at times resembled those of animals and insects, at other times resembling nothing in the natural world. It was an impressive performance to watch, both performers playing a large and varied number of percussion instruments.

The concert concluded with the one-of-a-kind Dressur (1977) by Mauricio Kagel, a combination percussion and theater piece. Chris Clarino, Josh Perry and Piero Guimaraes all did an excellent job with both aspects, dressed all in white and playing mostly handmade wooden instruments (from memory of course). The piece’s humorous side first manifested itself as one performer ran at another with a wooden chair, pretending to strike him over the head with it. Another performer removed his shirt and slapped coconut halves on his torso. Later in the piece this same performer produced a massive nutcracker and proceeded to spray the stage with nut shards, while towards the end of the piece the erstwhile wooden-chair-victim ran frantically out of the venue via a side door. For all the theatrics, Dressur is also engaging musically, catchy little minimalist fragments popping up in the marimba now and again, and all manner of rhythmic interest emanating from the percussion instruments.

Presented by champions of the avant-garde Ear Heart Music, the concert was all the more impressive for having been only a month in the works (the previously scheduled ensemble had had to cancel unexpectedly). Though many of us in the room were accustomed to hearing more recently composed music at such a concert, it was actually refreshing to revisit the older vanguard, and somewhat surprising to find how enduring were their sounds and sentiments.

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