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Album review: Percussion bridges gap between art music and entertainment

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Touch Cover med

Oh, those endless discussions about art music vs pop — all boinked soundly on the noggin by a percussionist’s mallet in imaginative Newfoundlander Rob Power’s Touch, a new, self-made album of self-made music.

The Memorial University professor has assembled seven pieces, lasting between 6 and 11 minutes each, which collectively take us through part of the wide rainbow of sounds and colours and textures people can produce by hitting, striking, caressing and shaking instruments, gongs, blocks and a tickle-trunk full of found objects (including the always nicely resonant automotive brake drum).

There’s been an explosion (or should we call it striking growth?) in the number of fine percussionists in this country — largely due to the influence and inspiration of Nexus, the Toronto ensemble founded in 1971.

Nexus mixed avant-garde, jazz and world music styles as it suited their purpose: to show that percussion can contain the melody and harmony that makes music worth listening to, that it can form a narrative arc, and that art music can, through the power of rhythm, engage the listener on a visceral, not just intellectual level.

Percussion is also fun to watch, because, when done well, the performance is as much visual choreography as a confluence of sounds and rhythms.

Power’s album can’t provide us with the visual element, but it delivers so nicely with everything else. He and his collaborators — John D.S. Adams, Kyle Andrews, Bill Brennan, Erin Donovan, Kevin Coady, Evan Harte, Andrew McCarthy, Whitney Rowe, Ed Squires and Phil Yetman — are masters of balance and control.

Each piece has a completely different character and narrative:

Tunnel Mountain, created last year at the Banff Centre, is a feast of tuneful resonance, often harnessed in the quick-switch, repetitive-pattern style of John Adams. The marimba and tuned gongs dominate.

Untouchable is a complex, three-movement piece that mixes melodic instruments (vibraphone and marimbas) with West African-style drumming. It’s very seductive.

Shards, one of the older pieces in Powers’ collection, is my favourite, cleverly building its shakey-shakey sound, then handing it over to a bit of digital manipulation. There is a crazy mix of time signatures buried inside, where the three glass triangle and shaker players each march to a different beat.

Woody Island lives up to its title — creating sounds that any woodpecker might instantly love. Even the emphasis here is on percussive creativity rather than melody, it’s great to sit back and note all the different timbres (or timber).

Cappayahaden is a compelling mix of tinkle and drum. It’s a bit long-feeling and not quite unified thematically, but still packed with hip-shakingly compelling moments.

Amalgamation takes a while to coalesce, as it slowly introduces us to its mix of struck objects. But the fits and starts do end up picking up momentum.

Gray Matter, with its opening big-gong note, is an invitation to meditate first, then smile, and then jump up and dance. It’s a great way to end the album.

Power and his East Coast gang — many of them with some sort of Toronto connection — are so compelling that it wouldn’t occur to anyone to ask whether this is art music or not. The music is also suffused with humour, which we never seem to get enough of.

How amazing is that?

Touch is available on iTunes as well as CD Baby, where you can listen to samples (which are truly unfair to a slow-developing percussion piece). For anyone within snowshoeing distance of St John’s next Saturday (Jan. 18), the release concert happens at Memorial University’s D.F. Cook Recital Hall at 8 p.m.

You can find out more about Rob Power, and the scores from Touch, here.

Here are Power (in the dark blue dress shirt), Bill Brennan, Erin Donovan, Andrew McCarthy, Whitney Rowe, Kyle Andrews and Evan Harte recording Tunnel Mountain, captured on iPhone video:

Rob Power – Tunnel Mountain excerpt from Rob Power on Vimeo.

John Terauds

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