maximum minimalism

Brian Johnson is more than a remarkable percussionist, he’s a superb all-around artist.

Last night’s recital at Burlington’s FlynnSpace was the second of his recitals I’ve attended in recent years, and the second time I’ve left wondering what other great solo percussion music is out there that I don’t know about.

The evening began with a fascinating series of videos (continual, not looping) projected on three floor-to-ceiling screens across the front of the stage area. There were actually four screens, but while the videos ran on three of them (from left to right: screens 1, 3 & 4), screen #2 had a static image showing a dark crimson background with black notations on it – music or lettering, I couldn’t tell. And it didn’t matter. Either way, a really nice effect.

The videos were transfixing, all taken from Phill Niblock’s series “The Movement of People Working”. The subjects ranged from real-time scenes of Japanese fisherwomen harvesting kelp and South American construction workers making (and then using) adobe bricks; to hands busily weaving, carving, hammering, fishing, sewing, knitting, shredding seaweed and making sobe noodles.

As the audience entered and got seated the videos played silently, accompanied by one of Johnson’s original electronic works for “organ clusters” called Organ Mix.

The videos were a continuing part of the recital, in fact, occasionally being replaced by Brian (backlit), performing behind the screens, or – for the two pieces written by Joseph Celli, the screens were occupied by Celli’s own videos of the instruments being played: three drummers playing on a single snare drum, for his Snare Drum for Camus, and in Eight Mallets Four Brian the screens were filled with mallets playing on two different xylophones.

Enchanting, mind-opening, magical (a much-overused word these days anyway) hardly describe the experience. My favorite musical moments came during Alvin Lucier’s solo triangle exploration, Silver Streetcar for Orchestra (1988) and the 1982 Snare Drum for Camus by Joseph Celli. In both of those pieces I was completely transported, absorbed in the experience and in the infinite variations and shifting sonorous patterns in the music. While this music contains references to all of the ‘language’ conventions of Western music – rhythm, melody, dynamics – it is not bound by them.

There is a deceptive simplicity to the sound of a triangle or snare drum (as in these examples) being struck in a consistent rhythm over an extended amount of time. But only in allowing these patterns to establish the reference point does the real music begin to reveal itself in cascading subtleties. It can be an experience akin to walking in the desert. Everything appears to look the same, endlessly, perhaps unrewardingly, at first. But the longer the time spent in that specific land(sound) scape, the greater the appreciation of its subtle beauty and variation becomes.

Quote of the evening came from Mr. Celli, when I talked to him afterward. “I didn’t do anything,” he said, “it’s all about the natural harmonics of the instruments.” In a sense he’s right, but in creating the pieces he did he found a way to strip away external construct and expectation and let the natural intervals and overtones of the instruments be heard. That’s not nothing. Brian Johnson himself had a memorable thought which he included in the program notes. He was talking in reference to Streetcar, the piece for solo triangle: “I’ll always remember thinking that the definition of a genius is the ability to make the most from the least.”

I really appreciate having the opportunity to experience special musical happenings like this in Vermont. I guess other folks do too, last night was a full house. One more way in which the concept of traditional ‘minimanlism’ was deconstructed.

Thanks to Brian Johnson and fellow percussionists Jeff Salisbury and Howard Kalfus for their very fine performance, and to the composers and Flynn staff for their vision and for making it happen. It was an unforgettable night of music.

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