The Percussion Principle

31. October 2011.

HK (Heinz Karl) Gruber has got rhythm. Lots of it. You wouldn’t know it by looking at him. He’s avuncular, professorial, and bespectacled but he’s got more beat in his soul than a heap of hip-hop artists one third his age. This is unusual for a composer and conductor of symphonic music. But unusual is the stock and trade of NYYD, the musical aggregation that showcases new music and put on Friday’s performance of Gruber’s modern compositions in conjunction with ERSO.

The night began with a fairly long piece for percussion, “Rough Music”, which featured guest soloist Colin Currie. Currie needed a fairly sizable bowl of Wheaties to have the energy pull this off. The composition required that he literally run from one percussive apparatus to the next to perform the piece. Beginning on a massive set of vibes, he set off for a smaller one, then a rock’ n’roll drum kit, next kettledrums etc. This man has an expensive vocation. Hopefully ERSO had this stuff in storage for him, because hauling it around would be, put succinctly, burdensome.

Hats off to Currie, though. It’s hard to imagine that there are many people who could play this piece. It makes one wonder what Gruber had in mind when he penned it. “Rough Music” came in three parts. Parts one and three had some very American and especially Gershwin-esque passages. Homage to cinema music could be gleaned. These parts would inevitably amble off into cacophony at some point, with Currie pounding away on one drum or another. Part two saw Currie on the conventional pop drum set, and the racket was brought to euphony. Currie’s performance was pretty astounding and the thirty odd minute “Rough Music” ended with him beating the stuffing out of a giant bass drum.

After a long intermission to clear away all the gear needed for “Rough Music”, the songs of HK Gruber continued with “Northwind Pictures” and more expansive percussive experimentation. As the name of the piece implies, a storm ensued. A wind machine, gongs, simulated cat meows and even a foot-stomping hillbilly flourish from first violin Arvo Leibur added to the powerful musical whirlwind. Prominent parts for cello played at high register and clarinet were featured. This was an interesting and dynamic piece.

Concluding was the less convincing “Dancing in the Dark” which lost its tenuous thread and wandered into the land of musical gibberish, despite its potent and formidable conclusion. This was the kind of work that inspires a polite “interesting” in the listener, but no more.

Gruber is certainly a genius and a glance at the small audience revealed aficionados and music students who clearly understood the tremendous variance and sophistication of this novel music. Who knows, in a few generations this may be part of the canon.