By Max Newman
“We are the laboratory for sonic experimentation.”
This is how Ross Karre described the Oberlin Percussion Group (OPG), who will perform on Wednesday, May 3, at 7:30 PM in Warner Concert Hall. I sat down with Karre, who serves as the group’s director, and associate professor of percussion at Oberlin, in his office to discuss the upcoming concert.
The ideas of musical trial and error and experimentation were prevalent in Karre’s descriptions of the performance’s sound.
“Sometimes we try something and it doesn’t work, and sometimes we try something and it’s a huge revelation of sound. The reasons you may curate a program based on similar ideas and genres are absent from this. It’s all about jumping into the laboratory, trying things out, and these pieces came out of various laboratories.”
It’s a concept that Karre has taken from his own experience, especially from his 11 years with the International Contemporary Ensemble. “The ensemble’s programming is very similar in that it’s not conceptually thematic or stylistically driven; it’s all about creating new sounds.” This pushing of percussive boundaries is part of a greater attempt to radicalize western European orchestral percussion tradition that Karre says started in the mid 20th century. “They were just trying stuff out, as autonomous percussionists.”
Karre’s work with the IC Ensemble also allowed him to meet all of the composers represented in the OPG concert’s meticulously compiled program. “I want to introduce [my students] to new artists and composers that are people they may not be familiar with, people whose work is being performed worldwide. There’s a tradition of percussive music only written for the university context, and it’s important to me that we don’t engage in that music.” Karre sees this as an extension of what the four large ensembles of the Oberlin Conservatory are doing, “with an infusion of more free and open works.”
There are other purposes behind the selections, as well. Karre emphasized the pedagogical importance of musically challenging his students. Additionally, he emphasized the gender and racial diversity within the composers group, in adherence to the OPG’s values.
The concert’s location will also play a pivotal role — the hall is extremely reverberant, and percussionists will tailor their sound to fit the space. “We have to make big decisions on what to do sonically in Warner. But the overall result for the audience is still the experience of the wonder of percussion. My hope is that we’ve prepared well enough that not too much gets lost in that space.”
The hour and a half-long performance (which will also be 100% acoustic) will open with Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s “aura,” which Karre says will be a “palette cleanser.”
“If you come into this concert expecting to hear groovy percussion music, you won’t be disappointed, but it’s not going to happen right away.” The arrangement has a naturalistic soundscape, in direct contrast to Jlin’s heavily gridded and grooving “Perspective.” There are some similarities between the pieces, though. “Both explore sounds in a unique and radical way,” says Karre, “even though Jlin’s piece is almost entirely struck percussion, while Thorvaldsdottir’s is almost entirely friction percussion.”
The program continues with Vijay Iyer’s “Torque,” which uses mixed meter percussion; Karre describes it as taking Jlin’s rhythmic energy, but with a large variety of complex rhythmic components. This is followed by Anahita Abbasi’s “Situation XI – Sphere,” which Karre says is the “most poetic” of the pieces on the program. The work, commissioned as a birthday present to former Oberlin Conservatory percussion professor Michael Rosen, is exploratory, with lots of silence. There are direct influences, Karre says, from the European avant-garde tradition.
After a brief intermission, the concert will conclude with Jessie Cox’s 24 minute “Black as a Hack for Cyborgification.” Performed in collaboration with the Oberlin Creative Music Lab, Karre says, “It’s almost like we start a new concert — it’s a journey in and of itself.”
It’s a fitting end to a concert that will certainly be a brilliant display of percussion experimentation. Truly, this is a sonic laboratory that you will not want to miss out on.