Feature Review: … fffade away …

Written by: Edward Lewis

Guildhall School of Music & Drama, London

28 & 29 January 2006

“75 years of percussion ensemble music in a weekend”

The Guildhall of Music and Drama is celebrating 125 years of existence. But the first cause for my own personal celebration was actually finding the venue for “… fffade away …”, the Guildhall School’s festival of 75 years of music for percussion ensemble.

Before any of this dedication could begin, there remained the almost impossible challenge of finding my way across the Barbican complex. And so I begin by making a simple plea to whatever powers that be – please invest in some signs! Normally, navigating the Barbican is akin to the opening moments of “Alice in Wonderland”, involving rabbit holes and Cheshire cats. But the Guildhall School is hidden in its own special way. After weaving my way through small passages, underpasses, endless corridors and finding myself, more than once, emerging from the back of a wardrobe to be greeted by a demi-faun, I was reserving a special kind of hell for the person who had placed a sign to the Guildhall School directing me into a staircase with, apparently, no other exits.

Thankfully, the weekend of offerings from the combined percussionists of the Guildhall School was more than worth the effort. The aims appeared to be to introduce the audience to the ‘new music ghetto’ of percussion ensemble repertoire, to explore, in the words of the programme, what makes percussionists “useful musicians for both today and tomorrow”, and to examine some of the ethnic associations some of that music brings.

There is no doubting the enormous talent of the assorted musicians participating in the Weekend, some 18 or so of them – all enthusiastic, energetic and engaging, led by the strangely charismatic Richard Benjafield, a professor of percussion at the Guildhall School, and the effervescent Chris Brannick. Their ability to whip up the percussionists into an impassioned exploration of percussion ensemble music proved a shining example of a fresh, genuine and, above all, enjoyable approach to contemporary music-making.

Framed by opening and closing concerts (the latter to be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 as a part of the “Hear and Now” series), the weekend included an African Drumming Workshop, recitals by Benjafield and Brannick’s Three Strange Angels (a duo!) and the Sankorfa Quartet, a performance of Peter McGarr’s community piece Time Horizons and assorted other seemingly spontaneous events.

Every performance was worthy of comment, but other than to mention that all of the music I witnessed was performed with skilful relish, and much of it proved immensely thought-provoking, it is best if I highlight a few of the most noteworthy moments…

The opening concert introduced us to an often-bizarre assortment of instruments. Indeed, I now suspect that percussionists wonder the streets in a ringing haze, looking at everything and wandering what would happen if they hit it with a really big mallet. Lou Harrison’s The Drums of Orpheus, receiving its UK premiere, drew us into a world littered with South African marimbas, assorted wine glasses, and the odd saw, creating the visual impression gained by looking at a large building site – every skilled labourer seems totally involved in their own pursuits, magically knowing what they should be doing, and then somehow, as if conjured from the firmament, a spectacular building emerges. Substitute percussionists for builders (not always that hard a mental leap) and you’ll get the idea.

The visual elements of the performances needs underlining – the percussionists are not only multi-skilled musicians, but are consummate performers. The lines between music, theatre, and art were all called into question. The spectacular performance of Steve Reich’s Drumming was entrancing. Watching Ben Hartley, Liz Barker, Becky Browne and Bex Burch launch into the opening section was like watching a well-oiled engine, never once slipping as new and complex rhythms emerged. The ability to reverse their sticks in unison without missing a beat was a delightfully showy touch!

On Sunday, Simon Limbrick’s Drum Gods certainly crossed the unnecessary line into physical theatre and dance, as the cohort of percussionists wandered the stage with nothing but a pair of sticks each, interacting with each other, forming constantly shifting groups and physical permutations, and all the time maintaining a complex and driving rhythm.

Sankorfa’s collaboration with four dancers to John Cage’s Credo in US completed the journey into dance, and Benjafield and Brannick’s performance of McGarr’s Night Scented Stock took us straight through theatre without even stopping at the box office, and out into the uncharted lands of the plain bizarre. This piece was certainly engrossing, but then spending half-an-hour in a butcher’s shop with a jumpy schizophrenic could also be engrossing. Prepared piano, bowed glockenspiel, yodelling, a baffling recitation of names, a music box, and singing – all made an appearance. The climax, however, had to be when Benjafield strode to the centre of the stage, licked his hands, slicked back the hair that appeared to have holiday plans of its own, and was interrupted by what appeared to be a bin being kicked over offstage, followed by a loud Mancunian accent urging “and don’t bloody well come back”. On cue, Benjafield brandished a harmonica, and launched into a solo. And who is Mrs Kinsey?

Returning from this outpost of the criminally insane to the climes of the simply strange, the audience itself was cajoled into performing in David Charles Martin’s ‘A Load of Ag’, by chanting to itself while five performers attempted to out-solo each other, with each being voted off one by one. The five performers surpassed themselves, roaming the stage in search of items with which to impress, while Chris Brannick, in his own inimitable fashion, urged them and us on. His Rod Stewart impression wasn’t bad, either.

Perhaps a step too far, however, was John White’s Drinking & Hooting Machine, in which all the performers lined up across the front of the stage, each with a bottle of beer, and proceeded to swig and blow across the top. An interesting concept, but perhaps the time passes faster when you’re drinking.

This final concert was concluded with a display of Ghanaian Drumming. The power and might of 21 drummers hurling themselves into the performance was overwhelming, especially upon the entry of three immense bass drums, and the display of natural communication that these performers have developed was impressive. Although the rhythms coursed through our bodies, one was still aware that these were musicians trained in the Western traditions (although some had studied in Africa, admittedly). I have seen tribes play on the African plains, and there is a certain magic that we might be able to study and understand, but it will never be ours. But that didn’t stop the assembled percussionists coming close.

That these young musicians are incredibly talented there is no doubt. Whatever the limits of their wide-ranging skills are, we didn’t encounter them, and their sheer enjoyment of their brand of music-making was highly infectious. It is a great credit to the Guildhall School that they are given the support and space to study, create and innovate, and use the opportunity so wonderfully.

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