Oberlin Blogs

Two Weeks, Three Performances

April 13, 2018

Rachel Gibson ’20

These past two weeks have been filled with some of the most important performances of the year. On April 3rd, the Oberlin Percussion Group presented their annual concert, which featured works by John Cage, George Crumb, and a premiere by James Wood. 

First, we opened the concert with Cage's Credo in US, which includes piano, two percussionists playing tin cans, a radio, and a record player. I digitalized the radio and record player part, and I controlled the recording through an application on my phone. I used an online radio station of old Western music and dramas as well. My role was to stop and start the music during the piece. My teacher, Michael Rosen, did the narration that was only included in the original manuscript of the piece. Cage was known for creating innovative works for percussion and often used chance techniques (like flipping a coin, for example) to compose his music. After my John Cage Winter Term project, my teacher gave me the opportunity to pick out one of Cage's pieces for our concert and also let me write the program notes for the piece. It was a great experience to be able to prepare one of his pieces. 

Computer with percussion instruments
My setup for Credo in US by John Cage.

Next, the four oldest percussionists in my studio premiered James Wood's piece for marimba quartet. It focused on bird calls and constellations. It was truly a beautiful and meditative piece (it also sounded really hard). They had to make bamboo wind chimes to hang and hit during the piece. They basically suspended bamboo branches from a small piece of wood, and it created a very unique and distinct sound. 

Percussion instruments across a stage
So many percussion instruments!

Lastly, we played a piece by George Crumb, which included a set of African American spirituals for a vocalist accompanied by a percussion quartet. Each of us had about 20+ percussion instruments to play during the entire piece! It was definitely one of the most challenging pieces I have worked on. We were fortunate to have Professor Timothy LeFebvre (voice faculty) sing for us. There were so many different collages of sounds during this work. Crumb is very specific when writing for percussion as well - he even instructed us to play a vibraphone with knitting needles. His score are always hand-written and usually feature staves of music arranged to look like a picture. In one of the movements of this piece, the music was arranged to look like a sun. 

More percussion instruments!
My percussion set-up for the George Crumb piece.

The next performance took place on April 6th, which was the Contemporary Music Ensemble's concert. I played in the first piece, which was Christopher Stark's True North. It was so cool because the composer made two small synths to be played by the percussionists. I thought this was a perfect combination of percussion and TIMARA. The piece was showcasing spectral music and featured many quarter tones in the strings. 

This concert also featured Jonathan Harvey's Bird Concerto with Pianosong, and Oberlin brought in Ursula Oppens, a renowned pianist who specializes in contemporary music, to play the piano and synthesizer part. Every instrument in the ensemble is amplified and processed through a computer live. Their sound is also spatialized around the room in eight speakers by two joysticks that are connected to a computer. I worked on the live electronics part of the piece with my professor, Abby Aresty, and another student during Winter Term. We updated the Max/MSP patch (a program used for the live electronics) that we received from the group who last performed it. There was so much equipment that it took a bit over two hours to set it all up in Warner Concert Hall. We also had to troubleshoot technical difficulties the day of the dress rehearsal, and we ended up meeting at 7AM the next morning to figure everything out before the concert that night. The first full run-through with the electronics was pretty much at the concert, but it turned out wonderfully. Everything worked as it should have. This concert brought out a ton of people, and it was probably one of the most well-attended contemporary music concerts of the year. This piece was an adventure, and it now holds a very dear place in my heart. It was a fantastic experience to be able to work with Ursula Oppens as well. I can't believe that this three-month project has finally come to a close. This piece was so intricate that it probably won't be played again for a very long time. Everyone was very impressed with our work, and I felt great about how everything turned out.

A computer on a table with a small sinfonietta on a stage in the distance.
Live electronics for Jonathan Harvey's Bird Concerto with PIanosong.

My last performance was on April 10th in Cleveland. A friend of mine who graduated last year from the Conservatory works with an organization called The Syndicate for the New Arts and books experimental music shows in Cleveland. He asked me if I would like to open the concert with my theremin, and of course I said yes. It was an awesome experience to be able to play in the city, and I felt like this was my chance to start breaking into the new music scene in Cleveland. My performance seemed to be well-received, and a lot of people approached me afterward and gave me very encouraging compliments. The coolest part about the show was that someone was doing live projections onto the wall throughout the night while people played, which made the experience visual and auditory for the audience. 

A girl playing a theremin in a church.
Theremin love.

These last two weeks have definitely been some of the busiest for me, but ultimately, they were the most rewarding of them all. 

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