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Strike: New Zealand percussion music
Gareth FARR Volume Pig [11:21]
Ross HARRIS Ricochet (1999) [7:35]
Miriama YOUNG Iron Tongue [5:05]
Don McGLASHAN Work Songs (1989) [9:43]
David DOWNES Painting with Breath [6:03]
Murray HICKMAN Cube (1999) [23:12]
Traditional, arr. George UPU Taku Manu E [5:43]
Percussion: Jeremy Fitzsimons, Alison Low Choy, Murray Hickman, Tim Whitta
With Gareth Farr, Bruce McKinnon and Ryan Reiss, percussion, and Rolf Gjelsten, accordion
rec. Adam Concert Room, Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, 31 Jan–3 Feb 2000 DDD
CREATIVE NZ MMT2030 [68:42]


Standard fare for a reviewer of classical music includes a wide variety of styles of music written by composers of varying amounts of fame. It can be a great many things, from string quintets or wind ensembles to organ and keyboard performances. As a general rule though, even the largest ensembles or loudest organs are not aggressive enough to cause any sort of concern.

From the time that you read the warning on the label, you know that this is not standard fare. "Warning: This recording covers an extreme dynamic range. Damage could result to speakers or other components if this CD is played back at excessively high levels." Primal shouts, rhythmic acrobatics, pitched percussion, whistle blasts, and occasional forays into the realm of humor all are markedly prevalent throughout. Part Kodo, part Stomp, Strike is a very talented New Zealand based percussion ensemble that seems to have a bit of a brazen streak. Often in the realms of what most consider classical music, that is a negative. Here they rightfully wear their brashness on their sleeve.

The opening is a technically difficult offering by Gareth Farr incorporating tom-toms, whistles, brake drums, and a variety of other instruments. The packaging claims that Volume Pig is the name of a species of swine found in the Southland bogs of New Zealand, or is a colloquialism describing a composer of loud music. Assuredly the latter is true. Through the first seven minutes it sounds very like a Japanese drum group, complete with rhythmic shouts. Then, in one of the breaks, an accordion player seems to wander in from the outside. This alien intruder is then removed with, quite literally, a .44 Magnum handgun. In the booklet, the members of Strike assure the listeners that "no pigs or accordion players were harmed in the making of this recording." However, this cheekiness mixed with multi-instrumental facility and rhythmic dexterity sets the mood for the rest of the album.

The following track, Ricochet, is played on three sets of identical percussion equipment. Included in each set is wood, metal, skin, and "junk" percussion, played with bamboo sticks. It is an exercise in the tradition of Steve Reich, flowing from synchronous to asynchronous rhythms and back again. It is a truly interesting work to listen to in headphones or a widely-set stereo system, as the sound moves constantly for the entirety of the work.

After the first two exercises in rhythm, the group then turns to a gamelan influenced melodic work: Iron Tongues. The idea is for each member to play off one another, trying to be the loudest and most virtuosic player, using a different instrument defined by its inherent characteristics. There are the marimbas, brake drums, tom-toms, and kick drum trading off melodies performed in varying ways. Often the shape of the melody is familiar, but there is no way to reproduce the actual pitches. The result is a truly interesting and fairly unique work.

Work Songs follows in three movements. It is a pattern piece for cowbell, wood block, snare drum, and floor toms where the members play in several time signatures simultaneously, or occasionally (according to the liner notes) pantomime passages where the performers "misplace" their sticks. This again seems to be a work with its roots in Steve Reich’s and Terry Riley’s percussion pieces from the 1960s through the 1980s. The patterns are obvious, but the beauty is in the synchronicity of the performance. It would be an interesting piece to watch, as the sections of pantomime obviously do not render well to audio recordings. The overall effect is still somewhat hypnotizing.

Painting with Breath changes pace yet again, introducing long bamboo poles as instruments. At this point, the group begins to sound a bit like the recordings of Blue Man Group, sans electronic instruments. Most of the music is made by slinging the bamboo sticks through the air as one would a sword. Additionally, as the performers "play" the sticks, they begin to breathe more heavily, and their breath becomes part of the sound. Once the traditional percussion is added to the sound-play, the piece becomes something truly intriguing. It becomes evident just with what precision the percussionists are working together. The sound engineering on this particular song must be commended in and of itself, as the wind ropes, bamboo poles, and performers themselves are all audible and cleanly recorded. Considering the wide range of movements that are required to make the sounds, and the needed closeness of the microphones to the sound sources, this is truly a feat of note.

The next 23 minutes contains a 5 movement work built around continuous movement and choreography. Cube is apparently a work of audible choreography as much as anything. Alas, due to the visual nature of the work, it comes off as one of the least interesting audibly. Not to say that it is without merit. It simply is comparatively simple and quite long. The work does become somewhat hypnotic in several places, but active listening is quite difficult at times. It does finish strong with the last movement containing an interesting hemiola, suggesting 7/8 but with the low bass drums staying in 4/4 in places, or building itself around multi-metric duple/triple meters. However, considering the relative simplicity of these metrics for this group of percussionists, even as it increases in volume and tempo, there is little to get excited by.

The conch shell being sounded and the vocal shouts signal the end of Cube and the beginning of Taku Manu E, a collection of traditional drum rhythms from the southern Cook Islands. The inspiration is a bird flying from one group of islands to another. The implementation is energetic, a little raw, and really enthusiastic. It changes tempo several times, and contains the largest ensemble on the album. All seven performers act as a single player, regardless of tempo, able to shift seamlessly and instantly. While the work is not experimental in the way that many of the other tracks are earlier in the album, it is probably the most entertaining.

The album, when complete, is definitely a showcase for Strike. They are obviously very versatile and engaging. Even the liner notes add to the entertainment value. The music is both well performed and tends to be well selected. Fans of percussion music or other drum ensembles are encouraged to give this album due attention. Just make sure you don’t turn it up too loud.

Patrick Gary

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