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Gods, Rhythms, Human
Fabian Ziegler (percussion)
Akvilė Šileikaitė (piano)
Luca Staffelbach (vibraphone) and Benjamin Engli (piano, Reich)
rec. July 2020, Klangscheune Nack, Germany.

I’ve tended to avoid percussion recordings in the past, regarding such performances as somewhat akin to opera - something I want to see as well as hear. There is always room for innovation however, and Fabian Ziegler’s programme is one that attracts on many levels.

John Psathas’s Atlanta is the perfect curtain-raiser, its style summed up perfectly in Claus-Dieter Hanauer’s booklet notes: “the harmonies and improvisational pulse of jazz combine with rock music’s compelling rhythmic drive and the repetitive textures of minimalism, providing it with a motoric energy.” Piano and vibraphone are a perfect foil for each other, and with the added layers of colour, harmonic depth and rhythmic line from the digital audio this is superb fun, leaving aside the extended mythical story that goes along with the music.

Bruce Hamilton’s Interzones creates an entirely different atmosphere from the outset, with surreal associations that are difficult to separate from suspenseful and at times mildly creepy film scores. The cleverly and tightly assembled electronic soundtrack is sourced from the sounds of ‘live’ instruments such as guitar and saxophone, as well as percussion instruments and vibraphone. This creates a refined synergy between the soloist and his sonic environment, and the result is a compelling jazz-tinged narrative, the story for which the listener can supply for themselves.

Steve Reich’s style needs no introduction. The piano and vibraphone sonorities of his Quartet are comfortingly familiar, as is the fast-slow-fast sequence of movements. Reich has long moved past strict minimalism, though the phrases that arise in the Quartet are similar to those he would previously have overlapped and repeated in more homogeneous ostinati in years gone by. He describes it as “one of the more complex [pieces] I have composed. It frequently changes key and often breaks off continuity to pause or take up new material.” The canonic effect of instruments chasing each other is still present, but is chopped up and integrated with more vertical material in the first movement, and develops over groovy ostinati in the last. The central slow movement is an atmospheric nocturne that gives space for the natural decay in the instruments’ chords.

John Psathas makes a welcome return with his highly enjoyable One Study One Summary for marimba, junk percussion and digital audio. This is another terrific piece and one that has been taken up eagerly and understandably by percussion soloists. “The work demands almost circus-like displays of bravura” in the first movement’s rhythmically driving ‘etude’ or One Study, taking us to the less hectic world of One Summary, described as “an atmospheric sound study”.

Every classical percussionist will know Xenakis’ iconic solo percussion piece Psappha, the title of which refers both to the composer’s own cultural identity, and to the ancient Greek poet Sappho, whose “metric irregularities and shifts in her lyric poetry” re-emerge as elements in this work. Xenakis leaves the choice of instruments up to the performer, though specifying three categories of wood, skin and metal. “The work is sharp, brittle and occasionally violent”, and always makes for a dramatic live spectacle, in this case especially with the Chinese gongs in the final section. Fabian Ziegler’s performance is as good as any I’ve heard on record, but while it fits in well with the album’s title, is not, for me, its defining work.

In short, Gods, Rhythms, Human is a superbly produced and expertly performed release that should be on any contemporary music fan’s want list. There is far more to the music than just ‘someone hitting things’, and much of what you will find here has a great deal of immediate appeal and what feels like authentic and durable quality.

Dominy Clements

John PSATHAS (b. 1966)

Atlanta for vibraphone, piano and digital audio (2020) [8:41]
Bruce HAMILTON (b. 1966)
Interzones for vibraphone and digital audio (1996) [10:52]
Steve REICH (b. 1936)
Quartet for two vibraphones and two pianos (2013) [17:46]
One Study One Summary for marimba, junk percussion and digital audio (2005) [12:15]
Iannis XENAKIS (1922-2001)
Psappha for percussion solo (1975) [13:39]

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