“Our mission, our goal as an ensemble, is to play percussion music that we feel is as good as any other chamber music for any other instruments that is being written now, and get it in front of people who have never heard it before,” Ian Rosenbaum declares of Sandbox Percussion, the esteemed quartet of which he’s a member. When we spoke, Rosenbaum was in Albany, NY, where he and fellow Sandbox members Jonathan Allen, Terry Sweeney, and Victor Caccese were performing the premiere of a new concerto for percussion and sinfonietta by Viet Cuong.
Sandbox Percussion is back on its home turf this week, appearing at National Sawdust June 7 with a program featuring recent pieces by two composers well known to the group’s members, and to one another: Christopher Cerrone and Timo Andres, fellow members of the collaborative Sleeping Giant. The program offers the New York premiere of two inventive, sharply contrasting works: Cerrone’s Goldbeater’s Skin, a setting of poetry by G.C. Waldrep featuring mezzo-soprano Elspeth Davis; and Andres’s Austerity Measures, a rigorous, kaleidoscopic reworking of a theme by Bach.
Via e-mail, Andres – a National Sawdust curator – provided his thoughts about sharing a bill with Cerrone:
In close friendships between artists, it can be difficult to disentangle the mix of personal and professional spheres, aesthetic influences and differences, shared tastes and experiences. My friendship with Chris surely formed around our shared profession, but is mostly, gleefully, non-professional, kept up through endless hyperactive iMessage conversations, cooking elaborate Italian meals, exchanging advice, complaints, discoveries, even (for a couple chaotic years) sharing a small Brooklyn apartment. I’ve certainly nicked some musical things from him over the past nine years, as I expect he has from me, even as we follow our own distinct compositional paths. The things that I value in Chris are the same things I recognize in his music — a seemingly endless capacity for close examination of the world (himself included) while simultaneously finding generous, visceral pleasure and humor in the complexities of those things.
Rosenbaum – whose recent solo album Memory Palace(released on VIA Records, National Sawdust’s house label) includes pieces by Cerrone and Andres – talked about his connections with each composer, what you might expect to hear on June 7, and what Sandbox Percussion seeks in its collaborators.
THE LOG JOURNAL: How did this specific program come about? What were you thinking when you put this one together? IAN ROSENBAUM: The program definitely started with Chris Cerrone’s piece. Goldbeater’s Skin is a new piece; he just finished it in December or early January. He wrote it for Sandbox and for Third Coast Percussion. They gave the world premiere out at Notre Dame in February, and then we started playing it very shortly after – we played our first concert in April. But all along, Chris and I had been talking about where to play it in the city, and of course National Sawdust is very dear to my heart and to his heart, so that felt like a good place to do it.
Then we were trying to think of what to pair it with. In the beginning, actually, this was not the first concert idea that we had. Since the work is for percussion quartet and mezzo-soprano, there’s one other wonderful piece by [György] Ligeti for that same group [Síppal, dobbal, nádihegedüvel]. It’s a super late piece of Ligeti’s; he wrote it in 2000, right before he died. So we were thinking about pairing it with that, but the Ligeti has an extreme amount of crazy big instruments, and it wasn’t going to be practical to do it at Sawdust.
Crazy big in terms of actual size? Literally: all these gongs and temple bowls and mallet instruments and stuff. It didn’t seem feasible for the space. So we abandoned that idea, and we started thinking about what we could pair it with, and Timo’s piece came up. Timo had also written a piece for Third Coast, several years back, and they played it a couple of times but then put it aside, and it hadn’t been played since then. He’s a good friend of mine; I went to school with him a long time ago. One of his pieces is on my CD. So we thought that it could be fun to present these two pieces by these two people, since they’ve been such good friends for so long, and they work together all the time. We thought it could be interesting to present two of their recent percussion works in the same concert, and then have them talk about how they approach writing for percussion and what that means for them, and what these two pieces are about.
This might not apply to Timo’s piece, since it was written for another group, but were you able to work with the composers in a collaborative sense?
For Timo’s piece not at all, because that was commissioned for Third Coast. We are working with him now for this performance. But with Chris’s piece, we did spend a lot of time with him. He came over to the studio two or three times at various stages of progress through the piece. The first time, he just had some very small sketches – he had a kind of slowish movement and a fast movement. And we kind of played around… he did the normal thing where he goes into the studio, he looks at all the instruments that we have, and then we just start taking things off the shelves and trying the music that he’s written on various different things, to see what works. And then I think he came back a little bit later; that was the first time we also met with our singer [Elspeth Davis], and he had some actual text set and something more developed. I think some time in the middle he also went out to Chicago for a few days with Third Coast, where they did a similar sort of thing.
And then leading up to our first performances, which were right after the premiere performance by Third Coast, we met with him one more time. And that was great, because after the premiere he had a bunch of tiny, little things he wanted to change, so we fixed all of those. He’s a very hands-on kind of guy. He likes to be there in the room, tweaking the smallest little things. In his music, some of the hardest things about it are the transitions between the pieces. His multi-movement pieces are often attacca – you finish and go right into the next one – but he kind of writes out the way that you do that. Rather than ending the movement, writing “attacca,” and starting the next one, you’ll play the last note of a movement and then he’ll change the tempo marking to the tempo of the next movement, and then he’ll write out, like, three bars of rests, and then say, “Now begin the next movement.” He tries to really, really specify the amount of time you hold that silence or that moment. I remember we tweaked those things a lot; we would try all different kinds of bars of rests in between the different pieces until he found something that he liked.
You’ve anticipated my next question: What are some of the challenges specific to these two pieces? Let me start with Chris’s piece. Chris’s music is so transparent. On a very practical level, there aren’t a lot of pitches; it’s very diatonic writing. So there’s simply no room for error – you can’t miss any notes, or anything like that. And the actual sounds that you’re making are often… they’re not always soft, but they’re often very beautiful sounds. So if you’re running around, changing sticks, going from instrument to instrument, and then you have to play this triangle note, it still needs to be this incredibly beautiful sound. So you have to figure out a way to get to the instrument that you’re supposed to play, and still have enough time to make a good sound on it.
That connects directly to something that I’ve always thought about percussion-ensemble music: It’s not just about interpretation, it’s not just about playing; it also involves a certain amount of architecture and a certain amount of choreography, just in getting from one instrument and one kind of surface to another smoothly. Mallet changes and things like that all have to factor into your working process. Yeah, and I would say that in Chris’s piece, it’s not even that the set-ups are very big. Sometimes you have to just cover a bunch of square feet to get to where you’re going, but that’s not so much of a problem [here]. The problem is that he makes each player play a bunch of different instruments at the same time. For instance, in my part I’ll be playing vibraphone, but I also need to play bongos and tuned gongs. So at some moment, I have to hit all of those, either exactly at the same time or at basically the same time to kind of create a composite sound. I have to figure out a way to make a good sound on all three of those, but those three instruments each take a very different stick or mallet to make a good sound. Often I’m holding two vibraphone mallets and one triangle beater and one stick or whatever it happens to be, so that in that moment I can make a good sound.
You’re going to have to commission some equipment maker to invent the Cerrone Composite Rod. And it’s hard, because Chris could go out to Chicago, work with Third Coast, and come to a perfect mallet solution with them. They probably have a slightly different mallet collection than we do, so we have to take the color, sound, or atmosphere that he’s trying to create, and then find a way to do our best with the stuff that we have.
Did you use recordings of Third Coast for reference?
No, we didn’t. When we were working on it, it was so soon after their premiere that I don’t think their recording was available. I think they have recently put a video out of the premiere, but I actually haven’t even seen it. I’ve played a lot of Chris’s music, and through all that work with him over many years, I think I have a good idea of the type of vibraphone sound that he’s often looking for. So that was also helpful. If I had not known Chris before, this would have been a lot more difficult.
Balancing with a singer must present a challenge in itself. Oh, yeah. There’s one movement where we play a lot of drums, and she’s singing-slash-speaking over that. That one we amplify her for. The rest of them, Chris has written it skillfully enough that when we’re playing very loud, she’s also on a very high note or something like that, so that we’re not covering her. And for most of the piece, we’re doing things that are sort of gentle enough that we don’t cover her.
We love working with other instrumentalists and especially singers, because they really think about music in a very different way than we do. We’re percussionists, so we sort of tend toward a very vertical interpretation of things. We’re very interested in lining things up, and keeping the time very steady. And a singer is kind of on the other side of the spectrum: very horizontal, everything is about the line they’re creating. And it’s all keyed into their breath, as well. Where they have to breathe is both theatrical and also practical – they just have to breathe at certain points to make things happen. So we learn a lot about the direction of phrases and how to create a climax, or how to set up a whole piece, based on how she interprets the piece and the lines that she has. We learned a lot about the piece through working with her.
What were the challenges specific to Timo’s piece? Timo’s piece is interesting. It’s like 22 minutes long, and the whole thing is based on Bach’s first Invention, the C major. [sings a familiar phrase] The whole thing is based on that, but he does crazy things with it. You play it at pitch, you play it in many different keys, in canon, all of that sort of stuff. But you also do lots of interesting things with playing the contour and rhythms of that piece on lots of unpitched instruments – either at tempo or extremely fast or extremely slow. There’ll be times you’re playing it at a quarter of the speed it’s supposed to go, on pieces of junk metal. And because you’ve already heard the melody of the piece in various forms, hopefully if we’re voicing it correctly you’re still hearing that melody happening even though we’re playing it on tin cans.
It’s also a dense piece; there’s a lot going on, and there’s a lot of different instruments. Everyone has a mallet instrument that they’re playing, but they also have lots of other unpitched sounds. So trying to figure out what is the important line to bring out – what is the actual Bach, and what he’s done with it at that moment – that’s definitely difficult.
Beyond Chris and Timo, specifically, is there something that you’re looking for when Sandbox Percussion decides to work with a given composer? I ask because in a recent interview we ran with Matt Cook of the Los Angeles Percussion Quartet, he mentioned that they like to look for composers who haven’t necessarily written a great deal of music for percussion previously.
Yeah, that is something that we also do. We will often look for composers either who haven’t written a percussion quartet, or haven’t written for percussion in a long time – maybe they wrote a percussion piece five or six years ago, but we feel that their style has changed a bunch in that time, then that would be a good person to reach out to. With Chris, since he’s obviously written a lot of percussion music, I was drawn to this piece because of all of his music, I love his percussion writing and his vocal writing the most. Those are two things I think he does spectacularly well. So when he told me that he had this idea of writing a piece combining those two things, I thought it was the perfect thing.
With Timo, I went to school with Timo, and I first heard a piece of his… this was at Yale, and it was at a contemporary music series concert, and he had written a piece for a bunch of students. I was blown away by the way in this particular piece he used very simple almost pop harmonies, very simple harmonies that were easy to recognize and easy to identify with, but then he extrapolated them and transformed them and did incredibly interesting things with them. It was almost like one could enjoy this music no matter who they were. If you don’t know a lot about new music, that’s fine; you’ll still like listening to this, because it reminds you of other things you’ve heard before. And if you do like contemporary music, you can still be really interested with all of the things that he’s doing; he starts with this simple thing, and then he does a lot of other things to it.
There’s been a real proliferation of percussion music lately, and of percussion groups to play that music. Thinking about identity, and about how you position yourself in – for lack of a better term – a crowded market, what is Sandbox Percussion aimed to address? Our mission, our goal as an ensemble, is to play percussion music that we feel is as good as any other chamber music for any other instruments that is being written now, and get it in front of people who have never heard it before. There’s definitely lots of percussion groups, and every composer is writing a piece right now, and that is all amazing. But still, having a percussion group on a super-conservative classical concert series is not the most common thing. So whenever we get the opportunity to play pieces like this, that we feel really strongly about and that we think people will enjoy if they just give it a chance, whenever we get the opportunity to do that in front of a room of people that have never heard of a vibraphone before, or whatever it happens to be, that’s something that we take really, really seriously. We find that percussion is such a great way into contemporary music – there’s so much visual appeal to it. It can be a lot of fun. And so, if we can get people to just give it a chance, they end up really liking it, and wanting to learn more about it.
That visual appeal, I think, speaks to a lot of people who might find contemporary music a scary prospect. There’s something very relatable about watching bodies in motion. It’s not just a bow arm or a fingering hand; it’s a series of impacts.
That was really a defining moment for me – it was sometime in school when, after watching a lot of performances, I realized that every single move that we make onstage, whether it’s putting down mallets and picking them up or actually playing a note on an instrument, every single movement will naturally affect the way the audience feels about whatever moment you’re in right there. So if you throw away that moment where you change your sticks or you’re doing whatever, then that’s a missed opportunity to do something to connect with the audience, to keep them engaged with what you’re doing. And with percussion it feels so natural, because we are physically hitting the things that we’re playing.
Here’s kind of a classic chicken-or-egg conundrum: We really do seem to be living in kind of a Golden Age of percussion writing. Once upon a time, it wasn’t necessarily the case that every up-and-coming composer was going to turn their attention toward writing for percussion. But now, there’s a proliferation of fine groups, and also a lot of composers doing very serious work. Which of those conditions premeditated the other?
I feel like in some ways, the composers came first. You had people like Bartók writing the Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion. When he did that, he definitely didn’t think that percussionists were capable of doing it. The part is now played by two percussionists, but in the score, he’s like, do this with as many people as you want – three, four, whatever it needs to be – and the pianists should take care to make sure that the percussionists count correctly. He knew that he was writing something that was more difficult than the level of performance that was around [then]. And now, that’s a standard piece that kids in college learn how to play. I think that would have been unthinkable to him at the time.
People writing music like that, stretching the [boundaries] of what’s possible, really inspires us to work harder. I’ve definitely seen that happen when I commission them or I’m the first person who plays them, and I think it’s the hardest thing ever, and I spend months and months on them, and then a few years later you see some kid who’s 18 years old playing that piece on his recital. You’re like, oh my god, how did this happen? I definitely couldn’t have played that when I was 18.
The skill level rises to the challenge of the music that’s out there. And vice versa: Maybe a composer will see that performance and be like, oh my god, I didn’t know that was possible. I’m going to write for that, now.
Right. When percussion ensembles were first getting started, there was a very finite repertoire. But as more and more people became exposed to those ensembles, and were hipped to the expressive possibilities in these groups, composers rose to the challenge and wrote better, more interesting, more engaging pieces. Of course. The composers are really into it because percussionists are often… not that other instrumentalists aren’t, but we’re often very excited about a new piece, and want to work as hard as we possibly can to do justice to what the composer wants. So it’s a win-win for everyone.
Sandbox Percussion plays works by Christopher Cerrone and Timo Andres at National Sawdust on June 7 at 7pm; www.nationalsawdust.org