Disclaimers – it has been over 35 years since I have delved into the language of mallet percussion and chamber music. My use of the appropriate terms may be off, but I am very open to learn more! A second note is that this review is my interpretation of the music as I closed my eyes and listened intently. All pieces on this album are wonderful, moving, and brought me back to a time and place long ago. Care to accompany me on this journey? Read on!
It was the fall of 1977, the start of my 8th grade year. Our music director, John Rock (wonderful director BTW) approached me, a wannabe percussionist, regarding transitioning from skins to keys. Always up for a challenge, I said yes. I remember the gleam in his eye with every lesson, showcasing his mallet prowess will giving me a vast appreciation for all things orchestra. He was a percussionist first, director second, and just a fun loving teacher who seemed to enjoy taking the geeky kid under his wing to teach him the ins and outs of mallets.
I remember the childlike glow in his eyes as he taught me the intricacies of percussion’s role in a piece of music. He relished in the bass line, the rhythm, the melody and all things in between. He was almost giddy when he played tapes (a magnetic medium used to record music in the times between Beethoven and 1988) of great percussionists doing their thing and then demonstrating his technique on the keys. Sadly, I did not become a percussion prodigy, but thankfully I did gain a passion for all things music and an appreciation for those who make it happen.
I recently had the opportunity to listen to the Philadelphia Percussion + Piano Project’s new album, No Strings Attached and found myself going back to where it all began. Composer Marc Mellits originally wrote the six movements for the Auchincloss Piano which used the sound of a Belgian harpsicord with a vibraphone tone over the top, adding a 70s synthesizer flare to an 18th century sound. Director Phillip O’Banion approached Mellits with a challenge to arrange the piece for four mallet percussion. He was up for the challenge, stating that “the more challenges and restrictions you put upon yourself, the more creative you are.” He was thrilled to give the piece a new audience. Creativity is often called ‘thinking outside the box’. The O’Banion vision as created through the eyes (and tones) of Mellits proves that one does not have to think outside the box when the end product redefines the box.
As I listened to the first track, “Black”, which has been performed over 3000 times globally as it exists in multiple versions, I was taken back to 1977. This version, consisting of four marimbas, starts with a single marimba, with the others joining in with different melody lines as the piece progresses. This was a great starting point and I am hoping that video of the performance is released soon.
The next piece, “No Strings Attached” is divided into five movements. The first, “Splifficated Mustard”, starts with a bassy marimba line with powerful vibes joining in the melody. It is interesting to listen as the two are quite distinct throughout, periodically converging to only diverge once again. In a way, it almost defines the ‘No Strings Attached’ moniker (in the non-musical sense) in that there is separation throughout with periodic togetherness, before once again moving on in a non-committal way. The second movement, “Stiletto Crunch” is an attention grabber as it as the vibes and marimba crescendo and decrescendo overtaking each other periodically. There are several apparent abrupt endings, perhaps to draw the listener in before delivering a crunching stiletto jab. This movement would be one that would bring out the giddy childlike nature of John Rock. From the stiletto we go to movement 3, “This Side of Twilight”. Before seeing the title, as I closed my eyes and listened, I envisioned water fairies dancing on the water as the sun set in the west, which played well into movement 4, “Curried Kafka” which gave me a feeling of moonlight reflecting off a body of water with the marimba rolls as the ripples and the vibe sounds as the shimmer of light. As a nuclear engineer and a one-time physics instructor, the final movement, “Quarks and Leptons” made me think I had died and gone to heaven! In the mallet percussion world, the marimba and vibes make up all (things that) matter (pun intended).
The next piece, “Troica”, is somewhat of a departure from the no strings, percussion only theme (unless one looks at the piano as a stringed percussion instrument, as the hammers impact the strings, but I digress) as the piano enhanced the melody as it was played along side the vibes and marimba. Based on what I could glean from the name, a troica is a Russian carriage drawn by three horses. The sound of the piece did make me feel the rhythm of trotting horses, perhaps each represented by the different instruments. What was quite entertaining was how the piano was used to continue various progressions (I hope I got the term correct). I especially noticed this effect when the vibes reached their end, the piano kicked in and finished. While all three horses propelling a cart must work together, so must the vibes, marimba, and piano in this piece.
The next piece, “Red” was divided into 6 movements, defined by tempo and feeling. The first movement had a funky flare transitioning to the second which was fast and furious with an in your face tone, with the bassier marimba setting the pace and the vibes acting as the aggressor. The next 4 movements had… well, movement! The first of the four had a moderate tempo. One can feel the music approach and back off with each crescendo and decrescendo. The next was at a much slower pace, almost silent at the start, slowly getting louder as the music approached. The next motion movement was again moderate, but rather than motion to and from, the motion was more dancelike and intense. The final motion movement was fast and based on the title, somewhat meaningless (bombastic). What I noticed about this piece was that the vibes and marimba were very much in synch, with the tones slightly different, but the structure essentially the same. The final movement was appropriately named, “Fast, Obsessive, Bombastic, Red“.
The final piece on the album is titled “Gravity” and is a single movement. With its bass marimba, marimba, and vibes, this piece brought it all home with a few interesting pauses along the way. While it was a single movement, there were multiple instrumental plotlines in the piece, highlighting each instrument and musician. While there were no solos per se, each artist / instrument played a lead role in various parts of this piece, which fits in with the gravity theme. One could say that in the universe as well as the music world, there is a force that draws us together. That force was strong in this piece.
With the conclusion of “Gravity” came the end of the album. It was a fitting end as it was the force that not only tied the album together but also brought me back to my musical roots in a time long ago. As I closed my eyes with each piece I could see and feel the joy a friend and a teacher from long ago would feel with the percussion rhythms and tones as he explained the story in musical language. The journey provided by the Philadelphia Percussion + Piano Project was out of this world, brought back by gravity, all with “No Strings Attached”.
Album release by BCM+D Records
Recorded at Boyer College of Music and Dance, Temple University 1715 N. Broad Street, Philadelphia, PA 19122 boyer.temple.edu.
Philadelphia Percussion + Piano Project
The Philadelphia Percussion + Piano Project is an ongoing chamber music consort, with a mission to underscore the variety and depth of the chamber percussion and piano repertoire. Versatile by nature, this ensemble draws from a pool of virtuosic talent across the region, adjusting in size and instrumentation as needed to maximize the range of works it performs. The ensemble’s performances have included everything from Antheil to Reich, from ‘classics’ of the modern repertory to newly commissioned works. (courtesy of Philadelphia Percussion + Piano Project).
Phillip O’Banion, director *
Christopher Deviney *
Angela Zator Nelson *
William Wozniak *
* Temple University percussion faculty
Arrangement and composition by Marc Mellits