This review written by freelance arts critic Luke Quinton
A blue light glowed on a pillar at the center. We were inside the gallery at Canopy, where Line Upon Line Percussion was hosting its February show, part of their ongoing series, blending the music and art worlds. This program featured three newly commissioned pieces.
The crowd circled the room’s perimeter in chairs, while metal cables fell from the ceiling pillar, attached to a rope that draped across to the music stands and percussion instruments below. An arresting visual, and more than a prop, as the ensemble would explain.
“When we play the piece, we are reading off the ropes,” Line Upon Line’s Matt Teodori said.
They had commissioned UK composer Claudia Molitor for a new piece, “and she sent us these” — he paused — “ropes.”
The crowd gave a quick laugh. This is the sort of playfulness people seek out at these shows. Ingeniously, it turned out that the ropes contained information, knots tied into the rope that could be read as music.
“Entangled” was a piece that had as much in common with music as it did with experimental theater. The trio grabbed the ends of the ropes, and that’s when you realized that the ropes weren’t just hanging in a straight line from the ceiling but were draped like a messy spiderweb throughout the music stands, cymbals and vibraphone.
The performers started from the loose end and felt the rope with their hands. They would stop to perform the action indicated by the knots and then move on to the next knot. The lines crossed, hanging over other ropes, making obstacles as the three players walked over and under the strands.
The performance consisted of whispered sentences and short rhythms played on a sort of leafy dried palm (surely there is a name for this instrument, but internet searches for experimental percussion can be rather inscrutable) and tapped prescribed rhythms on their bellies or forearms like bored teenagers.
As they went forward, the trio wrapped the rope around their bodies. Finally, at the end, they reach the pillar and the carabiner holding each strand. On cue, they released.
They whispered phrases like “intangible places of reference” and “ceases to exist” — words, the program notes, that come from George Perec, the late French member of the literary experiments group Oulipo.
As an artistic exercise, “Entangled” was worthwhile, though, as it’s largely silent, it’s also an exercise in audience patience.
“Alchemy Test,” by Central Texas composer Brett Kroening, was more typically musical and a little more satisfying. At its center was an eerie, rapidly punctuated interplay between a vibraphone and glockenspiel. It seemed straightforward, until this meshing was interrupted by loud tom toms that banged in out of left field. It could conjure up the oddball machinery in a chemist’s studio.
More experimental again was “Engraving on Bronze” by Pablo Vergara, which took the idea of engraving seriously. Teodori, in his introduction, linked this piece to the famed cymbal company Zildjian, a company that has made cymbals for 300 years.
The musicians were scribbling madly on these cymbals as if they were paper. It sounded like the act of creation. Like cymbals being born. Smoothing over everything was the occasional booming gong, seeming to symbolize the rough dawn of … something.
A fourth piece came as a surprise, as it wasn’t listed on the program. Turned out it was a preview of a soon-to-be-premiered work at the Brown Symposium, in March, at Southwestern University in Georgetown.
This work was a bit of an odyssey for the listener. The symposium’s theme is “Art and Revolution,” so this work, “Revolve/Retract” by Jason Hoogerhyde, “revolves” around key changes. At times it sounds as though there are three unique players that each sound like they’re tumbling down Alice’s rabbit hole at the same time. It moves from frantic to thoughtful and even has a bit of a humorous intrusion when a comical section brings deadened mallets to play. It all ends in a moment of calm and chill, when a bowed vibraphone returns. If you make your way to Georgetown for this event in March, it will be worth your time.
This isn’t the meat and potatoes show that we are sometimes spoiled by when it comes to percussion music; the big, pulsing works with shifty rhythms and addicting arpeggios. These more experimental concerts are opportunities to push out boundaries, shake off the doldrums and try new things.