Percussionists to take over High Falls during Greentopia

06:52 AM, Sep 08, 2013

John Luther Adams, who composed 'Inuksuit,' 70 minutes of percussive sound that builds. (provided by Greentopia)/


Written By Jeff Spevak | Staff music critic

Coming up

See what else is in store for music at Greentopia in Wednesday Living.

Doug Perkins and a bare handful of musician friends, mostly percussionists, plus the composer John Luther Adams, had come to the end of the road. The paved road. Now it was a dirt road.

When it too ended, they rented ATVs and continued across the Alaska tundra, until they’d found a suitable concert site. It was 2 a.m. Yet, that far north during the height of the summer solstice, it was still light outside. The sole piece on the program was Adams’ “Strange and Sacred Noises.”

There was no good reason for us to go there other than to hear the sounds that we were curious about,” Perkins says. “We played to each other and the moose. Just for the sake of the music and to hear what that would be like.

I was a slightly burned-out drummer who had gone to the edge of the Earth to play the music that I loved. And I knew then I was onto something good.”

This is as satisfyingly cryptic as modern classical composition gets. And Perkins will be at the center of another such environmental curiosity at 3 p.m. next Sunday at the Greentopia festival, when he leads about 60 musicians, joined by the sonic presence of the High Falls District, for a performance of Adams’ “Inuksuit.” It is part of a varied music line-up on Saturday and Sunday at Greentopia.

In general, “Inuksuit” is 70 minutes of gentle percussive crescendo, layers upon layers of sound, building to the call of conch shells, an arrhythmicbeating of drums and the crash of gongs.

We say “in general,” because “Inuksuit” changes from performance to performance. The composition is what Perkins calls “not a site-specific piece, but a site-determined piece.” It’s been played indoors a few times — once in a park in Harlem. But it has been mostly played outdoors — once in a Vermont forest. “When you play in a concert hall, the piece sounds more or less the same every time,” Perkins says. “But when you play outdoors, the sound just blows away into the woods.”

It’s like Edgard Varèse with unscripted birds.

A “reformed rock drummer,” Perkins has surrendered to the unhinged aesthetics of the avant-garde.

Now I will hit anything if it makes a good sound,” he says. “This morning I have played marimba, vibraphones, talking drums, standard drum kit, squeaky toys and frog croakers.”

Perhaps this is to be expected of a guy who calls himself a musical nomad. Born in Pittsburgh, the 36-year-old Perkins recently moved to Chicago, where he’s teaching and playing as a percussionist-in-residence with the modern chamber chaos of eighth blackbird. He met Adams in Cincinnati at the 1996 premiere of “Strange and Sacred Noises.” He calls it “a life-altering experience,” and he and Adams began a professional relationship. That that led to yet another moment — “a profound experience for both John and I” — the 2003 performance for the moose on the Alaska tundra.

This series of epiphanies was matched by a revelatory conversation with a percussion professor while Perkins was at the Eastman School of Music from 2003 to ‘05.

I was having a hard time,” Perkins confesses. “I think I grew up thinking you had to be in school all of the time. John Beck gave me some wise advice. He asked me, ‘Why are you here?’ I said, ‘I’m not sure.’ He said, ‘Then why don’t you go play concerts, you’re already playing concerts anyway.’ “

And Perkins did so. That includes about 10 performances of “Inuksuit.”

Unlike most “Inuksuit” presentations of the past, the High Falls version will be an urban performance. “When you play on top of a mountain, it sounds a certain way,” Perkins says. “In this case, surrounded by the gorge and the High Falls, you are creating a unique sound that will be heard only there.”

The concert features mostly musicians from Eastman, but also Ithaca and Buffalo. “It can be as little as nine, as many as 99,” Perkins says. “When I was walking the High Falls space, 60 felt right.”

And it is surprisingly easy to find people to play the conch shell, Perkins says, because there’s just not that much call for it in modern classical composition. Not since Atlantis sank beneath the waves.

The piece begins with 60 musicians on the square at the west side of the Pont De Rennes bridge. They soon begin spreading throughout the area, meandering along the bridge and down the brick streets toward 66 different stations. Perhaps even the rooftops, if they can get permission. “The audience is left to be confused, and curious,” Perkins says. “That’s when it gets interesting.”

Perkins, the event’s musical coordinator, makes it interesting for himself by playing conch shell, triangle, an air-raid siren and a galvanized metal fence post.

We’ll be creating very large sounds for the first hour,” he says. “Then it will recede, until you’re left with just glockenspiels and piccolo bird songs.

It’s powerful and moving every time we’ve done it.”

There is a need, particularly in the long opening a closing segments, for a Zen-like patience by the audience. The musicians’ challenge, in the urban environment that is High Falls, is to respond to the echoes from the surrounding brick walls and integrating their instruments, such as they are, with the moving crowd of onlookers and the traffic of nearby State Street. And the ceaseless rumble of the High Falls itself.

Perkins is confident. “We drummers,” he says, “will win the day.”