Good to Hear

E very day, we brush sixteenth notes across our teeth, drum rhythms into our cellphones, tap songs onto our keyboards.

Though it also makes music using some strange instruments, the Yale Percussion Group is a lot more deliberate about it. Its members brush, drum and tap not just things you wouldn’t expect but also unexpected parts of things you would expect: the undercarriage of a vibraphone, the woody side of a bass drum, a glockenspiel played both right- and wrong-side-up. At least one piece in the ensemble’s 7:30 p.m. concert this Sunday—Pillar IV, composed by rising contemporary classical star Andy Akiho—involves wine bottles and a wheel hub from an old car.

Once a teacher of Akiho, the group’s south Texas-raised director, Robert van Sice, got his undergraduate music degree here in America. He left to study in Asia, then spent “most of [his] adult life in Europe,” including a 15-year stint teaching university students in Brussels and Rotterdam. Aside from becoming one of the preeminent marimba players in the world, he gained a trace accent, which others have noticed too; laughing, van Sice recalls a Juilliard masterclass student complimenting his “almost perfect” English.

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Long since returned to the states, he’s now in his 20th year on the faculty of the Yale School of Music, where he directs the graduate school’s percussion program and, therefore, its primary manifestation, the YPG, which he founded when he arrived in 1997. Not conducted, it’s a chamber music outfit where, although van Sice picks the music and does the coaching, the students must, in the end, stand and deliver cohesion and energy without him. Not that he’s worried. He says this year’s members are “six of the best percussionists of their age in the world” and at a “final polishing” stage of their educations.

This past Tuesday, arranged like the corners of a long, thin rhombus, four of those students were doing some final polishing of their own, of that Akiho piece Pillar IV. At one end, YoungKyoung Lee’s station was the most curious-looking, with chunky woodblocks, pipes like chimes and curvy empty wine bottles arrayed next to boxy liquor ones. But the opposite corner, presided over by Shiqi Zhong, gave Lee’s setup a run for its money, with a matte metallic vibraphone, an overturned gong and the aforementioned wheel hub, plus a classical bass drum converted to a two-sided kick. In the middle were Dmitrii Nilov, given the mind-bending task of playing the glockenspiel and vibraphone from the reverse side, and Matthew Keown, the program’s sole doctoral candidate—the others are going for Master of Music degrees—who’d pulled heavy glockenspiel duty with some additional kick-and-stick action.

Here’s how the song begins: Nilov taps out a simple repeating melody dogged by quietly escalating plinks of complication from Lee. Soon an ominous sound creeps in: Zhong sliding a wooden stick over the oxidized texture of the heavy metal wheel hub. Keown then enters at a higher gear, Lee and Zhong simultaneously shifting up to meet him, Nilov exiting until the next big shift, which, though so much seems to happen between now and then, is only seconds away.

If you’re a musician, you can quickly tell that the song is a clever, intellectual thing, devised at least in part to fool with your sense of time and rhythm but also to provide a puzzle worthy of the attention of advanced players. (At one point, for example, the number of beats per measure changes from six to five to four to three to two to one.) But you can also tell it’s an entertaining thing, at times settling into satisfying grooves and achieving fantastic bursts of contrast.

Between partial and whole run-throughs, van Sice and his charges talked about stick and stroke choice and whether they want to sound “formal” or “raw.” They talked about how fast they could go given the reverberating acoustics of Morse Recital Hall, where the show’s taking place. They talked about the balance between players, deciding that all of them need to own their own parts with verve and that none of them should ever take even a few measures to “get safe” or else “the whole energy changes.” They go into minute detail with a language spanning acute musical terminology and broader metaphors; the opening of the piece, for example, is casually described as wearing a “suit and tie,” because, to Akiho fans, it may at first seem straight-laced compared to the composer’s other works.

Not so, but in a sense, no matter. “No matter how hard the music is,” van Sice advises during the rehearsal, “make sure your listener can’t tell… When you decide to engage with a really hard piece, that’s your choice and your problem, but you can’t inflict that on the listener.” In other words, the listener’s interests must be considered, and, speaking as a listener, that’s a nice thing to hear.

Yale Percussion Group
Next Performance: Sun 11/12 at 7:30pm
Morse Recital Hall (inside Sprague Hall) – 470 College St, New Haven (map)
YPG Webpage | Tickets

Written and photographed by Dan Mims. Image #1 depicts, from left, Dmitrii Nilov, YoungKyoung Lee, Matthew Keown and Shiqi Zhong. Image #10 depicts Robert van Sice.

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Dan has worked for a couple of major media companies, but he likes Daily Nutmeg best. As DN’s editor, he writes, photographs, edits and otherwise shepherds ideas into fully realized feature stories, helped very much by a small team of dedicated contributors.

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