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Monday, July 7, 2014

Liner Notes for Bobby Previte's "Terminals"


In the fall, So Percussion will be releasing Bobby Previte's Terminals, a sprawling series of concerti for percussion quartet plus improvising soloists.  I wrote this short essay for the LP liner notes. 

Terminals Liner Notes for LP

Bobby Previte’s Terminals proposes a simple idea: that the percussion ensemble is actually an ideal vehicle for the 21st century concerto. Writing for percussion allows the composer free reign to grab the flotsam of sounds and ideas that have floated through his life.  He’s a drummer, and so the choice of percussion seems natural.   But anybody who knows Bobby’s music knows that drums are just a part of the equation, the instrument that spoke to him earliest and strongest.

Terminals is a compendium of ideas that – though the percussion ensemble itself is young in the context of western music history – also have sentimental resonance.  The sheer magnitude of orchestration recalls the huge mid-century novelty percussion orchestras, or the clashing and wailing of Edgard Varese’s Ionisation.  Bobby knows these references well, and he celebrates the spirit of joy and chaos that they conjure.  Some of his compositional choices – a swing-era drum battle, an abrupt break into slow blues, VERY long rhythmic vamps – would feel awkward or contrived in the hands of other contemporary composers.  But Bobby has lived these musical moments deeply: in Terminals, they form a coherent viewpoint.  

We half-joke with him that he is our favorite marimbist of all time because of his inspired contribution to Tom Waits’ song “Clap Hands” on the album Rain Dogs.  His career spans an incredible breadth, including collaborations with the soloists on this record.  But Terminals also intersects with an earlier phase of his life, as a student of the influential percussion teacher Jan Williams at the University of Buffalo.  Jan opened the door for Bobby to a whole world of avant-garde concert music: the percussion experiments of John Cage and Lou Harrison from the 1930’s, the hard-edged modernism of Pierre Boulez, the uniquely serene assemblages of Morton Feldman. 

This early exposure seems to have had an impact on him: Terminals is an ambitious statement in the vein of those bold composers.  This big statement is made using percussion, but not in the way Cage and Varese used it for their youthful radical gestures.  Bobby’s percussion statement feels more like a summation than a revolution, a repository of decades of thinking about these instruments. 


“How much of that did you make up, and how much was written down?” 

This is the question we are asked at almost every So Percussion concert, one we’re happy to answer. That ambiguity means we’re doing our job.  It comes at the threshold where predetermined and spontaneous ideas blend together.  A good classical performer, though he or she is often playing prescribed notes, is striving for that balance with every performance. 

In Mozart and Beethoven’s time, the concerto soloist was partially an improvising soloist.  The cadenza was a bravura display not only of technical ability, but also of imagination and spontaneity.  The way that Bobby weaves masters of contemporary improvisation into the fabric of Terminals may at first seem like another cross-genre experiment. But actually, his combination of sturdy, crafted ensemble writing with careful curation of the soloists’ talents is one of the oldest formulas we have. 

And what soloists!  The first time we performed Terminal 3 with Nels Cline, I actually forgot to play for a few bars because I was so enraptured by what he could do.   In live shows, John Medeski’s climactic entrance on the organ always electrifies the room.    It is a credit to Bobby’s composition and the soloists’ artistry that I’m always listening to this record wondering “what is improvised, and what is fixed?”  The happy truth is that it hardly matters, because in this universe good ideas are simply good ideas, no matter whether they jump off the page or directly out of the fertile minds of the musicians. 

Working with Bobby on Terminals was exhilarating and revelatory.  Traipse out in front of the audience to perform a clichéd, deadpan stick-clicking routine?  Not on your life, but for you Bobby ok, because somehow it will work.  Learn to crack a bullwhip, because that’s what the Buddy-Rich-Gene-Krupa drum battle section requires?  You’re insane, but yes, we trust you.  Interrupt the fourth movement with a duet between washboard and spoons, or spend ten minutes performing no other action than setting up a whole drum kit on stage?  Why the hell not, at this point?

Bobby pushed us beyond our boundaries.   In preliminary meetings about Terminals we told him we’re a touring group, so really he should stay away from instruments like chimes, timpani, huge drum setups, and a thousand pesky accessory instruments.  This is of course exactly what he ended up using. 

His winning combination of dogged conviction and convivial humor always helped us jump over the next hurdle.  Very few composers can ask so much while also making you feel so invested. 

-       Adam Sliwinski, Sō Percussion

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