beta percussion institute

Checking the Percussive Pulse of Eugene

Beta Percussion Institute and Gamelan Sari Pandhawa shows reveal promise and pitfalls of percussion performance

Story and photos by DANIEL HEILA

Percussion music and world music rose to prominence in America around the same time at the end of the last century. Recent concerts by the Eugene-based Beta Percussion International Institute (featured in this article by Gary Ferrington) and Sari Pandhawa Javanese gamelan proved the staying power of percussion’s cultural appeal—in both its contemporary and traditional forms—via performances by professional, amateur, and student musicians and a rarely seen multicultural theater art form. However, the concerts also contained troubling elements that threatened to weaken that appeal.

Michael Burritt and students perform at Beta Percussion Institute.

Since the early part of the twentieth century (starting with the works of such composers as John Cage and Edgard Varèse), percussion instruments have gradually escaped the confinement of accompaniment roles in Western art music. Yet prerecorded elements of the Beta Institute’s concerts seemed, at times, to force a self-conscious return to that role. And, as one of many hundreds of small community percussion ensembles throughout the country, Sari Pandhawa’s uninspired wayang kulit performance (shadow puppet theater) in downtown’s Kesey Square, was a warning of what can happen when such an organization loses its vitality.

The Rise of Percussion

Partly inspired by world music (gamelan and West African drumming), Steve Reich’s early 1970s compositions Clapping Music (the instrumentation is what you are imagining) and Drumming (for four pairs of tuned bongo drums, three marimbas, three glockenspiels, two female voices, whistling, and piccolo, whew!) helped propel percussion concert music into the milieu of pop music fans. Suddenly, percussion departments became exciting focal points of new music evolution in music schools across the country. The University of Oregon School of Music and Dance’s percussion area is one such locus, with department chair Pius Cheung directing the Beta Percussion International Institute.

Three concerts featured compositions by faculty members and prominent percussion performer/composers Michael Udow, Casey Cangelosi, Michael Burritt, and co-director Eriko Daimo, who performed solo, with each other, and with the students. Both faculty and students presented athletic, technically challenging works with aplomb. In several pieces (notably Casey Cangelosi’s performances of A Cool Gadget for Tambourine and Javier Alvarez’s Temazcal for maracas, Pius Cheung’s Nian 3, and student Jade Hail’s standout performance of Tchik by Nicolas Martynciow) the melding of technical gesture with idiomatic choreography created a dramatic unity. These musicians embody the music they make. However, the athleticism at times overshadowed the musicality, turning performances into mere feats of skill instead of artistic expressions—a fault of the composers more than the performers.

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Beta Percussion Institute: crossroads of performance and composition

New concert series and seminars spotlight contemporary percussion music

The University of Oregon School of Music and Dance, usually empty and quiet during the dog days of summer, is about to become a vibrant soundscape of performers and composers attending the first Beta Percussion International Institute August 4-10 — and you can listen in.

UO Percussion Studio. Photo: Gary Ferrington.

The week-long program, organized by artistic director Pius Cheung and co-director Eriko Daimo, focuses on both performance and composing, or arranging, music for percussion. “I noticed a surge of performer/composers in the past decade and I wanted this seminar to be a place for people to feel free to share their works, or begin their journey in writing,” Cheung, who teaches percussion on the UO music school faculty, told Artswatch. “The primary objective is not to turn percussionists into composers, but … for performers to play with the insight and understanding of a composer.”

The Institute has attracted participants from Hong Kong, mainland China, Japan, Philippines, Austria, and a dozen American states. In Eugene they will be attending work sessions to explore, experiment, and make revisions in their music along the way. The program includes clinics addressing practice techniques, memorization and creative analysis, master classes with faculty, and hands-on workshops exploring topics such as improvisation and composing. Individual students will also have private lessons with guest faculty. UO instructor of percussion Sean Wagoner serves as Director of Operations. The next Institute is proposed for 2020.

“Art is always evolving, as it is a reflection of everything around us, past, present and future,” Cheung notes. “Therefore, in a certain sense, art/music is always going to be in the ‘beta testing’ stage.”

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