sound festival 2022 review: TOTEMIC

Nathan Sherman viola
Alex Petcu percussion

Cowdray Hall, Aberdeen
Sunday, 30th October 2022


Kate Moore - Crucible
Benedict Schlepper-Connolly - One Thing I Know
Ian Wilson - TOTEMIC

Nathan Sherman and Alex Petcu are a surprising instrumental duo. They come to sound from Ireland. Viola and percussion is not an instrumental combination one would immediately think of, but in Sunday’s lunchtime concert, the three new works they performed together worked marvelously well. Each of their three pieces told a story in powerful emotional terms.

The duo began on the stage of Cowdray Hall where the marimba which was to play a crucial role in Kate Moore’s ‘Crucible’ was situated. The title of the work was inspired by the play of the same name by Arthur Miller. On the surface, it was about the Salem Witch Trials in the 17th Century, but the real subject was America’s McCarthyist trials. These created difficulties for many artists, actors, writers and musicians too. Kate Moore was also inspired by Saint Brigid, named after the Celtic Goddess who presided over three flames, inspiration, poetry and music. Three things that Senator McCarthy really did not like.

The piece began with a rhythmic bounced bowing of notes on the viola to which the marimba responded following the viola’s rhythm while expanding and enhancing on it. As the work progressed the viola began to expound melodic content to which once again the marimba responded in more and more detailed and complex ways. There was, towards the end, a real build up of emotional tension. It was fascinating that in this piece the viola acted like another tuned percussion instrument. The fusion between the two performers was sheer perfection.

‘One Thing I Know’ by Benedict Schlepper-Connolly was initially just an abstract piece, but while working on the music with the performers, the composer came across the poetry and tragic life of Eldetraud Eckert who died in prison at the age of 24 because she had criticised the East German government. Eldetraud’s poem ‘Eines weiß ich’ translates as ‘One Thing I Know’. For this piece the performers moved down to the floor of the Cowdray Hall where there was a desk laid out with specially arranged instruments, some constructed by Alex Petcu. He told me after the concert that he was unable to bring some of these to the performance because of difficulties with flying and importation regulations. Don’t you just hate politicians? Don’t you just love musicians?

Before the performance Alex told us that sound ambience was crucial in this piece, something that is also important in the world of electro-acoustic music. The viola began by offering long single notes to the percussionist. There was simple repetitive melodic content in this piece and with the bell-like percussion sounds I was reminded of gamelan music. It sounded nothing like Indian ragas music but just as that music has long periods of repetition with miniscule yet crucial rhythmic changes, a similar idea was a real centre of interest in this piece. Especially where the foot operated cymbal came in. The basic background rhythm was still there, either in the music, or perhaps just in our minds, but the little off the beat alterations were a real flower-garden of percussion effects in this piece which I thought had a definite Eastern flavour.

The longest and most complex piece in the programme was Belfast composer Ian Wilson’s ‘TOTEMIC’ co-commissioned by Belfast Music Society, New Music Dublin and sound.

The composer writes that his piece is a response to Luciano Berio’s ‘Naturale’. It is ‘an exploration of quiet sonic gestures’ and ‘a farewell to a unique person in my life who died shortly after I completed the work’.

So many of these ideas came through in Sunday’s performance. In the centre of the piece, the muted viola had a sorrowful melody. Could it be said to be ‘keening’? Much of the music was very soft and quiet although there were bursts of anger too, I thought.
There were many fascinating technical adventures both on the viola and the percussion. Nathan Sherman was seen to polish the strings of his viola very lightly with the bow making breathy sounds. I watched Alex Petcu as he ran his hand over his drum skins producing what sounded like sea waves breaking on a shore. He used drum brushes not only on the drums but on a series of gongs suspended above him on one side. His tuned percussion in this piece was a vibraphone. Its notes were sometimes played with bows and sometimes lightly tapped with his fingers. Sometimes the music seemed withdrawn and introverted, then suddenly it would open up even explosively. The tones of the vibraphone were made to ring out almost painfully, then left to die away. I was fascinated by the way in which sounds from the beginning of the work came back later on grounding the form and shaping of the piece.

It was splendid to be able to watch the two performers in action, especially in this final piece and to see in detail how these sounds were being created. However, one thing did occur to me. How would I have responded to the sounds themselves if I were only hearing the music on a CD or on the radio for instance. Think about it. Would one’s response be very different experiencing the music in such different ways? Hearing the unearthly sounds made by bowing the vibraphone notes or hearing the gentle weeping of the viola? This interests me very much.

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