Sandbox Percussion Quartet – Photo by Noah Stern Weber

Kettle Corn Hosts Sandbox Percussion

kettle-corn-new-music-logoThe first thing that strikes you when attending a Kettle Corn Concert is the atmosphere.  The popcorn is sweet; the beer and wine, free.  The DiMenna Center in New York is a beautiful, intimate and yet informal venue.  It’s layout—there’s no ‘backstage’ and the ‘stage’ itself isn’t raised—encourages audience members and musicians to mingle together. The simple act of coming into the space and preparing to hear the music is relaxed and enjoyable.

I had the pleasure of attending Kettle Corn’s latest concert on Saturday, September 13th, featuring the emerging Sandbox Percussion Quartet.  Kettle Corn is run by a collective of five composers, and after a short introduction from one of their number, Sandbox took to the stage to warm applause from the packed house.

Speak Softly by David T. Little is normally performed on four sticks (thus the joke). Here, Sandbox transcribed it onto the found percussion set-up that would also serve for Thomas Kotcheff’s piece.  This was an interesting idea, and the performance was undoubtably exciting. Little’s piece, though, is precisely about the variety and timbre that arises out of those homogenous sticks, and without this constraint, the overall effect and shape of the piece was less convincing.

There was also some drawback in that this decision – combined with the fact that Kotcheff’s piece was programmed immediately after Little’s – meant that the sound worlds of the first two pieces were not as uniquely intriguing as they might have been.

That being said, after a rather customary opening in Kotcheff’s Part and Parcel – where the four percussionists first took turns, then layered on top of one another – the moment when we first heard a unison chord struck on metallic pipes (which were borrowed from the set-up for David Lang’s the so-called laws of nature) was truly beautiful and inspired.  Perhaps Kotcheff could have been braver in placing more space and stillness around this sound. The short piece was thrilling, though. It ebbed and flowed in intensity before building to a thunderous unison climax, and its music has stayed with me long after the evening.

After Kotcheff and before Lang, Sandbox member Jonny Allen contributed a short piece – aptly titled Interlude – for all four members bowing a single vibraphone. The first half ended with Lang’s well known the so-called laws of nature (Part II).

Sandbox Percussion Performing Lang's the so-called laws of nature (Part II) - Photo by Aaron Holloway-Nahum

Sandbox Percussion Performing Lang’s the so-called laws of nature (Part II) – Photo by Aaron Holloway-Nahum

After the interval, we heard a premiere from Kettle Corn Co-Artistic Director Alex Weiser. In two movements, Weiser explained that we were to hear a microscopic examination of the varieties that exist within a normal ‘drum roll’.  Mov. I, The Anatomy of a Drum Roll, took place on four snare drums. Mov. II, Resonance and Rhythm, explored similar ideas on vibraphone.

Weiser’s ideas were more exciting and audible on the drums rather than vibraphone – but even this movement would have benefited from the extra step of spacing out the instruments a bit. From the back of the audience, it was really impossible to truly appreciate the subtlety with which Weiser was passing the ideas from player to player, and I wish they had gone so far as to array themselves at the four corners of the audience.

The concert was drawn to a rousing conclusion with the first part of Steve Reich’s seminal Drumming.  Sandbox Percussion are clearly an energetic ensemble with imagination, integrity and courage in their music making.  This concert may have featured too many pieces built around the – admittedly ubiquitous – idea of relentlessly passing and eventually layering-up musical material, but Sandbox’s mix of solid technique, musicality and showmanship ensured it was a hugely enjoyable evening all around.