And That One Too: Sandbox Percussion Showcases Close Collaborators

One of the best parts of my grad school experience was performing with and composing for my friends. It’s a totally different approach to music making than holing away with some notation software—I felt it strengthen my relationships, my community, and my craft. Sandbox Percussion’s new album, And That One Too (Coviello Classics), is a statement to the power of personal musical collaborations. All four works were written for the quartet (Jonathan Allen, Victor Caccese, Ian Rosenbaum, Terry Sweeney) by long-term colleagues of the players; many of these relationships began while the performers were in grad school. Sandbox delivers each piece with unassailable accuracy and commitment. While the pieces threaten towards homogeneity of style, each lets the ensemble show off their incredible group dynamic.

The album opens with Andy Akiho’s Haiku 2. Reworked from an earlier piece written for loadbang, Haiku 2 flurries into existence in a buzz of metallic tones and a cutting splash of scrap metal. Akiho flexes his ear for timbre in this work, moving from tuneful ostinati to interweaving polyrhythms played entirely on unpitched items. What might otherwise be a marginally interesting use of repeating asymmetrical meter is made more alive by the interaction of colors. His music has a trademark drive that seems to compound through each repeated phrase, and the relentless loops of the final motives capitalize on all this pent-up energy. Haiku 2 assuredly introduces the scope of the album, the precision of the quartet, and the quality of composers with whom Sandbox Percussion has built these extended relationships.

Sandbox Percussion--Photo by Kjell van Sice

Sandbox Percussion–Photo by Kjell van Sice

David Crowell’s Music for Percussion Quartet follows, a four-movement meditation on the contrast between bustling interactions of daily life and quiet contemplation afforded by less crowded environments. Movements I and III incorporate detailed mallet-instrument polyrhythms with drum kit interjection, while movements II and IV step back to allow a more billowing texture from bowed instruments. Taken as a whole, the piece doesn’t rise beyond its surface level qualities. There’s no doubt a high technicality on display by the performers, but there’s little inertia to the quasi-minimalist ideas that Crowell develops. The most successful movement is unquestionably the final movement—the rigid pulse dissolves away into a droning harmonic cushion, with enough gentle variations to propel the ambient soundscape forward. The only problem is that it’s too short, accounting for neither the material nor the breadth of the piece.

The standout work on the album is Amy Beth Kirsten’s she is a myth. It’s almost an unfair comparison, since it features Kirsten herself weaving a captivating three-track vocal part over the textural percussion section. she is a myth carries Kirsten’s unique integration of the theatrical into her concert music, presenting a contemporary aesthetic much more reminiscent of Meredith Monk or Pamela Z than chamber music for percussion. Sandbox dutifully treads in the background, as scrapes of paper and humming tones unassumingly poke through the texture. she is a myth takes full advantage of percussion’s peculiar quality that literally anything can be percussion, as Kirsten avoids typical instrument configurations and brilliantly captures the ruminating character of the work. And what a character it is; interesting enough on its own, it strikes a stark and welcome contrast to the rest of the album.

Amy Beth Kirsten

Amy Beth Kirsten–Photo by J. Henry Fair

The album then wraps up with Thomas Kotcheff’s not only that one but that one & that too, the piece from which the release derives its title. While Kotcheff’s three-movement piece marks a return to the familiar aesthetics of the first half of the album, the work is an absolute knockout. From disarmingly precise silences to unapologetic polyrhythms, it’s impossible to lose interest in his constantly shifting material, even if the first movements seem overtly similar in form. While the whole piece is superb, the third movement is especially impressive. Fast, metallic clangs open a luscious space of transients and overtones that eventually transition to a faster section. The transition isn’t as clean as earlier ones, but the climax more than accounts for it—a ferocious swelling that left this listener starstruck. It’s emotionally gripping and orchestrationally brilliant, and Kotcheff knowingly ends the piece with a meditative reduction of this captivating material.

And That One Too is a testament to Sandbox Percussion’s first decade: of honing their ensemble, of developing their collaborations. This album embodies the “secret” of New Music, the success inherent in finding your people and building each other up through your work. It’s impressive that these four well-regarded composers all had a personal connection to the ensemble dating far beyond the scope of this album or these particularly pieces. To emerge on this end of ten years with such strong relationships is thrilling, and for them to manifest in such a high degree of musicality is a good sign for decade two of Sandbox Percussion.