Sunday, April 1, 2007

Scrap Metal Music

One of Kyle Gann's recent posts discussed a mythical lack of respect in academia towards pop music. The HarpFusion concert we attended this week suggested that this perception was not true for the University of Arizona, and a concert last night by the percussion group Phonk confirmed it. The concert culminated several days of workshops with the percussion students at the UA School of Music. Although the modern classical percussion ensemble may have originated with John Cage, the rhythmic energy of Phonk derives more from rock and percussion music from other cultures such as African drumming, gamelan and kodo. In addition, Phonk's artistic director Gregory Kozak designs and builds all of the instruments, largely from scrap metal and other recycled materials. The instruments have an aesthetic appeal on their own merit, with organic forms and squirrely outcroppings, all of which were functional. Some of the workshops were to guide students in building instruments from scraps, and the results were on display outside the concert hall. Movement is as much a part of the concert as the sound. Instruments too large to carry were on wheels, so they could easily move around the stage.

Although the concert opened quietly, with four of the five musicians playing whorlies (hoses cut to various lengths and whirled overhead — the program conveniently described all of the instruments) in a beautiful harmonic piece, the energy level kicked up quickly with a kit solo, comprised largely of spun aluminum toms and scrap metal cymbals. The group then introduced their signature set, three pairs of large two-sided drums that have different pitches on each side. The group moved these in different configurations on stage, often played in tandem with one player on each end, or in a circle where the group would rotate the drums and themselves. These drums had a very big sound, and produced the backbone of the group's music for most of the show.

The high-energy concert lasted for 90 minutes without a break, and we saw all manner of junk instruments. In one segment, they attached balloons to the ends of resonant tubes and used the balloons as a bellows, a bizarre set of bagpipes. In another, they twirled metal bowls and disks in their hands, striking them to get bell sounds and muting them by covering more or less of the bell with their hands. They used similar operations on large, very heavy-looking springs. They carried out pieces of marine exhaust hose in various lengths and shapes, then played them with paddles made from old gym mats. In one of the last segments, they introduced a Nail Cello, comprised of stainless steel rods and bowed with a violin bow; and the Mojo, a sailboat mast strung with piano and bass strings and covered with steel bowls and various wood and aluminum scraps. This piece, entitled 13 strings, also used three Sigh-Chordions, little squeezeboxes made from plumbing fixtures and accordion reeds, and was one of the most beautiful pieces on the program. The finale was another circling tour de force, with lights at the front of the stage projecting the groups' shadows on the backdrop, revealing the musicians from the dawn of time, drummming the primal heartbeat.

Before the show, I overheard commentary in the lobby that compared Phonk to Stomp and Blue Man Group. From a certain perspective, all three groups work the same territory: a highly rhythmic musical experience coupled with dazzling theatrical staging. But Phonk has none of BMG's vaudeville aspects, and concentrates more on the music than does Stomp. It was a great show, and the percussion students at the University were well served by their extended stay.

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