This is a beautifully shot program of percussion music centering around, and emerging from, lannis Xenakis’s seminal work Psappha. The director, Christian Holten Bonke, has produced a visual feast; Matthias Reumert adds a universe of sound via his battery of percussion. As the booklet notes state, “in the world of percussion music, there is a ‘before’ and ‘after’ Psappha.”
The disc opens, though, with Pierre Jodlowski’s Time & Money for percussionist, video, and electronics (premiered in 2004). Shot in black and white but with obviously the most up-to-date technology, this is a remarkable experience. Money and time are prime commodities in the modern world, and Jodlowski’s work plays with and examines these fascinations. We see first a succession of lines against a black background which turns out to be the grooves on the side of a rotating one Euro coin. As the coin once more become unrecognizable through close-up (this time of its surface), we cut to Reumert dressed in black with startling white tie and using the surface of a “desk” as a percussion instrument. At times, the camera follows Reumert moving from one instrument to the other, as if he cannot stand still (itself a reflection on modern society, one assumes). The whole is shot through with a sense of restlessness that sits on a tightrope between anxiety and excitement.
The title of Xenakis’s Psappha refers to Sappho; the structure of her verses was used as a de-terminant for the work’s structure. No fewer than 16 sound sources are used, nine skin/wooden and seven metal. The actual choice of instruments used is open, and Reumert’s choices include a large piece of purpleheart wood, an oil barrel, and two abandoned bells he came across one day outside a school. Since its premiere in 1976, Psappha has radiated influence every which way. The video for this, with the performer playing against oncoming dry ice, is in itself hypnotizing. Reumert’s virtuosity is remarkable, while the camera work, sometimes zooming in close to his face, at others flipping between the various instruments, is absolutely in accord with the energy of the piece.
The piece entitled Omar is a late work for vibraphone by Franco Donatoni. It always seems a shame that one hears more about Donatoni in history books than one does of his music. This performance finds Reumert in decidedly casual clobber. The two parts of the piece move from agile and loud to soft and dreamy; there are no bar lines and, as the booklet notes point out, the shape of the piece resembles that of an inverted arch. A screen fade separates the two parts of the work; the second part is muted, elusive, not of this world and almost unutterably beautiful.
Vinko Globokar’s ?Corporel from Laboratorium is “an auditory and visual close-up of the human body.” Reumert’s body is, quite literally, the instrument. Quite shocking in some ways (some strange facial connotations here), it explores the soft and the bony parts and the performer is asked to caress and hit him/herself. Reumert claims it took him years to pluck up courage to go topless for this piece, but shirtless he certainly is. There is the occasional brief burst into song. The stray question mark in the title indeed does seem to ask whether this is a human body or an instrument. Camerawork uses close-up sometimes to emphasize the dehumanizing effect of the concept. Fascinating.
It’s back to instruments for Brian Ferneyhough’s Bone Alphabet. The use of seven sound sources concentrates the music (although the percussionist decides what those sources are). The four sticks Reumert uses are glow-in-the-dark, and indeed that is all we see here, red, green, blue, and purple flickering light sources that seem to hover in the air, sometimes multiplying like a colorful display of fireflies, sometimes tracing out lines like some sort of medical heart-rate display. The “alphabet” of the title refers to the work’s 13 groups of musical material. There is an underlying dance-like element that periodically surfaces, that seems to take us back to the original rhythmic function of percussion.
Scored for marimba, Henze’s Five Scenes from the Snow Country was the result of a winter weekend and the effect of a storm on the woods. Here the color saturation of the picture seems some¬how to reflect the gorgeous sonics of the piece. The performer is asked to strike the instrument (marimba) with his hands, a departure from the norm that adds an extra, personal, element to the performance. Henze’s music has frequently emphasized the beauty of sound, and this quality suffuses this work. In preparing for this performance, incidentally, Reumert was able to make use of Henze’s original manuscript.
Finally, we have some late Xenakis, Rebonds. The work is in two parts, the one for seven drums, the other for five drums and five woodblocks. Theatricality is core to this piece, which seems to be performed with the performer’s back to an empty concert hall. There is a ritualistic undertone to the slow beginning to the second part we hear on this recording (Reumert opts to play Movement B before Movement A in this performance).
In short, this is a magnificent undertaking, uniting on one disc six significant percussion pieces, rendered in visually stunning film and wonderful sound, of what feels at times like superhuman performances.