Of all instrumentalists, percussionists are (for me, anyway) the most fun to watch perform. Thus it was that I found that watching and reviewing the DVD in hand to be one of the more entertaining assignments I’ve received from our esteemed editor. Mathias Reumert is a true master percussionist as well as something of an entertainer on this disc, which presents more than just the video of him playing. An Austrian production, the DVD is double-sided with a side each devoted to the PAL and NTSC formats. The videography is imaginative throughout, including some aerial shots that allow the viewer to appreciate the manifold hand positions that Reumert must employ to strike various chords in the mallet works.
The program launches with Pierre Jodlowski’s Time & Money, a multi-media work for percussion, video, and electronics. The piece is described as a commentary on the way our society handles time and money, and it opens with an image that took me a minute or two to realize was the edge of a one-euro coin. The scene changes to that of what appears to be a businessman seated at his desk, although this “businessman” soon begins to play his desk, which turns out to be some kind of a large drum. The main part of the video shows Reumert playing an actual drum set, with accompanying electronic sounds. Some of them are musique concrete, including percussion sounds, often making it a challenge to determine what sounds the percussionist is producing himself and what are from the recorded track. This first selection on the video is in black and white, and may be someone’s commentary on the gulf between the rich and the poor. I’m not sure about that, though, any more than I’m certain of the symbolism of a “drum” comprised of compressed numerals that are shaken loose as it is struck.
The black and white images of the first work shift to blue and white for the second, the Psappha of Xenakis, a seminal and influential work in the percussion world. Derived from the metrical divi¬sions of the ancient Greek poetess Sappho, the composer has delegated the decision of tempos and instruments employed to the performer, who in some sense becomes a co-composer of the work. Reumert has chosen several types of drums, wood blocks (including a large piece of purpleheart wood), a large metal barrel, and in the last section, metal bells that resemble a glockenspiel. Silence also plays an important role in certain portions of this fascinating piece. For some reason, Reumert has grown a beard between the first selection and the present one.
From this point, the video assumes full color for most of the remainder of the program. The title of the next work is Omar, and that made me laugh. When I was a child, my father would refer to any wild animal that we happened to see (and even the stuffed bears in front of the tourist shops in Gatlinburg, Tennessee) as “Omar,” a practice that (to the bemusement of my wife), I’ve adopted myself. It turns out that Franco Donatoni’s Omar is named after the surname of its dedicatee. Like Psappha, this work gives a good bit of discretion to the performer who is presented with a score containing no bar lines or time signatures. Therefore, this is a work that has “some assembly required” in order to present it to the public.
Scored for solo vibraphone, Omar comprises two main sections, in both of which textures regu-larly change through mallets employed and stylistic shifts. The work requires almost superhuman technique to execute, one passage bearing some resemblance to the piano cadenza in Petrushka in its cascade of notes. Not only does Reumert meet all of the technical challenges here and in the other works, he executes them seemingly effortlessly. But Donatoni doesn’t just seek out virtuosity for its own sake: One of the most effective portions of Omar comes with a spooky-sounding set of reiterated chords with soft mallets. This work, along with the two by Xenakis, is probably my favorite in the program.
Reumert sheds his beard, and also his shirt (something he states took him several years to muster up the courage to do in public) for the next piece, ?Corporel by Vinko Globukar. The piece is constructed entirely by sounds made by striking, rubbing, slapping, and otherwise aggressing upon (Reumert states that some of it hurts!) the human body, as well as the host of vocalizations possible by the lips and mouth. All of these are carefully detailed in the score. All of the percussive bodily effects explain the necessity of the shirtless performance. I have no doubt that eventually some female performer will sooner or later seek to attract attention through a performance of this piece—remember Charlotte Moorman, a female cellist who found her 15 minutes of fame by playing topless back in the late 1960s? While Globukar’s piece has its points of interest, and is fascinating on a certain level, I find it ultimately simply silly, and not something I care if I ever see again. It’s not really music, but theater. Like it or not, it is at least relatively short.
Once again in Brian Ferneyhough’s Bone Alphabet, the percussionist is given the freedom to select his sound sources, of which there are only seven required. Reumert doesn’t state in his notes which percussion instruments he chose, but I noted several including drums, cowbells, and wood blocks. Unlike most of the other selections, the video for this work doesn’t include any images of Reumert’s performance of the piece, which he states is the most rhythmically intricate work in the percussion literature. Rather, there is a black screen over which (generally) four mallet heads in four colors (red, green, blue, and violet) move around on the screen in time to the rhythms being played. Sometimes the visual representation is varied in different ways, but this is the gist of it. For my taste, the piece overstayed its welcome. Despite the rhythmic complexity, I found that the work had no sense of forward movement or progression of thought by the composer, and so half as long would have been twice as good. Perhaps I would have enjoyed it more if I could have seen Reumert perform it instead of all those colored mallet heads floating all over creation.
We do see Reumert perform again in Hans Werner Henze’s Five Scenes from the Snow Country. This work for solo marimba calls for a host of different mallets and techniques in striking the marimba with the knuckles, fingertips, and even nails; these all produce different colors from the instrument, akin to the colors that one can see in various kinds of accumulations of snow (ranging from drifts to individual crystals). One of the soft mallets employed appears to have heads made of marsh-mallows. (Note to self: write a marimba piece utilizing sticks with marshmallows on their ends, and at its conclusion, have the performer hold them over a candle, melt them/set them on fire, and make s’mores to distribute to both of the people in the audience.) The colors that Henze and Reumert draw out of the marimba are remarkable indeed: One section features a reiterated E-Minor chord struck by both hands that interrupts a rather atonal line played by a single mallet.
The first sentence of Reumert’s notes for the concluding work reads, “lannis Xenakis’ late solo piece, Rebonds, is written in two movements that may be played in any order.” This statement amused me a bit since, although I’m no mathematician, I’m pretty sure that a set of two objects has only two possible orderings. Movement A in the present work is scored for seven drums, while Movement B calls for five wood blocks and five drums, and each movement undergoes several transformations during the course of the work. The notes go into considerable detail about this, but an understanding of the construction of the piece isn’t necessary to enjoy it. I sat transfixed as I watched and listened to it before I’d read a single word of the notes.
Mathias Reumert is an amazing performer, a veritable wizard of percussion. His masterful music-making will astound you; this, coupled with the fascinating videography, creates a program that transcends whatever the normal market for this DVD would be. Despite my minor caveats, I recommend this recital wholeheartedly.