Bricolage by Toolbox Percussion

Date: June 29, 2016
Location: The Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts, Hong Kong.

Westlake – Omphalo Centric Lecture (arr. Michael Askill) (Hong Kong premiere)
Cage – Third Construction
Kopetzki – Night of Moon Dances
Lam, Fung – Round (world premiere)
Trevino – Catching Shadows
Xenakis – Peaux from Pleiades (Hong Kong premiere)

Louis Siu, Karina Yau, Wei-chen Lin, Iskandar Rashid, Chronicle Li, Lei-lei Hoi (percussion)

This evening has been highly anticipated, not only because Nigel Westlake’s “Omphalo Centric Lecture” is a work that I have longed to hear live, but because I am eager to find out how Louis Siu has evolved as an artist. As reviewed here a few years ago, Siu proved technically proficient, but could be more expressive, whether musically or visually. That assessment was not damning, as his previous program was as technically audacious as he was young, but it would be disingenuous to dismiss him entirely by that sampling point of one single concert. This evening, his curation was as delicious as it was technically daunting, though much more in reference to the demands of ensembleship and stage management than the pieces themselves.

But first, “Omphalo Centric Lecture”. Westlake’s marimba quartet is made famous by its pulsating ostinati, whereby at least one of four percussionists would anchor the proceedings with a solid pulse, on top of which harmonic structures and further rhythmic embellishments are layered and interact with each other. The premise is simple enough, but a lot of effort and rehearsal time unseen by the audience are needed to perfect its execution. Many versions and arrangements endure over the years, but the arrangement by South African percussionist Michael Askill was presented here. The quartet comprising Siu, Yau, Li and Hoi did not fail to deliver the aforesaid basic premise, as Westlake’s pulsating locomotion was clearly heard here. Yet, no sparks flew at the fringe, and the quartet probably could have extracted more excitement and emotional gravity out of it by intensifying the various crescendos and accents, which also could have helped with ensembleship in terms of rhythmic cleanliness. The audience received the performance lukewarmly, that is, without much response after its end. That, however, probably had much to do with the decision, as Westlake’s piece rendered to a close, to dim the stage lights completely, which offered no visual delineation between the end of Westlake’s piece and Cage’s “Third Construction”. With Cage’s wildly popular composition, the quartet found much of the spark missing in the Westlake: tin cans, maracas and tom toms never sounded so good together! Even the various conch shell sirens, delivered by Li, beamed with wild and exciting frenzy. HKAPA’s Amphitheatre, which normally scatters sonic output and, in particular, eats up thin sounds, surprisingly provided a great deal of fidelity, notwithstanding the few lion’s roar moments coming out rather like a lazy cat’s meows.

Kopetzki’s “Night of Moon Dances” found the evening’s peak of ensembleship, when Lin (marimba solo) joined the group. The entire effort was clean and tidy, and smelled of either extraordinary focus or ample rehearsal time, or both. Lin’s stick work was fiery, and furiously accurate. His upright body stance and demeanor reminded one of a confident sportsman. There was much to appreciate from this performance, whether it be Lin’s clean stick work, Siu’s fearless bass drum playing, or Yau’s deft approach to the solitary timpani.

Doubledeck Factory was founded by local composer Dr. Austin Yip and percussionist Louis Siu in 2012, and has since been renamed to Toolbox Percussion to better describe its retooled focus on promoting percussive arts in Asia. “Bricolage”, Toolbox’s inaugural project, was this ensemble concert. After intermission, a Doubledeck/Toolbox-commissioned work by Fung Lam, titled “Round”, was presented. Using a mahjong table, the premise is simple enough: to weave a rhythmic fabric using the mahjong table and its tiles. Musicians would alternately generate sound by using a mahjong tile to hit another tile or the table. As musicians call up different rhythms asynchronously, just as four uncoordinated mahjong players would around a mahjong table, the theoretical result could be an adventurous and syncopated layering of rhythmic complexity. But what a should-have-been! In Lam, the rhythmic section was preceded, if intended, with the quartet playing a simulated/actual game of mahjong, as if to juxtapose it with the rhythmic section that was to come after. The rhythmic section built on a limp, and frankly never quite found solid footing anywhere. The effort, if entirely scripted, was unmemorable, and offered little musically or dramatically. The question is…why bother? Anyone who has watched Chinese dama play mahjong would know that finding four aunties well trained in the art of mahjong and who could play at a breakneck speed would have offered a more interesting sonic experience than this. If mahjong is a game whereby tension naturally builds up, that tension was hopelessly lacking here. By comparison, Alexandre Lunsqui’s “Shi”, which moves with more tension and excitement, all the while simulating the robust and diverse sonic experience at a Chinese dining table, has much more to offer.

Ensembleship was again evident in the pieces by Trevino and Xenakis. Percussionists are often accused of playing with their ears, which is mostly true, but aside from listening to each other, the sextet often had eye contact with each other. The curation of this concert was ambitious, but the overall musicianship was quite laudable. Aside from Lam’s composition, which started with a great premise but could benefit from a substantive revision, all the pieces were woven together by the six percussionists into an evening fabric of vivid rhythmic intensity — a bricolage, as one may say. As ensemble recital goes, Siu should not be singled out for review here, but as the artistic director most responsible for the evening’s proceedings, Siu and his effort are commendable. If this evening offers any guide as to the future of Toolbox, percussion enthusiasts in Asia should be thrilled with anticipation.




Sabrina Ma Recital

Date: July 26, 2014
Location: City Hall Theatre, Hong Kong.

Sabrina Ma has been playing percussion for more than 20 years, and if one pays no attention to her youthful presence on stage and the giddy smile set free after that occasional mishit, Ma looks confident and mature beyond her age. Still in her twenties, Ma has already completed her music education in three continents, roamed around the world competing and collecting trophies, collaborated with artists from different cultures and experimented with pop music and improvisations in inter-disciplinary works. Her recital in Hong Kong this weekend reflected as much her character as her musical journey. Her first number was “Heimlich, still und leise”, a 2013 composition for film by violinist Benedikt Bindewald whereby Ma played a range of percussive instruments over a pre-arranged soundtrack of humming voice and electronic music. With a repetitive but snappy melody, the soundtrack unveiled itself as a sleepy but certain through train. Ma’s playing over, too certain and assured to be improvisatory, nevertheless added ample textural surprises, like a bouncy Wile E. Coyote chasing the cool train of The Road Runner. With Paul Smadbeck’s Rhythm Song, Ma’s second number returned to more traditional fare: Ma showcased her mallet skills, ripping through Smadbeck’s treacherous four-mallet work and seemingly ready to tell a story behind it. Ma closed the first half with Rebonds A & B by Greek composer Iannis Xenakis. Here, Ma unleashed single-handed quadruplets with stunning efficiency and evenness. The rhythms were like flying shrapnel coming out not from a disorderly explosion but from a well-oiled, well-controlled factory.

After a slightly prolonged intermission, Ma returned on stage to perform Cálculo secreto, a delicious vibraphone number by José Manuel López López. In Ma’s vision, this piece tasted like celestial music punctuated with sixties’ extraterrestrial sentimentality and regimen. The sophistication and timing of Ma’s pedaling work wove a thoroughly intricate musical fabric with multiple layers that thickened and thinned with a rollicking passing of time. Her final three numbers were all 21st century compositions: The Art of Thangka by Emiko Uchiyama, Khan Variations by Alejandro Viñao, and Havana by Rilli Willow. Each presented an ethnic sentimentality (Japanese, Arabic, Jewish) that Ma portrayed with fine aplomb, even if Ma would occasionally lose concentration and find no clean clearance on the keys. Havana was a love poem in vocals played over the monitors, over which Ma showered with well-thought-out, purposeful percussive goodies. Simple work on the bass drums, a few notes on the keyboard and an honest connection with the piece throughout were all that Ma needed to bring zest and a living pulse to the vocal piece.

Sabrina Ma.

Sabrina Ma.

Magdalena Kožená

Date: November 10, 2013
Location: Hong Kong Cultural Centre, Hong Kong.

Magdalena Kožená’s recital last night at the Cultural Centre was essentially a concert version of her hit album, Lettere Amorose, a collection of Italian love songs from the 17th century. These songs came from a time when classical music was the pop music of its day, where the songs were performed and hummed at street corners and at dinner tables. In collaboration with Private Musicke, Kožená found an ensemble of musicians immensely and precisely skilled at reproducing the kind of plucked and percussive sounds found at those street corners and dinner tables in 17th century Italy. The ensemble consisted of Pierre Pitzl and Hugh James Sandilands on the guitar, Jesús Fernández Baena on the teorba, Daniel Pilz on the colascione, Richard Lee Myron on violone/bass, Francisco José Montero Martinez on the lirone, and Marc Clos on percussion. Some of Clos’ percussive instruments looked like they were borrowed from the modern LP set than authentically periodic. But the sound that Clos was able to produce from his instruments blended quite well with the other strings, gave just enough percussive zest, but never drew attention to itself. Clos had prized ears and visual vigilance for maintaining dynamic balance and rhythmic integrity of the ensemble. Pitzl made some extremely convoluted playing on the fingerboard look devilishly easy, and his fluidic, no non-sense mannerism was quite centrally effective in bringing about the ensemble’s late Renaissance sensibilities. Kožená’s voice, marked with minimal vibrato and very little mannerism, effervesced with a refreshing air of ethereal beauty. Kožená did not possess the largest or plumpest of voices, but what she produced carried poetic quality: in the last line in Cruda Amarilli, “I’mi morrò tacendo / in silence I shall die”, Kožená elicited hapless desperation by cringing and slightly lightening her timbre. As she sang about love in the line “da temprar de l’amato mio bene e de l’arso mio cor l’occulto foco / to soothe the hidden fire of my beloved and my scorched heart” and she closed her eyes and lightly cupped her breasts, some audience members, sensing the grief, were heard gasping in sorrow. Kožená’s Hong Kong debut was not sold out, but based on the rabid reception at the end, it would be safe to predict that the audience in Hong Kong would not have to wait as long for her return as they did for her debut.

Magdalena Kožená in Hong Kong.

Magdalena Kožená in Hong Kong.

Les Tambours du Bronx

Date: June 1, 2013
Location: Hong Kong Cultural Centre, Hong Kong.

A collection of seventeen exquisitely fit men, some of them bare-chested and most of them with a French accent, provides all the necessary ingredients for an alluring concept, no matter what these men end up doing. Les Tambours du Bronx is exactly that, and these men make music by banging wooden sticks onto all sides of metal oil barrels, creating pulsating percussive sounds onstage. Their rhythm is executed in rehearsed precision, but by allowing occasional spontaneity through solos and improvisations, their music has a raw but authentic texture. Their sticking is highly choreographed, like the corps de ballet turning and jete-ing in unison. When these beats mixed with exhilarating electro synthesized music, the entire Grand Theatre in the Hong Kong Cultural Centre became one gigantic party room. Soloists took turns to lead the group, and by the end of the evening nearly every one of the seventeen had a chance to lead. When they did, they would roll their barrel to take center stage, and would instruct the rest to follow like a conductor in front of an obliging orchestra. The leader would call, and the rest would respond in true mantra of African call-and-response. Call patterns ranged from simple triplets to raging passages. Most of the rhythms, at the individual level, were neither patently novel nor truly sophisticated, but in unison the rhythm became a sure-fire locomotion. When various small groups broke away into different rhythms, and individuals further broke away from these smaller groups, the entire fabric was like a train speeding through an industrial town buzzing with traffic, factory noises, and hissing sounds from steam engines. Each rhythmic element remained rudimentary and basic, but when these elements wove together, a sophisticated rhythmic fabric emerged. As barrels got deformed after repeated stick attacks, the deformity changed, if ever so slightly, the tonal characteristics of the barrels, which in turn embroidered the fabric even more. At the end, the group invited the audience to join them on stage, and the uncoordinated efforts of the amateurs brought about a wimpy cacophony, thereby proving the existence of a fine line between random noise and robust sound, no matter how rough the tonal textures came about.

Les Tambours du Bronx

Les Tambours du Bronx.

Louis Siu Recital

Date: March 1, 2012
Location: The Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts, Hong Kong.

Louis Siu, a young and promising percussionist currently playing for the Macao Orchestra, presented a technically ambitious recital at the HKAPA Amphitheatre. The evening’s solo program swung between the brisk, whereupon Siu displayed seriously unreal mallet work in Alex Orfaly’s Rhapsody No. 2 for solo timpani, and the lyrical, where he crafted some smoothly delicious melodic arches in the African folksong-inspired Marimba Dances by Ross Edwards. The highlight of the evening was ensemble affair: a pair of world premieres of works by Alain Chiu and Austin Yip that dealt with the resonance and vibrating qualities of various percussive instruments. Chiu’s work, Resonantia Part 1, offered a rich layering of rhythmic fabric, with western and Chinese percussion locked in a fantastic duel of boundless energy. Yip’s Resonantia Part 2, scored as though it was the dramatic counterpoint to Chiu’s Part 1, was more nuanced and cerebral, with various percussive elements taking turns to shine as calls and responses of each other. The dependable trio of Chin-tung Chau, Rieko Koyama and Vicky Shin provided the necessary percussive resonance backing up Siu’s timpani in both parts. Together, the percussionists sounded like a pride of wild cats navigating familiar territory with crisp determination, yet mindful of each other. Accidental rim shots notwithstanding, Siu’s technical mastery of the art was somewhat marred by a lack of stage character, without which the musician looked stiff and robotic. In an evening with deeply cerebral and convoluted new music that wasn’t immediately pleasing to the average ears, Siu was perhaps taking himself too seriously. Overtly solemn and devoid of much public projection of emotions, his facial expression suggested a spent character who seemed more concerned about laboring to the finish than enjoying the moment. True or not, the severity of that perception cast a shadow over his technical skills and general mastery of his art.

Li Biao recital

Date: May 7, 2010
Location: The National Centre for the Performing Arts (The Egg), Beijing.

Li Biao recital: the setup.

Li Biao recital: the setup.

Li Biao, one of the few full-time solo percussionists, opened the NCPA May Festival with a feisty display of musicianship and dexterity. Accompanying Li were the percussion section from the Berlin Philharmonic and the piano duo of Mona & Rica Bard.

The first piece, “Ku-Ka Ilimoku”, written by Christopher Rause, was inspired by Hawaiian themes. Rhythmically, it ripped with spice and character. The second piece, “Bridging the World” was mellow, the kind of music one would expect in a picturesque country house sitting next to a gentle stream. The third piece, “Music for Pieces of Wood” by Steve Reich, was written for five pairs of pitched claves. Each percussionist built up his own rhythmic pattern from one stroke to four strokes, and then repeating the four strokes. As these patterns overlapped, the full glory of Reich’s piece was unveiled: an intersection of crisp counterpoints, woven into an exquisite rhythmic fabric. Other pieces before intermission included “Tango Suite no. 1” by Astro Piazzola, and Russell Peck’s “Lift Off!”, which tried to recreate the sound of an airplane taking off. After intermission, the evening turned to more conventional pieces, with Bartok’s “Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion”, and Bernstein’s “Symphonic Dances from West Side Story”.

In all, Li Biao and the Berlin group showed plenty of rhythmic energy, explosive yet measured. It was a pity that the house was only about 70% full, and that some in the audience were too eager to show their appreciation by clapping, especially in the middle of “Lift Off!”. The piece had a build-up whose climax would, in my opinion, call for some form of audience appreciation, much like how interludes between jazz improvisations by different musicians would call for appreciation. But here, as if fully anticipated and rehearsed but at least a dozen bars too early, the clapping was premature and, when it happened, quite awkward. CP, was that you?!