A Sonically Spectacular Percussion Record Worth Repeated Plays
compositions by Lou Harrison and Steve Reich plus a world premier co-commissioned by the Ensemble
Recorded during the same 2011 and 2012 Zipper Hall, Los Angeles sessions that produced the remarkable percussion record “Smoke & Mirrors” (Yarlung 17255-195V), “Earth & Wood” is another sonic spectacular recorded directly to tape using a single AKG C24 stereo microphone (with Elliot Midwood mic amplification). The one-mike recording technique required “just so” placement of both it and the seven member Smoke and Mirrors Percussion Ensemble that performed the intricate pieces “without a net”.
The quartet tackles on side one of the 45rpm LP Lou Harrison’s early 1940’s piece “Canticle No. 3” for ocarina (Italian for “little flute”) and percussion. Joe Beribak plays an earthen Aztec/Mayan ocarina, Derek Tywoniuk adds steel guitar to the exotic assortment of percussion instruments that include both standard modern orchestral ones meant for the concert hall like toms and snares and exotics meant more to be played in smaller, more intimate settings like the teponaztli—a slit drum made from a hollow log.
The attention-grabbing percussive strikes are enticingly spread across the soundstage, with the superb hall acoustics providing an airy, expansive cushion. The ear candy includes throbbing deep bass, sheets of percussive thunder, vicious mallet strikes and of course the mourning dove like ocarina and steel stringed guitar. It’s a pleasure inducing musical house of mirrors that takes up all of side one. When it ends you’ll miss being enveloped in that soundspace—at least I was, and after the first play went back for a second.
Side two’s pieces for two marimbas opens with Steve Reich’s short, 1994 minimalist composition “Nagoya Marimbas” featuring repeated patterns played by each marimba at times one or two beats out of phase with one another. Though more hypnotic and less dramatic than Harrison’s work, it’s still an aural and rhythmic treat.
That’s followed by the world premiere of the Smoke & Mirrors Ensemble’s co-commissioned “Book of Grooves” by Argentine composer Alejandro Viñao. More dramatic and darker than Reich’s mathematical piece, it could set off low frequency room resonances in less than ideal spaces on less than well-tuned systems, but otherwise provides lower mid-bass thrills capturing the stage rear corners. Hard to believe it’s all produced by two marimbas. The ensemble performs two pieces from "Book of Grooves": "Book of Grooves II, Colors of a Groove" and "Book of Grooves IV, Dance Groove Drifting."
The performances were recorded to tape without edits, as a D2D record would be produced and that either results in excess “play it safe” caution or “go for it” excitement. The latter won out here. The record may leave you breathless.
Earth & Wood is both a great sonic “show off” demo disc and one that’s worth frequent spins for the musical choices and the “seat of the pants” performances. I usually write that percussion records aren’t for everyone, but this one just might be. (Available at Elusive Disc).
The album was endorsed by The Los Angeles and Orange County Audio Society (I'm "Senior Vice President Analogue"). President Mike Wechsberg, Chairman Robert Levi and the society's multi-year collaboration with Yarlung enable joint concerts and recordings to reach larger audiences. It's a good thing!
The Society's Officers For 2022-2023