Wednesday, December 13, 2017
Stage

Florida Orchestra makes music from donkey jawbones and beer kegs

ST. PETERSBURG — The foliage obscured any address at the home of Kurt Grissom in Old Southeast, where the rehearsal was to take place.

As I slowed and opened the car window, it became clear I wouldn't need the house number. It had to be the one emitting sounds like a 1940s jungle movie.

Grissom and three other longtime percussionists for the Florida Orchestra were practicing Third Construction, a 12-minute piece they will perform this weekend at the orchestra's Mozart and More masterworks concerts. The musicians will make music on everything from animal bones to beer kegs.

It should be a jarring diversion from the rest of the program, which begins with Igor Stravinsky's Dumbarton Oaks concerto. Third Construction comes after intermission, between Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 23 and Symphony No. 39.

Composer John Cage, who believed "everything is music," wrote the piece in 1941, following two similar works that used piano, cardboard, anvils and the brake drums from cars. This percussion piece was his most expansive, making use of a wide range of primitive and do-it-yourself instruments, from tin cans to a donkey's jawbone, a conch shell or metal tacks in a jar.

Inside the house, the orchestra's four full-time percussionists faced each other, each guarding a little tower of hoarded junk. Alongside his more conventional drums, principal timpanist John Bannon presided over tomato cans he had used to make a pot of spaghetti, a jar of aspirin and another jar of raw kidney beans.

Dave Coash has painted houses before, but he used the row of paint cans on the table before him for music. Grissom enjoys a good beer now and then, but these kegs were empty when he bought them on eBay.

At the far end, principal percussionist John Shaw played congas, claves and a bamboo "cricket caller." From time to time, he sounded a conch shell fitted with a mouthpiece.

Just what some of these instruments are can differ greatly, depending on who is playing Third Construction. For example, Bannon found himself using his imagination in looking for the "Northwest Indian rattle" called for in the score.

"Which Indian?" Bannon said. "Are we talking near Pakistan or near Seattle?" He decided the tone fit better with the American northwest, where Cage had lived.

In some cases, the musicians had to destroy Cage's written intention to save it. All play some version of drums in three to five graduating pitches. But when Coash tried out some Chinese tom-toms, the pitches didn't show enough range, low to high, a possible consequence of the warm climate. So, he substituted bongos and modern tom-toms.

"He's violating what Cage probably had in mind, and he's adapting to the musical situation," Bannon explained. "He wants malleability and dynamic range. What you use is less important than what the outcome is."

Coash also tinkered with the pitches of his paint cans, which can be raised by indenting the bottom with a stick.

They began to play, and the piece unfurled with offsetting ticktocks and clangs, cowbells and pill bottles on top of offsetting drumbeats. A hypnotic pull settled in quickly, not just from the unusual collection of sounds but the meticulous structure. This was no improvisational drum circle. Nor was it easy to play, even for these musicians with lengthy credentials, and who have been playing together for at least 20 years, some for 30.

"You have to know who to listen to and who not to listen to, because he's trying to mess us up," said Shaw, with a half-joking glance toward Grissom.

At its height, the noise was gloriously confounding. I found myself wondering what it would sound like if the doorbell rang, or the phone, or if someone were to knock on the door. Would it sound preordained? Probably not, but that's the kind of effect listening to Third Construction has.

The piece culminates with the blare of the conch, and by the end of the rehearsal, it had taken a toll on Shaw. He thought about getting some advice from one of the orchestra's trumpet teachers about how to play a horn without killing his lips.

After nearly two hours, they played the entire 12 minutes without stopping. Bit by bit, it seemed to be coming together.

They took it again, from the top.

Contact Andrew Meacham at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.

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