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Concert taps percussion composers

David Coash's recital tonight at USF features works for marimba, vibraphone and other percussion instruments.

Forget about strings, woodwinds and brass. They're old hat. More and more, the driving element of contemporary music is percussion.

Just ask a percussionist who has a doctorate.

"The 1700s was a string era, and then in the romantic era, the 1800s, woodwinds and brass came to the fore in orchestral writing. So what was left for the 20th century? That's when composers started finding that the potential for writing high-level, serious music for percussion instruments is quite profound."

So says David Coash, percussionist with the Florida Orchestra, who is giving a recital tonight at the University of South Florida. He'll play works for marimba, vibraphone and other percussion by Keiko Abe, Sherwood Shaffer, David Lang, Stephen Rush and Nobosa Zivkovic.

As composers go _ even in classical circles _ these are not exactly household names.

"That's sort of the way it is in percussion," Coash says. "But Keiko Abe is a legend in the percussion world as far as being an innovator as a player and composer. She was one of the first players back in the 1960s in Japan to promote and commission composers to write solo and chamber works for marimba. She's my hero, my role model."

Coash is playing Little Windows, a marimba solo that is part of collection of six works by Abe.

The marimba, which resembles a xylophone, consists of wood bars covering five octaves that are struck by mallets. With its capacity for melody and harmony, as well as a wide range of tone color, the instrument has inspired a lot of modern composers.

"The number of marimba pieces being written these days is actually overwhelming," Coash says. "I've got pieces in my library by composers like Milton Babbitt, Hans Werner Henze and Jacob Druckman. It's almost hard to pick a program because there's so much literature to choose from."

One of the more offbeat works on Coash's program is Zivkovic's To the Gods of Rhythm for djembe, an African drum. It calls for the percussionist to do a little singing.

"It incorporates African drumming with south Indian classical technique and something like Gregorian chant," he said. "I don't sing much, so it's different for me."

Coash, 42, a member of the Florida Orchestra for 22 years, received his doctorate last year in percussion performance from the University of Michigan. He teaches at the University of Tampa and Stetson University. He also is in Bogus Pomp, the band that plays Frank Zappa music and has shared a couple of programs with the orchestra.

There is one potential problem with being a percussionist. Hearing loss is a concern for the people who play drums, cymbals, gongs and all the other instruments that make the loudest noise.

"It's sort of an occupational hazard that you have to be aware of," says Coash, adding that his hearing is fine. "We worry about it. At a certain point, if it got too bad, then it will impair your ability to play."

He says the problem most often arises with Bogus Pomp, a 10-piece rhythm and blues band that rehearses in a garage converted into a snug studio.

"There are times that I'll put in earplugs if it's getting to be too loud."