Bored with the same old spook-house shocks? This Halloween, watch out for chills lurking unexpectedly in concert hall shadows, courtesy of Blair Percussion VORTEX — the standout student ensemble has sprung a lot of surprises over the past few years, and artistic director Michael Holland seems intent on keeping it that way.
Upon discovering that the group's fall concert was scheduled for Halloween night, Holland, senior lecturer in percussion at the Blair School of Music, saw the opportunity for a holiday theme he promises will be more creepy than campy. The evening's bill includes a theatrical work, a silent film with live music, two brand-new compositions and the classic
Ionisation by 20th-century innovator Edgar Varèse—oh yeah, and some really kick-ass percussion students, too.
While planning the program, Holland recalled his colleague Jim Lovensheimer's fantasy of adapting Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart" for the stage. Lovensheimer, a Blair musicologist who spent years as a professional stage actor before entering academia, talks excitedly about that long-standing dream.
"Poe's language is so dramatic — it makes an amazing script," he says. "And the intimacy of [Blair's] Turner Hall should help draw the audience into the story's intensity."
Lovensheimer and Holland enlisted Blair composer Michael Slayton to create a musical setting for the monologue in what became a three-way collaborative effort. Slayton was inspired by "the constant forward movement in Jim's adaption," while Lovensheimer says his own dramatic interpretation was reshaped by the music. And as Slayton imagined sonorities to echo the narrative's auditory hallucinations, he got ideas from Holland about how to realize some of these sounds with percussion instruments.
Collaboration is nothing new for VORTEX. Their impressive concert last spring teamed visiting composer Daniel Bernard Roumain with a large cast of dancers and musicians, including Nashville-based electric violin pioneer Tracy Silverman, who is now planning a new piece for the group's next concert. Noted composer Mary Ellen Childs, who's written commissions for the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and Kronos Quartet, was closely involved in the group's concert of her music during her 2009 residency at Blair.
Holland spent five years as a member of Childs' inventive percussion group CRASH — he has also performed with numerous professional orchestras and Cirque du Soleil. The CRASH repertoire, which has featured in all of VORTEX's concerts, achieves a delightfully nuanced and technically challenging integration of music and choreography. Holland cites Child's "refined mode of experimentation and presentation, along with the outrageously grand scale of the Cirque" as primary inspirations for his approach to academic performance.
Holland arrived at Blair to fill in during the sabbatical of long-time associate professor William Wiggins, with no expectation of staying on. But Blair dean Mark Wait noted Holland's unique energy, and kept him on to develop the group. "Both Bill Wiggins and I felt that he had brought an important dimension to Blair, and we're lucky to have him," says Wait.
Blair percussion majors Zachary Bowers and Charles Tighe both say that Holland's collaborative approach is what makes the ensemble so interesting for them. "The name 'VORTEX' is pretty literal — we're trying to draw people in," says Tighe. Bowers points to the variety of artists — students, faculty and established outside professionals — who've worked with the group, and Tighe notes how this diversity of performers engages equally diverse audiences.
If these audiences are growing with each concert, it's at least partly because the group is reaching out to them. Tighe and Bowers grin about their unannounced "guerrilla" performances at busy outdoor locations on Vanderbilt campus. Not your typical student recitals, to be sure.
But VORTEX also draws from the 20th-century percussion repertoire. Edgar Varèse's 1930 Ionisation is well known as the first major work for percussion ensemble — Slayton calls it "a world changer." The 13-player work paved the way for early experimental pieces by John Cage and Lou Harrison, and inspired iconoclastic musicians from Boulez to Zappa.
Also on the bill is the 1913 one-reel silent film Suspense, with music composed by Holland himself. "I love silent film," he says, "and live accompaniment is thrilling because you're working without a net, with real risk, and audiences respond to the raw energy this risk creates." The film, by Lois Weber and Phillips Smalley, is noted for its inventive editing and camera work, which presages some of Hitchcock's techniques.
Holland has done a lot of performing with silent film, including a couple previous scores of his own. "This is the most demanding score I've written, because there is so much nuance [in the film] that I couldn't ignore any moment's action," he says. "Tracy Silverman was a tremendous help in working efficiently as a composer and in responding to this level of detail."
"If there are any filmmakers reading," he laughs, "I'd love to create a score for a new animation or live-action silent film. It's a medium quite distinct from film with sound."
You can count on some unannounced numbers on Sunday's concert, and on imaginative use of the full performance space. The concert is free, but requires tickets from Blair's office due to limited seating. Holland says that costumes are welcome, but be sure you're not afraid of the dark. Given the inventive staging of previous VORTEX concerts, you'd better assume he means it.
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