Two recent events at the College of Charleston’s Simons Center Recital Hall offered delightful reminders that ancient music is alive and well in Chucktown.
You’d think that a solid hour spent listening mostly to an assortment of simple frame drums would try most concertgoers’ patience. But that’s hardly the case when percussionist extraordinaire Danny Mallon is at work. He appeared Monday before last, in his patented “Drums through the Ages” program – which I’ve heard several times in years past, both at the College and during Piccolo Spoleto. While the essentials of these lecture/performance programs have remained the same all along, each new edition is a bit different.
As he told us from the stage, many global cultures have their own brands of frame drum: essentially a short wooden cylinder, wider than long, open at one end, with some sort of skin or membrane stretched over the other. They vary widely in size, design and sonic characteristics. The ones we heard include the North African Tar, the Arabic tambourine (Riq), the larger Daff, and the Irish Bodhran.
Until you hear him for yourself, you simply can’t imagine the veritable symphony of sounds that Mallon gets out of these seemingly primitive percussion instruments. No mere repetitive thumping here. The kinds of sound vary tremendously, according to where the drum is struck: the center or the edges (even the rim). The relative strength of each stroke, of course, alters the volume. And entirely different sonorities are produced according to which part of the hand strikes the drum: fingernails, fingertips, or the flats of the fingers or hand. He can produce “swishing” effects, and even a sort of “cooing” sound by drawing a moistened fingerpad across the drum’s membrane. Add intricate rhythms and time signatures to all this sonic variety, and the solo frame drum suddenly becomes a fascinating and complex instrument.
To add a melodic dimension to his show (you can’t play tunes on most drums), Mallon shared with us another of his many esoteric skills: Mongolian throat-singing. It’s really wild — and weird! While vocalizing a single pitch, Mallon – by altering the positions of his mouth, palate and tongue – further produces a sequence of higher overtones that he can manipulate into a scale, intervals (mostly thirds) or even a real tune, drifting eerily above the underlying foundation pitch. Check out the above artist link – where you can hear him at it! Another interesting vocal effect was his occasional use of rhythmic chanting as he played.
And he went well beyond just the frame drum in his final piece, working the main noisemakers (drums, shakers and “devil-catchers”) with his hands while tapping a woodblock with a drumstick attached to one foot and shaking a maracas-type rattle with the other. Presto, a one-man percussion band, with some intermittent throat-singing and chanting spicing things up. How the man can do so many things at once – and make quality music while he’s at it – is beyond me!
Danny also appeared the following Monday evening, but this time as part of Dr. Steve Rosenberg’s crack Charleston Pro Musica: the College’s terrific mixed (and variable) ensemble of ancient instrumentalists (mostly recorders and baroque guitars here). They were joined by several modern instruments (violins, cello), though they played in a thoroughly period style. Joining them was Dr. Robert Taylor’s esteemed Madrigal Singers: the cream of his nationally-recognized Concert Choir.
The music at hand was – according to Rosenberg – probably the first complete public performance anywhere in modern times of the “Balletti” – a smash-hit (in its day), fifteen-piece cycle of madrigals by the late-renaissance Italian composer Giovanni Giacomo Gastoldi that was conceived as a dance-sequence. Individual numbers and sets from the cycle have been steadily performed (and recorded) in the past half-century, but apparently never as a complete work.
These pieces range from sad and searching to bright and bouncy – and I’ve never heard so many “fa-la-la’s” (a stock madrigal feature) in a single concert before! Common period subject matter prevailed in the texts … like the giddy ecstasy (or dire agony) of love, idyllic pastoral themes (LOTS of pretty shepherdesses!) or the glory of military combat.
As Rosenberg pointed out, the instrumental accompaniments are largely educated guesswork, since the instrumental parts were never published. Still, both the arrangements and the perky players sounded “right” for the music. Over the years, I’ve learned to trust Steve’s instincts and experience where early music is concerned.
And the singers sounded simply glorious: precise, spirited, resonant and stylistically true. The assorted soloists and sub-ensembles were especially brilliant: what a wonderful bunch of voices Taylor has brought together! The only glitch was an onstage readjustment when a key singer was sidelined by sudden illness. Dr. Taylor – who performed here with his marvelous minions – ended up doing some tricky sight-reading in the final numbers to compensate.
While not every period listener might care to hear a full hour of non-stop Italian madrigals (or all those fa-la-las), I found the evening to be an engrossing and most enjoyable musical experience. I love it when different elements within the Music department (and the awesome musicians who run them) get together to make such unique and memorable music as this.
I believe you’ll get to hear this music (and definitely the musicians) again during Spoleto (rather, Piccolo Spoleto). And to think, I got to hear it first!
Whilst on the subject of both impending festivals, don’t be surprised if my Eargasms posts are few and far between (or belated, like this one) in the coming weeks. I’m already hard at work interviewing Spoleto’s leading musical personalities – and laying out the bewildering array of buzz-ometers and detailed preview articles that I’ll be cranking out between now and festival time. And that’s on top of the nine CDs I’m reviewing right now (under tight deadlines) for my national gig, American Record Guide.
But never fear – I’ll be back with a pre-Spoleto vengeance by mid-May. Just you wait. No rest for the weary. But, GAWD, I love it!