NEXUS, Cage and Ewazen: answers to questions by Daniel Smithiger

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Last year (2009) percussionist Daniel Smithiger asked the members of NEXUS to answer a number of interesting questions for an interview now posted on the Percussive Notes magazine. Below are my answers to a few of Daniel’s questions.

DS: Of what things are you most proud, in the accomplishments and history of NEXUS?

BB: I generally don’t view pride as a virtue, but I think NEXUS has accomplished some significant things over its career. As you know, the group began as an improvising ensemble, using an extremely personal and unusual collection of sound sources. The way “repertoire” began to be incorporated into our concerts was also not traditional, since for several years we did not plan our concert routines. Nevertheless, pieces sometimes appeared during the course of an evening’s improvisation, and this naturally led to our very eclectic approach to programming, which continues to the present time. I think this kind of thing was new in the small world of western percussion ensembles during the 1970s and 80s, and it opened conceptual doors for the many groups that have followed us. NEXUS did a great deal of international touring during the 1980s, and I know for a fact that our approach inspired a number of fledgling European percussion groups who have gone on to major international careers. In a way, we parented an approach to presenting percussion performance and repertoire that is still used as a paradigm around the world.

DS: A specific question about composers: John Cage. His works are significant in our history. Can you comment on his music (maybe your thoughts on performing Third Construction)?

BB: I think it’s interesting that percussionists now, in 2010, can say that Cage’s percussion pieces are significant in our history. That was hardly the case in the 1970s. Most of the great American work from the 1930s and 40s was not in the libraries and not on the percussion radar in the 1960s, at least not where we were studying. Even Ionisation was considered a novelty by many of us – we only knew it because it was in the Goldenberg book. I had found and performed John Cage and Lou Harrison’s Double Music in 1970, but when I first heard Cage’s Third Construction in 1976 (on a bootleg Blackearth tape recording), I was shocked. Where had something like this been hiding? For that matter, I could have said the same thing about every one of George Hamilton Green’s xylophone compositions. In fact, I did say that about Green’s music, and I spent several years tracking down all of it.

After hearing that recording (on which Garry Kvistad was playing, even though I didn’t know him at the time!), I pushed for NEXUS to learn and play the piece. In fact, it took some prodding, but finally it became one of the most performed pieces in our repertoire. It’s probably difficult for any university percussion student to imagine a major work like Third Construction being virtually unknown 35 years after it was written, but that was the atmosphere in most of the classical percussion world at the time.

DS: The Eternal Dance of Life (2008) by Eric Ewazen was premiered at PASIC ’08 by yourselves and the Meadows Wind Ensemble. It is an amazing piece, with an amazing landscape of sounds, colors, combined with virtuosity. The premiere performance was outstanding (yes, I was there…). The piece, as it was written for you and the Wind Ensemble, also included each of your insight. Can each of you comment on your particular contribution, experience of preparing, and performance, of the piece?

BB: I was the NEXUS liaison to get a work from Eric, and our initial agreement was for a concerto for percussion and wind ensemble, with the idea that the solo percussion parts would not include keyboards, chimes or timpani. The plan was for any of those instruments to be given to the band’s percussion section – in the back, so that NEXUS could make a tight ensemble in front of the conductor using relatively compact and economical setups. Percussion ensemble concertos, particularly for a quintet, can quickly become logistical and acoustic nightmares because of the proliferation of instruments. Performers spread out across the entire stage may not hear each other well, and because the audience can’t see the band or orchestra, the “soloists” may even be placed behind the accompanying ensemble to avoid huge delays in setting up and breaking down the equipment. I wanted to avoid all of that with this piece. You were there at the premiere – I failed! It’s very difficult to reign in the creative force of a good composer. Eric is brilliant at writing for wind instruments and also percussion instruments. He just couldn’t help himself.

DS: What would you want future percussionists to gain from your experiences in that collaboration? (Or better stated, what did you learn that you’d be willing to pass on to the next generation of percussionists?)

BB: Be ready for anything, always try to make the music sound even better than the composer wrote, and have a good road manager.

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