More About the Beginning of NEXUS

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Further to Bob Becker’s blog posting of Dec. 8, 2011 I also received a request from Yale graduate student Victor Caccese to addess a few questions about the beginning of NEXUS.
Mr. Cahn,
I mainly want to ask you about the start of Nexus with your first performances in 1971. Even though all of its members have accomplished a great deal by themselves I want to focus on the percussion group Nexus and how it has grown and flourished through the years.
Q1:  What was your reason for starting a percussion group?
Cahn: There were three basic factors.  First, we all  knew each other, and better yet, we were all friends by the time NEXUS formed in May 1971. By that time the five original members of NEXUS had an amazing web of connections:
         – Bill and John were from adjacent neighborhoods in Philadelphia. Both had many of the same teachers in the Philadelphia Public Schools and both studied privately with Dan Hinger, the timpanist in the Philadelphia Orchestra.  Both attended the Eastman School of Music and studied there with William G. Street (who also taught Hinger and Alan Abel).  John and Bill toured with the Toronto Symphony and Seiji Ozawa in northern Ontario Province in 1967.
         – Bill and Russell met in Alan Abel’s Percussion Ensemble at the Settlement Music School in Philadelphia,  Bill was in high school and Russell was a student studying with Hinger at the Curtis Institute.
         – Bill and Bob met at the Eastman School of Music when Bob entered as a freshman and Bill was a sophomore.  They performed together throughout Bob’s college days, both with student ensembles and with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra.
         – Bill and Bob met Robin when Robin became the Principal Percussionist in the Rochester Philharmonic in 1966.
         – Robin and John performed together in the Milwaukee Symphony.  After Rochester, Robin joined the Toronto Symphony where John was the timpanist.
         – After Eastman Bob went to Washington, DC where he played in the Marine Band and met Russell who had joined the Air Force Band after graduating from Curtis.  After their military service, Bob and Russell became grad students in the world music program at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut.
         – All five – Bob, Bill, Russell, Robin and John – came together at the Marlboro Music Festival in Vermont in 1968 to perform in Stravinsky’s “Les Noces.”
         All of these connections happened before NEXUS was formed.  It’s important to note that at the time NEXUS came together, every one of us either had a regular orchestra job and/or other means of financial support; there was never a decision to make a living from NEXUS.  This gave us virtually absolute artistic freedom to pursue our musical interests, without concern for trying to please managers, presenters, and market-oriented issues.
         Secondly, we shared common musical sensibilities.  We were all classically trained in conservatories, and our common interest was in orchestral music. The Philadelphia Orchestra concept of focusing on making beautiful  sounds (rather than focusing on technical virtuosity) was a shared value.  
         Third, we all wanted to expand our musical vision.  After college, we all discovered world music at a time when there was a new availability of good hi-fi recordings; there was a new availability of world percussion instruments (not from catalogs but from estates of world travelers that ended up in antique shops); and there was a new availability of rapid world travel in jet planes, making it more possible to hear live music in other countries and easier for musicians from other cultures to tour in North America. These new possibilities were just emerging at the time NEXUS was formed.
Q2: Was there any one person or event that inspired you and your colleagues to start a percussion group?
Cahn:  I think the person who most influenced NEXUS in the beginning was John Wyre.  In the mid-1960s John began to explore Indian Classical Music.  He also became interested in non-western percussion instruments – primarily bells from Asia – that he was finding in antique shops.  He suspended each of these bells on 3 to 6-foot long strings, hanging from the ceiling in his Toronto apartment.  When anyone visited, John would activate the bells by gently starting them swinging back and forth with each bell swinging like the pendulum on a clock, and the bells would then swing and continue to make sounds for a long time on their own.  In listening to this process of the bells randomly chiming and gradually coming to a false silence, followed by one or two last ‘dings’, we developed an appreciation for the power of sounds alone to be rich and interesting, as well as the ability to appreciate random sounds alone as abstract form, yet wonderfully connected, without the need to be in a composer-organized structure.  These levels of appreciation naturally led to experiments in free improvisation on bells and other non-western percussion instruments, which we began to collect.
         Another person who was very influential on NEXUS in the beginning was Warren Benson, a distinguished composer who had also been Robin Engelman’s percussion teacher at Ithaca College.  By 1971 Warren was living in Rochester to be on the composition faculty at the Eastman School of Music.  He became very interested in the experimental improvisations that NEXUS was performing, and he organized the first formal NEXUS concert in Kilbourn Hall at the Eastman School on May 21, 1971.  That concert consisted of a one-hour improvisation on a stage full of non-western percussion instruments followed by an intermission and another one-hour improvisation.  That first concert was recorded and it is now preserved on a CD in my collection.
Q3: As a student it can often be difficult to balance the building of a career (in this case Nexus) and the training efforts of becoming a successful percussionist. What fears and excitements did you possess in the early stages of Nexus’ development?
Cahn: As far as I know, none of the NEXUS members were exposed to world music or free improvisation until after we graduated from college.  We had been exposed to only two types of percussion music – the hi-fidelity LP records of ‘percussion pops’ by musicians like Dick Schory, and secondly, the percussion ensemble music we played in college.  We all had the intuitive sense – based on having been exposed to great orchestral music in our educational backgrounds –  that there could be much more depth in music made by percussion instruments alone.   Fortunately, composers like John Cage, Lou Harrison and others had reached the same conclusion decades earlier, but their music had been long passé, waiting to be rediscovered.  Garry Kvistad and the Blackearth Percussion Group (Garry, Rick Kvistad, Mike Udow and Al Otte) began to program the music of Cage, while Bob Becker and Russell Hartenberger were exploring world music at Wesleyan University, and John Wyre, Robin Engelman, Michael Craden and I were collecting bells, gongs and other non-western instruments and improvising.  It was the early 1970s and Russell and Bob were also starting to perform with an emerging composer in New York City, Steve Reich.  All of these things were new to us and very exciting, and we followed our muses with enthusiasm and without any fears, although it’s important to note that we all had the means to support ourselves outside of NEXUS in the early years.
Q4: Which collaborations and/or commissions do you consider most dear, or rather most influential, in your career with Nexus? (these can be other performers, visual artists, composers, etc.).
Cahn:  Fred Hinger, who was timpanist in The Philadelphia Orchestra and later at the Metropolitan Opera, was a major influence.  Russell Hartenberger, John Wyre and I studied with him, and in addition to being awed by his performances in Philadelphia, we absorbed his ideas about sound and phrasing, which gave us shared musical sensibilities.
Toru Takemitsu, the distinguished composer, was an early inspiration to the members of NEXUS through his creative explorations of instrumental and orchestral sound, embodied in his numerous compositions.  He was a personal friend of the members of NEXUS, and he was a mentor for our programming of world music before there was even such a label.  He sponsored the first visit of NEXUS to Japan in 1976 and several subsequent tours.  But most of all, in 1990, after years of requests, Takemitsu composed a masterpiece for NEXUS and orchestra, “From me flows what you call Time,” which NEXUS has performed with many orchestras worldwide, most recently (2010/11 season) with orchestras in Japan and the U.S.
Ray Dillard first met NEXUS in Dallas around 1981 and since then he has given much of his energy to supporting NEXUS – through his brilliant production skills in virtually all of the 25 NEXUS CDs; through his invaluable advice and direction on concert production and staging; and through his taking on the responsibility of managing NEXUS’ business affairs.
John Cage composed his masterpiece, “Third Construction,” in 1941.  NEXUS had the honor of performing it for Cage on a number of occasions.  The most memorable was on September 12, 1987 at the Embassy Theater in Los Angeles for Cage’s 70th Birthday Celebration.  The program was a three-hour happening titled, “musicircus” in which NEXUS performed the “Third Construction” at several predetermined points. I also had the privilege of performing with Cage in his “Inlets.”  I played the solo conch horn. 
George Hamilton Green was someone we never met, but his music opened many doors for NEXUS.  The early NEXUS performances consisted mainly of free improvisations.  However, in November 1971 Bob Becker brought his own arrangement of Green’s “Rainbow Ripples” to NEXUS.  By the 1970s Green’s music was largely forgotten, but Bob recognized something of importance.  NEXUS played “Rainbow Ripples” as an encore at a concert of the Hamilton (Ontario, Canada) Philharmonic and the audience went wild, which inspired Bob and NEXUS to delve much deeper into Green’s compositions.  Today Bob’s and my arrangements of Green’s music are performed all over the world.  In my opinion, Bob was single-handedly responsible for the revival of Green’s music to the great benefit of a new generation of audiences.
The members of NEXUS themselves – Bob, Bill, Robin, Russell, Garry, John – and their spouses as well – have been the greatest influences on NEXUS, through decades of friendship, openness, honesty, and sharing.
Some names that stand out include:
–  Seiji Ozawa, who brought NEXUS and Takemitsu together in Toronto in the late 1960s.  
–  Dick Stoltzman, the virtuoso clarinetist, collaborated with NEXUS on several tours and on the CD titled, “Garden of Sounds.”    
–  Betsy Green, who managed NEXUS in the 1980s and Frank Salomon, who enabled many great NEXUS performances with symphony orchestras.
There have been many others who have inspired NEXUS – conductors, musicians, composers, and friends too numerous to acknowledge here.
Q5:  Just briefly talk about your experience over the years with Nexus. I imagine that it must have been a joy to share a large part of your performing life with the other percussionists, and friends you have in Nexus.
Cahn:  We were very, very  lucky.  You can’t MAKE a 40-plus-years relationship happen.  It either works or it doesn’t.  It has always been – and continues to be – a great joy to be deeply committed with good friends to music making in which no one is harmed, and better yet, which has the power to bring such joy to countless others, many of whom we will never know.
If you’re interested, there’s a listing of every NEXUS concert (and program) from 1968 to the present at the NEXUS website:  www.nexuspercussion.com1) on the home page, click “About” on the top banner2) on the “About” page – click on “Archive” on the top banner, second (lower) row3) scroll down to the file “History of NEXUS – 1999 to 2011″  (on the first page of the archive)4) to get to the remaining history files, scroll to the” bottom of page 1 and click “Next”5) scroll down to the files “History of NEXUS – 1990 to 1998″ and”History of NEXUS – 1968 to 1989”  (on page 2 of the archive)

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[…] Ghana, collecting instruments! (You can read more in Bill’s blog posts on the beginning of NEXUS and on the art of hanging gongs. […]

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