Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Questions for Blake Wilkins, University of Houston Percussion Ensemble

Blake Wilkins took some time to speak with Musiqa about the music in Percussive Illusions, Musiqa's collaborative concert with Aurora Picture Show on January 12 at the Hobby Center. The University of Houston Percussion Ensemble will perform a wide variety of percussion pieces by composers as varied as John Cage, Musiqa's Marcus Maroney and Anthony Brandt and Thierry De Mey and Lukas Ligeti. Aurora Picture Show will present a trio of percussion-related contemporary films.

Q: In the past century, percussion has evolved dramatically. How would you describe the music the ensemble will perform in this concert?

A: The music for Percussive Illusions represents the full breadth of diversity that the concert percussion ensemble offers: John Cage's Third Construction uses traditional, exotic, and unconventional un-pitched instruments, while the works by Anthony Brandt and Marcus Maroney highlight the ensemble as a "symphonic" medium – a veritable orchestra made up of pitched percussion instruments (marimbas, vibraphones, glockenspiels, and so forth). I think that concert patrons who have yet to experience an ensemble like ours will be astounded by the diversity of music they will hear!

Q: What pieces, in your opinion, are the most interesting or challenging works in the concert?

A: Each work has its own unique character. Thierry De Mey's Table Music is surely one of the most curious. The work is played entirely with the hands (that is, no sticks or mallets) on three small tables of graduated size.  It is a visually stunning piece! On the other hand, Cage's Third Construction uses so many curious sounds – tin cans, a conch shell, various shakers, wooden claves. Perhaps Marcus Maroney's Pantheon is the most challenging, because it also requires the players to sing.

Q: Could you give me an overview of the instruments played in a percussion ensemble?

A: The larger works – Anthony Brandt's My Best Eleven and Marcus Maroney's Pantheon – are dominated by keyboard percussion instruments, and this really serves as the core of the Moores School Percussion Ensemble's standard repertoire. These insruments include marimbas (we use as many as five on this concert), vibraphones (as many as four), xylophones, glockenspiels, and chimes. Lukas Ligeti's Pattern Transformation uses only two marimbas, and Cage's Third Construction uses a wide variety of drums, shakers, metallic sounds, lion's roar, and even a conch shell.

Q: What is unusual about the percussion instruments you will use?

A: We will use many unusual instruments, such as the conch shell and tin cans in Third Construction. But many in the audience will be most fascinated by the unusual ways some of our instruments are played. For instance, in Pantheon, Marcus Maroney calls on the players to use double bass bows on various instruments, which create a wonderful ethereal sound.

Q: From your perspective as director of an award-winning percussion ensemble, what is unique about this group?

A: While percussion ensembles such as ours exist at universities throughout the country, our group is singular in commissioning some of our country's most notable composers to create new works expressly for our group. The nature of these works is also unique: I have strived for many years to encourage works that treat the ensemble as a true orchestra capable of conveying music that emphasizes a traditional "symphonic" mindset.

Q: When did you start in percussion and what drew you to this area of music?

A: I have been in percussion since I was in junior high. Perhaps I was first drawn to it because both my older brothers had played drums, although only I really did anything with it. Percussion instruments are some of our oldest instruments, and I think there is something visceral and almost primal about playing them – the physicality, the choreography...playing these instruments speaks to my core!

Musiqa: Thank you, Blake, for this great overview of the concert.

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