Atlanta: From Gamelan to Quartertone Guitar

Mark Gresham
Mark Gresham
Photo by Angela Lee

April’s new music calendar opened in Atlanta in a blend of old and new with an Eastern twist. On April 2, the Emory Javanese Gamelan, directed by Steven Everett, presented both traditional gamelan music and new works for (or inspired by) Indonesian instruments. Included was one of Everett’s own works, Ladrang Kampung (slendro), from his 1999 music for a dramatic work k a M. The gamelan was the supporting ensemble for a solo violin part, digitally processed through Symbolic Sound Corp.’s Kyma software with Kim Twarog as the violin soloist. This was the first time the solo part had been performed on violin, according to Twarog; cello or flute having been used in the past. She also plays traditional gamelan instruments as a member of the ensemble, but found playing violin in slendro tuning a novel and somewhat ear-challenging experience.

The late Lou Harrison’s Gending Moon sl. (1994) for gamelan was also on the program, as was Double Music (1940) collaboratively composed by Harrison and John Cage, played by guests from the Georgia State University Percussion Ensemble, who were invited to participate when Everett learned they were preparing it for their own concert on April 11. A simple but clever clue as to who wrote what in the piece was indicated by the performers’ shirts: blue for Cage, black for Harrison.

That April 11 concert by the entire GSU Percussion Ensemble, directed by Stuart Gerber, itself featured a panoply of newer music, including the premiere of Burning Moon (2005) by Nikitas Demos. Gerber himself was marimbist, sharing solo status with bouzouki soloist Esteban Anastasio. The duo parts, which the composer compares to “a pair of dancers,” were accompanied by an ensemble of six percussionists which seemed to have a role akin to a chorus in classical Greek drama.

Instrumentalists also had dancer-like roles in Pas de Deux by Brian Luckett, performed by the composer on guitar with flutist Carl Hall, in a duo recital at Emerson Concert Hall on April 8. The two also performed Libby Larsen’s two-movement, jazz and be-bop inspired Blue Third Pieces (1996).

Larsen’s music was featured again at Emerson Hall with the premiere of a new version of De toda la eternidad by members of the Emory Wind Ensemble on April 13. The original voice/piano version was commissioned by soprano Bonnie Pomfret, and premiered by her and pianist Laura Gordy for the opening of the Schwartz Center in 2003. The new version, which includes the addition of a chamber-sized group of winds, was commissioned by ensemble director Scott Stewart. Pomfret and Gordy were also featured soprano and pianist in this premiered revision. The premiere of a new concerto for piano and winds by Stephen Paulus was originally scheduled to be on the program as well, with William Ransom as soloist, but has been postponed until the fall.

Eyedrum, an in-town Atlanta alternative venue, frequently hosts improvisers like Erik Hinds of Athens, Georgia, who performs on quarter-tone guitar and the H’arpeggione, a large, upright, guitar-like device that includes a dozen sympathetic drone strings. Hinds and Tennessee-based vocalist/keyboardist Dennis Palmer took the stage at Eyedrum April 9 for a meeting of their personal electro-acoustical styles. Palmer cites John Zorn and Fred Firth as influences, while Hinds emphasizes the rawly naked sounds of his instruments’ strings. Eyedrum also hosts “open improvisation” nights, most recently on April 7. Says electric guitarist/composer Darren Nelsen, a first-time participant: “You get all kinds of characters showing up for that open improv. People will bring anything in—kazoos, megaphones, theremins. It was wild. Some of it falls flat, some of it is funny, some of it’s good; it’s all kinds of stuff.”

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A native of Atlanta, Georgia, Mark Gresham is a composer, publisher, and freelance music journalist. He is a contributing writer for Atlanta’s alternative weekly newspaper, Creative Loafing, and was winner of an ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for Music Journalism in 2003.