Tag Archives: Nexus

Percussive Arts Society 2011 International Convention: Some memories.

Steven Schick

The opening event was a Wednesday evening concert titled “Masterworks”  The first half began with Steven Schick  performing Psappha and Bone Alphabet.

Schick’s performance of Psappha was to date the best playing of that piece I’ve ever heard. His clarity balance and control was artistry at its highest level. It proved the point made to me by a composer friend of mine who said, “Contemporary music is not bad, it’s just badly played”.

I was convinced by Schick’s performance that the key to understanding  Psappha was an adherence to a steady tempo. Without this, relationships between  The form and structures of Psappha would be  incomprehensible and rendered meaningless.

Percussion Group Cincinnati

Then came a Percussion Group Cincinnati amalgamation of three Post-Cultural Revolution Chinese composers with the tongue and memory twisting title “From some of L AM- MOT(Qu Xiao-song), through WATER MUSIC (Tan Dun), to portions of DRAMA (Guo Wen-jing)

Since hearing Chris Lamb’s premier of  Tan Dun’s Water Music, I am still convinced the work’s greatest moment is the long, slow fall of water which ends the piece. It remains an enchanting sound particularly in a concert hall and may be in danger of becoming a cliché, something like the Mark Tree.

The work put together by Percussion Group Cincinnati contained an absolutely mesmerizing  chime solo. I can think of few moments in my experience to compare with the timelessness and touch displayed in those notes. (I couldn’t see who played this chime part, but a friend at the concert told me he thought it was Alan Otte.)

Between the chimes and the water came music I’m used to hearing on the table of my licensed massage therapist. The only thing missing was the massage. I don’t know if this is typical of the Post-Cultural Revolution composers or the product of the Percussion Group Cincinnati’s pastiche. Worth noting however is the fact that at no time was I aware of this being “Percussion” music.

Susan Powell

Susan Powell has created important percussion programs at Ohio State University. Though I had visited Ohio State on 2 occasions as a clinician, I had never heard Susan play. Therefore I was interested in hearing her presentation Xylophone +. Susan and her husband Joseph Krygier are exploring atypical xylophone repertoire.

The opening works were by William Cahn and Christopher Deane. The next work was Pattern Migration for tape and xylophone by Krygier and, for me the most successful work on the concert. Then followed a collaborative composition by Powell and Krygier. The programme ended with three virtuoso rag tunes by various past masters arranged as a medley and brilliantly played  by Susan.

Based on what I heard I believe Susan’s idea about building a concert repertoire for xylophone not based on early 20th century dance music is worthy of expansion and I applaud her and Joseph for their efforts to date.

Bob Becker

I could not miss the opportunity of hearing Turning Point, Prisoners of the Image Factory, Unseen Child, Cryin’ Time, Never in Word and Mudra. With the exception of Never in Word, I had played these works as a member of Nexus. Now I was to hear them again from the audience played by a hand picked group of virtuosi.

What I heard was a surprise. Becker’s music had always been interesting, exciting and challenging. All of those were present from out front, but the expression and mood was a new experience for me.

Bob’s music has a dark quality, something faintly disturbing. His music is modal and almost always in an odd meter, 5/4, but there is more.

And now, remembering feelings from my performances of these works, the word incomplete comes to mind. Somehow, his works never resolve in a traditional way- for example, as a five-seven chord announces the end of an eight bar phrase. This leaves a listener with a feeling not of what might have been, but what is to come. An intriguing and elusive quality.

Bob’s virtuosi made the same mistakes we always made in Nexus.

James Campbell, University of Kentucky Percussion Ensemble.

Jim’s ensembles are always prepared. This year he had chosen an early work by my teacher Warren Benson and had asked me to write a biography of Warren and a programme note for Warren’s Streams.

Streams is so quiet, Jim had phoned to asked my opinion about beginning his programme with the piece. I was doubtful the work would be heard in the hotel conference rooms reserved for these types of concerts unless some sensitive miking was used.

Ultimately, Jim decided to open with Blue Burn a rhythmically interesting work by Joseph Tompkins who wrote the work for the University of Kentucky Percussion Ensemble.

The performance of Streams was remarkable. Streams is a difficult work because it requires extensive use of techniques not usually required of percussionists. The ensemble gave a beautiful performance. I wished Warren could have heard them.

Streams is a piece for teaching. There are important lessons for students. It is a work in contradiction to most percussion ensemble compositions of the last 50 years. It’s difficult. It’s also very good.

There are two issues with Streams which I’ve never heard satisfactorily resolved. The percussionists are required to hum pitches and college percussionists cannot do this. Perhaps a small choir of voice majors would take care of the problem.  The other concerns a slide whistle glissando that always sounds out of place. Maybe a synthesizer is the answer here.

Jim followed Streams with a work that opened with tape sounds that perfectly dovetailed with the mood of Streams. Thank you Jim and the ensemble.

N.B. During the last few years, the PASIC has been shortened by a day. This schedule is less tedious, more doable, compact, easy to absorb.

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Posted by on December 5, 2011 in Articles, Commentaries & Critiques


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Perspectives on Improvisation. Revised and expanded version of a paper presented at the first Warren and Patricia Benson Forum on Creativity, The Eastman School of Music, 2006.

Duke Ellington (1899-1974) gave a lecture at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Ontario, during the summer of 1966.  He was asked by an audience member to “Improvise something”.

Ellington replied, “I can’t”, and immediately itemized the decisions he had to make before he could play: choose the instrument, choose a tonal language, choose a character or mood, decide where to position his hands, how many fingers to use, and how loud and fast to play. He then proceeded to play what he called a ‘composition’.

In 1971 I accepted a teaching position at York University in Toronto conditional upon me being able to do “whatever I wanted to do”. I chose to oversee, a course in improvisation. The students were majors in music, dance, visual arts and liberal studies.

In my studio I hung bells, drums, gongs, cymbals, temple bowls and other exotic percussion instruments from around the world. No specialized skills are required to play these instruments-one has only to hit them, and their sound possibilities are almost limitless. I did not include a melodic instrument. The students, about 8 of them, met with me two hours, two days a week for one semester.

I asked them to play these instruments, but gave them no instructions on how.  I wanted to find out what would happen if they could “do whatever they wanted to do.” I had some practical knowledge of improvisation, but was as new to this studio experience as were they. The prospect of hearing their music excited me and I wanted them to discover sounds without being influenced by me. I hoped they’d be captivated by their explorations. They were eager; delighted by the instruments and thrilled with the idea of no rules.

After a few sessions, even the most enthusiastic students had exhausted their ideas and for the most part, sat self-consciously mute. At that point I began playing with them, individually and groups of two or three. For a while the students were rejuvenated. But these collaborations, as well, lost their spirit. During one session a student began to sing and this reminder of melody encouraged one or two other students to bring melodic instruments to class. But their playing and singing was too timid and rather than broadening the scope of their improvisations, the inclusion of pitch made the music more awkward.  Aware of their quandary, the students suggested ideas for guiding their improvisations and I gave them some instructions from compositions I was playing as a professional.

Nothing worked for long. The students were frustrated and perplexed by their inability to understand why they could not make a meaningful music alone or with others. Our sessions had not even given them a repertoire of ideas and techniques to help them launch new explorations. (They were familiar with Pop music, but couldn’t isolate its elements and apply them.) Their music was almost expressionless, though occasionally enlivened by sparks of energy. We finished the semester listening to recordings of contemporary music and discussing our studio experiences. The classes went on for three more semesters, but even with fresh blood, the music  continued “dribbling-to-a-tacit”.

The novelty of the course had quickly evaporated. For youngsters with little or no background in music, four hours a week of free improvisation were too much, and too much even with rules to guide them. They lacked experience with the basic elements of music: rhythm, tempo and dynamics. And, though we discussed and experimented with duration, silence, form and structure, they could not comfortably apply these ideas to their playing.1

Vinko Globokar (b. 1934), former director of IRCAM (Institute for Research and Coordination of Acoustics and Music) in Paris, virtuoso trombonist, composer and improviser, wrote that improvisers “must have a similar reservoir of possibilities-aesthetic points of view.  .  .” 2


It was this reservoir of possibilities – aesthetic points of view that brought Nexus together in 1971.3 Though our educations differed in some details, we shared the gestures and techniques of trained Western percussionists. We had been exposed to and played Jazz, Rock and Roll, Blues, Country, Folk, Classical, Contemporary and military music. We were flexible in our music making and had a profound interest in sound. We were also close friends.

Nexus was part of a burgeoning interest in foreign ethnic music and our conscious decision to collect and play instruments from other cultures was both technically and musically liberating. The study of western percussion had made us, as some wag put it, “overeducated and underemployed”. Unlike my university students,the sounds of these “new” instruments refreshed our ears and inspired our first informal collaborations. These improvisations had a joie de vivre.

The spirit and communicative skills of Nexus were the inspiration for composer Warren Benson(1924-2005) to produce Nexus’ first concert at the Eastman School of Music in Kilbourn Hall.4 He wrote a poem for the program:

“.  .  . instruments from all the world
Musicians from two countries
and four private universes
Coming together
to celebrate being together.  .  .”

Lukas Foss (1922-2007), the successor to Arnold Schoenberg at UCLA and founder in 1953 of the UCLA Improvisation Chamber Ensemble, told me he’d given up on improvisation because the performers had quickly developed a repertoire of gestures and techniques that, by repetition, made all the performances sound pretty much the same. To Foss, this “reliance on the comfort of the familiar”, as he put it, did not produce improvisation, or, if you will, interesting music.

Nexus formulated no rules to govern its improvisations, but over time, we developed a Foss-like “reliance on the familiar” and absorbed other conventions – Foss’ “repertoire of gestures and techniques”. Particular sounds became signals for change, i.e., a low gong would change loud, fast and dense to soft, slow and sparse. A sudden sharp attach might precipitate a frenzy. Our improvisations tended to be in A-B-A form – fast, slow, fast or loud, soft, loud etc. We gradually quelled our tendency to “vamp until ready”, and our improvisations became shorter, more compact. We learned the values of less-is-more.

To maintain the freshness of our improvisations, we sometimes change our instrumentation completely. We also invite guests who have a “repertoire of gestures and techniques”. In a spirit of collegiality, Nexus usually lets our guests lead, thereby creating a “concerto” experience.

For me, Nexus’ most successful improvisational moments were achieved when everyone did “What they want to do”, without regard for homogeneity. This rare occurrence created a fantasy of concurrent, individual expressions in exquisite balance, and the music floated over us and the audience.

I sent a cassette tape of a Nexus improvisation to Globokar and his response was typically direct (I paraphrase): “You play beautifully together, but it is North American. It is totally rhythmical, pleasant and traditionally structured. It doesn’t interest me. When our percussionist comes to an improvisation concert or recording session, he brings at most three instruments and never repeats a sound.” Globokar’s rule for improvisation was, “always search for something new, never repeat a sound”.5

Nexus’ early free improvisation era has been credited, at least in part, with spawning new professional percussion ensembles. Yet today, all the younger percussion ensembles play written music and, to my knowledge, none of them improvise in public. As my colleague Bob Becker said, “People were more interested in how we played than what we played”. Nexus was an unanalyzable anomaly.

During the last century, composers involved performers in the creation of their works. I experienced this first hand, often under the personal direction of the composer, while performing with New Music Concerts of Toronto, Ontario. These works, in whole or part, were Aleatoric; 6 “ music in which elements traditionally determined by the composer were determined either by a process of random selection or chance operations chosen by the composer, or through the exercise of choice by the performer.” 7 Usually, there was one or more of six principal directives present in these compositions: “Imitate”; “Integrate”; “Hesitate”; “Do the Opposite”; “Do Something Different” and “Improvise”. Improvise was the least effective as it meant to classically trained musicians, “do whatever you want”.8 The results,intentional or not, were often at variance with the composer’s (unstated) intentions.


In group improvisations, players have complete freedom of expression, yet cannot with certainty control the beginning or end of the music; the beginning or end of a diminuendo or crescendo; they cannot determine dynamics; instrumentation; range (gamut); timbre; tempo; or, for that matter, any occurrence of sound or silence other than those which they create individually.  And even those sounds and silences can be, and often are, rendered inaudible by a colleague. (A tutti silence, cessation of playing, one of composed music’s most gratifying experiences, has practically no chance of occurring in a group improvisation.)

After a Nexus concert in Japan that included a free improvisation, the composer, Toru Takemitsu (1930-96) said to me, “Nexus should not improvise”.

In order to achieve consistently high levels of communication, group improvisers must be guided by rules. These rules may be pre-ordained or, as in the case of Nexus, gradually assimilated during performances over time. The experience of improvising without rules can be fun, but rarely produces memorable music. Memorable is the work of composers. However, free improvisations by certain individuals, alone in a room with their instrument(s), can be an invaluable learning tool. Percussionists by nature “noodle”, and this kind of habitual improvising helps marry them to their instruments.

The most captivating improvisation I ever heard was performed by the great Japanese percussionist Yasunori Yamaguchi. Yasunori’s playing of his “Time in Celestial”(1988) took place during a series of Japanese music concerts in New York City.9 During the four days of concerts, his performance received the loudest and most prolonged applause from the sold out audiences. When I asked him about his piece, he showed me some brief notes he’d written on a piece of paper, reminders, or, if you will, rules.


I wish to thank the students of York University who participated in my improvisation course,1972-75, my colleagues in Nexus whose improvisations have always amazed me and Austin Clarkson, Professor emeritus of music, York University, Stepan Wolpe and John Cage scholar, who arranged Nexus’ first university residency at York University in 1973 and whose questions and editorial skills greatly improved my initial efforts with this article.


For examples of Nexus improvisations with guests, see: out of the blue, Nexus and Fritz Hauser, Nexus records-10814 and Garden of Sounds with Richard Stoltzman, BIS records-CD1108.

Spontaneous Nexus improvisations can be heard on: ORIGINS, Nexus records 10295. .


1 For other pedagogical approaches to free improvisation, see Cahn, William L., (2005). Creative Music Making (Four Simple Steps to Cultivating the Inner Musician), (New York/London: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Books, Inc.)

2 Globokar, Vinko, (1970). Reacting (Musique en Jeu), trans. by Carl Bergstroem-Nielsen.

3 Wagner, Alan D. (2005). A Bio-Bibliography of Composer Warren Benson. (Lewiston, NY: Edward Mellen Press), p. 63. The original Nexus was John Wyre, Bob Becker, Bill Cahn and the author, but we had yet to choose our name.

4 May 21, 1971. Soon after the Kilbourn Hall concert, Russell Hartenberger (b.1944) and Michael Craden (1941-1982) had become members.

5 I first encountered “Globokar’s Rule” in Japan in 1970 when we improvised a duet based on an idea by Lukas Foss. We wore hospital wristbands with various symbols that told us when and how to play. I used a Javanese cowbell, a marimba mallet and a contra-bass bow, Vinko, his trombone. I hit and bowed he cowbell for a while and was pretty much finished. Vinko played sounds I’d never imagined and then dismantled his trombone; playing the mouthpiece and tubing. He then took my bow and as I sat spellbound, he bowed everything “bowable”. When the piece finally ended, Vinko had performed a veritable trombone concerto.

6 From Latin, from Aleator, ‘dice player’, from alea ‘die’, (The New Oxford Dictionary of English, (1998)

7 This is a composite definition drawn from The Harvard Dictionary of Music (1986), Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia and The New Oxford Dictionary of English (1998)

8 Globokar, Vinko, (1970).

9 Toru Takemitsu and Sound Space Ark, Japan Society, New York City, July 5-8, 1988. The first ‘Bravos’ of these concerts occurred after a performance by Yamaguchi of Takemitsu’s “Munari by Munari”(1961). Essentially an improvisation directed by a book of colored pages, through-cut  with geometric designs. The colors and designs determined the player’s response.

Copyright © 2009, Robin Engelman


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