As I am writing this, I am riding back on Amtrak from performing with the Talea Ensemble at Brandeis University last night. The last piece on the program, Pierluigi Billone’s Mani.Long, was the cornerstone of the program, and had marked the third time this month that the ensemble had played the piece in concert.
The process of preparing a piece of this length (nearly 50 minutes) allowed me to experience Billone’s work in a new light. First, it was the first of his compositions that I performed, and second, I had the opportunity to experience the piece numerous times, which rarely is possible.
Initially, I was lost in this piece. I couldn’t hear the long-scale structure and I could only relate locally to the sonic connections. The length of the piece simply overwhelmed me. I had a firm grasp of the “what?” in the piece (sonic connections, extended techniques, blending of instrumental colors, etc.), but not the “why?”. It took until the ensemble’s residency at East Carolina University (ECU) last week before everything came together, courtesy of fellow percussionist Matt Gold.
At ECU, Matt and I were asked to lead a master class for the percussionists. Before the class, Matt researched about the series of Billone’s pieces all that begin with “Mani…” and are hommages to artists who inspire the works: Mani.Matta is written for Gordon Matta-Clark, Mani.Leonardis is inspired by Federico De Leonardis, and, among others, Mani.Long is inspired by Richard Long.
Richard Long’s art centers around human and nature interaction. Epic walks lead to large-scale natural installations using stone, wood and metal. These three elements pervade the sonic environment throughout the work and are at some times the focus or interuptive, other times just a timbral coloration and occasionally in the background. Suddenly the length of the piece had purpose (to mirror Long’s walks), and the natural instrument materials gave sonic translation of Long’s installations and writings. Armed with this knowledge, I was prepared to give a more commanding and declarative performance, and the performance in North Carolina was definitely the best one to date.
Another note about sound:
Throughout the early rehearsals, the concept was made clear to me the Billone is not satisfied with the traditional approach to performance on an instrument. As a percussionist, I am used to playing the mallet keyboard instruments (marimba, vibraphone, etc.) where we have one bar for one note and, without access to a rotary drill tool, there is no middle ground when it comes to pitch – its either an A or an A#. Timpani have long had the ability to fine-tune notes, but this ability is in the minority with percussion. This does not stop Billone from exploring.
First, bending of pitches on timpani coupled with the African talking drum create the foundation of this world. On top of that he adds melodic passages for stones (the pitch to be manipulated by increasing and decreasing the cavity of the holding hand while striking with the other stone), and superball mallets on tam tams (less pitch bend) and thunder sheets (much more pitch bend, especially when assisted by the foot). Temple bowls are swirled cup-down on the cup of a large thai gong that produce high-partial glissandi. IT was imperative to Billone that this sound be achieved.
On the other hand, Billone also writes for passages of complex sound. Screeching of temple bowls (mouth down) on saw blades, temple bowls (mouth down) circled on the surface of the large thai gongs, and fast glissandi on the low range of the marimba and high range of the xylophone with very hard mallets. I interpreted the effect here to achieve the same aim: discover and realize all of the possibilities between the tradition. The widest spectrum of sound possible, from the low grumble of the temple bowl/thai gongs to the highest screech of the saw blades paints the harmonic spectrum with a wide brush, engaging all of the possibly timbres and pitches from each of the seemingly mono-pitch instruments.
About half-way through the piece lower voices rumble in humming low pitches which hand off the sound to low marimba with soft bass drum mallets. Perhaps this could be a case that Billone is mirroring everything upon the timbral flexibility of the human voice. But what is the human voice if not a product of nature? To me it seems that Billone’s aim is to show us that the line between nature and humans is not so clear. The human voice moves to and through the instruments of the ensemble without seams, hopefully the same way we can coexist in the natural world.