UW News

February 2, 2011

Juan Pampins meditations ‘On Space part of Les Percussions de Strasbourg concert

Because of the stage set-up, seating for this concert is extremely limited. Tickets are $15, $10 for students, and are available at the Arts Ticket Office, 206-543-4880 or online.

The audience will be literally surrounded when Les Percussions de Strasbourg, Europes leading percussion ensemble, performs at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 19, in Meany Theater. And it isnt just sound that will surround them. The audience will be seated on stage, with the six performers arrayed around them.

Its a radical change in the spatial set-up for a concert, so its appropriate that one of the pieces to be performed takes space as its theme. On Space, by Juan Pampin, associate professor in the UW School of Music and associate director of the Center for Digital Arts and Experimental Media, was commissioned by Les Percussions de Strasbourg in 1999 and premiered a year later. The piece uses both traditional percussion instruments and computer-realized sound.

Les Percussions de Strasbourg will perform Feb. 19.

Les Percussions de Strasbourg will perform Feb. 19.

On Space is actually the fourth piece in a series of works Pampin created for percussion. “I was interested in having the materials of percussion instruments — metal, wood and skins — somehow lead the composition process,” Pampin said. “I wanted to bring the composition process to the material I was working with instead of having an a priori system and forcing the materials into it.”

Pampin began by classifying the instruments into families. Then within each family he found instruments with a similar sound. He gave the example of a tubular bell and a cow bell. Both have a definite pitch and a similar timbre, so theyre close together but different. And both are very different from the sound of, say, a vibraphone.

“I used the computer a lot to help me classify instruments,” Pampin said. “We made lots of recordings with live players. Then I used digital tools to see the acoustic components of the instruments. Things I couldnt figure out with my ear were evident on the computer.”

All the pieces have an electronic part that blends the instruments together. That part, Pampin said, was derived from the instruments but is different from them. “What happens when you are listening to the pieces is that somehow its hard to tell what is the instrument and what is the electronic part,” he said. “It seems that the electronic part is integrated with the instruments or sometimes it feels like the instrument has an extension that is a little strange.”

Composer Juan Pampin with his laptop, on which can be seen a portion of the work to be played at the percussion performance. | Photo by Mary Levin

Composer Juan Pampin with his laptop, on which can be seen a portion of the work to be played at the percussion performance. | Photo by Mary Levin

The three earlier pieces are Métal Hurlant (metal), Toco Madera (wood), and Skin Heads (skins), all composed while Pampin was doing doctoral work at Stanford University. Originally from Argentina, Pampin sold everything and moved to Lyon, France, to study at the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique because it was impossible to study the new music he was interested in in his home country. He first came to the United States on a Rockefeller grant, then returned to do his doctorate with composer Jonathan Harvey. He came to the UW as a post doctoral student 10 years ago, later joining the faculty.

Les Percussions de Strasbourg knew of Pampins percussion pieces and contacted him to see if he would accept a commission to write a piece for them. It was heady stuff for a young composer still in graduate school, because the group was already well established and famous — “my first big commission,” Pampin said.

On Space presented a different kind of challenge for the composer than the earlier pieces. With them, it had been a matter of starting from scratch, exploring new territory. With On Space, he needed to find a way to use space as a material.

“I didnt want it to be antiphonal, just about call and response,” Pampin said. “I didnt want it to be about making sound move around. I wanted it to be about creating a real space, a new environment.”

In the performance, each of the six players will have a set of percussion instruments representing all the instrument families. A player could start playing something on a wood instrument in one corner of the room and that could be taken up by the next one on a similar instrument, or an instrument that is from the same family or close in timbre, so it creates the illusion of continuation in space. There are sometimes several layers of sound at the same time, so there might be a wood layer and a metal layer on top. Or it might be that three players are playing metal instruments while the other three are playing skins. So theyre creating a counterpoint in space — like two triangles.

“Having the audience in the middle of the players, you are surrounding them with percussion instruments, but also with electronic sound,” Pampin said. “So theres a full immersion into sound. With the other pieces theres an idea that the electronic sound connects all these families of instruments. In this piece they connect them in space. So they might take sound from one instrument and make it flow from one corner of the room to an instrument on the other corner. It might take sounds from these instruments and then create electronic sounds that are analog to them but are spiraling fast around the audience.”

On Space is not easy to play, Pampin said. Each player has a lot of instruments, and they are not always playing to the same tempo. They are separated from each other so that they cant easily play together. The piece also requires a lot of electronics.

“Weve done it just three times, so its exciting to do it here,” Pampin said. “Its the first time its been done in the United States.”

The other pieces on the program are Tempus Ex Machina, by Gérard Grisey; and Persephassa, by Iannis Xenakis.

Tickets for the concert, which is cosponsored by the School of Music and the Center for Digital Arts and Experimental Media, are $15, $10 for students and seniors. Because of the stage set-up, seating is extremely limited, so advance ticket purchase is recommended. Tickets are available at the Arts Ticket Office, 206-543-4880 or online.