Festival goers flocked around the final outdoor happenings of the Rochester Fringe Festival while the Eastman Percussion Ensemble gathered in the atrium at Miller Center and filled the room with transformative rhythm.
Taking place Saturday, Sept. 22, it was a dazzling finale to the 11-day festival, as the ensemble, upperclassmen of the percussion studio, gave two performances of Steve Reich’s “Drumming.”
Both sold-out performances of “Drumming” showcased the tremendous aptitude of the student musicians, as the piece features bongo drums, marimbas, glockenspiels, a whistle, a piccolo, and three singing voices. It also demonstrates Reich’s interest in the simple sounds of human connection. A minimalist composer, Reich has composed pieces reexamining the roots of music making — “Clapping Music” solely involves two musicians clapping together, while “Music for Pieces of Wood” is arranged for five artists and blocks of wood.
“Drumming” uses Reich’s trademark phasing technique, in which the same part is played on multiple instruments until the players gradually shift out of sync. The musicians stunningly employed this on Saturday, shifting from instrument to instrument and moving fluidly between each other as echoes soared through the atrium.
Written nearly ten years after his first composition — the soundtrack to a short black-and-white film called “Plastic Haircut” — “Drumming” was created after Reich’s trip to study percussion in Ghana under Gideon Alorwoyie, the master drummer of the Ghana National Dance Ensemble. Alorwoyie is also the High Priest of the Yewe Cult, a group that views drumming as a spiritual practice, and his artistic influence in Reich’s “Drumming” is felt throughout the groundbreaking movements.
Saturday’s performance was exhilarating, not only because of the percussionists’ talent, but also because of their status as students. They played side by side, showing the relevance of community in both their work and in Reich’s. Classes, homework, parties, practice — it’s hard to imagine these things occupy their time while watching them effortlessly perform. The 60-minute show swept forward with intensity until the abrupt ending of the fourth movement, when the percussionists backed away from their instruments and the lingering echoes rang through the atrium.