Last week was the annual Percussive Arts Society International Convention (PASIC) in Indianapolis. This is an event I have always enjoyed. Always.
I struggled this year.
It is not the Percussion Universe that has changed. It is I who have changed.
At 58, I am tired. A lot more tired than at 51, which is how old I was when I first attended PASIC. And trust me, by PASIC standards, 58 is not old. I saw percussionists with 20 or more years on me playing away with vigor and enthusiasm and skill. At 58, I have seven more years of myeloma under my belt, seven more years of aging family issues, seven more years, period. I spent most of the convention stumbling around in a daze, dozing off in concerts and quiet spaces.
Indianapolis was extremely cold (cold, cold, cold) and windy this time. That made walking from the parking lot to the convention center an exercise in arctic tolerance. It made walking the one block from the convention center to a nearby museum a study in pain. I lingered long in the museum as much to avoid the frigid walk back as to view the collection. The cold didn't help my condition: I couldn't comfortably go outside and walk off my lethargy.
The convention Focus Day this year was new music and new music notation. We did not arrive until the day after Focus Day, but Warren and I caught one of the last performances on that theme, seeing several ensembles perform short works. There was a lot of clattering, quiet, loud, but clattering. The endless high school debate of "what is Art?" came to mind. You remember: Is a painted tennis shoe glued to a blank canvas art? Is a painted tennis shoe glued to a blank canvas by Pablo Picasso art?
Is a collection of noises, interesting though they may be, music? Judging by the rapt audience and the intensity of the performer rubbing his hand over a bass drum head, I'd say at least a sizable portion of the audience would say it was. (It pleased me that after that particular piece, the performer tripped over a music stand on his stage exit, threw up his hands with a grin, and became engagingly human.)
Not only did I not get the new music, I also didn't get the styles of the performances. The next ensemble was equally serious and intense, without the humanizing trip and grin. After a player would strike a bell or a bar, it was as if the air would become viscous and the player would lift high his or her arm with great effort before bringing it down through the same solemn atmosphere to strike another note. After a brief interlude that required very robotic movements, one of them struck another bell and they all switched back to the languid, slow arm movements.
I sat there in my stupor and wondered about the choreography. If I didn't know better, I'd say they were a bunch of lotus-eaters. Did the performers create this? Did the ensemble director dream it up? I could not imagine the composer writing in "lift right hand slowly overhead as you strike the note," but Warren said later it likely was the composer.
In the end, the one performance that stuck with me and roused me from my daze was by a four-man ensemble, Architek Percussion, performing "Spinefold" by James O' Callaghan. They sat at a table, each with a hard-cover book before him, and played. The work was a series of synchronized sounds from the book: pages flipping, covers being slapped, books opening and shutting.
I grinned watching it.
PASIC, and by extension the Percussion Universe, is seeing an electronic proliferation, including using iPads and computers in performances. Drums and percussion instruments are tangible objects that make sounds when shook, struck, tapped, or otherwise handled. The lure of the electronic is all the sounds that a human can't make (or can't make easily indoors or under concert conditions). I have seen some clever and imaginative pieces using iPads.
And here were four guys, sitting at a table, putting on a performance with four books (this is an earlier performance, not the PASIC concert):
Four guys, four books.
Maybe that was why the piece was so engaging for me. Books! Something I am never without, something I hold in my hand every single day. I carried two with me to PASIC, one of which I read curled up on a chair in a lounge, the other of which I got a good start on. Trust me, the percussionists flowing by me never registered that I was reading. They were too busy tapping, discussing, analyzing, playing, to notice a book.
Books, books, books. Something tangible, something old school, something that the late, sometimes great John Updike predicted would not last long into the new century. Clearly he had underestimated the visceral appeal of a book. Clearly Updike had not anticipated "Spinefold." You can play an app or read a book on your iPad, but you can't smack it shut or thump it on the table.
In the end, as I drove home across the Indiana landscape, I carried away the sound of those books, books being played, books as music, books.