Visual elements combine with audio for Wichita State percussion group

04/25/2013 1:32 PM

08/08/2014 10:33 AM

The Wichita State University Impulse Percussion Group will combine music and choreography with the help of a nationally renowned composer. After a couple of traditional percussion numbers, the WSU students will change hats and become performance artists.

“This is a significant test for the students to really test their mettle,” said Gerald Scholl, the group’s director and head of the percussion division at WSU. “They understand that performing is not just about the music. The minute you take that step onto the floor, the performance has started.”

The percussion group will perform several pieces composed and directed by Minnesota-based Mary Ellen Childs. She recently was named a USA Friends Fellow and awarded $50,000. Groups including the Kronos Quartet, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and the Dale Warland Singers have played her compositions. Her ensemble CRASH performs her music in motion worldwide.

Childs has worked with the WSU group for a couple of years. This year, they are testing out the university’s new video technology equipment, which enables Childs to partner with the group from her studio in Minnesota.

“It’s a great experience,” Childs said. “I was really impressed with how well-prepared they are and what they have done.”

Childs is known for her compositions that involve the instrument and the performer’s body.

“A lot of my pieces use non-standard methods,” Childs said. “There’s the drumming piece without the drums.”

In her works, the visual component is as important as the audio. The drums, sticks and cymbals become props.

“The visual elements are composed right into the work as I am writing it,” Childs said. “The visual element becomes part of the compositional palate.”

Teaching assistant Andy Slater, who is in the master’s percussion program, is playing a traditional frame drum filled with beads in “Missing Link.”

“It simulates the sound of waves hitting the sand,” Slater, a Wichita native, said. “We snap them on the head. We get tones. We slap them on the sides. We get tones. We use snaps against the rim, and we tip it like a frying pan.”

Another performance work encompasses four sets of cymbals that will be used for both tone and aesthetics.

“It’s really jaw-dropping to see what’s happening with the music,” said Scholl, who also is the principal percussionist with the Wichita Symphony Orchestra and a graduate of the New England Conservatory of Music. “There is so much going on. It’s so beautiful to watch.”

Joe Mikelait will play claves in the concert. He, along with two other students and Scholl, will perform a click-clack motion as they move their short, thick wooden instruments in a complicated, orchestrated piece.

“It’s kind of a challenge,” Mikelait said. “It’s an awesome piece.”

Not only do the students have to work on the rhythms and sounds, but they have to memorize the visual aesthetics.

“It reminds me a lot of drum line,” Mikelait said. “You line up and look the same.”

But before the concert becomes a non-traditional performance work, Claire Graveson from Douglass High School and D’Quan Rogers from Goddard High School will perform with the college percussionists in a traditional melodic piece.

After intermission, traditions will evaporate. Colorful lights, black-and-white apparel and highly fine-tuned choreography will create striking paradoxes.

“The concert is very similar to a dance recital,” Slater said. “The music is complex but very simple.”

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