Percussion at “Sick Puppy”

Sick Puppy Percussionists from left: John Andress, Gary Donald, Stephen Drury, Scott Deal, Stuart Gerber, Cory Bracken, Dave Tarantino, Jeff Kolega, Sayun Chang, Ryan Packard, Christian Smith. Not pictured: Jeffrey Means.

The New England Conservatory Summer Institute for Contemporary Performance Practice, affectionately known to its participants as “Sick Puppy” was held at New England Conservatory in Boston June 18-25.  SICPP is an 8-day immersion into new and experimental music for advanced and professional musicians. SICPP began in the 1990’s when Artistic Director Stephen Drury, himself a concert pianist who specializes in new music, decided to create a contemporary music performance seminar for his advanced students.  In the 2000’s Drury, gradually began to add composers, percussionists, vocalists and instrumentalists. It has now grown to include an Ensemble Program, an Electronic Music Workshop, and the New Works Program, which is a workshop where composers have the opportunity to study with the Composer-in-Residence (this year, the French composer Tristan Murial).

This year, 50 fellows (including 7 percussionists) were selected to participate from Canada, Mexico, United States, France, Italy, Columbia, Portugal, Mexico, Argentina, Germany, Taiwan, Japan, Greece, Puerto Rico and Turkey. The experience was eight full days of master classes, lessons, colloquia, rehearsals and concerts, which presented the fellows with an opportunity to experience in a short amount of time a large selection of new music from all over the world.  Each year the Institute invites guest composers and performance faculty that work directly with the fellows throughout the week. Past years have seen composers such as Michael Finnessy, Walter Zimmerman, Frederic Rzewki, Helmut Lachenmann, Christian Wolfe, Jonathan Harvey, and Jo Kondo.  Fellows rehearse and prepare works alongside faculty as well as with members of the Calithumpian Consort, a chamber ensemble in residence at SICPP.  This year’s percussion faculty was comprised of Stuart Gerber and Scott Deal together with Consort percussionists John Andress, Jeffrey Means and Nick Tolle.  The Calithumpian Consort is a mixed ensemble comprised of professional musicians in the Boston area, directed by Stephen Drury.  Their repertoire encompasses a large musical spectrum; from classic works of the last 50 years to works of the avante-garde, as well as experimental jazz and rock music.  They have commissioned and premiered new works by John Cage, Lee Hyla, John Zorn, Michael Finnissy, Franco Donatoni, Lukas Foss, Steve Reich, Helmut Lachenmann, John Luther Adams, Frederic Rzewski, and Christian Wolff, to name a few.

Tristan Murail is a leading composer of Spectral Music, and as such, during his residency, the musical programming highlighted this school of musical expression. Spectral composition originated in France in the early 1970s and was later refined at the Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique. In the creation of Spectral Music, decisions are often informed by a process of computer-based sound spectrum analysis that generates descriptive data of audio content. Using this technique, features of a particular sound can be visualized using a spectrogram, and then composers can use the analysis to craft works based on the analytical information. SICPP performances included a large number of works by Murail, as well as other spectralists, including Gérard Grisey and Joshua Fineberg.  Counterfactual by Joshua Fineberg and Lachrymae, by Tristan Murail, were both commissioned and premiered by the Calithumpian Consort as part of SICPP.

One of the highlights of the week was an afternoon recital of percussion works performed by the fellows.  The program included: Ferneyhough Mix by Mark Applebaum, performed by Christian Smith and Ryan Packard; Rebonds A nd B by Iannis Xenakis.  (A performed by Cory Bracken, B performed by Dave Tarantino); Omar I, by Franco Donatoni, performed by Ryan Packard, and POWER I: CIN(shift) by Marek Poliks, performed by Christian Smith.   Other percussion solos performed either in master classes or concerts included Phénix by F.B. Mache, performed by Yu Hsin Chang, Dreams, by John Cage, performed on marimba and vibes by Gary Donald, Raison D’etre by Arthur Jarvinen, performed by Jeffrey Kolega, Zyklus by Karlheinz Stockhausen, performed by faculty member Stuart Gerber, and the marimba solo Dark N’ Stormy, by SICPP composition fellow Masaki Hasebe, performed by David Tarantino.

Each evening contained a concert presented by the either the Calithumpian Consort or visiting guest artists.  The Consort performed numerous works of interest to percussionists, including Giancinto Scelsi’s Okanagon, Tristan Murail’s Le Lac, and Tamar Diesendruck’s Still Telling, which was commissioned for the Consort. One of the evening concerts was comprised of two works for percussion, piano, and electronics that matched pianist Stephen Drury with percussionists Stuart Gerber and Scott Deal.  The first work, Kontakte (piano, percussion and electronics), by Karlheinz Stockhausen is an early and important piece in the repertoire for piano/percussion. The performance was noteworthy in that Gerber is regarded as a Stockhausen expert, having recorded and presented numerous premieres of Stockhausen’s works, and served as faculty for the Stockhausen-Courses since 2005.  The second half of the concert featured the world premiere of Four Thousand Holes by John Luther Adams, performed by Drury and Deal.  The work, commissioned by Stephen Drury through Meet the Composer, is a 33-minute work for piano, vibraphone/glockenspiel, and electronic “aura”.

The main event for Sick Puppy occurs on the final Saturday with the presentation of a ten-hour series of concerts known as “The Iditarod”, named after the 1000-mile Alaskan Sled Dog race of the same name.  This year’s Iditarod consisted of 8 concerts containing almost 40 pieces of chamber music, including the crowd-drawing Music for 18 Musicians by Steve Reich.  Other works highlighting percussion included: Ryonji by John Cage, Trasparenze d’ Accenti by Davide Ianni, Tombeau in Memoriam Gérard Grisey by Phillipe Hurel, Hymn I by Alfred Schnittke, Trá by Luciano Berio, For Morty by Christian Wolff, Refrain and Kreuspiel, both by Karlheinz Stockhausen, Currents by Shawn Allison, Paradigm by Lukas Foss, New England Drift by Lee Weisert, Percussion Responses: Ergodos II by James Tenney, and Madrigals, Book III by George Crumb.

Next year’s Institute ( will occur in mid-June at New England Conservatory, and promises to be once again a rich experience for percussionists performing new and experimental music.