From Artist to Concert Goer and Bach to Ishii: Making Connections.

Thomas Burritt at PASIC 2015

For the past several years, in my solo performing and university percussion ensemble concerts, I’ve been trying to refresh the idea of a traditional concert or recital with the main goal of changing and improving the concert going experience. While this certainly isn’t an original idea I think the concert going public is seeking a different experience from the concert hall these days. If this is true what kinds of new things could a concert goer be looking for?

One thing could be access to the artist. With Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and something like Periscope (live streaming), there are so many great ways to connect to your audience. Think back a bit to how much you wanted to see “deleted scenes” or “extended footage” on DVDs from your favorite movies. If you read on you’ll see there is a lot going into my preparation for this concert and if you want to know the details it will surely enhance your experience in November. So, leading up to the show, I’ll be posting regular content via these channels for those who want to see a bit behind the scenes. I’m hoping that these efforts will enhance the concert experience for many who plan to attend.

Of the many things I’ll be addressing as we get closer to November is the programming for the concert. For those of you who may have seen the University of Texas Percussion Ensemble concert at PASIC 2012 in Austin, you may remember that we programmed a non-stop 50 minute presentation that explored many different styles within the percussion ensemble genre. It had an arch structure, almost liturgical in nature, beginning stark and introspective, building in energy and ending calmly. It included larger works, chamber works, a solo cello, and a chamber choir. The goal was to explore how a group of highly differentiated works could somehow come together to form a comprehensive whole. The logistics seemed unsurmountable but were solved for the audience’s sake mainly (how do you play 6 different pieces without pausing for set up?).

Then, I applied similar ideas to an emotionally charged program I would later figure out was influenced by the health struggle and eventual passing of my father in the fall of 2012. The summer before his death, I performed several concerts (one in which he was present) that once started didn’t pause. Sure, to most it would seem a bad idea to play solo marimba for 35–40 minutes non-stop, but at the time it seemed somehow exactly the right thing to do. The initial goal, which was to change things up for the benefit of the audience by allowing them to make connections between works rather than disconnections (one piece at a time separated by applause) was reached, but I realized that it seemed somehow more meaningful for me as the performer as well, allowing me to communicate something more profound as the arch would progress and then finish. As I reflected on what I learned from each of these experiments I discovered the following:

These programs had aspects of symmetry and form, much like a composer would design compositional form (a whole concert formalized).

When selecting which works to program I chose based on how each piece, in it’s own way, could contribute to a larger theme or direction within a full concert. I found certain pieces would “present themselves” to me, meaning, I would discover a work via a student’s lesson, or a YouTube video, and it would soon become obvious it was a good fit for a certain portion of the program. I liked how this process took my biases and preferences a bit more out of the selection process.

Another goal was to consider using a wide variety of genres with the aim of all them contributing in similar ways to a unified whole (tonal/atonal, Japanese/American, percussion chamber/percussion orchestra, etc.). In a musical society where we have so deliberately defined genres this process challenges the sometimes derogatory connotations often associated with certain styles of music and their quality. This goal supports the idea that quality music exists in all genres and isn’t therefore tied directly to a compositional period, ideology, process, or style.

As I look to program the 2015 PASIC solo marimba showcase concert I’m taking all these ideas into consideration. While I haven’t finalized everything yet, I’m certain I’ll perform Bach’s “Suite for Solo Cello No. 5 in C Minor”, and Maki Ishii’s important “Concertante” (1988). I’m currently fascinated to explore how, as different as these two works are, they can contribute equally to the concert as a whole. To complete the program I’m seeking one more shorter work to help glue things together which I’m hoping will present itself to me soon! Leaving as many options open as possible all I can say at this time is that it won’t be Bach or Japanese, and likely something quite opposite! Ultimately, my goal is to create something meaningful for the audience, even if it stretches me in new and challenging ways. Be sure to follow my updates to see how things develop.

Why Bach and Ishii? The 5th Suite, of all the cello suites, is undoubtedly the most mysterious and unusual. Written most likely between 1717–1723, we don’t know which version came first; the scordatura version (the A-string tuned down the G) or the lute version. The Prelude, unusual in several ways begins slowly, a clear stark announcement and introduction. Then, suddenly a fugal faster section begins, a form not seen in other suite preludes. It’s most famous movement is the Sarabande. Rostropovich described it as the “essence of Bach’s genius”, Tortelier as “an extension of silence”, and Yo-Yo Ma played this movement on September 11th, 2002 at the site of the World Trade Center, while the first of the names of the dead were read in remembrance of the first anniversary of the attack.

In an unintended stroke of good timing I recently recorded the entire suite in video/audio form. I’ve made available a full video performance below and on my YouTube channel: In preparation for the concert (and surely if you can’t make it!) I invite you to watch. If you’re able to you’ll notice some unusual stickings. When choosing stickings, articulation was the main consideration, much like a cellist would consider bowings as it relates to articulation and phrasing. All mallets were considered equal and certain stickings were chosen to consistently indicate motives, metrical emphasis, slurs, and the flow of scalar passages. These decisions became the framework in which the whole performance is realized both visually and audibly.

You can watch a more detailed description of these ideas here: (insert PATV #100 part I)

You can watch a short performance of these ideas here: (insert PATV #100 part II)

As I learned and experimented with these ideas mallet choice became an obvious critical issue. Defining articulation as a balance of attack and length I realized that, as percussionists, we are better at the former rather than the latter. So, in an effort to adjust the imbalance, I settled on mallets that minimize attack so as to draw more attention to the length of each note. The trick was finding a stick that would both minimize attack but also be just articulate enough for the more rhythmic passages. And, I’ve recently found some amazing tools! They will be featured at PASIC and in the full video performance below and on my YouTube channel page. I found this approach especially helpful for the tonal nature that Bach inhabits.

Eric Siblin in his book “The Cello Suites” perfectly sums up my current interest in performing Bach’s music:

“Bach’s instruments often feel beside the point, as if he composed ideal music, music that transcends instruments, music that was invented to reinvent itself. It’s often assumed that a piece of music by Bach is so musically indestructible that it can be played with excellent results on, say, kazoo, pennywhistle, banjo, marimba, saxophone — you name it. Such is Bach’s street cred.”

Watch a full video performance of the 5th Suite.

While not widely known, the Ishii, scored for marimba and 6 percussion, is a work I’ve had on my radar for years. Immensely powerful and profound, I had the opportunity to perform it in Japan a few summers ago and I jumped at the chance. While the work is not tonal in nature it is one of the most emotional in any percussive genre. The pallet of sounds is vast, the colors deep, and by the end you’re somehow changed. It is a visual wonder as well, with a large percussion set up. Joining me on the Ishii will be line up line percussion’s, Matt Teodori, Cullen Faulk, and Adam Bedell, as well as fellow UT-Austin graduates Andrew Furhman, Tim Briones, and Eric Peterson. To my knowledge this work has never been performed at a PASIC. If that is the case, It’s certainly an honor to bring it to our arts largest stage for the first time.

In many ways this concert is a culmination of my creative work over the past 4–5 years featuring the use of technology to better connect with my audience, refreshed programming considerations, newly developed pedagogical approaches, and an overall reimagination of my sound through a new instrument and newly designed mallets. While I’m excited to perform this concert I hope that what’s driving it (programmatically and pedagogically) adds up to something that lasts as an overall contribution to our art, well past that 50 minute period in November, in San Antonio Texas at PASIC 2015.

I welcome your thoughts and reactions and invite you to visit my and my facebook to contact me and see how things are progressing! Or, tweet at me: @tburritt.

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.