Behind rhythmic maracas and whirring tambourine comes a strange, ethereal pulse, a sound both alien and religious. It’s the sound of a carillon, not tinkling folk tunes all by itself at the top of a bell tower but woven into a swishing, ringing tapestry by award-winning composer Neil Thornock. The piece is called “Lurgy,” and it’s just one in an unusual concert on Friday (Jan. 23) at the University of Puget Sound.
The concert will launch a new CD of Thornock’s music for percussion and carillon.
“(Neil’s music) is unique,” says Gerard Morris, director of bands at UPS, who conducted on the CD and who’ll conduct Friday night’s concert as well. “There’s tonality, but it’s not tonal in the traditional sense. He uses a lot of motivic ideas and plays with them, spins them out. At moments, it’s very meditative. … There are no leading notes or overt harmonic direction, so there’s no expectation of resolution.”
It’s not often you get an entire concert of combined percussion, along with some unusual instruments. As well as the world premiere of Thornock’s “Marred Rigors,” a duet for marimba and euphonium (a low brass instrument), there’ll be Lee Hyla’s “Amnesia Variance,” which features the delicate chimes of the hammered dulcimer in 12-tone, modernist language.
But the centerpiece of the show is Thornock’s “Lurgy,” written for multiple metal percussion parts and carillon — the bell-tower instrument that’s often heard playing pre-recorded tunes, but sometimes can be manually operated with a hammer-style keyboard. While UPS has a bell carillon that plays tunes by Beethoven and Saint-Saëns every lunch hour, it’s electronically fixed, and so old that you can’t even buy new music for it, staff say. It’s also located in the much-smaller Kilworth Chapel.
This performance of “Lurgy” will feature something else even more unusual in a classical concert than a carillon: a video-recorded musician. Thornock pre-recorded a performance from Centennial Carillon Bell Tower at Brigham Young University where he teaches composition, and it will be screened behind 12 live musicians on the Schneebeck stage while hammers and mallets fly on glockenspiels, vibraphone, marimba, crotales, cymbals and triangles.
“We’ll have lowered lighting, so the audience can see the video,” Morris says. “And I have a click track (in my headphones) to keep everything together.”
The issue of pitch, sometimes a problem when using fixed-pitch bells, isn’t something Morris is worried about.
“All of the metal instruments have so much ringing, so many overtones, that they all tend to blend,” he says.
Inspired by the words “metallurgy” and “liturgy,” “Lurgy” flows through four movements, the first and last long, the second and third whirlingly brief. The first begins with a carillon solo, while the last ends with a three-minute tutti crescendo, building up in what Morris calls a “trance-like” way. Among the percussionists is internationally renowned soloist Matthew Coley, who, along with Thornock, will give master classes at the university during their stay.
“I’m always looking for fresh, innovative scores,” says Morris, about why Coley, his friend since college, approached him about the carillon project in the first place. “Part of my job as a conductor is to find those scores and perform them. Almost no composer starts off with a masterpiece. But if you find something that has worth, you help them realize that piece and go on to refine their craft. … I find that collaboration exhilarating as an artist.”