Sunday, November 17, 2019

Prism Percussion’s Program of New Vocal Music

Last night in the third floor loft of the McRoskey Mattress Company, Prism Percussion presented an imaginative program of music for percussion and voices entitled Light and Shadow. Prism Percussion is the duo of Divesh Karamchandani and Elizabeth Hall, both of whom were pursuing Masters degrees in Percussion at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM) at the same time. They founded their duo last year with a mission of presenting works by underrepresented composers.

Some of the instrumentation of Kyle Hovatter’s composition (from Prism Percussion’s Facebook site)

Three such composers were selected for last night’s program. The program began with music by Kyle Hovatter, who studied composition with Elinor Armer at SFCM and is now Director of Music at Zion Lutheran Church, where he curates the Benefit Concerts at Zion performances. His offering consisted of settings of four poems by his uncle Terry Severhill, a veteran of the Vietnam War that suffered post-traumatic stress disorder, a term for mental disorder than was only introduced after that war had ended.

The first and third of these poems were haiku, given a lyrical account in which word fragments were exchanged between Hall and Karamchandani. The other two poems consisted of free associations of words and phrases, again exchanged between the two performers. For my generation, the phrase “It’s like I’m stuck in time” carried particular relevance.

It recalled Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Slaughterhouse-Five, written when the United States presence in Vietnam was just beginning to grow and reflecting on the firebombing of Dresden during World War II. Vonnegut’s protagonist experiences time travel and refers to himself as “unstuck in time.” In that spirit Hovatter had a keen ear for the relationship between language and percussion sonorities to capture the sorts of traumas that Vonnegut’s protagonist experienced in fiction and many war veterans experienced in reality.

Yaz Lancaster’s “dis[armed]” was an ingenious combination of “documentary audio” about gun violence on tape conjoined with percussion instrumentation. Karamchandani played a “prepared” vibraphone involving pieces of aluminum foil taped to vibraphone bars, giving the sound an added sizzle. The music served as “commentary” on the “documented evidence,” concluding with afterthoughts from the vibraphones played by both percussionists. By way of a reflective afterthought, Hall then sang Beyoncé’s “Heaven” with vibraphone accompaniment by Karamchandani.

The final composition, “Symmetry and Sharing” by Andrea Mazzariello, required a larger ensemble for both the vocal and the percussion work. Four of the percussionists doubled as vocalists covering the four principal ranges. Hall sang soprano, Karamchandani sang tenor, and they were joined by alto Mckenzie Langefeld and bass Jack Van Geem. They were joined by Mika Nakamura and Justin Sun working from drum kits. (Van Geem had taught all of the other percussionists when they were students at SFCM.)

Mazzariello provided her own text for this composition. Like the Severhill poems, the verbal content was fragmented. However, there was more of a sense of structural repetition with the overall text organized in a rather conventional ABA form. What was particularly interesting was how the vocal lines alternated between solos and homophony, serving as foreground to a background of steady rhythmic energy provided by the percussionists.

Taken as a whole, Light and Shadow was a highly satisfying journey of discovery that fit comfortably into the “industrial” setting in which it was performed.