As Peter Margasak pointed out in his recent feature on Third Coast Percussion, classical percussion ensembles are a relatively recent phenomenon. So when someone writes a strong new piece, percussionists are liable to talk.
Last year composer and percussionist Sarah Hennies, who runs the label Weighter Recordings in Ithaca, New York, first heard Matt Sargent’s 2008 piece Ghost Music. She was so excited she had to share it with a fellow percussionist, and she reached out to a friend—Tim Feeney, her colleague in the trio Meridian, who teaches in the music department at the University of Alabama. “I was excitedly telling Tim Feeney about this seemingly unknown major solo work I’d discovered,” she says. “He said something like, ‘Oh, of course I know that piece.’ Percussion is a bit of a subculture, and occasionally there are pieces or players (or both, in this case) that deserve attention outside the percussion world.”
To help Ghost Music get that attention, Hennies found room on Weighter’s production schedule this spring to release a CD of the hour-long piece’s debut recording. It comes out Friday, May 25, and on Saturday the musician on the CD, New York City-based Bill Solomon, will perform it at Constellation; Sargent, who teaches electronic music and sound at Bard College in New York State, will be present as well. Why are two artists based in New York State coming to Chicago to celebrate this recording? “Bill was going to be visiting his folks right around the day of release,” says Hennies. “Matt said he could also come out for it if we got it set up.”
If you pay a cursory attention to the excerpt of Ghost Music below, its consonant melodies (articulated by bells and by small bronze discs called crotales) might seem ingratiatingly simple. But the closer and longer you listen, the more complex and absorbing the relationships become between the quicker-moving low notes and the sparser high pitches. The piece creates two independent but complementary streams of sound: the performer uses one hand to play a sequence of melodies, while the other slowly bows the crotales throughout the piece.
“Ghost Music was written during 2007 and 2008,” explains Sargent. “I was working on several pieces for solo percussion and percussion ensemble around that time for ringing metal instruments and became especially interested in the sonic signatures of small bells: by listening to them struck in different orders for long periods of time, details of their sonorities started to have a real familiarity and causality in the ear. These sounds also seem to lend themselves to an intense concentration—when struck quietly, they really ask the listener to lean forward in search of them. In deciding to write a long piece, I was simply curious how far I could go within this listening experience.”
Sargent wrote the piece with Solomon in mind, and during the process they got together frequently to talk and workshop it. “We met every two weeks over a nine-month period to play through parts of music from its most primordial stages,” Sargent says. “Bill was both a serious pianist and percussionist as a student, and he plays percussion with a pianist’s sensibility—polyphonic lines are always very clear in his playing, which is something that we really bonded over right from the start.”
Solomon first performed Ghost Music in 2009, and he’s returned to it periodically ever since. He also found Oktaven Audio, the Yonkers studio where the piece was finally recorded in 2015 after some unsuccessful attempts that foundered upon the difficulty of capturing the piece’s delicate high frequencies.
As a member of Ensemble Signal, which has worked closely with minimalist composer Steve Reich, Solomon recognizes precisely where and how Ghost Music fits into the American contemporary classical sphere (or doesn’t). “Ghost Music is a long work for generally limited sounds, and I see how one could make the connection between Reich-ian minimalism and what Matt composes, especially considering the stamina required to perform these works,” he says. “However, I’d place him more in conversation with Morton Feldman and other experimental American composers. He’s of course fluent in minimalism—Matt knows more music than many composers that I know—and I wouldn’t deny that there’s a connection there. But perhaps a more fitting connection than Reich would be La Monte Young and the group of minimalist composers who tended towards sparer means and a more experimental practice.”