Composer Previte drums up new musical ideas

Boston Globe, May 27, 2011

NEW YORK – When So Percussion – a quartet based here that plays only percussion instruments – received an invitation to collaborate from drummer and composer Bobby Previte, they quickly went online to research his work. And what they found pretty much blew their minds.

It wasn’t that Previte was obscure. It was just that So, coming from the contemporary-classical world, were more in tune with the lines of Iannis Xenakis, John Cage, or Steve Reich than with the polymathic Previte, a longtime inhabitant of the downtown jazz and experimental scene. They had heard of him, but not much more.

They discovered an impossible-to-confine musician whose work spanned jazz, scorching rock-like bands, all-improvisation collectives, large-ensemble pieces, a long-running duo with guitarist Charlie Hunter, and more. Previte even played on one So member’s favorite Tom Waits record, “Rain Dogs.”

“And I remember thinking, is it possible this is all the same guy?” says So’s Eric Beach, sitting with Previte recently at a cafe terrace on the Upper West Side. “If he can have all of these different musical personalities inside him, this is going to be something totally awesome.”

That something is “Terminals,” a suite of five pieces that Previte wrote for So, each one featuring a soloist: John Medeski on keys, DJ Olive on turntables, Jen Shyu on voice, Previte himself on additional drums, and Zeena Parkins on electric harp. (Yes, electric harp.)

The program, which Previte likens to a set of concertos where the percussion ensemble plays the role of the orchestra, had its premiere at Merkin Hall here earlier this year, and now comes to Boston, tonight at the Institute of Contemporary Art.

In 30-plus years as a composer, Previte says, he had never written for a percussion ensemble before this project.

“I just heard it all of a sudden,” Previte says. “Why do you wake up and say, I want to write a guitar quartet, or have a band with two trumpets? It just answers a question you’re having. I suppose I was asking myself questions that could only be answered by percussion music.”

But the immediate impetus for “Terminals” did not come from some complex musicological quest. Its source was more oblique: the back pages of in-flight magazines specifically, the maps they provide of airport terminals. Where the maps showed configurations of walkways, amenities and gates, Previte saw different ways of setting up a bunch of percussion instruments on a stage.

“It’s a very abstract connection,” Previte says. “Some maps had circles, and I thought maybe this is the bass drum. With one map I thought, maybe that’s seven thunder sheets lined up. It got my mind working. That’s what’s different about percussion. You have to set it up, and you can set it up any way you want.”

The analogy gave the suite its name the pieces are titled Terminal 1 through 5, though not played in that order. That’s as far as the airport theme goes, however. Unlike the Tom Hanks movie “The Terminal” or Vijay Iyer and Mike Ladd’s multimedia work “In What Language?”, this is not a meditation on travel, displacement, or lives in transit.

“I wouldn’t say we were in rehearsal thinking, this feels like the food court, or the Hudson News,” says Beach. “But as percussionists we do spend a lot of time figuring out those maps, making our own footprint on stage.”

The results – a sneak preview is available on Previte’s YouTube channel – are both unusual and spectacular. They are also more melodic than one might expect for percussion pieces; at least, they flow in ways that grab the listener. The work is playful too, with ludic moments that Previte and Beach ask not be revealed in advance.

As for the soloists, they are players Previte had in mind from the start, who have in common that they are virtuosos in their field, and highly unconventional. Tonight the great multi-instrumentalist Elliot Sharp will sit in for DJ Olive. “I want Elliott to play bass in some sections, guitar in some maybe he’ll bring his soprano [sax],” Previte says.

But Beach says the fact that the composer is a percussionist himself made this project extra-satisfying for So Percussion.

“A lot of composers start out with a formal idea, then map that idea onto the percussion instruments,” Beach says. “But Bobby knew those sounds, and he started off with those sound worlds in his head.”

That gave So the confidence to let Previte push their limits, Beach says.

“Everyone has their list of [stuff] they don’t do,” Beach says. In his case, he had been reluctant to play the timbales, out of respect for the experts on that instrument. For some reason, he had also never played crash cymbals on a So piece. “Terminals” broke those taboos and others, he says.

“We decided we had to trust Bobby and try these things,” Beach says. “At the end of the day he knew the sound he wanted, and it totally worked.”