SCHULKOWSKY Armadillo • Robin Schulkowsky (perc); Fredy Studer, Joey Baron (dr) • NEW WORLD 80739-2 (58:28)
Robin Schulkowsky (b. 1953) has been known for decades as a percussionist specializing in the performance of avant-garde music, in the U.S. and Europe, and especially Germany. She has traveled the world to initiate large multimedia and educational projects. She seems to be a wellspring of creativity. This release features her as a composer, and is obviously a labor of decades of love.
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The piece is for percussion trio, and the overall sound is of drums (though not exclusively). It is in four movements, the first over 40 minutes, the remaining three about five minutes apiece. These proportions look awkward but in listening they start to make sense. A vast structure is presented, then aspects of it we’ve heard before are extracted and examined in detail in a series of epilogues. (The composer suggests a Mayan temple as an analog, with an enormous base and smaller structures on top.) The work has a surface similarity to Steve Reich’s Drumming (a fact pointed out in the wonderfully clear and unpretentious program notes of Christian Wolff), but it is just on the surface. Reich is about structure, and no matter what the joys of the sound, it remains abstract. Schukowsky’s piece is very much about the sensuous act of drumming, and the space one enters into with the shifting patterns of beat.
When I first listened to the work, I enjoyed it but also felt it to be a little thin. But on a second listening my reaction went far beyond the first pleasurable but facile reaction. This is music about people joining to make a complex structure within what is a deceptively simple template. The patterns of the three drummers are constantly shifting as they overlap. One starts to hear phrases emerge, almost like human voices in repetitive chant. Climaxes emerge and evaporate like weather systems. A metal sound will start to insinuate itself into a skin texture and then mysteriously disappear. In short, on close examination the music is far more rich and complex than one first thinks.
I hope the reader understands that I enjoyed this very much. It’s a surprise, a subtle one that sneaks up on you. It’s deeply musical, and of course the performances mirror that musicality absolutely.