Cath Barton attended the Dora Stoutzker Hall at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama for a performance from one of the most innovative and groundbreaking chamber ensembles, ensemblebash.
The first percussion quartet to establish a career in Britain, ensemblebash, founded in 1992, still have as much verve as many a newer group. Famous for playing everything including the kitchen sink, they did not disappoint with the intriguing range of instruments on stage for their lunchtime concert at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama.
Starting their programme with a traditional Ghanaian piece from the livestock-farming Ewe people, the four musicians played cowbells as they walked on stage from the back and sides of the hall. This Siwa Bell Music, arranged by Afadina Atsikpa and ensemblebash, was a beautiful opener in two senses – starting the concert and also beginning a process of opening our receptors; when they stopped playing the gentle sounds were still ringing in the hall and in my ears.
Chris Brannick, a member of the group since its inception, introduced a second piece from Ghana, where they have worked with local musicians. Yaa Yaa Kole, arranged by Thomas Sekgura and ensemblebash, upped the energy with the musicians playing xylophones with gourd resonators, gourd rattles and drums as well as cowbells. The song can be translated as ‘keep beggin’ baby’, and traditionally accompanies a teasing dance about the way to a woman’s heart.
Alongside traditional African music, the ensemble have developed relationships with many contemporary composers in Britain, so greatly expanding the percussion repertoire. Co-founder of the group Stephen Hiscock introduced one of their first commissions, Graham Fitkin’s Hook (1991), first performed in the 1992 Park Lane concerts. For this the principal instrumentation is four marimbas. Writing about his piece, Fitkin said that he wanted all four musicians playing instruments of the same timbre, so as to allow the counterpoints to come through; he didn’t want to ‘rouge it up’ with lots of unnecessary clatter, although he did add add punctuation from rototoms and splash cymbals. I love this piece with its strong pulse and driving rhythms, played with brilliant clarity here by the ensemble.
Richard Benjafield, back in the ensemblebash line-up since February 2018 after a 16-year gap, introduced a classic of the percussion repertoire and one of group’s favourites: John Cage’s Third Construction (1941). This piece was premiered in San Francisco by the Cage Percussion Players, who were all what Cage called ‘literate amateur musicians’ rather than professional percussionists; they included Xenia Cage, the composer’s then wife, to whom the piece was dedicated, and the composer Lou Harrison.
Made up of 24 sections of 24 bars each, the piece employs a panoply of unpitched percussion, from rattles and drums to tin cans, a donkey’s jawbone, conch and lion’s roar. John Cage apparently said that hitting an object releases its spirit, and I could definitely hear this in the magnificent resonance which emerged from Chris Brannick’s playing of the conch shell! It was a treat to hear this turning kaleidoscope of colour and rhythm.
Sadly, pressure of time – the ensemble were due to give a masterclass for percussion students at the RWCMD in the afternoon – meant that David Bedford’s Bash Peace (2002), an ensemblebash commission for steel pans, had to be cut from the programme, and so also the chance to hear about it from the fourth member of the group, Catherine Ring.
This stirring concert concluded with Kumpo, traditional Senegalese drumming arranged by Paulinus Bozie and ensemblebash to accompany a ritual dance for male circumcision.
Throughout, the joyful communication between members of the ensemble was a glorious example of what the percussionist Evelyn Glennie talks about in her TED Talk How to Truly Listen, and their visceral playing surely enabled everyone in the audience to experience the journey of the sound not only into our ears but through our whole bodies.
Cath Barton won the New Welsh Writing AmeriCymru Prize for the Novella with The Plankton Collector, which is published by New Welsh Review under their Rarebyte imprint. Her second novella, In the Sweep of the Bay, will be published by Louise Walters Books in September 2020, and in early 2021 Retreat West Books will publish her collection of short stories inspired by the work of the Flemish artist Hieronymus Bosch.
Header Photography Credit: Sam Benjafield