Clocks in Motion on 5/22 at Constellation

by Andrew Tham, photos by Jeff Kimmel

We begin, of course, with Ketchupbot:

Soundtracked perfectly by the 20th Century Fox theme being played (shittily) on a recorder, this Youtube mashup is a classic in the history of video viraldom.  The pairing of the two clips is uncannily perfect–-providential, even: Ketchupbot and whoever that recorder player is (bless their soul) are equally righteous in their mess making and they are not apologizing for it.  From the red-stained rubble of their superimposition emerges a wholly new, messier mess.  

I’m not saying that Clocks in Motion are messy; they’re definitely not.  The percussion quartet handles their arsenal of instruments with precision and poise that you would expect from any professional music group.  The members of this ensemble usually forego any wild gesticulating when they play, allowing only whatever movement is necessary to perform each instrument.  It’s effortful but concise.

Their playing is clean.  I would even say that they like to play music that’s clean; Steve Reich’s minimalist Mallet Quartet was on their Sunday night program at the Constellation, as well as Marc Mellits’ Gravity.  Both works continuously hammer out a series of rhythmically interlocking chords on two vibraphones and two marimbas, traveling at a somewhat leisurely harmonic pace.  Blocks of motivic and harmonic material always move as a very clear unit so the audience can follow each parameter as it changes.  It’s fun to watch a process unfold in real time, piece by piece; it feels like you “get it.”  I achieve the same sort of satisfaction watching those How It’s Made videos.

They were the only two pieces on the program that the ensemble had played before.  They were  also the only two pieces where I saw the performers smile.

Clocks in Motion’s concert was presented in partnership with the Chicago Composers Consortium, an organization dedicated to the proliferation of new music by local composers.  As a result of this collaboration, four composer members from the consortium were able to have their music performed by the quartet.  Three of the pieces were written specifically for the event.

Though this method of generating new music may be successful, the curation of the program is always a gamble.  In the case of Sunday night, 50% of the music was new terrain for the ensemble, and didn’t fit with the repertoire they brought to the show (the Smilers).  It didn’t really feel like a Clocks in Motion concert.  It felt more like presentation day and everyone was going all out; writing for as many instruments as possible, in as many styles as possible.  And I don’t want to go to presentation day unless it’s Odyssey of the Mind and there’s only one problem to solve.

As you can probably tell, I like to hyperlink videos when I write stuff online.  I watch a lot of miscellaneous internet videos as I’m sure many of you do (willingly or not).  Ingesting media at the rate that we do can manifest mental associations in all sorts of weird ways, so surely a video reference or two is bound to emerge when we’re expressing ourselves.

Speaking of videos, have you watched “Ketchupbot + 20th Century Theme on a Flute” yet? You really should, because I’m going to talk about the music on the program now–-with varying degrees of success–-and you might need a laugh.  Here it is again:

Writing music for Clocks in Motion gives composers access to the ensemble’s handmade/personalized instruments, including the Quarimba, a marimba that’s been tuned a quarter tone lower than normal.  Elizabeth Start’s Spoiler: 5 Disruptive Vignettes was the first piece on the program to employ the instrument, setting up little harmonic environments in the mallet and pitched percussion that were later “spoiled” by the out-of-tune Quarimba.  The idea is humorous, but the music itself suffers at the expense of the concept; I found myself thinking more about the “wrongness” of the Quarimba, not how the sounds themselves were interacting.

I should also mention that the Quarimba produced the most wonderful part of Start’s piece, in which it combined with a swirl of tones from the marimba and Galvitone (a series of pitched lead pipes, also built by the performers).  The three mallet instruments spiraled around each other, blurring the notes as they plummeted into their lower registers and disappeared, like a sonic sinkhole.  The effect was marvellous; there were no wrong sounds, just sounds being themselves.

That was a question I kept asking throughout the performance: when are sounds allowed to be themselves? The opening of Timothy Ernest Johnson’s Ritual | Dance | Spirit by Timothy Ernest Johnson (whose Brutalist website will absolutely WRECK YOU, btw) did just that.  The quartet played very slow, spacious unison rhythms on cymbals, low toms, bass drum, and tambourine.  Each hit fluctuated in dynamics and accents, altering the decay of the sounds and giving breath to the instruments.  The players gently hopped from note to note, their mallets slowly rising in formation after each strike.  I thought of Manta Rays gliding.  It was solemn and ceremonious but also human and tactile.

And then all of a sudden they started playing jazz.  Out of nowhere, just dropping everything for a crazy-ass jazz shuffle.  Like, sticks rattling on the rim of the drum, Swingtown USA, Gene Krupa blissing the fuck out jazz.  I was completely bemused.

I’d like to mention that I love that Ketchupbot video so much I once wrote a poem about it for a creative writing class.  In the first stanza I used the term “white hot” to describe a pizza party that had gone awry.  My teacher immediately called me out on the use of this cliché; she told me that clichés have to either be killed or reinvented completely.

Beth Bradfish’s T for solo percussion and electronics featured a somewhat jazz-inspired ending that was equally puzzling.  Bradfish took the time to shape a very strong relationship between Garrett Mendelow’s polyrhythmic stylings on drums, wood blocks, and cymbals and a warm drone of growing flute and string samples.  Mendelow ploughed through complex rhythms, finding solace in a singing bowl and the placid scrapes of a snare drum.  It was just as he seemed to reach a point of sonic connection with the pre-recorded drones that a new texture emerged; the sound of a train rumbling.  As it crescendoed the automated voice of the CTA train conductor chimed in to assure us that we were indeed listening to a train.  Mendelow began to play fast swing rhythms on a ride cymbal as I inevitably conjured the “sounds of the city.”  It was if Mendelow just disappeared and in his place was this weird, generic portrait of Chicago life.

There’s nothing wrong with incorporating jazz into a classical music composition.  But using an eclectic range of styles in a single piece of music runs the risk of presenting them in a somewhat superficial way.  The novelty or spectacle of a particular music can become the focus, thus taking away from the music itself.

Lawrence Axelrod’s Emeq was inspired by the composer’s recent trip to Alaska, attempting to emulate various states and processes of water with a bevy of percussion instruments.  Throughout the piece, Axelrod has all four players of the group perform rolls on easily a dozen instruments, each one reaching a swell before passing the gesture off to another.  The effect, suggestive of ocean waves in the distance, is cyclical but not patterned; it feels organic.  But at some point the gesture tries to takes root in too many timbres and it begins to feel forced.  The texture ruptures and one begins to ask “perhaps there are too many instruments being played?” The process overwhelms the sounds yet again.

Click here to watch Ketchupbot + 20th Century Theme on a Flute.

There was also this one part during the Mallet Quartet where somebody was out of sync for, like, one second and the whole piece shifted into this weird amorphous territory and it was VERY COOL.  And I’m not encouraging Clocks in Motion to play messy or anything like that, but I can definitely see that sometimes miracles come from accidentally creating messes.  And honestly I can’t tell right now if I’m here to make metaphors or if I’m here to make a mess, but just in case this is still presentation day and you’re trying to make music out of, like, your own ketones or something, I want to tell you that you don’t need to wow me.  You don’t need to show me how eclectic or virtuosic you are, or how good you are at multitasking.  Because I already know that you are a complex, multi-faceted individual with an innumerable amount of influences acting on you at all times.  Just show me where the mess is.  I wanna see your mess.