For Mason percussionists, making music is experimental experience

Posted on 15.11.2016 by Darden

Metal pipes, wine bottles and a stainless steel mixing bowl don’t seem like musical instruments, but they are the very essence of a student-composed piece that will be played in front of thousands at a major music conference.

Nontraditional instruments are increasingly commonplace in the world of contemporary percussion music, said Kays Ishaq, a junior George Mason University student who composed the piece “Prime,” which will be played at the Percussive Arts Society International Convention in Indianapolis, Ind., this week.

Ishaq, a music performance major in George Mason’s School of Music, along with 16 other percussion students of John Kilkenny, Mason’s director of percussion studies, traveled to the conference Nov. 9-12 to perform nine works, including “Prime.”

“I just wanted different colors for different sounds,” Ishaq said of the use of varied instrumentation in the piece.

The piece is based on the Collatz Conjecture, an advanced mathematical problem that remains unsolved. Students used whatever items they had available to make sound, he said. The wine bottles were left over from another piece they’d performed.

The repertoire also features traditional instruments used in different ways. In one piece a violin bow is used on cymbals. In another, a triangle is dipped in water to produce an altered sound.

“We are evolving as musicians, so we want different sounds,” said Andrew String, a sophomore percussion performance major who also traveled to the conference to perform.

“With percussion, you have the freedom to do whatever you want; there are no restrictions,” he added when asked about the use of a string bass bow on a vibraphone, a percussion instrument normally struck by mallets to produce sound.

The students will use another unexpected instrument during their performance—their voices.

“I don’t consider myself a vocalist,” said Philip Drembus, a freshman music performance major at Mason. But he is up to the task because Mason requires music majors to take four semesters of aural skills classes.

“Singing adds a different color to the piece,” Drembus said.

The Mason group will also premiere a song written by Mason professor and world-renowned steel pan player, alumnus Victor Provost, BM ’12, MM ’14. Elements of the piece are heavily based on the sounds made by a wind chime at his parents’ home in St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands, Provost said.

The trip to the conference is sponsored by a grant from Mason’s Office of Student Scholarship, Creative Activities, and Research.