Steve Reich inspires THUD's aesthetic

by Victoria Aschheim

The music of iconic contemporary American composer Steve Reich is fundamental to The Harvard Undergraduate Drummers. With THUD's trademark emphasis on rhythmic hand-clapping and other improvisational rhythmic, sound-producing performance techniques, Reich's compositional innovations make him THUD's heaven-sent godfather. At 8 p.m. Friday Nov. 19 in Lowell Lecture Hall, THUD will present its semi-annual concert "Back 2 the Basics," including two compositions based on Reich's Piano Phase and Clapping Music. As background, here is the origin of Reich's phasing technique.

In It's Gonna Rain (1965) and Come Out (1966), Reich implemented his original, phase-shifting process using tape recorded voices. As Reich explained: Come Out is composed of a single loop recorded on both channels. First the loop is in unison with itself. As it begins to go out of phase, a slowly increasing reverberation is heard. Melodica (1966) was based on the same rhythmic structure of Come Out. This was followed by Piano Phase (1967), for live presentation on two pianos implementing the tape phase process without the benefit of mechanical aids. Reich has described Piano Phase as focusing the mind to a fine point. Reich explains: "The musical material in Piano Phase is simply a number of repeating melodic patterns that may be learned and memorized in several minutes...two musicians begin in unison playing the same pattern over and over again [then] while one of them stays put, the other gradually increases tempo so as to slowly move one beat ahead of the other. This process is repeated until both players are back in unison." The pattern then changes, and the phasing process begins anew.

In Clapping Music (1972), Reich's last phase composition, percussion music is created with musicians using their own bodies, their hands, as musical instruments. It begins in unison and then one part advances or comes out of phase, changing rhythmic patterns as the music progresses. Clapping Music was written for touring performances. As Reich, with his canny sense of humor, remarked, "Hands are easy to transport."

Friday's THUD concert, with dynamic rhythmic patterns and the energy of ensemble, evolved from Reich's revolutionary music.

Noam Hassenfeld '12 is a music director for THUD and composer of two of the pieces for the Nov. 19 concert. Below is my interview with him.

Tell us about your own percussion background and your leadership in THUD.

I'm one of two co-music directors, along with Mureji Fatunde. (The co-directors are Jay Pritchett and Gene Yoo.) I have studied drum set for seven years and vibraphone for two years. I've studied South Indian, Balinese, Iranian and West African drumming as well.

What kinds of percussion backgrounds do the various members of THUD have?

Most THUD members have studied percussion for a long time--backgrounds range from marching band, to rock or jazz drum set, to classical percussion--though we sometimes accept someone who has little to no percussion training but still demonstrates significant rhythmic ability and/or musical creativity.

Does THUD commission new works, and do members of the group create new improvisational works through "jams"?

Most of the pieces in a THUD concert are either written or arranged by THUD members. Some of these pieces are written by one person, and some are written as a group effort. An example of the first kind is a piece that I wrote this past summer, which we will perform tomorrow night. I studied drumming in Bali this past summer, and, while there, I wrote an eight-minute piece influenced by Balinese structures, but meant to be played on Western instruments. The latter kind involve someone first coming up with an idea. Then, several drummers will sit down together and explore possible sounds (hitting chairs, parts of the body, etc.) and rhythmic patterns These kinds of pieces are very collaborative. We often perform classical pieces, but these are not usually the focus of the concert, as much as the student-written pieces.

THUD has two concerts a year, but you also do many special events. Can you tell us about the engagements of THUD?

Our main performances are our two concerts, one at the end of each semester. Other than that, we perform at Arts First every year in Sanders, and often make guest appearances at shows of other groups (we have performed at dance shows) or cultural events (we performed at AAA's FEAST this year).

THUD has done outreach work in the Boston area. Can you tell us about that too?

We often work with Harvard STAGE. Last year we taught our version of the Cup Game to little kids, who enjoyed it immensely.

I know you will be welcoming the audience at the concert on Friday. What can the audience expect on the program? Will there be a mix of classical, African, popular and improvisational works?

There will be a mix of classical, popular, world-music-inspired, and non-traditional concept pieces. We will perform The Italian in Algiers by Rossini, Technology by Jim Casella, and a pop-song medley. The non-traditional pieces include a concept piece about the evolution of writing, a piece played with bottles and other "garbage," and a drumline piece arranged for stools, tables, garbage cans and garbage can lids. I wrote a piece inspired by two works by Steve Reich (the two pieces are Clapping Music and Piano Phase). We will also perform the piece I wrote in Bali, which will utilize both Western instruments and a Balinese drum. We will end, as we always do, with our version of Cups, which evolves into a piece each year.

What is the mission of THUD within the Harvard community?

Here's a quote from our mission statement: "Although percussionists are able to play in other performing groups (HRO, Bachsoc, WE, MSO, Pops, HUB), it is mostly in a supporting role. The Percussion Ensemble would allow percussionists to perform as percussion soloists in pieces written specifically for concert percussion." THUD also provides a unique opportunity for non-traditional composition and performance, and tries to encourage creativity from drummers, who are often relegated to the background in other groups.