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Colin Currie On Percussion Power And Bringing New Sounds To Life

It's not uncommon for Colin Currie to perform on a percussion rig of 40 different instruments.

It’s not uncommon for Colin Currie to perform on a percussion rig of 40 different instruments.

Marco Borggreve/Courtesy of Colin Currie

The dynamic percussionist Colin Currie is back onstage this weekend with the Oregon Symphony. Midway through his artist’s residency, he’s performed with the Symphony as well as in non-traditional spots around the region. Currie visited our studio to talk about the composers and works that shaped him, and what he hopes new commissions can bring to life.

Catch him with the Symphony Oct. 22, 23 and 24, or performing solo work at the Chehalem Cultural Center next Tuesday, Oct 25th.

Not only is Currie one of the leading interpreters of percussion work, he can even make a random selection of stuff in our office sound amazing. Check it out.

Here are a few highlights from our conversation:

Q&A With Colin Currie

April Baer: Percussion kits can include everything from the Almglocken to Japanese temple bells. Do you prefer set-ups with a large physicality?

Colin Currie: Yeah, that is appealing. I think I have one of my best rigs ever for this weekend’s performance. It’s not bells and whistles for the sake of it. The composers have to be focused. Those pieces that are ‘everything but the kitchen sink’ can get a bit dull! The most important thing, no matter how many instruments are in use, is to really harness their power.

Baer: How often do you have to learn a new instrument?

Currie: Fairly often! There’s no way, in one lifetime, you could master instruments across the board. The tabla, for example — that would be a whole lifetime of study. I was talking the other day to a percussionist here [in Portland] who asked if I’d ever played jazz vibraphone. I said, “Well, I gave it a good go for about year, then realized, if I’m actually going to do this, it’s going to be several years before I can really do anything, and the rest of my life to refine it.” A little knowledge can be quite awkward.

Baer: When you were a young musician coming up in Scotland, what was your impression of the works that were available for percussionists to sink their teeth into?

Currie: Well, it was clear something was happening. I got into classical music in the early 90s, as a young teenager. [There was] great advancement in some of the literature, thanks to certain key proponents.

Baer: This would have been Evelyn Glennie’s heyday.

Currie: Yes, her input and also a number of other extremely fine European players I got to see. Then I started traveling to North America and got to meet and work with some pioneers in this country. It was a mixture of things, some repertoire-drive and some player-led. I wanted the music of real heavy-weight gravitas. I didn’t mean it to be po-faced and overly serious, but things of an exceptional quality. The day of flying-circus-and-juggling-act percussion was wearing a little thin.

Baer: You’re well-known as an artist who commissions new works. Tell us about the gaps you’re looking to fill when you consider work you’d like to help bring to life.

Currie: The great thing about being a percussionist is: you’re spoiled. You’re able to join almost any style of music. That’s one of the things people should try and understand about contemporary music — it can mean almost anything. On one end, the very minimalist side, led by Steve Reich, and on the other end, modernism, led in this country perhaps by Elliott Carter. The uptown, if you like, and the downtown. I can afford to be very promiscuous in my tastes. I like a bit of everything, really.

Baer: Were there ways in which contemporary music changed the way you listened or played? Which composers caught your attention?

Currie: I was lucky, none of this was forced down my throat. I was encouraged, instead of spoon-fed. I’d get into orchestral pieces. That was my path to discovering composers. Stravinsky was one my first big hits. And then Bartok and Debussy. Lateral moves from them — I’d work my way through 20th century masters: European avant-garde, people like Stockhausen and Boulez, Messiaen and Varèse. I was drawn to the new and the percussive. I’m still getting to know all of their works. Debussy remains one of my favorite composers. I could listen to nothing but his music.

Baer: The music you choose often has an intellectual, sometimes mathematical quality. Are there specific solos you’ve performed or heard that directed your path?

Currie: The premiers always stick in my mind. In terms of concertos, in my early days, in the BBC Proms in 2001, I gave my first premier in the Royal Albert Hall in London, by a British composer Joe Duddell, called “Ruby”. For me, it was a mini-manifesto of what I wanted to do with percussion. It was quite an understated piece, but incredibly beautiful. The way it used instruments was heart-stopping was totally gorgeous and a little bit different. Too many others to name since then.

Baer: The symphonic commissions seem like a bit of a high-wire act. You don’t really know how it’s going to sound until fairly late in rehearsals. Have there ever been any disasters?

Currie: No! We can’t really afford them. Resources are so tight. Of course, you’re always taking a little bit of a risk, but I really try to ensure the pieces have longevity. Of the 30 or so concerto premiers I’ve given, 25 or 26 of them have had substantial lives, with dozens of performances after the premier. I do pay attention to [which composers] are up and coming. I try to get people at the right time.

Baer: Presumably, you can have your pick of gigs on a global scale. What drew you to commit three years to being an artist in residence at the Oregon Symphony and traveling all over the state to visit everywhere from cultural centers to a home for boys?

Currie: This is an outstanding community, very receptive to new works. As a percussionist I’m someone who’ve very keen to present contemporary music. Every time I’ve been struck by the audience’s wonderful belief in what we’re doing. I’m a huge Portland fanatic.

Baer: This weekend you’re playing Andrew Norman’s concerto for percussion and orchestra, called “Switch”. Can you describe it?

Currie: Basically “Switch” is a game for percussion and orchestra. The music is controlled by different people at different times, most notably the percussionists in the orchestra, who have sonic triggers that change what kind of material we’re playing — like someone channel-hopping. At the front is poor old me, desperately trying to make sense of the percussion rig and play the correct configuration of a phrase that keeps getting repeated, like a computer animated character trying to jump onto an elevator and slipping off.

Baer: I love something Andrew Norman wrote for the premier of “Switch”: He put it on you to bring across the musical ideas in the face of an “onslaught of interruption and interference. What’s it like to have the composer gunning for you like that?

Currie: I’m very fond of Andrew! And honored to play this piece. Actually he was quite reclusive the time of writing. That can be the way. Other composers really want a lot of dialogue. Andrew was quite introspective but it really jumps off the page.

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