An Intriguing, Diverse New Album from Percussionist Justin DeHart
Who would be interested in an album of solo percussion, other than a fellow percussionist or composer? Justin DeHart’s new album Strange Paths addresses that question with a playful and virtuosic mix of contemporary and 20th century works, just out on Innova. Steadily and ambidextrously, DeHart builds a sonic spectrum ranging from hypnotically soothing, to suspenseful, with many shades in between: it rises to the challenge of entertaining a jaded listener who might not ordinarily gravitate to music made on things meant to be hit with a stick of some kind, over and over..
The opening number, Michael Gordon‘s XY is insistent and has a hard-hitting, subtly polyrhythmic, mechanical aspect, yet the way it’s done here, it’s more of a peaceful drummers-in-the-park tableau than annoy-your-neighbors assault. It sounds easy but in reality is cruelly difficult, requiring a Bach-like precision and an attention to minute detail that overcomes the work’s hypnotically echoing aspect. DeHart is up to the task.
Iannis Xenakis’ Psappha, the best-known of the pieces here, empowers DeHart to become a one-man orchestra via tuned drums in all sorts of timbres, up and down the register, precisely marching yet lively, playing intricate variations on and off a series of polyrhythms, some bracing, some very subtle, particularly on the more emphatic, lower notes. The space between increased to the point of suspense and then comedy, a musical Waiting for Godot. Breathy cymbals add a syncopation that, when written in 1975, foreshadowed the loping groove of hip-hop.
Brian Ferneyhough’s Bone Alphabet, perhaps predictably, has a more skeletal feel and a thicket of constantly changing sonics, some woody and hollow, some metallic and booming, a restless prowl through a junkyard of the mind. The final track here, Stuart Saunders Smith’s four-part vibraphone suite They Looked Like Strangers draws on a memory of childhood humiliation, a small boy realizing how far estranged he’s become from his family as they ridicule him for a slip and a fall into the lake: he vows not to let this disrespect slide. A slow, gingerly hazy summery ambience builds to eerie music-box ambience; wiith its lingering, otherworldly resonances, it draws a straight line back to Bernard Herrmann’s Hitchcock film scores. Then, casually and methodically, DeHart takes it into full-blown, resonant Lynchian menace. It’s a creepy piece of music in every sense of the word.
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