'I’m thinking about how the audience feels at different points in the programme': An Interview with percussionist Alex Petcu
In Steve Snowden’s 2010 work A Man with a Gun Lives Here, three percussionists play on one bass drum. In Musique de Table by Thierry de Mey, the percussionists don’t use any instruments at all – apart from a table. In Tim and Tom Ouderits’ Surprise!, the musicians move in and out of the same space on one marimba.
For Alex Petcu’s forthcoming tour with fellow percussionists Emma King and Brian Dungan, he trawled the internet to find unique but complementary pieces.
We wanted it to be fun for us to play and fun for the audience… a wide variety of sound-worlds and colours, instruments and cultural influences, and to show what percussion has to offer. Each piece will be a bit of a discovery.
Some of the composers’ names might be unfamiliar. As well as Snowden, the Ouderits brothers and de Mey, there is Alyssa Weinberg’s Table Talk for prepared vibraphone, Elliot Cole’s Postlude No. 8 for bowed vibraphones, and Gene Koshinski’s And So the Wind Blew, a nature-inspired work for wind chimes.
Contemporary music and new music is where percussion is at… I find it very weird if there’s a percussionist that doesn’t enjoy playing new music. Everything that’s cool is there and you have composers who want to work with the latest, newest sounds… I like seeing what a new piece is going to be like… if it’s challenging, how to tackle it.
The ‘Bangers and Crash’ programme – it’s a collective title that Petcu uses for group work – also features two more familiar works however: the beautiful Philip Glass piece Madeira River, originally a ballet piece that builds from subtle harmonies on marimba and gongs and which is named after the river in the Amazon, and Steve Reich’s virtuosic 1994 piece Nagoya Marimbas. Petcu has built the concert as a singular experience, an arc beginning with the short Surprise! and concluding with the twenty-minute Koshinski: ‘I’m thinking about how the audience feels at different points in the programme’.
Time to sound
The nature of percussion – the difference between resonant instruments and non-resonant instruments (wood-blocks, for example) – means that the temporal effect of certain pieces is different. In Koshinki’s 2009 wind-chimes work, ‘the instruments involved take more time to work… It’s a piece built on really beautiful resonant sounds… the sound of wind chimes … They take time to sound and for the audience to feel the effect…’.
Snowden’s A Man with a Gun Lives Here, inspired by the signs and warnings that US hobos left for each other as they roamed the country during the Great Depression, is particularly inventive in the range of sounds the percussionists draw from one drum: ‘Each movement is like a different sign. The piece is amazing… it’s got this really gritty sound world.’
Petcu has also been commissioned by Music Network to write a new piece for the tour, for which he has employed some everyday items as percussion – ‘junk percussion… sounds that you think you already know’. Crosspaths is a piece in two parts and the second ‘changes instrumentation quite suddenly’. Petcu actually has degrees in physics from University College Cork so instrument-building gives him a chance to use that knowledge.
The three percussionists on the tour have collaborated in the past, though not as a trio. Petcu and Brian Dungan have regularly played together in various contexts. Petcu is a member of Crash Ensemble since 2013 and deputises in the two RTÉ orchestras; Dungan also works regularly with the orchestras and with Crash. In 2017 they gave a concert together for the Irish Composers’ Collective of six new works written in response to the Reich marimbas piece, and also played in a joint performance between Crash and the American group Bang on a Can of Reich’s Music for Eighteen Musicians.
Petcu and Emma King first played together in the National Youth Orchestra of Ireland, but she is now based in London and in 2014 she joined the renowned West End and Broadway percussion show STOMP. She studied at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London and has recently toured with Pulse! by the Joss Arnott dance company.
Petcu, now aged 32, has been deeply involved in music his entire life. His parents, musicians Ruxandra Petcu-Colan and Alex Petcu moved to Ireland from Romania in the 1970s. She was a member of the RTÉ Academica Quartet, which preceded the Vanbrugh Quartet at the broadcaster, and his father began teaching at Cork School of Music. Alex began on piano and violin at the school, but changed to percussion at aged 12. His older sister, violinist Ioana Petcu-Colan, who is well known as a soloist and chamber musician, is now co-leader of the Ulster Orchestra. Alex released his debut solo album on the RTÉ Lyric FM label three years ago, described in the Journal of Music as presenting ‘a rounded picture of the performer himself, his eclectic repertoire and his impressive technique.’
Petcu may be particularly associated with contemporary music, but it wasn’t a factor in choosing the programme for the Music Network tour: ‘I didn’t even think about choosing pieces that would be written in a certain time-frame… I just chose stuff that I thought would be good… I enjoy a good piece that has a distinct sound world and that says something.’ For the Cork musician, the contemporary world of percussion is unlimited: ‘Percussionists don’t just have to play percussion. We generally have to play everything that others won’t do!’
Alex Petcu, Emma King and Brian Dungan’s Music Network tour begins at the Sugar Club in Dublin on Wednesday 2 October, then visits Waterford (3rd), Bray (4th), Clifden (5th), Portlaoise (8th), Castlebar (9th), Cork (10th) and Ennis (11th). For further information and booking, visit www.musicnetwork.ie.
This preview is supported by Music Network.