A Strong Sense of Form and Far More than Four Mallets from 4-Mality

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Rafnsson, Du Plessis, Bradley, Norman, Marino, Hastings: 4-Mality (Jan Bradley, Sophie Hastings, Mark Norman, Sam Wilson). Dora Stoutzker Hall, Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Cardiff, 29.4.2016. (GP)

Geir Rafnsson: Ykjur

Russell Du Plessis: Incalcando

Jan Bradley: Stretch

Mark Norman: Longshore Drift

Robert Marino: Risk Every Moment

Sophie Hastings: Justo Pelladito

An aged quip in the jazz world talks of a quartet as made up of three musicians and a drummer. 4-Mality is a quartet made up of four very accomplished musicians, all of whom are drummers or, to pay respect to their common versatility, percussionists (between them they play more than 80 drums, gongs, cymbals, tuned percussions and other percussion instruments).

4-Mality was formed, in 2000, by Adrian Spillett, BBC Young Musician of the Year in 1998. Spillett’s many other commitments as performer and teacher prevent his playing with 4-Mality nowadays, but he continues to act as artistic advisor to the group. The four current members of the ensemble all have extensive experience with orchestras such as the Hallé, the Liverpool Philharmonic, the Northern Sinfonia, the Orchestra of English National Ballet and many others. A number of them also have experience in other musical idioms – from Hip Hop to Latin.

A 4-Mality concert approaches theatre and performance art, physical activity and visual spectacle being almost as important as the technical virtuosity of the group’s members and the interest of the music they play, much of it specially written for them. Entering the Dora Stoutzker Hall for this concert, one was greeted by a stage containing (at a rough estimate) from 60-70 instruments of many different kinds – timpani, vibraphones, marimbas, congas, drum kits, gongs et al. Then the members of 4-Mality entered, all dressed in in functional black and got straight down to business with Geir Rafnsson’s Ykjur – which apparently means ‘extreme measures’ or ‘exaggeration’ in Icelandic.

Beginning with two vibraphones and two marimbas, Ykjur created an immediate sense of complex musical dialogue, changes of texture and rhythmic pattern unified by recurrences of a repeated melodic motif. Dynamic levels also varied frequently in a piece characterised equally by power and subtlety. The composer having previously been a member of 4-Mality it was unsurprising that his work was so well-suited to the group, and that it proved fascinating and rewarding.

South African born Russell Du Plessis composed Incalcando in 2003, with 4-Mality in mind. The literal meaning of the title (‘warming up’, ‘getting warmer’) more or less describes the shape of the work, which builds in intensity throughout; but it might also be taken as a polite way of making it clear that this is a work which makes the performers sweat! The prominent use of the vibraphone gives a delightfully ringing quality to much of the music, and the juxtaposition of beaten wood and struck metal produces some subtle and intriguing textures. The conclusion builds to a complexity which makes considerable technical demands on the performers – all of them ‘answered’ by the musicians of 4-Mality.

Stretch was the first of three pieces in this programme written or arranged by current members of the quartet. Jan Bradley’s piece features four drums made of mains gas pipe, in a cluster which forms the centre of a circle. The outer ring of that circle consists of four further, more conventional, drums. The piece begins with each of the quartet playing one of the central drums. Gradually each player also plays one of the outer drums, ‘stretching’ (hence the work’s title) so as to strike one of the central drums with one hand and one of the outer drums with the other. The music’s patterns are of great intricacy and place considerable demands on the timing and technique of all the players. Here, as with all of the programme, I wasn’t aware of any lapses or errors in performance. Stretch was full of joy, exhilarating and exciting both musically and visually,

With Mark Norman’s Longshore Drift we had the second piece composed by one of the percussionists on stage and we came relatively near to a kind of programme music (obliquely so, at least). Originally from the Norfolk coast, Norman, in writing this piece had in mind the extensive erosion of that coast. Longshore Drift begins hauntingly, with the sound of a trembling cymbal and a softly struck marimba and is structured in three distinct sections, roughly slow – quicker – and reflective. Throughout there is a strong evocation both of tidal rhythms (and to some extent of the sound of the waves in their interaction with the ‘solid’ world) and of larger geological patterns of movement, of water and land meeting repeatedly in an embrace both loving and destructive. The final reflective section had an elegiac quality.

Altogether different was the penultimate piece in the programme – Risk Every Moment by the American percussionist and composer Robert Marino, unrelentingly loud and fast, some 200 beats per minute according to the programme (which is how it felt). Risk Every Moment required dazzling technique from each player and absolute trust and coordination between the players. Seeing (and hearing) these requirements fulfilled in performance was a powerful experience. This was ceaselessly intense music (the performance was prefaced by a statement that no offence would be taken if any audience members chose to cover their ears against the sheer volume of sound), but no one, I think, did so. By the end one felt oneself in a mental and sensory world with an unusual configuration, elated of a kind of aural dazzle, mere rational thought left behind.

The final piece brought another change of mood and emotion. Sophie Hastings’s Justo Pelladito is an arrangement of various Cuban dances and rhythms. (Justo Pelladito is a master musician and dancer in the Cuban tradition); Hastings has made a number of visits to Cuba, to study the native traditions of percussion – and one presumes that she studied with Pelladito. The programme note, presumably the work of Sophie Hastings herself, describes the piece as “an arrangement of some of Cuba’s best toques, Guiro, Bembe, Mozambique and Comparsa. Of particular note is the inclusion of a form of Rumba called Guarapachangeo.” This piece, in honour of Ramon Justo Pelladito Hernandez (there’s an interesting short film featuring Pelladito on You Tube, was packed with (almost) irresistible dancing rhythms (one has to add the ‘almost’ since the audience managed to remain seated, albeit with a struggle). One of the most memorable passages came when Hastings was seated at an augmented drum-kit, while the other three members of 4-Mality, in front of her, sat on (and played) cajons as well as congas – the passage being the aforementioned rumba. Justo Pelladito made a striking, uplifting and yet relaxing conclusion to a consistently intriguing programme which demonstrated (if demonstration were necessary) just how musical a percussion ensemble can be.

The presence of two small boys in the front row of the audience (young enough for one of them to be audibly anxious, when the first piece ended, that that might be all he was going to hear) was a reminder of how instinctive and natural, belonging to the early stages of both individual and cultural development the art of percussion is, while the music made on stage was, simultaneously, an affirmation of how sophisticated that art can be, with its pronounced sense of form, its complexity and its emotional and sensory range.

Glyn Pursglove

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