‘Double Shot’ raises eyebrows of Whangarei audience

New ZealandNew Zealand Various: Double Shot (Yoshiko Tsuruta, marimba, percussion; Jeremy Fitzsimons, vibraphone, percussion). Old Library, Whangarei, 27.5.2023. (PSe)

Double Shot: Yoshiko Tsuruta and Jeremy Fitzsimons

Alyssa WeinbergTable Talk (2016)
John Psathas (arr. Oman Carmenates)Muisca (2017)
Steve ReichNagoya Marimbas (1994)
Michael Taylor – Rhapsody for Vibraphone and Marimba (2012)
Debussy (arr. Yoshiko Tsuruta)La Boîte à Joujoux (2013)

Here is a splendid example of good planning. At the time of this recital, the provider of NZ’s indecently long run of inclement weather was switching smoothly from tropical cyclones to polar jet streams. How considerate it was of Whangarei Music Society to have arranged to furnish its audience with a timely, uplifting diversion. For, in association with the ever-fecund Chamber Music NZ, the second recital of WMS’s 2023 season featured Double Shot – a pair of rare percussionists.

Founded in 2015, Double Shot (DS) comprises the Japanese-born Yoshiko Tsuruta who, I am informed, is one of the very few specialist marimbists in NZ as well as being an adventurous  arranger, and kiwi Jeremy Fitzsimons, a percussionist of wide experience with broadly comparable leanings towards the marimba. Indeed, DS’s battery of instruments is built around the expressive core of a marimba (wooden bars) and a vibraphone (metal bars). ‘Expressive’? Yes – and why not?

Well, the marimba and vibraphone, although in mechanism differing from, are actually closely similar to the piano – and who doubts the expressive potential of the latter? However, whilst they have much longer resonances than (say) the xylophone, in terms of expressivity they still fall short, for instance in being limited to four-note chords. Yet, certain percussionists persist in trying to close the gap (in case you are wondering, DS didn’t use the vibraphone’s eponymous vibrato effect).

As an arranger, Yoshiko is one of those who looks to expand these instruments’ expressive potentials, and this is part and parcel of DS’s performance philosophy. Maybe, I mused, this explained the swapping of the advertised first and third items, which notably shifted Reich’s Nagoya Marimbas – minimalist in style, minimal in expressiveness – into the ‘overture’ slot. Seeming vaguely gamelan, the gentle rolling and overlapping duet’s material evolved – would you believe – almost imperceptibly. If the continuous ripple of notes gave the impression of sustained sound, that – and the manifest skills of DS – were for me the only points of interest; otherwise, it just drifted on in this vein until it gave up.

Musical interest hopped up several notches with john Psathas’s Muisca, a title, not an anagram of ‘musica’, but referring to a people indigenous to what eventually became known as Colombia. Extra-musical inspiration notwithstanding, this arrangement of his guitar work for marimba and vibraphone was steeped in atmosphere. The second movement especially caught my ear: the vibraphone played broken chords from which the melody was pricked out by slight stresses (a popular piano ‘trick’), later the marimba joined in, creating a feeling that rhythm and melody were heard darkly through a diaphanous mist. By contrast the third movement was vigorous, its pronounced irregular rhythm accumulating excitement, yet at a subdued, even repressed volume – but ever-prone to punctuation by brief, fiery eruptions.

Next up, something moderately outrageous! We have all heard about (if not actually heard) John Cage’s pieces for ‘prepared piano’. Now, courtesy of Alyssa Weinberg’s Table Talk, DS introduced the ‘prepared vibraphone’. This involved turning the playing surface into an untidy desktop – that is, placing in designated locations all sorts of small objects (such as wooden boxes, glass jars, tin cans, a sheet of A4 paper). Considerately, a video camera and projection screen were rigged so that we could see everything clearly. The players faced one another from either side, so that one was playing the ‘keyboard’ upside-down, and proceeded to regale us with many unusual sounds.

Oddly enough, the two most eyebrow-raising of these had nothing to do with any of the ‘preparations’. The first came from a violin bow scraped across the end of a bar; the second involved one player hitting a bar while the other slid a mallet-head along that bar towards the centre, resulting in the pitch of the note ‘drooping’. Sometimes, rather than the bar it stood on, an object was struck directly. This set me pondering: the sound heard being almost entirely that expected of the object alone, isn’t this really ‘playing a different instrument’? Whatever, this all added up to an ingenious and fascinating ‘sound sculpture’, albeit one that perhaps left listeners wondering whether it contained much by way of music?

To close the first half came something a bit more conventional. Michael Taylor’s Rhapsody for Vibraphone and Marimba started out in a very tuneful vein, with use of tremolando to sustain notes, of which there is an abundance. Settling down to a sort of primitive fugue, inflected with asymmetrical jazzy rhythms, the music eased into two-part counterpoint. After a sudden hiatus, it resumed in a more explicitly ‘modern jazz’ style (think 1960s or thereabouts), understated but gradually regaining energy. Although I am not sure that I caught the promised allusions to ‘heavy metal’ and ‘funk’ (I am even less sure what they are!), I did get the impression that we had come a fair way from tuned percussion as we knew it.

After the interval, we went a fair bit further. The one work was Yoshiko Tsuruta’s 2013 arrangement of Debussy’s piano score for the ballet La Boîte à Joujoux (The Toy-Box). André Hellé had lavishly illustrated his original scenario in a charmingly child-like style; Yoshiko used these pictures, along with brief narrative text, in a computer presentation displayed on the projection screen. From cues in their parts, the players could ‘turn the pages’ in synchronisation with the music via five strategically placed, foot-operated switches. Delightful as was this visual element, it was all but eclipsed by the mesmerising musical performance.

This Toy-Box being a work of Debussy’s maturity, he inevitably deployed his unique, specifically pianistic soundworld. Hence, arranging it for (and playing it on) marimba, vibraphone and sundry other percussion presents a huge challenge. From the outset, DS generated a real feeling of enchantment. The ‘keyboard’ percussion (obviously) carried the melodic and harmonic  argument, with other instruments used purely for adding touches of colour.

Spellbound as I was by the performance as a whole, my attention was particularly attracted to those mysterious, dreamy episodes (such as Moonlit Night), where Debussy ‘blurs’ his music (the very technique, I suppose, that provoked that ‘impressionist’ tag); these DS rendered entirely idiomatically and with consummate artistry, significantly reducing the expressive gap between piano and ‘keyboard’ percussion.

To my mind, the secret of DS’s success lay largely in a highly sophisticated sense of touch, evident as finely resolved control over an unusually wide dynamic range, which of course was most noticeable at the quiet end. Thus, in the aforementioned ‘dreamy’ episodes, they typically pared down the sound to the merest whisper, merging the struck notes with their accumulating, overlapping resonances. Whether or not this explanation is correct, that was the audible effect, the consequence of refining their instrumental techniques to render them capable of true expressive subtlety. This recital was nothing like what I had expected – instead it was a revelation.

Paul Serotsky

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