Drumming up a world of sound in West Park

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The box contained a conch shell, a handheld siren, a triangle and a chunk of a pipe possibly cut from a fence post.

As a percussionist, I’ve had occasion to play some unusual instruments, but John Luther Adams’ “Inuksuit,” a piece for nine to 99 musicians, would be different. Performed Sunday at West Park, on the North Side, the atmospheric work echoed the environment as much as it created it. Almost 90 of us struck, cranked and breathed through hundreds of instruments, including bass drums, tom-toms, cymbals, tam-tams, crotales and glockenspiels.

“‘Inuksuit’ is inspired by the stone sentinels constructed over the centuries by the Inuit in the windswept expanses of the Arctic,” Mr. Adams wrote in program notes. “The word ‘Inuksuit’ translates literally: ‘to act in the capacity of the human.’ This work is haunted by the vision of the melting of the polar ice, the rising of the seas, and what may remain of humanity’s presence after the waters recede.”

It requires a massive collaboration, but the preparations were largely solitary. I received sheet music through email and watched training videos online. Percussionist Doug Perkins, a Pittsburgh native and close collaborator with Mr. Adams, directed the event and has produced “Inuksuit” across the country.

Sending out e-blasts and hoping dozens of people show up requires trust in strangers. Mr. Perkins said he believes in the unique competencies of percussionists, who are called upon to haul large and cumbersome instruments to gigs. I don’t have any instruments in Pittsburgh, so he sent me the conch shell care package. The musicians hailed from all over; about a third were “Inuksuit” veterans, by Mr. Perkins’ estimate. The rest were collected from local groups and universities and filled in with individuals. The performance was presented by the Pittsburgh Festival of New Music, produced Thursday to Sunday by new music group Alia Musica Pittsburgh. 

“Inuksuit” is loosely scored for three groups of instruments. It is what a musicologist might call “aleatoric,” or chance-based. I grew up playing this type of music in percussion ensembles, which by nature perform contemporary and experimental music often lacking traditional melodies. Still, this experience was unusual; the outdoor setting became an instrument in itself, and the size of our group added a degree of grandeur.

The sheet music guided us throughout the piece’s five sections, but the length of the rests is determined by our own sense of the pulse, a quarter note of 60 beats per minute. Mr. Perkins called this practice “rigorous silence.” Although “Inuksuit” is about 70 minutes long, I found it passed by quickly. I was actively counting, my ears pricked for prompts from other musicians.

Audience members gathered around the core of musicians before we migrated to our workstations. My group began by breathing through conch shells or megaphones (mine was a poster rolled into the shape of a cone). When inhaling, we pointed our instruments to the sky, exhaling back down to the ground. The effect grew in size, like an waking organism. The remaining players entered with small instruments, such as rubbed stones or whirly tubes.

Rather than just imitating the setting, we became a part of it. The glockenspiels and piccolos mimicked bird calls, while birds or children chirped. Our cymbals and conch shells mirrored a church bell and train; a blaring emergency vehicle hinted at our handheld sirens.

Cyclists, families and dog-walkers threaded through the concrete paths or strayed onto the grass. Some observers were unfazed, while others raised an eyebrow, took a picture or just listened. We looked like we belonged, natural furniture scattered across the park. 

I was an island of sound in “Inuksuit,” and my presence probably contributed little to its overall effect. Still, being part of that sound-world felt big. Mr. Perkins said that “Inuksuit” would transform West Park for the listeners who witnessed and participated in it. I hope to experience the same.

Elizabeth Bloom: ebloom@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1750. Twitter: @BloomPG.

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