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Release: Nov. 17, 2000

Composer/performer Paul Elwood will be guest with UI Percussion Ensemble Dec. 1

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- Composer, five-string banjo player and percussionist Paul Elwood, called "a composer-performer with the imagination of a child and the self-assurance of a virtuoso" by the Cleveland Plain-Dealer, will be a guest artist with the University of Iowa Percussion Ensemble for a free concert at 8 p.m. Friday, Dec. 1 in Clapp Recital Hall on the UI campus.

The Percussion Ensemble, under the direction of UI School of Music faculty member Daniel Moore, will play two of Elwood’s pieces, one of which will feature Elwood performing "negative tap dancing" with velcro attached to the bottom of his shoes, as well as works by David Macbride and Daniel Levitan, and a pioneering percussion work by Edgard Varese.

One of the most active performing groups at the UI School of Music, the Percussion Ensemble presents concerts and educational programs on campus and across Iowa. Formed in 1958, the UI Percussion Ensemble performs musical styles ranging from ragtime and jazz to 20th century concert idioms and traditional musical styles from Africa, the Caribbean, Latin America and Asia. In addition to the standard percussion repertoire, the ensemble regularly performs the newest music written by both professional composers and students.

The Percussion Ensemble is calling the Dec. 1 concert "A Bowl of Light," taken from the name of the first of Elwood’s pieces on the program. Composed in 1996, "A Bowl of Light" was inspired by thoughts of the composer’s home state, Kansas.

"The open-sky infinity of the prairie-lands offer a wide range of vistas and are ever-changing in texture and light," Elwood said. "This aesthetic is something that seems to escape most people aside from those of us who have grown up in it, or at least lived with it for awhile. In writing this piece, I thought a lot about that space."

The title came from a poetic passage in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s "Little House on the Prairie" that Elwood had read as a child: "Everything was silent, listening to the nightingale’s song. The bird sang on and on. The cool wind moved over the prairie and the song was round and clear above the grasses’ whispering. The sky was like a bowl of light overturned on the flat black land."

The second Elwood work on the program, "Edgard Varese in the Gobi Desert," also had its origin in Kansas, but its history is somewhat complex. First, the title refers both to the composer Varese, who was one of the first to write a piece for percussion alone, and to a chapter in Henry Miller’s book "The Air Conditioned Nightmare" titled "With Edgard Varese in The Gobi Desert."

Musically, the piece had its origin in 1982, when, Elwood says, Kansas-born musician Kelly Werts "affixed Velcro strips to the soles of a pair of two-tone thrift-store shoes and began creating dance steps on a board covered with indoor-outdoor carpet."

At the time Werts and Elwood were two-thirds of a bluegrass combo known as "The Sons of Rayon," who were known for a unique brand of music they described as "nerdgrass." Such was the birth of "Velcro tap-dancing" or "negative tap-dancing" which has been described as "the only viable form of tap-dancing in the weightlessness of outer space." The sound is created when the Velcro shoe is raised from the dance surface rather than when it strikes it.

Elwood says the three movements of "Edgard Varese in the Gobi Desert" "are attempts to evoke images of the quotes taken from" Miller’s book. For example, the second movement, "Magic, invisible hands. . . turning on and off the knobs of fantastic radios," is Elwood’s impression of the noise heard between AM radio stations while driving a 1949 Hudson across the Gobi Desert. The final movement quotes directly from segments of Varese’s "Ionisation."

According to Moore, "This piece is full of unusual things to watch for, including ‘bowed piano’ in which the players use fishing line to bow individual strings of the piano; bowed Styrofoam; telephone bells that are struck and then twirled over the player’s head; and a variety of bird calls and other unique sounds."

For the performance with the UI Percussion Ensemble, Elwood will be featured as the "negative tap-dancing" performer.

Preceding "Edgard Varese in the Gobi Desert," the Percussion Ensemble will play Varese’s "Ionisation" to provide context for Elwood’s piece. Composed in 1931, "Ionisation" was preceded by only a handful of percussion scores, but today it is often celebrated as the first successful piece for all percussion.

Varese was particularly intrigued by the sound of sirens and wrote parts on two of them in the score for "Ionisation." As a possible substitute, he suggested a pair of Theremins, an instrument invented by the Russian scientist Leon Theremin. Using electronic fields to create and modify sounds, the Theremin is known as the only instrument that the performer never touches. The UI performance of "Ionisation" will feature two Theremins, one performed by Lawrence Fritts, the director of the UI Electronic Music Studio.

An internationally known percussionist, composer and teacher, Moore has experience from concert to marching percussion, and from jazz to classical styles. Performing all aspects of percussion, including keyboard percussion, drum set, ethnic and multi-percussion, he is considered a "total percussionist." For the past 12 years he has toured as a member of the Britain/Moore Duo, whose CD "Cricket City" has been described by Pan-lime Magazine as "a brilliant collage of pan-marimba pieces."

Moore joined the UI music faculty in 1995. Only the second full-time professor of percussion at the UI, he succeeded Thomas L. Davis, who taught percussion at the UI for more than 35 years. He is a performing artist for the Yamaha Corporation of America, Sabian Ltd., and Innovative Percussion. He has written for Jazz Player, Sticks and Mallets and Percussive Notes magazines.

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