Colin Currie Group
Colin Currie Group | Credit: Chris Gloag

The theme of “Human and Machine,” which underpins this season’s Illuminations programming at Cal Performances, has a lot of scope, says percussionist Colin Currie.

“There’s always a question about how much of those elements, human and machine, are involved in the arts and the importance of having those qualities in equilibrium,” Currie said. “What this series does is it looks at those elements from the perspective of the arts, and I think that’s a fascinating move by the presenter.”

The Colin Currie Group and Synergy Vocals will perform the music of Steve Reich on Nov. 3 at Zellerbach Hall, and Sō Percussion plays Nov. 12. Three other percussion performances make up the 2022–2023 season.

The idea behind “Human and Machine” is to explore technology’s role in “catalyzing and challenging creative expression and human communication.” And percussion is particularly suited to thinking about tools and machines and how we use them, says Jeremy Geffen, executive and artistic director of Cal Performances. “The entire world can be your instrument,” Geffen explained. “Anything you can touch has the potential to be percussion.”

And with the pandemic dragging on, we’ve had more opportunities than we’d like to think about technology’s role in communication, Geffen says. He believes his organization is in a unique position to facilitate that conversation as part of a university and with a reach far beyond it. “We’re living in a highly charged moment, and understanding is hard to come by,” he said. “We tend to go into our corners. But that’s the superpower of the performing arts. It’s an opportunity to promote the message from the stage and make a direct emotional connection. It’s not necessarily the transmission of ideas — it’s emotional.”

Sō Percussion, for example, shows how a theme can be communicated viscerally. In this case, it’s the idea that anything can be made into a drum, Geffen says. “It’s not like they bring one case onto a plane [when they travel],” he said. “I’ve seen them perform on standard percussion, but I’ve also seen them play an amplified cactus.”

A founding member of Sō Percussion, composer and percussionist Jason Treuting says the technological theme fits right into what the group does. “The lineage we come from is teeming with interactions between humans and tech,” he said. “Luminaries like John Cage very early on were using tech and electronics, and I came up playing percussion through playing in bands with electric guitar.”

Sō Percussion
Sō Percussion | Credit: Shervin Lainez

The ensemble’s Cal Performances program will feature three Bay Area premieres — Angélica Negrón’s gone and go back and Nathalie Joachim’s Note to Self — along with Dan Trueman’s neither Anvil nor Pulley.

The three pieces will look at humans working with technology, as well as struggling with it. Treuting is cheerful about the humans’ chances. “The three composers are wrangling to create something new,” he said. “We’re looking to use the instruments to say something bigger about humanity and not so dystopian. That’s our goal anyway.”

In Trueman’s piece, you hear some of the struggle when the percussion quartet is pitted against invented digital instruments. “My part as a drummer in that is trying to play as fast as a machine can. We go in tandem for a good amount of time, then it’s an interesting conversation when your hands can’t go fast anymore, and do you break down or try to transcend?” Treuting said. He laughed as he added, “We pull for transcending.”

The percussionist thinks the other pieces lean more toward how machines can work with us. “In Nathalie’s case, she puts her voice in there in these three short, beautiful songs,” he said. “It’s almost a personal conversation in her head as she is struggling to write this piece during the pandemic, and in the lyrics she sings, ‘I should be doing so much more.’”

Jason Treuting
Jason Treuting | Credit: Janette Beckman

Treuting said he understood that feeling. “Then she says something about ‘maybe if I just take a nap for 20 minutes,’ and I definitely related to that idea of anxiety and pressure and then wanting to just lie down,” he said. “The way she sings is motivated and sort of frantic, and it’s really interesting the way she uses tech.”

Negrón’s work samples her own music. “Angelica uses an orchestra piece that was written in the past,” Treuting said. “She samples tiny parts of it. It’s such a neat way of reusing ideas she had and such a human approach.”

Meanwhile, the Colin Currie Group, in a celebration of Steve Reich’s recent 86th birthday, will perform three of the composer’s pieces: Music for 18 Musicians, Tehillim, and the West Coast premiere of Traveler’s Prayer, co-commissioned by Cal Performances.

Composed several decades apart, Tehillim (meaning “praises”) and Traveler’s Prayer (which uses three Old Testament texts) demonstrate the range of Reich’s work, Currie says. “It’s Steve’s voice shown in all its generosity and magnitude. Tehillim is, broadly speaking, a very upbeat piece — it’s very uplifting. I mean, it finishes with a hallelujah chorus. And the beat patterns are this very skippy, jumpy, lively music,” he said. “Which is an extraordinary contrast with the Traveler’s Prayer, which really sits back and takes a beat and doesn’t rely on those kinds of rhythmic effervescences.”

Reich’s impact is huge, with one critic calling him “transformative for 21st-century chamber music.”

“You almost need cliches like that to talk about his music because his influence is that dramatic,” Currie said. “You hear it in composers or any kind of person using sound, whether they’re aware of it or not. It’s one of those paradigm shifts, and they’re exceedingly rare.”

Currie founded this ensemble in 2006, and he says he had no idea it would become an established group and that he would have a friendship with Reich. “It is a very humbling moment,” he said. “I mean, they say you should never meet your heroes, but in my case, you should because my hero is Steve Reich, and it’s incredible, honestly, to meet the man and to perform his music.”

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