Polar Bears and Lullabies

Today Rick Sacks brought his charismatic performance style to the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre in a concert including the first piece dedicated to the RBA and the Canadian Opera Company. While we were in the realm of new instrumental music without any singing that didn’t mean Sacks wasn’t operatic, as he worked hard to build bridges between his world and that of the COC.

Sacks—the Artistic Director of Arraymusic and one of the most accomplished percussionists in this country— continues to be a mentor to the musical community. On this occasion for example, he undertook six different items that to the casual listener showed no evidence of a percussionist’s sonorities or sensibility. I am not even going to address the questions of virtuosity or skill in his performance, except to say that he makes it all look easy. The concert was titled “Polar Bears and Lullabies: New Works for MalletKat”. MalletKat is a velocity sensitive trigger resembling a keyboard but played with mallets, for varieties of digital synthesis.  With this gear Sacks strides with six-league boots: or more properly makes giant strokes with six league mallets.

David Lidov’s “I Want You to Know That I Love You (An Aria)” led off, seeming to use a singing voice via what I assume would be vocal samples (excuse me if I am unsure, but there’s quite a lot to the technical side of this concert) triggered by particular keys of the MalletKat.

Sacks’ “Lullaby” managed to sound a lot like acoustically created percussion, at least at one remove, given that he’d sampled a mbira, that he played in a manner sounding a bit like a marimba with more depth & tone. As with every one of these performances, I was a bit astonished looking at the choices made both in composition (assisted by Sacks’ explanations of how it was done) & performance (wondering what Sacks heard, given that his output was very gentle, never particularly loud or jarring), a kind of winnowing of enormous possibilities, down to a very select and economical composition. Yes it all seemed short, and I wish it had been longer.

“Dragnet” was not the last time Sacks would get into a dramatic portrayal while playing, employing evocative microtonalities from sampled piano (or so it sounded) to suggest something as old as one of those detective movies. Sacks looked like a cross between a Raymond Chandler detective & yes, a percussionist at the close.

“Polar Bear” was an open-ended improvisation using loops & a wonderful assortment of sounds. This was the only one on the program that didn’t blow me away but even this one had lots of beautiful moments.

“GOLEM“ by Giles Gobeil is a recent work Sacks claims he’s only played once before, the piece that was the highlight of the concert for me, which Sacks whimsically called a monsterpiece (and it was indeed). Gobeil sampled over 200 industrial sounds that are much more than samples, because they were electro-acoustic creations, which I presume are meant to mimic industrial processes. When Sacks played it was as though he and his MalletKat had become a factory (a cyborg?), standing there, the sunny University Ave view surrounding him, while he played a factory with his mallets. Or did he portray a factory? You tell me, given the dramatic overtones of the concert. This was a very gentle series of sounds in Sacks hands notwithstanding his warning that it might be loud; I wish it had been louder actually.

Last item was “Andronicus”, given its premiere on this occasion, dedicated to the COC and the RBA. I believe it was meant to honour Arraymusic’s relationship with the COC, especially after hearing and seeing what Sacks did.

Rick Sacks

We heard another composition of samples from the MalletKat, this time literally operatic. Some were instantly recognizable chunks or chords or passages from operas. Others were portentous sounds like bells or strings or ostinati, sometimes orchestrated into climaxes, sometimes piled high with mock-melodrama, while Sacks mugged outrageously. I’d seriously like to see / hear this again, wishing he’d take it to the next level, and see if he can sustain it longer without letting off the steam in mere comedy. I believe this can be several possible compositions, depending on how whimsical or serious one feels at the time.

I’ll have to think about this some more, in a concert that –for once—used the word “new” honestly and honourably. Sacks is a touchstone for brave & collegial exploration, gentle because he wants to take us along rather than leave us behind.

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