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Percussion bumps a bit of jump into Festival
July 2000


The Aspen Music Festival doesn’t have much of a rock ’n’ roll heart. This year, with the disappearance of the Music Festival’s Stepping Out series, which in the past has brought acts such as Béla Fleck & the Flecktones, the Samples and Emmylou Harris to the Music Tent, the festival is less rocking than ever.

Fortunately, there is still Jonathan Haas.

For 18 summers, the Chicago-born, New York state resident Haas has been leading the Aspen Percussion Ensemble, a small faction of the Music Festival. Through almost two decades, Haas has led the ensemble through performances of pieces by the likes of Frank Zappa and Edgar Varèse. This past week, Haas and the ensemble played a concert that paid tribute to composer Philip Glass and late Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham, and included the first percussion arrangement of a piece by former Talking Heads singer David Byrne. And much of the work he has done with the Percussion Ensemble, apart from teaching the techniques that his students will put to use in more standard symphony orchestras, is in tribute to that most basic American performing unit, the basement rock band.

“Some people come out of the closet. I came out of the basement,” said Haas. “That’s where most percussionists came from, playing along with Yes and Clapton and Cream. Then you go to college and you study playing along to Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock. [The annual Aspen Percussion Ensemble] concert is an extension of my basement years.”

For Haas, a significant artistic turning point came when he was 14. A basement rock ’n’ roll drummer at the time, Haas went to see the first tour by Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention. The tour happened to be playing at Ravinia, home to the Chicago Symphony.

“It was like going to a symphony concert. But it was a rock band,” said Haas. “And after all the mood changes, and the character changes, you sat in your chair when the concert ended and you couldn’t get up.”

Haas has put that element of surprise into the Aspen Music Festival for some years. It hasn’t always been easy; he recalls that early on, Haas and his students had to make their own signs for their concerts and pull in an audience off the street. Now, his audience has, to an extent, been built.

“Now people expect the unexpected,” he said. “The real focus and importance is to find pieces that are going to excite my students, and give them an experience beyond the Mozarts and Mahlers, which are the greatest pieces of music ever writ-ten as far as I’m concerned.”

Haas may be building his own legacy in Aspen, but in the history of percussion ensembles, he is simply adding to a tradition that is already established. It is a tradition that is small, relatively young and little-known, but one Haas knows well.

At the turn of the century, Haas explains, renowned marimbist Claire O. Musser created the first marimba orchestra, a 70-piece orchestra that toured the United States and Europe. The orchestra, carting their 180-pound wooden instruments, played compositions by Musser as well as his arrangements of well-known orchestral pieces.

“And they lasted a good 20 to 30 years, and played all the good halls,” said Haas. “In its time, it was likened to the Barnum & Bailey of the orchestral world. It was almost like early rock ’n’ roll concerts; it was a huge undertaking.”

The Musser ensemble’s run was ended by changing times – the arrival of World War I, the advent of films and decline of large-scale live entertainment. But the 1930 World’s Fair in Paris put the spotlight on Percy Grainger. Grainger took such pieces as Debussy’s “Pagodas,” composed for solo piano, and arranged them for 18 of what he called “tuneful” percussion instruments – marimbas, the first vibraphones (then called “vibraharps”), as well as piano.

“Percussion instruments were able to play this impressionistic music, and that was a big step,” said Haas, who has led the Aspen Percussion Ensemble in Grainger’s arrangement of “Pagodas.” “He showed you could play a Western equivalent of Eastern gamelan music. That was one of the first experiments in crossing over, one culture borrowing the sounds of another culture. This was the catalyst; this was what jump-started it.”

Haas will bring percussion to the forefront again later this year. Haas, with fellow timpanist Ben Herman and the American Symphony, will premiere Philip Glass’ Timpani Concerto at New York’s Avery Fisher Hall Nov. 19. The piece, featuring eight timpanis in all, is the first double-timpani concerto. Haas, who has been working on the piece with Glass for some 10 years, will then tour the work through the country; 16 dates are presently scheduled. To Haas, the music is as American as rock ’n’ roll.

“This sounds like American music,” he said. “There’s something about it that makes you think you’re home. Not that it’s patriotic, but that feeling of, you know where it comes from. A real piece of Americana.”

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