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ASPEN TIMES

The Big Drummer Man
August 2003
 

By STEWART OKSENHORN

Jonathan Haas doesn't mean to boast, but he can't help proclaiming the news:  His instrument is the biggest in the world. And it's not even close.

This past week Haas, director of the Aspen Percussion Ensemble, finished his latest creation - a timpani 70 inches in diameter.  It beats the world's second-largest timpani - a 48-incher used by Amsterdam's Concertgebouw Orchestra - by almost half.

Haas will expose his monster instrument when the Percussion Ensemble makes its annual concert appearance on Sunday, Aug. 3, at 8 p.m. at Harris Hall.  Haas will break out the big drum for just one piece, John Zeretzke's "Pulsemus tympanum (Let Us Beat The Drum)," the program's finale.  As Haas says, you don't want to overuse an instrument like this.

"It's subsonic. It's unbelievable," said Haas, whose great early inspiration, while he was growing up in Chicago, was hearing Cream's "White Room," a rock classic that opens with Ginger Baker's booming timpani playing.  "It's like thunder in the distance - you can actually feel the air moving.  It moves so much air that, to hear it, you really have to be 40 feet away from it.  You can hear a pitch, but the real effect is the subsonic frequency.

"The only other instrument that can produce that is a pipe organ, when it gets down in the lower register.  But a pipe organ, at least most of them made today, is driven by a motor.  This isn't driven by anything, just the air it's moving. So it has an extraordinary place as a musical instrument."

Haas is enthusiastic about the percussive qualities of his new timpani, and justifiably so.  A demonstration just a few hours after he completed the instrument showed the timpani's massive capabilities, and its dramatic visual impact.  But the 49-year-old Haas, who has spent 18 summers in Aspen as a faculty member with the Aspen Music Festival and School, is likewise pleased with the drum's historical dimension.

Ten years ago, Haas saw an advertisement in a local newspaper:  The owners of the T-Lazy-7 Ranch were offering for sale three immense copper bowls.  The owners were suggesting them for use as hot tubs, but informed Haas that their original function, when they were imported from Switzerland some 100 years ago, was for making Swiss cheese.  Haas looked at the bowls and was immediately struck by the possibilities:  "I said to myself, 'These aren't hot tubs.  These are the world's largest timpanis," he said.  But the price for the bowls was as big as the bowls themselves, and the owners didn't want to break up the set, while Haas didn't want three of the world's biggest timpanis.  He passed on the offer.

Last summer, Haas hosted percussionist Marinus Kompst in Aspen.  Kompst, as principal timpanist with the Concertgebouw Orchestra, had the privilege of playing what was then the world's largest timpani. (That timpani, some 16 inches larger than the standard 32-inch instrument, had been built for Dutch conductor Willem Mengelberg, specifically to play the low notes of the Mahler symphonies.)

"I said, 'I know where there's a 70-inch timpani bowl,' " said Haas.  "We went back to the cow pasture where I'd been 10 years ago and found them, buried in the mud.  And he agreed, this was the world's largest timpani."

There was only the matter of turning the dirty, ancient copper bowl into a functional instrument.  That involved sanding off the dust and corrosion by hand, finding a skin large enough to fit over the bowl, and rigging up a system to keep the skin in place.  For the skin, Haas went to an aerospace company - the skin on the instrument is stamped, "FAA approved" - and to keep the skin tight, Haas borrowed the ropes technique from the tabla, an Indian percussion instrument.  In constructing the instrument, Haas has been getting tips from the workers at the Miner's Building and others.  He likes the fact that the timpani has community roots.

"It's a real home-grown instrument," he said.  "It's got all of Aspen in it - history, a little folklore.  And it's got modern-day history.  It was fun doing it.  The process was as rewarding as the outcome, that it does something."

Though Haas is satisfied enough with the sound that he will play the instrument within a week of its completion, his timpani is still a work in progress.  "My dream is to find an elk and put on a natural skin.  The drum deserves a natural skin," he said.  "But I needed something for right now I could trust not to break.

"This is just the beginning.  This is the prototype. I intend to go much deeper into the whole thing.  I want to make a pair of them."

While Haas is pondering ways to perfect his super-sized timpani, he is also thinking about uses for the instrument.  He has been working for a while with Zeretzke to adapt the California composer's "Pulsemus Tympanum" which premiered in Aspen five years ago - for the new timpani.  But he is thinking of having composers write specifically for the capabilities of the new instrument.

"Tan Dun - he's a guy I think could compose for this," said Haas, referring to the Chinese-born, New York-based composer who made his first visit to Aspen earlier this summer.  "He's written concertos for water, for paper-tearing.  He should write a concerto for 70-inch timpani.  I've talked to him about it, and he's interested."

But Haas believes that the ultimate use for the super-timpani may come far away from the classical music hall.  "I think it really belongs with a rock band," said Haas, who has led rock bands and jazz combos, and who lists as a career highlight playing in front of 50,000 people in his hometown Soldier Field, when he toured as the principal percussionist for Emerson, Lake & Palmer.  "I think it would be enormously successful.  Could you imagine someone - maybe me - playing two of these in a stadium, properly lit, properly miked.  This is lower than a bass guitar."

*****

At Sunday night's concert, the enormous timpani will actually have some competition in the most notable instrument category.  Haas is a broad-thinking musician who has been known to use the oddest of contraptions as percussion instruments, and has programmed music by Francesco "Frank" Zappa and Talking Heads singer David Byrne.  Among the compositions to be featured Sunday night is Moritz Eggert's Symphony 1.0, written for 12 amplified manual typewriters.

"He knows all the sounds a typewriter can make, like a composer knows how to use the sound of a Stradivarius," said Haas of the German-born Eggert.  "It's not meant to be silly. I consider him to be the modern-day Karlheinz Stockhausen.  He's a real risk-taker and an original voice.  It's accessible, but strange."

Two of the pieces come from composers with the Aspen Music Festival:  "Ku-Ka-Ilimoka" by composer-in-residence Christopher Rouse, and "Devil's Dance from Drawings, Set No. 9" by Sydney Hodkinson, director of the Aspen Contemporary Ensemble.

Rouse's piece is named for the Hawaiian war god.  The Aspen Percussion Ensemble's performance of the work will begin with a recording of three master Hawaiian singers from the 1930s chanting the original piece on which Rouse based his composition.  The percussionists will be dressed as Hawaiian warlords.

Hodkinson's piece, for three drummers, is "a real great drumming piece," according to Haas.  "To me, it's Elliott Carter-meets-Carmine Appice sounding.  Sydney is very knowledgeable about how drums work, and this piece gets performed a lot."

Another piece that has had an active life is Philip Glass' Concerto Fantasy, which was written for Haas.  Haas premiered the work, the first double-timpani concerto, in November of 2000 at Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall with the American Symphony.  Haas has since performed the work some 25 times, in London, Prague, Mexico City and across the U.S.  Upcoming plans include performances in Istanbul and at the Sydney Opera House, and a recording with the Liverpool Philharmonic in January.

"Even Glass is astounded it's gotten this much play in this short a time," said Haas.  "And I'm not done."  The work hasn't been programmed in Aspen, but a rearranged version, for two pianos and two percussionists playing 14 timpanis, will have its world premiere at Sunday night's concert.

Rounding out the concert is Guo Wenjing's "Drama-Trio," for three pairs of Chinese opera cymbals.  "For those people who have never gone to China and seen the Great Wall and seen a Chinese opera, this is the closest thing," said Haas.  "These cymbals are from the Peking Opera, and it's amazing what these tiny cymbals can do."

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