Say “percussion” and most people think solely of drums. Few people realize the expansiveness of the world of percussion in terms of range, styles of music and types of instruments; even fewer relate it to classical music.
In Kansas City, four talented musicians are working to change that. They are Garrett Arney and Mari Yoshinaga of arx duo, and Kevin Clarke and Jeff Hewitt, founders of Kansas City Percussion Group.
In April 2017 at the 1900 Building, the two groups gave a rousing and memorable collaborative performance which encompassed more instruments than anyone in the audience expected. Drums and bells, of course, of all sizes and types, and the marimba, but also toys, seeds and, as stated in the program, “junk.” The melodic flowing tones of the marimba began the program, which progressed to the booming rhythm of drums, to a theatrical, intricately choreographed confection played by hands on a table and finally to a longer jazz/electronics-inspired piece. Descriptions in the program included “stimulating,” “creative” and “dance and groove.” The performance lived up to these promises.
Arx duo’s Arney and Yoshinaga met while students at Yale. Now, Arney is on the faculty at Cleveland State University and The Peabody Conservatory; Yoshinaga, a native of Kagoshima, Japan, is on the faculty of the Curtis Summerfest program in Philadelphia.
Arx duo has performed in KC many times already, including at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art and at 1900. Composer Alejandro Vinao has described arx duo as “absolutely wonderful, graceful and powerful.”
Kansas City Percussion Group’s Clarke and Hewitt both grew up in the area. Clarke attended Lee’s Summit North and graduated from the Peabody Conservatory. He went on to join the faculty of the Kyoung-Hee University School of Music in Daejeon, South Korea. These days, he runs the non-profit Kansas City Youth Percussion Ensemble.
Hewitt, who grew up in Overland Park and received his Doctor of Musical Arts degree from the University of Arizona, is an instructor at Shawnee Mission East and teaches music theory at Park University’s International Center for Music. He is a member of the Kansas City Percussion Collective Ensemble.
All four musicians are bringing their considerable talents to bear on the notable challenges of popularizing percussion to a broad audience.
YouTube is one place that provides major exposure — for Arney, Yoshinaga, Clarke and Hewitt — as well as for established percussion ensembles such as Nexus, which performed with the KC Symphony 10 years ago. Other notable groups include So Percussion out of New York, presented in KC by Friends of Chamber Music in 2014; Line Upon Line out of Austin and Third Coast out of Chicago.
Famous composers include David Lang, Peter Klatzow, Steve Reich, John Cage, Paul Lansky and Vinao.
Famous percussion artists include Robert Van Sice (marimba) of Yale University, Colin Currie (drummer) of England, Evelyn Glennie (various instruments, including bagpipes) of Scotland, Ji Hye Jung (marimba) of South Korea, now teaching at Vanderbilt, and Svet Stoyanov (marimba) of Bulgaria, now teaching at the University of Miami.
Many cultures in Asia, Africa, the Middle East and various indigenous peoples have an established connection with percussion through spiritual, religious and/or cultural elements, facilitating a greater familiarity and appreciation of the sounds. This connection is less developed in much of the U.S., so that greater efforts are required.
A couple of national conferences do their part in promoting a deeper understanding of percussion. The largest is the annual Percussive Arts Society International Convention, usually in Indianapolis or Texas (Hewitt is a regular participant). There is also the National Conference on Percussion Pedagogy (this year in Fayetteville, Arkansas), whose stated purpose is “to increase awareness of ‘what is happening,’ to guide us toward identifying ‘what should happen,’ and to provide means for ‘making it happen.’”
Logistics is another challenge. Many instruments are large, heavy and hard to move. According to Clarke, “moving stuff takes longer than preparing for (a performance).” Venues must be spacious and so, as happens with pianos, performances are often where the large instruments are available — at universities, for example.
Arx duo and Kansas City Percussion Group, which now includes musicians Sarrah Cantrell and Evan Maslak, hope to schedule future performances at 1900, at the Nelson-Atkins Museum, at First Friday events in the Crossroads and more.
The Kansas City music scene will be greatly enriched by the expanded presence of these two vibrant percussion ensembles, both offering unique and memorable new musical experiences.
Photos by Jim Barcus