It is not every day that a percussionist gets the opportunity to practice his art on 200-year-old bronze drums that normally would be found in a mountain village or on display in an art museum.
But that is exactly what Gregory Beyer, associate professor and head of percussion studies in the School of Music, was handed when Center for Burma Studies Director Catherine Raymond asked him to compose a piece for the 10th International Burma Studies Conference, taking place Friday through Sunday at NIU’s Holmes Student Center.
The result is “Five Ponds,” an 11-minute composition that will make its world-premiere debut Saturday, Oct. 6, during the conference’s gala night program on stage in the Altgeld Hall ballroom. The performance comes during an invitation-only event.
Earlier this week, Beyer and four students from the School of Music’s Percussion Studies Program – Lane Parsons, Nick Fox, Jonny Gifford and Brian Wach – could be found rehearsing on five bronze drums weighing between 30 and 50 pounds apiece chosen for the performance.
With various percussion implements, they could be heard coaxing rhythmic clangs, brushy swishes, and deep tones from the intricately designed drums hanging from frames in front of them.
The drums have a rich patina and traditional symbols inscribed upon them. Three are from NIU’s Burma Art Collection and two are from a private collection, Raymond said. The drums were used by the Karen people, a hill tribe in Burma/Myanmar that has used them for centuries to summon rain for successful rice cultivation as well as in rituals and ceremonies such as funerals and weddings.
More bronze drums from the Burma Art Collection are on display through Nov. 17 in “Music for the Divine: Musical Instruments and Traditions of Burma” at the NIU Art Museum.
The title of Beyer’s composition comes from the symbolic design of the drums themselves. The tympanum (or striking surface) of each drum is made to look like a pool of water, with a star-like “splash” in the center, concentric rings coming out from the splash, and frogs on the edges.
“The piece is for five of these drums so there are literally ‘five pools’ on stage,” Beyer said.
“On the one hand, that is all there is to it. Beneath the surface, however, (Cambodian-American composer) Chinary Ung recently reminded me that the architectural layout of Buddhist temples in Southeast Asia . . . is designed with five pools, a central pool surrounded by four others at the cardinal directions (north, south, east and west),” Beyer added.
“The artful design of the Karen bronze drums features tree frogs on the perimeter of the playing surface, positioned at the same cardinal points around the central eight-pointed star. So on a deeper level, ‘Five Ponds’ refers to this design and all of the symbolic references therein, i.e., a central enlightened being surrounded by the four elements of earth, air, water and fire.”
When presented with the prospect of composing for bronze drums, and figuring out how to play them, Beyer said he drew on what anecdotal evidence he could find in the extensive research on bronze drums conducted by NIU professor emeritus Richard Cooler.
Cooler, an art historian and founding director of the Center for Burma Studies, is arguably the world’s expert on bronze drums and has donated a number of them now in the Burma Art Collection.
“Having very little information about how they were actually played . . . actually allowed me a great deal of freedom to explore the sounds of the drums on their own terms,” Beyer said. “In some ways I feel that I’m only just scratching the surface of what might be possible for these drums vis-a-vis contemporary music making.”
In “Five Ponds,” the musicians do at times seem to be literally scratching the surface as they explore the unusual sonic quality of these instruments that Cooler described as “magical bronze ponds” and the oldest continuous art tradition in Southeast Asia.
“The sounds are similar to Thai gongs but still in a world of their own. They are powerful, deep, and the resonance created through playing them is magical and all-enveloping,” Beyer said.
The resulting experience has been powerful for student and teacher.
“The experience with ‘Five Ponds’ and the bronze Karen drums has been great,” said Fox, a graduate student in percussion music performance. “The piece is composed very thoughtfully and explores numerous timbres, striking areas, and striking implements. It is enjoyable to perform and I believe even more enjoyable as a listener. I’m honored to be involved with this composition.”
Wach, a junior in percussion music performance, was equally exuberant. “The realization has struck me multiple times now that only a very limited number of people have ever played these drums. Not to mention that we are probably the first to ever play them in such a style and capacity,” Wach said.
“I can’t help but feel exuberantly lucky. It has been a truly rewarding experience preparing this project with my professor and fellow peers, and I know all five of us are extremely excited for Saturday’s premiere.”
In the end, Beyer said, he sees his work with the bronze drums as a place of beginning.
“I am excited by this unique opportunity to have been asked to work with them,” he said, “and hope that this humble beginning for the drums in a contemporary setting may be only the beginning, a first breath of renewal for their voices today.”