Percussion as Revolution: Relaunching the Cornish Percussion Ensemble

by Maggie Molloy

In 1938, while working at Cornish College of the Arts, John Cage formed the Cage Percussion Players: a group credited with presenting the first full-length concert dedicated entirely to percussion ensemble music in the Western classical tradition.

This year, Cornish faculty members Kerry O’Brien and Greg Campbell are picking up the mantle, assembling a new group of music students to build upon the ensemble’s 80-year legacy.

Video by Daniel Husser.

The new Cornish Percussion Ensemble debuts this Saturday with a performance of music by Jessie Marino, Elliot Cole, Sarah Hennies, Alessandro Rovegno, and Greg Campbell. Also on the program is David Lang’s ruminative little eye, scored for cello and four “non-percussionists” and featuring cellist Ha-Yang Kim.

Paradoxically, the notion of “non-percussionists” is central to the musical ethos of the group. We talked with co-directors O’Brien and Campbell (who are both classically-trained percussionists) about the past, present, and future of percussion at Cornish.

Second Inversion: What makes the ensemble’s history unique?

Kerry O’Brien, co-director of the Cornish Percussion Ensemble.

Kerry O’Brien: It was the first institutional group of its kind! The Cage Percussion Players’ first concert at Cornish (December 1938) was historic in being a full-length concert dedicated entirely to percussion ensemble music. In addition to their three concerts at Cornish, they toured the western United States, performing works for percussion ensemble. The group was also unique in that it originally included non-percussionists, which is true still today.

SI: How does working with non-percussionists inform the music of the group?

KO: It’s actually part of the legacy of the ensemble. When Cage first formed the group, it included his then-wife Xenia Cage, Cornish Eurythmics instructor Doris Dennison, and Cornish pianist Margaret Jansen. Today our group has a mix of percussionists and non-percussionist composers interested in writing for percussion. The ensemble is a great way to have hands-on experience with many instruments, and a few students are actively writing for percussion over the course of the semester.

Greg Campbell, co-director of the Cornish Percussion Ensemble.

SI: How long was the ensemble’s hiatus?

Greg Campbell: From what we can gather, there have been a few breaks in the ensemble’s 80+ year history. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, percussionist Matt Kocmieroski led the ensemble regularly and then more sporadically until 2011. So it’s now been eight years since the ensemble was active. 

SI: What made you want to relaunch the ensemble?

GC: Kerry and I share not only years of experience in the world of classical percussion music but also scholarly inquiry into revolutionary musico-political artists and movements. It was during his Cornish years that Cage famously said, “Percussion music is revolution.”

Some 80 years later, percussion ensemble music is widespread, but we hope to invoke the revolutionary spirit of those earlier times not only by performing pieces from that earlier era by Cage, Johanna Beyer, and others, but to honor their work by encouraging members of the ensemble and Cornish community to compose new works for the group.

The Cornish Percussion Ensemble performs this Saturday, March 2 at 6pm at the Jack Straw Cultural Center. For more information, click here.

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