As an undergrad at the University of Tampa, I had the good fortune to have the Spectrum Contemporary Ensemble in residence and giving concerts each semester I was there. The ensemble was an ad hoc group led by percussionist Dave Coash and cellist Lowell Adams. Both were members of the Florida Orchestra. Spectrum only played post-1945 music, and so, as an undergrad, I got exposed to a lot of the classic avant-garde music of the 20th century in a way that many don’t. As students, we absolutely loved it.
One of the most memorable events for me was sitting in a darkened David Faulk Theatre in downtown Tampa when I was still a teenager and hearing George Crumb’s Vox Balaenae. I had never heard sounds like that before. The pianist was using a chisel, paper clips, and glass tubes. The cellist was imitating seagulls. The flutist was singing. They were playing crotales. And the piece concluded with one of the most beautiful Nocturnes I had ever heard.
It was a piece that has been on my bucket list for the last thirty years. One of the good things that has come out of this awful pandemic has been the opportunity to check off some of those piece through the online series at St. Paul’s. I called up Sascha Groschang. She is a great cellist. She’s dedicated to contemporary music, and she’s fun to rehearse with. She called Christinas Webster, and I started practicing.
At first, I thought it would be very hard. Then, when I got the score and saw that it was mostly just short movements. I practiced without a lot of the “special effects,” and it felt pretty good. Then, I started adding in all the bits where you have to play on the inside of the piano. It got really challenging again. Sometimes you only have moments to reach inside the instrument and accurately pluck two strings on the low end while simultaneously playing keys on the high end. Sometimes, if you don’t hold the chisel just right, it doesn’t sound good.
In the end, we pulled it together, and it was a thrill for me to play with these two musicians.