B y M o l l y W h o
THE EARTH IS moving in Tucson. No, it's not a cranky fault line, a cataclysmic orgasm or the rumblings of an ancient volcano. It's a group of dynamic drummers and assorted instrumentalists getting together each month to make improvisational, earth-shaking passion.
Heading up this project, aptly named the Percussion Plus Concert Series, is one rhythmic boy-wonder, Todd Hammes. True scholarship combines with creativity and youthful cockiness, summing up the type of musician Tucson has every right to bang her drum about. One glance at his resume will send the average learned-how-to-play-it-in-my-spare-time musician into esophageal spasms. But worry not, if there's one thing Hammes embraces, it's the deeper meaning of music.
"I used to have the idea you could save the world with a song. But that's too much pressure. The idea that it's just music gives a license to fail. It takes the pressure off," he says.
Not too esoteric for a man who came to the University of Arizona on a music scholarship, and has studied with the likes of Bob Becker, Richard Weiner and Alan Otte. Hammes has been a teacher, too, taking on private students as well as having done a stint as a visiting composer to Tucson schools.
You've probably seen him around. He plays with everyone from the Arizona Opera Company and Tucson Symphony Orchestra to the North Indian classical music group Sruti, Indonesian music with Fine Stream Gamelan, and contemporary sounds with local favorite Joe Rush.
"The whole idea of a melting pot needs to go. People need to maintain ethnic identities," Hammes insists. Growing up in Wisconsin, he was highly influenced by the regional tastes. "One of my favorite kinds of music--like it or not--is polka. Some of my funnest gigs were playing in polka bands. People are nuts for it. It's the cultural thing.
"I find a style of music and I o.d. on it, become totally absorbed...not becoming a master at any one. It's like being in a foreign country and being able to find the bathroom. I can find the bathroom in many different musics."
About the Percussive Series, Hammes says:
"It's avante garde--not from anywhere, but from everywhere." What Hammes does is select a variety of musicians and instruments, and sits them down in front of an audience. From there, whatever happens is between the musicians--and the audience. This is interactive multimedia without the electronics.
One night he'll schedule a didgeridoo, a bamboo flute and two percussionists. Someone from the audience can give input, such as an abstract idea like "angels flying through a piece of sponge." It's then up to the musicians to interpret that. Comments and audience suggestions are not only welcomed, they're encouraged.
"This may sound like the kind of never-ending hippie jam session some of us dread," writes pal Joe Rush, "but in the hands of professional musicians who spend many long hours each year performing and recording, improvisation is like magic."
The inaugural concert in the series was October 23, and featured Hammes, Don Reeve, Alan Shockley, Stu Mortimer and Brian Harris.
Hammes' take on the experience?
"It was a beautiful, amazing thing."
Engaged by his enthusiasm, I stumbled out of the house for the next Monday night session to get into the Hammes groove. That particular ensemble showcased the mighty percussive art of Arturo Rodriguez; acoustic as well as subtly electric guitar from Matt Mitchell; Jeff Holsen's psychedelic double-bass; and the white-clad but nevertheless diabolic Todd Hammes in the role of conductor and player of unusual drums, gongs and sundry percussion.
It was weird music. Sometimes the entire ensemble would play, other pieces would feature the guitar and bass, or just Rodriguez and Hammes would pound it out. From complicated textures, wandering and sometimes repetitive themes emerged a cadence rarely lost, but when found, fueled with enthusiasm. It was rare music.
My complaints are few: The room, the Acoustic Café, at the Southwest Center for Music, is uncomfortable. Placing the audience along the west wall and the performers along the east would create a square less strange than the current seating, which makes you feel like you're in the middle of a hallway.
Audience turnout should be much better. What on TV is more important than local geniuses making really interesting music for three pitiful dollars per head? At least the folks there were appreciative of both the obvious musicianship and native improvisational talent. I was taken with one young audience member, possibly age 10 or 12, who was completely absorbed by the unusual instruments and sounds. The making of a future rhythm god? Cool. I hope he won't be ignored, either.
Finally, the addition of women into the ensembles would add a different textural dimension.
All in all, this is amazing stuff. It rams home the plain truth that Tucson is not the last stop on the road to music hell. There is a wealth of diverse culture here, and it really deserves an enthusiastic audience. Hammes is providing the opportunity to be directly involved in it ourselves.
He's totally open to musicians wanting to participate in the Percussion Plus series. "I'm trying to get monster mother-fucking players," he says with a smirk.
Other amazing things in Hammes' life include the production of an album.
"My goal is to have it done within six months of this article."
And then its back to philosophy.
"The essence...the soul...it doesn't come from the body. It comes from somewhere better. That essence is the only thing that's real. Everything else is false."
To be part of the essence show up at the next session at 8 p.m. Monday, December 18, at the Southwest Center for Music. Admission is three dollars. Musicians include: melodic percussionist Homero Cerone; bassist Lee Gardner and percussionist Hammes.
If you're a musician and want to join a future ensemble, come listen, then grab Hammes and let him know. He can also be reached by writing: Todd Hammes, P.O. Box 65617, Tucson, Arizona 85728-5617.
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