Bangers and Crash Percussion Group at the Sugar Club, Dublin, on 2 October 2019

The Sugar Club attracts a good audience for this, the opening concert of the Bangers and Crash Percussion Ensemble tour, presented by Music Network. Easily one of the most comfortable of Dublin’s chamber music venues, with plush cabaret-style seating, its intimacy is taken even further tonight, as the ensemble’s setup fills and overflows the stage area with marimbas, vibraphone, tubular bells, crotales, and all manner of drums. Liam Cagney’s smartly-written programme note is quick to make the link between the pleasure of ‘banging’ tunes and the visceral energy of the crafted bangs and crashes on offer, and we’re all set for a journey through the textures and colours of contemporary percussion.

Percussionists are adept at many things, but at the core of this is the command of rhythmic precision itself, and it is this which lights up the opening piece, ‘Surprise!’ by Tim & Tom Ouderits. Alex Petcu begins alone at the marimba, soon joined by Brian Dungan, and then Emma King, as they take their place together at the one instrument. Canonical entries soon metamorphose into witty, melodic ideas, with shifting patterns and cross-rhythms.

In the first of three duets, Petcu and King face each other across a prepared vibraphone for Alyssa Weinberg’s ‘Table Talk’. It becomes an exploration of sonic possibilities that stretch the imagination: the tuned metal keys are played covered and uncovered, or their edges scraped with string bows. Found objects add to the sonic palette, with moments of abrupt theatricality that recall Chinese opera. The bowing of vibraphone keys continues to mystical effect in the polished harmonics of Elliot Cole’s ‘Postlude No. 8’, played by King and Dungan. Closing this set, Petcu and Dungan join forces for the more familiar ‘Nagoya Marimbas’ of Steve Reich, its calm order brought to vivid life.

The trio regroup to play a version of ‘Madeira River’ by Philip Glass (based on a quartet arrangement by Third Coast Percussion), a serenely beautiful work which takes the listener to a very calm place. Its cyclic movement of shifting patterns gradually increases in energy and intensity towards the end, giving an edge to the meditative glow of sound. By contrast, Steve Snowden’s ‘A Man With A Gun Lives Here’ sees all three players gather round the big bass drum, probing, scraping and attacking its surface. It proves a visceral evocation of raw communal memories of the American Depression, achieved with a dizzying array of random objects and sticks, even a bag of marbles: all grist to the mill (the bag included).

The second half sees the world premiere of a piece specially commissioned for this tour by Music Network, ‘Cross | Paths’ by Alex Petcu. The crossing paths refers to the separate ways followed by the three players through this piece, but perhaps also to the symmetry of the two-part form, beginning and ultimately ending in expansive drum-based material, either side of something altogether more playful and experimental. In a moment that recalls a recent opera by Gerald Barry, Emma King leaves the drums to smash plates, shards of which serve as the main ‘instrument’ in the second half. Laid out, these become improvised keys of random tonality, offering strange melodies and rhythmic interplay, the players converging in a brilliant unison passage. The minimalism of Philip de Mey’s ‘Musique de Table’ brings the three players together in a row, each sat at a table playing on, or gesturing off, a wooden board. Their spare movements lead to flicks, slaps, and claps, shifting metre and rhythm to create intricate patterns from barely anything.

The concert closes with the iridescent magic of Gene Koshinski’s ‘And So The Wind Blew’. Starting with the gentle mix of wind chimes, this elemental piece draws on a rich mix of colours, and gradually emerges out of a meditative stream of fragmentary gestures. Through all of this mixed programme, Bangers and Crash prove a reliably cohesive and entertaining ensemble. They promised us a fun night out, and the warm response from the audience – as well as the lingering conversations after – suggest that, and more. If they come to your town, seek them out.

Bangers and Crash Percussion tour nationwide to October 11 – further details from Music Network here

Images by Hannah Levy