The Top 40 You've Never Heard Of

'Works' composer Jin Hi Kim and her komungo
Jack Vartoogian

Four percussionists sitting in rolling office chairs cluster around a huge concert bass drum in the center of the stage. Without warning they break formation and whiz around like chimps on Red Bull, playing everything in their paths, including smaller drums, the floor of the stage itself, and one another's sticks, even. Within a few minutes, it dawns on you that despite the apparent chaos, everything they're doing is extremely deliberate and tightly choreographed.

This is no mere rolling drum jam, nor is it an audition for yet another incarnation of Stomp. What you're witnessing is Crash, the acclaimed movement- and theater-oriented percussion quartet, and what they're doing is performing "Drum Roll," one of Minnesota-based composer Mary Ellen Childs's biggest hits to date. "Drum Roll" is only one of the four Childs compositions that Crash will be knocking out on Saturday at the Southern Theater, as part of The Works, a 12-hour marathon of adventurous contemporary sounds from the world of "serious" music.

While not all the performances at The Works promise to be quite as visually exhilarating as Crash's, the festival offers more than enough in the way of boundary crossing and genre bending to satisfy even the most jaded ear. Take San Francisco's Rova Saxophone Quartet, whose online bio locates their roots in "post-bop free jazz, avant-rock, and 20th century new music as well as traditional and popular styles of Africa, Asia, Europe and the United States." (You can't help wondering if maybe they left something out.) In addition to "The Visible Man," a composition by jazz saxophonist Tim Berne in which a single rhythmic riff grows into a massive sonic amalgamation, Rova will be performing selections from Freedom in Fragments, a collection of pieces by guitar giant Fred Frith that run the gamut from folksy to hypnotic.

The bill also offers plenty of hot times for classical- and world-music-oriented thrill seekers: Pianist Kathleen Supové, a veteran of the Philip Glass Ensemble, hammers out selections from Book Seven of minimalist Terry Riley's The Heaven Ladder; ex-Bang on a Can All-Stars cellist Maya Beiser and current Banger percussionist Steven Schick play (and speak) Cambodian-born Chinary Ung's Grand Alap; and so on, to the tune of nearly 40 performances.

What ties this musical diversity together is the relationship the composers and performers have with one another, and with festival presenter Meet the Composer. All of the performances on the bill were originally commissioned through this New York-based organization, which has brokered more than 700 compositions since 1988. "We'd been having these Meet the Composer conferences every year," Works co-producer Randall Davidson says by phone from his home in Minneapolis. "About four years ago, we decided they really needed some live music." With each ensuing year, the group added more live events, gradually making the affairs more and more public, until last year they decided to have a proper festival. (Sunday The Works will present a moderated talk on the state of contemporary music from noon to 4:00 p.m. and an all-Rova concert at 8:00 p.m., presented by the American Composers Forum and the American Music Center.)

Fortunately for these novice promoters, they had a powerful model: New Music America, which launched right here in 1980 and visited a different city each year for a decade. (The fest ended only when it ran out of cities with the funds to host the event.) This weeklong whale of an affair blanketed the entire metro with adventurous sounds, often issuing from unusual places. Brian Eno's Music for Airports wafted constantly from the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport's sound system, while one of Charlemagne Palestine's pieces resounded from the Hennepin County Courthouse carillon daily at noon--the same time Nicollet Mall offered sidewalk performances by local no-wavers like NNB and the Wallets. It seemed as though you couldn't walk past a public space without some kind of light- or heat- or brainwave-sensitive sound installation going off. And that's not even counting everything that went on in bars, galleries, concert halls, and theaters. At the Guthrie, for instance, Philip Glass, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, and David Byrne shared the bill at the festival's finale.

"In many ways," Davidson notes, "this festival is an homage to New Music America." It's obvious that he has done his homework. As with New Music America, most of the featured composers will be on hand for The Works, some (jazz great Oliver Lake, for example) performing their own material. And though you obviously can't fit a week's worth of citywide music into a single-stage 12-hour bill, the festival covers a massive amount of musical ground. Most important, Meet the Composer plans to emulate New Music America in making the festival a perennial event. "It's going to happen again," Davidson declares. "It's definitely going to happen again."

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