Photo by Marco Borggreve

By Paul Freeman [Feb. 2012 Interview]

Most classical musicians only have to deal with one instrument. Colin Currie plays dozens. Pop Culture Classics spoke with the percussion virtuoso as he prepared for a Stanford University concert that would feature a new concerto, Sally Beamishs Dance Variations, commissioned for Currie by Lively Arts.

Currie explains, The interesting thing about this piece is the primary discussion concerning it was really a very musical one, having a lot to do with structure and a system of how the music itself might work. And it was quite some time before we got anywhere close to talking about percussion itself. So I really enjoyed that discussion and it was something that was very much focused on what in the end became a set of variations inspired by certain dance patterns and structures.

Its very intriguing and definitely on the subtle side of things, understated and slightly wryly observed, maybe even borderline laconic. And one that uses percussion very much in tandem with the chamber orchestra, who are also very much involved as soloists. There are large roles for piccolo and clarinet in this piece. And its one that is very definitely on the chamber music side of things. So its a joint effort and one in which a number of instrumentalists are called upon to shine. And the second half of the evening is a rather exuberant tour of recent recital pieces. Its a tour-de-force finale.

Currie tells us what attracts him to new piece. Some kind of usage of the percussion in which the instruments are given an interesting role, whatever that may be, whether its subtle and understated, as a lot of this piece is, or whether its more exuberant and fiery, as perhaps a lot of music in part two of this event is.

When I work with composers, its really up to them to make effective use of percussion, but that can take a number of directions.

A subtler composition can be just as satisfying as showier opportunities for the percussionist. I find that the intimate pieces can be very rewarding for the listener and, perhaps, surprising. Then, of course, it makes it even more powerful when, eventually, you unleash full power onto the audience and they do get to hear all the fireworks, as well. But I think it has to be in the context of the variety of dynamic available, at the percussionists disposal.

In recent years, percussionists have been moving from the background into the spotlight. This is a moment where percussionists throughout the world can be very proud of the emerging repertoire and the overall standard within the community. Its an incredibly strong area, a vibrant part of new music. Theres been no comparable development in any other instrumental category at all.

So this is the growth area right now. And its reached an absolutely extraordinary, exciting level. Its an adventure... and its ongoing.

Currie, 35, originally from Scotland and now a London resident, began his musical adventure behind a drum kit, emulating jazz and pop records. But soon percussion and classical music proved to be the lasting lure.

I just fell in love with the symphony orchestra in my early teens. I became interested in experimental music, avant garde, the minimalists and the classics of the 20th century, so Stravinsky, Bartok, DeBussy, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, etc.

in classical music, a percussionist can have to wait a long time between moments of participation. So it requires remarkable concentration.

I have experience with that, because I trained as an orchestral musician. Its a very specific skill. The lay person may be surprised at the depths you can go to make sure that that skill is fully realized and the great deal of detail that can be gone into for every single contribution an orchestral percussionist would make. Although I dont play in orchestras anymore, it was something I always I found interesting and rewarding.

Its playing great music in great orchestras. I was playing regularly with London Symphony Orchestra, a very fast-paced orchestra. So you would do a Stravinsky ballet on one rehearsal. The next day, travel somewhere, perform it, on just a short sound check. You just flit around the world. And its a very high octane lifestyle. Its a very demanding one, but one that I enjoyed for a few years, in combination with my developing work as a soloist, which eventually took over.

Eventually, Currie earned the luxury of commissioning pieces that would complement his talents.

Im very close to two British composers, whove written extensively for me. And I knew them from my earliest years. So some of the first world premiers I gave, in my early twenties, were by Joe Dudell, the British composer, and Dave Maric. Theyre more or less contemporaries of mine and we studied at the same time and made music together and we kind of grew together, myself as a performer and those two as writers. And they always knew my ambition for the art form was to create something more on lyrical side of things, rather than using histrionics and sort of large set-ups to create noise. I was interested in something a little more palatable and intimate.

You want to make sure that youre presenting pieces that are valid and sustainable and hold their own, not just in context of percussion music, but in the wider world of contemporary music at large.

Im very picky about which composers I work with. Im really only interested in bringing pieces into the repertoire that will have longevity. And Im very proud of the 16 or so concertos that have premiered thus far. And nearly all of them have quite extensive lives, following their premier.

Currie says percussion is quite a generic term. People say, Im going to a percussion concert. Currie laughed. That could mean almost anything. And so, I think it is something that intrigues people. Also, you turn up at a percussion concert and laid out before you is very much a sort of theatre piece set. Youre left to speculate, at the beginning of the concert, as to what it will all mean and how everything will sound. And that separates it entirely from every other instrumental endeavor.

He is helping to broaden peoples perceptions of percussion. Its something that I hope I achieve. When people hear the type of music that Im playing, a common reaction is, I had no idea that the instruments could be so expressive or so intimate or so powerful or so lyrical. Those are the kinds of comments that make me particularly proud.

He has assembled The Colin Currie Group, which focuses on the works of composer Steve Reich. I actually always wanted to have some kind of ensemble. This thing sort of fell into my lap, when the BBC Proms asked me to create a concert to celebrate Steve Reichs 70th birthday in 2006. And I programmed an event that, in the end, was very much a percussion event, almost entirely percussionists. I decided that it would be a waste to perform this work, with that group, only the once, because the quality of what we realized was high and warranted a sort of pursuing of this project. And thats exactly what happened. And were now on very close terms with the composer himself. We work together. Were touring together. Its a very happy story, indeed.

Currie is always seeking new challenges. Im very open to being pushed by composers, upon whom I depend very much. And sometimes they surprise me and push me in directions that Im maybe even uncomfortable with. But if it takes us somewhere new and exciting, its worth it.

I enjoy the challenge of pulling off these events. Sometimes Im tested, to a great degree, technically, intellectually, musically. But I work really hard to play serious music to a variety of people.

Currie does tend to attract a diverse audience. From your seasoned concert patrons, the symphony subscription goer, to those who are experiencing a classical gig for the first time. Young and old. Its a real mixture.

I want to make people feel comfortable and intrigued by new music, rather than isolated and put off by these things. Percussion is a good way of doing that, because its rather approachable as an art form. The sound is very immediate. Also, people get the feeling, when they hear percussion, that they could somehow be hands-on with this themselves, because they can see how this sound is made. A French horn or clarinet can be kind of a mystery. But someone observing percussion can feel that, yes, they could do this, too, if they were urged to join in or be part of it. That maybe partly delusion, Currie says, chuckling. But its wonderful that theres this strong feeling of the possibility of being keenly linked.

Im also very excited for the percussion community. I feel that Ive been able to give back to that world and its very interesting to see the next generation coming through. Im happy that Ive been able to give confidence to the younger generation coming through and Im sure that, with the right approach to repertoire, you can play to a very wide audience.