Commissioned by Third Coast Percussion, an ensemble eager to create a large-form work (and underwritten by a Jerome Commission from the American Composers Forum), the 35 minutes of this sprawling quartet were inspired by 36 hours in Germany, which the composer spent as follows: listening to performances of Helmuth Lachenmann’s Concertini and Wolfgang Rihm’s Jagden und Formen, then watching a debate between the two composers; getting lost on a road trip near Hamburg; and finally, spending the hours between 2 a.m. and 10 a.m. at the Panorama Bar of Berlin’s notorious Berghain nightclub.
It is not too difficult to draw connections between some of these experiences and elements of the Percussion Quartet. There are periods where musical time becomes elastic, the pulse obscure and the dynamic markings given to sudden and radical changes, as in avant-garde concert music. There is a dramatic dialogue, in the fourth movement, between two restless and inquisitive marimbas.
And then there are the moments of shocking musical certainty, when the rhythms lock into a grid, either as a quiet, relentless ticking, or as an explosive, even more relentless banging of maximum percussive force. No one would mistake Percussion Quartet for a piece of dance music, and Barnson makes no attempt at pastiche—the attempt, rather, seems to be to convey the afterimpression of a distinctive musical experience. And so an assaultive drumbeat pounds and pounds before receding gradually, as if into memory; the marimba gets the last word.
-Daniel Stephen Johnson