Appearances can be deceiving. One would not expect to find two nationally touring percussion ensembles in a music club/bar in a small mountain city on a Sunday night in early March. But Asheville is no ordinary city, and the Mothlight is known to residents of Western NC as a place where any and all styles of music can be heard. On Sunday March 1, the venue featured the NYC-based percussion quartet Mobius Percussion and Asheville-based percussion trio 10-Can Percussion. Both ensembles performed a wide variety of percussion literature for a moderately-sized yet enthusiastic audience.

Mobius Percussion (Mika Godbole, Brian Shank, Yumi Tamashiro, and Frank Tyl) and 10-Can Percussion (Corey Denham, Emory Hensley, and Justin Mabry) combined their forces for the first selection of the evening, Steve Reich’s “Clapping Music.” This staple of the percussion repertoire is fairly self-explanatory, with all the performers engaging in a polyrhythmic dialogue. All seven percussionists carefully balanced the duple and ternary cross-rhythms of the work, providing a concise yet exciting prelude for the eclectic variety of music to follow. The concert continued with 10-Can performing Alexander Lunsqui’s “Shi.” The trio expertly manipulated an inconspicuous array of woodblocks, glass bottles, metal grates and guiros, generating a kaleidoscope of timbres. The distinctive scraping sound of the latter instrument established a structural change in the music, as all three performers provided an unrelenting and hypnotic scraping ostinato, while borrowing thematic elements and sounds from the section of the piece. This reviewer was impressed by the wide range of textures 10-Can extrapolated from such a modest and unconventional instrumentation.

Continuing in this minimalist vein, Mobius performed David Collier’s “Dusk.” The simple interlocking rhythms were played with an introspective and at times haunting character, and Mobius established a meditative atmosphere with stunning precision. A brief interruption by a passing siren provided an unwanted modern intrusion into the otherwise magical soundscape established by the quartet. Another quiet, texturally driven work, Stuart Saunders Smith’s “Angels” was performed by 10-Can. Smith’s description of the composition as “music of co-existence,” was eloquently captured with the trio’s deliberate and delicate finesse. The divine elements of the work were both visually represented in the configuration of the holy trinity (three musicians each playing three triangles), and aurally, with the full capabilities of the tiny metal instruments explored. Perhaps the most atypical use of the triangle was the lowering of the instrument into a bucket of water, creating a shimmering vibrato effect. Steve Reich’s “Drumming,” a popular staple of the percussion repertoire, provided an exciting conclusion to the first set. Each member of Mobius deftly coordinated the dense polyrhythms with powerful assuredness and energetic vigor.

The first set may have ended with a bang, but the second set opened with a whisper. 10-Can gave a performance of John Luther Adams‘ “Always Very Soft,” a work which Corey Denham described as not simply evoking a place, but actually physically representing a place through music. The composition incorporates everyday objects into a soundscape where the musicians gradually progress through a canon based on rhythmically accelerating patterns. 10-Can did a marvelous job pacing the intensity of this lengthy work, carefully accentuating the nuanced rhythmic and dynamic changes. The following work, “Aura” by Anna Thorvaldsdottir was another soundscape-driven composition, also occurring at what Denham described as a “glacial pace.” The subdued textures and mysterious sounds emanating from a combination of unique sounds (including a rolled tam-tam and bowed vibraphone), were visually reinforced by some creative multimedia components. The house lights were brought all the way down, with the audience drenched in pitch black darkness. The only light in the room emanated from flashlights the performers had taped to their forearms. One could hear a pin drop in this setting, as the audience sat at the edge of their seats, waiting for the next ethereal sound to emanate from the darkness. Mobius closed the concert with a thrilling contrast, Jason Treuting’s “Extremes.” Treuting’s composition was inspired by dialects the composer heard when traveling with So Percussion to different cities in the United States. The repetitive ostinato of a consistent pulse on the cowbell represented the constant life of touring, while the combined glockenspiel, bass drum and tuned desk bells (yes, you heard correctly), provided a complex web of musical chatter. 

Mobius Percussion and 10-Can Percussion provided a well-suited match, as the latter offered some beautiful, introspective soundscapes, and was contrasted nicely by Mobius’ driving and rhythmically propelled performances. The audience responded with overwhelming enthusiasm to what could have easily been a dry rendering of concept music. Both percussion ensembles tackled the difficult task of communicating the aesthetic of a wide variety of contemporary works with effortless mastery and musicality. 

10-Can will perform again this month at Mars Hill College on Thursday, March 12 at 7:30 pm in the Spainhour Recital Hall. For more information, click here. Ticket information can be obtained by calling (828) 551-5348.