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One Man’s Junk Is Another’s Music : Repercussion Unit Trashes Tradition in Effort to Educate and Entertain

According to the unwritten credo of the CalArts Repercussion Unit, there is no such thing as a bad piece of junk--take a look at its junkyard assortment, which includes car springs, metal fittings and even the cowling from a 747 jet engine.

The six-member ensemble’s intention is to have fun, as it will demonstrate Saturday in a free children’s concert at 11 a.m. and a more formal concert at 1 p.m. as part of the CalArts Contemporary Music Festival.

But it’s fun with a serious purpose, which is to explain music, according to John Bergamo, head of CalArts’ percussion program, and Larry Stein, who in a very loose sense are “co-leaders.”

Characterizing the group is a challenge. You can tell a lot about it by its influences: Spike Jones, Frank Zappa, jazz, rock and Indian music. Maybe one of the Repercussion Unit’s own descriptions says it best: “the indigenous music of Newhall.”

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The unit coalesced in the mid-'70s. Bergamo, a classically trained musician with an extensive background in Indian music, worked with members Stein, Jim Hildebrandt, Gregg Johnson, Ed Mann and Stephen L. (Lucky) Mosko as students in what was then the CalArts Percussion Ensemble.

As graduation neared, the members decided that they wanted to continue performing together and produced the Repercussion Unit in 1976. The CalArts ties remained strong: Mosko and Mann joined the music faculty.

The use of non-musical objects to make music is nothing new. Edgar Varese’s 1929-31 work “Ionisation” used sirens, among other things. Perhaps the most mainstream performer was Spike Jones, the comic dance-band leader whose renditions of “Dance of the Hours” and “William Tell Overture” used a wide array of auto horns, sirens, gunshots, belches and the “birdaphone,” which emitted Bronx cheers.

“We’re not specifically influenced by Spike Jones,” said Stein, a national associate program director for the Young Audiences program. “Not the music,” he added, “but the idea of having fun with

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music, using a little more off-the-wall, tongue-in-cheek humor that makes the explanation of music a little more bearable.”

Anything is fair game for the Repercussion Unit. The players use some traditional instruments, including timpani, marimba, synthesizers, even the same kind of a trap set that a rock drummer would use. But there’s also a table of junk and several small marimba-type instruments, including one made of used 2-by-4s and another from the kind of aluminum tubing used for lawn chairs.

There’s even a set of what Bergamo calls “astro-discs,” a family of four discs--originally bulkheads, Bergamo suggests--of 1/2-inch-thick aluminum ranging in diameter from 4 feet for the “bass” to 18 inches for the “soprano.” They’re played by hitting a disc placed on top of a timpani, which serves as a resonator.

Members are on a never-ending search for new instruments. Sometimes they turn up during pilgrimages to junkyards (“I usually end up getting ripped off because I’m so excited they can tell I really want it,” Bergamo said).

Sometimes they’re simply lying in the street. Bergamo found his favorite “bell,” a broken pipe fitting, on the ground. “I threw it down and heard it and knew I had to have it,” he said, happily tapping it with a mallet.

The largest instrument is the jet engine cowling. Laid horizontally on stands, the magnesium ring, about 9 feet in diameter, can be bowed, struck or scraped. A trough along the outer edge can be filled with water, allowing even more sounds.

As time passed, some instruments were dropped. For example, Stein said, one was scrapped because the musicians got tired of schlepping the tire chains and the trash can that the chains were thrown into.

Since few composers write music for jet engine cowling, car springs and 2-by-4 marimba, the members compose their entire repertoire, and the heavy foreign influence is apparent.

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“As far as the music goes, we’re more influenced by other cultures,” Stein said, emphasizing the immersion in world music that CalArts requires of its students. “But you don’t hear the influence because it’s transposed to these instruments.”

At the same time, because members come from different backgrounds such as rock or jazz drumming, these elements are also reflected in their works.

Consider a few selections on a recent program and their descriptions:

“Turkey in the Grass,” which was “inspired by the haystacks at an unsquare dance”; “Square One,” which was “written while recovering in the hospital from an automobile accident,” and “Lemon Sisters,” which is the “portrait of a day in the life of a serious student of world music while passing through various experiences of India, Ghana, Bali and Manhattan. The strength to continue comes from the humor generated in cheesy segments of the Lawrence Welk Show.”

But not all the music is so unfamiliar. One of Repercussion Unit’s most popular recordings is a Christmas album produced over several years, released, along with its other recordings, through Stein’s Robey Records.

Talking about the Repercussion Unit, its instruments and its music leads to the consideration of noise. Stein explained that anything can be used as an instrument since anything can either be struck, shaken, scraped or rolled up and blown into to produce a sound.

But if anything can be an instrument, can every sound be music? Is there a difference between a workman hammering on a piece of steel and a drummer striking the cowling with a mallet? The answer can be summarized as: “Noise is in the ear of the listener.”

Stein cites the example of windshield wipers. To the average person, the sound of windshield wipers is simply a noise. But because Stein is a musician, he’s aware of the regular rhythm. “Noise has nothing to do with the physical sound but with the way it’s intended,” he said. “If a guy is hammering in time, is he playing music? He’d have to intend it.”

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Other festival events include:

Friday--The New CalArts Twentieth Century Players, conducted by Bunita Marcus, perform the West Coast premiere of Morton Feldman’s “For Samuel Beckett” at 8 p.m. in the Modular Theatre. Tickets are $6, $2 for seniors and students.

Saturday--Video works with electro-acoustic music by CalArts faculty members, 2 p.m. in the Bijou Theater. Panel discussion of “Music for a ‘New Age’ or Marketing Hype?” at 4:30 p.m. at a location to be announced. Admission to both events is free.

The New CalArts Twentieth Century Players with guest artist Catherine Gayer, conducted by Bruce Hangen, at 8 p.m. in the Main Gallery, will perform Hans Eisler’s “Selections From the Hollywood Songbook,” Ed Bland’s “Paen for an Endangered Planet,” Craig Bove’s “Nightscape for Clarinet and Piano,” Earl Kim’s “Now and Then,” Kathleen St. John’s “Heliotrope for Wind Quintet,” Harold Budd’s “Madrigals of the Rose Angel” and Mel Graves’ “Watercourse for Bassoon and Double Bass.” Tickets $6, $2.

Sunday--Meet the composers brunch and panel discussion will be held at noon at a location to be announced, tickets $6, $2. “MIDI to the Max” concert will be given at 2 p.m. in the Main Gallery. The program includes Zack Settel’s “Sproyt Niesko for Harp, Flute and Live Electronics,” an untitled work by Bryan Pezzone, and Michael Fink’s “Trio for Synthesizer Players.” Tickets $6, $2.

A demonstration of Japanese paper drum making with artist Shyoichi Ida with a performance by John Bergamo, with dancers, will be given at 4 p.m. in Theatre II. Tickets $6, $2. The CalArts Global Improvisation Orchestra with guest Yusef Lateef and Eternal Wind at 7 p.m. in the Main Gallery. Tickets $6, $2.


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