Even in the world of avant-garde music, it's unusual for a composer to build his or her own instruments. But percussionist Ron George has been doing that for nearly two decades.
George will use the largest instrument he has ever built--he calls it the "ballad console"--in programs Saturday at the Newport Harbor Art Museum.
"The instrument has a frame that goes up 12 feet and is 15 feet wide," George said in an interview last week from his studio in downtown Los Angeles. "Underneath it I place all sorts of percussion instruments, some that I build, some that are standard. . . .
"What it allows me is do is to form everything into a keyboard, to take a lot of percussion instruments and integrate them into a console. It's a keyboard that's struck with mallets."
George, 51, has been striking mallets ever since he was a kid. Born and raised in Escondido, he remembers playing xylophone duets with his twin brother "because my father wanted us to do something together."
"He went on to football," George said. "I went on to become a percussionist."
He studied classical music at Indiana University ("I was classically trained"), then joined the Milwaukee Symphony for three years. His future began to unfold while he was in Milwaukee.
"I started a new-music group there," George said. "We had composers come in, and we played their works. That was my first exposure to new music."
Intrigued, George went in 1973 to study at UC San Diego, where a lively new-music scene was taking place. He worked with composers Robert Erickson and Pauline Oliveros, among others, and string bassist Burt Turetzky.
While at the college, he built an instrument that combined temple blocks, wood blocks, drums, cymbals, rattles and other percussive instruments. A pedal keyboard, similar to those on pipe organs, allowed further possibilities.
He called it the "loops console," after a piece ("Percussion Loops") he created with Erickson. He described it as "a timbre, a color instrument.
"Once I played a tape of the piece for an artist, and he said, 'You're painting with sound. . . .' My music does tend to be melodic."
George, now a teacher at the Los Angeles County High School of the Arts (before that he taught at California Institute of the Arts in Valencia for eight years), plays in the Redlands and Riverside symphonies and occasionally with the Inland Empire Opera.
"That pays the bills," he said. "This is not really a moneymaking venture. You can't make a lot of money doing what I do. And I'm expensive to move around. When I travel, I do it in crates, and I weigh (in at) about 1,500 pounds."
Los Angeles offers him few concert opportunities, however.
"For people like myself in Los Angeles, there is very little possibility of performances," he said. "Basically, you have very established organizations that present new music. Certain kind of styles of music are performed in those concerts. That's not to say it's bad. But it is, for the most part, imported."
Why does he stay? "It's where I'm making my living, where I have contacts."
Contact with the audience sits high on his list of concerns.
"I always talk a lot on concerts," George said. "I like to communicate with people and have them understand what I'm performing. Then they have a point of reference, and the music makes sense to them."
At the outset of Saturday's program, which will feature half his own compositions and half by other new-music composers, George will offer an improvisation "because my instruments are unfamiliar territory for most people."
"I use the improvisation introduction to let them hear the instrument. Then I talk about the instrument and its various sounds, how the piece and the instrument relate. . . .
"The problem with contemporary music concerts is that nobody talks to anybody. So you get an audience of people who don't know what's going on, they hear unfamiliar sounds. But people begin to open up when you talk to them. It's nice to have that rapport with an audience."
Los Angeles percussionist Ron George will give a recital at 8 p.m. on Saturday at the Newport Harbor Art Museum, 850 San Clemente Drive, Newport Beach. Tickets: $5.50 to $7.50. An informal "family concert" will be given at 3 p.m. Tickets: $1 to $2. Information: (714) 759-1122.