William Kraft’s ‘Encounters XV’ is clever and creative

Times Music Critic

A month ago, William Kraft turned 85, and about that time the composer finished the series of chamber pieces he calls “Encounters,” which he began in the early ‘70s. “Encounters XV” had its world premiere Monday night at Zipper Concert Hall as the final work in the final concert of Southwest Chamber Music’s three-concert survey of the series.

Kraft is a renowned percussionist, and percussionists can sometimes be defensive. In remarks to the audience between pieces -- helping fill time during the long periods required for setups -- he explained the usual route percussionists take. “First they become drummers,” he said cheerfully. “Then they become percussionists. Then they become musicians.” He also noted that expressivity works its way down in the orchestra, with string instruments having the greatest emotional resources and percussionists the least.

But in the ability to create a variety of sounds, percussion is tops. And new sounds, Kraft explained, are his passion. Every work in the “Encounters” series is novel. In fact, Kraft makes one wonder if the fountain of youth might not be hidden amid all those gongs, bells, drums and marimbas. Could the vibrations of a vibraphone be a miracle anti-aging device? No one would take Kraft, with the spring in his step and the healthy rebelliousness against authority in his answers to questions, to be 85.


But now that “Encounters” has been completed, it can be seen as giving meaning to the passage of decades. These pieces serve for Kraft the way the string quartet did for Beethoven or Shostakovich, as a kind of autobiography in chamber music. Each is a personal work in which the percussion part serves as Kraft’s alter ego encountering some other musical being. In every case, the traditional instrument is the one that ultimately seems a little strange.

Monday’s program contained two of the earliest in the series and the two latest. “Encounters IV” is subtitled “Duel for Trombone and Percussion,” and it is just that. It was written in 1972, during protests against the Vietnam War, and the score begins with the trombone softly calling out in Morse code, “Make war to make peace.” Timpani respond to him, softly tapping back. Twenty minutes later, the trombonist, having tried everything under the sun to take on increasingly colorful and untamed noise makers, ties a white flag to his instrument and walks offstage in defeat.

If I am reading the symbolism correctly, this is an inventively subversive work. A lone trombone represents the honking war machine, single-minded in voice, while the battery of untamed sounds from percussion is the powerful voice of the crowd, the antiwar protesters. The performance by Bill Booth, theatrical with his trombone, and Alfredo Bringas was a knockout.

“Encounters V,” from 1976, takes its subtitle, “In the Morning of the Winter Sea,” from a poem by Carl A. Faber, who was Kraft’s therapist. For cello and percussion, it was written during a difficult time in Kraft’s life, he said, and the music rarely settles down. A storm begins brewing in high harmonics from both parties. Agitation is the music’s main character, rarely settling down -- even the quiet pealing of bells can feel as disconcerting as thunder. This was another outstanding performance, with Peter Jacobson the fluent cellist and Ricardo Gallardo the equally and ideally fluent percussionist.

Lynn Vartan served as percussionist in the two recent “Encounters.” In these works, the percussionist no longer wins, yet Vartan proved herself to be a commander of color, of which there is a riot. Kraft may have mellowed, but he hasn’t lost his, you might say, pluck.

“Encounters XIV” had its premiere on Martha’s Vineyard two summers ago. Called “Concerto a Tre,” it joins violin and piano to a fun house of percussion and is essentially lyrical. The piano part, played by Ming Tsu, has a sophisticated jazz quality, cool and Bill Evans-ish. The violin is expected to be another percussion instrument, whether squealing or sweetly twanged, and Shalini Vijayan complied nicely.


The final “Encounter” is the most lyrical. It was written for John Schneider and Vartan. Schneider used a standard guitar and a “prepared one.” The latter had alligator clips attached to the strings to produce a metallic effect, and both guitars were lightly amplified.

The percussion contingent was large and included a marimba, vibes and any number of gongs. But the sound of bells predominated. In five short sections, Kraft flits between delicate melody and jazzy drumming, with deeply affecting ease. “Encounters XV” is a delight. And the whole set, which will be recorded for release as a three-CD set next year, is a monument both to Kraft and to the world of percussion.