If I’m completely candid, the two large dinosaurs dominating the cover were what first attracted my attention to Travel Diary, a CD of works for percussion duo composed by Tristan Perich, Nathan Davis, David Lang, and Paul Lansky. Flipping the jewel case over to find the image of an airliner cruising through the clouds, I couldn’t imagine what sort of Jurassic Park-meets-Lost storyline this music might be treading. But was there any way this album could end without someone being eaten alive?
Ultimately, of course, it was the artistry of Todd Meehan and Douglas Perkins, the two percussionists behind this title, and not the surreal illustrations which truly hooked my interest. Opening with Tristan Perich’s work for crotales and six-channel 1-bit sound (the composer’s aural calling card), men and machine show themselves to be well paired. If you have ever lain awake in a canvas tent during a light rain, you can conjure a hint of the sound world Perich has created in Observations, the bubble-pops of tone relentlessly sparkling throughout the track’s nearly 12-minute runtime. The span of pitch being rather neatly fixed, the real game to watch here is in the intricate play of steady rhythmic evolutions.
Where Observations keeps up a hummingbird’s pulse rate, The Diving Bell by Nathan Davis stretches the line out to cast an echoing shimmer. Using microphones and electronic processing, the work demonstrates just how exotic and fascinating a sound world lives inside a simple triangle. David Lang, on the other hand, blows up the palette to encompass entire racks of instruments, all of which sound in Table of Contents (the title mirroring Lang’s original image of how the instruments would be laid out for performances). In this case, the music is drawn in the contrasts of timbral color.
Meehan and Perkins devote the bulk of this record to its namesake, Paul Lansky’s Travel Diary. A work in four movements, Lansky sets the stage in the opening “Leaving Home,” which is part “hmm, what shirt should I take along?” leisurely mallet work on marimba and vibes and part “oh my god, what the hell did I do with the damn tickets” anxiety, the deep echo of struck drum heads speeding the beat of the listener’s heart in sympathy. In the end, it’s out the door and on to “Cruising Speed,” the time and miles ticking by in a steady stream. The road is not always smooth (the drums again stepping in as the disruptors) but it is in the third movement that the composer, the music, and therefore the listener all find themselves “Lost In Philly.” The emotional undercurrent here reads primarily as curiosity to my ear, with only shades of nervousness over the sudden dislocation. If Lansky had found himself lost in Pittsburgh, I suspect that balance would have been swapped and it would have been quite a different composition. The piece lands on “Arrived, Phone Home,” the landscape perhaps less familiar, but the goal safely achieved. Throughout the journey, Lansky’s subheads imply the route, but the music itself delivers postcards to the ear that leave plenty of room for listener exploration.
According to the ensemble, this album was intended as a way to showcase the duo’s “on-going efforts to commission and collaborate with an eclectic mix of contemporary composers to create a new and unique body of percussion duo repertoire.” In this case, I’d say the goods on offer each sound so intriguing that I’d volunteer to play them all. At least until I remember that I don’t actually play percussion. For those who do, I suspect you’re going to discover something you might want to try out for yourself.