Chamber music is defined as a small ensemble, usually one player per part, with the members themselves serving as artistic directors. These conductor-less groups have been around for centuries, usually as string quartets, woodwind trios, or brass quintets. But during the mid-20th century, a new form of chamber music began to emerge: the percussion ensemble. From collegiate percussion ensembles, to professional ones like the Marimba Masters, Les Percussions de Strasbourg, and Nexus, this burgeoning musical art form helped to create an ever-expanding repertoire of literature.
Over the years, many traditional chamber ensembles found permanent residencies in music schools across the country. This financial support allowed consistent practice and performance opportunities, a tremendous benefit for any ensemble, and was common for string quartets, but unprecedented for percussion. In 1979, Percussion Group Cincinnati (PGC) became the ensemble-in-residence at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music (CCM), and nearly four decades later, the trio continues to make music on a regular basis. This year, PAS welcomes Allen Otte, James Culley, and Russell Burge to its prestigious Hall of Fame.
“They are on par with the great chamber music ensembles of any size or instrumentation,” says Steven Schick, Distinguished Professor of Music at the University of California-San Diego and a 2014 PAS Hall of Fame inductee. “Their goal as a percussion group has been to continue the distinguished lineage of great chamber music playing. They have modeled themselves on the tradition of great string quartets in the manner of the LaSalle or the Guarneri. They are a treasure, exemplary of the highest ideals we have for ourselves as percussionists.”
FROM BLACKEARTH TO PERCUSSION GROUP CINCINNATI
“I was enamored of the string quartet,” Allen Otte admits. “I was envious of my friends and colleagues in the string department who could have this intensive chamber music experience. During my college years, we did not even have a percussion ensemble at Oberlin! It’s funny that I eventually made a career as a percussion ensemble performer.”
In 1972, during Otte’s senior year at Oberlin, he and recent graduate Garry Kvistad formed Blackearth Percussion Group, America’s first full-time professional percussion ensemble. The other members of the quartet were Garry’s older brother Rick Kvistad and another Oberlin student, Chris Braun, who took the place of Michael Udow (who had accepted a Fulbright Scholarship to study in Poland that year) until he returned the following year.
“I was interested in serious classical music, no matter how experimental,” Otte recalls. “We didn’t do the improvisation and world music that other people were excited about then. The idea was that this group was going to be together every day to rehearse music that we would have written for us. From the very beginning, we were conscious of the fact that the best music for us was not going to be written by other drummers, but by young composers. If we heard a great computer-music piece, string quartet, or piano work that was fascinating to us, we would ask that composer to write a percussion piece for us.”
During Blackearth’s first year, they were in residence at the University of Illinois before accepting an offer to teach at Northern Illinois University. “Al O’Connor was the percussion teacher there, and when there was an opening for a second instructor, he had the idea to hire the group,” explains Otte. “That meant the four of us went to DeKalb and divided one secondary-position salary! It’s not an exaggeration to say that during summers, we were on food stamps.” Blackearth stayed at NIU for five years. During this time, the personnel of the ensemble changed: James Baird, David Johnson, and Stacey Bowers joined for a time, along with original members Otte and Garry Kvistad.
“We played a series of new music concerts in Cincinnati,” Otte continues, “and as a result, we were invited to join the faculty at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. This was the first time that the group had the sole responsibility of running a percussion department in a major conservatory. It was a difficult transition, and by the end of the second year, Garry and Stacey decided to move on to other careers.” So in 1979, Blackearth Percussion Group —which during its seven-year existence presented 38 world premieres and performed 157 concerts throughout North America and Europe—evolved into Percussion Group Cincinnati.
Beginning with the Fall 1979 semester, Otte found two new colleagues to join him as percussion instructors at CCM and perform with PGC: William (Bill) Youhass, who had been teaching at Ithaca College in New York, and James (Jim) Culley, a recent graduate from the Eastman School of Music. Youhass left after six years, but Otte and Culley have been playing together for almost forty years, much of that time in daily rehearsals.
Otte recalls the first concert Percussion Group Cincinnati performed at CCM on October 9, 1979. “We played what I felt were the strongest pieces from the Blackearth repertoire. Herbert Brün had written a piece for us called ‘More Dust,’ a big trio with a fabulous computer-music tape. We also played ‘Lift-Off!’ by Russell Peck, which has been in our repertoire ever since then. Also something more unusual. Arnold Schoenberg had a set of canons for unspecified instrumentation, and choosing to arrange these [‘Two Canons’] helped make the statement that we were trying to create a bit of a ‘different vibe’ with the range of music that we played—not just toe-tapping minimalist music, or the percussion music from other cultures that many people were discovering and playing in those days.”
“The conservatory had sponsored a composition contest, through the [Theodore] Presser Company, for Blackearth,” adds Culley, “but they never got to play all the submitted music. So we premiered ‘Paradox III’ by Takayoshi Yoshioka for marimba soloist and two percussionists, ‘Cosmology of Easy Listening’ by Lucky Mosko, and ‘Circles’ by CCM’s Gerhard Samuel.” This was the first of three annual concerts that the group played at Cincinnati, although that number has lessened to two concerts in recent years. “We always use the in-house concerts to ‘beta test’ the heavy-duty pieces to see if they are roadworthy,” Culley says.
The following year, PGC performed its first concert in New York City, at the Abraham Goodman House; its first appearance at a PAS Day of Percussion, this one in its home state of Ohio; and its first European tour, which included recordings for state radio in Belgium and Germany.
In November 1981, PGC made the first of its 16 concert presentations at PASIC, this one during a Showcase Concert in Indianapolis. Other important PASIC performances included a concert in Washington, D.C. at PASIC ’86, celebrating PAS’s 25th anniversary, and the opening concert for PAS’s 50th anniversary at PASIC 2011 in Indianapolis. PGC also prides itself in performing every piece in its repertoire from score.
Otte recalls the opening night concert at PASIC ’84 in Ann Arbor. “We commissioned a composer to write a concerto for us, but it would not be ready in time. Since we had just been on tour with John Cage in Italy, I asked him about a piece that might become a percussion concerto. John thought it was a wonderful idea, so he created new percussion parts for us, and we premiered his ‘Renga with Music for Three’.” PGC also performed the opening concert at PASIC 2012 during the Cage Centennial for Focus Day.
The ensemble’s relationship with Cage included a tour of Italy with the composer earlier in 1984. “In addition to the concerts, John was doing presentations of his art work and photography,” remembers Culley. “We were involved in a massive concert at a discotheque, named ‘The Disco Big,’ converted to a concert hall. We played his ‘Branches,’ along with several other works, and we recently discovered an excerpt of that concert video on YouTube!”
Youhass left Cincinnati in 1985 and his position, at both CCM and with PGC, was filled by Jack Brennan, who stayed for a year-and-a-half. In 1987, Ben Toth replaced Brennan and stayed with PGC for five-and-a-half years. This was also the beginning of many quartet performances, often with CCM student Rusty Burge joining the ensemble.
“I was a grad student,” Burge remembers, “and we played several concerts of Brün music, both at CCM and at the University of Illinois. Another one of the first pieces I played with the group was ‘Làm Môt’ by Qu Xiao-Song. It was a challenging piece with many different sections representing what he heard in Chinese opera.”
When Rusty attended PGC concerts as a student, he noticed something special. “The intricacies that fly within a string quartet were there in the percussion group,” he explains. “In other words, be meticulous about how every sound is made. We spent a lot of our rehearsal time talking about mallets and choices of sound, besides just practicing the music itself. The amount of depth that goes into rehearsing and performing the music has always been important to the guys and when I joined, I was able to jump into that mix and join that process.”
Burge has now been a member of PGC for a quarter-of-a-century, while Otte and Culley have been playing together for almost four decades. “It’s a chamber-musical marriage,” Culley says with a laugh. “In some ways, I always felt a little bit bad for the new fellows when they came along, just because they were walking into a pretty finely-tuned machine. We knew how to work together, how to breathe together, how to start a piece just by knowing where the other player was going to come in. There were definitely moments of disagreement, but I think over the years, we realized our own strengths and weaknesses, and then the group’s strengths and weaknesses, and could work within that.
“I could not have possibly reached this point without Bill Youhass, Jack Brennan, and Ben Toth,” Culley adds. “Those people were so important to the development of the Group. And then Rusty, our final partner, of course. I don’t even think about the Group any more without him!”
On October 18, 1988, Percussion Group Cincinnati—Otte, Culley, and Toth—premiered “The Glory and the Grandeur” by Russell Peck with the Greensboro Symphony in North Carolina. “Russell is someone I had known for a long time,” Otte says. “He told me that he had a commission from an orchestra and wanted to write a concerto for a professional group. I asked him to talk with us every step of the way so we could develop this concerto project together. He would send us pencil manuscripts and we would record things for him. This is the way we have always worked with composers. During the past three decades, we have played this concerto about fifty times all over this country, as well as Asia. It just opened a whole other world to us.
“We always liked the idea of the personal relationship with composers,” he adds. “We would invite people to our studio to look at our instruments and make it a workshop. We came to Cage’s music a little bit later in our career, but it was the same thing; meeting him personally and being on tour with him in Germany, Italy, and in this country made a difference.”
With more than 200 compositions in its repertoire, including almost three dozen by Cage alone and many more written especially for them, do the members of Percussion Group Cincinnati have personal favorites? “In the 1970s, during the political upheavals in Chile, I found recordings of beautiful folkloristic music based on their sociopolitical themes,” explains Otte. “Even though the music was for harps, guitars, and singing, I recognized that it had some of the same possibilities as Guatemalan marimba music—three players on one marimba. We have played these Chilean songs on almost every concert for the past thirty-plus years. Any audience will think it’s beautiful. It’s not challenging in the way that much of the other music we played is, but it is music of the greatest integrity, both musically and socially.
“We also played a number of pieces by my composition mentor, Herbert Brün,” Otte continues. “He wrote several big, beautiful, complicated pieces for us. We also made a point to pay attention to the next generation of composers, often students at CCM.”
“Brün stands out in the way he was able to hear and work the timbral landscape of percussion,” Culley adds. “He wrote ‘Infraudibles with Percussion’ for us. He was a composer who looked at things in a different way than drummers look at percussion music.
“John [Cage] is also one of my favorites,” Culley continues. “His ‘Imaginary Landscape No. 2’ has always been a joy to perform. It was originally written as a quintet, but we arranged it for three players because we could do the sustained parts with our feet or an extra hand or three!”
“The three parts are very busy,” Burge adds. “The way we do it as a trio, with each of us taking turns playing the other parts, makes it rather difficult. That was one of the first hurdles and challenges when I joined the group: trying to multi-task—playing a lion’s roar and then some really hard polyrhythms on a tin can at the same time! Those were things that Jim and Al had been doing for years, but that was a new world for me.
“The Cage centennial festival in Washington, D.C. in September 2012 was really memorable for me,” Burge continues. “We played ‘Third Construction’ with Ben Toth, which I had done with the Group when Ben was a member, so it was a geat homecoming of sorts.
“The group is amongst the best for its integration of percussion with theater and socially relevant ideals,” said Garry Kvistad, CEO of Woodstock Percussion and a member of both Nexus and Steve Reich and Musicians as well as a founding member of Blackearth Percussion. Kvistad remembers a concert that PGC did in Ann Arbor, Michigan many years ago that included Reich’s “Drumming Part One”: “Not only was ‘Drumming’ well performed, it was done without missing a note by a trio, despite the fact that it was written for four players.”
PERCUSSION CHAMBER MUSIC LEGACY
“The artistry, commitment to a unique repertoire for percussion, sheer perfection of ensemble performance, and dedication to the highest ideals for percussion ensemble music by the PGC is unequalled by any other group of musicians,” stated James A. Strain, Professor of Percussion at Northern Michigan University and PAS Historian. He recalled seeing their first performance when he was a graduate student at CCM. “Few experiences in my career have had such an impact on me as seeing their first simultaneous strokes timed to perfection, sounding in perfect unison, as beautiful as any three ballerinas might execute a pas de trois.”
Dr. John Lane, Director of Percussion Studies at Sam Houston State University and former doctoral student of Otte, Culley, and Burge at CCM, remembers the first time he attended a PGC concert, which was in a small church near Cincinnati. “When they began to play, it was absolutely magic: the sound, the touch, and perhaps most of all, they had something to say with every piece. That they performed at the highest possible level is not surprising, but that they could offer this as an intimate, community-oriented event for mostly locals and a few students was deeply meaningful.”
With over 100 years of experience performing chamber music between them, what advice would the members of PGC give to young percussionists today? “Curiosity remains key,” replies Culley. “I get a little disheartened with student percussionists who, for a variety of reasons, often want to be told what to do, or don’t search for music beyond the visual. Sometimes I find a certain lack of interest in new music that is written by composers instead of by drummers who also compose. There’s a certain amount of sound and volume stimulation that I think people enjoy with percussion, but we can choose music based on compositional explorations or innovations.
“Percussionists should be curious about everything,” he continues. “In this modern age, the phone and computer screens are getting smaller and the playback quality suffers. We don’t aurally experience music enough. I hear students say, ‘I just saw a great piece.’ Back in the day, many of our experiences with pieces required listening to them first, or jumping in without another performance in mind.”
“I would tell young percussionists to keep all their options open,” Burge states. “One of the things we stress to our students is to be fundamentally sound on all the instruments. That circles me back to when I studied with John Beck; that was his mantra: be a good snare drummer, a good mallet player, a good timpanist. Now, with the internet and globalization, there are so many world music options as well. But I definitely recommend a very strong fundamental technique before branching into a new direction.”
Otte recalls playing for tens of thousands of young people across North America during PGC’s children’s concerts. “Those performances have been tremendously satisfying and something that makes us a part of the local community,” he explains. “The world of percussion allows us to address multi-culturalism, along with the social issues of the day. I would encourage young percussionists not to think of concerts like this as a second-class performance while waiting to start their ‘important’ career of fancy concerts. In fact, it’s the opposite. This is where percussion is really reaching people.”
“I feel our legacy has been inspiring students and other ensembles to treat music the way a string quartet would, with great attention to detail. We spent time developing as a trio,” states Culley. “People who access our recordings or videos will have a sense of what chamber music can mean in the percussion world.”
“Playing together was always our emphasis,” adds Burge. “The idea that we would all know each other’s parts and would be trying to work collectively as a unit. That’s one of the things that I love about playing with the Group: that it feels like the music has a collective direction.”
“We have always been fiercely dedicated to the idea of percussionists being recognized as serious chamber music players,” Otte says. “I feel good about what we have had the opportunity to do. We didn’t take ourselves too seriously, but we always took the music very seriously.”
“PGC’s founding principles have not changed since its inception in 1979,” summarizes Dr. Eugene Novotney, Professor of Music and Director of Percussion Studies at California State University–Humboldt and former Chair of PAS New Music/Research Committee. “State-of-the-art performance of composed chamber music for percussion, accomplished with the most refined skills of classical orchestra percussion.”
Readers who would like to know more about PGC—repertoire, programs, discography, etc.—can read Thomas Kernan’s dissertation “The Percussion Group Cincinnati: A History of Collaboration between Ensemble and Composer,” available on the PAS website (http://www.pas.org/resources/research/online-thesis-dissertation-repository/thomas-j-kernan)
Although he has been a member of Percussion Group Cincinnati for 25 years, Russell Burge is the youngest member of the trio. “Before I joined, I knew what a rich history they already had.”
Rusty was born in Boulder, Colorado on March 18, 1964. “Both of my parents were pianists,” he says, “but I gravitated towards percussion and stuck with that. I played mallets, drumset, snare drum, and timpani and was in the band, orchestra, and jazz band.”
He graduated from Rocky Mountain High School in Fort Collins, Colorado in 1982 and went to the Eastman School of Music, where his father was then on the faculty. “It was my dream school, and I had a fabulous four years in Rochester.” Burge graduated from Eastman in 1986 with a bachelor’s degree in percussion performance.
Upon a friend’s recommendation, he attended the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music for his graduate degree. “Tracy Davis spoke highly about the overall experience of the school,” explains Burge. “The Group was teaching not only how to play contemporary, experimental chamber music, but also strong fundamentals of orchestral playing and percussion as a whole. I felt the environment was right for me.” He earned a master’s degree in performance in 1988 and began to look for an orchestral job.
“Although I had been a student there, I didn’t have any clue that Ben Toth would be leaving [for the Hartt School of Music],” Burge recalls. “Even the fact that there was a job opening was a surprise. I think one of the reasons I got the job was because, as a grad student, I had played several concerts with the Group when they needed an extra person.” Burge officially joined PGC and became a member of the CCM faculty in 1992.
James Culley is a native of southern Ohio. Born in Hamilton on New Year’s Day 1955, Jim was raised in a musical family. “All five of my sisters played wind instruments, so I tried something different,” he says. “I got a snare drum when I was ten and a xylophone when I was eleven.” His first teachers were Fred Noak, longtime timpanist with the Cincinnati Symphony, and Trudy Drummond Muegel. Culley graduated from Cincinnati Princeton Schools in 1973, where he performed in the school band and orchestra, along with the Cincinnati Youth Symphony.
He attended the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, where as a double-degree student, Culley received a Bachelor of Music degree from the conservatory (percussion studies with Mike Rosen) and a Bachelor of Arts in Classics (Latin) from the College in 1977. Culley then studied with John Beck at the Eastman School of Music, receiving his master’s degree in 1979. “I was still in grad school when I interviewed for the job in Cincinnati,” he recalls. “I had the good fortune to join the trio when I was in my early 20s, and it happened to be in my hometown, a rare occurrence in the music field.”
Culley has performed as an extra percussionist with the Cincinnati Symphony and Cincinnati Opera orchestras and freelances as a timpanist/percussionist in regional orchestras. In 1998, he received the Conservatory’s Glover Outstanding Faculty Award.
Born on January 17, 1950 in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, Allen Otte grew up playing percussion in school, drumset in rock-and-roll and polka bands, and organ in his church. His first teacher, Art Schildbach (who later became a percussionist in the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra from 1970-2007), recommended that Otte study with Michael Rosen, then-principal percussionist with the Milwaukee Symphony and a former classmate of Schildbach’s at the University of Illinois. (Rosen is now Professor of Percussion at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music.)
Rosen, in turn, recommended that Otte apply to Oberlin, where he would be able to study with Rosen’s former classmate at Temple University, Richard Weiner. So after graduating from Sheboygan South High School in 1968, Otte enrolled at Oberlin and began to study with Weiner.
“I was training as a symphonic percussionist and took my lessons with Richard Weiner as seriously as possible,” Otte recalls. “This was the person who played in George Szell’s [Cleveland] Orchestra and paid attention to every single note—the sound, the stick, everything. When I became interested in new pieces, like ‘Zyklus’ by Stockhausen, I played it for him during a lesson. He would stop me and say, ‘That wasn’t the right sound. You’re going to have to find a way to pick up another stick or mallet!’ That was a transformative experience for me, to apply that kind of expertise to new and experimental music. That’s where the idea of quality chamber music came from.”
Following his graduation from Oberlin in 1972 with a Bachelor of Music degree, Otte went to the University of Illinois in Urbana with the newly-formed Blackearth Percussion Group. From there, he (and the group) went to Northern Illinois University, where Otte obtained a Master of Music degree in 1977 while Blackearth was in residence there. That same year, Otte, along with Garry Kvistad and Stacey Bowers, joined the faculty at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, a position he held until the spring of 2017.