by Lauren Vogel Weiss
The formation of NEXUS was the result of a rather complex network of relationships among the members. Bill Cahn and John Wyre grew up in the same Philadelphia neighborhood, studied with the same music teachers (including Fred Hinger) and went to the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York. Russel Hartenberger, originally from Oklahoma, went to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia where he also studied with Hinger. While in the "City of Brotherly Love," he became involved with Alan Abel's Settlement Music School Percussion Ensemble, where he met Cahn.
At Eastman, Cahn met another future member of NEXUS: Bob Becker. Upon graduation, Becker moved to Washington, D.C. to join the U.S. Marine Band, where he met Hartenberger, who had joined the Air Force Band. After leaving the nation's capital, Becker returned to Rochester where he and Cahn formed a NEXUS duo.
The focus now shifts to Milwaukee, Wisconsin where Wyre was timpanist with the Milwaukee Symphony. There he met Robin Engelman, who was the orchestra's principal percussionist. Soon after, Engelman left Milwaukee to become the principal percussionist with the Rochester Philharmonic, where Becker and Cahn were both student "extras" in the percussion section. Then Engelman left Rochester to become principal percussionist with the Toronto Symphony, where Wyre had recently become timpanist.
In 1967, Michael Craden moved from Los Angeles to Toronto to become part of the creative community in that city. "Michael was an amazing artist," recalled Wyre. "He created a large body of visual work, including paintings, drawings and sculpture. Michael's approach to music was totally spontaneous. Since he did not read music, he brought a free spirit to NEXUS that challenged our conservatory senses dramatically and created an environment of spontaneity that is still a part of the NEXUS philosophy." Unfortunately, Craden lost his battle with cancer in 1982.
In 1968, Becker, Cahn, Engelman, Hartenberger and Wyre all came together for the first time at the Marlboro Music Festival in Vermont as performers in Stravinsky's "Les Noces." In 1971, Warren Benson arranged a concert at the Eastman School of Music which featured the NEXUS duo (Becker and Cahn) and a Toronto duo (Engelman and Wyre). The concert featured entirely improvised music on a stage filled with non-Western percussion instruments, most of which where Asian metallic. A few months later, Bob Becker, Bill Cahn, Michael Craden, Robin Engelman, Russell Hartenberger and John Wyre gave a concert as NEXUS in Walter Hall at the University of Toronto.
"The group was originally motivated by a common desire to explore music-making through improvisation on our collection of world percussion instruments," explained Cahn. "Our fascination with the sounds of non-Western percussion instruments - mostly Asian metallophones - led to our sizable collection. Since there was no music composed yet for this specific group of instruments with their specific pitches and pitch relationships, it seemed best for us to simply create our own music through improvisation. After all, we knew the possibilities of our instruments better than anyone else. Following the first concert at Eastman, the plan was simple: Let's do this again sometime soon. Basically, that plan has held up for 29 seasons.
"I have always had a deep connection with symphonic and orchestral music," continued Cahn. "It was the first kind of music to really touch me. I also remember how difficult it was, especially in the early days, to be taken seriously by the classical music establishment. Percussion as a musical vehicle was mainly seen as something for pops or children's concerts - musical clocks, worried drummers, etc. I would hope that, in some small way, NEXUS has contributed to a change in perception that has made it possible for listeners to experience deeper levels of musical appreciation in the same way for percussion music as for any other orchestral music. NEXUS has always tried to focus on music-making and not on percussion, per se. Percussion instruments have simply been our tools to make music."
"We are basically just five guys who became friends over thirty years ago," Hartenberger added, "and we have been able to foster that friendship while making music that we enjoy. NEXUS has never set out to accomplish anything in particular. We have explored the world of percussion and brought to the group the kinds of instruments and music that appealed to us. We have not set out to have an influence on anyone, but many people have told us that they have been affected by what we have done.
"The only way I can understand that is by realizing what an influence the other members of NEXUS have had on me. Each of the other members of NEXUS has been a teacher for me in one way or another. Each has had a profound effect on my life, so I can somehow understand how the group as a whole might have some effect on a listener."
NEXUS has been involved in some special performances over the years, one of which was the 100th Anniversary celebration for Carnegie Hall. Their collaboration with the Boston Symphony resulted in the commission of Toru Takemitsu's "From me flows what you call Time," which has become the ensemble's signature piece. They have performed it with dozens of orchestras around the world, bringing percussion center stage to orchestral music lovers everywhere.
How do five musicians with five unique personalities continue to make music year in and year out? "I think probably because we came together in a very natural, organic manner - out of friendship, respect and a desire to explore percussion sounds and instruments that were new to us through the process of improvisation," John Wyre offered as an explanation. "There was a natural unity with that process, which established a very strong democratic freedom to be whatever we wanted to be."
"Staying together for thirty years is an accomplishment worthy of rumination if not of pride," added Engelman. "Only someone of a certain age, in possession of certain experiences, can appreciate that. It is fortunate that I can still eagerly anticipate a NEXUS performance and that I have come to understand and accept what I can and cannot do, and what my colleagues can and cannot do, whilst knowing that all of us are always doing the best we can do."
"The older we get, the more feedback we get from younger players," Wyre stated. "It seems that several generations have come up with us being on the horizon as something that's happening out there that they're inspired by. So now we get more feedback, which has been important. We're an important part of that chain. When I stand where I am and look back, there are a hell of a lot of people that I've got to thank for what they did for me. And when I turn around the other direction, there are a lot of younger people that are coming up. It makes you feel connected in a very big way."
What lies ahead for NEXUS in the next ten to twenty years? "I would like to see NEXUS moving into an increased role as mentors and facilitators to young musicians in developing, appreciating and sharing their art," suggested Cahn.
"Well, in twenty years we'll be retired for sure," laughed Wyre. "In ten years we might be playing from wheelchairs! Who knows? One of the reasons we have survived this long is because we haven't had a plan. We've been able to go with the flow. And in that sense, it's impossible to know what the future holds. As long as we're healthy, we'll be hanging in."
Hartenberger added, "We have never set objectives for ourselves other than to be a successful chamber ensemble. I can't predict what the next five to ten years will bring, but I hope it is filled with new projects and exciting concerts."
How will NEXUS be perceived by percussionists in 2099? "I'll take anything," laughed Bill Cahn. "In the 22nd century it would be nice for folks to occasionally plop a NEXUS music chip into the data input slots that have been surgically embedded in their skulls at birth!"
"We're just one of the ripples on the pond," John Wyre contended. "Through technology, music has exploded exponentially. We're aware of so many different things happening around us now. Our world keeps growing; who knows how vast it will be in another hundred years. How deep will the archives be? How much stuff, good and bad, will people have to wade through to even find our music? Some future percussionists might come along and resurrect something that NEXUS has done, the way Bob Becker did with George Hamilton Green. The fact that we've reached out and touched some people, inspired them to continue along the trail - that's enough for me. I feel good about what we've done, and we've made a positive contribution to percussion. It would be nice to be able to check it out in the future."
Robin Engelman has a harder time seeing into the future. "This question demands prescience beyond my powers. Based on the cycles of the past, however, I suspect we will be doing exactly what we have been doing for the past thirty years: carefully guarding the essence of our relationships."
"When I was young," recalled Russell Hartenberger, "I never would have dreamed that I would spend most of my life traveling around the world with a bunch of friends having a great time playing percussion instruments. It really has been a dream come true. And if the Percussive Arts Society sees fit to recognize my contribution to the percussion community through NEXUS, I feel honored and extremely grateful."
"NEXUS is unique because it was not a copy of anything that came before," summed up Bob Becker. "There was no model for the group. It has always been based on the peculiar interests and characters of its members, and on our friendship for one another. Everything came out of that - our sound, our instrumentation and our repertoire. I don't know if NEXUS has been, is, or will be all that important to the world of percussion, but it has been vastly important to the members of the group as a forum for exploring our instruments, our musical ideas and ourselves. It has always been an adventure and an encouragement to grow and, personally, I feel very fortunate to be a part of it."