Michael DeQuattro, a different kind of drummer, performs Oct. 26

Michael DeQuattro
In his work, percussionist and composer Michael DeQuattro lives between extremes: between the elemental and primitive roots of drums and drumming and the technological world of electronic music. On the one hand he works with one of the earliest forms of musical expression and on the other, in a genre that came of age in the latter half of the 20th century.

DeQuattro, who holds music degrees from Rhode Island College and the Boston Conservatory, will be performing some of his own works and those of other composers on Wednesday, Oct. 26, at 1 p.m. in the Nazarian Center’s Sapinsley Hall. The concert, aptly titled “Eclectic Creativity,” is part of the Wednesday Chamber Music Series fall presentation, Cutting Edge Concerts.

DeQuattro is a musician on a busy schedule. He is an adjunct music instructor at RIC, heading up the percussion program. He is the resident composer and accompanist for the dance program at Roger Williams University and serves as timpanist and percussionist for the Rhode Island Civic Chorale and Orchestra. DeQuattro has also had numerous freelance jobs with such dance-world notables as Seán Curran, David Dorfman, Dudley Williams and the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company.

For DeQuattro composing and performing often become extensions of each other.

He said, “I do a lot of improvising, and that’s where I get my ideas from. Sometimes I am just collecting ideas in my everyday work, so the performing and the composing aspects can coincide because I am feeding my ideas with improvisation as I work as a percussionist.”

One of DeQuattro’s major commissions of late was from Edward Markward and the Rhode Island Civic Chorale and Orchestra. It resulted in “With One Voice,” which premiered in 2010. While the work is for chorus and orchestra, it also incorporates ethnic drums, which are a specialty of DeQuattro’s.

He revels in any instrument he can play with his hands, including the African djembe, Indian kanjira, ocean drums and even bongos. It’s all part of the elemental side of percussion that he embraces.

With hand drums DeQuattro feels most connected to the instrument. “There’s energy,” he said, “that you can’t reproduce in any other way. There’s a lot of freedom, a lot of spontaneity.”

This is especially true in dance-class settings, he added, so it may not be surprising that a good share of DeQuattro’s compositions are commissioned by dancers. In fact, two his most recent compositions were written to accompany dance pieces.

Judith Lynn Stillman, artistic director of the Wednesday Chamber Music Series, will collaborate on piano with Michael DeQuattro in the concert "Eclectic Creativity."
From Oct. 6-9, at the West End Theater in New York City, Festival Ballet performed “Under the Bridge,” a piece by noted Rhode Island choreographer (and physician) Colleen Cavanaugh, which has a score by DeQuattro that includes percussion, piano and vibraphone, as well as cityscape sounds. The work is also scheduled for Festival’s Up Close on Hope series (Oct. 14-15, 21-22, 28-29).

At Roger Williams University, DeQuattro’s music will be heard accompanying “Bewilderness” by choreographer France Hunter from Dec. 8-11.

The first piece scheduled for the concert at RIC, DeQuattro’s “A Friend of Mine,” began life as 2003 choreographic commission from Kathy Gordon Smith. It was later re-orchestrated for the Rhode Island College Wind Ensemble, and for this performance, it has been arranged as a combo piece for piano (Judith Lynn Stillman), bass (Matthew Knipple) and electronic drums (DeQuattro).

According to the composer, this arrangement has “a fusion [jazz-rock] character.”

Bookending the program with his own work, DeQuattro will close the program with “Pulse,” a solo composition that combines different types of hand drums with electronics and is partly based on the south Indian rhythmic system called Tal. In a sense it bridges the two hemispheres of DeQuattro’s musical world – the elemental and technological.

It is interesting to note that DeQuattro, coincidentally or not, follows a path set out by the 20th century’s earliest creators of percussion music, who incorporated the technological and environmental sounds of the time. George Antheil in “Ballet Mécanique,” from 1923, used airplane propellers and electric buzzers, and Edgard Varèse in “Ionisation,” 1929-30, included a police siren.

In between, DeQuattro’s program includes three other pieces that highlight his interests as a percussionist.

“Metal Pieces and Saw” by Kenji Kikuchi harks back to DeQuattro’s days at Boston Conservatory, where he had a recital requirement that called for an original piece.

Not having much experience as a composer at that point, he had Kikuchi write something for him, and the unusual combination of percussion and musical saw fascinated DeQuattro. Although he was fond of the piece, accomplished saw players were hard to find, and over the years he despaired of ever playing it again, that is, until he raised the subject with James Bohn, another composer and electronic music enthusiast at Rhode Island College.

Bohn came up with the idea of using a DX27 midi keyboard and a headset with a breath controller to change the dynamic of the pitch and simulate the sound of a saw. It worked, so the piece was resurrected.

Among DeQuattro’s diverse involvements is membership in East of Borneo, a trio with a focus on electronic improvisation. The group will be performing “Beyond Larkspur” in the concert. (Incidentally, a free download of the trio’s album “Larkspur Sessions” is available at http://freemusicarchive.org/music/East_of_Borneo/Larkspur_Sessions.)

In addition to the percussionist, the East of Borneo consists of Lyn Goeringer on theremin, an instrument that creates sound not by touch but by movement through an electronic field; and Jim Moses on guitar, highly modified through electronics.

The only wholly acoustic work DeQuattro has selected for the concert is Steve Reich’s “Nagoya Marimbas,” which requires two of the instruments. They will be played by DeQuattro and a student of his, Dustin Patrick.

It was Patrick’s interest in Reich’s music that gave his teacher the idea to perform the piece.

DeQuattro noted, “The reason I chose the piece is because I have a student who really loves Reich’s material, and I just wanted to play with my student and start working on duets with him.”

“Nagoya Marimbas” is a difficult piece to perform – even Reich himself admits this in his notes to the Nonesuch recording – and DeQuattro and Patrick have spent about two months practicing their parts separately and another month working together.

“It takes a lot of concentration,” DeQuattro reflected, “but I thought it would be cleansing to the ear to hear something totally acoustic.”

Both as a composer and performer, Michael DeQuattro is an explorer thirsting for new territories, though he is one who understands and respects his roots. No matter where he ventures, at heart he never strays too far from base camp.

The concert is free and open to the public. For more information call the Department of Music, Theatre, and Dance at (401) 456-9883.