During rehearsals for the premiere performances of Switch, Colin Currie gave me an amazing metaphor for the piece. He said that playing Switch feels like being trapped (in the best possible way) inside a giant pinball machine. It’s an apt image for so many reasons. It conveys the crazy tone and hyperkinetic pace at which events in the piece unfold. It also suggests something of the way sounds and musical ideas (and indeed Colin himself) are constantly bouncing around, careening off into unexpected places. It brings to my mind ideas of gamesmanship, trial and error, and mastery through repetition, all of which are guiding principals in Switch’s narrative structure, and it also highlights the very physical, theatrical sense of cause and effect that is so intrinsic to percussion music generally and to this piece in particular.
Andrew Norman © Jessa Anderson
Switch is a game of control. Each one of Colin’s many instruments controls some part of the orchestra behind him; his toms trigger an angular brass motive, his temple blocks ignite a woodwind flourish, his log drums call forth the strings, and the list of actions/reactions could go on and on. At times, especially in the piece’s most frenetic moments, the orchestra behaves like a crowd of marionettes to Colin’s master, shadowing every gesture he makes, and at other times, particularly when the pace slows a little and the orchestra is allowed to grow some ideas on its own, Colin operates his setup like a giant switchboard, turning on and off various members of the ensemble with different percussive hits, making and remaking the collective sound and the direction it’s going on the fly.
But Colin is not the only one calling the shots in this piece. The three percussionists embedded in the orchestra bring other layers of control and narrative-scrambling hijinks to the game. Among their various tools for distraction, the whip-like pop of the slapstick is perhaps their most powerful. The slapstick acts as a kind of cosmic channel changer, ripping everyone from where they are and placing them down in an entirely different sonic world. Switch does not have movements in the traditional sense, but it does have these different musical “channels” or worlds—each with its own sounds and story arcs—that are constantly being interrupted, flipped between and through by the orchestra’s sadistic slapsticks.
In my mind, one of the main narrative questions in Switch is whether or not Colin can say what he has to say in the face of this constant onslaught of interruption and interference. Will he master this complex contraption of causes and effects or will it master him? Will he ever break out of the pinball labyrinth and will he find his way to the thing he’s been searching for the whole time?
Labels: Andrew Norman, Colin Currie, DawnToDust, liner notes, Switch, Utah Symphony