Music News & Reviews

The beats go on for this California percussion group

The Los Angeles Percussion Quartet performs July 25 in San Luis Obispo as part of Festival Mozaic.
The Los Angeles Percussion Quartet performs July 25 in San Luis Obispo as part of Festival Mozaic.

What happens when percussionist Cory Hills visits a hardware store?

“I have a pitch pipe and two mallets, and I’m surrounded by 25 clay pots,” he said, recalling a shopping trip he took with his 2-year-old daughter. “People are walking by in Home Depot (going) ‘My gosh, what’s going on with this guy?’ ”

Hills is a member of the Los Angeles Percussion Quartet, which performs July 25 in San Luis Obispo as part of Festival Mozaic’s Fringe concert series. Founded in 2009, the contemporary chamber music ensemble is dedicated to commissioning and presenting new works for percussionists.

“(During) a concert of ours, we play standard percussion instruments and then we’ll walk over and play ethnic hand drums … and then we’ll sit down and play tomato sauce cans and conch shells,” said Hills, who joined the Grammy Award-nominated group about a year ago. “By the end, we’ll have rewired the audience’s ears.”

Hills is the most recent addition to the Los Angeles Percussion Quartet, which includes Matt Cook, Justin DeHart and Nick Terry. All are hard-working freelance musicians with a passion for West Coast composers such as John Cage. 

Hills, for his part, is the creator of percussive storytelling, a performance style that brings together narration and percussion. So far, the Thousand Oaks resident has done more than 300 performances for 20,000 children in eight countries, and released an award-winning album of percussive stories, “The Lost Bicycle.”

“Basically you connect the story with sound,” explained Hills, who tells original stories and traditional folktales from cultures around the world. 

Like his work with young audiences, he said his work with the Los Angeles Percussion Quartet is motivated by a desire to awaken listeners to the power of percussion. 

“We go for uniqueness of style, uniqueness of sound,” Hills said, “and try to create a sonic experience that people have never heard before.”

To achieve that effect, the group uses everything from orchestral instruments such as marimba and vibraphone to anvils, pipes, toy whistles and the aforementioned tomato sauce cans, which Hills said are so massive they wouldn’t look out of place in college cafeterias.

“You’d be surprised at which random metal things sound awesome,” said the percussionist, who’s been known to frequent scrap yards in search of cylinder caps, brake drums and other auto parts. 

The percussionists aren’t content to sit still on stage, either. “We’re very physical players,” Hills explained. 

Although the quartet might invite comparisons to percussion group Stomp, whose members use everyday objects and their own bodies to create physical theater, Hills said he and his bandmates have more in common with the classically trained members of a string quartet or woodwind quintet. 

The key difference, he said, is that “string quartets have hundreds of years of repertoire. We don’t.”

In fact, he said, percussion chamber ensembles are a relatively recent phenomenon in classical music. 

“We’ve had a Cambrian explosion of sorts in the last 50 years,” he said, fostered by groups such as Toronto’s Nexus and New York City’s So Percussion. 

That’s why the Los Angeles Percussion Quartet encourages composers — especially those who “espouse the philosophies and backgrounds of the 1940s, ’50s, ’60s experimental scene in California,” Hills said — to write for percussion groups. 

According to the musician, about 95 percent of the pieces the quartet plays are new commissions.

“One of the missions (of the group) is simply looking for composers with a voice, composers that have something to say,” he said, noting that many have little experience writing for percussion ensembles.  

Whatever their backgrounds, Hills said composers must be willing to work hand-in-hand with the percussionists to create compelling works. “We want the repertory to be solid,” he said. 

In 2012, the Los Angeles Percussion Quartet’s first album, “Rupa-Khandha,” received Grammy nominations in three categories, including best chamber music/small ensemble performance. The quartet recorded a second album in January that features works by Eric Griswold, William Kraft and Joseph Pereira and others; it’s due out in late August or early September, Hills said. 

 “With percussion, there’s an endless array of sounds,” he said. “It’s kind of a limitless endeavor.”

If you go

Los Angeles Percussion Quartet

7:30 p.m. July 25

Cultural and Performing Arts Center, Cuesta College

$29 to $55


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