Baljinder Sekhon’s recently released album, Places and Times (Innova), is a collection of his compositions for percussion ensemble. Three of these works feature a solo instrument: steel pan (Dave Gerhart), guitar (Dieter Hennings), and piano (Eunmi Ko). The album includes collaborations with the Los Angeles Percussion Quartet (Matt Cook, Justin, DeHart, Cory Hills, Nick Terry), the McCormick Percussion Group (directed by Rob McCormick) and line upon line percussion (Adam Bedell, Cullen Faulk, Matthew Teodori).
The steelpan, a melodic percussion instrument that originated in Trinidad and Tobago, has a complex and unique sound, and this timbre is explored and manipulated by Sekhon in the first work on the album, Passageways. The work begins with dry and rhythmic musings on various pitched percussion instruments, exploring the gradations of attack vs. pitch resonance, until a timely cadence transitions into a section based around non-pitched percussion sounds. The steelpan inserts itself into this soundscape to reintroduce pitched material. Motivically-introduced pitch collections drive the progression of this work, and it ends with a furious flurry of head-banging rock-and-roll. Dave Gerhart’s steelpan playing is exceptional, and the Los Angeles Percussion Quartet is deeply musical and impeccably precise.
Música Casera, or “Homemade Music,” features solo classical guitar and seven pitched percussion instruments. The work explores a range of extended techniques on each instrument to enlighten our perceptions. Musical lines flow from guitar to ensemble, moving from fundamental pitches, through harmonic series, and ending on the sterile sounds of the crotales. Pitches bend and fold into one another, mixing and morphing timbres until phrases terminate with a percussive bang. Dieter Hennings’ performance on guitar is hauntingly beautiful, and the McCormick Percussion Group balances the dynamic challenges of a percussion ensemble/classical guitar work with ultimate finesse.
The piano playing of Eunmi Ko blends beautifully and naturally with the McCormick Percussion Group in Sekhon’s six movement work, Death Is an Adviser. In order to spend more time with his family, Sekhon asked his wife and daughters draw numbers from a hat to determine various elements of the composition. This chance-inspired process imitates the randomness of daily life events. The work opens up with chimes, emblematic of church bells, invoking the image of a funeral. The rhythmic durations, pitch content, and melodic contour, all determined by chance processes, suggests the unstoppable passage of time and the lack of control of one’s destiny. Complex rhythmic juxtapositions make meter difficult to discern, and the musical material often changes or altogether stops without warning. With movement titles such as “maybe today, maybe tomorrow” and “now or later,” the music suggests uncertainty, one inescapable aspect of the human experience. The performance by Ko and the McCormick Percussion Group is incredible, making this recording one that lovers of new music should add to their collections.
Sun, performed by line upon line percussion, expresses a series of moods and colors. As the center of our solar system, the sun is a violent place of energy that radiates all colors of the spectrum, both seen and unseen to the human eye. In this work, some musical sections represent the sun as a unified body, with all three percussionists playing in heterophony, while other sections are more cacophonous with three (or more) separate events happening. The balance of metallic, wood, skin, and keyboard sounds creates a through-composed experience that is engaging for all 9’30” of its duration. What begins with a fast-paced flare gives way to a calmly beautiful middle section, culminating in an eruption of sound that finally reduces itself to a whimper, representative of the life-cycle of our Sun, past, present and future.
Refuge, the final work on Places and Times, creates a home out of disconnected percussive sounds and instruments. Scored for seven performers, each is armed with a different pitched bell, and these seven pitches are presented in various orders, pairings, and permutations to create the melodic and harmonic material. This work evokes beauty in warmth through resonance a sense of comfort, functioning well as the closing track on the album. The McCormick Percussion Group’s commitment to precision, balance, and dynamic control is enviable; these world-class artists present a treat for our ears.
Places and Times is a complete artwork, thoughtfully constructed to create an enlightening and engaging experience for the audience from start to finish. These five percussion-based compositions present a plethora of complexity, beauty, and strength. Each work has an accompanying artwork on the album cover (sketches drawn by Sekhon’s wife), further tying the professional compositional process to Sekhon’s life as a whole, marrying family and profession–a true goal for those seeking both meaning and work-life balance. Places and Times is a must-add for percussionists and new music lovers alike.