If you think percussion music is only about drums, you haven’t met Clocks in Motion.
The UW-Madison-based percussion ensemble is breaking ground by reviving rarely performed works, commissioning new music and even inventing its own instruments. Self-run, ambitious and highly talented, Clocks in Motion is also a group in motion, with a schedule that in the next four months includes seven performances in Madison and a Midwestern tour.
“What this group is doing is something that’s quite inspiring, and tremendously unique,” said UW percussion professor Anthony Di Sanza, who is teaching or has taught each of the young musicians who make up Clocks in Motion.
“I see almost all of their programs,” he said, “and every time I stop in to hear them in a rehearsal, it just makes me very happy and excited for them.”
Clocks in Motion began in 2010 as a “graduate percussion ensemble,” assembled by Di Sanza to give graduate students a chance to explore difficult music together. Sean Kleve, today the music director of Clocks in Motion, fellow percussionist Joseph Murfin and other members of the group decided to take the ensemble on the road — and give it a memorable name.
“Clocks in Motion” refers to Einstein’s theory of special relativity, explained Murfin, who is also a mathematician. The faster an object moves, the slower time progresses for that object in relation to a stationary observer — as when an atomic clock placed on a jet racing through the air “ticks” more slowly than an atomic clock at rest.
So it is with Clocks in Motion’s yen for bending time and exploring space with experimental music. The harder the piece, members said, the more fascinating it is to learn, master and perform.
On Feb. 1, for example, Clocks in Motion will perform “Earth and the Great Weather,” John Luther Adams’ piece written to evoke the Arctic landscapes of northern Alaska and featuring percussion, strings, chorus, spoken voice and recorded natural sounds. On Feb. 8, it will premiere 21-year-old Ben Davis’ “Night,” using microtonal sixxens — a metal, marimba-like instrument fashioned by members of Clocks in Motion themselves.
Even more instruments built by the group will be featured in a concert of world premieres May 30 at the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery.
Percussion groups that play experimental music are rare and are required to look to the future rather than the past, since there is not a lot of “classical” music in their genre, Kleve said.
Most music written for percussion ensembles dates only to the 1960s and ’70s.
“Before that, (percussionists) were specifically orchestral players, or they were pianists and dancers,” Kleve said. “So there’s only been one or one and a half generations of percussionists before us to lay that groundwork for what we’re doing today.”
The six core musicians of Clocks in Music range in age from 24 to 40, with most in their late 20s.
“We’re kind of a mixed bunch,” said Jennifer Hedstrom, a pianist who has learned to use her classical instrument in unconventional ways while performing with Clocks in Motion.
“Some of us are still earning our graduate degree,” she said. “Some of us have finished and are pursuing our own music careers.”
As a resident ensemble, Clocks in Motion can use rehearsal and performance space at the university and can borrow percussion instruments to supplement those that members own.
“We’re not the only resident ensemble here, but we’re the only resident ensemble that’s dedicated specifically to commissioning new music and playing the music of our time,” Kleve said. “Our earliest pieces in the repertoire are from the 1920s and ’30s ... but you compare that to the string quartet repertoire, which is centuries old.”
Unlike most classical music, percussion music does not have a standard format — meaning that players first have to figure out what kind of sound the composer wanted to create and then devise a way to make that sound. Percussionists also play multiple instruments, often shifting quickly from one to another in a sort of choreography that’s fascinating for an audience to watch.
“Any instrument in here, pretty much any of these percussionists could play,” said Clocks in Motion’s Michael Koszewski, pointing to the rows of gongs, cymbals, vibraphones, wood blocks, drum kits and vibe-like instruments in the group’s practice space in the Humanities Building.
“You go to a gig and your job is (to make) any sound that can be produced by striking two objects together,” he said. “And you’re responsible for making it sound good. We’re not single instrumentalists; we just follow a set of rules that make us percussionists.”
The members of Clocks in Motion spend so much time together that they have an ingrained musical understanding of one another, they said. Matthew Schlomer, based at Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan, conducts the group for pieces that require a conductor. But often the group rehearses or performs cooperatively, with no designated leader. Each member also has other responsibilities for the group, such as lining up concerts, scheduling rehearsals, running the website, marketing and graphic design.
This spring, Clocks in Motion will release its first album, which includes three world premiere recordings written for the group. Clocks in Motion recently received a $1,400 grant from the Dane County Cultural Affairs Commission but mostly relies on donor support — and members’ day jobs — for its operations.
On tours, the musicians are also their own roadies, hauling their heavy and bulky instruments in a U-Haul trailer hitched to a donated cargo van. Setting up on stage can take hours.
After performances, the group welcomes the audience on stage to examine — or even try to play — their unusual instruments. Among them: the Galvatone, built by member Dave Alcorn with 96 lengths of galvanized pipe. (The Galvatone’s name, he said, was coined “by the lady at Home Depot who helped me cut so much pipe.”)
That sort of inventive spirit makes every Clocks in Motion concert a “sonic experience,” said member James McKenzie.
“We hope,” he said of the group’s fans, “they’re not going to expect what we’re going to do next.”