Percussion music, as a featured entity on the concert stage, is primarily a product of the 20th century. That should make it music of our time, but it's still an unjustly esoteric field. The intriguing paradox, as demonstrated in a riveting concert by the percussion ensemble red fish blue fish Monday at the Japan America Theatre, is that the percussive instinct is both contemporary and primal: The urge to hit things goes back to the very roots of music-making.
Taking its name from a Dr. Seuss line and led by Steven Schick, red fish blue fish seems like a group on a mission, as heard in a Green Umbrella series concert. Though only a year old, the UC San Diego-based ensemble sounds driven, honed and informed.
Monday's program relied on old standbys, including Edgar Varese's 1932 landmark "Ionisation," here rescored for six players as opposed to the original 13, but lacking none of the work's quixotic appeal. John Cage's "Third Construction," of 1942, combines legit percussion tools and scavenged instruments--tin cans and a conch shell--in a tautly structured, ingeniously textured score. Schick opened the show with Iannias Xenakis' propulsive "Rebonds," a solo tour de force dating from 1989.
The program's second half was devoted to Steve Reich's 1971 piece "Drumming." In this minimalist process piece, rhythmic forces are subject to constant-yet-gradual change over the hypnotic course of an hour. Through the use of rhythmic subdivision and phasing, the contours are alternately crisp and ambiguous, shifting in and out of sync. Some of the most exciting moments are those transitions, when things get fuzzy and gears are remeshed.
A quarter century after its creation, played with infectious commitment by this ensemble, Reich's concept piece appears to have aged very well, thank you.