Red fish blue fish is a group on a serious mission: to present and promote the richness of contemporary percussion music. It did that handily Tuesday at the Japan America Theater, where the UC San Diego-based ensemble put in another appearance in the Philharmonic's Green Umbrella new music series.
Led by the dynamic Steven Schick, red fish blue fish emphasized sprawling sonic diversity. The concert was framed by the work of icons in 20th century experimentation. Iannis Xenakis' 1984 "Okho" is for three performers on the African djembe, who dole out pulse-driven rhythms and mine the instrument's timbral range.
The concert's closer and centerpiece, Karlheinz Stockhausen's "Mikrophonie 1," from 1964, is much more abstract and conceptual, untied to a rhythmic mandate. Center stage is the gargantuan gong called the tam-tam, but the scheme is for four percussionists, armed with a battery of everyday implements and microphones. They manipulate the instruments in coloristic, and sometimes bombastic ways, while two performers in the orchestra pit filter and mix the sound as it passes through four sets of speakers.
It's a bracing and dramatic piece, played with fervor here, in which the very physical sound source and its technological treatment embrace in an engaging symbiosis.
Bold, committed young musicians make up the group's ranks, but the central role plainly belongs to Schick, a fascinating performer who also plays in the Bang on a Can All-Stars. His two solo pieces were showpieces with a cause. "XY," by Michael Gordon--a Bang on a Can founder--challenges the percussionist to be a single performer of at least two minds. The insistent, minimalist-like rat-a-tat score is distributed around five drums, with dynamic and metric values constantly shifting between hands.
Schick entered the realm of performance art for Vinko Globokar's "?Corporel," which required him to use various parts of his anatomy and his mouth to create a theatrical-musical body language.
Filling out the program was James Wood's "Village Burial With Fire," which tapped into the influences of Japanese and Indonesian music, now pumped up with rhythmic vigor, now ethereal.
And the most pleasant surprise of the concert was Erik Griswold's "Stings Attached," in which six snare drummers played with sticks tethered via white ropes to either a central pole or to each other. Through the intricately choreographed score of rolls and accents, the quivering ropes suggested gusts of wind or sound wave phenomena, in what became a percussion tour de force and kinetic sculpture all in one.