Bob Becker is a Percussive Arts Society Hall of Fame inductee who resides in Toronto, Canada. In his youth, Bob noticed that his uncle had a marimba that was lying around his house collecting dust and asked him if he could take it home to try it out. After his uncle agreed to give it to him, he took it home and set it up. Once his mother got wind of this she exclaimed, "Now that you have this instrument, you better take lessons or it's going to have to go." Having the benefit of living in Allentown, Pennsylvania - which has a rich musical history - Bob found a good teacher and his life as a percussionist was under way. Bob studied various percussion instruments through grade school and eventually received a Bachelor of Music degree and a Master of Music in Performance and Literature at Eastman School of Music. It was at Eastman where Bob and his fellow student friends would form the percussive ensemble, Nexus. The group specializes in performing improvisational percussive music and is still going strong today. He continued his studies at Wesleyan University where he solidified his knowledge in the percussive arts and was exposed to many different types of world music. During his time at Wesleyan, he and his fellow student friend Russ Hartenberger would take a drive from the Connecticut campus to New York City to work with American composer Steve Reich. Bob wound up performing on seminal Reich classics such as: "Music for 18 Musicians", "Six Pianos", "Drumming" and many more. Today Bob is still going strong performing, teaching workshops, and showcasing his percussive skills. I recently had an in-depth talk with Bob about his career.
R.V.B. - Hello Bob... Robert von Bernewitz here from Long Island New York... how are you today?
B.B. - I'm doing fine. How are you?
R.V.B. - I'm doing pretty good. Are you having the same warm weather in Toronto that we’re having?
B.B. - Today became kind of mild – it's nice.
R.V.B. - How did you wind up in Toronto?
B.B. - I moved here in 1976. As with a lot of musicians... not knowing where to locate. I was still in graduate school at the time, and finishing five years of post-graduate study in a world music program – up from you in Middletown, Connecticut – at Wesleyan University. One of the reasons I was kind of unsettled was I had received a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to go to India. I had difficulty getting a visa and things dragged on for almost a year. I moved out to LA and I was just kind of treading water. One of the fellows in Nexus, the percussion ensemble that I play with, had been teaching for several years at a university just outside of Toronto – York University. Now it's inside of Toronto. At that time it was in the suburbs. He decided to stop, and they offered me the position. It was great for me because I didn't know exactly what to do at that moment. I knew Nexus was important to me. We were just getting going as an ensemble. Toronto was a very attractive place for me and I knew it well. I used to go there quite a lot when I was living back east. I moved there and it worked out great.
R.V.B. - You grew up in Allentown Pennsylvania... what was it like growing up there and what sparked your interest in music?
B.B. - I think I had responded to music as far back as I can recall, in particular to harmonies. For some reason it had a strong emotional impact – whenever I think about that in my childhood. Allentown, as you may know, is still considered the band capital of the United States. I believe there are still at least four semi-professional concert bands in Allentown proper, and several others just outside of the city. There's a tremendous amount of musical activity, especially related to that kind of music and repertoire.
R.V.B. - It was basically a blue collar town...right?
B.B. - Yeah, working class. When I was growing up, I guess there were around 250,000 people. I only lived downtown in Allentown with my family for around 2 or 3 years, although my dad worked in the downtown area. I grew up in a more rural area just outside of the city.
R.V.B. - You did the normal things kids do, like hanging out in the woods?
B.B. - I spent lots of time by myself. Hanging out in the woods, fishing, riding my bike everywhere.
R.V.B. - You mentioned you noticed harmonies. Did you hear this around the house?
B.B. - Yes. My parents were both musical in an amateur sense. My mom had definite talent in that regard. She was a good singer and somewhat self-taught pianist. My dad played trombone, and both of them were involved in barbershop quartet music. They got into that when I was in high school.
R.V.B. - That's true... really good harmony.
B.B. - I loved that music, and I still enjoy it. I never tried it myself – I'm a terrible singer. I didn't inherit any of that ability from my parents. One of my uncles owned a furniture store, and in those days people often used to barter for things(this was in the 50's), and at one point he got hold of a little marimba. He didn't have any way to sell it in his store,so he kept it at his home. He had it folded up and leaning against the wall in one of the rooms. One time when my family was visiting his family, I came upon it by chance and I was fascinated by the way it looked. I was making sounds on it by tapping my hands on the wooden bars. He saw me doing that and he gave it to me, because I seemed to like it. My parents put it in the car and took it home. My mother said, "Now that uncle Dave gave you this, you're going to take lessons on it or were gonna get rid of it."
R.V.B. - Was it easy to find a marimba teacher?
B.B. – Yeah. In fact, Allentown and that region – Allentown, Bethlehem and Reading – is a pocket in the United States where at that time in the late 1940's through the 1950's there was a lot of activity for marimba. Part of it came from the fact that one of the pioneers of marimba playing and marimba construction, a fellow by the name of Clair Omar Musser, was born and grew up in Lancaster. He went on to work in the Chicago area with a company that still manufactures marimbas with his name. In the 40's he organized a number of marimba orchestras that were 100 marimbas or more. They performed classical repertoire – mainly arrangements of symphonic music. They needed big spaces, and they would play places like Soldier Field in Chicago. They toured in Europe and the United States. When those orchestras disbanded, most of the players went back home. Musser, having been from the area around Lancaster,had recruited a lot of people from that area. He was a great teacher, composer, conductor and scientist – a very interesting character. So a lot of those people went back home to Bethlehem, Allentown and Reading. When I was a kid, there were a half dozen really fine teachers there. I was lucky – I got to study with some of them.
R.V.B. - Was one of them James Betz?
B.B. - Yes.
R.V.B. - He had his own local orchestra?
B.B. - Yes. He was a popular combo leader. He played lots of instruments – accordion, clarinet, piano, and all the percussion instruments. He also played in the Allentown Symphony and the Allentown band, and did quite a bit of teaching. I studied with him in a music store in downtown Allentown. I was seven years old when I started to play the marimba, and I stuck with it. Betz taught me the basics very well. When I got to 3rd or 4th grade, I wanted to play in the band in my grade school, but I couldn't because there were no marimba parts. Mr. Betz gave me a pair of drum sticks and I started studying snare drum with him, as well as the piano. He helped me play all of the percussion instruments right through high school.
R.V.B. - You must have excelled in high school with the extra musical knowledge that you received. The marimba is kind of an unusual instrument to play.
B.B. - Yeah. Even in Allentown it was a little unusual, but there are other pockets in the United States where the marimba is more
common, like the Chicago area for example, where Musser taught. He was on the faculty at Northwestern University. There are a few other little communities that have interest in the marimba and keyboard percussion instruments. At least at that time they did. The marimba has become a major part of any percussion training now. In the past 30 years it’s really taken off. A huge amount of repertoire has been composed for it, and expanded techniques have been developed. There are very high-quality instruments being produced everywhere.
R.V.B. - I don't mean to jump too far ahead but you have a signature marimba now right?
B.B. - A xylophone model is produced with my name on it by the Malletech company. I helped design it. This is one of my workshops – what is the difference between the xylophone and the marimba? Xylophone is a generic term and it has a certain meaning (xylo = wood, and phone = sound). If you look in orchestration books, the term marimba is somewhat specific, but really it is a type of xylophone. They both have wooden bars and they make sound.
R.V.B. - After you finished high school, you chose Eastman School of Music. Were you considering other schools or did you have your heart set on there?
B.B. - You know Rob, I didn't know anything. I had heard of the Eastman School of Music. I had some inkling about its professional level. I also applied to Ithaca College and Northwestern University – because of Musser's connection there, although he was long gone from the school by that time. He lived into his 90's, but he passed away in 1998. I went to the Eastman School to audition for William Street, who taught there. My grandfather drove me up in his Corvair. We stayed overnight in Rochester. It was an adventure for me because I had never traveled that far.
R.V.B. - Isn't a Corvair a small car?
B.B. - (Hahaha) Yeah, and it's unsafe at any speed. A Ralph Nader special.
R.V.B. - (Hahaha)
B.B. - We drove up there in the wintertime during a snowstorm, and it was pretty crazy. It's an old school, and very beautiful and formal. When I went there, it was a little overwhelming. I was a shy kid, and being in this amazing place with all this music history behind it… The percussion teacher, Mr. Street, was really fantastic. My audition was basically getting a lesson from him. I felt very comfortable and at home with his way of teaching and his manner. When I got a reasonably nice scholarship from the school, I didn't have much to think about. It was the perfect place for me.
R.V.B. - William Street was a local up there, right?
B.B. - He was Canadian by birth and yes, he was from around this area – Hamilton, Ontario.
R.V.B. - You also studied with John Beck?
B.B. - John Beck was one of Street's students. He was a number of classes ahead of me at the school. I never met him as a student, but John came back to Rochester after playing in the US Marine Band in Washington, D.C. Then he got the timpani job in the Rochester Philharmonic. He was in Rochester already (playing in the RPO and teaching in Eastman’s prep department) when I arrived. When Mr. Street retired after my sophomore year, John was appointed to the percussion professor position.
R.V.B. - You studied composition with Warren Benson?
B.B. - Primarily. I also studied with Aldo Provenzano for a couple of years. I studied with Warren during my masters program at Eastman.
B.B. - What I got at Eastman, Rob, was confirmation that I could direct myself. I was left alone, when necessary, by my teachers. I'm talking about my percussion teachers. They would help me experience certain things that I didn't know about. They turned me on to ideas I hadn't thought of, but they weren't dogmatic, and for me that was great. I am aware that there are students,who at various points in their development, really need very precise direction and exact details about what to practice, how to practice, what pieces to learn,and what music to listen to. I didn't get that from any of my teachers. I thrived in the type of situation where I was kind of left on my own.
R.V.B. - What were your living arrangements there? Did you have an apartment off campus and did you live on campus?
B.B. - (Hahaha) I started at Eastman in 1965. There was a dormitory, and it was somewhat formal when I arrived there. The political atmosphere was just about to change dramatically in the United States – the social atmosphere also. When I arrived in Rochester, I had a single room in a dormitory – by myself. We had meals served in the dining room. By formal, I mean there were tables with tablecloths. The dean would enter, and we would all wait and sit down when she did. It was very organized, formal and controlled.
R.V.B. - Was there a curfew?
B.B. - Not for the men, but the women had one. There were visiting hours for males to be in the women's dormitory – certain hours on certain days. Doors had to be open at all times and the rooms were monitored. By the time I graduated from Eastman – this is how fast this stuff changed – the dormitories were totally co-ed. There were no formal sit down dinners, and everybody was on their own. By that time I had an apartment off campus. At that time the dormitory was about 1/4 of a mile from the school building, so we walked back and forth at least twice every day.
R.V.B. - This was the mid 60's, and the folk music era was in full swing. Were there coffee houses? Did you get to go out and catch acts in the town? What did you do when you weren't studying?
B.B. - I practiced. One of the great things, and one of the terrible things... Rochester, as you know, has crappy weather. It forces a“stay in and work” attitude. It did that for me anyway, so that's what I did. The one scene that Rochester had going for it, musically, outside of Eastman's very extensive program of ensembles and concert series in the school and in the Eastman Theater, was jazz music.There was a great deal of interest and support for jazz in and around Rochester and Buffalo – there were many night clubs with live music, and some wonderful players lived and performed regularly in the area. The Adderley Brothers, the Mangione Brothers, Steve Gadd (a fantastic drummer who was one year ahead of me at Eastman), Roy McCurdy, Vinnie Ruggiero, Joe LaBarbera... I was interested in jazz through high school, and when I was at Eastman I made money to survive and live off-campus by playing rhythm & blues and be-bop in the Rochester clubs. There was a lot of opportunity for that.
R.V.B. - Were you playing a full drum set?
B.B. - Yeah.
B.B. - The main orchestral instruments. That's what Eastman was all about in the 1960's and 70's. Now things have expanded, not only at the Eastman school but in percussion departments in general, in the United States and Europe. At that time, the main things I was practicing were timpani, snare drum and marimba. Those were the principal areas that we worked on.
R.V.B. - Were you doing a lot of military pieces with the snare drum?
B.B. - A lot of repertoire that was played at that time, even in conservatories,was coming out of the military tradition. It's called rudimental drumming. My teachers at Eastman, Bill Street and John Beck, were both fabulous snare drummers... in both the rudimental quasi-military tradition as well as in the symphonic style, which involves certain other approaches to making sounds on the drum and producing the intricate patterns that are required in the orchestra. The home base for the majority of percussionists in the 60's and 70's was rudimental snare drumming. That wasn't the case with me. I started with the marimba. I was a bit of an odd person at Eastman for that reason. My home base was a keyboard percussion instrument. For most students, the home base was the snare drum.
R.V.B. - So you finished Eastman, you enrolled in a world music program. Was that just something that you were really interested in, and you wanted to move in that direction at the time?
B.B - Yeah. In the late 60's, the non-western classical, big world music traditions were starting to be in the air – not just on ethnomusicological field recordings, which I also listened to. It was becoming possible to hear the music on more commercial records. For example, I can recall the first time I heard North Indian drumming on an LP record. It was a full record of tabla solo playing.
R.V.B. - Where did you hear that?
B.B. - I heard it in the lobby of the Eastman dormitory. Somebody had it and was playing it on the house record player. I had never heard tabla before. The Beatles were an example of some of these new sounds being brought into a more popular context. Although I wasn't so interested in that kind of appropriation, the real traditions of non-western music interested me a lot. Tabla was the first instrument I got into in some depth that was outside of the western classical tradition.
R.V.B. - At Wesleyan you were exposed to a whole variety of world music... African... North Indian... and Asian I presume?
B.B. - Yeah, that department was a fantastic resource in many ways for non-western music, and a great resource for percussionists in particular. It was the first place I heard the term "World Music". The person most responsible for Wesleyan’s program was a teacher there named Robert Brown. He was responsible, to a great extent, for a paradigm shift in ethnomusicology around the end of the 60's. His idea was, if you want to understand music from another culture, try to learn to play it. Don't just take a tape recorder to some exotic place and record their music, and then take it back to your office in Berlin, transcribe it, and then write an article about what they're doing. That was the kind of thing that had been going on in ethnomusicology.
R.V.B. - The Lomax's were doing it.
B.B. - What was happening at Wesleyan was the development of a program where there were many visiting artists. These were people selected from major world cultures, and they were incredibly great musicians in their own areas. They were brought together in this department, and we all interacted. I tried to study with anybody I could. When I first arrived there my roommate was one of the great artists of Korean classical music, so I immediately started to learn chang-go (traditional Korean hourglass drum) with Chae-son Cho. He was a Korean national treasure flute player, but he also could play the drum. It was that kind of atmosphere. I was going after everything that was available. I was able to study tabla and North Indian drumming, as well as South Indian mridangam. There were several African areas represented: I worked on various styles of West African dance-drumming – primarily from ethnic groups in Ghana – and, later on, East African music from Zimbabwe. Wesleyan had very strong programs in Javanese gamelan music and American Navajo music. The department also changed from year to year, depending on which graduate students were accepted. For example, when I arrived along with my colleague in Nexus, Russ Hartenberger, we brought in our abilities in western classical percussion, which didn't really exist there. Being in Middletown, Connecticut, we were able to make contact with the composer Steve Reich in New York City, and we began to work with his ensemble. That was a very fruitful time going back and forth from what we were doing at Wesleyan, and what Steve was doing in his music. Everyone was working together. For example, the North Indian vocalist played in the African drumming ensemble. There was this really exciting communication back and forth. It was the richest possible environment. As soon as you go outside of western classical music, percussion instruments are kind of the central theme. So a gamelan orchestra in Indonesia is 95% percussion instruments along with a couple of string instruments and a couple of flutes. Things like that were a real confirmation that percussion could be a bona-fide musical voice.
R.V.B. - A focal point.
B.B. –Percussion instruments alone can carry an entire concert program. It was a wonderful environment for me. I worked there for five years.
R.V.B. - That was the early 70's?
B.B. - I arrived there in 71.
R.V.B. - That's right at the time where you started working with Reich.
B.B. - Yes. Russ Hartenberger had gone to Wesleyan a year before I did. When I got to Wesleyan, he had already contacted Steve, because Steve had gone to Ghana the previous summer to study music. When he came back, he was beginning to work on a piece called "Drumming". Russ was planning to go to Ghana himself, and one of the composers at Wesleyan, Richard Teitelbaum, put Russ in touch with Steve. Richard said, "This guy has already gone to Ghana. Why don't you check in with him? He might give you some advice". As it turned out, Steve was looking for percussionists to play the piece he was working on. He recognized right away that Russ would be a great addition to the ensemble he was beginning at that point. I came the next year, and when Steve needed more players, Russ recommended me. That was how I got involved with Reich. I was lucky that Russ already had the association going.
R.V.B. - When you went to New York for this, did you rehearse the pieces and then go into the recording studio?
B.B. - Yeah. We did a great deal of rehearsing. I wasn't involved during the composition and development of "Drumming". That was already written when I started playing with Steve. I had to learn it from him and the other players, but that piece was not learned by any of us through notation. Steve eventually created a score for it,but none of us ever saw it. We learned the entire piece orally in a sort of un-western approach, and that was interesting. The first pieces I was involved with were "Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices and Organ", "Six Pianos", and "Music for Pieces of Wood". A year or two later, Steve began working on "Music for 18 Musicians". Russ and I would drive down to New York, once or twice a week from Middletown, and go to Steve's loft to rehearse for a number of hours. He would hear our thoughts on what he was doing. We would play the music and he would record it for himself. The next week we would try more of the piece, or we would try something that he re-worked or re-wrote. For Steve, it was a fantastic opportunity to have a dedicated repertoire ensemble to learn and perform his works.The group ultimately had many really fine percussionists: Russ, Glen Velez, James Preiss, Tim Ferchen, Garry Kvistad... It was a phenomenal atmosphere for all of us – sort of a social/political atmosphere as well as a musical one. Many of us were committed to the music to the extent that we supported Steve in what he was doing for almost no money. The ensemble put an enormous amount of time into learning those pieces – preparing them to a high level, then taking them on tour, and eventually recording most of them. That was all done on a very low budget.
R.V.B. - There's a cliché in music, "It's not always about the money" but what it was about is that, you were involved in very trendsetting and ground breaking pieces of music, that are in the history books.
B.B. - It is now, but at the time we had no idea about that. Steve was not known at all. If he had any reputation in the late 60's and early 70's, it was in the visual arts community in New York City. He was more connected with Sol Lewitt, Richard Serra, and other artists than he was with any of the uptown music establishment. That came much later. A lot of the performing that we did in New York City was in artist's lofts. When we toured in Europe, it was equally in art galleries as much as it was in usual performance venues.
R.V.B. - It must have been an amazingly fun and creative time for you. During that time period you also did some playing at the Marlboro Festival?
B.B. - Yeah, I played as the resident percussionist there for one summer. I played there a couple of other years in specific repertoire that needs percussion. In general, the Marlboro Festival was very serious classical chamber music, and didn't require much percussion. They did have a resident player usually, because when Casals was there, he conducted the orchestra, and they needed timpani in that. They did do some contemporary music as well. Those performances were great. I remember the first time I played there was in 1968, and we played Stravinsky's "Les Noces", which is an amazing piece for percussion. We had people like Peter Serkin playing the piano. It was that incredible level. The percussionists who were brought in that summer were actually the ones that became Nexus, the percussion group that I still play with. It was an interesting coincidence – we all knew each other vaguely at that time, but we got acquainted more intimately through that experience.
B.B. - The only plan was to get together and jam. We all had an interest in making spontaneous music, and we were all interested in the sounds of percussion instruments that were outside of our home orchestral inventory. Some of the guys were very enamored of metalophones from Asia – gamelan instruments – in particular, the larger gongs that have that beautiful sustained resonance. Also certain kinds of bells used in Buddhist practice – bowl-shaped bells that are really quite amazing. There was a collection evolving made up of these kinds of instruments, with sounds that we found to be very beautiful and new. Although we had no idea how to play these instruments in their traditional context, since we had no training on techniques or structures of the traditional music, nevertheless we were listening intently to the sounds. The only way we could make music ourselves using those sounds was to improvise it. So that's what we did at first. We carried on with that for the first solid three years of the group. There was no composed repertoire.
R.V.B. - How long was it after you got together and created this music, that you got out and actually showed it to an audience?
B.B. - We did that almost right away. One of the fellows in the group, Bill Cahn, also went to the Eastman school. He was a year ahead of me. When he graduated, he became the principal percussionist in the Rochester Philharmonic. He had a great career with the orchestra for nearly 40 years. While I was in graduate school at Eastman, Bill and I began to improvise on instruments that we found in antique stores, department stores and hardware stores. Some of these things were found objects that were not meant to be instruments, but made very interesting sounds. We also constructed some ourselves. We began to practice improvising together, and we would record our performances. I often took the recordings to my composition lessons. Warren Benson was kind to listen to this stuff and give me his feedback, which was always interesting and provocative. Somehow he saw something in what we were doing, and he organized a concert at the Eastman school in the Kilbourn recital hall. He said to Bill and me, "You guys bring all that stuff you're using to improvise on right now. I'm going to invite two guys from the Toronto Symphony to come down with their stuff, because they have like minds." They were John Wyre and Robin Engelman, who we both knew from Marlboro. Both of them had been part of the Les Noces performance. The event in Kilbourn Hall happened in the spring of 1971. John and Robin drove a truck full of instruments from Toronto, and Bill and I schlepped our stuff over to the hall. We set up everything on the stage and didn't discuss anything. Our audience arrived, and we walked out and played about 40 minutes of free improvised music. I'm sure the audience didn't know what in the world was going on, but they responded positively. We came back after an intermission and played for another 1/2 an hour. That was basically the beginning of the group – that event.
R.V.B. - Did you learn more and more material and eventually take it on the road?
B.B. – Well, we started playing concerts that way. Very soon after that Kilbourn Hall event, we invited Russ Hartenberger to join the ensemble – it became a quintet. Then another player who John met in Toronto, Michael Craden– a phenomenal percussionist and improviser who had just moved there from Los Angeles – became the sixth member. We performed regularly – not a lot, but regular performances of improvised music. The approach was to avoid trying to compose anything, or even to discuss ideas about what we would do. The main job for each performer was to select from his collection of stuff the instruments to bring to the concerts. Then we would set up everything, and that's what we would use to make our music for the event. We went along like that for a couple of years. We were playing concerts in Canada and the US, but pretty sporadically.
R.V.B. - The North East area?
B.B. – Yes.
R.V.B. - I guess one consideration about this kind of ensemble was transporting these instruments.
B.B. - Back when men were men Rob, we could show up at an airport with 20 big road cases – foot-locker size and up. The six of us would check in at the counter and the agent would go, "OK, there's six of you and you’ve got 18 pieces… OK, go ahead – no charge." We'd arrive at our destination, and all these cases would come flying down the ramp onto the carousel. Then we would carry everything out to a rental truck of some kind, load it up, drive to the venue, unload it all ourselves, unpack, set up, play, pack, load the truck...
R.V.B. - And go do the next show.
R.V.B. - I guess families would come into play with any typical band or ensemble. Maybe one person couldn't go one time. Was it flexible? Did you always perform with the same people or did it ebb and flow?
B.B. - It was always the same people up until very recently when we lost some of our members along the way. We never changed our personnel until recently. Mike Craden, the fellow I mentioned earlier, passed away at a young age. We couldn't replace him. He was a unique spirit and player. The five of us continued on as a quintet for most of the career of the ensemble. John Wyre decided around 15 years ago to stop playing with Nexus, and basically retire from traveling. We did replace him with one of the current members, Garry Kvistad. Garry goes back a long way with many of us because he was already playing with Russ and me in Steve Reich's ensemble in the 1980’s. He was a founding member of a very important ensemble called The Blackearth Percussion Group. They started right around the same time as Nexus, but Blackearth was dedicated specifically to composed music, and the most complex avant-garde contemporary music. As far as I know, they did no improvisation. They were the other side of the coin for percussion ensembles in the United States at the time.
R.V.B. - I know you've played a lot of places and appeared at a lot of venues and festivals. Was there anything unusual that happened or something magical that doesn't normally happen?
B.B. - If you ask each guy in Nexus that question, you'll get four different answers. I would say that every concert was like that. It's a cliché to say, but I think the group would not have lasted if it wasn't the case that every concert was magical in some way. Right from the get-go at the first concert it was the most magical performance I had ever experienced. Every sound that was made on stage was a miraculous thing to me. I have a feeling that the other guys would agree with me about it too. The willingness to support that type of approach in a concert environment is something special about Nexus. Whatever happens... wherever the music goes... whether it's improvised or composed... the feeling was, “Yeah, we will support that and everybody will get behind it. You want to take that tempo tonight? – cool. How interesting is that? – Let's go for it. You want to phrase it like that tonight? – yes, great!” The group has been financially successful, but not hugely. All of us have had other things going on simultaneously to make ends meet, but given the characters of the guys in the group, it's not really about making ends meet – it's more about exploring different kinds of music, different kinds of instruments, different repertoire. Everybody has lots of interests, and that is great. Many of those interests have become part of our performance approach and programming. There's a lot of variety going on in everyone's musical life, even now after all this time. That's one of the things that keeps it fresh for us.
R.V.B. - How about an interesting venue? I know you've played in a lot of prestigious places but were there any places that were unusual, like a garage or a broken down club?
B.B. - We played in a lot of funky clubs. One interesting place, for me, was the stage in a club in Thessaloniki, Greece. It was pretty strange and small. Everybody in the club was drinking and smoking, but getting heavily into our music. It was a beautiful surprise to find common ground in an atmosphere like that, but it happened often for Nexus. What else? I can remember the bathroom backstage in the concert hall in Prague. It hadn't been cleaned since World War 2.
R.V.B. - (Hahaha)
B.B. - We've done quite a lot of performances in churches, which are unique acoustic environments. They were always great for us, especially in the earlier days when we were improvising on instruments that had this resonance that we wanted to appreciate. Finding places where that kind of sound could hang in the air for prolonged periods of time was always special.
R.V.B. - I could imagine. After a while you brought some "Cage" music into the repertoire - into the set - and also some Reich music. You've also worked with some philharmonic orchestras. Each one of those brings a different type of approach to the music. Was it just a natural progression to move away from so much improvising?
B.B. - I guess so. Looking back on it, it feels like it was natural. At first we were playing concerts that were unorganized – in other words, what would happen on a concert would be spontaneous. It wasn't necessarily 100% improvised a little later in our career. I remember we often had a marimba as part of our setup. Sometimes we had both a vibraphone and a marimba, but not because we were going to play any music composed for those instruments. They were part of the sound sources. At that time I was already interested in some historical music that was associated with the xylophone in the 1920's –popular dance music... a kind of ragtime music... although more like fox-trot music. I was working on learning the musical style and trying to unearth the repertoire that was published back at that time. It kind of disappeared from the archives of the college institutions. It was off the percussion radar by the time I started playing it, but it's fabulous music and I was interested in it. One night I played one of those pieces on our marimba during an improvised concert. What the guys had available to improvise on to accompany me were things that were in tuning systems that had nothing to do with the chromatic scale on my marimba, and furthermore, made sounds that were from every place on earth except the United States in the 1920's. It was wacky, and really fun, and the audience got off on it. That sort of thing started to creep into our concert performances. Eventually I had the idea to arrange some of the piano accompaniments that exist for the old xylophone solos. I arranged the piano part for "4 guys on 2 marimbas". It gave each person a part to play. We gave that a shot, and the audiences flipped over that music – even young people who had never heard the style before. Some older people remembered it from when they were kids. It was something that spoke to all of them, and it still does. So that became something that we began to include in our concerts regularly – ragtime music with a xylophone playing solo and 4 guys on 2 marimbas accompanying. Mike Craden played percussion. Our arrangements eventually became standard material for college xylophone training. The first really serious composition that we included on concerts was a piece by John Cage. It may be his masterpiece for percussion instruments – a piece from 1943 called "Third Construction". I found out about it not through studies at the Eastman School of Music, but from hearing a bootleg tape of Garry Kvistad and his group playing it. It's a fantastic piece, and now every percussionist knows it. In the 70's it was unknown, just like the ragtime xylophone music was. We decided to learn it. It's a very complex piece, but it's great music. It incorporates a lot of unusual sounds – not the standard percussion instruments. Again, audiences completely embraced it and responded overwhelmingly to it. That’s sort of been our approach to developing repertoire – when we found something that got a good response from us, and from the audience. Even to this day we occasionally play Third Construction. There are probably a dozen pieces like that, which have stayed in our repertoire continuously. We've commissioned over 40 pieces and premiered a lot of stuff, but it comes and goes. Any group that specializes in contemporary music experiences that. You find these gems along the way, but you have to try out a lot of other things that don’t stick in the repertoire.
R.V.B. - You've worked with a lot of different conductors... Seiji Ozawa... Zubin Mehta... Christoph Eschenbach... I gather each one of them have their own style? How does that affect the way the Nexus group would interact with them?
B.B. - That's an interesting question. In our case, we have a limited repertoire for percussion quintet and symphony orchestra. There's not a lot of music written for that combination. Most of the things that we've played are pieces that were written by members of Nexus themselves, or by composers we were able to commission. By far, the piece that's been the most successful for us was composed by the late Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu. He's one of the most significant Japanese composers of the past four decades. His reputation is that way not only in Japan,but worldwide. He's a significant voice in contemporary music. We were very fortunate to get a major piece from him in 1990, for the 100th anniversary season of Carnegie Hall. The hall commissioned a number of major composers to write works that were then premiered at Carnegie that season. We receiveda piece that was written for Nexus and the Boston Symphony. At that time Ozawa was conducting there. He conducted the premiere of it, and we played it under him a number of times since. That piece has had a great run for us. Since 1990, I think we've performed it more than 80 times around the world, with different orchestras and different conductors. It's an interesting thing because that piece is a very beautiful composition. In my opinion, it's wonderful because it subverts the expectation that you might have for a percussion concerto. It's a very evocative, lovely and often meditative piece. It's not the bombastic, militaristic, or loud kind of thing that you might expect of a piece written to feature percussion instruments. The orchestration is large and it's romantic. Like a Debussy style orchestra – with many colors, double harps, celeste… The percussionists are stationed around the orchestra. The piece is called "From me flows what you call Time". Only the first and last words are capitalized. It's a work that requires a lot of input and effort from the conductor, to answer your question. It's long – a 35 to 40 minute serious concerto. When we play the piece, the conductor has equally as much to say about the pacing, the tempi, the phrasing, and the balances as we do. So working with all these different conductors is very interesting and often very exciting because they will have their own conceptual approach to it. It's always interesting to find out what's on their minds about it, and to see where they might take it. It's a good chance to grow. The guys you mentioned are just three of dozens of great conductors we've worked with. They’re all geniuses – these guys are musical giants, and they come with considerable background and ideas.
R.V.B. - They're great to be associated with.
B.B. - Yeah, it's a fantastic experience.
R.V.B. - I noticed on your resume that you did some work with Pierre Boulez?
B.B. - Yeah, I did a tour with him in Canada. He came with his group from Paris, the Ensemble intercontemporain. We played a piece that I did for the first time at the Marlboro Festival, and have played many times since – a composition by Olivier Messiaen called "Oiseauxexotiques" (Exotic Birds). It’s a great piece for percussion, with five percussion parts along with piano solo and winds. I was engaged to play one of the parts because the ensemble couldn't bring all of the players that they needed from Paris. That was a great opportunity for me to work with Pierre. Not only did he work intimately with the ensemble to rehearse the piece and conduct all of the performances we did, he and the ensemble brought along certain percussion instruments from France that Boulez himself had chosen for my part. That was great. I really liked working with him. His conducting was like having a laser pointer aiming at me all the time. He had fantastic precision and great awareness of every sound and nuance that was being made. I appreciate that from a conductor, especially in relation to percussion instruments.
R.V.B. - In your world travels... and I know you've traveled to a lot of exotic places... especially in 86 with the expo tour that you did. Were you acting as a spokesman of percussion instruments for that?
B.B. - For that event, I traveled in Africa. My job was to find and select percussion players and ensembles to invite to the expo, which took place in Vancouver. The show was called “World Drums” – a concept developed by one of the other guys in Nexus, John Wyre. John had organized things like this for a number of other events, but that was the biggest one by far that he ever did. There's an interesting documentary film about it (released by Bullfrog films). I was a representative of Expo 86 for that particular trip. When I’ve traveled on my own to places to listen to music or to study, it's just been for myself. I haven't been representing anyone or any institution.
R.V.B. - What places did you choose that you really enjoyed studying and learning about?
B.B. - My favorite place to travel to, even now, is Japan. There are many things about that culture that I love and always enjoy going back to. Japan is as good as it gets for me. I have colleagues there, in particular one marimba player who I've been performing with quite a bit in a duo repertoire of various styles. She's a fantastic marimbist and an interesting arranger/composer. For the past four years I've been working on repertoire featuring twomarimbas, or marimba and xylophone. That's an important thing at this point in my life.
B.B. - I do a lot of workshops and clinics on specific topics that I feel I know something about. That's my main teaching outlet. I don't teach privately very much. What I enjoy the most is to go to a school such as a college or a university – I do this a lot in the United States – and spend several days there. I give my presentations and at the same time I often work with the students in preparing a concert of music that I've arranged and composed myself. I learn from them and they learn from me, and we perform together for an audience. That's really where I'm at home.
R.V.B. - How was the feeling of getting rewarded by getting inducted into The Percussive Arts Hall of Fame?
B.B. - I thought that was a real honor.It was taken with some ambivalence by the members of the group. This was around 89. Some of the guys thought, "Wait a minute,we're too young.That's something for old or dead people."It’s recognition by your peers, and that's the best kind of honor. I felt very happy about it.
R.V.B. - What was the ceremony like for this?
B.B. - That particular award is always presented at the annual Percussive Arts Society International Convention. A lot of former recipients of the award were there. There were probably 100 percussionists there that we knew very well. Everybody in the group was able to thank the community at large and express some of our feelings about what the group’s significance was over the years up to that point. It was very, very nice.
R.V.B. - So getting to today, what are you up to these days? You recently performed somewhere right?
B.B. - I was invited to do a short residency at one of the state universities in New York – the campus at Fredonia, south of Buffalo. There is a strong tradition in that music department for percussion. I spent three days there doing exactly what I described before. I did two workshops and spent several prolonged rehearsals with the students. Then we gave a concert where I played about 20 minutes solo, and the rest of the concert was together with the students. Most of the repertoire was pieces I composed or arranged. The only non-Becker piece was Steve Reich's "Music for Pieces of Wood", because they had asked for one of the workshops to be about Steve's music. A couple of weeks ago, one of my orchestra pieces was performed over in Budapest, featuring one of the great European percussion ensembles – The Amadinda Percussion Group. I was happy about that. Unfortunately I couldn't be there myself. I'm looking forward to hearing the recording of the performance.
R.V.B. - To wrap things up... how are you feeling today... are you in good health? What are your plans for the future?
B.B. - Yes I'm doing fine... thank you very much for asking. I'm still practicing new things and trying to write music. I just finished writing an article for a collection that's about to be published by Cambridge University Press. It's called "The Cambridge Companion to Percussion", edited by my colleague in Nexus, Russ Hartenberger. My article is called "Finding a Voice". It's about my experience as a composer of music that goes hand-in-hand with my life as a percussionist. I think about this a fair amount and I'm trying to follow my own direction with writing music. Although I am not prolific, I am consistent about it. I'm still interested in writing new things and learning new things.
R.V.B. - I appreciate you taking this time to speak with me. Your career has been fantastic. You've accomplished so many things and made a lot of great music. You’re going down in the history books, whether you know it or not... whether you like it or not.
B.B. - (Hahaha) Thank you very much Rob. I appreciate your interest in me and in percussion.
Interview conducted by Robert von Bernewitz
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