By Laurie Heuston
Austin Wrinkle, a member of contemporary percussion trio Hands On’Semble, thought drums were the coolest instruments ever since he was a little kid, he says.
“I got into playing rock ‘n’ roll on a standard drum set pretty young,” he says during a phone interview from a drum shop in Ventura, California. “Then at CalArts, I had access to great teachers from other cultures and got into the music of India, Africa and Bali. At the same time, I studied classical percussion and jazz.”
Wrinkle met On’Semble bandmates Randy Gloss and Andrew Grueschow at the California Institute of the Arts, where they studied under tabla virtuoso Swapan Chaudhuri, along with Terry Longshore, director of percussion studies at Southern Oregon University.
“Terry sat in on lessons with Swapan,” Wrinkle says. “That’s how we met, and I see him at percussion conferences, like the Percussive Arts Society. This is the second time he’s brought us to perform in Ashland.”
SOU’s Percussion Ensembles will present “Hands Down,” a concert of music devoted to the art of hand-drumming traditions from around the world, at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, April 6, in the Music Recital Hall, 405 S. Mountain Ave., on the SOU campus in Ashland. Tickets are $10, $5 for seniors, and can be purchased online at oca.sou.edu/box-office or by calling 541-552-6348. Admission is free for students.
Hands On’Semble was formed in 1997 by John Bergamo, coordinator of the percussion department at CalArts. Bergamo appears on the band’s first two albums — its self-titled debut in 1998 and “Shradhanjali” in 2001. Born out of the percussion and world music programs at CalArts, Hands On’Semble has come to define the state of world percussion on the West Coast.
“Since John retired from the group, we have worked with quite a few guest artists,” Wrinkle says. “Some are other teachers. Some drummers might recognize Swapan Chaudhuri, who we collaborate with often. He’s a maestro of the tabla from India. The tabla is one of the drums that really connected all of us.
“Tabla is a set of two drums used to accompany the classical music of India,” he says. “It’s a distinctive sound. We play too many different drums to say it’s a signature sound for our music, but it’s definitely a common thread. It’s approach to rhythm is something prevalent in our music, but there’s also a lot of African and Brazilian influences.”
Hands On’Semble takes drums from many cultures and combines them to create original compositions. Along with tabla, there’s cajon, Egyptian doumbek, Brazilian tamborine or pandeiro, African djembe, tons of bells, shakers, cymbals and gongs.
“Even found objects such as pots and pans and weird pieces of flexible plastic — not all are traditional instruments,” Wrinkle says.
SOU Percussion Ensembles will open the concert with contemporary composer Christopher Deane’s “Vespertine Formations,” a piece for marimba quartet, along with Wrinkle’s “Wart Hog #3,” based on rhythmic Indian mnemonic syllables called bols, and Gloss’s “More Like Chutney, a mix of salsa, Indian music and jazz.
Left Edge Percussion — contemporary percussion group in residence at the Oregon Center for the Arts at Southern Oregon University, directed by Longshore — will perform Grueschow’s “Crevice,” a West African influenced composition, and composer Bob Becker’s “Mudra,” a quintet that sets a drum soloist in front of a backdrop of mallet percussion inspired by North Indian classical music.
Hands On’Semble will take the stage with Bergamo’s “Shradhanjali,” a Sanskrit phrase meaning praise for one’s teachers. The piece explores time dimensions in Indian music. Also look for Gloss’s “At the Lodge,” influenced by West African music, and “Anyways,” written for the trio by Poovalur Sriji, another Indian drummer and fellow collaborator.
The concert will close as SOU’s Percussion Ensemble joins Hands On’Semble on Gloss’s “Peeling the Onion” and Bergamo’s “Foreign Objects.”
Wrinkle, Gloss and Grueschow are coming up on their 20th year of playing music together.
“We thought that would make a good occasion to do something new, release a new album, or something like that,” Wrinkle says. “But until the school year’s over — Andrew and Randy teach at CalArts, and I teach privately — there’s no time. We anticipate working on a new album this summer.”
The trio’s newest album, “Cinco Sobre Três: Fünf Über Drei,” titled in part Portugese, part German, was released in 2012. “Three,” the first album without Bergamo, was released in 2004, and “Hand’Stan” in 2004. See handsonsemble.com for more information.