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More than drums: EMF percussion concert in Greensboro features variety of instruments, composers

Dawn Kane for News & Record

Eastern Music Festival percussion faculty John Shaw, Eric Schweikert, Matt Decker and Catherine Cole and two guest artists will demonstrate that in a July 21 concert.

It will include works by living and female composers, three of whom are from North Carolina.

Not only will percussionists make music with drums, but with a xylophone, marimbas (the larger cousin to the xylophone, both played with mallets), vibraphone, tambourines, flower pots, brake drum, even their hands on a table.

Shaw defines a percussion instrument as those “struck, shaken or scraped.”


“One of the things I was trying to convey was to show the variety of percussion instruments we’ve got and the variety of styles,” said Shaw, principal percussionist for the annual summer music festival based at Guilford College.

Except for “Back Talk” by Harry Breuer, now deceased, all other pieces have been written by living composers.


“There weren’t always things written for percussion before the 1930s and 1940s,” Shaw said. “Now there’s quite a bit.”

Here are some program highlights:

‘Labyrinth of Light’

Shaw and his wife, EMF harpist Anna Kate Mackle, will perform a marimba and harp duet titled “Labyrinth of Light.” It was written by Greensboro composer Nathan Daughtrey.


“We wanted to play more chamber music together, but there weren’t a whole lot of things written for harp and percussion,” Shaw said. “So we started commissioning more pieces from various people. A few years ago, we asked Nathan if he would write us a marimba and harp duet and he did. It’s really lovely.”

“Labyrinth of Light” premiered at EMF in 2018. Shaw and Mackle also performed it in March with The Florida Orchestra.

Daughtrey won’t perform, but he plans to be in the EMF audience.

A percussionist, composer and educator, Daughtrey received his undergraduate, master’s and doctorate degrees from UNCG.

He spent three years there as a visiting lecturer of percussion and six years in a similar post at High Point University.

In January 2020, he took over as president and owner of Greensboro-based C. Alan Publications.

It’s a catalog of instrumental music for percussion, wind ensemble, orchestra, jazz ensemble, brass band and other chamber ensemble combinations. All of his music is published with the company.

“I adore writing pieces like ‘Labyrinth of Light’ that places percussion in a chamber role with non-percussionists,” Daughtrey said.



‘Back Talk’

“Back Talk,” a jazzy, ragtime kind of piece, features a xylophone solo by Shaw with a marimba trio — and no drums.


‘Down Fall’

The percussion quartet will perform “Down Fall” composed by John R. Beck, principal percussionist of the Winston-Salem Symphony.

It’s based on a traditional fife and drum tune called “The Downfall of Paris,” Shaw said. But it also gives a nod to jazz drummer and session musician Steve Gadd, who played drums on Paul Simon’s “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover.”

“He is borrowing from drumbeats of the past there, and this piece plays a little tribute to that,” Shaw said.



Caroline Shaw, a Pulitzer Price-winning composer originally from Greenville, composed “Taxidermy.”

The EMF percussion quartet will combine the sounds of a marimba and vibraphone with flower pots.

That’s right, flower pots.

“These flower pots are different sizes, and when you strike them with mallets, they have pitches as well,” Shaw said.

“There’s another example of something you wouldn’t think of being a percussion instrument becoming a percussion instrument,” he said.


‘Table Music’

A table becomes an instrument in composer Thierry De Mey’s piece, “Table Music.”

Shaw, Schweikert and Decker perform it with their hands on a table. They make different sounds with parts of their hands — the backs, fingertips and fingernails, for example.

A microphone beneath the table picks up even the slightest swish of their hands.

“There are no actual instruments in it,” Shaw said.



New Jersey flutist and composer Allison Loggins-Hull wrote “Hammers,” reflecting the influence of sounds from construction sites that she heard in New York.

 EMF flutist Jake Fridkis will join the percussion quartet on “Hammers.”

‘Ritual Music’

Grammy Award winner David Skidmore wrote “Ritual Music” for the Chicago dance company, Raizel Performances.

The piece features various drums, including an African djembe, tambourines, marimba (with three players) — and a brake drum from a car, played with a wooden dowell.

Decker, an EMF alumnus, will play a djembe and the brake drum simultaneously.

Shaw will explain each piece.

“There’s a ton of variety in this program, and anybody who is the least bit interested in percussion or curious about it would be very entertained and intrigued,” he said. “There’s a whole visual element to a percussion concert that you don’t get from just listening to something on the radio.”