Alex Petcu and Peter Power: “We Let the Building Win”

The Cork Orchestral Society has brought together two leading local lights in new music for a  show in the Curtis Auditorium, playing with new compositions and touching on the development of contemporary classical. Mike McGrath-Bryan speaks with percussionist Alex Petcu and sound designer Peter Power.

In addition to maintaining a home for classical music, and a platform for generations of emergent genre musicians from Cork’s conservatories for eighty-one seasons, the Cork Orchestral Society has long been a place for classical music and its practice to develop. In this spirit of innovation, the Society’s latest collaborative concert sees composer and sound designer Peter Power and seasoned percussionist Alex Petcu come together for ‘On Sequences’, a show that brings together elements from each of their respective backgrounds. Hitting on standards from the percussion repertoire, new compositions of Power’s, and previously-performed collaborative work, the show also allows for improvisations, using a wide array of instruments that help blend percussion pieces together.

Although percussionist Alex Petcu was born into a musical family, and benefited from an upbringing within the School of Music’s walls via both his parents being teachers there, it was another passion of his that has informed his body of work, both as a more traditional percussionist, and as a researcher in sound and the properties & potential of everyday objects that create it. “I’ve got a science background. I did physics in college, actually. One thing that drew me to percussion, really, was that, I like all these crazy instruments, it feels almost like a lab, y’know? You come up with all these crazy sounds, and anything becomes an instrument, really. Sometimes things don’t sound like how they should: certain things will sound nasty because that’s what you’ve heard them be, but actually, they can sound completely different, depending on what you do with them, how you hang these things.”

Over the years, Petcu has followed in the family footsteps, partaking in various shows and currently participating as the college’s artist in residence, taking opportunities to develop his craft, and fine-tune concepts like the upcoming Curtis Auditorium show. His formative years being spent in the School of Music have been key to this development. “It helped me a lot. When I didn’t have many instruments of my own, I come in, get practice, get lessons. If I wanted to do a certain piece, most of the instruments, I’d find them there, set them up and rehearse there. It was a safe place to practice, rehearse and get better. With the new building, having the concert hall… when I was there, doing my Master’s, I could use the Curtis Auditorium, and put on my own shows, there. I also organised a couple of group projects there, and it’s nice to get access to a venue like that.”

For Peter Power, the pursuit of sound and its design has been all-encompassing to his development as a practitioner and as a professional. Working with collaborator David Duffy in audiovisual outfit Eat My Noise, Power has run shows in venues all over the city, including installations in St. Finbarre’s Cathedral, and on his own, has worked on commercial projects like Prodijg, at Cork Opera House. Shifting between composition and sound design, this line between the two disciplines is where Power’s contributions to proceedings lie. “I don’t mean to be blunt, but sound design is design, more so than composition. A lot of your role is to become part of the concept, and creative generation of a piece. You’re brought in, there may be a script, or a show idea, built around dancers or singers, and your job is to come in and conceive of the ‘sound world’ that that piece of work occupies. It’s a mixture of technical roles, like knowing how to setup different sound systems; how the software works, presentation, etc., with the creative side of things. It’s quite a funny thing: if you’ve done your job correctly, people don’t realise that it’s happening… or if the sound design is very brash or very loud, people can obsess on it.”

Taking his own musical background into consideration, somewhere between scoring and contemporary composition, the experience of working with Petcu on this collaboration is new territory for the pair, interacting with pre-existing work new and old, but their upcoming Curtis Auditorium excursion is far from their first rodeo. “We’ve collaborated before, more so in these big-scale things, like shows. In this instance, he came to me, said, ‘I’ve approached by the Cork Orchestral Society to do a concert, and I’d like to do something a bit more unusual’. I’d love to work with him, as you rarely get to work with someone like Alex in your musical career. We wanted to do some work that wasn’t just mine, so half of the show is the work of other composers. I said I’d like to write some new pieces, and perform one or two older pieces that are presented in a new way. And how the collaboration grew from there was, Alex and I went to what we called ‘workshop’, where Alex brought in every instrument he had, and we just played, and took notes.”

Speaking on their collaboration, Petcu points out that Power’s experience with big installations, as well as the rapport between them from previous collaborations, has been a difference-maker for his own process in this case. “I’ve done a couple of projects with him already, as part of Eat My Noise, one of them was called ‘Moiety’, which featured percussion, and included myself and a lad called Tomas Gaal. We built on that, but it’s the two of us now, for this gig. It’s not going to just be our stuff, it’s going to (feature) some pieces that I might bring to the table, one piece by Steve Reich, one piece by Michael Gordon…it’ll be (a good mix).”

With a world of big-hall experience between them, the third participant in this experiment becomes ever more important, as the acoustician-designed Curtis Auditorium is custom-built to deliver world-class sonic experiences from live performance. With a DIY approach this time around, the sonic aspect of it is taken advantage of in this case, says Power. “A large part of this was, it’s not a massively-funded production, so there are immediately limitations. It’s what would be called ‘extended concert’ form. It’s going to be presented as a concert, but in a slightly unusual way. It’ll be massively stripped back, there won’t be much in the way of complicated lighting, or any of that. A big concern of this concert for us was how to integrate electronic music, composition and spatial audio into an acoustic percussion ensemble. The thing we’ve been experimenting with the most is a way for the sound to blend, so that it sounds like a new instrument. We allowed the building to ‘win’. It’s huge, it’s got a four-second reverb, it’s unwieldy, and it doesn’t have a huge technical crew, so now what we’re doing is presenting ourselves before the audience, and take some risks, musically.”

‘On-Sequences’ happens at Cork School of Music’s Curtis Auditorium on Thursday March 14th, at 7.30pm. Tickets €20 on sale at the door or corkorchestralsociety.ie.

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