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July 14, 2008 | by  | in Music |
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Live Review: Strike Percussion

Elemental
by Strike Percussion
Downstage theatre, 5 July

It’s hard to know where to start when evaluating a performance such as the one the Strike percussion group gave at Downstage last Saturday night. I enjoyed it for sure, and I couldn’t really ask for more out of a show – yet I would hesitate to say that it was perfect. It didn’t give me exactly the experience I wanted out of it, but the experience it did give me was damn good in its own right.

Strike are a group of master percussionists from around New Zealand, who perform – as their website puts it – ‘movementbased, choreographed percussion’. They use both conventional drum kits (albeit in unconventional set-ups, like arranged vertically or hanging from the rafters) and traditional drums from the Cook Islands and Japan. In Elemental, they also pull out a host of cool tricks like striking matches and spraying kerosene on flaming torches for percussive sounds, and dipping gongs in water tanks to alter their tone and pitch. Audiophiles who frequently get distracted by banging pot lids together when doing the dishes will squirm with delight.

These tricks aren’t just for novelty value – the sounds are used effectively in the flow of the music, which was spectacular to say the least. From machine gun-like barrage of the first number, through to the end – via hip-hop and dance music based pieces, intricate Balinese-inspired melodies, subtlety, power, violence and stark contrasts, dazzling teamwork and excellent musicianship – I was captivated. The Strike group were very well-rehearsed, and half the fun of the show is in the awe felt at how accurate and confident they were in the fast sections. The overall sound is raw and even harsh at times, with very few tonal (melodic and harmonic) elements and no electric instruments. Elemental is exclusively focused on exploring a single dimension of music: rhythm.

The only complaint I have about Elemental is that the theatrical elements of the show are both extraneous and poorly done. It’s a well known fact that musicians can’t act, and the members of Strike are no exception. I’m still puzzled about why they felt the need to intersperse some of the most amazing music I’ve seen all year with lame, overacted skits. I understand that breaking up a large music performance helps the audience maintain concentration, but apart from making it more accessible the skits don’t contribute anything to the show. Luckily, the theatrical bits also don’t detract too much from the music, which functions perfectly fine in its own universe.

Elemental would work just as well – or even better – in an exclusively musical context, and it’s probably best taken as a music performance rather than a theatrical work. It’s more than worth going to (it’s on until the 26 July and costs just $20). With any luck you’ll leave Downstage as I did, with a barely controlled urge to tap out beats on everything in sight and renewed faith in the New Zealand art music scene.

Strike’s website: www.strike.co.nz

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