Where Silk Road has lead a percussionist

Thursday June 21, 2012

LENOX -- From a first glance at the early background of multi-percussionist and composer Joseph Gramley, he doesn't seem the first candidate poised to become a world music pioneer.

Raised in Oregon, Gramley received distinctions in his traditional musical studies as a high school musician and again at the University of Michigan and furthered his education at the Tanglewood Institute and Salzburg Mozarteum.

His work history is filled with positions at leading proponents of traditional, western Classical music, such as the Metroplitan Opera, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, New York City Ballet and the distinguished Merce Cunningham Dance Company. He's even worked in the pit orchestras of several highly successful Broadway shows, including "Miss Saigon," "Phantom of the Opera" and "The Color Purple." (Then there's the Radio City Music Hall gig supporting Elton John amidst a full orchestra, memorialized on a DVD release.)

Though he did take his first stab at playing non-western percussion instruments at the age of 18, it was his experience as a founding member of the Silk Road Ensemble that truly opened him to the cross-cultural possibilities in music.

"I had to satisfy a standard western art music classical curriculum," he said in a telephone interview from Michigan, where he serves on the faculty of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. "But one of the theses I've come up with is that everything we do is chamber music. Whether it's a trio playing (Cuban music) or the Ravel piano trio, or it's Silk Road Ensemble, or whether it's Bang on a Can, it's all chamber music, and it's all built around trust and communication and listening and then communicating even more."

The Silk Road Ensemble, led by Yo Yo Ma, plays Tangle wood's Ozawa Hall on Friday and Sunday.

When he joined the group -- which also includes musicians (and musical styles) from China, India, Spain, South Kor ea, Iran, Japan, Switzerland and Israel -- as a founding member in 2000, he was ostensibly representing the traditional Western approach. But he found the cross-pollination affected his work not only with the En semble but elsewhere.

His 2005 solo album, "Global Percussion," makes its purpose known in its title. It includes a wide and ambitious range of material, from a traditional Ghanian tune to 19th century guitar music and a Philip Glass composition. ("American De-construction," released two years later, takes a fresh approach to work from a more narrowly drawn pool of composers.)

Involvement in the Ensemble also led to his growth as a composer. He and the other percussionists were asked to compose pieces for the group during a week-long residency at the Rhode Island School of Design. He later continued writing songs, both for the Ensemble and his own projects. His official bio now prominently cites him as a multi-percussionist and composer.

"I waited a long time before I started to compose. But it came straight from Silk Road," he said. "One would not automatically assume a composition would come from the rhythm section. But lucky for us, the other people in the Ensemble allowed us to try stuff and fail. And then try again."

Gramley said percussionists are particularly well suited to integrate musical styles from around the world. For one thing, the repertory for multi-percussion is relatively new, dating back to the mid-20th century. But chiefly, though the scale or other underlying principles of the music may differ, his skills with one percussion instrument can translate to another.

To suit the compositions in the Ensemble, he said, he may switch between a Middle Eastern doumbek and instruments developed from the tradition of Szechuan opera.

"One of the great things about being a percussionist in these traditions is you can find us everywhere," he said.

His experiences even translated to the eclectic demands of Broadway work.

"Percussion finds its way into everything out there. All of the (Broadway) shows I've done have been vastly different in size and scope and feel, but the common denominator has been percussion. Had I only played a certain subset of percussion instruments, I would have been stuck."

This understanding led to a very practical piece of advice he gives to his students.

"One of the things I try to preach to students today," he said, "is that the 21st-century musician has to be versatile if you want to find a place in the marketplace."

His own varied career, of course, is a case in point.

What: Silk Road Ensemble with Yo-Yo Ma

When: Friday and Sunday at 8 p.m.

Where: Tanglewood, Route 183, Lenox

Information: tanglewood.org


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