Percussionist and composer Allen Otte is the founder of Percussion Group Cincinnati and has taught at the University of Cincinnati. He has presented his own creative work in solo concerts and guest presentations throughout the U.S., Europe and Asia. He will be performing music of William Defotis, Herbert Brun, and Rachel C. Walker, as well as his own compositions on our April 20 Cincinnati Diaspora concert in collaboration with Urban Artifact.
CSB: Could you tell us about your relationship with composers over the years?
AO: I think the only three composers I’ve seriously played in these decades of my professional performance career with whom I have not met and discussed their music are Ives, Stravinsky and Bartok. Everyone else has pretty much been or become a friend with whom I shared more than just the creation of new music, and that very much defines my idea of what it means to be a contributive member of one’s larger community, functioning in a creative input sort of way. And though both with and without Percussion Group Cincinnati and its predecessor Blackearth I have had close and meaningful relationships with well established composers—Americans, Europeans, Asians (we really did intersect even with Cage—made a number of tours with him here and abroad)—mostly I’ve played the music of my college classmates, my teachers, my colleagues, people we’ve met in our travels, and “student” composers, many of them from CCM.
CSB: What excites you most as a percussionist?
AO: What has been right about percussion for me in all of this is that it is the obvious realm for collaborative work—co-conspiracy, as my mentor Herbert Brun used to call it. Any composer will quickly admit that she or he surely knows less about the entire universe of percussion instruments— their incredible wealth and subtlety of timbre and touch, what to touch them with, and how—than any devoted percussionist will come to know in her or his years of engagement with all these beautiful objects; these artifacts of the entire history of humankind’s relationship to sound, from essential ceremonial religious totems to, delightfully, found objects of the junk yard, and absolutely anything you can think of in between.
CSB: What is the background of this concert and of the pieces on this program?
AO: And so this co-conspiracy of collaborative work: the composer with systems and structures and notions of what might not be said without her/his raising a voice, and the percussionist, with an exhaustive and imaginative knowledge of a particular and ever-expanding world of sounds. The context of the Cincinnati Diaspora I* concert is a small history of exactly such relationships. Everyone represented here, current and former residents, has had some connection to me and my teaching over these decades, and five of the pieces are actually contributions to a really lovely little book of work which students organized as a commemorative collection upon my recent retirement from ccm; some of the pieces the composers themselves will play, others I will play. For instance, Mark Saya was a student at CCM back in the late 70’s, and is the first CCM student whose music I ever played, and I have never stopped playing his brilliant music—we’ve been friends ever since. And just one example of the resonance: how wonderful that it was then a student of mine who followed in those exact footsteps and asked Mark to make a marimba piece for her.
As to the inclusion of Herbert Brun on this otherwise all-Cincinnati-connection evening: It’s his centenary year, and as the composer/teacher who probably influenced me the most, this felt like a perfect opportunity to extend the connections which my students are so kindly making to me back to that previous generation of such connections—it really is an unbroken thread whose continuation into the future I have no doubts about. The evening closes with an excerpt from a current and on-going project which is again a collaboration with a former student-turned-colleague and dear friend. John Lane and I began work together on the Innocents Project 10 years ago when he was a doctoral student at CCM. The piece on this concert is the newest addition – dedicated to and with some little quotation of Brun in this particular year. Our collaborative composition is now about an hour in length – 16 individual theatrical pieces/tableaus for 2 percussionists, found objects, electronics and many texts – all on the subject of wrongful imprisonment and exoneration through post-conviction DNA evidence. There are chapters of the Innocents Project throughout the country and we have presented our performance piece in conjunction with a number of conferences, often meeting recent exonerees who had spent decades in prison for crimes they didn’t commit. It’s been a powerful experience.
Which brings me full cycle back to my first paragraph: the creation of new music which defines the idea of what it means to be a contributive member to one’s larger community, functioning in a creative-input sort of way — to raise one’s voice in the name of something other than oneself, and to do so in such a way where, without you and that particular perceived need of input, it would otherwise not be happening. Thus, how to be useful and contributive, and yet always faithful to the art about which one is passionate.
* The Sound Box Cincinnati Diaspora II concert comes on May 30th — Mercedes Diaz Garcia and VIVE! Ensemble from Bowling Green (with percussionist Allen Otte) will play a program of premieres created for a 3-concert tour by recent CCM graduates.