A vortex is so powerful that it draws everything into it, making the name of Blair’s newest percussion ensemble extremely accurate.
“The name ‘VORTEX’ brings to mind a pulling together of disparate things to create a hybrid,” says Michael Holland, artistic director of VORTEX. “A student will be challenged to perform as more than a musician giving expression to music on a page. This is a direct reflection of my experience in CRASH, Cirque du Soleil and numerous theatrical projects over the years, and it is also a reflection of what is happening in performance companies like De la Guarda, Fuerza Bruta, Blue Man Group—all of these companies ask their performers to reach beyond the conventional approach to percussion performance as it has been defined for many years.”
The music in a VORTEX performance is carefully selected to create a dramatic arc. Central to this is how one piece moves into and influences another, the ebb and flow of energy in the theater and the ultimate effect on the audience.
“Probably the first thing apparent at a VORTEX performance is the look,” Holland says. “I want to catch the audience off guard visually as well as aurally. The next element is the question of how one piece unfolds into another. This is a combination of three things—the actual logistical instrument requirements for each piece, the musical language and color of each piece, and the visual and physical aspects of each piece.
“Percussion performance is a very visual art form,” Holland continues. “When the music integrates nuanced movement into the production of sound, the net result approaches theater. And this is where percussionists in VORTEX have to begin to think like actors and even dancers. The quality of movement becomes just as important as the quality of tone production.”
Holland actively courts composers, filmmakers, musicians of all stripes, choreographers and engineers to create relationships and new opportunities. This year’s concerts showcased works and collaborations with composers Jeffery Briggs, Mary Ellen Childs, the Eric Stokes estate, Daniel Bernard Roumain, BMus’93, Tracy Silverman, and, on the cutting edge of new music performance, DJ and remix artist Brad ‘Kali’ Bowden, one of the most sought-after DJs in the world. “And I would be remiss without acknowledging the first-rate technical work of [Technical Director] Joe DeBusk and his crew. These guys are the very best in Nashville, and VORTEX could not exist without them,” Holland says.
The next performance, on Halloween, will include a dramatic tour de force with actor Jim Lovensheimer, assistant professor of musicology, in a chilling theatrical adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-tale Heart,” backed up by a percussion score composed by Michael Slayton, associate professor of music theory. On April 3, 2011, VORTEX will partner with Massachusetts Institute of Technology-trained engineer John Harrison to integrate percussion performance and computer technology with a stunning visual result.
“One huge reason I’ve had such great success with VORTEX is because Bill Wiggins [associate professor of percussion] has built such a solid percussion program at Blair,” says Holland, who joined the faculty in 2008. “For someone like me coming in with my performance background, it has made it very easy for this less conventional approach to percussion to take root.”
© 2016 Vanderbilt University | Photo credit: John Russell