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Area Voices: Bemidji State University continues percussion ensemble tradition

BSU students performing on percussion instruments like marimba, vibraphone, xylophone, drums, and cymbals.
Bemidji State University Department of Music
BSU students performing at a previous percussion ensemble.

Eric Sundeen joined 'Area Voices' to discuss the work that goes into putting on a percussion ensemble.

Percussion is not only drums.

It's any instrument that is struck, including drums but also cymbals, gongs, triangles, and mallet instruments like the marimba, xylophone, and vibraphone.

Expect many of these instruments and more at the Bemidji State University Music Department’sPercussion EnsembleThursday, Nov. 30 at 7:32 p.m. at the Bangsberg Fine Arts Complex. The event is free.

Eric Sundeen is an adjunct professor of percussion at Bemidji State University and teaches the class that will be performing at the ensemble. There’s more than just percussion majors in the ensemble, also featured are vocal, English and other majors.

“I thought it was the coolest thing that that we didn't need winds. We didn't need strings. We could do everything; melody, harmony, bass, everything all with percussion, which I thought was really, really fun.”
Adjunct Bemidji State University Professor Eric Sundeen

The music Sundeen picks is individualized. As he gets to know his students, he finds pieces that fit each musician's expertise and talent. Strong mallet players end up with mallet heavy songs and drummers get the music where they are the star, for example.

One of the pieces that will be performed is called “Batik” , based on the idea of weaving fabric.

Another is from India called “Echoes of Babylon.” Sundeen also chose a the piece “Visional Train” by Japanese composer Kazuhiro Mamada. Sundeen says these choices will take the audience on a journey.

A professor of music with a long beard smiles broadly.
Riess Photography
Adjunct Percussion Professor at Bemidji State University, Eric Sundeen

Nexus was one of the initial student groups to perform and because there were few percussion focused pieces written at the time, they were mainly improvising. The students enjoyed the process, and that spurred them to write their own music the next year. The percussion ensemble tradition has continued ever since.

The Percussion Ensemble is an ever evolving event. On the Facebook event page, there’s an interesting start time listed for the event. It’s says 7:32 p.m. Sundeen explained, “So then everybody will be like what time does that concert start? Oh, yeah, it's 7:32. That's right. Just a little mind trick, I guess.”

Dynamics in performance is critical.

“I kind of see it as exactly the same as like a wind ensemble or an orchestra conductor would do... A wind ensemble director would be talking about how much air is being used or a conductor of an orchestra would be talking about how much bow is being used or how hard they're playing into the string. So, it's kind of the same thing with percussion. It's just we're just striking,” said Sundeen.

The student percussion group practices every Wednesday night for two hours and reads the music as a group. Bit by bit they work on each part. “I don't expect it to sound really good in September when we start because everybody's just learning.”

Sundeen sees this process like a sculpture. “At the beginning of the semester, it's just a block of wood. And then we think of what it's going to be as a structure, and we slowly carve it down... every rehearsal gets a little bit, you know, fine-tuned. And then we now have a clear picture of what this stuff kind of sounds like.”

Sundeen’s interest in percussion began in college at St. Cloud State University. Music, but especially percussion on its own, immediately hooked him. “I thought it was the coolest thing that that we didn't need winds. We didn't need strings. We could do everything; melody, harmony, bass, everything all with percussion, which I thought was really, really fun.”

In a KAXE Morning Show conversation about this year's concert, Sundeen said, “They should expect a really exciting show. It's going to be about an hour long... There's going to be a lot of variety of music, so there'll be some pieces that are soft and some pieces that are very loud and rambunctious.”

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Area Voices is made possible by the Minnesota Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund and the citizens of Minnesota.

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