There’s something powerfully primal about the sound of a percussion ensemble: a group of artists making music by striking sticks and mallets against drums, vibraphones, marimbas, bells, gongs and so on. But with a group as talented as the Chicago-based Third Coast Percussion — which performs in “See You Later” at the Kasser Theater at Montclair State University through Nov. 20, as part of the Peak Performances series — the sound can also be rich and exotic, sophisticated and otherworldly.
Certainly, “See You Later” was all of those things. The music/theater work features the four-piece percussion ensemble playing music by three composers — David T. Little, Peter Garland and Gavin Bryars — with film, a well-thought-out lighting design and some minimal theatrics enhancing the works and linking them together. Cathie Boyd of the Glasgow-based theater company Cryptic conceived and directed the production, with Laura Colmenares Guerra directing the film. The four musicians — Sean Connors, Robert Dillon, Peter Martin and David Skidmore — moved so gracefully and deliberately among their many instruments that the piece almost seemed to have a dance element, as well.
Garland’s short “Apple Blossom” was played first, its abstract rhythm patterns and atmospheric tones setting a rather cool, calm introduction for what was to follow. At times the music had a twinkling, shimmering effect. The film screens were filled, at first, with slowly growing lines across the sky, suggesting planes’ exhaust trails — then later, with two women’s faces, which dissolved into smoke.
Little’s “Haunt of Last Nightfall” was performed next. A long, dynamic piece, telling the story of a mass killing by members of the Salvadoran army in the Salvadoran village of El Mozote in 1981, it dominated the evening.
It started off peacefully, with beguiling melodies. But it had many twists and turns, with some passages evocative of extreme violence via pounding, martial drums and rapidly and sometimes erratically pulsating rhythms. The lighting helped mark the shifts in mood, with bright green and yellow, for instance, at daybreak, bright flashes to signify gunfire, and blood red for the massacre itself.
The massacre was a two-day event. At the end of day one in Little’s piece, the four percussionists walked to the front of the stage, cradling dolls, then lovingly laid them down, as if putting them to sleep. At one point, white crosses filled the black screen, so much so that it almost turned the entire screen white.
At the end of the piece, names, ages and occupations of those who died — more than 700, including a great many children — scrolled down the screen.
Bryars’ “The Other Side of the River” — commissioned by Peak Performances, and making its world premiere here — was performed last. Like “Haunt of Last Nightfall,” it had moments of great, roiling energy, as well as some calmer segments (with tolling bells adding a note of formal solemnity), though I admit my attention was distracted, through much of it, by the film, which got more literal, with silent characters acting out scenes that had the still, mysterious quality of dreams.
I’m not going to offer an interpretation of those dreams — I think the film will mean different things to different people — but I think part of the idea was to bring “See You Later” back to something more peaceful and potentially uplifting, after the horrors of “Haunt of Last Nightfall.”
“See You Later” will be presented again at the Kasser Theater at Montclair State University, as part of the Peak Performances series, Nov. 18 at 7:30 p.m., Nov. 19 at 8 p.m. and Nov. 20 at 3 p.m.; visit peakperfs.org.