Susie Ibarra: Exploring Aural-Visual Symbiosis
By Sean P. Fitzell
Shedding light on the innovative percussionist-composer-improviser's varied career and creative work.
Ibarra performs at Joe's Pub on Sep. 27 and Oct. 13 at Zankel Hall, as part of ACO's Composers OutFront! series.
Billowy cerulean, incendiary scarlet, and icy silver leapt from the exquisite paintings lining the gallery walls. Perched among them, Susie Ibarra coaxed sound from two small cymbals, rubbing them together before rolling her snares-off drum, eliciting the full range of sound and texture afforded by this austere set. Her elegant, minimalist musical statement harmonized with the visuals that inspired it and exuded the focused artistry and controlled technique that have made her one of the most highly regarded and sought-after drummer-percussionists in creative music.
Since asserting herself as a leader and composer in the late 90s, Ibarra has fostered an interest in cross-media artistic collaboration, such as the 2005 Sara Tecchia Gallery exhibit of painter Makoto Fujimura described above. When I collaborate I learn a lot, Ibarra says. It makes the breadth and presentation of the work so much larger. And you see things that werent even originally intended.
Inspired by visuals and drawing from a broad range of musical influences--from classical and opera to punk, free jazz, and Asian gong music--she has forged a sound as both a percussionist and composer that is unique. On September 27th at Joes Pub, these disparate facets will coalesce for the American Composers Orchestras (ACO) Composers OutFront series, which highlights the work of contemporary composer-performers.
Entitled Barangay (neighborhood) Rhythms, the program features several of Ibarras compositions reflecting her interests in rhythmic traditions combined with modern forms. A very rhythmic piece, according to Ibarra, Dancesteps for solo piano opens the evening, performed by Jade Simmons. The inimitable violinist Mari Kimura follows, performing a work in progress, Black and White for solo violin and sampler, from Golden Phoenix, an operatic collaboration between Ibarra and librettist Wang Ping.
The program continues with a new arrangement of The Ancients, for woodwinds/strings quartet and percussion. This versatile piece draws on Thai and Filipino folk rhythms, and Ibarra has used it as a teaching composition in master classes she conducts. It also has been played by several of her ensembles, including Electric Kulintang, which will conclude the evenings program. Electric Kulintang is a duo with percussionist Roberto Rodriguez, who also adds sampler and electronic treatments along with Ibarras percussion, keys, and vocals. The music is an engaging blend of tradition and modernity--Filipino-electronica informed by repetitive trance and dance rhythms.
Im kind of a weirdo, you know, Im a drummer, I just do things, Ibarra jokes. I dont come from that kind of academic background. Theyre different musical languages. She adds self-effacingly, Im grateful that theyre interested in my work.
In some ways this collaboration with ACO is atypical for Ibarra, who gained recognition coming up in jazz and creative improvised music. Her resume reads like a virtual pantheon of that scene: she has worked with saxophonists John Zorn and David S. Ware, trumpeters Wadada Leo Smith and Dave Douglas, guitarists Derek Bailey and Fred Frith, and bassists William Parker and Joelle Leandre, as well as indie-rock icons Yo La Tengo and Sonic Youths Thurston Moore. But viewed another way, Ibarras collaborations are an extension of the musical creativity she has expressed since youth.
Born in California and raised in Seabrook, Texas (near Houston), Ibarra was surrounded by art and music. Though her parents were doctors and not artists, they had a deep appreciation for music and visual arts and fostered these interests in their children. As the youngest, she often accompanied her mother to see operas in Houston, an influence that would be conveyed in her own compositions for the opera Shangri-La, which premiered in New York at The Kitchen in April 2005.
Ibarra studied piano and classical music from the age of 5 through high school. Seeing a live punk band during high school inspired her to play drums, because of their emotive power. At the same time, Ibarra was a talented painter and earned a visual arts scholarship to Sarah Lawrence College, bringing her to New York for the first time. But she couldnt leave the drums behind.
Then came the epiphany in the form of a Sun Ra Arkestra performance, setting Ibarra on her path in music. She was hooked and began lessons with Arkestra drummer Buster Smith and later the renowned free-jazz drummer Vernal Fournier. More formally, she studied percussion and composition at Mannes and Goddard Colleges. She sought additional tutelage with the enigmatic, dazzling drummer-percussionist Milford Graves, who she cites as an enduring influence. His importation of traditional ethnic rhythms and percussion instruments into jazz and improvisation were renown and resonated with Ibarra.
Playing with New Yorks finest improvisers, she quickly established a reputation as an original, driven, and creative drummer. With a painterly touch for dynamic control and the forcefulness to spur an ensemble without overpowering it, Ibarras drumming has served a range of situations: from bassist Parkers Little Huey Creative Music Orchestra to free improvisations with Zorn and guitarist Haino Keiji, to work in the collective Mephista with pianist Sylvie Courvoisier and laptop artist Ikue Mori.
Susie Ibarra is a unique synthesis of all the music she has played, and that flexibility and experience has a lot to do with what she brings to the music, says trumpeter Douglas. He employed Ibarra in his El Trilogy collaboration with choreographer Trisha Brown and, more recently, Blue Latitudes, his suite for orchestra and three improvisers. She has a sense of focused intensity that is rare and musically expressive, he continues.
Ibarra also worked on writing compositions. While several Downtown artists, including Zorn and Douglas, explored Jewish, Eastern European, and Middle Eastern folk music forms within contemporary improvised music, Ibarra focused on her Filipino heritage and the traditional music she heard growing up. She learned to play the kulintang--the Asian tuned metal gong instrument that approximates a xylophone--from Danongan Kalanduyan, a second-generation master of the instrument.
Percussion and drums are so old, so ancient, why wouldnt they also be contemporary? Its obvious, muses Ibarra about the growing influence of rhythm and percussion in contemporary music. And this is the direction of Ibarras music as a leader-composer.
Flower After Flower (Tzadik 2000) announced this shift with strong compositions, including The Ancients, that drew from rhythmic foundations. They expanded beyond mere drumming exercises, without an over-reliance on improvisation, though the fluid nature of the works allowed for musicians interpretation. The CD contained solo drum works, ensemble pieces, and solo pieces from the ensembles musicians, including accordionist Pauline Oliveros and pianist Cooper Moore. It signaled the broadening of Ibarras artistic scope.
The transparent beauty of her compositions and thoughtful choice of instrumentation and personnel has made working on her musical projects an intriguing, challenging, and pleasurable adventure, says String Trio of New York bassist John Lindberg, who played on Flower and is also a gifted composer. Following this initial success, Ibarra released Songbird Suite (Tzadik 2002), featuring her trio with violin and piano, a sort of hybrid of a jazz and classical piano trio. With pianist Craig Taborn and violinist Jennifer Choi, the group convincingly straddles both worlds.
Their second recording, Folkloriko (Tzadik 2004), demonstrates the trios range. Swinging blues, lullaby melodies, and searing improvisations inform the cinematic suite Lakbay, written to accompany photographer Ricardo Alvarados Smithsonian exhibit of post-War Filipino immigrants in California. Ibarras diverse background was ideal for the suite that evoked the day in the life of the Filipino immigrant worker and another successful union between her music and the visual arts. The CD also contains Anitos, a percussion duet with Rodriguez that has become a staple of their Electric Kulintang project. Using samples from this recorded version, as well as location recordings from their travels, the two have expanded and re-contextualized the song.
Now I see them as part of a language, Ibarra says of using her work in this way, much like a phrase or metaphor can be used to convey an idea in different situations. Its not that theyre the same, but there is a parallel and compatibility of expression, she notes, between words and music. Dialects, the first Electric Kulintang CD, incorporates this type of sampling and is due out by years end on Plastic Records.
It is a busy time for Ibarra, who is working on a commission for Ethos Percussion ensemble, writing new music for her trio, and continuing work on her solo percussion music. The latter will be displayed at Carnegie Halls Zankel Hall on October 13th, also in conjunction with ACO. Ibarra will perform White, from Optical Illusion: 4 Meditations in Light, a solo percussion piece written to accompany the work of light sculptor James Clarke, premiered in March 2006.
Solo programs are intense. And I dont play a traditional instrument that people usually listen to solo, Ibarra says. But it is a challenge she enjoys and welcomes, enthusiastically adding, I really love playing drums and percussion, and that focus really brings that out.
- Sean Fitzell is a freelance music journalist living in Brooklyn. His work has appeared in AllAboutJazz-New York, The Villager, and The Independent Film and Video Monthly, among others.