John Corkill

Percussionist John Corkill performs in the Mansueto Library at the University of Chicago.

One of the inevitable developments of the coronavirus pandemic was the video performance. When audiences could no longer congregate in a single place to both view and hear an event, organizations quickly regrouped and looked to video delivered via the internet as a way to continue to produce new experiences in classical music and opera, dance, theater, poetry readings, and so much more.

This was relatively easy for a guitar duo, piano trio or string quartet. The performing forces were already small and could physically separate themselves even in modest settings. But large organizations with large forces still had a problem: how could you physically separate all the members of a large orchestra? What if you had not just a large orchestra but a large chorus and a good number of soloists, as a good-sized opera company has? Large groups ended up working with subsets of the entire musical forces available to them, so that the CSO offered chamber works online and Lyric Opera provided a series of concerts drawing mainly on piano accompaniment for solos and duets.

Smaller groups devised their own solutions, often more than one, in order to keep performing. One such solution is the Sound/Sites series created by University of Chicago Presents and the University’s Department of Music. What I love about this series is that it was born in the adversity of the pandemic, but it does more than simply try to attempt to capture a concert via video. The Sound/Sites series has a unique and integral element quite independent of the music on offer: it highlights places on campus.

The initial Sound/Sites concert, released last fall, featured pianist Clare Longendyke, who performed in both Rockefeller Chapel and the penthouse of the Logan Center for the Arts. This event only tickled the edges of what the series could do: it used the camera to view not just the performer but also her environment, including dramatic shots across the Midway from the penthouse windows. 

How a fascinating place can enhance a performance really came to the fore in the latest installment of the Sound/Sites series, when percussionist John Corkill offered a concert event recorded in the University’s Mansueto Library and the Economics Department’s Saieh Hall. 

Not that John Corkill needs any kind of boost. He’s a virtuosic percussionist seemingly at home anywhere in Chicago’s vibrant music scene. Corkill serves on the faculty at the University of Chicago, Loyola University, and the Merit School of Music, and he is percussionist for the Grossman Ensemble. 

His video concert had depth and excitement, but it also was overflowing with small, fascinating moments of quiet sounds and echos. He took on two works by Augusta Read Thomas with great skill. “Bebop Riddle” was an exciting marimba piece (with great camera work showing the different ways Corkill attacked the bars with his mallets) with engaging rhythms and great dynamics. “Enchanted Invocation”, by the same composer, had a more uncertain feel, with sounds from the vibraphone hanging long, sometimes mysterioiusly, in the air.

“Spider Walk” by Marta Ptaszynska was tense and Corkill created great texture while appearing both serene and joyful. The camera work here was delightful, as we seem to see Corkill from above and outside the glass-domed library in dramatic visuals. 

Tonia Ko’s “Breath, Contained” is a work for Bubble Wrap that is amplified by electronic processing. Corkill touched the wrap, rubbed it, massaged it, tapped and prodded it, all creating unusual sounds — none of which included what non-musicians are entirely wont to do: to pop those bubbles.

“Circle” by Seung-won Oh draws on several instruments, notably Thai gongs. The gongs began the piece resting on a table. Later they were hung. Still later they were dropped in water. The different sounds of the gongs in each section were interesting (most notably when the struck gong was immersed in water and the sound “bended”) and at times the music was almost hypnotic.

Kyong Mee Choi’s “Flowerlips” was performed in low light with the vibraphone alternating between pensive and bubbly moments. The final work was Michael’s Burritt’s “The Offering”. It was a splendid way to conclude the concert, with Corkill’s marimba seeming to sing poetry, creating a sound that was exultant yet reverent, all in the impressive stone of Saieh Hall.

Site-specific performances are in vogue at the moment, but I can’t see Wagner operas in a parking garage becoming big business or regular fare. Producing concerts and operas in spaces devoted to concerts and operas is hard and expensive enough. Blending unconventional spaces into the mix adds expense and almost always requires a much smaller audience. 

But Sound/Sites avoids the “how do we squish in an audience?” question by eliminating the live audience. In this way, there is no serious limit to the number of folks who can view a percussion performance in the Mansueto Library. And the visuals for this concert showed this Helmut Jahn creation in all of its glory, including great shots of the mechanized sections of the library.

Sound/Sites is a new approach to site-specific performance, which glories in the interesting architecture of the University of Chicago and which enhances it with great music and thought-provoking visuals. 

Even as pandemic restrictions continue to fall away, the great promise of Sound/Sites suggests that video performances will continue, even if they represents only a small part of total concert offerings. Many organizations discovered new audiences with their video events, because they could draw upon anyone with a computer, anywhere in the world. Video performances also allow folks with unusual schedules to participate, as most video events stream for at least a few days before expiring, meaning that harried parents can take in a concert at 10 p.m. after the kids are asleep. The possibility of multiple viewings with video is also great.

And with what Sound/Sites has offered thus far, the video element of the event means that it is in a format which can be revisited and re-broadcast again at some point in the future. 

I look forward to many more installments of Sound/Sites, one of the silver linings in the coronavirus pandemic cloud.

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