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The duality of the vibraphone

Robert Johnson Jr.

On Monday, Oct. 29, North Carolina-based percussionist Joseph Van Hassel played an hour-long concert in Framingham State University’s Heineman Ecumenical Center as part of the Midday Performances series.

Van Hassel’s percussion work revolves around the vibraphone, an instrument that is similar to the xylophone, but the vibraphone uses aluminum bars instead of wooden bars, allowing the music to come out sharper and louder than xylophone listeners are accustomed to.

After communication arts professor Christian Gentry’s opening remarks, Van Hassel began performing his first piece, a world premiere composition by contemporary American composer Mara Helmuth. It was a long, ethereal-sounding romp that makes use of computer-generated noises from his laptop and long, sustained vibraphone notes. At some points in the composition, Van Hassel played with four mallets and he occasionally switched to two.

Van Hassel told the audience about the computer-generated ambiance – “That’s why you can hear birds chirping. ... I recorded it outside and decided to make it part of the song.”

The next piece, David Macbride’s “Full Nelson,” is a song played in two short movements. Macbride was a Massachusetts-based composer who died in September.

“He was very interested in silence,” Van Hassel said before he started playing.

“Full Nelson” is a whimsical, spy-espionage sounding song, filled with repetitive measures, but with unique high points to break the spots of monotony. The piece also made use of piercing high notes on the right side of the vibraphone and slow, quiet points of buildup and suspense to blow the audience away with a sudden explosion of notes.

Another world premiere followed Macbride’s composition, this one by New York-based composer Drew Krause, titled “Flight.”

Krause’s work dates to the 1980’s. Van Hassel met Krause at a steel drum festival and asked him to write a piece for this concert.

“Hopefully, this piece gives you the sense of freedom that Krause intended,” Van Hassel said.

“Flight” was one of the steadier pieces played during the concert, maintaining a constant tempo throughout – as such, it had more structure compared to the other pieces.

Michael John Fink’s “For Vibraphone” followed right after Macbride’s composition, and it was not just the oldest piece on the program, it was the shortest one as well.

Originally released in 1976, “For Vibraphone” was described by Van Hassel as “very slow-moving music, lots of space, very calming...” and it truly showed. Van Hassel played exclusively with two mallets during the piece, creating a moment of calm for both the audience and himself.

The final piece, another “world premiere,” was composed and prefaced by his brother, Dan Van Hassel.

“Joseph and I have been working together for a long time,” Dan Van Hassel explained. “The thing about vibraphone is that the vibraphone can be used as two different instruments.”

This piece, titled “Fracture,” was full of variety in terms of sounds. Joseph Van Hassel lived up to Dan Van Hassel’s claims and used the vibraphone as is, but, eventually, made further use of it, hitting the sides of the vibraphone and underneath the bars.

As the piece proceeded, the intricacies began to stack upon each other – electronic dance music and pop-inspired beats and techniques like drum stutters, imitation crossfade and guitar sounds, among other techno sounds livened up the performance. It was a true showcase of what the vibraphone can do, set to a fast-paced tune that many spectators in the audience enjoyed.

The next Midday Performance in the series will be on Nov. 26 in the Heineman Ecumenical Center at 1:30 p.m., featuring professor Christian Gentry’s electronic music project, drone_vox_jams.


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