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Q+A with Mantra Percussion’s Al Cerulo

Mantra Percussion returns to Vancouver from NY to place for Vancouver New Music audiences at The Annex. We chatted with Mantra Percussion’s Executive Director and co-founder, Al Cerulo, to learn about Mantra’s return to YVR, inspirations, commissions and fascinating new work.
Can you tell us a bit about the structure of a Mantra Percussion performance?

Al Cerulo: Mantra’s mission statement is to present evening-length concert experiences for our audiences. We venture out from the traditional 2-3 hour concert, and put together a concert composed of many shorter pieces. We prefer to present 60-75 minute concerts in one stream of consciousness with no applause between pieces and with no intermission. This allows the audience members to escape from their daily lives and to become engulfed in the art being presented to them during a continuous period of time.

You’ve studied with some wonderful contemporaries. Who’s one person that’s had a particularly significant influence on your career and why?

AC: There’s one teacher of mine who will ever remain close to my heart—Raymond DesRoches. He was my teacher while I was in undergrad and continues to mentor to me as a professional musician. The essence of his teachings is sprinkled throughout my life as a performer. Most of his influential teachings are based on the notion that us, as performers, must give the necessary dedication to a score presented by a composer. He suggests that we stop at nothing to bring the notes on the page to life. Everything else beyond that one simple idea will always fall into place if the respect to the music and the dedication to learn those notes is there. If it is missing, the endeavour of being a musician will fail.

Can you tell us a bit about Mantra’s collaborations?

AC: Mantra has been very fortunate to collaborate live with a number of musicians from various genres including jazz, world music, and rock groups (Ian Williams from Battles, Gideon Alorwoyie, Xiu Xiu, and the Zs as well as dance groups). Mantra Percussion is a group of not only classically trained percussionists but a mix of electronic artists, rock musicians, and jazz musicians as well. We are always pursuing collaborations with as many different musicians from as many different genres as possible. 

What is one of Mantra’s pre-performance rituals? What do you typically do after the show?

AC: I would love to tell you the members of Mantra have this amazing pre-performance ritual where we all sit down, light some incense and mediate before the show begins. But, that just doesn’t happen. Most of the time, we are so booked on the day of a show we rehearse all day and hopefully get to grab dinner before the show begins. If our schedule allows, we will each get at least 30 minutes of time alone so that everyone can clear their heads and be ready to perform. After the show, we enjoy hanging out with the audience and hearing their thoughts on the show. Depending on where we are bound the next day, we always try to enjoy a little bit of the night life offered in the particular city where we are performing.

What about pre-performance jitters? Do you still get them?

AC: I do experience some pre-performance jitters, but not for the reason that you might think. I pride myself in knowing everything about the music I am performing so by the time the show arrives, I am ready to go. What makes me nervous are all the logistics that go into every show we play. Any show that involves percussion and electronics comes with it a lot of logistical concerns. Before each show, I obsessively go over every detail several times so that at the show, everything (hopefully) goes flawlessly. I feel I owe it to the audience and it is the only way I feel comfortable performing the show. 

What has been one of the most important pieces that you’ve commissioned thus far?

AC: The most important composer we have commissioned has been Michael Gordon, though he’s very far from up-and-coming. Mr. Gordon is one of the three founding members of Bang on a Can; it was an honour for us that he agreed to write us a piece. The last time Mantra visited Vancouver we performed the work we commissioned from him entitled Timber. This piece has been labeled by critics as a “tour-de-force” and is truly an awe inspiring piece that needs to be seen performed live. 

Can you tell us a bit about the program you have planned for Vancouver? 

AC: The concert opens with a new work composed by Canadian composer Paul Dolden and was commissioned for this concert by the Vancouver New Music Society. We’re happy to be premiering his music. The second piece on the concert will be Lesley Flanigan’s Hedra. Ms. Flanigan, a native of Vancouver, is inspired by the physicality of sound. Lesley builds her own instruments using minimal electronics, microphones and speakers. Performing on each of these instruments alongside her own voice, she sculpts physical electronic music that embraces both the transparency and residue of process. Originally written for solo voice and electronics, in this performance, Mantra has worked closely with Ms. Flanigan in this new realization of Hedra for percussion and voice.

The third piece, Moment of Inertia by Tristan Perich, is a beautifully written percussion sextet with six-channel 1-bit electronics. The composition creates a beautiful and unique sound-world intertwined between 1-bit electronics and resonant metallic percussion instruments in a way only Mr. Perich can only masterfully do.

The concert will close with Aaron Siegel’s A Great Many written for percussion and clarinets performed by the virtuosic Canadian clarinetist, Ms. Christa Van Alstine. Mr. Siegel’s inquisitive and playful compositions represent his personal vision of how we live with and respond to the sounds in our world. In Aaron’s piece, he exquisitely intertwines melody, harmony, timbre, and rhythm creating numerous sound palates for the listener.

What are you most looking forward to about being back in YVR?

AC: Besides looking forward to being back in such a beautiful city, we always look forward to the fine food and drink offered in Vancouver and enjoy the wonderful company of the staff of the Vancouver New Music Society.

Describe the program in just three words.

AC: Striking Percussion Premieres. Screen Shot 2015-09-12 at 10.17.41 AM

Mantra Percussion will perform at The Annex on April 8 at 8:00pm. Free concert pre-chat at 7:15pm. Get your tickets here.
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Al Cerulo, a founding member of Mantra Percussion, has been praised for his work as a musician and educator, both nationally and internationally. Committed to honouring the past and expanding the future of percussion music, Mantra Percussion brings to life new works for percussion by living composers, collaborates with artists from diverse genres and styles, and questions what it means to communicate music with percussion instruments. Mantra Percussion engages new audiences by challenging the standard concert format through evening-length events that look toward a grander artistic vision.