The Experience of INUKSUIT

This whole thing came across my radar a while back. Third Coast Percussion (TCP), from Chicago, and Present Music, from Milwaukee, (2 music groups I have followed over the years, Present Music since its beginnings) were looking for 99 Percussionists to present John Luther Adams', Inuksuit, in September. So I wrote back immediately to say that I was interested in participating. It's really interesting to be involved in a major project like this and work with some great people. TCP had done this in Chicago at Millennium Park last year. It had been memorable because of the pouring rain all day, making it a particular challenge to both performer and spectator alike.

Inuksuit is as much an event as it is a performance, so it's a good thing to experience. The whole performance will feature 99 Percussionists spread outside at the Lynden Sculpture Gardens here in Milwaukee. I'm intrigued by the event nature of this setting as much as anything.

There are 3 different groups of Percussionists/instrumentation, and given the choice, I picked group 3, which is metal percussion: Gong, cymbals, glockenspiel, and a whirly tube. I might as well stick to my thing. It's interesting too, that over the past 10 or so years, I have almost exclusively played my own music. So playing something else will be an interesting endeavor.

So here it is the week before and I need to:

  1. Get my set up put together.
  2. Practice the music.
  3. Rehearse on Friday with everyone.
  4. Rehearse and perform on Saturday.

I've been checking out the various YouTube videos of different performances and it makes no sense in one way. This is a work on such a grand scale that you can't really pick up on individual parts, you can only get a feel for the gestalt. One reason is that everyone is playing different parts. I have 4 different sections that are different from everyone else. Another reason is that some of the music is really quite impossible to play, so you do the best you can, and as Doug told us, "Pick out the notes you play." So I've tried to work out my Inuksuit Rising & Inuksuit Falling parts by finding a pulse I can use. Still, it's a bit of luck and improvisation.

My Rewritten Stack Part in Graph Notation with Note Ratios


It's now Thursday, the day before the big rehearsal. I'm finally sorting out my gear and how I will put it together. Yeah, I often wait until the last minute on these things. Ideas have been flashing through my brainbox for weeks now, but I'm only just making them a physical reality. I've decided to build an all-in-one rack for everything.

  1. Because it will be sturdy. 
  2. Because it will be portable. 
  3. Because I have all the parts and love to build stuff.
  4. Because it will look organized and be aesthetically pleasing (at least to me).

I've gone through a few different variations and finally settled on something that works real well.

My Set Up


It's Friday and rehearsal. We all gather at a high school auditorium, which is not the ideal place to try and cram 90 or so percussionists into. People are on the stage, in front of the pit (me), in the isles, and the balcony. Anywhere you can find a sort of level spot to set up on. It's interesting to say the least. But it will work.

Everything has been put together by percussionists Amy Garapic and  Doug Perkins. Amy organized getting the people together, and Doug is organizing the performance. Both of them have performed this numerous times, including the recent outdoor recording for Cantalope Records. I would say Doug is conducting, but there really is no conductor. As he explained to us, "You're really on your own. Think of your part as being a soloist, but within the larger group." With every part different, this makes sense. You can't really listen to anyone else to help your part. Add the fact that we will be spread out over a 40 acre park, and you really are on your own. But that's all a part of it: the music is supposed to change either as you walk around, or even if you stay in one place.

So rehearsal went well. It was a bit loud in there when everyone was playing, but things seemed to come together. Tomorrow should fun.

View From The Top


Saturday is here and the threat of rain looms above us. We have a rain date for tomorrow, but I got a message that today is on. I get to the Gardens around 11AM to set up. Rehearsal starts at 12:30, and then the performance is at 4PM. I drive way around on the service road to get to my spot, then haul my gear about 100 yards over the lawn to set up near the lake in the middle. I move close enough to a big tree to get some shade in case the sun comes out, although it's completely clouded over right now. There's also thunder in the distance. We are told to come into the house if there's lightning. Probably a good idea. Most of us get set up before it starts to sprinkle. The wind picks up, so I take my Gong off the stand and put it on my cases I've tucked under the tree. I don't need the wind to knock everything over. Then it starts to rain more and I head to the house.

Load In by the Lake

Set Up by the Lake

Eventually, we're all crammed inside the main house watching the rain come down. Soon it is just a massive downpour. Some people venture out to rescue drums from the rain. Most of us just watch and hope it passes. People are checking the weather radar and it looks like the storm should pass through, then clear skies. As it is, the rain is cutting into our rehearsal schedule. The rain eventually tapers off and stops, only to be replaced by a second front just as bad as the first. Because the schedule is goofed up, they decide to give us lunch while we're all waiting. Then hopefully we can get in a bit of rehearsal after the rain during what was supposed to be lunch time. This is fine because we're all sort of bored watching the rain anyway.

Watching the Rain…

We finish lunch and the rain ends. The skies to the west look clearer, and things are looking up. Everyone ventures out to find out how their gear is. My stuff is soaked, but because it's all metal, it's ok. The water does dampen the cymbals a lot, so I need to shake them off and dry them as best as I can. The only casualty is my fiber Gong case: it's rather soaked and warped. I shake it off and lay it flat, then put my big plastic hardware case on top of it to help it stay flat while it hopefully dries off. Meanwhile, the skies are getting better.

We all eventually gather on a slight hill in the center of the Gardens to start reheasing. Because of the time, we will only rehearse the opening and the ending, just to get the timing thing down. The whole thing opens with us in a tight circle. The players stagger their starts and then slowly make their way to their stations out in the Gardens. This, and the ending, go well, so we have some time off to hang and relax.

At 3:45 we gather in a glen behind some trees. The sun is out, the weather is fine. Everyone is relieved.  Parking at the Gardens is limited and taken up by all the performers. So the audience has to shuttle in from a park and ride side down the road. At 4PM we're told to wait a bit more because one of the shuttle has broken down. Finally, we're given the word and start walking out from around the trees to our starting point. There are hundreds and hundreds of people there! I had worried that the rain would keep people away, even after it ended, but all I can see are spectators. This is great.

The Beginning Huddle

So we start and move out. The ground is wet and muddy in places, but the sun is shining. Now the interesting thing about this piece is as we disperse throughout the park, so does the audience. Some people are content to sit in one place and experience things, while others move freely around the Gardens. It's a very different experience being among the audience. While playing at my station, I have people come up next to me, behind me, all around me. They lean in and take photos, point, and then walk to the next performer. This is truly an interactive performance.

Things move along and when I finish, I slowly make my way back to the starting place. Eventually all the sounds stop and most of the performers and spectators are back at the beginning. Then there is applause all around and that's it. Amazingly, everything worked, despite rain. It's been quite the experience for all. If you ever get a chance to see a performance of Inuksuit, I highly recommend it.

My thanks go out to Present Music and Third Coast percussion for presenting this, and especially to Amy and Doug who put it all together. It was a monumental undertaking that those involved in will never forget.

Here is a review from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

There's also video: Inuksuit Part 1 & Inuksuit Part 2.

~ MB

Addendum: Another Milwaukee review from the Shepherd Express.

And still another review from Milwaukee

Addendum II, December 2013: A fantastic recording of Inuksuit is out on Cantaloupe Records. Put together and produced by Doug Perkins, it manages to capture the experience of Inuksuit in a very wonderful way. It's also been chosen for many end of the year lists as a "Best Recording of 2013." Congrats to Doug and everyone involved for an outstanding recording!

You can get it from Amazon, or order it direct from Cantaloupe Music  (like I did - support the independant labels, and also check out a lot of other great recordings Cantaloupe has!)


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