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‘Deadlock’ pits the modern against the classic

The Boulder Philharmonic’s next concert (Saturday in Macky Auditorium and Sunday in Lakewood) is called “Boulder Sensations,” but the subject is rhythm.

Familiar as a fundamental element of music, the pulse that compels us to tap our feet or march along with the band, rhythm is even more than that. It underlays the movements of dance and the meter of poetry. It is found in the language and the scene structure of drama and film.

Or, as Boulder Philharmonic Music Director Michael Butterman says, “Anything that takes place in time has rhythm.”

With “Boulder Sensations,” Butterman and the Boulder Phil explore rhythm as the basis of artistry. The program includes two world premieres focused on rhythmic expression — “Deadlock” by Ruby Fulton, featuring beatbox (vocal percussion) artist Shodekeh; and “Boulder Sensations” by Lebanese percussionist Rony Barrak — and classical music’s most explosive celebration of rhythm, Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony (“the apotheosis of rhythm,” according to Franz Liszt).

In honor of Shodekeh’s and Barrak’s prior participation in the University of Colorado’s annual Conference on World Affairs, the concert will open with Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture.

The theme of the concert emerged from the combination of guest artists. Butterman knew Barrak from an earlier performance with the orchestra, and wanted to bring him back to perform a new piece.

When he learned about Shodekeh and found that he and Barrak knew one another from the Conference on World Affairs, he thought, “OK, here’s a chance to bring these two performers together who both do unusual things for an orchestra concert. And what they have in common is that both of their media are primarily about rhythm.”

Aiming to balance “new discoveries with classical masterpieces,” Butterman easily selected the Beethoven symphony, which relentlessly exploits a different rhythmic idea in each movement.

The surprising discovery was that Shodekeh, a hip-hop performer, had performed with an orchestra before. This gave Butterman the idea of coming up with a completely new piece for beatboxer and orchestra.

“Deadlock” takes its name from the contest between the beatbox soloist and the orchestra. It is based on the notated record of a game of chess that was created, or “composed,” for the occasion by chess master Wilbert Brown.

“It ends with a deadlock between the two kings,” Shodekeh explains. “The game is used as a metaphor or analogy for the relationship that my music has with classical music and us being a match for one another.

“Fulton took chess notation and then embedded it into the music, specifically for the mallet parts [pitched percussion, such as xylophone and marimba], so if you’re listening closely enough you can hear the chess notation unravel throughout the entire game.”

Shodekeh’s part, which is completely composed and precisely notated, is not easy. “It’s a good challenge,” he says. “This piece, the patterns fluctuate and change so much because it’s based on a chess composition; I had to break it down and compartmentalize it in my mind. It’s a little trickier because there are just so many different changes based on the chess moves.”

In contrast, Barrak’s piece does not have a notated part for the drummer. “I will improvise my part in a certain way, where I’m supposed to do that, like when I have a solo with the orchestra,” Barrak says. At other times, “I play grooves to push the orchestra and keep the beat solid.”

The score grew out of the music Barrak played on his last visit to Boulder, titled “Beirut Sensations.” He wanted to honor Boulder with a companion piece titled “Boulder Sensations.”

“I have lots of respect to the people in Boulder, they have so much love, appreciation and interest in music,” Barrak says. “This has made me feel inspired and more encouraged to compose every time I visit Boulder.”

Parallel with his previous piece, “Boulder Sensations” is in three movements, and has what Michael Butterman calls “cinematic sweep. There is a visual quality to the music somehow,” he says.

Barrak’s description confirms Butterman’s impression.

“The first movement is describing arriving in Colorado, opening the view of watching its lovely mountains in a Hollywood movie style, blending Middle-Eastern melody into it of where I come from,” he says.

The following movements include “using the instruments as sound effects of soft rain and air” and “a percussion conversation between my Darbouka and the string ensemble using their instruments in a percussive way.”

With Beethoven’s symphony, beatboxing and “percussion conversations,” perhaps the program should be called “Rhythm Sensations.”


ON THE BILL: The Boulder Philharmonic performs “Boulder Sensations” on Saturday, March 24, at 7:30 p.m. at Macky Auditorium. For information and tickets, visit BoulderSensations. 1595 Pleasant St., 303-492-8423. The performance happens again on Sunday, March 25, at Lakewood Cultural Center at 3 p.m.

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