May 17 2017 11:48 PM

Lisa Pegher, Lansing Symphony take a trip to the land of electronica



The event horizon where technology and humanity merge is not a place where you usually find a symphony orchestra.

Hold your glockenspiel tight. Friday’s Lansing Symphony Orchestra season finale pushes straight into the matrix with the world premiere of “Northern Nights,” a new percussion concerto by Ann Arbor composer Paul Dooley.

Soloist Lisa Pegher, an athletic and electric percussionist who has played twice with the Lansing Symphony to wide acclaim, is taking her third outing way, way out.

Pegher’s percussion battery will merge with a vast palette of electronic sounds, from bird calls and dance grooves to ineffable signals of infinity.

“It’s going to look like I’m Lisa the soloist, playing a bunch of drums at the front of the stage, but what’s going to come out of my setup is another whole sound world that nobody’s experienced before,” Pegher said. “When I go to hit a drum or something, what you would think is going to come out of my setup is going to be completely mysterious, not anything you would expect.”

Dooley and Pegher met at the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music in Santa Cruz, Calif., a few years ago. They bonded almost instantly over their mutual desire to merge electronic dance music and a symphony orchestra.

“Our generation grew up with this music,” Pegher said. Dooley wrote “Northern Nights” after an overstimulating sojourn at the good-vibey Northern Nights electronic dance music festival in the middle of California’s redwoods. The project came to reality when Lansing Symphony conductor Timothy Muffitt got on board and the principals secured a second performance at New York’s Lake George Music Festival in August.

Banking on Dooley’s reputation as a meticulous musical craftsman and the wild success of Pegher’s two previous Lansing appearances, Muffitt decided to slip a brand new concerto into the orchestra’s season finale, between familiar servings of Tchaikovsky (“Romeo and Juliet”), Smetana (three dances from “The Bartered Bride”) and a 1980s work by Michael Torke, “Bright Blue Music.”

“It’s been in the works for a long while and we’re excited to bring it to life, especially in Lansing,” Pegher said. “I feel like I got my start as a soloist there, and there’s no better place to do it.”

Muffitt was busy diving into the score last week, with the help of a sound file from Dooley containing some of the pre-recorded bits.

“There’s a range of sounds, from things that the audience will recognize, like a rainstorm or thunder, to things that are completely synthesized,” Muffitt said. “But only in my imagination can I see how this is going to work until we actually do it.”

Classical music that combines electronic and acoustic sounds has been around for a long time. Muffitt cited the bird songs in Respighi’s “Pines of Rome” as an early example.

“The performer has no control, except to start the recording. It fades out, and we follow along,” he said.

Modern technology, he said, has changed that completely.

“I’ve done a handful of these, but this is the first piece I’ve done where the electronics have been integrated to this degree,” Muffitt said.

The difference is like the one between the bossy computer that takes up a whole bunker in the 1970 movie “Colossus” and Alicia Vikander’s artificial human slipping into the big city at the end of 2015’s “Ex Machina.”

“With technology today, all of the electronic sounds are totally under Lisa’s control, with just a few exceptions,” Muffitt said. “That’s great, because it’s simply an expansion of the concept of what percussion is. Along with drums and maracas and cymbals and all of that, the percussionist has this incredible variety of pre-composed sounds at her disposal.”

Pegher agreed that it’s a natural extension of her lifelong curiosity about ddddts, pwams, booms and such. She has spent much of the past two years writing and performing pieces that combine electronic and acoustic patterns.

“As a percussionist — we are always looking for different sounds,” she said. “We can make a sound out of anything.”

Electronics open an infinite world. “You can make up sounds you imagine, mix them, find them, enhance them, and make them more magical than you could do with an inanimate object.”

Dooley’s score, cut into pieces and strewn all over Pegher’s studio, is an exploded soundscape of the tall trees, birds and meandering Eel River when Cooks Valley throbs with the color and music of the Northern Nights festival. The title of the last movement, “All the Lights,” should clue you in that this is no stern Stockhausen strafing of the ears.

“What I’m working with here is really intense,” Pegher said. “These electronic synth sounds that he put into my percussion setup — he’s created some of the most interesting sounds that I could imagine, or anyone could imagine.”

The theme of nature encountering technology, expressed in both acoustic and electronic sounds, makes for a neat mirror reflection of message and medium.

“It’s kind of like our world,” Pegher said. “It’s where we are in society. Technology hasn’t completely taken over, but it’s definitely layered over almost everything we do.”

“That’s the really cool part of this piece,” Muffitt said.

Masterworks 6: Rhythm in Blue Lansing Symphony Orchestra with Lisa Pegher, percussion 8 p.m. Friday, May 19 $20-50 Wharton Center 750 E. Shaw Lane, East Lansing (517) 432-2000, whartoncenter.com

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