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Mission: Percussion

Art advocacy takes on strange shape and sound.



They had a mission: Build a noisemaker. Make it big. Make it pretty. Make it amusing.

It wouldn't be easy.

While collaboration between the music and visual arts departments at Virginia Commonwealth University is rare, according to performance major Peter Soroka, a few students decided to break the mold with a simple concept — build an enormous, playable sculpture to bring new art to the community.

It began with drum and percussion faculty member Brian Jones. A fan of absurdist sculptor Marcel Duchamp and the inventor of the mobile, Alexander Calder, Jones came up with the giant instrument idea about 10 years ago. “After seeing a Calder mobile I thought it would be fun to ‘play’ it,” Jones writes in an e-mail. “What would it sound like?”

In time, the idea reached a younger generation: music majors Kevin Estes and Soroka.

“Brian said to me in a lesson: ‘Man, you know what would be really cool? If we could just build a percussion instrument,’” Estes says of the abstract style of Jones' methods.

After some top-secret deliberating, Estes and Jones realized it would be an arduous task to secure money and manpower and unify the forces of art under one cause. Those various disciplines rarely worked together. “Knowing that VCU has a fantastic sculpture program,” Jones writes, “I thought it was a no-brainer for a collaboration between the school's percussionists and sculptors.”

While roaming the halls of the James W. Black Music Center, Estes came across a poster that changed the way he thought about Jones' statement. The poster promised sums of upwards of $2,000 as part of the VCUarts undergraduate student research grant.

“I ripped it off the wall and interrupted one of Brian's lessons and said, ‘Brian, we can apply for this and get money!’ And he looked and me and said, ‘Yeah, yeah, OK. Just do it and let me know what happens.’”

Estes and Soroka had their mission, but they knew they'd need a team of specialists to design, build and play the perfect instrument — an instrument that was lethal both sonically and aesthetically. Their team would need speed, technique, savvy, and someone who could bend cold-rolled steel with their bare hands (or a blow torch). They did what great men and women have done throughout history in situations like this: They sent a bunch of e-mails. To every address in the School of the Arts. Soon they had their team:

Nicholas Ireys, 21, Rachel Ogburn, 21, and Brittany Shade, 22, sculpture. John Labra, 23, graphic-design. Caitlin Bartgis, 19, and Stuart Jackson, 20, percussion. Jones, 36 and Kris Keeton, 31, professors of percussion. Robert Carter, (age classified), professor of graphic design.

Through the careful mentoring and tutelage of their superiors — Keeton, Carter and Jones — the upstarts had a carefully constructed proposal: “In culture today, visual art and music rarely interact in our society as one medium of education and employment.” Estes writes in it. “The idea is to convince people that art interaction is important in both education and everyday life.”

Within weeks they had a grant for $2,500 and a name for their unborn instrument: aMUSEment.

And with the help of a graphic design class and a percussion master class and a few sculpture majors, the students began devising plans to build a mammoth sculpture sturdy enough to stand on and pummel.

“We had to help the graphic-design students think about it as a sculpture and make it as durable as possible,” Labra says.

The result: aMUSEment is a veritable battle station of percussion, featuring state-of-the-art wooden valves, plastic spires, deceptively disguised bicycle wheels and five black steel rods ornamented with bells and gongs. The initial string of performances will feature four white Tyvek-clad percussionists who will stand behind the rods, playing improvisational music composed by Jones.

“It's a very industrious structure,” Estes says.

A tool for art advocacy in the community, aMUSEment will find a home, organizers hope, after several exhibitions around campus — the first on Friday, April 3, at noon in the amphitheater between the W.E. Singleton Center for the Performing Arts and Hibbs Hall. Estes also plans to feature the instrument at his senior recital on Saturday, April 11.

Ultimately, the artists' goal is for the sculpture to continue reaching out to the community once their time at the university is up. Although aMUSEment's final resting place has yet to be determined, it will be available for public use upon its final installation.

There are still long hours to put in on the project. Like all missions, it's a race against time. The team has crossed artistic genres to arrive at this crucial moment.

The fate of a large multipurpose sculpture is in their hands. S


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