The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The UW-Madison percussion group Clocks in Motion once again shows its impressive virtuosity in new music and world premieres that take listeners out of their comfort zone.

December 16, 2013

By Jacob Stockinger

Loyal readers of this blog know very well the name of Mikko Utevsky. The young violist and conductor is a sophomore at the University of Wisconsin School of Music, where he studies with Pro Arte Quartet violist Sally Chisholm and plays in the UW Chamber Orchestra.

Utevsky, who has won awards and impressive reviews for his work in music education since his days at Madison’s East High School, is the founder and conductor of the Madison Area Youth Chamber Orchestra, which will perform its fourth season next summer. He was recently named the new Music Director of a local community orchestra, The Studio Orchestra. The ensemble has an out-of-date website here (

You can check out his many honors and projects by typing his name into the search engine on this blog site.

Utevsky offered The Ear a guest review of a concert this past weekend by the group Clocks in Motion. I immediately took him up on the offer. After all, he is a fine and perceptive writer who, you may recall, blogged for this post when he was on tour two summers ago with the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO) tour to Vienna, Prague and Budapest.

Here is the review by Mikko Utevsky (below):

new Mikko Utevsky baton profile USE

By Mikko Utevsky

Friday night’s “New Discoveries” concert at the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery (below bottom) was everything Madison concertgoers have come to expect from the virtuoso ensemble Clocks in Motion (below), which is to say nothing short of remarkable. 

The group, founded in 2011 as an extension of the UW-Madison‘s graduate percussion group, has already developed a reputation for innovative and challenging programming, impressive technical ability, and concerts that push the audience out of their comfort zone.

clocks in motion in concert


On all three of those counts, “New Discoveries” was an undeniable success. It also brought in the largest audience yet for the ensemble’s concerts, a crowd numbering around 150 people.

The program included two world premiere performances, the first being Thomas Lang‘s Percussion Duo. Written for music director Sean Kleve and pianist Jennifer Hedstrom, it is a rhythmically exacting work that feels as though it was composed for a single instrument that happens to consist of two players (though the percussionist is in fact responsible for both a marimba and vibraphone).

The precise unison playing of Kleve and Hedstrom was all but flawless, more than meeting the considerable demands of Lang’s writing. Kleve’s handling of the crossed writing for both mallet instruments was particularly commendable — often a phrase would begin on one instrument and end on the other, creating a kaleidoscopic shift in color that Lang exploited to its fullest capacity. The slow movement was hauntingly beautiful. (I particularly enjoyed the use of marimba rolls to sustain chords articulated by the piano or vibes.)

Kleve and Hedstrom were joined by three more players for the next work, also a premiere: “Allhallows” by Madison composer John Jeffrey Gibbens (below), the first movement of which (“Prelude”) was given its first performance by the group back in late September. (You can hear Gibbens discuss his work in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

Clocks in Motion John Jefffey Gibbens cr MiltLeidman

Kleve (below) played Quarimba (a pair of stacked marimbas tuned a quarter tone apart), Dave Alcorn the vibraphone, and Joseph Murfin and James McKenzie each presided over sets of quarter-tone galvanized steel pipes (a new instrument developed by Clocks for this piece, and nicknamed the Galvitone) and large arrays of tuned gongs.

Sean Kleve

The instrumentation can give the readers some inkling of the innovative use of extended pitch collections explored in this extended work, which seems conceived on an even larger scale than its present form for piano and percussion quartet.

The first movement’s lilting, almost dance-like rhythms made a stark contrast with Lang’s more angular work. It seems the most substantial of the three, and is written for a smaller group than the whole work – percussion trio, with a fourth player muting the gongs. (This part of the piece was almost theatrical — McKenzie stood facing Murfin with the array of gongs (and the music) between them, mirroring the latter’s motions to muffle the resonance after he struck each pitch.) It is densely contrapuntal, carried forward by an inexorable rhythmic drive.

The latter movements, “Witness” and “Nocturne” (both including piano), contrast sharply. In the latter, the ensemble is used (like in Lang’s Duo) as a single instrument; in the former, complex and virtuosic interplay between players highlights the music’s dramatic contrasts. This second movement also features stunningly difficult writing for the two Galvitone players, whose back-and-forth and rhythmic unisons were executed cleanly at a blisteringly fast tempo.

Gibbens works in shades more subtle than the average ear is fully accustomed to hearing, particularly with his use of quarter tones, and I suspect the piece would reward repeated listening — an opportunity afforded by its inclusion on the ensemble’s first studio recording, which is currently in production. 

Clocks in Motion Group Photo 2 cr Megan Alley

I often find with Clocks in Motion that my favorite works are the ones using mostly unpitched percussion. After two harmonically complex works, each rewarding in its own way, I found the same to be true in this concert: the only “standard” work on the program, the massive 1969 sextet “Persephassa” by Iannis Xenakis was undeniably its highlight.

For this monumental work, the venue played an important role. The H.F. Deluca Forum (below top) of the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery is a totally round room, and the audience was seated in the center, surrounded on all sides by percussionists (as demanded by the composer).

SEW Forum room

“Persephassa” is an aggressive, overpowering piece of music that can at times feel overwhelming, even in the sheer volume of sound produced, and the feeling of being boxed in by that sound is integral to the experience of the performance.

It is not a comfortable piece to hear, nor should it be. Composed at the end of the 1960’s, it is an attempt by Xenakis (below) to depict some of the turbulence and violence of that decade – and violent music it is. The sound comes in waves, crashing in upon the audience in the center relentlessly. It demands total investment from every player involved, and a high technical standard of performance, both of which were met admirably by Clocks in Motion.

Rhythmic complexity is par for the course for a percussion ensemble, but the demands of this work are extraordinary. Apart from the difficulty of coordinating six separate players over large distances with no conductor and an audience in the way, Xenakis (below) writes different tempos for all six performers at various times, bringing them together again only intermittently. To facilitate this, the ensemble used technology Xenakis could only imagine at the time of composition – six separate computer-controlled click tracks, fed to the players through headphones. With this aid, performance is merely colossally difficult. Without it, it would be impossible.

Iannis Xenakis

“Persephassa” is a work best experienced live — no recording can do justice to the overwhelming, chaotic nature of the staging, and of hearing the music move around you. Motives pass from player to player, sometimes in contrary motion, around the circle – luckily the chairs in the DeLuca Forum are not bolted down, and we were able to follow them around the room and watch the players situated behind us.

Xenakis is endlessly inventive with his sound-world, and the piece moves from the initial thunderous pounding of drums to a plethora of diverse and contrasting timbres — woodblocks, metal pipes, cymbals, gongs, maracas and even siren whistles (a hand-cranked siren would have required one player to have a free hand, which they never seem to). The combination of timpani glissandi and sirens was particularly colorful.

Performances such as this reinforce the need for music in our lives, to remind us of the value in allowing ourselves to be totally overwhelmed, to surrender to sensation and simply experience our surroundings, even when we find ourselves in circumstances as terrifying as those evoked by Xenakis’ music. They open our eyes to the level of musical talent, both performing and composition, present in this city – all the players are trained at the UW-Madison by Professor Anthony DiSanza (below), and both of the composers with new works on the concert have local connections.


They also remind us of the value in an ensemble such as Clocks in Motion, which so reliably presents music that challenges and provokes thought. They will be back in February for a spring season including six more world premieres — take a chance on one of their concerts, even if you don’t usually listen to the sort of music they perform (not that it can be generalized): You will not leave unimpressed, and you might just come back. I did.

For the sake of full disclosure: I am a frequent collaborator with John Jeffrey Gibbens in his work as a collaborative pianist, and I will be appearing with Clocks in Motion this February in one of their spring semester concerts.

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