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Susie Ibarra and PRISM Quartet explore nature and heritage in a transfixing collaboration

Susie Ibarra with PRISM Quartet, performing 'Procession, along the Aciga Tree' at The Free Library of Philadelphia, 2018.
Susie Ibarra with PRISM Quartet, performing the world premiere of 'Procession, along the Aciga Tree' at The Free Library of Philadelphia, 2018.

Research and development is not a process typically associated with the composer’s art, but it’s become a vital component in the music of Filipinx drummer, percussionist and composer Susie Ibarra.

She’s spent considerable time in the Philippines studying with indigenous groups, and soaking in sounds from folk to classical to pop. With glaciologist, geographer, and climate scientist Dr. Michele Koppes, she recorded the sound of water on glaciers in the Himalayas, extracting the rhythms of its flow. She’s utilized fractal equations to discover the rhythms of trees, and investigated sustainable music practices in the Saharan desert.

The results of some of that research can be heard this Sunday at Solar Myth, when Ibarra will join the PRISM Quartet for a program of works she composed and curated. The concert celebrates the release of Procession Along the Aciga Tree, a piece originally premiered in 2018, on the saxophone quartet’s XAS Records label.

Susie Ibarra near Whispering cave in Dinosaur Monument Park, listening to resonance and echoes.
Tessa Fuqua
Susie Ibarra near Whispering cave in Dinosaur Monument Park, listening to resonance and echoes.

Reached by phone last week, Ibarra was briefly sidelined by a rainstorm from her weeklong R&D residency at Wave Farm, a “transmission arts” organization in New York’s Hudson Valley that commissions artists to create sonic and visual installations on their 29-acre site. Ibarra was there developing a work titled “Floating Gardens and Sonic Habitats,” for which resonant conch shells sculpted from gong metals will float on a pond; she was studying radio transmission technology and the local ecosystem to shape the piece.

“Everyone has a connection to the natural world,” Ibarra explains. “We hold that very close, and as human beings evolve and move out into the environment, it shapes us. I care a lot about the environment and my work is grounded in that, both creatively and in research and conservation.”

Sunday’s program includes new arrangements of two pieces originally composed for more improvisatory ensembles: “Walking on Water” was developed from her Himalayan glacier recordings and inspired by the paintings of artist Makoto Fujimura, while “Fragility Etudes” draws on the physics of glass to comment on the interdependence of humanity and nature. To round out the evening, she also selected works by Indonesian composer Gardika Gigih and the late Filipino ethnomusicologist and composer José Maceda.

“Susie is the kind of artist we especially like working with,” Matthew Levy, a co-founder and executive and co-artistic director of PRISM, tells WRTI. “She’s not so rooted in any one tradition that she can’t meld a lot of different ways of creating music. We’re always looking for artists who reach beyond their own comfort zone and try to make connections between music, cultures and traditions, and I think she does that as well as anyone.”

“Procession Along the Aciga Tree,” which received one of its first performances at the Free Library of Philadelphia in 2018, imagines a processional march weaving through the forests of Luzon in the northern Philippines, arriving at the Aciga Tree, a large, century-old acacia in the Kalinga region. Ibarra’s music emulates the interlocking rhythms of Filipino processional music with PRISM’s four saxophone voices as well as Ibarra’s drums.

“The piece Susie wrote for PRISM is really interesting because it has very complicated, tactically demanding passages that really put the players through their paces,” says Levy. “It also has incredibly lyrical playing that evokes the classical saxophone [tradition] and the possibilities for pure beauty. Then there’s room for improvisation where she lays down a groove, which is a lot of fun. It’s music that places lots of demand on the players, who have to be willing to give of themselves in many different ways. It’s a really vast sound world.”

Ibarra’s writing both evokes the landscape and wends throughout, massing and dividing the saxophones so that the voices suggest dense foliage, birdsong and distant animal cries, and a ritual journey. Her illustrative use of extended techniques draws on her work with avant-garde jazz saxophonists, using improvisatory gestures as elements in an overarching, through-composed narrative. The procession becomes literal during performances, which include a section where Ibarra and the saxophonists march through the venue.

PRISM Quartet (Matthew Levy, Timothy McAllister, Zach Shemon, and Taimur Sullivan) at Roulette in Brooklyn, 2016.
Scott Friedlander
PRISM Quartet (Matthew Levy, Timothy McAllister, Zach Shemon, and Taimur Sullivan) at Roulette in Brooklyn, 2016.

“The northern style of traditional percussion music in the Philippines is a lot about community,” Ibarra says. “You’re only able to play the rhythm with everyone together. It's like you become one instrument.” She adds: “Traditionally, percussionists play together as an ensemble. It's very odd that drum set players play in ensembles where they're the only percussionist.”

Ibarra has worked in both situations throughout her career. Born in California and raised in Houston, Texas, she came to prominence on New York’s Downtown jazz scene, most notably through her stint with the revered David S. Ware Quartet. She has since straddled the worlds of avant-garde jazz and contemporary classical music, often blurring the lines between intricately composed music and evocative improvisation while incorporating influences from Filipino traditions and her environmental explorations.

“While both classical and jazz come from a Western musical background, there's a place where they diverge,” Ibarra reflects. “The sound aesthetic is different. But with PRISM being a classical saxophone quartet as opposed to a string quartet, it's important for them to [incorporate] that jazz language because of the nature of the instrument they play. The saxophone has such a wonderful, deep history in several genres of music, but that unison aesthetic is very special.”

A conversation with Ibarra inevitably circles back, again and again, to such ideas of unity and integration. It might be traced back to her childhood love of the Filipino choirs that would perform in her Houston community; a formative influence of massed voices that can be traced through her work with PRISM; her percussion works, interpreting studies of Indonesian gamelan and Filipino kulintang through acoustic and electronic lenses; or her upcoming piece for a 150-mandolin orchestra commissioned by the Classical Mandolin Society of America. It’s there in the way the drum kit reflects the interlocking rhythms of a percussion ensemble, or in her music’s evolving exploration into the symbiosis of human beings and the natural world.

Most of all, there’s a stirring sense of unity in Ibarra’s ability to guide the branching tributaries of her varied traditions and influences, passions and interests, into a rushing river of musical thought.

PRISM Quartet and Susie Ibarra perform on Oct. 8 at Solar Myth in Philadelphia, and on Oct. 10 at the The DiMenna Center for Classical Music in New York.

Shaun Brady is a Philadelphia-based journalist who covers jazz along with an eclectic array of arts, culture and travel.