Performing to the beat of a different drummer

Aiyun Huang, who teaches percussion at the Schulich School of Music, will be performing her unique style of percussion theatre on Friday at 7:30 p.m. at Pollack Hall.
Percussion theatre performer Aiyun Huang will be in concert Friday at 7:30 p.m. at Pollack Hall. / Photo: Bo Huang.

Aiyun Huang’s percussion theatre

By Katherine Gombay




As she mouths the sounds, Aiyun Huang’s hands move across her face, mashing her cheeks around and then framing her face in different ways. Later in the piece, Huang strokes her torso and then hits her hand against her head, in a piece where her instrument is her own body.

Huang teaches percussion at the Schulich School of Music and the performance of Vinko Globokar’s piece Corporel is from a newly released DVD called Save Percussion Theater on the prestigious Mode label. Using sounds, gestures, singing and dancing as well as instruments that range from drums to castanets, to xylophones and chairs, Huang plays music that often tells stories through sound and rhythms in fractured and unexpected ways.

Huang began her musical adventure as many children do, by learning how to play the piano – though at the time what she really wanted to do was dance. But the idea didn’t go over well with her parents. “My mother just said, ‘no you can’t do dance’,” says Huang mimicking a strict parental voice. She then adds laughing, “She was quite conservative at the time and didn’t like the fact that most dancers were wearing very few clothes.

“She’s come a long way since. She just didn’t want me to be one of THOSE.”

Happy drummers

Huang grew up in the fishing port of Kaohsiung in southern Taiwan. She still remembers her excitement on hearing American vibraphone player David Friedman perform at the first international music festival to be held in the city. She started taking percussion lessons and it became obvious to her that this was what she wanted to do. “My percussion teachers were all inspirational, because this was new and they were all really into it. It seemed like all the people who were playing percussion were much happier than other musicians,” says Huang.

She started flying to Taipei twice a month for lessons because there was no one in her city who taught percussion. By the time she was in grade 10 she knew that this was what she wanted to do. “My parents were supportive,” says Huang with a big laugh, “partially because they didn’t really know what they were getting into.”

After the family moved to Toronto, Huang began studying percussion at the University of Toronto, and then went on to Paris to continue her training. She ended up studying with the person who had originally taught her first percussion teacher in Taiwan. “That was when I realized that there were all sorts of other things that came to me naturally, like incorporating movements.”

Huang goes on to talk about the physical challenges of the work.”As percussionists, and especially if you’re small [as she is], you have to either know how to work with your body instinctually or you have to learn, because playing percussion is very physical and sometimes you have to get around a lot of space.” She adds that until about twenty years ago, most percussionists were men, so most of the repertoire that is performed today was written for the male body.

Developing her own style

As a result, Huang has had to develop techniques to adapt her performance to make sure that she doesn’t end up with back aches and that she will be able to continue performing for many years still. In order to do so, Huang has developed her own particular style, not only in terms of performance techniques, but also in the repertoire she chooses to play – in her case, increasingly based on percussion theatre. “You have to develop gestures that are specific to your own build and limitations. I try to point out to my students that being a percussionist isn’t just from here down (she points to her arms and upper torso) but being a percussionist is the whole thing,” Huang says as she makes a gesture whose sweep includes her whole body.

She adds, “When I got to Paris I discovered that as a percussionist I enjoyed all the dance and gestures and singing too. It became clear, that for me, percussion is not just about hitting the drums but about putting all these things together, and hitting the drums is just part of the deal.” What she has developed as a result, is a performance repertoire of percussion theatre that is sometimes disturbing, sometimes funny and entirely startling.

To see what the whole deal looks like, you can see Huang in concert tomorrow, Oct. 19, at 7:30 p.m. at Pollack Hall. The concert is part of the Schulich School of Music’s Year of Contemporary Music performances series. For details about this and other concerts that are part of this special focus go here.