“Talking Gong” for flute, percussion and piano debuts at SUNY New Paltz

Claire Chase, Alex Peh (photo by Guy C. Peifer) and Susie Ibarra (photo by Tony Cenicola).

The SUNY New Paltz music department will debut the new Davenport American Music Series with a world premiere performance of “Talking Gong” for flute, percussion and piano by jazz percussionist and experimental musician, Susie Ibarra. The concert will be held on campus at Studley Theatre on Saturday, March 10 at 8 p.m. Tickets cost $8 for adults, $6 for seniors, faculty and staff, and $3 for students.

Ibarra will be accompanied by SUNY New Paltz music professor Alex Peh, coordinator of the school’s piano program, and renowned flautist Claire Chase, recipient of a 2012 MacArthur Foundation fellowship (the annual award known as a “genius grant”). The three will be joined by a gong ensemble made up of students from the college and community members. The evening will close with a solo performance by Chase, of a portion of a new work by Marcos Balter, titled “PAN,” for solo flute accompanied by a community ensemble. Members of the New Paltz community will collaborate in creating accompanying sounds with objects such as rocks rubbing together or the rims of wine glasses.


Ibarra’s compositions and performances often blend Filipino folkloric and indigenous music traditions with jazz, classical, opera, electronic and avant-garde styles. “Talking Gong” was inspired by the gong chime culture of Southeast Asia, particularly the rhythms and language of the gandingan, the Philippine Maguindanaon “talking gongs.”

The gandigan’s ability to imitate tones of the Maguindanao language and send messages via coded patterns has given the instrument its nickname, “talking gong.” The set of four large, hanging gongs used by the Maguindanao as part of their kulintang ensembles have been traditionally used to speak language as well as play music. When integrated into an ensemble, the gandingan functions as a secondary melodic instrument to the primary melodic instrument, the kulintang. When played solo, the gandingan allows fellow Maguindanao to communicate with each other, allowing them to send messages or warnings via long distances.

The work by Ibarra premiering at SUNY New Paltz next weekend was commissioned by Alex Peh, who along with fellow music professor Christiana Reader is coordinating the college’s new music series showcasing contemporary composers.

Funding is through the Kenneth Davenport Residency for New American Music at SUNY New Paltz, part of the college’s Kenneth Davenport Endowment, established in 1995 by William Davenport.

The residency allows the university to support contemporary American music by commissioning a guest artist every other year to work with the students and compose a new piece, explains Peh. He’s hoping the “Talking Gong” commission will generate enough momentum that gong music can be continued in New Paltz in future years, noting that Ibarra is willing to loan her gong set to SUNY New Paltz should a gong ensemble comprised of a mix of students and community members be formed. It would be an exceptional opportunity for the participants, he adds, since there are very likely few kulintang gong sets in the U.S., and it would be fitting, given that traditional gong playing has always been a communal activity.

For Ibarra, the commission from the college is “the beginning of a community-building initiative,” Peh says. “She recently relocated to New Paltz, and wants to connect with the musicians, students and performers here, and be a part of the community, so she reached out to SUNY New Paltz and me.”

Ibarra is known for her innovative style and cultural dialogue as a composer, improviser, percussionist, and humanitarian. She is interested in the intersection of traditional and avant-garde styles and how this informs and inspires interdisciplinary art, education and public service.

“She’s a unique individual,” says co-coordinator of the series, Christiana Reader. “She has a distinct interest in the connection between music and cultural identity, specifically, and then how music defines space and what we consider to be space.”

For example, Reader says, one of Ibarra’s past projects involved making a documentary examining how the indigenous music of the Filipino culture has changed due to climate change. And in a current project, Ibarra is working with seismologists to place microphones along a specific route of Mount Everest in Nepal, recording the sounds that glaciers make when they move, with the sounds to be integrated into a future work.

Ibarra has dedicated “Talking Gong” to master Philippine Kulintang artist, Danongan Kalanduyan, with whom she has studied.

The next Davenport artist residency will be in 2020, when the plan is to celebrate the 100th anniversary of women achieving the right to vote by commissioning a local female composer. “The residency allows us to build a style and a voice, and curate the types of musicians we want to bring in,” says Peh. “And we’re hoping to look locally. There are so many important composers that live in the Hudson Valley.”

For more information or to purchase tickets for “Talking Gong,” visit https://www.newpaltz.edu/music/concertseries.html.