Banging the drum: Percussion duo improvises instruments

by Madonna

International artists have been quick to return to Shanghai since March, when overseas performances were again given the green light. Local audiences have impressed both first-time performers and returning artists with their hospitality and sophistication. Shanghai Daily chats with international musicians attending the Music in the Summer Air (MISA) festival about their return, the recovery of the global arts community, and cultural exchanges.

Percussionists Delia Stevens and Yu Le sparked curiosity from Shanghai audiences when they pulled out an assortment of objects to use as instruments, including seed shells and stems of tea leaves bundled together like a broom.


“That’s something unique about percussion ― you can program using instrumentation,” Stevens told Shanghai Daily just before they took to the stage to take audience members on an engaging journey with their newest piece.


The Aurora Percussion Duo, back in China to perform four years after their last concert, sold out tickets early for the world premiere of “Forest Murmurs.”


It was their debut at the Music in the Summer Air (MISA) festival that ended this week.

“We try to explore the different sounds of nature,” Yu explained.

“The form of our playing is quite different from other forms of music. Everything could be used as our instrument, and could be playful.”

The duo hopes to address the current and relevant issues of climate change and deforestation in “Forest Murmurs,” which starts with “Conversation in the Forest III” by Keiko Abe, on two marimbas.

They used a variety of instruments made of wood in their concert. That included typical percussion instruments such as hang drums and castanets, objects including paper, tea leaf stems and even the wooden floor of the concert stage used for percussion, and other instruments such as a guitar turned into a percussion instrument played with chopsticks.

The most unexpected of all was when the two musicians played the air in “Plato’s Cave” by Casey Cangelosi.

The allegory refers to a group of people chained to the wall of a cave all their lives facing a blank wall, who perceive shadows projected on the wall from objects passing in front of a fire behind them as reality.

In a similar way, according to Stevens, “every single sound in percussion has a shadow, because we can’t make a sound without moving. So it is a kind of reality check ― are you seeing the sound or are you hearing the movement?”

The duo, formed in 2010 when the two musicians were still in school, has won a range of competitions including the 60th edition of the Royal Overseas League Ensemble Award in 2012. They toured in China, Yu’s home country, almost every two years, until the pandemic interrupted performances around the world.

“We both really wanted to come back to perform again,” Yu said. “The world is becoming smaller, and we know each other through the Internet. It is important for people from both sides to know that music connects us.”

He eagerly followed the news after the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra invited the duo for the summer festival earlier this year, and immediately called Stevens after China announced the green light for international performances at the end of March.

“MISA is one of the most important music festivals in China,” he said. “Shanghai is always a place that attracts artists from all around the world. It is the center of China for the economy, and for new culture. It is important for musicians to perform here.”


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