Album art for No Strings Attached by Philadelphia Percussion + Piano Project
No Strings Attached: Percussion Music of Marc Mellits by Philadelphia Percussion + Piano Project

No Strings Attached

Percussion Music by Marc Mellits
Philadelphia Percussion + Piano Project

  • Black
  • No Strings Attached (premiere recording, new arrangement)
  • Troică
  • Red
  • Gravity

“I don’t think about a particular style when composing. The only thing I can think about is how to create this piece of music from beginning to end and how it can communicate with a listener,” says composer Marc Mellits. 

Each year around the globe Mellits’s music has hundreds of performances. Black (heard here) has been heard nearly 3,000 times to date. His growing catalog of work has been played by the world’s leading ensembles and he has been commissioned by a diverse range of artists, including the Kronos Quartet, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Bang on a Can All-Stars, Duo Assad, Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, and many others.

“Marc is a composer who genuinely loves the sound of percussion instruments,” says Phillip O’Banion, conductor of the Philadelphia Percussion + Piano Project. “He embraces what percussion does really well, with music that has dynamism, groove, and repetitive energy. Marc isn’t afraid of the nature of percussion instruments. He enjoys the immediacy of sound, the energy of the strokes, and the musical inertia these instruments can create, especially when layered together—it’s music with punch and attitude.”

Mellits’s influences defy categorization. “I grew up listening to a lot of Bach, Vivaldi, and Corelli. But my oldest brother liked to show me another type of “Vivaldi”: Led Zeppelin, The Beatles, The Kinks, Pink Floyd, and later King Crimson,” he says. “When he played this music for me, I was too young to appreciate the differences between different types of art, classical music and pop music. Stylistically, I knew it was different from, for example, Bruckner, but what struck me was how both were tremendously virtuosic. Hearing Jimmy Page [Led Zeppelin’s guitarist] play, hearing how the music was constructed, blew me away—the same way Vivaldi blows me away or Bach’s counterpoint does. They were all very much the same to me. I didn’t look at it as rock, I looked at it as another version of Corelli.”

Romania is a frequent source of inspiration. “I’m crazy about the place, and my wife is Romanian,” says Mellits. “One of the first times we went to Romania, we visited Transylvania in the winter. We took a walk in the snow-covered forest, and it was beautiful. We were walking for a few minutes when a Troică (a Romanian three-horse sled) came sliding up to us and the driver offered us a ride. There were blankets in the sled and the driver offered us some palincă (Romanian moonshine). Two of the horses were young, but the third was a bit older and couldn’t quite keep up. As we were riding, I kept listening to the sounds of bells on the horses. The sound was a two-beat against three rhythm—the younger horses on three and the older on two. That’s the inspiration—not music, but the sound. My ears are always open.”

On Troică, you’ll hear a section two-thirds of the way through where two of the instruments form the quicker rhythm and the marimba is the slower one—the sounds of those horses. “I took snippets of that and put it in the beginning, weaved everything to that point, then de-weaved it getting to the end, which is the same material as the opening, completing the circle,” Mellits says.

Red was inspired by a chance meeting with Andrei Codrescu, a Romanian poet and writer Mellits admires. “I was in Bucharest, I think 2008, and had writer’s block. I just stopped and let the batteries recharge, so I went out with a friend to get something to eat and have a few beers. I heard this voice, and because he was speaking in English, my ears tuned in. I said to my friend, ‘I recognize the voice.’” It was Codrescu, and after much prodding, Mellits introduced himself. “I tell him that I’m a composer and we have this great conversation; all about coffee and creativity and how they are the same. The next day I was suddenly able to write again and Red just came out. I finished the entire piece in a week. The connection, being in former communist Romania, spoke in shades of Red to me.”

O’Banion points out, “There are definitely chord progressions and some melodic patterns listeners will hear reappearing in some of the pieces, but mostly just listen for the shifting colors and grooves.” The music sometimes follows the traditional rules of harmony, but at other times it “seems guided by an intuitive ear for color—Marc weaves musical lines in and out in creative and inventive ways.”

“While writing Gravity I found myself thinking about how musical notes and lines can become attracted to each other and follow one another.  The opening of the work begins on a single pitch, D.  Then, one by one, and with each instrument following each other, new notes are built into the pulsating sound.  With a musical gravitational force, the lines follow each other, then bounce back and forth together.  The overall rhythm and tempo also shift in a ‘gravitational’ way.  The music continually gets faster and faster, always picking up speed as it falls, spiraling into a new tempo at each musical shift in texture.  The music is written for a combination of marimbas and vibraphones, and the mixture of sound that these different materials make provide a springboard for the musical lines to intersect, bounce, and play off each other, always getting faster, always falling from the sky.”

All the pieces on No Strings Attached were arranged by Mellits. Some, like Black, exist in multiple versions, including its original two–bass clarinet scoring and later versions for two vibraphones, two marimbas, or four marimbas. “We preferred the four-marimba version,” says O’Banion, “as it maintained the homogeneity of timbre, like the original, had a similar full-throated and woody quality, and just seemed to balance and blend better through the ensemble so that all the musical lines presented themselves clearly.” 

“It’s all performer or instrument driven,” says Mellits. “For me, it’s less about being faithful to the original and more about bringing new sounds. When you try to stay absolutely faithful to the original and write for new instruments, the final result is not quite this and not quite that—I hate that.”

No Strings Attached was originally written for the Auchincloss Piano. Howland Auchincloss was a medical doctor with a penchant for creating things. He invented a modern fortepiano, digitizing the sound of the old instrument so it would have an 18th century flavor with echoes of 1970s synthesizers. Mellits says, “I was so into it. The idea of taking the old and new and mixing them up, using a double manual Belgian harpsichord sound and putting vibraphone tones on top of it was really attractive to me. I think Auchincloss had only three made, so unless you were one of the people in the world who has one, the piece cannot be played.”

And therein lay a problem. “Phil asked me if I would be interested in arranging the piece for mallet quartet,” Mellits explains. “That’s challenging, and the more challenges and restrictions you put upon yourself, the more creative you are. I was so excited for the piece to be heard again.”

Surprise is a marvelous element in Mellits’s music, from his tricky-to-pin-down style to his quirky titles. All of this is certainly a prompt for first-time listeners to ask, what do I listen for in your music?

Mellits has a surprising answer. “Close your eyes and let the music try and figure you out; let it come to you. We understand music better when we let it speak to us rather than trying to hear certain things. You shouldn’t have to study or work hard to enjoy music. Art should work hard to enjoy you.” 

--Craig Zeichner

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The Philadelphia Percussion + Piano Project is an ongoing chamber music consort, with a mission to underscore the variety and depth of the chamber percussion and piano repertoire. Versatile by nature, this ensemble draws from a pool of virtuosic talent across the region, adjusting in size and instrumentation as needed to maximize the range of works it performs. The ensemble’s performances have included everything from Antheil to Reich, from ‘classics’ of the modern repertory to newly commissioned works.

Phillip O’Banion, director *
Caleb Breidenbaugh
Lucas Conant
Alonzo Davis
Christopher Deviney *
Griffin Harrison
Myungji Kim
Angela Zator Nelson *
Emilyrose Ristine
Adam Rudisill
Zach Strickland
Jake Strovel
William Wozniak *

* Temple University percussion faculty

Recorded at the Temple Performing Arts Center

Produced by Robert T. Stroker
Recording Engineer: David Pasbrig
Editing, mixing and mastering: David Pasbrig
Assistant Engineers: John Patrick Tice-Carroll, Jonah Pfluger, Lex Simakis
Design: Pao Navarro

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