Alabama and avant-garde are not words normally paired together, or even usually used in the same sentence, yet there’s a rich lineage of “outsider” music running through Birmingham’s veins that goes all the way back to the birth of Herman Poole Blount (aka “Le Sony’r Ra”), through the “instant compositions” of free improv legends Davey Williams and LaDonna Smith, and into today’s underground experimental music scene happening in art galleries and DIY performance spaces across the city. It’s an under-appreciated part of our cultural heritage, yet thanks to people like Iron Giant Percussion, the tradition lives on in new and exciting ways. And although they may not be a household name, the chamber music group has quickly established themselves as the premier active avant-garde percussion ensemble in the state—outside of university groups—regularly tackling complicated and technically demanding pieces by the likes of John Cage, Steve Reich, and John Luther Adams.
As graduates of UAB’s music department, where they first came together as a working unit, the quartet—consisting of the ASO’s current Director of Artistic Administration Seth Noble, along with Sam Herman, Bret Huffman, and Justin Wallace—quickly began to build up their repertoire after leaving the halls of academia, exploring the more adventurous regions of modern composition and putting their own unique stamp on scores that would befuddle most pedestrian music lovers. Utilizing everything from traditional drum kits, to vibraphones, glockenspiels, shakers, sea shells, and any number of found objects that will make a unique noise, Iron Giant has set themselves apart from almost every other musical entity in the Magic City through their championing of bold sound exploration and unique concert experiences.
Having won the 2012 Clefworks Special Percussion Competition in Montgomery for their recording of David Skidmore’s Ritual Music, as well as having performed everywhere from the Alys Stephens Center to the ASO’s Sound Edge Festival and alongside internationally acclaimed acts like New York City’s So Percussion, the group continues to push both the boundaries and expectations of Alabama audiences.
“We’re a chamber music group and the music we play is what happens when classical composers just decide to start getting real weird with it,” says Noble. “Anything that makes a sound when you hit it, kick it, scrape it, flick it, tickle it, etc. has a place in the percussion choir. Most people can pretty accurately imagine what a cast iron skillet might sound like if you hit it with a hammer, but what happens when you duct tape a saw blade to it first?
“Those are the important, pressing questions we try to answer with our music,” he adds wryly. “It’s also great for first dates.”
Photography Liesa Cole
Produced by Stan Bedingfield
Shot on location at Studio Goodlight
Hair and make-up by Brittany McNaughton and Team Forecast
Photo styling: Drea Zacharenko
Writer and curator: Lee Shook.
Art direction: robin colter.
Butlery: James Erik Young