Johnstone Fund premiere from Cameron Leach incorporates everything from the Notorious B.I.G. and bouncy balls to toxic masculinity and suicide

Back in 2017, percussionist and 2016 Capital University grad Cameron Leach toured northern Europe with the World Percussion Group, and two members of the troupe performed theatrical pieces that were brand new to Leach.

“I had never really witnessed anything like it before, and I thought it was brilliant,” Leach said recently by phone.

The pieces brought together the worlds of theater and percussion in fresh, exciting ways. “Le corps à corps,” an anxious, angsty piece by Georges Aperghis, is performed on a Persian hand drum called the zarb and accompanied by a story (spoken in French) about a tragic racing accident. The other, “Ceci n’est pas une balle” (translation: “This is Not a Ball"), by Compagnie Kahlua, is a lighter, comedic piece about a bouncy ball.

“These two pieces got me into this percussion theater world on the extremes of the spectrum, and from there I decided that I wanted to start commissioning more pieces from a diverse range of composers that somehow combine theatrics and/or text with solo percussion,” said Leach, who is based locally and grew up mostly in Hilliard.

To that end, Leach put together “Seven Short Stories,” A Johnstone Fund for New Music performance taking place tonight (Wednesday, Jan. 22) at the Short North Stage and featuring the two aforementioned pieces and other works, including three world premieres commissioned by Leach.

Get news and entertainment delivered to your inbox: Sign up for our daily newsletter

“There's no theme through the whole show, but it's really just many different access points to the art of solo percussion through a theatrical medium,” Leach said. “It's the most challenging show that I've ever tried to put together, because I have no theatrical background, really.”

Still, Leach said he has a knack for theatrical percussion that goes back to his experience in drumline and drum corps. “That helped me a lot with expression — facial expression, bodily expression,” he said. “ But even when I do perform ‘regular’ percussion pieces, I'm always involving some level of extra-musical, visual performance because of the fact that it's percussion and we're hitting things. And I don't think we need to be so stoic. … In classical music and new music concerts, the audience tends to be observational. And while there won't be necessarily audience participation [in ‘Seven Short Stories’], I think the comedic moments in the pieces will feel more like a standup show than a recital. And I think that's more inviting for the audience.”

Paul Pinto’s “Ready to Die Etudes,” for instance, features spliced samples from Notorious B.I.G.’s 1994 album Ready to Die. “He's rapping about how to create a club sandwich, and I'm merely building the sandwich onstage while he raps the instructions,” said Leach, who mentioned that electronics and projection are often involved with theatrical percussion. “It's a very cool piece, and it goes a lot of different directions, but it opens up with me wearing an apron building a sandwich onstage.”

Other works will explore darker material (hence the program’s “Parental Discretion Advised” content warning). “The piece by Linda Kernohan is called ‘Before Sensation Returns,’ and that's a very heavy piece based on a book, and it deals with the military and toxic masculinity and suicidal thoughts,” Leach said. “There's also a piece called ‘Manifesto’ on the program, which is not one of my commissions, but it’s about Jim Jones and the Jonestown massacre. Part of his speech plays during the piece, and it's in complete darkness. It's a very dramatic moment.”

Leach plans to continue developing the show in the next few years. "Different pieces will find their way in," he said. "And an acting coach will probably be involved at some point. But this is a great first go."