As the 30th anniversary of the University of Kentucky Percussion Ensemble drew closer, James Campbell began contacting the many musicians who graduated from the band and the percussion program he has overseen.
His question was simple: Did such a milestone warrant a reunion performance? The replies he received were swift and affirmative.
"I took kind of an inventory," says Campbell, the UKPE's director and the university's first full-time percussion instructor. "I asked, 'Who are the alums and what are they doing now?' I think we've had 23 doctoral students graduate and 19 are teaching at the university level.' So I thought that was a pretty good track record.
"Looking back through all the people that have come through the program, they're all working. They're all professionals. I just sent an email out to all of them and said, 'What do you think about doing a 30th anniversary concert?' And I started sensing a lot of enthusiasm."
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Nearly 50 alumni players — from his son, Chicago percussionist Colin Campbell, to celebrity graduates like percussion artist and Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche — wanted in on the gig.
"Jim really hammered it home that we couldn't be one trick ponies in college," Kotche said. "We had to learn the basics from a lot of different areas of percussion.
"When I was there, I studied steel pan drumming and African drumming and hand drumming and jazz vibraphone, orchestral percussion and modern multiple percussion. All of those skill sets I still use on a daily basis. I really do. You wouldn't think that would incorporate into what I do with Wilco, but it absolutely does."
All these alums coming in created a bigger question for the Sunday performance: What kind of music do you present to intrigue and challenge such a hefty guest list?
The piece Campbell settled on was Inuksuit by New York composer and Heinz Award recipient John Luther Adams. The 70-minute piece, designed to be performed outdoors, can accommodate up to 99 percussion artists.
"We couldn't put everyone in a spotlight, so the John Luther Adams piece came to mind," Campbell said. "It's sort of an environmental space piece. That way, everybody is the same. There is no soloist. Everybody has an equal part in the production of the piece. "We've got alums coming from everywhere for this — from Syracuse University, the University of Michigan, the University of Tennessee. Glenn is coming back. They're coming from California, New York, Michigan and Alabama, so we're hitting all corners. We've even got one of our alums who is a law professor at Harvard. She's coming back to play."
Kotche says of Inuksuit, "It's quite a workout, this piece. But it's a really wise choice on how to get all these alums together for a kind of collaborative weekend. Honestly, though, for as much as I love John Luther Adams and his music, the weekend is about Jim. More than the performance, this is about celebrating Jim and what he's done for us."
The alums will filter back into Lexington for a private reception on Saturday evening. That leaves time Sunday morning — mere hours before the performance — for everyone to gather for a single rehearsal.
"It's a piece that doesn't need a conductor. If you can envision this, we'll have everyone outdoors in basically three circles. There are three parts to the piece and each of them has a leader. That leader will start, then someone else in that group will go from there. All of the notes are written out, but the timing is not synced up. All the notes and the sequence are in order, but you're not synced up with other players. You're reading a script and making sounds and music based on that script. When you hear someone come in, then you come in with your parts. It's almost a follow-the-leader scenario. The music comes in waves."
Though planned for presentation outdoors around Stoll Field, the concert will be revamped as an indoor performance at the Singletary Center for the Arts in case of rain. But the biggest thrill for Campbell isn't the scale or performance setting for Inuksuit. It's the opportunity to reconnect with players he has coached over the past three decades.
"I wanted my people to always be connected," he says. "This is a small profession, and they help each other. We've really stayed in touch over these 30 years. I have students that graduate that want to go on to grad school and go on to study with an alum. I have alums that are superintendents at music schools. There are music programs where they hire our alums to be band directors. So we have a family sort of thing where we always stay connected. I just try to connect the dots between those people. That's really made our program strong."
Kotche says, "I really don't think Jim views himself as a teacher just for those four or five years you're in Kentucky. He takes care of his former students long after they're gone. He still informs them, still helps them. He's always there to offer his expertise to guide us in the right way. I've called on him so many times just for advice on what to do with my career. He's a lifelong teacher and simply a great guy who is still very inspiring to us all these years later."