Marimbas and saw blades: Music’s Grosso talks creativity and composing

Cheryl Grosso says she’s more comfortable speaking through her music than speaking about her music.

Nevertheless, the UW-Green Bay professor kept an After Thoughts audience engaged and amused as she educated and entertained about 75 attendees with her Oct. 1 presentation at the Weidner Center Grand Foyer.

After Thoughts is held twice a semester and seeks to connect women in the community with UW-Green Bay. The gatherings showcase University faculty, staff and guests, and convene women — and often “a few good men” — after their workdays for learning, enrichment and fun.

Grosso is an award-winning faculty member known for her innovative musicianship. She teaches percussion, new music, hand drumming, aural skills and world music, and maintains an active schedule as a percussion soloist, chamber musician, composer and clinician.

In the spotlight for a rare time without her instruments, Grosso went it alone with her Power Point and a few short audio clips. In doing so, she gave the audience a glimpse into her world as teacher, composer and performer.

Well-known for her popular classes and hand-drumming ensembles, Grosso says many of her compositions are Rhythm Chants written so her students had something to play. She had to create scores from scratch, she explains, because many of her primary world-music influences — she draws from West Africa, Cuba, Indonesia — are passed on only by oral tradition. “You’re not going to go online and find ‘Ewe Drumming’s Greatest Hits,’” she quipped.

Her inspiration, she says, comes from many places. “Many have heard about the “3 B’s” of classical music (Bach, Beethoven and Brahms), but mine are Bach and Beethoven to be sure, but also John Bergamo of Cal Arts.”

Grosso studied with the renowned 20th century percussionist and composer at the California Institute of the Arts.

“John Bergamo is the kind of person who inspires you to keep moving forward, to appreciate what you have, but to never be satisfied,” she said.

Through her PowerPoint and with a few of her instruments on display around the room, Grosso reflected on her favorites. One is the University’s massive, nine-foot-long marimba, crafted from rosewood.

“I have my own, but it’s only seven feet long,” she said. “This one is nine feet long, just beautiful. How can you go wrong with nine feet of rosewood?”

Her new favorites? Saw blades. Auto parts are good, anything aluminum is better, but her new favorites are giant radial saw blades. “I have become fairly efficient with E-Bay,” she said.

Creativity, she says, can’t be just turned on. “It can take hours to get to a place where you can clear your mind and be creative. Sometimes creativity finds you.”

Grosso revealed that one of her most inspiring pieces, “Homage in Metal for Solo Percussion,” came to her at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, during a visit in the early 1990s when she was contemplating the music world’s loss of avant-garde composing legend John Cage.

“As I was sitting between the penguins, and I think maybe the sharks, or maybe it was the dolphins, all of a sudden this piece came rushing in. I was searching for paper to write it down! The piece is very Cage-like and I am flattered that some people, when they hear it, even think it is his work.”

Another piece came to her seemingly out of nowhere while she was at home.

“All of a sudden I was humming this original piece. I asked myself “Did I just hum a 12-tone melody? I have arrived!”

It is obvious to her After Thoughts audience that she certainly has.

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Photos by Eric Miller, Marketing and University Communication