Meet Stellar Percussionist Allen Biggs

Allen Biggs

Percussionist Allen Biggs has performed with the California Symphony since its first ever concert at the Rheem Theater 33 years ago. Photo: The Press Democrat

California Symphony percussionist Allen Biggs has been performing with the California Symphony since the first ever concert more than three decades ago. He is a one of a quartet of percussionists who will perform under the dome of the planetarium at Chabot Space & Science Center for Symphony Surround, June 8, 2019.

We caught up with him to learn more about his life and work, why he thinks he has best job in the world, and what he’s most looking forward to playing at Symphony Surround.


CSO: What is it that attracted you to learn percussion?

AB: When I was three years old, my family moved from San Francisco to Northern Spain, and we lived in the Basque region for two years. A musician there made me a drum out of a box, so I could accompany his guitar playing. That moment had a huge impact on my life.

I love how percussion melds my fascination with harmony and non-traditional sounds.”

CSO: When you’re not playing for us, what do you do?

AB: I play in a band called Jamalicious, and I do theater work for Broadway shows such as the upcoming Bat Out of Hell. I have recorded jingles of all types and I’ve come up with sounds for recordings and live performance—for example, imitating the sound of footsteps on newly fallen snow, or making the sound for the wand in Wicked.

I also teach. About ten years ago I revamped my approach to teaching, and decided I could have a larger impact by teaching music education students at San Francisco State about how to teach percussion, rather than giving individual lessons. I constantly get new ideas from students about sound sources and the permeable lines between sound, music, and noise. It has been a great success, and many of those students now teach music in San Francisco and the greater Bay Area.

I have also done percussion training for Sound Minds teachers. Adopting the El Sistema approach has been the way to go, and it has been having great success.

CSO: What’s the one thing would you like readers to better understand about what you do?

AB: Most musicians play the same instrument when they perform, but I often have a new instrument to learn. Sometimes it is a modified drum kit, sometimes I have a huge arsenal of percussion instruments; sometimes I play an object you might not even consider a musical instrument, such as a cardboard box!

Occasionally my job is to simulate a sound, such as footsteps on newly fallen snow, or crickets on a summer evening. In the summer in Germany’s Black Forest, I was recording different streams and springs, for a sound collage.

I have the best job in the world!!!

CSO: You’re one of a quartet of percussionists who will be performing in the planetarium for Symphony Surround, while projections of space are beamed onto the giant dome screen overhead. Of the four pieces you will play, which is your favorite?

AB: Music for Pieces of Wood, by Steve Reich. His composition creates its own sonic universe.  I have heard audience members compare it to crickets chirping, and the sound of nature, perhaps like Bartok’s beloved, “Night music.”

Percussionist Victor AvdienkoPercussionist Victor Avdienko also likes Music for Pieces of Wood, by Steve Reich.

I’ve always liked Steve Reich’s music. Playing the repetitive patterns may seem simple, but it takes an enormous amount of concentration to play consistently, and you can get swept away in the resultant cross rhythms and patterns as they shift almost imperceptibly. Everyone hears something different.”

CSO: What would you say to anyone who’s thinking of coming to Symphony Surround?

AB: There is a long tradition of percussion ensemble music in the Bay Area, dating back to when Lou Harrison and John Cage were dumpster-diving in San Francisco and making music on whatever they could find.

This special event is a chance to hear the orchestra, and also to experience some percussion chamber music, all in a really cool setting.

I’m going!

Alex Orfaly and Victor Avdienko at Symphony Surround

Principal timpani Alex Orfaly and percussionist Victor Avdienko at Symphony Surround

Says Victor Avdienko:

I’ve taken my kids to the Chabot space and science center over the years, and I always told them how cool it would be to play in the dome. It seems like I got my wish!”

The percussion music we will play will enhance the visual experience. Sit back, relax and allow yourself to be transported to new sonic realms!”

Symphony Surround is the California Symphony’s signature annual special event and fundraiser where the orchestra performs literally surround guests as they dine. This year, the event takes place at Chabot Space & Science Center on Saturday, June 8, and includes a bonus performance in the planetarium featuring a quartet of California Symphony percussionists. Fewer than 30 dinner tickets remain, plus a limited number of cocktail tickets. More information is available here.