How do you play a guitar? By plucking the strings? By hitting the strings with sticks? Or, perhaps, by blowing air canisters over the strings?

In “The Raft,” a 35-minute multimedia performance, the Sandbox Percussion Quartet, a group of four Yale School of Music alumni, does all of the above. The production premiered at the Center for Collaborative Arts and Media on April 3, to a crowd of 60 people, featuring music composed by Jack Vees, a professor at the School of Music; text by Paul Schick GRD ’97; and a video by Johannes DeYoung, director of the Center for Collaborative Arts and Media, and Natalie Westbrook ART ’10, professor at the School of Art. Vees and DeYoung took inspiration from Norwegian anthropologist Thor Heyerdahl’s 1947 Kon-Tiki expedition, in which he, along with five other people and a green parrot named Mauri, set sail across the Pacific Ocean on a wooden raft.

However, Vees said aspects of the production also reflect his own experiences.

“It doesn’t really tell a straightforward story about being on a raft,” Vees said. “It refers to [the raft] a little, but it also refers to events in my own life and the idea of someone going onto an ocean voyage that goes all the way back to Homer.”

Vees said he started thinking about the piece several years ago, but he has worked on it primarily over the past two years. Heyerdahl believed that the Polynesian islands might have been settled by people from South America due to the direction of the ocean currents.

Although Heyerdahl’s ideas are not taken seriously now, Vees believes the most interesting thing about the story was the fact that Heyerdahl believed in his theory so much that he built a raft and sailed across the ocean to prove it.

“I admire that [way of] putting your theory to the test,” Vees said.

Vees and DeYoung started working together on this piece last summer when they were discussing a class that Vees is teaching this semester on the 21st-century recital that brings artists from different disciplines together to create music. Vees mentioned that he was working on a piece with Schick, and DeYoung turned out to be working on a 3D animation project also inspired by Heyerdahl.

“We almost immediately agreed that it would be a good idea, as part of the course I’m teaching, for [us] to collaborate and show the students how we’re making the piece as we’re making it,” Vees said.

“The Raft” has three movements and tells three different stories. The music is a percussion piece — but in addition to the usual drums, it features a range of unconventional instruments such as a glockenspiel, a metal xylophone with a high-pitched bell-like sound, and a flexatone, which is usually employed for sound effects.

There are eight different types of string instruments, ranging from a one-string Vietnamese zither called dan bau to an eight-string guitar. Ian Rosenbeum MUS ’11, a member of the Sandbox Percussion Quartet, said his favorite instrument is one built by Vees. It consists of five tuned metal pipes perched on a TV antenna.

“This piece is super cool,” Rosenbeum said. “It uses a lot of guitars, which is something percussionists don’t play all the time.”

Terry Sweeney MUS ’15, another member of the quartet, said that applying percussion skills to a performance with stringed instruments posed a challenge.

In the performance, the video is projected on six screens, as the images move in time to music, sometimes appearing to be waves beating against the shore and then drawing back — and at other times, taking the form of bubbles seen under a microscope. In the second movement, lines of a poem by Schick appear on different screens, accompanied by whispering voices that sound like the howling of the wind.

“It’s a historic moment,” said Anteo Fabris MUS ’19. “It’s the first concert of this type at CCAM, and it changes the way we see music. Now, multimedia is a given.”

Le Vi Pham |