All content copyright © Roll Publishing, Inc

Visit us on the web at

Roll the Music
< back

Please install the Flash Plugin

Please install the Flash Plugin

Chiming In: percussionist and Woodstock Percussion founder Garry Kvistadby Peter Aaron

“Listen to this one, it’ll just keep going and going,” says Woodstock Percussion founder and CEO Garry Kvistad, pinging the surface of a giant gong with his finger. Indeed, nearly 30 seconds later the instrument is still ringing strongly.

The brightly lit room of the firm’s colossal headquarters feels more like a museum than the owner’s personal studio. If it can produce a musical sound by being struck, it’s in here. Of course, there are your standard Western drums and vibraphone, but most of the dozens of devices on hand tend toward the exotic. Filling the climate-controlled chamber are items that are as colorful visually as the tones they make. There are bulbous, bright red drums and gorgeously decorated, bowl-like bells used for Chinese operas, and enormous, ancient-looking tamtams and gongs of all sizes. Cymbals and tubular chimes hang like giant, glistening fruit above table-height xylophones and marimbas. And, taking up most of the far end of the space, are a massive, early 20th-century player machine that duplicates the force of a marching band and a deafening, arcane contraption that qualifies as the Godzilla of glockenspiels. Who knew this Tut’s tomb of tympanic treasures was hidden away in a Shokan warehouse?

“Yeah, there’s definitely a lot of stuff in here,” says Kvistad. “I’ve been collecting instruments for over 40 years.” But not only is Kvistad a scholarly collector and the designer of many of the products made by his company, he’s also a member of NEXUS, the long-running quintet the New York Times calls “the high priests of the percussion world.”

Born and raised in Chicago, Kvistad began his love of percussion in the fourth grade, when he became the drummer in the school band. He was further drawn to the flame by watching his older brother, Rick Kvistad, who is today the principal percussionist of the San Francisco Opera Orchestra. “He played drums in dance bands, and I noticed he was attracting a lot of girls by doing that,” says Kvistad with a grin. After attending Michigan’s Interlochen Arts Academy, the budding percussionist-composer earned a bachelor’s degree from Ohio’s Oberlin Conservatory of Music and a master’s from Northern Illinois University. The next big step came in the 1970s, when he met fellow percussionist Jan Williams, who introduced him to revered composer Lukas Foss.

NEXUS at Byrdecliff Theatre
by Gary Hilstead

“Foss was co-leading the Center of the Creative Arts at SUNY Buffalo, which awarded fellowships to qualifying musicians, called Creative Associates,” Kvistad recalls. “Jan was one of them, along with [saxophonist] Anthony Braxton and [keyboardist] Richard Teitelbaum. I became one, which was great because I got to play with a symphony for the first time and I really learned a lot about composing and performing.” Kvistad would eventually go on to pass down the knowledge he acquired under Foss, when he became a faculty member at Northern Illinois University and, later on, at the University of Cincinnati’s College Conservatory of Music.

In 1972, he and Rick started the Blackearth Percussion Group, which recorded and toured North America and Europe, performing works by John Cage, Lou Harrison, and others. One of Blackearth’s ardent admirers was minimalist maverick Steve Reich. So taken was the composer with the younger brother’s abilities that he recruited him for his own group, with whom the percussionist recorded such pivotal works as the Grammy-winning Music for 18 Musicians. “Garry took to my music like a duck to water,” raves Reich by phone. “He intuitively knows how to interpret it—when to lay off and when to play hard.”

Garry with Jack DeJohnette
by Matt Gillis

Blackearth frequently shared bills with NEXUS, which formed in Toronto in 1971 and also shared members with Reich’s ensemble. Blackearth eventually split, however, and when NEXUS co-founder John Wyre chose to leave his group in 2002, Kvistad was an obvious choice to take up his mallets. “We had played with Garry for years with Reich, so it was a natural progression,” says NEXUS’s Russell Hartenberger. “He has a similar background to the rest of us; we all know the same repertoire.” Like the rest of the fivesome—which has toured the world, worked with noted composer Toru Takemitsu, and recently focused on early 20th-century novelty and ragtime music—Kvistad flits easily among bells, marimba, glockenspiel, cymbals, drums, vibraphone, and other instruments.

Then there’s Kvistad’s other hugely successful role with Woodstock Percussion, which he started when he moved to the area in 1979 and has since grown to an award-winning, multi-national concern. The business, which grew out of Kvistad’s construction of a metallophone from cast-off aluminum lawn-chair tubing, boasts two subsidiaries: Woodstock Chimes, whose unique, handmade offerings include the firm’s debut item, the Chimes of Olympus (tuned to an ancient Greek pentatonic scale), and the meditative Awakening Bell (co-designed with legendary local drummer Jack DeJohnette); and the Woodstock Music Collection, a line of children’s instruments.

In 1986, Kvistad and his wife, Diane, established the Woodstock Chimes Fund, which supports various local arts, food, and shelter efforts. “So far, we’ve given away over $2 million to the community,” says Kvistad, who also organized 2009’s Drum Boogie Festival in Kingston. “But it’s easy just to give money when you have it. We also give our time and experience; I was the chairman of [arts organization] the Woodstock Byrdcliffe Guild for a few years and Diane is on the board of [social aid group] Family of Woodstock.” This semester, Kvistad is the Larry Berk Artist in Residence at Ulster County Community College, where he has given free seminars and a concert with NEXUS.

“Besides being a fantastic player Garry is a man of ideals,” says Reich. “He’s definitely someone with many talents.”

Talents that assure, like the sounds of his beloved instruments, Kvistad’s legacy will resonate for quite some time.;

Roll magazine -