5 Minutes That Will Make You Love Percussion

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In the past, we’ve chosen the five minutes or so we would play to make our friends fall in love with classical music, piano, opera, cello, Mozart, 21st-century composers, violin, Baroque music, sopranos, Beethoven, flute, string quartets, tenors, Brahms and choral music.

Now we want to convince those curious friends to love percussion — the resonant sound of instruments struck, shaken, pounded. We hope you find lots here to discover and enjoy; leave your favorites in the comments.

It’s an exciting era for percussion innovation and inspiration. Particularly new works with flexible instrumentation, because they really showcase an ensemble’s choices and personality. Sandbox Percussion’s multiple versions of Jason Treuting’s “extremes” are an awesome example of how a great composition can renew itself with each interpretation. It’s interesting to learn how the piece works and what inspired the material — rhythms drawn from the letters of six American cities — but most important, I just love listening to and watching it be performed, and I want to share that experience with you.

“Gmeng Se Naah Eee” (“What Shall We Do?”) is a concerto movement for gyil (pronounced “jeel”) and orchestra. The gyil is a pentatonic African marimba that utilizes only four notes per octave in any particular work. Its composer poses the question — When trouble strikes, what shall we do? — then answers it: We will press forward with wisdom and determination, until we move from dismay to delight. I find it amazing that the 12 notes the gyil uses in this work can tell the story of wisdom conquering all with such exuberance — lifting my mood and making me dance.

Percussion is primal, sophisticated, raw, refined, playful, complex; it evokes a web of emotions and ignites vibrations that transform the body into a huge ear. “Thunder Caves” is relentless drumming that unleashes the human hand and technology together. The voice is primal, too, and what I drum I think about through the guttural grunts of my voice. Pronged sticks, drum sticks, flix sticks, skin on skin — all contribute to the sound colors on these conventional instruments. The incessant pounding of the kick bass drum gives this piece unrelenting momentum.

The drums are the engine of pretty much any band, but some engines work in a unique way. The first time I heard this live recording of Duke Ellington’s “Things Ain’t What They Used to Be” with the Keith Jarrett Trio — Jarrett on piano, Jack DeJohnette on drums and Gary Peacock on bass — back in college, I was astounded by how fluid the drums made the music sound. DeJohnette is one of the most original voices to ever play the instrument. Even though the swing factor is undeniably strong in his performance, the unconventional fills and accents keep a very well-known tune, with a very simple form, exciting and unpredictable. You can hear the crowd going crazy behind some of those trademark DeJohnette fills. Pure bliss.

Most concert works for percussion are as much fun as a concussion. But sometimes folks like Steve Reich and John Adams find real beauty in hitting things. In this piece Tan Dun takes it further, bravely writing for waterphones and other wildly rebellious instruments. He builds a rich orchestral envelope to suggest pitches and rhythms for the unpitched, wafting water sounds. Listening on your slick system, or over your headphones in a darkened room, it is guaranteed to inspire a wild adventure movie of your own design. For background while doing stuff, it will inspire lateral thinking and novel solutions. Probably not great for group bonding, marching or sex — and definitely don’t drive on this stuff!

The composer and performer Michael Ranta, born in 1942, is a crucial figure in percussion music, though he is almost totally unknown today, even to musicians. He was extremely prolific in the 1970s as an interpreter of avant-garde composition, as an improviser and as a composer of highly individualistic solo works, which he still produces today. He has spent significant time in Asia, especially China and Japan, and “Yuen Shan,” for live percussion and prerecorded sounds, is based on ancient spiritual principles and was composed over a period of almost 40 years. Ranta’s stalwart commitment to being a percussionist who is also a creative artist has been a source of great inspiration for my own work.

Carl Nielsen’s irrepressible Fourth Symphony was written in 1916, in the middle of World War I, and it’s a dogfight between light and dark. Where does the percussion fit in? As the orchestra tries to soar into glory in the finale, two timpanists duke it out, stationed at opposite sides of the stage — and, as Nielsen wrote, “maintaining a certain threatening character,” their dueling dissonances and the brutality of their attack almost pulling the music back into martial disaster. But not quite; life triumphs. It’s one of the most remarkable uses of the percussion in the symphonic repertoire, and stunning to witness live.

The most obvious traits of percussion in the orchestral realm are sheer power, intensity and terror — both overt, in-your-face terror and a subtler undercurrent of fear. Percussion is often used to create a color, a shimmer, a sparkle or crashing waves. The sounds we can make are limitless because our instruments actually are limitless; percussion is defined as anything one shakes, scrapes or strikes, and this is why I chose Christopher Cerrone’s “Memory Palace.” Almost all the instruments in this piece are D.I.Y.: planks of wood, pieces of pipe, bowls and bottles. It showcases the versatility of percussion — the range of instruments, the creation of rhythm, melody, harmony, character and mood.

Dynamic and energetic, “Drums of Winter” is at the heart of John Luther Adams’s fascinating early multimedia work “Earth and the Great Weather: A Sonic Geography of the Arctic.” Even without pitched percussion, it contains all of the most exciting elements of percussion music. The tumultuous power and subtle peace of the natural world are expertly encompassed. The piece moves quickly and covers a lot of ground, with the sonic peaks and valleys of rhythmic consonance and dissonance showcasing the tonal potential of the drum quartet. The last 30 seconds are an exhilarating finale bound to open doors and ears to more.

Though the piano is a percussion instrument, we agreed we’d look beyond its traditional repertoire for this feature. But John Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano are works that truly create a percussion ensemble of exhilarating variety. In these 20 pieces, Cage continued his experiments with prepared pianos — regular pianos with screws, bolts, slabs of rubber, pieces of plastic and other items inserted, according to Cage’s precise specifications, between its strings. By striking the keys, a player produces an array of thuds, chime-like tones, near-pitchless plunks, delicate harplike sounds and more. In the paired Sonatas XIV and XV, “Gemini,” the music sounds like a vaguely Asian dance, with rippling riffs in the bass register, melodic bits in peeling high tones, alluring thumps and intricate rhythmic figures.

When it comes to Duke Ellington’s music from the early 1940s, discussion tends to center on the contributions made by the bassist Jimmy Blanton and the tenor saxophonist Ben Webster — and the skill of the percussionist Sonny Greer is often overlooked. Yet Ellington himself described Greer, his longtime drummer, as the “world’s best percussionist reactor.” “When he heard a ping,” Ellington added in his memoir, “he responded with the most apropos pong.” You can hear that responsiveness throughout the classic “Cotton Tail,” as Greer drives the ensemble sections, adds excitement to an already stirring Webster solo and pongs nimbly underneath Ellington’s piano.

Composed in 1978 for an eight-member percussion ensemble, Roscoe Mitchell’s “The Maze” is a seminal example of his dialogic/Afrologic relationship to composition. Its unusually notated score favors an egalitarian aesthetic, in which each of the performers has opportunities not only to interpret complex, traditionally notated passages, but also to explore different sonic areas in their individualized assemblages, which feature traditional Western percussion instruments, self-invented equipment and a multitude of found objects. “The Maze” encourages the performers to collaboratively interact with all the traditionally and graphically notated materials in a manner that problematizes separatist notions of “improvisation” and “composition,” cultivating a sonic universe in which such a binary never existed in the first place.

During my first visit to New York City on a crystalline autumn day in 1977, I walked the length of Manhattan to stand outside of the building where Edgard Varèse had lived in SoHo. Along the way, I heard the metal-on-metal cacophony of construction, wailing sirens and snippets of the city’s joyous mix of world music. I realized then that “Ionisation,” composed of those very sounds, was not barren modernism but Varèse’s love letter to his adopted home. Listening 44 years later, the noises of “Ionisation” are still bracing, the rhythms still joyous, and I am buoyed again by this fierce anthem to the present.

I first listened to “Genderan” in 1997. It is in the gamelan gong kebyar style and showcases so many of the transfixing qualities of Balinese music — qualities that led me to study with I Nyoman Suadin at the Eastman School of Music, and then to travel to Bali to learn more with him and other musicians. “Genderan” begins with a unison introduction, then hits with intricate hocketing over the gong cycle, showing off bright melodies that wind over the beat in endlessly compelling ways. This music utterly changed my life and my understanding of percussion and its capacities. I hope you love it, too.

In its rhythms and lyrical gestures, this piece seems to contain elements of Steve Reich and John Adams — maybe even Leonard Bernstein. Yet it predates them all: Colin McPhee wrote “Tabuh-Tabuhan” in 1936, influenced by his years spent studying gamelan music in Bali. He transplanted his research onto the Western classical orchestra, featuring Balinese gongs but also creating what he called a “nuclear gamelan” of two pianos and percussion instruments, and approximating the sounds of hand-beaten drums in the strings. The resulting works helped to pave a new path, later trod by Benjamin Britten and broadened by Lou Harrison, for Western percussion in the 20th century.

In the prelude to Janacek’s opera “Kat’a Kabanova,” the percussion is as articulate as any singer could be in previewing the drama to come: the timpani, first shadowy, then brutal, beating like a heartbeat, like fate; and the insistent sleigh bells that will later carry away a husband, leaving his wife to temptation, adultery and suicide. Percussion functions under, over and through the orchestra — adding punctuation, italics, boldface.

The brilliant, multitudinous improvisation in this excerpt typifies the “ancient to the future” ethos of this revolutionary group. The Art Ensemble of Chicago’s extensive percussion setup is played freely and fully by all four band members on this 1969 recording, made before Famoudou Don Moye joined. Lester Bowie is listed as playing bass drum; Roscoe Mitchell, cymbals, gongs, conga drums, logs, bells, siren, whistles, steel drum, etc.; Joseph Jarman, marimba, vibes, conga drums, bells, whistles, gongs, siren, guitar, etc.; and Malachi Favors, log drum, cythar, percussions, etc. — all that in addition to their primary instruments.

The timpani can be such a loud instrument, and people tend to watch you when you’re playing it. But it really captures the audience when it’s so soft; it kind of gets you. Just before the end of Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto, it’s only the solo piano and the quiet timpani. Something so big and so heavy, but it comes out so delicate. You capture everyone’s imagination.



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