How much detail do you expect, want, and ultimately get from composers in the percussion scores that you perform? Nexus

Bob Becker
Bill Cahn
Robin Engelman
Russell Hartenberger
Garry Kvistad


Bob Becker
Bob Becker

Bob Becker

In answer to the posed question, here’s an excerpt from an article that I wrote in 1992, titled “The Paradoxes of Percussion”:

Why then do percussionists put up with, and sometimes masochistically embrace, the traumatic effort and expense involved with large instrument collections? Some may develop a kind of addiction to the excitement of collecting new sounds for their own sake, but for most professional players an instrument collection represents a personally selected palette of sound colors. Why own ten different triangles, thirty different cymbals, eight different woodblocks? Because the greater the choices among instruments of a given type, the broader the range of expressive possibilities and the greater the opportunity to make a creative musical statement. A well-trained player can manage competently in most contexts with one standard triangle, one standard pair of cymbals, one woodblock and so forth, but a creative performer will always want options of timbre, tessitura and resonance. The individual choices of instruments that a percussionist makes, the specific sticks selected to strike those instruments, and the personalized approach to tuning drums and timpani are factors as critical to defining a unique musical interpretation as is the subtle stroke of a mallet or the elegant phrasing of a melodic line.

It has been my experience that many contemporary composers do not understand this aspect of “the collection”. I have often been involved in the process of working with a composer on a new piece for percussion solo or ensemble. One of the first things he or she usually wants to do is examine my, or an entire ensemble’s, collection of equipment.

This examination generally consists of cataloging the number and type of specific instruments, with special note given to anything unorthodox or new to the composer. It may even include making a tape-recorded inventory of timbres and specific pitches. The instruments themselves then become part of the structural basis of the composition. A composer who uses “the collection” in this way is really dealing in exotica—the specific instruments determine the general musical structure. Percussionists, however, do not usually assemble a “collection” in order to provide a potential resource for someone else’s creativity.

It seems to me that a healthier situation for a composer is to determine, through personal interest, study, and experience, the general types of instruments and sounds that best suit his or her musical ideas and then write for those instruments and sounds. This places the onus for the orchestration (general sound selection) of a piece on the composer, where it has traditionally resided in western classical music, and places the onus of interpretation (specific sound creation) on the performer, where it belongs.


Bill Cahn
Bill Cahn

Bill Cahn

I prefer to have as much information as possible about the sound(s) desired by the composer. I also like to have other instruments’ cues and/or written comments in my own part, where necessary, to provide information about context.

However, with percussion instruments, my experience has been that every piece is unique in its performance requirements, and that it’s difficult to generalize about the needs of performers. NEXUS prefers to interact with composers before and during the process of composition—helping the composer to understand the sound-making possibilities of our instruments better, and helping us to understand the composer’s intentions better.

When that’s not possible, we try to use as much of the information that has been given in the score as we can. Where there is ambiguity—there almost always is some—we then have to rely on our own best judgment to resolve it in a way that makes musical sense to us.


Robin Engelman
Robin Engelman

Robin Engelman

I expect and want as much detail as the composer thinks necessary. What I ultimately get depends on the composer.

Because no two percussion instruments are the same, particularly the so-called “non-pitched” instruments the efficacy of a performance of percussion music is determined by the orchestration—instrument choices—of the percussionist and rarely the composer. If a percussionist cannot hear possibilities of choices, no amount of technique will make the performance convincing”.


Russell Hartenberger
Russell Hartenberger

Russell Hartenberger

Composers often ask Nexus to improvise in portions of the compositions that they write for us. This can be liberating or it can create doubt.

Often more freedom ensues from a more specific score but with the caveat that we can make adjustments as we see fit. When members of Nexus write a piece for the group it is usually quite specific. We know the instruments and the players and are able to fit the part to the player. These pieces are generally the most successful ones for us. When we play works by other composers it often takes a while for the piece to settle into our sensibility. I especially like playing works by composers who have a new idea for using percussion instruments or rhythm. This provides a stimulus for creativity.


Garry Kvistad
Garry Kvistad

Garry Kvistad

My tenure with NEXUS is in its second year but, during that time, I have been involved in several new works. The first commissioned piece was Peter Schickele’s Sonata #2 for Percussion— Woodstock. Peter’s brilliant writing was extremely clear and mostly through-composed. He chose to write for standard mallet percussion instruments so the notation was traditional and unambiguous. This work is an example of a near perfectly scored percussion composition for standard instruments.

More difficult instrumentation creates many problems that can be rectified by a close collaboration between the composer and the performer. One issue is requesting pitches within instruments that are often not indicated such as drum pitches (other than timpani). All percussion instruments vibrate at certain frequencies (many instruments yield several dominant pitches) and a composer could ask for specific pitches of woodblocks, temple blocks, gongs, cymbals and even tam-tams. Usually a composer will simply indicate the number of woodblocks and score them high to low. But when the pitches are important to the structure of the piece, this kind of detail is necessary. It is best to write for the instruments owned by the person or persons for whom the piece is written. It is sometimes very difficult to find certain pitched instruments if they are not already in one’s collection. Of course this limits the number of “correct” performances unless other performers can replicate the same instruments with the same pitch requirements. When there is a part for a small collection of percussion instruments which are not chromatic, I find it easier to read it in percussion notation and not traditional 5-line notation. A snare drum part, for example, is much easier to read on a single line than on a randomly chosen line of five from the treble or bass clef. The percussion notation also tells the performer that the pitch selection of that instrument is that of the performer. A part using 3 temple blocks could also be written on a single line with the lowest temple block written below the line and the highest block above the line. Similarly, parts using four or five single-note instruments could be notated on a 2 line staff, and so on.

Improvisation is another area for which detail is important. There are so many styles and techniques of improvisation that leaving it to chance—that the performer is going to realize the performance as the composer imagined it—is risky. There are many, many details of dynamic levels that could be specified because a FFF on a piccolo woodblock is very different than that of a large Tam-Tam. The performer ultimately needs to make decisions to best perform any given work. It’s the composer’s job to convey as much information to the performer in order to have a work that can be called his/her own without stifling the performer’s ability to make the magic happen.