An interview with the author of How to Write for Percussion
Molly Sheridan: You’re already juggling what reads like a rather extensive performance calendar. Why take the time out to write this book?
Samuel Solomon: Well, my current performing career consists almost entirely of new works written for me, so the process of writing this book has now, I think, perhaps even saved me some time by helping manage my working relationships with composers. When I first started working seriously with composers, it was really difficult. I found that if the composer was asking about some specific problems, I had a lot to say, but if the composer had never written for percussion before and was starting a new piece, we were both just lost in this enormous sea of information. Not only are there so many different aspects to percussion writing, but the way that percussionists learn and retain the type of information that composers need is usually from very specific contexts. I found that every piece of information I had was connected to a specific piece or specific instrument or technique, and so when I tried to explain it to composers, I would find myself just traveling down all these different disconnected tangents and I’d completely overwhelm them with information.
So I realized that a book was the only way I could really give composers all the information I felt was necessary. I researched the available literature and found that none of it was as involved or as informed as I was hoping. Also, nearly all of it was written by composers, and I feel (and I think my book demonstrates) that percussion is way too complicated to be explained by someone who doesn’t do it every day. So for the next few years I started compiling and organizing the thousands of pieces of percussion information that came out of my head and out of pieces I played and heard and out of the mouths of my composer and percussionist colleagues—and I found a lot of connections and similarities between instruments or techniques or notations that I previously thought were completely unrelated. Also I found that I could make generalizations about things like logistics and notation and sound production which makes it far easier for composers to understand how percussionists operate, and therefore far easier for them to write idiomatically for the performers as well as for the instruments.
So now when I work with composers, I am, of course, considerably more organized and considerably more useful. I know what problems to look for, what solutions to suggest, and I also understand the things about notation and logistics that can help the composer write music that is considerably easier for me to learn. And after the book is released this month, it’ll be interesting to see if my collaborations with composers in the future go even more smoothly—I’m hoping a lot of their questions will be answered before we even start working together. I think that was probably my dream at the start of this project—to have a document that I could just give to composers that would answer all their questions so that the only thing I had to work with them on was the music itself.
Molly Sheridan: Who did you envision as the reader of this text while you were writing?
Samuel Solomon: Anyone who writes music for percussion—composers or arrangers or orchestrators. The text is definitely directed at them, but not at any specific level of experience. There are many parts that would probably be more appropriate for younger college-age composers, but I suspect all of it will be useful and informative for even older professional composers. I think for a lot of composers, both young and old, percussion is still a rather mysterious thing—there are just so many details that it’s hard, if not impossible, for composers to really know all that information. Writing music is hard enough without having to memorize how long it takes a percussionist to pick up a quica and get it in position to play. I think the book really puts a lot of information in one place that would normally require a composer to go to percussionists to research, and so I think composers of all ages and levels of experience will find most if not all of this text helpful.
Other than composers, a lot of percussionists have expressed an interest in reading this book, but I think much of it will probably be old news to them; however, the book does sort of function as a compendium of what can be expected of percussionists, so percussionists might find it interesting in that respect. Some people have also said that conductors would benefit from it; I suppose conductors often do a lot of the same type of work that composers do with respect to timbre, instrument choice, and balance, so the book may be useful to them as well.
Molly Sheridan: Our question to percussionists this month is: “How much detail do you expect, want, and ultimately get from composers in the percussion scores that you perform?” I’m curious how you would answer that question? Now, I’m suspecting that a certain lack in that department may have at least in part inspired you to write this handbook, so feel free to share some anecdotes…
Samuel Solomon: Hmm. Well, I think quality of detail is far more important than quantity. If it’s done right, a composer can get away with a lot of specification, but if done poorly, the percussionist will probably just ignore all of it. The difference here, I find, is a real genuine musical understanding of whatever it is the composer is trying to use. The biggest thing I’m worried about with this book is that I’ve now armed composers with an enormous collection of tools (instruments, beaters, setups, special effects, etc.) which many people will feel confident using without ever actually hearing what they sound like. I plan on starting a video companion to the book soon, but in the meantime, I hope composers take the time to study some of the suggested scores with recordings and work with percussionists to actually hear what these things sound like and see and understand the way percussionists play them. I’ve definitely often found myself making my own decisions with respect to beaters, dynamics, timbre, note length, articulation, and instrument choice in contradiction to some details the composer has very carefully indicated. If the composer really wants to use all of these details, they have to really know exactly what they’re doing or else it probably won’t work.
I think that more often than not, composers can give percussionists the benefit of the doubt, and less detail is better. Or not less detail, but more abstract detail, because percussion is sort of an abstract thing. A specification like “hard mallet” can mean many different things depending on what instrument or instruments are being used, what the dynamic is, etc. And even a specification like “large tom-tom” can mean many different things—different timbres, different pitches, different amounts of resonance. For example if a composer wrote the word “brittle,” it would be far more specific than writing “hard mallet.” The performer can use an indication like “brittle” to make decisions which produce a brittle sound, decisions which might not have anything to do with using a different mallet. The same thing applies to instrument choice—the instruments available to one percussionist might be completely different than those available to other percussionists—so very specific indications of instruments may yield a far less-than-perfect situation, and a more approximate indication could give the performer the opportunity to use instruments that are better sounding or more unusual or creative.
Sorry, no anecdotes—this book has had me thinking in the abstract for so long that I think all my anecdotes have been usurped!
Molly Sheridan: Understood. So how closely do you like to work with the composers you commission and how large a role do you feel you usually play in the creation of any new work? From what you’ve been saying, it seems to me that when it comes to percussion, it has to be more of a collaboration than your average, say, violin concerto.
Samuel Solomon: Ideally, I would meet with the composer as often as possible. Like I said, there is so much to percussion that the composer really needs to have a percussionist try things out to make sure that it all works the way the composer is imagining. Normally, at the start I’ll speak with the composer about any general questions they have, get a feel for the direction they plan on going, and suggest some instruments and ideas. Then once they decide on a list of instruments, I design a few options for systems of notation and draw them a diagram of the setup I plan on using. This way I’m sure they will be using the notation that I feel is most intuitive, and they can use the diagram to have a better understanding of how I might be moving around the instruments. Then once I get the score, I usually send an email of immediate issues and suggestions—these are usually issues of beater or instrument choice—and then I stay in close contact with them throughout the learning process with various questions and suggestions. Throughout that process I have two main objectives: first, make the composer’s intentions as clear as possible; and second, make the piece as easy for me to execute as possible. Of course the latter will tend to aid the former.
Molly Sheridan: I love all the samples and suggested works you’ve included at the end of the book. It seems like a kind of summary of everything you had studied and learned to date. How did you really go about compiling such an extensive resource list?
Samuel Solomon: Well, it’s certainly not everything I’ve studied to date—these are works that I feel are examples of good percussion writing, and those works that exhibit bad percussion writing definitely made a huge contribution to this book [laughs]. But to compile this list I simply thought of every piece which I feel is an example of percussion writing worthy of study. I wanted it to represent a very wide gamut of ideas and styles, as well as a wide gamut of compositional, logistic, notational, and sonic issues. Much of the information in the book is technical stuff, which is very important, but it’s through these examples of great percussion writing that a composer really learns how to write for percussion. So I hope that it is well used.
Molly Sheridan: Considering all you’ve been thinking about putting this book together, what’s your ideal dream commission situation?
Samuel Solomon: An ideal commission situation would be one in which I’m working with a composer who has read my book and is using that information and working closely with me (like once a week or so during the composition process) to really bring those ideas to the next level. And by that, I mean, design compositions that really use the tools available within the scope of what is practical for the performer to do. When percussionists perform improvised music, they are able to do complex things specific to them and specific to their instruments and beaters which are truly idiomatic yet very unique. I think that level of composition is rarely effectively achieved by a non-percussionist composer. With my book, I hoped to give composers access to these behind-the-scenes things so that once they were in the practice studio with the percussionist, they would know what things to look and listen for and have a clear idea of what is possible and practical. I find that a lot of the music I play is very difficult for reasons which do not serve the composer’s musical intentions. With my book and with a close working relationship with a performer, I think those types of problems could be eliminated.