Yes, I know, everyone likes to say that the greatest sonic separator between so-called new music and the classical music of the past is electronics. But, they’re wrong; it’s percussion…
Sure, European classical music prior to 1900 is all unplugged and the post-Edison proliferation of electronics is a decidedly modern phenomenon, but music has been created through mechanical means for hundreds of years. Even Haydn and Beethoven created original works for musical automata and could therefore be said to be the great-granddaddies of modern electronic music. The granddaddies of percussion music, on the other hand, are Edgard Varèse and John Cage, both of whom wrote percussion ensemble masterpieces before turning to electronically-generated sound. And it’s their percussion works, I would argue, which ultimately opened up music to the wide sonic possibilities available to us today, including electronically-generated sounds.
Of course, there are a few examples of percussion in European classical music prior to 1900. In fact, critics once derided Brahms for his use of the triangle in his 4th symphony. At the dawn of the 19th century, someone anonymously penned—undoubtedly afraid of the critics—a Konzertstück for 8 timpani, 5 cellos and contrabass. And even before that, a contemporary of Haydn, one Johann Wilhelm Hertel (1727-1789), wrote a sort-of O.K. concerto for eight timpani and orchestra, which remains a real attention grabber.
Percussion just doesn’t fit so neatly in an orchestral context. Whereas the strings, brass, and wind sections are either homogeneous or heterogeneous in a complementary way, the percussion section is defiantly all over the map, everything but the kitchen sink…sometimes even the kitchen sink! And, nearly three quarters of a century after the first percussion-only scores appeared in print, percussion remains the realm of uncharted possibilities forcing composers, performers, and listeners alike to rethink timbre, pitch, rhythm, and how to communicate ideas on paper, on stag, and in the recording studio.
Ironically, at the same time that exploring percussion is still in its infancy in the notated music of industrial and post-industrial countries, percussion instruments predate all other forms of instruments. Cultures around the world have developed highly elaborate percussion musics that are as sophisticated if not more so than what the West has done with strings and winds. By opening the sound palette of the West to percussion, we really are moving closer to a one-world music, a world where categories and cultures blur and merge.
Nicole Gagné takes a look at how this history played out in American music in the 20th century, both in so-called classical music and in jazz as well as in rock. At the dawn of the 21th century, the lines are not so clearly defined. Steven Schick, one of the most active percussion soloists on the scene today, remembers when there really were no role models for an aspiring percussionist and describes the differences between drummers and percussionists. While we’ve come a long way both in terms of percussion repertoire and how to interpret it, a dozen percussionists talk candidly about what they’d like to see in a percussion score vs. what they really get. That said, percussionists are probably the most composer-friendly community out there. There are lots of percussionists who are composers as well. And, as John Kennedy points out from his own life experience, composers would do well to begin their compositional apprenticeship as percussionists since it’s such a tactile way to tap in to a seemingly limitless array of sonic possibilities.
Perhaps the same argument could be made for electronic sounds, but my tabla and maracas worked just fine last August when all the lights went out!