The Beaten Path: A History Of American Percussion Music



Nicole V. Gagné

In the concert halls of 18th and 19th century Europe, percussion was traditionally regarded as being almost exclusively a secondary aspect of orchestral music—and one best employed with caution. Ironically, this European attitude toward percussion was summed up by an American composer noted for his nationalism. In What To Listen For In Music, Aaron Copland wrote:

The fourth section of the orchestra is made up of various kinds of percussion instruments. Everyone who attends a concert notices these instruments, perhaps too much. With a few exceptions, these instruments have no definite pitch. They are generally used in one of three ways: to sharpen rhythmic effects, dynamically to heighten the sense of climax, or to add color to the other instruments. Their effectiveness is in inverse ratio to the use that is made of them. In other words, the more they are saved for essential moments the more effective they will be.

From this perspective, percussion’s lack of definite pitch makes it the idiot child of the orchestra, incapable of articulating Important Ideas, which are communicated by pitch relationships. The value of percussion thus resides in its ability to highlight drama by seasoning music’s less meaningful parameters of rhythm, dynamics, and timbre.

Even in Europe, this conceptualization began to falter early in the 20th century, when the use of percussion was broadened by two seemingly opposing trends. Certain composers wanted to celebrate the machine age with a music that reflected the technology and industry surrounding them. Unusual devices were thus built or appropriated as percussion instruments, from the revolutionary noise concert given in 1914 by Luigi Russolo to the whimsical punctuations of a typewriter and gunshots in Erik Satie’s Parade (1917). During these years there was also, not surprisingly, a counterbalancing fascination with primitivism. Compositions in this vein, such as Igor Stravinsky’s Le Sacre Du Printemps (1913) or Darius Milhaud’s L’Homme Et Son Désir (1918), could be quite sophisticated in their construction; but the music inevitably evoked so-called primitive man, and was played using a much wider percussion palette.

In both European approaches, percussion is valued for its association with an idea—or rather, an ideal, be it mechanical prowess and progress, or non-industrial freedom and innocence. Although these trends also arose in America, they were relatively minor occurrences within the vast spectrum of percussion music produced by this country. There’s been an American love affair with percussion, and it originates in an attitude fundamentally different from the European; here, percussion has been valued for the variety of sounds it makes possible.

Like most love affairs, ours with percussion can be simplified to a few basic positions. Percussion has grown in American music through the expanding influence of world music: foreign instruments making new sounds that are tailored to foreign rhythms. There’s also been cross-fertilizing within our borders, as the percussion playing and instrumentation of pop, jazz, and rock entered the gene pool. A third path, however, pursues neither the exotic nor the popular, and instead believes in the full emancipation of sound, and values every sound for its own unique aesthetic experience.


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