The Beaten Path: A History Of American Percussion Music

Charles Ives has come to be regarded as the patriarch of America’s visionary composers, and his most visionary work was his Universe Symphony: “an attempt in tones […] to paint the creation, the mysterious beginnings of all things.” Too visionary even for him, the Universe Symphony was composed mostly in 1915 but never officially completed. In June of 1996, over 40 years after Ives’s death, Johnny Reinhard premiered his realization of the work, and the most atypical and startling music in the piece was its beginning: “The section that came most documentably straight from Ives’s sketches,” a 30-minute movement for 13 percussionists, representing what Ives called “the pulse of the universe’s life beat,” at a stately tempo of 30 beats per minute. According to Reinhard, the Universe Symphony “is constructed via a succession of 16-second-long basic units, for which Ives coined the term ‘B.U.s.’ The Pulse Of the Cosmos orchestra’s 13 percussionists split each B.U. into equal divisions of up to 43 pulsations. Each division corresponds to a particular percussion instrument. The percussion orchestra plays 10 cycles of increasing and decreasing densities of pulsations of the B.U. throughout the piece.”

Ives wanted this music to evoke an existence prior to the creation. It had to be like nothing that had been played or heard before, so he called for an ensemble of percussionists, which would carry no baggage of melodic clichés or virtuoso pyrotechnics, with instruments that could sound archaic as well as ultramodern, impersonal as well as human. He knew that such music would be totally novel and unexpected for the concertgoers of his time—and he was so right that it took 80 years to get the piece played. Charles Ives saw percussion’s Promised Land but wasn’t permitted to go over. It was Edgard Varèse who succeeded in radicalizing percussion in the concert halls.

Varèse had emigrated from France the same year that Ives began the Universe Symphony, and in the 1920s he composed a series of works that redefined the role of percussion in Western music. The oversized orchestra of Amériques (1921) includes 10 percussionists playing 21 instruments (including a siren, whip, and lion’s roar); Hyperprism (1923) is scored for 16 percussion instruments and 9 winds; Intégrales (1925) has 17 percussion instruments and 11 winds; and Arcana (1927) calls for a 120-musician orchestra with 8 percussionists playing 40 instruments. Varèse’s percussion, far from seasoning the other instruments, defines them. His dissonant crystalline music is driven by rhythm and densities and sonorities, and all the instruments clang and clash percussively—even his solo-flute score Density 21.5 (1936) includes a passage where the player is instructed to hit the keys “to produce a percussive effect.”

Similar enthusiasms emerged almost immediately. Henry Cowell’s Ensemble for strings and thundersticks premiered in 1924; the previous year, George Antheil composed his Sonata No. 2 For Violin And Piano With Drums. Antheil completed his landmark Ballet Pour Instruments Mécanique Et Percussion in 1925 while he was living in France. It premiered in Paris in 1926 with an ensemble that included eight pianos, a player piano, four xylophones, glockenspiel, gong, cymbal, triangle, wood block, various drums, two electric bells, and the sounds of small and large airplane propellers, created by electric fans doctored with strips of leather, which slapped a thin board. But the American premiere of Ballet Mécanique at Carnegie Hall in 1927 was a notorious debacle, thanks to the showman-like addition of extra pianists along with an actual propeller placed onstage with the percussion! That fiasco may have prompted the satiric “Furioso” section of Marc Blitzstein‘s unfinished ballet score Megalopolis (1927), with its “Dance Of The Whirling Methodics” for riveting machines, buzz saws, and electric fans.

A new spirit was emerging in American music, and its first definitive statement came in 1931, with Edgard Varèse’s Ionisation for 13 percussionists. Only three instruments in the ensemble—chimes, glockenspiel, and piano—produce equal-tempered pitches (and they aren’t heard until the end). The rest of the arsenal includes bass drums, military drums, snare drums, side drums, bongos, tom-toms, cymbals, tam-tams, gong, anvils, sleigh bells, tambourine, triangle, slapsticks, lion’s roar, and sirens. Varèse also called for castanets, maracas, guiros, cenceros, and Chinese blocks, but his score has no allusions to ethnicity—unlike the six Ritmicas of Cuban composer Amadeo Roldán, written in 1930 for native percussion instruments and employing folk rhythms and dance forms. Ionisation, like all of Varèse’s music, refers not to exoticism or jazz or technology or primitivism or dance or anything else but itself; this work is about its own sound. No composer in Europe or the United States had written an all-percussion score prior to Varèse, and the flood of pieces inspired by Ionisation has yet to recede.

Nicolas Slonimsky conducted the premiere of Ionisation in New York in March of 1933, leading an ensemble that included the composers Wallingford Riegger, William Schuman, Henry Brant, Paul Creston, William Russell, and Henry Cowell. A year later, Cowell led the first West Coast performance of Ionisation and published the score in his New Music Orchestra Series No. 11. By then other composers had struck out on the path blazed by Varèse. William Russell wrote his Fugue for eight percussion instruments in 1932 and an all-percussion ballet score based on Haitian voodoo rites, Ogou Badagri, in ’33. Another primitivist work that same year was John Becker‘s Abongo, scored for 29 percussion instruments, including a water drum and various barrels and tin pans. Subtitled “A Primitive Dance For Percussion,” Abongo was also conceived as part of a bigger stagework involving dancers. Unable to promote a performance because of the work’s large ensemble, Becker set the score aside and it remained unplayed until 1963, two years after his death. (Russell was luckier, and got to hear Ogou Badagri at its 1990 premiere when he was 85 years old.)

German-born Johanna M. Beyer composed her first all-percussion score, Percussion Suite In 3 Movements, in 1933. The next year Henry Cowell entered the waters with his delicate and imaginative Ostinato Pianissimo, and in 1936 he released his New Music Orchestra Series No. 18 which was devoted to percussion music: Russell’s Three Dance Movements; Beyer’s IV; Harold G. Davidson’s Auto Accident; Ray Green’s Three Inventories For Casey Jones; Gerald Strang’s Percussion Music For Three Players; and dancer Doris Humphrey‘s Dance Rhythms, an improvisation by Humphrey and Charles Weidman, notated by Wallingford Riegger.


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John Cage preparing a piano, c.1960
Photographer: Ross Welser
Courtesy the John Cage Trust

In the fall of 1935 Cowell was teaching a percussion class at the New School, and his pupils included Johanna M. Beyer and the 23-year-old John Cage, who composed his Quartet For Percussion that year and his Trio For Percussion in 1936. William Russell had noted in 1934, “Percussion music is not just an attempt to make a lot of noise and create a sensation but can be an expression of a broader concept of music and sound.” Cage quickly grasped what that broader concept was, and in 1937 he declared, “Percussion music is a contemporary transition from keyboard-influenced music to the all-sound music of the future. Any sound is acceptable to the composer of percussion music; he explores the academically forbidden ‘non-musical’ field of sound insofar as is manually possible.” Two years later, he stated the argument even more forcefully: “Percussion music is revolution. Sound and rhythm have too long been submissive to the restrictions of 19th-century music. Today we are fighting for their emancipation.”

By then the composer who’d inspired them all had fallen tragically silent. Edgard Varèse had become increasingly fixated on creating a new kind of music using electronic instruments, and because he lacked the means to realize the sounds he heard in his mind, he virtually stopped producing works for almost 20 years. The percussion ensemble, however, was at last coming into its own, with such 1939 scores as Cowell’s Pulse; Beyer’s March For 30 Percussion Instruments, Waltz For Percussion, Three Movements For Percussion, and Percussion, Opus 14; Cage’s First Construction (In Metal); and Lou Harrison’s Fifth Simfony, Counterdance In Spring, Bomba, and Concerto No. 1 for flute and percussion.

Harrison and Cage, both former pupils of Henry Cowell, had met the previous year, and in San Francisco in 1939 they staged the first of what would be a series of percussion concerts through 1942. Along with music by Beyer, Cowell, and Russell, they also played their own works, premiering Harrison’s Canticle No. 1 (1940), Song Of Quetzalcoatl (1941), Simfony No. 13 (1941), and In Praise Of Johnny Appleseed (1942), and Cage’s Third Construction (1941) and Imaginary Landscape No. 2 (1942), as well as their collaboration Double Music (1941). After teaching a course in percussion at Mills College, Cage relocated to Chicago in 1941 and started a new percussion ensemble that premiered his Imaginary Landscape No. 3 (1942) and Credo In Us (1942). By then he had also begun to prepare the piano, inserting screws and bolts into the strings to alter its timbre and pitch: “The need to change the sound of the instrument arose through the desire to make an accompaniment, without employing percussion instruments, suitable for the dance by Syvilla Fort.”

Following the example of William Russell, both Cage and Harrison had a penchant for fashioning percussion from found objects, such as tin cans and automobile brake drums. This approach took a leap ahead with Harry Partch who built his Diamond Marimba in 1946, using three-dozen woodblocks with bamboo resonators, tuned to his own 43-tone-to-the-octave system. Until then Partch had devised only string and keyboard instruments, but after studying a recording of one of his percussion-less works from the early ’40s, he “realized a most urgent need—percussion built for this system of music.” Partch constructed two more wooden marimbas, the Bass Marimba and the Marimba Eroica, in 1950 and ’51, respectively. A less successful percussion-builder of the late 1940s was Conlon Nancarrow, who wanted to explore new extremes of complexity in rhythm and tempo. Nancarrow struggled in vain to build a pneumatic device that would play an array of woodblocks and drums; but his failure led him to begin composing his Studies For Player Piano.

In 1950 Partch created two of his most memorable instruments, the Cloud Chamber Bowls and the Spoils Of War. In the former, “14 sections of 12-gallon Pyrex carboys—five tops and nine bottoms—are suspended from a 4×4 redwood frame in seven vertical lines (two carboys to a line) by means of 1/4-inch Manila rope and S hooks.” The Spoils Of War incorporated six different percussion sounds: two woodblocks with resonators, seven brass shell casings, four Cloud Chamber Bowls, two tongued pieces of bamboo, three “Whang Guns” (strips of spring steel), and a gourd guiro. His use of bamboo in the Spoils Of War was expanded by 1955 into a marimba, the Boo I, which used 64 sections of bamboo with tuned tongues. These instruments play essential roles in two of his major theater works, Oedipus (1951) and The Bewitched (1955), as well as the dance score Plectra And Percussion Dances (1953) and the chamber piece Ulysses At The Edge (1955).


Lucia Dlugoszewski
Lucia Dlugoszewski

Two other noteworthy composers also devised new percussion instruments in the 1950s. Moondog, living and performing on the streets of New York City, played numerous works composed for his yukh (a suspended log struck with rubber mallets) and trimbas (triangular drums). In 1958, the choreographer Erick Hawkins commissioned Lucia Dlugoszewski to compose an hour-long score for his dance Eight Clear Places. Finding traditional percussion instruments to be “so masculine in the wrong sense,” she invented an array of new instruments “to create an ego-less sound possibility, a suchness possibility, so that you would help the ear just to hear the sound for its own sake.” She devised over 100 of them for her Suchness Concert: “When I get an idea, I see the gestalt, I get the whole thing. So once I had one ladder harp, then I had a choir of ladder harps; once I had a tangent rattle I had a choir of tangent rattles. […] A lot of them are not big. There are closed rattles and what I call unsheltered rattles, which are things that hang. They’re made out of wood, skin, glass, paper, and metal. After I invented them and made them so that I loved their suchness sound, then my sculptor friend [Ralph] Dorazio re-made them so that each one is also one of his mysterious, lovely pieces of sculpture.”

John Cage, in his desire to hear sounds for their own sake, was led by his percussion and prepared-piano music to indeterminate composition, in which he employed chance operations to create scores independent of his own memory and tastes. Composing strictly for percussion thus became less important for him, although this new approach did result in his 27′ 10.554″ For A Percussionist (1956), “a graph of amplitude with respect to four groups of percussion instruments: metal, wood, skin, and all others (electronic devices, machines, whistles, etc.).” More traditionally composed percussion scores of the 1950s include Henry Brant’s Orbits (1952) for 16 percussionists, Charles Wuorinen‘s Prelude And Fugue (1955), Robert Parris‘s Concerto For Five Kettledrums (1958), Halim El-Dabh’s Juxtaposition No. 1 (1959) for percussion ensemble; Lou Harrison’s Concerto For Violin With Percussion Orchestra (1959), and Henry Cowell’s Percussion Concerto (1959). Percussionist and composer Michael Colgrass created such percussion-ensemble works as Three Brothers (1951), Percussion Music (1953), Chamber Music For Percussion Quintet (1954), and Inventions On A Motive (1955). William Kraft, a percussionist and composer who’d studied with Brant and Cowell in the early ’50s, started producing such scores as his Suite For Percussion (1958).

Percussion music had become so pervasive that its allure spread to the composers who specialized in total chromaticism—and who had tended to resist percussion because of its limited pitch capabilities. In the 1960s and ’70s, however, several of them took the plunge, including Ross Lee Finney (Three Studies In Fours, 1965), Elliott Carter (Eight Pieces For Four Timpani, 1950/1966), and Ursula Mamlok (Variations And Interludes, 1971). Charles Wuorinen showed a special enthusiasm for the medium, producing such scores as Invention (1962), Janissary Music (1966), Ringing Changes (1970), Percussion Symphony (1976), and Percussion Duo (1979). The Unpitched Pill went down even more easily when electronic music was combined with percussion, as in Lejaren Hiller and G. Allan O’Connor‘s Computer Music (1968) and Mario Davidovsky‘s Synchronisms No. 5 (1969).

Not surprisingly, during these years percussion music retained its special favor with experimental composers, such as Ben Johnston (Knocking Piece, 1962), William Kraft (French Suite, 1962; Corrente II, 1967; Des Imagistes, 1974; Encounters VI, 1976), Morton Feldman (The King Of Denmark, 1964), Earle Brown (Calder Piece, 1966), Robert Moran (Bombardments No. 2, 1966), Peter Garland (Three Strange Angels, 1973), Lukas Foss (Concerto For Solo Percussion And Orchestra, 1974), John Cage (Child Of Tree, 1975; Branches, 1976), Jerry Hunt (Cantegral Segment 6, 1975; Cantegral Segment 7, 1975; pounding, 1977), and Tom Johnson (Nine Bells, 1979). Henry Cowell’s Symphony No. 14 (1960), with its 64 percussion instruments, has been described by musicologist Don Gillespie as “Cowell’s most successful integration of percussion into the symphony orchestra.” (Gillespie also notes, “When asked about his sudden broadened interest in percussion instruments, Cowell answered, ‘Every composer worth his salt must have a third period. This is mine.'”) Pauline Oliveros created her music for amplified apple boxes in 1964—an improvised duet with David Turdor who retrofitted his own apple box—the same year that Lucia Dlugoszewski composed Geography Of Noon, her second major score for the full complement of her new percussion instruments; Dlugoszewski’s Percussion Airplane Hetero, Percussion Flowers, and Percussion Kitetails followed in 1965. She would continue using these instruments throughout her career, featuring them in the ensembles of such chamber works as Velocity Shells (1970) and Tender Theatre Flight Nageire (1978), and showcasing them in Radical Quidditas For An Unborn Baby (1991) for solo percussionist.

Harry Partch also continued to explore new realms of percussion during his last years. He built his Zymo-Xyl, with woodblocks, empty wine and liquor bottles, and automobile hubcaps, in 1963, as well as his Mazda Marimba which utilized “24 light globes with their viscera removed.” The Gourd Tree followed in 1964, with 12 Chinese temple bells of various sizes bolted to 12 gourds cut and tuned to their pitches; two aluminum Cone Gongs were also included. Partch’s majestic Quadrangularis Reversum, incorporating five wooden marimbas, was built in 1965; his Eucal Blossom was completed in 1967 and used 33 sections of bamboo to yield a sound “even shorter and sharper than that of the Boos.” All these instruments are featured in Partch’s last great theater piece, Delusion Of The Fury (1969). His final percussion instruments were built in the early ’70s, a few years before his death: A second bamboo marimba, the Boo II, with over 60 bamboo sections, was completed in 1971; the wooden, tongue-with-resonator Mbira Bass Dyad was built in 1972.

The minimalist composers of this time were not of one mind regarding percussion. The closest Philip Glass came to percussion music was 1 + 1 (1968) for a soloist drumming by hand on an amplified tabletop. Glass recalled, “Very early I discovered that if I suppressed the percussionist as a person in the group, it made everyone else in the group become the percussionist. In other words, they became even more aware of the rhythmic value of what they were doing. […] People begin to lean on a drummer; they rely on it, and it makes the music less sharp for me.” Steve Reich, on the other hand, took to percussion like a duck to water: Four Log Drums (1969), the hour-and-a-half-long Drumming (1971), Clapping Music (1972), Music For Pieces Of Wood (1973). The minimalist ambivalence can be observed in two 1971 works by James Tenney: (night) (Postal Piece #3), scored “for percussion perhaps, or …,” and Having Never Written A Note For Percussion (Postal Piece #10) for solo percussionist. Not long after, though, Tenney (who had studied with Varèse) produced such scores as Three Pieces For Mechanical Drum (1974) and Three Pieces For Drum Quartet (1975).

By the 1970s percussion music had developed enough of a tradition that composers could work from familiar precedents. The pairing of two pianists with two percussionists, introduced by Béla Bartók‘s classic Sonata For Two Pianos And Percussion (1937), was utilized by Lukas Foss (Ni Bruit Ni Vitesse, 1972) and George Crumb (Music For A Summer Evening, 1974); Roger Reynolds added quadraphonic computer-generated sound for his Less Than Two (1978).

In 1976 Skip La Plante began giving concerts with the composers’ collective Music For Homemade Instruments; their ensemble, made from refuse and found objects, grew over the years to include such unique percussion instruments as broiler-pan gongs, a Zymo-Xyl-like “boweryphone” made from pint wine bottles, and various marimbas made from cardboard tubes, table legs, and metal electrical conduit pipes. Dean Drummond, who’d been an assistant to Harry Partch, built his zoomoozophone in 1978. This modular instrument can be played by one to four musicians, and is made of 129 aluminum tubes tuned to a 31-tone-to-the-octave system. Drummond had already composed such works as Ghost Tangents (1975) for prepared piano and three percussionists and Dirty Ferdie (1976) for percussion quartet, but the zoomoozophone became a focus of his music: Copégoro (1978), Columbus Fullmoon (1979), Little Columbus (1979). In the 1980s he began to combine it with traditional instruments, for such scores as Columbus (1980), Mysteries (1983), Then Or Never (1984), and Incredible Time (1988). The zoomoozophone was also taken up by other composers, including Joan LaBarbara (Silent Scroll, 1982), John Cage (Haikai, 1984), Muhal Richard Abrams (New Horizons, 1995), and Annea Lockwood (Western Spaces, 1995).

Of course, the use of traditional percussion instruments has remained a staple of American music, regardless of whether the composer’s basic approach is experimental or tonal or serial or minimalist. Notable recent works for multiple percussionists include Anne LeBaron‘s Rite Of The Black Sun (1980), Pauline Oliveros’s Traveling Companions (1980), David Amram’s Landscapes (1980), Daniel Goode‘s Circular Thoughts (1983), Lukas Foss’s Percussion Quartet (1983), Chester Biscardi‘s Music For Witch Dance (1983), Elliott Schwartz‘s Octagon (1984), Larry Polansky‘s Four Voice Canon #5 (1984) and Parting Hands (1996), Barbara Benary’s 4×4 (1985), Andrew Stiller‘s A Descent Into The Maelstrom (1986), Christopher Rouse‘s Bonham (1988), Charles Wood‘s Land’s Shadow, Visible World (1988), James Tenney’s Rune (1988), William Kraft’s Quartet For Percussion (1988), John Kennedy‘s Chant (1988), Splendid Noises (1992), and Exigencies of Inner Rhythm (1997), Ralph Shapey‘s Soli For Percussion Duo (1989) and Inter-Two (1997), Chou Wen-Chung‘s Echoes From The Gorge (1989), John Cage’s Three2 (1991), Six (1991), and Four4 (1991), Christian Wolff‘s Merce (1993), Wendy Mae ChambersTwelve Squared (1994), Charles Wuorinen’s Percussion Quartet (1994), Ben Johnston and Ron George‘s Sleep And Waking (1994), Henry Brant’s Trajectory (1994), Alvin Curran’s Theme Park (1994-95), John Zorn‘s Dark River (1995), John Luther Adams‘s Strange And Sacred Noise (1997), Janice Giteck‘s First Puja, 1997 (1997), Evan Ziporyn‘s Melody Competition (1999), and Julia Wolfe‘s Dark Full Ride (2002).

A major contribution to percussion literature came when Smith Publications commissioned a series of scores for solo snare drum—”to ‘elevate’ the snare drum to the level of a solo concert instrument,” according to Smith’s owner and editor Sylvia Smith. Over 30 composers of widely varying sensibilities contributed to “The Noble Snare” project, among them Milton Babbitt (Homily, 1987), Ben Johnston (Palindrome, 1987), Barney Childs (Blazer, 1987), John Cage (Composed Improvisation, 1987), Annea Lockwood (Amazonia Dreaming, 1987), Christian Wolff (Exercise 26 and Exercise 27, 1988), Larry Austin (Snare Drum Cycles, 1988), Ralph Shapey (Two For One, 1988), Robert Ashley (Basic 10, 1989), Salvatore Martirano (Scrape Rim Skin, 1990), and Alvin Lucier (Music For Snare Drum, Pure Wave Oscillator, And One Or More Reflective Surfaces, 1990).

Scores for other solo percussionists have also flourished. Some employ a single instrument: marimba in Roger ReynoldsAutumn Island (1986), Jacob Druckman‘s Reflections On The Nature Of Water (1986), Milton Babbitt’s Beaten Path (1988), and Beata Moon‘s Makoto (2000); and even the triangle in Alvin Lucier’s Silver Streetcar For The Orchestra (1988). More common are the scores for soloists that play a variety of percussion instruments, such as Bun-Ching Lam‘s Lue (1983) and Klang (1990), Frederic Rzewski‘s Lost And Found (1985) and To The Earth (1985), Ralph Shapey’s Soli for Solo Percussion (1985), Robert Erickson‘s Dunbar’s Delight (1985), Bernadette Speach‘s Shattered Glass (1987), Mel Powell‘s Amy-Abilities (1988), Dean Drummond’s Different Drums For Different Strokes (1988), John Cage’s One 4 (1990), David Lang‘s Anvil Chorus (1990) and Scraping Song (1998), Evan Ziporyn’s Studies In Normative Behavior, Vol. 1 (1991), Alvin Lucier’s Distant Drums (1994), Michael Colgrass’s Te Tuma Te Papa (1994), Alvin Curran’s Bang Zoom (1994-95), Roger Reynolds’ Watershed I (1995), William Kraft’s Divinations (1995), Christian Wolff’s Percussionist Songs (1995) and Percussionist Dances (1997), Michael Gordon‘s XY (1998), John Zorn’s Gris-Gris (2000), and Tom Johnson’s Tilework (2002). John Luther Adams’s The Mathematics of Resonant Bodies (2002) is a collection of eight movements each scored for a different specific percussion timbre (4 snare drums, bass drum, 8 triangles, tam-tam, 8 tom-toms and 2 kick drums, air-raid siren, 8 cymbals, returning to 4 snare drums).

American music has been greatly enriched by the virtuoso percussionists who have been dedicated to meeting the challenge of the new literature. Some have founded important all-percussion performing groups, such as Paul Price and the Paul Price Percussion Ensemble, Raymond Des Roches and the New Jersey Percussion Ensemble, William Kraft and the Los Angeles Percussion Ensemble, and William Winant and the William Winant Percussion Group. Others have founded mixed-instrumentation ensembles: Claire Heldrich is artistic director of the New Music Consort; John Kennedy and Charles Wood co-founded Essential Music. Still other percussionists have emphasized solo concertizing and/or participating in various ensembles and orchestras: Max Neuhaus, Jan Williams, Daniel Druckman, Michael Pugliese, William Trigg. The continuing development of new percussionists has been further encouraged by such notable composer/percussionists as Anthony Miranda and Murray Houllif, who have created scores of graduating complexities to train soloists and ensembles.

If percussion music today is more evolution than revolution, it is because much of the emancipation for which John Cage fought in the 1930s and ’40s has been achieved. The love of sound for its own sake is the bellwether of American music. And what rang that bell in concert halls around the world was music for percussion.

From The Beaten Path: A History Of American Percussion Music
by Nicole V. Gagné
© 2004 NewMusicBox

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