The Spirit of Percussion

It was in 1939 that John Cage declared, “Percussion music is revolution.” Fifty years later in 1989, he was asked to write a preface for a book about percussion, and it was here that he more thoroughly described a philosophy of percussion as something more than a family of instruments, but as a metaphor for an approach to music and life that amplified what he had been exhibiting all of those subsequent years:

Percussion is completely open. It is not even open-ended. It has no end…Take any part of this book and go to the end of it. You will find yourself thinking of the next step to be taken in that direction. Perhaps you will need new material, new technologies. You have them. You are in the world of X, chaos, the new science…The spirit of percussion opens everything, even what was, so to speak, completely closed…I could go on (two percussion instruments of the same kind are no more alike than two people who happen to have the same name), but I donÕt want to waste the readerÕs time. Open this book and all the doors wherever you find them. There is no end to life. And this book proves that music is part of it.


John Kennedy
Daguerreotype by Robert Shlaer

My personal discovery of Cage’s writings happened when I was 16, and as a percussionist and an aspiring composer, Cage ignited for me the notion that a composer’s apprenticeship might be served in the percussion studio instead of, or in addition to, the composition studio. After college I continued to emulate Cage, starting a “percussion”-based ensemble and playing other people’s music as he had done, and experimenting compositionally in my own music. I earned my living as a percussionist, and while everyone around me assigned that label to what I “did,” I had for myself an expansive definition of what that meant and the faith that over time, the other aspects of my work would find fruition. Percussionist? Composer? Composer/percussionist? They’re all fine with me.

Today, I am mostly retired as someone who plays percussion instruments in the context of concertizing. But for me, life as a self-identified post-Cagean percussionist was a fantastic path to a creative life, and hard to withdraw from if only because of the sheer physical exhilaration and deep connectivity to others one can get from being a percussionist. I know that staying close to the physical act of making music has always assisted the music I write, and both the elemental and abstract aspects of percussion have been leading tributaries to my music. And I know IÕm still a percussionist—even if my instruments are sometimes metaphorical, and the multi-percussion set-up is in different dimensions. My timpani teacher, Jack Moore, taught maximum potential resonance—and rightly said the simple act of attaining it with a stick on skin applied in all things, and not by applying force from without, but by drawing out power within.

If, as Cage implied, everything is percussion, then the multi-percussion instruments possible in this world take on marvelous social and cultural possibilities. Gathering discrete resonating bodies to form macro-instruments, or deciding that a certain act requires further searching for the right sounding vessel, are things percussionists do. Knowing that there are in-between sounds and new sounds that we can still find and create, that we must find and create, this is the spirit of percussion. And we are all percussionists.

I say that percussion is the end of the swift motion of bodies against resisting objects. It is also cause of all sounds and the breaker and transmitter of various things and the product of a second motion. There is nothing of greater power and it goes on transmuting according to circumstance. —from The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci