“I dream of instruments obedient to my thought and which with
their contribution of a whole new world of unsuspected sounds,
will lend themselves to the exigencies of my inner rhythm.”
– Edgard Varese
I’ve never been an instrument builder, but trained as a percussionist, my first professional initiatives in new music, both as a performer and as a composer, were dedicated to repertoire for experimental percussion and other unconventional instruments. A formative experience for me was learning Xenakis’ Psappha, a solo percussion work with basically unspecified instrumentation. It forced me to conceive of the percussion setup not as a collection of a dozen or so different instruments, but as a new beast, an organic whole whose different surfaces, pitches, and colors were like a modern/primitive keyboard for which Xenakis composed chords and leading voices. The more unorthodox the components of this instrument became, the more spectacular and new the sound.
When I started Essential Music with Charles Wood in 1987, we were almost militant in our commitment to programming works for unconventional instruments. Charles was a gifted carpenter and built an ensemble for his own music capable of playing long-sustained continuous sounds for music of long duration. His instruments included large glass tables for making overtones with friction devices like coffee cans and film canisters, giant rotating cages made with different sizes of screening (they looked like hamster exercise wheels) filled with different sized pebbles, rocks, and metal hardware, and horizontal rotation wheels with large washers, bolts, and ratchets. The ensemble was capable of making tremendous walls of sound, with a deep range of pitch and color, and seemed to conjure a spectrum of ancient, elemental, glacial forces.
This was a prelude to our focus on building ensembles that were in essence, by virtue of their composition and combination, new instruments. We programmed many works by Ashley, Cage, Cardew, Goldstein, Tenney, Wolff, and others, using nary a “normal” acoustic or electronic instrument, or, if necessary, using them with alternative techniques. Such an aesthetic was not at all about a perceived novelty in new sounds; it was much more about advocating the wide spectrum of sounds available on this earth as musical, and of presenting music as a form of environmental consciousness.
Today, if professional necessity and inertia have funneled my work towards music for more conventional instruments, both as a composer and conductor, I am grateful for having roots in the expansive possibilities of “percussion”. Those roots for me include not only a sensibility about sounds, but more importantly, what those sounds suggest about reconceptualizing our typical conventions of musical parameters. At a time when the emphasis is on computers and the possibilities of digitized sound, it is heartening to see in this month’s issue that we still have innovators exploring the musical possibilities of raw materials.
The possibilities of raw materials are never-ending, as John Cage suggests below in a remark from late in his life. To Cage, “percussion” is not a family of instruments in a textbook—it is any heretofore unimagined or unheard sound. It is an opening to new music. And it is here and ready for the daring.
“Percussion is completely open. It is not even open-ended. It has no end…with percussion, 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.”
– John Cage, 1989