Last weekend I was in Minneapolis for a premiere, in which I gave a somewhat slapdash and intermittently relevant concert talk which still ended up being a lot of fun (and all the more so as I finally got to meet fellow NewMusicBox blogger Colin Holter in the flesh!). One audience question in particular threw me off balance, as loaded questions and statements-disguised-as-questions so often do. Only half-jokingly, someone asked: “How to you manage to compose contemporary music without percussion?”
After laughing off his question and answering with a comment about the percussive sounds already included in the piece’s writing for traditional instruments, I took my seat immediately came to a harrowing realization: oh crap, I *did* include percussion in my piece! I had completely forgotten the inclusion of a rain stick and wind chimes, perhaps because these auxiliary instruments are so inherently un-rhythmic, and more like color washes.
This situation provided for some amusement when I took to the stage and exclaimed, “Woops! Guess it’s not possible to compose a piece of contemporary music without percussion!” But I wish that I had been granted a little more time for going off-topic, because the gentleman’s question—and my hilariously garbled response—brought up an important point.
The reason so much contemporary music involves percussion is probably because percussion represents the intersection of several trends in new music: rhythmic music derived from rock and primitivism, the closely-related influence of minimalism, and on the other hand percussion’s ability to satisfy timbre-hungry composers more interested in gesture and color than rhythm per se; and as any music fan knows, percussion is also one of the most visceral and visually appealing families of instruments to watch during a performance. Couple this with the fact that complex rhythm patterns and organizing ostinati feature prominently into much non-western music that only began to be taken seriously by “classical” composers half a century ago, and it’s easy to see why so much contemporary music—of diverging styles and schools—is involved in a love affair with percussion. Bang on a Can (and countless imitators with percussive monikers) use percussion as part of the ensemble-namesake, partly to emphasize the importance of rhythm and percussion for the group.
Percussion has become such a ubiquitous presence on the new music scene that (as the above experience attests) it can be easy to forget it’s even there! Given the recent explosion of timbral interest in recorded popular music from Gil Evans to the Beatles and onward, the bar for interesting timbres and percussive excitement has been raised for concert music as well—and as far as I can tell, the trend isn’t reversing anytime soon.