Percussion In Our Midst!

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.

8 thoughts on “Percussion In Our Midst!

  1. Colin Holter

    I think you gave a very level answer to that silly question. Frankly, they deserved whatever they got for having you answer questions both (long) before and after your piece was played. So great to finally meet you in person, Dan!

    Reply
    1. danvisconti

      Thanks, Colin! I never know what to do at those things, and no one ever wants to rehearse them (which seems like a sensible idea, since the talking *is* a part off the concert).

      Also, there’s a sense in which I’ve come to value those kinds of silly questions more than some of the more generic ones–because those questions are often best-answered with an equally silly response!

      Reply
  2. Nat Evans

    Also important to note is that there are now for the first time composers and conductors in sizable numbers who are percussionists – I think this is really helping drive things. Additionally, though of course pop music/minimalism have amped up percussion usage, we should remember Cowell and Cage as being instrumental in helping to initially establish percussion in our microcosm of the world. The influence of pop music would’ve gone nowhere if not for them giving us permission in the first place.

    Reply
    1. danvisconti

      Hi Alvaro – of course (unless that quartet in question is “Black Angels”…) It’s just that percusssion writing has come to dominate a much larger portion of the new music than in previous generations.

      Reply
  3. lawrencedillon

    One more reason it’s common to find percussion instruments in scores of the last half-century: they offer a quick route to escaping the bondage of equal temperament.

    Reply
    1. Frank J. Oteri

      Although that bondage of equal temperament can, of course, also be escaped and replaced with a world of infinite pitch content on our already existing unfretted string instruments, valved brass, and the human voice. There are also viable fingerings that will yield intervals in systems outside 12tET on many instruments that are not necessarily optimized for them–e.g. recorders, Boehm system woodwinds–and other instruments usually completely locked into 12tET like harps and keyboards can be retuned. One of my own thus far unfulfilled composition dreams is a piece in 36tET for glockenspiels (Papageno’s Nighmare), but building such instruments is actually way harder than just retuning a group of guitars (which has been done for another of my pieces and works really well), so I’m not sure I completely agree with microtonal yearnings being a driving force behind the ubiquity of percussion.

      Reply
      1. lawrencedillon

        Frank, I used the word “quick” advisedly. There are other quick options, and then there are many others that are “way harder,” as you say. But maybe I should have said “specified pitch,” instead of “equal temperament,” to avoid an implication I didn’t intend.

        Here is what I was thinking: Ionisation is a great example of a piece that allowed its composer access to a sound world that lay beyond any question of tuning, and I think it’s fair to say a lot of composers have followed in its footsteps.

        Reply

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