Of all the long-oppressed minorities who can finally enjoy a measure of freedom and contentment, the ones who are most truly grateful to be living now must surely be the percussionists. This is their time. They have burst the shackles of 100-measure rests, learned the meaning of pianissimo, proven that they can do far more than wallop the occasional gong, and earned the right to bang whatever they want to, whenever they choose.
Today’s composers write for percussion, not because they’re hunting new species of music or craving alternatives to traditional ensembles, but because they can plug into a worldwide network of superb and devoted musicians always eager for more repertoire. Ensemble Mainz, Red Fish Blue Fish, Les percussions de Strasbourg, Third Coast Percussion, Steven Schick, Slagwerk Den Haag – these are the genre’s new brand names. In recent years, percussion ensembles have sprung up everywhere, cramming stages with eclectic assortments of noisemakers – vibraphones, geophones, telephones, soda bottles, kitchen sinks, oxygen tanks, two-by-fours, and anything else that will make a sound when you strike, stroke, bow, tap, or destroy it. They may be alienating their neighbors, but these percussionists unbound have also been making recordings and commissioning composers, and generally staking a claim to the musical mainstream.
Just now, the leader of the movement is probably the So Percussion, whose new album with the guitarist Greg McMurray, Where (we) Live features a dramatized ode to Brooklyn. The quartet’s members – Eric Beach, Josh Quillen, Adam Sliwinski and Jason Treuting – are improvisers, composers, producers and musical entrepreneurs. They have teamed up with the DJ and composer Dan Deacon, commissioned pieces from Pulitzer-winners like Steve Reich and David Lang, and developed programs that are more theatrical extravaganzas than mere concerts. The reason for their success is simple: staggering ensemble virtuosity, which allows them to exhale the most complex scores like a single, multi-malleted organism.
So also benefits from a slow but persistent, century-long blooming of percussion. Beethoven foreshadowed that revolution (as he did so many others), with the mighty timpani phrase that interrupts the opening of the second movement of his Ninth Symphony. But true liberation would have to wait another 100 years or more.
What made it possible was the early 20th-century sense that there were few innovations left to squeeze out of harmony and melody and that only rhythm could express the energy of the machine age. Percussion was primitive, industrial, and deafening, and exciting – in a word, modern. George Gershwin accordingly used car horns and sirens in An American in Paris to capture the soundtrack of the postwar (Post-World War I, that is) metropolis. In 1924, an actual American in Paris, George Antheil, unleashed a platoon of pianos, xylophones, electric bells, propellers, sirens, drums and gongs in his Ballet Mécanique to produce a glorious contemporary cacophony. Around the same time, the Parisian in New York, Edgar VarÃ¨se composed Amériques, a gleefully assaultive work for an orchestra that included a baker’s dozen extremely busy percussionists. (A 1927 revision scaled that number down to nine.) The ease of crossing the Atlantic, in either direction, seems to have ushered in the golden age of din.
Percussion is not just about noise, of course – it’s about timbre, the complex colors of a sound that give it character, body, and movement. An expert percussionist can extract a dozen different qualities just from the collision between a pencil and a tabletop, and the search for nuances never stops. Though it was something of a discovery in the West, the Indonesian village orchestra, the gamelan, had long capitalized on this palette of percussion. That sonic richness bowled over the Californian composer Lou Harrison, who used the gamelan in many works.
Another California-born composer, John Cage, was intoxicated with the magic of timbre. In the 1940s, he invented what you might call a shoestring gamelan but he called a prepared piano, in which the strings are sown with weather stripping, paper, kitchen utensils, bolts, and rubber stops, all to wring as much variety as possible out of the homogeneous piano. Cage wrote a lot of music for prepared piano, in which he excavated a new kind of expressivity. Even though he transformed the romantic era’s lion of instruments into a tinkly, clanking thing, he still eked plenty of tragedy out of The Perilous Night, a nocturnal landscape of brittle, desert sounds and chilly flutterings of the soul.
Cage, who would have been 100 this year, cemented the percussion ensemble as one of the crucial musical forces of the 20th century. Cage has an enduring reputation as an impish iconoclast, gleefully torching conventions and leaving nothing but 4’33″ seconds of silence in their place. In truth, he sowed his catalog with more deliberately assembled masterpieces like Third Construction and Credo in Us. To build them, Cage developed a radically new rhythmic principle, in which the proportions of tiny phrases are the same as the largest structures, so that even the most irregular and complex works have a powerful internal logic.
Early in the century, percussion had seduced composers with its evocation of thrilling chaos and its many flavors of decibels; now it suggested a way to reclaim order. Steve Reich discovered how much complexity and rigor he could achieve with the sound of many hands clapping. Later, he composed the immense, cathedral-like Drumming for a homogenous collection of instruments. Percussion seems to attract the purist as much the rowdy, sometimes in the same person. Michael Gordon, who has in the past produced works of buzzing orchestral overload, recently composed Timber, an hour- long work of immense complexity for one of the simplest of all ensembles: a collection of store-bought 2x4s. It’s a haunting work, in which percussion has come full circle. The timbres of stick on wood thicken and multiply into a sonic pile so deep that they seem practically electronic – primitive sounds masquerading as high tech.