I have a two-fer today, because I couldn’t decide between these two selections and I figured, since they do kind of go together, why not just use both?
Music for percussion only tends to be somewhat of a novelty, which is a shame since there’s a great deal of musicianship involved in playing percussion, as much as any musical instrument. Percussion is about a lot more than just providing a good, solid whack at particularly dramatic moments in the music. Think of the timpani providing the rolling thunder of the distant, and approaching, storm clouds in the third movement of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, or the almost demonic energy of the snare drummer in Carl Nielsen’s Fifth Symphony. Or the glockenspiel in The Magic Flute, or those mighty pounding timpani in the opening chords of Also Sprach Zarathustra. (Or, if you want to admire the sheer musical thanklessness of a task, consider the poor snare drummer in Ravel’s Bolero, who has to play the same rhythm over and over and over and over and over again, for the work’s entire fifteen-minute reign of terror.
Many laypeople will know about bells and marimbas and that sort of thing, but they won’t realize just how many percussion instruments are actually pitched or how much a percussionist has to think about how they want to produce the exact sound they’re looking for. Timpani, for example, are tuned to specific pitches, so the performer has to have good pitch sense to tune the instrument, and that’s just where it starts. How hard do you hit the surface of the drum? Where on the head do you hit it? It makes a different quality of sound toward the middle as opposed to near the edge. Do you use soft mallets, or hard ones? It all depends! Percussion requires physical skill and every bit as much precision and focus as any other instrument. So if you’re one of those who thinks that the drums are where the musicians who can’t carry a tune go to live, well, get that notion out of your heads, folks!
Here are two works for percussion ensemble alone. The first is Music for Pieces of Wood, by Steve Reich. Five players perform this piece, using instruments called “claves”, which come in different varieties. Claves are pitched, which gives this work a polyphonal feel even as its spellbinding rhythms unfold. The piece almost feels like a bunch of clocks which are all not quite synchronized, and imagine the degree of rhythmic precision it requires for the ensemble to pull off this work!
The other piece I want to feature makes a really interesting contrast with the previous work, even though both are works for percussion. David Crowell’s Music for Percussion Quartet uses pitched instruments like marimbas, giving the work a tonal and melodic element that the Reich piece doesn’t. There are some amazing sounds here too, though: note in the second movement, when the sounds are produced not by striking the marimba’s bars, but by drawing cello bows against them. The result is a kind of droning chord work that reminds me of the pedal drone of a hurdy gurdy or a set of pipes.
So next time you’re listening to your favorite classical work, pay special attention to the percussionists! There’s a lot going on back there.