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28 Dec

Drums are the New Violins

The New York Times
December 28, 2009
Percussionists Go From Background to Podium
By ALLAN KOZINN
I have been thinking a lot lately about percussion and percussionists. It is not so much because I’m fascinated with the kaleidoscopic array of noises and textures they create — though I am. I’ve been pondering the way percussion has gradually grabbed the spotlight over the last century, and how percussionists have been asserting themselves in the broader musical scene as composers and conductors.

Where a 19th-century orchestral percussionist mostly provided emphasis at cadential points and occasional painterly sound effects — the thunderstorm in the Beethoven “Pastoral” Symphony, for example — his modern descendant oversees a huge array of pitched and unpitched instruments, and from Stravinsky, Varèse and Bartok forward, his work could make or break a performance.

And that’s to say nothing of the expansion of the percussionist’s presence in chamber music. Contemporary chamber ensembles almost always have at least one percussionist on hand, often more, each with more paraphernalia than the rest of the group combined. Soloists like Evelyn Glennie, Steven Schick, Jonathan Haas and Michael Pugliese and groups like So Percussion, the Kroumata Percussion Ensemble and Nexus can fill a stage with a truckload of vibraphones, marimbas, tubular bells, gongs, rattles, drums and assorted items to be hit, struck or whaled on.

Flipping through a stack of program books from recent new-music concerts devoted to chamber works by John Adams, Pierre Boulez, Mario Davidovsky, Kaija Saariaho, Julia Wolfe and Iannis Xenakis, I see that the only ones that don’t involve percussionists are an Arditti Quartet performance and an evening of recent works for violin and cello (by composers who write plentifully for percussion in other contexts). And that’s not counting “Imaginary City,” an inventive production written and performed by the four members of So Percussion.

If you think about it, drums are the new violins.

This is a realization I have come to relatively slowly, given the prominence of percussion in contemporary music, not to mention the number of performances by solo percussionists and percussion ensembles I’ve reviewed over the last two decades. As someone who misspent part of his youth putting together rock bands, I always had the hardest times with the drummers. They were the egotists who wanted their names, rather than the group’s, on their bass drums, and they were the ones who thought that the intricate acoustic number would be a great place for a 20-minute drum solo.

My attitude probably began to change in college, when I sat next to a percussionist in my music-theory class and asked him for advice about a chamber piece (with a percussion part) that I was writing. My problem was that I wanted an effect that used a fairly unwieldy gong, and I planned to use it only once in the entire three-movement piece. “So what’s the problem?” he asked. I told him that as much as I wanted the sound of the gong in that one bar of music, I thought it seemed silly to have the instrument dragged to a concert hall for just one stroke. He laughed and said, “But that’s what we do.”

Of course it is. If you keep a close eye on soloists like Ms. Glennie or groups like So Percussion, when they do their thing, you will not only be satisfied that all the hundreds of items in their stage setups were used at some point in the performance but also that a great many of them were touched only sparingly. If efficiency were the ideal, percussionists would record samples of these items (they are often not actually instruments, but rather tin cans, teapots, brake drums and other found objects) and load them onto a laptop or an electronic keyboard. A composer might do just that. But no self-respecting percussionist would.

Having established their centrality to the sound of contemporary music, percussionists are beginning to make themselves heard in other ways; for example, by composing and conducting. Again the contrast with the 19th century and even the first part of the 20th century is enormous.

Time was when the great composers of the classical canon were overwhelmingly pianists and violinists. So were the most important conductors. It made sense: pianists are trained to deal with varied, often dense polyphonic textures and have cultivated a discipline that lets them control the strands within these textures with a startling independence. That is a skill conductors need. And for composers, there is nothing like a keyboard for trying out passages with complicated rhythmic or harmonic combinations.

Violinists have thrived as conductors for different reasons. One is historical: Before the rise of the nonplaying conductor, orchestras were led by their concertmasters. And given that strings make up the largest part of an orchestra, and their sound is often a crucial part of its sonic personality, it is useful for a conductor to know about string tone and technique from the inside.

But as the music has changed, from string-, wind- and brass-driven Mozart, Beethoven, Mahler and even Schoenberg to modern works of all stripes, in which the percussion lines are frequently in the spotlight, percussionists have moved out of the background. This change was well under way by the mid-1960s. John Cage, though principally a pianist, was drawn toward percussion in the 1930s and ’40s, and organized ensembles for which he wrote his “Constructions” and other works.

Steve Reich began his musical life as a percussionist, and a seminal part of his training was his study of traditional drum techniques in Ghana. When he assembled his own ensemble, Steve Reich and Musicians, vibraphones and marimbas were central, and the magnum opus of his early years was “Drumming.” Skip a generation, and you’ve got composing percussionists everywhere: Lukas Ligeti composes works in styles that skirt classical, jazz and world music; Glenn Kotche, the drummer for Wilco, writes percussion music that sounds at home at a new-music concert. (He performed some with the Bang on a Can All-Stars at Alice Tully Hall in March. Ms. Glennie, though a vigorous commissioner of new works by established composers, has written plenty of music herself, and the So Percussion ensemble is as likely to perform its own music (particularly that of Jason Treuting, its principal composer) as that of Mr. Reich or anyone else.

Conducting is the final frontier, and percussionists have been quietly trading one form of stick technique for another. The incursion began at least 41 years ago when Jean-Claude Casadesus, a percussionist in new-music circles in the 1960s, was appointed resident conductor at the Opéra de Paris and the Opéra Comique; he later founded the National Orchestra of Lille.

But though Mr. Casadesus conducts a reasonable amount of contemporary music, his repertory is generally mainstream. Perhaps a better example of a percussionist bringing the skills he forged on his instrument to the podium is Jeffrey Milarsky. Once a regular percussionist on New York’s new-music circuit, Mr. Milarsky performs mostly as a conductor now, and he specializes in contemporary works for which an ability to sort out rhythmic complexities is vital. He has filled in for James Levine with the Met Chamber Ensemble in a Milton Babbitt program, and as the director of the Juilliard School’s new Axiom ensemble, he has conducted programs of Elliott Carter and, a few weeks ago, Mr. Adams.

When conductors with Mr. Milarsky’s skills and interests begin to be taken seriously by the major orchestras, things might get interesting. It may take a musician with a percussionist’s ear for polyrhythms to make complex works sound eloquent and expressive to listeners who currently resist them. And maybe a generation of percussionists turned conductors will accomplish the renovation of the orchestral canon that is now nearly a century overdue.

Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company

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