Files / Percussions

Evolution and Transformation

It is surprising that it was only in the 20th Century that western composers seized upon the rich sound palette offered by percussion instruments.

Two factors seem to be in play. On one hand, it took time for these instruments to cross over frontiers and for composers to know about them. For example, it was during events like the Universal Exhibition of 1889 that Claude Debussy discovered the Balinese gamelan. On the other hand, over several centuries, composers of written music were more inclined toward instruments that produced identifiable sounds and not instruments with a more complex sonority that were less obvious for use in a tonal system.

It was thus that Hector Berlioz wrote in his treatise on orchestration, “percussion instruments are of two types; the first includes instrument with fixed, musically appreciable sound and the second are those with less musical effect that can only be placed among noises destined for special effects or rhythmic colouration.” In effect, the perfection of melodic line and polyphonic treatment had been at the heart of musical language for a long time. If one briefly considers the history of western music one can see the role of percussion gradually but considerably changing. In the Middle Ages, it principally marked the rhythm for dances; in the 17th Century it accompanied solemn music, fanfares and outdoor events. With Lully and his use of kettledrums, percussion took its place in the symphonic orchestra to punctuate and enhance the musical discourse. At the end of the 19th Century and the beginning of the 20th, the developing richness of available percussion instruments like the celeste, the glockenspiel, tam-tams, crotales and xylophones expanded the colours used by such composers as Gustav Mahler, Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel. In 1913, The Rite of Spring by Igor Stravinsky made the importance of percussion even more evident. Some years later, Darius Milhaud gave percussion a special place in his work Les Choéphores, in which three sections are written for choir, soloist and 15 percussionists.

Ionisation, written by Edgard Varèse in 1931, marks a turning point in the history of western music by being one of the first works for a percussion ensemble that does not reference any folklore. It shows percussion as a separate instrumental genre. The thirty-seven instruments, the majority with indeterminate intonation, played by 13 performers, are heard standing on their own musical value alone. Their timbres, their volume, their nature, and their resonances are highlighted by Varèse and provide extraordinary richness and variety. On the subject of percussion he said, “It must speak, it must have its own pulse, its own lifeblood.”

From then on, we see the appearance of various concertos for percussion and orchestra. Among them are those by Darius Milhaud, André Jolivet, Henri Cowel, Jonathan Harvey et alcides lanza. A work by the latter, called Sensors, is a concerto for solo percussionist and percussion ensemble in the form of a concerto grosso. 1968 marked the premiere of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Zyklus at the Palais Garnier in Paris, one of the first pieces for solo percussion that was performed by Sylvio Gualda. This event would inspire solo percussion compositions like May by Nguen Dao and Rebonds by Iannis Zenakis. Chamber works, duos, trios and quartets were developed with highly varied instrumentation: voice and percussion in Kassandra de Xenakis; voice, harp and two percussions in Circles by Luciano Berio; two cellos and percussion in Match by Kagel; two ondes Martenot and percussion in Les nuages de Magellan by Tristan Murail; two microphones, two potentiometer filters and tam-tam in Mikrophonie 1 by Stockhausen. The latter work brings several performers together around a single large tam-tam. They play on different parts of the instrument making it vibrate using different attacks.

Works for percussion ensembles were greatly encouraged by the creation of ensembles with six percussionists like Les Percussions de Strasbourg, in France, which has more than 250 works in its repertoire. The McGill Percussion Ensemble was created on the initiative of Pierre Béluse in 1962 and there is also the more recently formed percussion ensemble Sixtrum. The McGill Percussion Ensemble was the driving force behind the creation of Sept jours by Walter Boudreau, Rythmologue by François Morel, Circuit 1 by Serge Garant, and En movement by Vincent Dionne etc.

Percussion also made new appearances in works for instrumental ensembles.

“The possibilities of percussion instruments are countless. They have been called noise makers, but me, I call them sound makers” — Edgard Varèse

Indeed, the use of percussion provokes another way of listening, of composing music that is more geared to timbre. The fact that percussion is composed principally of instruments with indeterminate pitch makes the listener focus less on the concept of notes and rhythm and more on the musical qualities in sound through its texture, colour, or changes in dynamics.

In addition, the tools available to the percussionist are not related to just a single instrument but also to a great number of accessories. Their use requires special management of gestures and the playing space of the musician. In Quatorze Stations by Marius Constant, the percussionist moves around in the middle of about a hundred instruments following a path that represents key moments leading to the crucifixion of Christ. This spatial dimension can sometimes become the foundation of the composition. In Persehassa, Xenakis places six percussionists in a circle around the public. In this layout, the sounds produce movements in space that accentuate oppositions in the “sound masses” and contrasts in texture. Philippe Leroux in De la vitesse for six percussionists starts with six musicians playing one snare drum. He then separates them little by little each from the other, playing different instruments and forming the special shape of the Pegasus Constellation. This shape stretches out gradually until the musicians find themselves in the middle of or behind the public, with some backstage and some on stage. This manner of gradually appropriating space is another way of exploiting the special potential of percussion.

The discovery of non-western percussion instruments and practice led some composers to use new sonorities and new ways of playing and mixing them into their own musical language. Paulau Dewata by Claude Vivier is an example of this influence. As he said, “I wanted to write a piece in the spirit of Bali: dance, rhythm and especially an explosion of life …but above all I did not want to write Balinese music.” Sometimes this influence of non-western instruments is at the heart of musical material used by composers. For example, in Exotica Mauricio Kagel entrusts the performers to play percussion instruments from all the continents. He deliberately wishes to create confrontation between the different universes that are inherent in different cultures. What is special with Kagel is the theatrical dimension of his music. The musicians are actors at the same time. This approach to percussion is found in his trio Dressur. Percussionist and composer Jean-Pierre Drouet, along with Georges Aperghis, also have musical theatre at heart when they use percussion, musical machines and a whole collection of objects that add to the total sound.

The range of instruments available to the percussionist includes unexpected objects: paper, water, glass, screws, cloth – all are invited into music. The composer John Cage developed an experimental approach to percussion. In Third Construction he combines the infinite possibilities of colour and rhythm in a great variety of instruments including the teponaxtle (Aztec slit drum made of wood) the quijadas (jawbone rattle) the lion roar (a basin with a small hole through which a rope is noisily pulled), and an assortment of cymbals, maracas, claves, and tam-tams, to which are added tin cans. In Living Room Music, the musicians perform the score by using objects from daily life: magazines, boxes, books, and even window frames. This experimental approach has taken flight in Canada in such contemporary music groups as Les Poules or Ensemble SuperMusique. A drum set is often taken apart into different components and numerous sound objects are mixed with voice and sampler – all in the service of music.

Beyond the instrumental variety offered by percussion, some creators return to the origins of sound by using simple hand clapping or repetitive rhythmic formulas as in Clapping Music and Drumming by Steve Reich. The continual repetition of rhythmic cells is used in a manner that creates tiny variations and rhythmic shifts. In this music, despite being anchored in a very organic pulse, the listener has the impression of being in a time beyond any common temporal references. It is reminiscent of musical practices related to trance in some non-western cultures.

Simple gestures of the hand become a source of inspiration for exploring other possibilities of percussion. The compositions of Thierry de Mey develop a completely different perspective. His work Music de tables (Table Music), has three percussionists on stage using a table and their hands as the only instruments. The position of the hands and their movements are the essence of the work. At the frontier between music and dance, silence is as important as sound. In Silent Must Be, an interactive electronic device tracks the musician’s gestures; only the musician’s own body is used to produce the sound.

Today, percussion is considered as a completely separate instrumental genre, having won its place just like traditional solo instruments. Percussion opens our ears to other ways of understanding music whether by the discovery of new sonorities inherent in percussion (new timbres, colours, variety in the “sound mass”), or by the way it occupies space on the stage or in the room, like when the musicians in Persephassa de Xenakis are dispersed around the public. In addition there is a wide diversity of percussive components available to all performers: membranophones, metals, hands, feet, voice and invented instruments – so many treasures for discovering the music of today and tomorrow.

  • Conception, recherche et rédaction: Emmanuelle Lizère
  • Développement web: DIM
  • Conception graphique: Écorce
  • © 2014, Le Vivier