Research on rhythm

As part of my research towards the first Level 1 Composition project, I have listened to a number of 20th Century percussion pieces.  This was very new territory for me, and I admit I was expecting to find the single threaded nature of the genre (with neither melody nor harmony) rather limiting and unexciting.  In actual fact my journey into the world of rhythm was much more interesting than I imagined, and I found some of the compositions mesmerising.

Elliot Carter – March (from ‘Eight pieces for four timpani’)

This is one of a series of pieces written in 1950 for a single performer on four timpani.  It begins with the left hand establishing a straightforward march pulse, while the right hand plays more complex rhythms over the top.  Carter was quite experimental with his use of rhythmic techniques.  In researching this in more detail I came across the term ‘metric modulation’ which was apparently first used to describe his frequent changes of tempo based on a common element between the two transitional sections.  Although the term was new to me I have noticed this technique also being used in an orchestral piece I am currently playing with the Dundee Symphony Orchestra – Till Eulenspiegel by Richard Strauss.  It’s a particularly difficult section to play, but at least now I know what it’s called!

This piece also uses different ‘beating spots’ on the drum to obtain different tones/colours, as well as mutes to dampen the sound.

Steve Reich – Drumming

Reich wrote this ~1.5 hour long piece around 1970-1971, consisting of four sections for different instrumental groups.  I listened to the first section, written for four instrumentalists each playing a pair of tuned bongo drums.  It is written in a minimalist style which I found very hypnotic, and gradually builds up the texture by adding in more and more rhythmic elements.

There is a section in the middle (around 4:45) which appears to get briefly messy as the pulse becomes muddied and obscured.  What is actually happening is that the established rhythm changes into a new pattern, but done in such a way that the effect is of seamlessly merging from the old into the new.  I found this technique very clever, and it is repeated later on.

The piece crescendos to a climax towards the end, with a very sudden and dramatic finish!

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