Percussion ensembles

Today’s post is another delve into the realm of compositions for percussion ensemble. I found it particularly useful to watch video recordings on YouTube; it’s helped me to identify the instruments being played as I was not that familiar with the percussion family, and also given me a better feeling for how they are actually played in practice.

Varese – Ionisation

This is an interesting piece supposedly inspired by the process of molecule ionisation in physics. It is composed of rhythmic sections interspersed with sections which have no clearly identifiable pulse or rhythm (more like sound effects than music, to me at least). The unusual use of sirens gives it an eerie feel and the sudden, loud entries e.g. on the bass drum are quite startling. At the end of the piece there are some dissonant harmonies on the piano which add to the spooky effect. In the rhythmic sections there are some recognisable, repeated motifs on each instrument which give the piece some overall cohesion; the woodblock was particularly noticeable and really stands out above the other instruments. I think it could be very effective in setting a creepy mood in a theatrical setting but it’s not a piece I would personally go back and listen to again for its own sake.

Michael Burritt – Fandango 13

This was a good one to watch the video for as it uses a variety of instruments – between the six players they handle several marimbas, a vibraphone, xylophone, bongos, toms, bell tree (vertically nested bells that can be used to create a glissando), crotales and a suspended cymbal. The marimbas have a much larger range than I had imagined; I thought the descending passages were quite effective. The texture stays much the same throughout the piece (apart from a section on drums) but I enjoyed the overall sound of the instrument combination.

Joseph Schwantner – Concerto for percussion

I’d never heard of a concerto for percussion before but I really liked the concept, it’s very dramatic. There’s some pretty nifty xylophone playing going on here! There appears to be some use of variable metre in movement 1 which I think I have identified as 3 groups of 4 beats followed by 4 groups of 3 beats (though I’m not sure how it’s scored).  I love the contrast between the wooden and metallic instruments when played simultaneously, and also like the use of the crotales which give quite an unusually resonant sound.

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