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.


Time signatures and variable metre

The time signature of a piece of music plays a central role in its character and is the basis of its structure.  In traditional, straight forward time signatures (3/4, 4/4, 6/8 etc), the beat emphasis falls in a simple repeating pattern which gives the listener a framework which they can easily latch on to.

More complex time signatures change this pattern of emphasis, which can have the effect of disturbing the flow of the music.  For example in 5/4, the beats are usually arranged in alternate groups of 2 and 3, so the emphasis also alternates between every second and every third beat.  A good example from pop-music is ‘All you need is love’ by the Beatles; the verse of this song is in 7/4 and has the feeling of skipping a beat.

A yet more complex arrangement is ‘variable metre’ – a concept invented by Boris Blacher, a German composer and mathematician born in 1903.  Composers have been altering the time signature in the middle of a piece of music for centuries, but Blacher was the first to apply a mathematical sequence or formula to determine the number of beats per bar.  For example his piano concerto no. 2 (Op. 42) has an initial time signature of 12/8, but from bar 2 onwards uses a notation underneath the score to indicate how many beats are in each bar.  You can follow along with the score on this YouTube video:

The first section of movement 1 has the following sequence of beats per bar:

12 8
12 8 7
12 8 7 6
12 8 7 6 5
12 8 7 6 5 4
12 8 7 6 5 4 3
12 8 7 6 5 4 3 2
12 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

I think it succeeds in creating a very effective unsettling mood.  I’m not sure what the significance of the number 12 is, but one effect of inserting this long bar in between each sequence is that it is quite easily identifiable and acts as a good anchor so that the listener isn’t completely lost.  The second allegro section has a more complex pattern which sounds quite random (at least on a first listen!) and reflects the faster and more chaotic style of the music.

Another of Blacher’s pieces which is on the OCA’s suggested listening list is his ‘Orchestral Variations on a Theme by Paganini’ (Op. 26).  Listening to this work without the score it can be difficult at some points in the music to be able to tell the time signature.  I found that the sections which appealed to me the most were the ones where there was at least a clearly recognisable pattern to the rhythm, even if it was difficult to determine exactly what it was.  For example the variation which has the string section playing in pizzicato succeeded in hooking me in for this reason.

A more well known example of the use of variable metre is the Beatles song ‘Good morning good morning’ (from the Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band album), which frequently changes between the time signatures 3/4, 4/4 and 5/4.

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!