On Percussion

Experimental music sometimes has non-musical influences. Non-musical in the sense of non-mathematical. One of these non-mathematical influences can be the choice of percussion as a main instrument.  It shifts the focus from harmony (mathematics) to colour.

Iannis Xenakis’ work opened new aspects of music by radical reference to architecture’s laws instead of music’s laws. Morton Feldman took contemporary painting as well as traditional nomadic rug craft as point of reference, by which he, too, overcame the mathematical laws of music itself. Not sure why i’m interested in non-mathematical influences on music, maybe because the language of music is more interesting as a means of communication than as an aim in itself.

Percussion instruments play an important role in this issue. They offer something valuable from outside music’s mathematics. They rather make sound than tone. Some produce tone, but the tone is more an aspect of the colour than the other way around, so they always allow for a shift of focus: from the focus on harmony to a focus on sound. What i hope to find out is: how can melody evolve from there.

Here’s part of an interview with Morton Feldman, which seemed interesting to me, not only because he talks of gongs, but because the way he talks about the possible use of percussion as a main instrument some decades after Varèse:

Why patterns, Instruments III, Flute and Orchestra

Morton Feldman, Interview with Jan Williams, 22.04.1983 (first appeared in the September 1983 issue of Percussive Notes (pp4-14))

I’m now much more specific for my battery of percussion. But I’m back to using, say, a lot of gongs when I use a gong, a lot of triangles and three glocks. One glock in an orchestra is cosmetic. Three glocks is orchestral. Where a few triangles is nothing, but 15!

It is now very difficult in an orchestral piece for me to have one cymbal, or just one gong – or even chimes. I find myself using three sets of chimes and it’s a very interesting thing. As you use more of these instruments, you begin to see the illusion some people have about percussion speaking in a hall or even in a recording session.

I would like to get to a point artistically and psychologically where I think I could write a serious piece for triangle and string quartet. That sounds a bit far out, but why not?

I wonder what the perception of percussion would be hearing it for a longer period of time than we are used to.

Then, we have the whole problem of pitch percussion against non-pitch percussion. Making too much of a hierarchical situation out of either one or the other. That’s one of the problems that I have about mixing, where I don’t want my percussion to become absolutely “background” if it’s non-pitched, and “foreground” if it is pitched. It’s one of the big problems that I have in getting my instrumental balance of percussion instruments together when I start a piece.

And when I am thinking about percussion – in fact, you’re making me think about percussion and I’m glad we’ve had this conversation – I hope that maybe I would think about how paradoxically I could find a historical weak spot which is also its strength. That’s what I really mean. You can’t do that with any other instrument. You have to rediscover. You have to make different models for percussion. Back to earlier things in the conversation: I can’t repeat it enough – to try to get away from the model in percussion. I remember when I was in your studio and I was composing Instruments III and you were playing certain things for me, and I noticed that just the time element – I drifted for, say, two or three minutes very naturally without any impatience, where that time would be very, very long indeed if it was just an instrumental drone going on. But the whole sense of time was different. You don’t have the historical implication of harmonic rhythm or atonal rhythm and you are in another kind of time world there and that kind of time world is very, very interesting for me, especially now since I’m writing very long pieces. So maybe I will write a piece that is very long using that aspect. Or, just thinking in terms of time, and what the instrument could do in the world of time that acoustical instruments don’t choose to do. Well, we’ll see about that. But I want to certainly try and write an extended percussion piece.