How often does one hear a percussion ensemble in concert? Not very often. The repertory began in the 1930s with the Rítmicas of the Cuban composer Amadeo Roldán (1900-1939), which are mostly for unpitched percussion, and the by now famous Ionisation for 13 players by Edgard Varèse (1883-1965), which has bells and piano at the end. (Nicolas Slonimsky, who conducted the premiere of Ionisation, maintained that it was in sonata form.) Since then the percussion ensemble repertory has flourished, and the number of possible instruments has vastly increased, and there’s even a well-known group called Bang on a Can.
The NEC Percussion Ensemble, directed by Frank Epstein, first percussionist of the Boston Symphony, gave a fine demonstration of rich possibilities on Sunday night, November 16. I was there in part because I had heard this group two years ago, for a performance of the late Donald Sur’s Red Dust for 29 percussionists, and was inspired to write an arrangement. Arrangements for percussion are unusual enough, though I still remember well a record called Bach for Percussion from 50 years ago, in which well-known works by Bach, transcribed for a dozen or more unpitched instruments, were able to exhibit counterpoint of remarkable rhythmic vitality.
Sunday’s program led off with the slow movement of Saint-Saëns’s Third (“Organ”) Symphony – abbreviated by about two-thirds – played on five marimbas, alto, tenor and bass, by eight players. All that warbling tremolo aside, the sound achieved some fine depth, and Saint-Saëns’s rich pianissimo harmony with all its interior voice-leading remained very clear.
My own contribution was of the third piece from Debussy’s En blanc et noir for two pianos, which I arranged for six mallet instruments – glockenspiel, xylophone, vibraphone, marimba, bass marimba, and tubular bells. I was delighted with the performance but after hearing it would want to make some changes, which shows at least how this composer has more to learn about percussion. Debussy’s original is of course one of the great items in the rather small repertory for two pianos; but if that isn’t enough, I’ve heard that the British composer Robin Holloway has arranged the entire suite for full orchestra.
A new piece by Joan Huang followed, Orphan San Mao, composed last year for solo violin with four percussionists variously playing mallet instruments and drums, augmented by toys and sound effects. “San Mao” was a comic strip from the composer’s childhood in China. The composer’s note says: “The percussion quartet suggests various environments: boating through the river, cacophony in the noisy restaurant, acrobatic entertainments on the bustling streets, etc. Therefore a palette of unorthodox objects is employed, such as chopsticks, porcelain plates, steel bowls, bottles, automobile horns and police whistle.” Other unusual instruments included a harmonica and a Flexatone. The violin was able to carry off a variety of virtuoso techniques amid this happy din. The NEC group had performed this piece previously and obviously enjoyed it.
After the intermission a much larger ensemble was featured in Fred Lerdahl’s The First Voices, a recent commission. This was the heavyweight piece on the program, one in which different kinds of drums — bongos, conga drums, tenor drums, tomtoms, tambourines, bass drums — were most prominently featured. The composer’s note mentions his visit to the 1964 World’s Fair in New York, where he “sat mesmerized for four hours listening to West African drumming….My starting point was a parallel, discovered by ethnomusicologists in the 1980s, between standard scales and West African rhythms.” This composition was the most strongly rhythmic item of the evening, with a variety of regularly repeated drum patterns. The “first voices” were in fact amplified soprano, mezzo-soprano, and alto soli, singing a translated text by Jean-Jacques Rousseau on the origins of language. This will come as no surprise to those who know Fred Lerdahl’s important researches on music theory and linguistics, which he has pursued pari passu with composition for 40 years.
Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert in Alban Berg, also Ravel and Debussy. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (PhD, 1967), he has published extensively on these composers and many music subjects, most notably, music harmony.