September 6, 2011
Last night, after several delays, I finally delivered the materials for my newest piece, a (second) Concerto for Percussion. I wrote a Percussion Concerto back in 2000 for the New York Youth Symphony, and I’ve been asked several times to transcribe it for wind ensemble so that more people could perform it. I never thought that piece would work well with winds, as it’s dependent on slow, long glissandi for the strings in the first movement, and “sawing strings” in the second movement. I was excited about writing a new concerto, though – one specifically for wind ensemble. When Eric Willie and Joseph Hermann from Tennessee Tech University asked me to write a new concerto, I eagerly accepted.
There were a few snags along the way, resulting in a few delays (I was originally supposed to deliver the piece a year ago, and then in March!), but I began working in earnest as soon as we settled at our new house in Cambridge, MA. The commission was for an 8-10 minute “percussion concertino” – a mini-concerto. First I thought I’d do a single large piece with three connected mini-movements – like the Dutilleux Flute Sonatina, a piece that made a huge impact on me when I was young. (I even sequenced that sonatina into my Commodore 64 years ago.)
I got my first piano this summer – I blogged about the Disklavier here – but I’ve barely gotten a chance to play (with) it. So the piano arrived – an instrument I’ve spend literally 20 years wanting – and what’s the first piece I needed to write with it? A percussion concerto. Rather than playing pretty chords (which is about all I can do on a piano, honestly), I found myself mapping the piano’s keys to percussion samples, and entirely running the piano in “silent” mode (where the hammers are disengaged from the strings, but sensors continue to send the key information to the computer). Every once in a while, though, I’d sneak the piano back into, well, piano mode, and play around. I started writing with the piano — i.e., pitched — at night, while I was also writing music for unpitched drums during the day. The result was two rather different kinds of music that turned out to be a little too different on their own to work as a single through-composed 10-minute work. A piece conceived originally as being 10 minutes, with three connected mini-movements, became three big stand-alone movements, and a full concerto of 16 minutes.
The concerto is called Drum Music. The movements are:
In the first movement, Infiltrate, the soloist plays primarily marimba, with a little bit of vibraphone, and a sampling of djembe with hi-hat (to give a little hint of what’s to come later in the concerto). This first movement is really just a lyrical song-like piece, pretty solidly in Mixolydian mode.
The second movement, Incubate, features vibraphone, although the soloist switches – rather dramatically – to concert bass drum towards the end of the movement. This movement was written exclusively “at the piano,” and it sounds like it. The movement ends with an improvised cadenza, starting on bass drum, that transitions directly into the start of the final movement. (I couldn’t figure out how to connect the movements, so I’m making the soloist figure it out.)
The last movement, Incinerate, was written with the piano in “silent” mode, and the sounds of sampled tom-toms and cymbals banging in my ears. Most percussion concerti – at least the ones I know well – seem primarily concerned with proving that “percussionists are not drummers.” Many feature marimba, or are even exclusively marimba concertos (marimba is great in small doses, but I’m not a fan of full-on marimba concertos), and few treat unpitched percussion as something truly bad-ass. It’s like the percussionists asked the composer to show, “no, really, we’re musicians.” Yes, you are, but can we also embrace the fact that playing a solid, heavy groove – with the proper feel and pocket – on drums requires a real musician?
(There are some great percussion concertos out there, of course. The Schwantner is a masterpiece. Higdon’s is incredibly successful as well. But these are few and far between. I’d love to hear the Corigliano some day…)
Whereas my first two movements are fairly intimate in their scoring and feature pitched percussion (marimba and vibes), this last movement has no interest in lyricism, except for a brief quote of a passacaglia that’s originally heard in the second movement. As I wrote on Facebook, “After countless percussion concertos have worked so hard to prove that drummers should be seen as more than just rock stars, I’m pleased to report that the last movement of my piece is going to ruin it for everybody.”
Here is the link for Drum Music, containing a full score, excerpts of the solo part, and the first half of the recording of the final movement (and for the short-term, the complete first movement).