February 21, 2006
Rehearsals have been going great on “Turbine.” We had a two-hour percussion sectional on the piece this afternoon, and wow — it was amazing. The percussion studio here at U. Kentucky is first-rate. The director of the studio, James Campbell, is a rock star — at least in my book.
In the score, I’d specified “brake drums,” but included a note that indicated that brake drum wasn’t really the sound I necessarily wanted; it was more of a last resort. What I didn’t know, though, is what I actually wanted. After hitting a few things with different mallets and beaters, and listening to my reaction, Jim quickly determined that what I really wanted to hear were the UK collection of huge, heavy, 2″ thick, solid steel plates — suspended, and struck with brass beaters. The piece now uses four of those instead of four brake drums (brake drums sounded like a train crossing, rather than the huge and rich metallic “CLANG” that the plates provide), and the biggest one probably weighs 50 pounds. If the bungee cords suspending any of the plates should snap, there will be one hell of a dent in the stage floor.
The first bar of “Turbine” now just screams “listen to me or I will kick your ass.” Or maybe it’s screaming, “you can plug your ears, but you’re not hiding from the ass-kicking to come.” Whatever it’s saying, it is unbelievably loud — at least in the rehearsal room we were in. It’s no Circus Maximus, but it’s the loudest thing I’ve ever written. I was ecstatic.
Jim also had this great trick to get the bowed vibe notes to work reliably (and loudly). He instructed the player to hit the vibe note with a mallet attack, while bowing it at the same time. This gets the mallet vibrating, gives it a louder and more precise attack, and allows the bowed sound to resonate through the rest of the note. They’re now consistent and quite prominent — even better than the samples on the MIDI (and those were some great samples).
For the scraped tam-tam, Jim brought plastic cups, found caps from paint cans in a box in the rehearsal room, tried a huge metal spoon — anything to get the sound I wanted. He eventually determined in a stroke of brilliance that the best thing was a 4′-long threaded drill rod — like you’d get in a hardware store to, well, drill a 4′ hole. It’s like a double bass bow — only it’s a friggin’ drill rod.
Bass drum? No bass drum beaters here. No, both bass drums are playing with great big hard felt mallets.
Jim thought the splash cymbals were too small, so he’s bringing some tomorrow from his home stash. And I can’t even describe his solution to all of the initially problematic tam-tam secco hits that I’d requested. (He found some crazy suspended gong-like cymbal, and the player now hits it and immediately lowers it to a padded table to choke it.)
And all of this was just for the first measure of the piece.
I don’t have any idea how good or successful this piece is, but thanks to Jim Campbell and the UK percussion studio, the first bar is the coolest thing I’ve ever heard that has my name on it. These guys are making me look really, really good. If I could, I’d insist on having Campbell coach the percussion on all of my pieces wherever I go.
The premiere is less than 24 hours away, right here at the University of Kentucky in the Singletary Center for the Performing Arts. Wish us all luck! And then, on Friday, the official premiere at the CBDNA convention in Nashville. Pics and the update to come soon!
P.S. If anybody wants to chip in money so I can fly AEJ to the premiere in Nashville, that would be just fine.