In advance of our Pioneers of Percussion festival we invited David T. Little to tell us about his long-standing interest in percussion music, and to give us some examples of his favourite 20th and 21st century works along the way. Below is Part 2 of his response (you can read Part 1 here).
In 2002, David Lang composed The So-Called Laws of Nature, which I first heard in New York in 2004, performed by So Percussion. This 32-minute quartet might be the first really important statement for the genre at the start of the new millennium, and it—at least to my ears—places percussion back in one of its original positions, as the tool of ritual. It has a kind of concurrent stasis and motion that I find really mesmerizing—moving and powerful—like the best early minimalism, but with an occasional wink that, yes, it is 2002. In the spirit of Cage, it repurposes household items as musical instruments—terra cotta flowerpots, tea cups, home-tuned metal pipes—as well as using more traditional instruments like kick drum and guiro. It carried forward important traditions and connected them to the present time.
That same year came Julia Wolfe's Dark Full Ride, for four drum set. Written for Talujon, this piece is part of Wolfe’s series of pieces written for multiples of the same instrument: nine bagpipes, four drum sets, six pianos, and eight double basses. "Like staring for a long time at a Rothko painting,” Wolfe said, “I imagined each of these pieces as an exploration of one color. But in truth an instrument isn't really single timbre. There are a myriad of worlds within each sound."
Wolfe explores this intensely in the first movement, written almost entirely for hi-hats. The composer in me is enchanted by the myriad colors that Wolfe and Talujon find from this simple instrument. The drummer in my digs that this piece has some of the sickest hi-hat licks around. The title itself is homage to the world of the drummer—named, I believe, after the Paiste Dark Full Ride cymbal—and seems to take some of its material cues from Drum ‘n’ Bass and other sample/looping based electronica, which had been emerging from the underground around that time. (For more super sweet hi-hat work, see also Bettison, Four Drums for Dresden, also for four drum sets. Also great is Bettison’s more recent Apart for 2 sets of amplified chromatic tuning forks.).
I didn’t know these pieces in 2003 when I wrote Speak Softly (the piece of mine featured on Nonclassical's festival) but that work also works with relatively restricted materials, in this case limiting my options to whatever I could do with four big wooden poles and four drumsticks between four players.
Similarly restricted in conception, though not in resulting experience, is Michael Gordon's remarkable Timber. A 75-minutes quintet written for simantras—i.e. amplified pieces of lumber—Timber was written in 2009 for Mantra Percussion and Slagwek den Haag, though not premiered until 2011. This work started with restrictions. As Gordon says in the notes, "I decided early on that Timber would be for non-tuned percussion and that each percussionist would play one instrument only. I thought of composing this music as being like taking a trip out into the desert. I was counting on the stark palette and the challenge of survival to clear my brain and bring on visions." And bringing on visions it does. Hearing this piece live is like a psychedelic experience, as you hear things that may not really be there and—through Jim Findlay's recently added lighting design—see things as if in an altered state. It's an incredible experience.
The notion of the percussion quartet as a pallet for a large statement was in the air, and when I wrote Haunt of Last Nightfall in 2010, this was definitely on my mind. Commissioned by Third Coast Percussion, and written for quartet and electronics, I tried to call upon my various experiences as a composer, listener and performer—remembering my Tanglewood epiphany—and to make a big statement, both musically and extra-musically. The work deals with history of the US-supported massacre at El Mozote, El Salvador in December of 1981; an event that though discussed a great deal in its time seemed to have dangerously faded in our collective memory.
Perhaps it was a sense of American war-weariness after the Bush-Cheney years, but Martin Bresnick—though we never spoke about it—seems to have been having similar thoughts around the same time, regarding both topic and grandness of statement: his stunning 34-minute Caprichos Enfaticos (2011), written for So Percussion and Lisa Moore is an 8 movements concerto for piano and percussion quartet "accompanied by interpolated DVD projections, created by Johanna Bresnick based on Francisco Goya’s book of etchings Los Desastres de la Guerra." It’s the work of a master craftsman, and contains some of the most elegant and lyrical xylophone writing I’ve ever heard. And if you’ve ever heard the xylophone, you know that this is quite a feat. There's a commercial recording of this out there, from Cantaloupe.
Also out on Cantaloupe is Paul Lansky's Threads (2005). Another major statement, this half-hour long "cantata" for percussion quartet is interweaves various passages focusing on different instruments—alternately pitched metals, drums, and Cage-like noise instruments—with a goal of highlighting “the wide range of qualities that percussion instruments are capable of, from lyrical and tender to forceful and aggressive, and weave them into one continuous "thread". Performed without pause, the 10 movement piece has been a huge additional to the percussion repertoire. I’d been willing to bet it has been performed hundreds of times since its premiere.
This piece marks an important and fruitful partnership between Princeton University and So Percussion, which continued with two monumental works: Steven Mackey’s It Is Time and Dan Trueman’s neither Anvil nor Pulley. These pieces—major statements both musically and topically—premiered together at Carnegie Hall, each occupying a half of the program. Hearing these pieces was a revelation to me, almost like hearing Florian's piece years earlier.
Steve's piece uses metronomes, Newton's cradles, and a microtonal steel drum, among other things, to augment the traditional percussion instrumentarium even further. The piece is meant "to speed, slow, warp, celebrate and mourn our perceptions of time." and creates mini-concerti for each of the members. Dealing with Steve’s sadness at "the immutability of time and the finite limits to how much of It I will be able to spend with my young family" and "fantasizes that we might have agency with respect to time." In a review of the premiere, critic Jeffrey Edelstein referred to the work as “abstract memento mori,” and that feels about right. It is a serious and very moving work (Linkfor review here).
Dan's piece could almost be thought of as a double quartet for 4 players, as each musician plays not only percussion, but also laptop. A "wordless musical epic that explores the "man"/machine relationship in the digital age," the work includes "a turntable spinning vinyl with the fuzzy, crackling remains of some old sounding fiddle tunes; virtual metronomes, clicking relentlessly, but reset by striking raw chunks of wood; re-purposed golf video game controllers (joysticks with pull-strings, or "tethers"); a huge bass drum with speaker drivers attached, performed with hand-held microphones, the resultant feedback tuned via digital filters to the key notes of a well-known Bach Prelude; difficult drum machines; four virtuoso and highly imaginative percussionists." Yeah, it's all that.
Each piece I've mentioned here has reassessed or expanded in someway the idea of the "percussion quartet," but Dan’s piece sort of blows it all out of the water for me. It is hard for me to imagine a percussion universe more expanded than the one he has created. For example, see "Act 4: Feedback [in Which a Famous Bach Prelude Becomes Ill-Tempered]". http://youtu.be/7kmxHP6wM9E
And there have been major statements from many other terrific composers, too. John Luther Adams’ 75-minute Strange and Sacred Noise (1991-97) and Three Drum Quartets from the Great Weather (1995), Augusta Read Thomas's Resounding Earth, Marcos Balter's dark rooms, Elliot Cole's Postludes. Shorter-but-still-great pieces include John Luther Adams’ Five Percussion Quartets from Coyote Builds North America and Qilyaun, Ted Hearne's Thaw, Caroline Shaw's Taxidermy, Ryan Streber's Cold Pastoral, Nico Muhly’s Ta and Clap, Andrew McKenna Lee’s Like a Sick, Breathing Tambura, Lukas Ligeti's Pattern Transformation, Carl Schimmel’s delightfully ridiculous Serving Size 4 Bunnies, Patrick Long’s Strange Loops, and Ryan Ingebritsen's Echoing Your Voice Just Like The Ringing In My Ears. These are all worth checking out. On the horizon I’ve heard rumors of a major new work by the Canadian composer Nicole Lizée, who has already written two quartets for So Percussion: Dystopia Suite (a MATA Festival commission) and White Label Experiment (for John Cage). This new work is a concerto for the drum set virtuoso (and frequent Lizée conspirator) Ben Reimer and the quartet TorQ. Knowing her other work, and her drum set writing for Reimer, this is definitely a work I’m eager to hear.
And quartets are also writing their own music, something more common for percussionists than in other instrumental disciplines it seems. Both So Percussion and Third Coast Percussion have been doing this a lot in recent years—and I’m sure they are not alone—with Jason Trueting and David Skidmore each emerging and interesting composers in their own rights. New York's ensemble et al. a quartet which mostly performs music written by the members, and they’ve got a new CD that’s about to come out. The results often provide yet another unique perspective on things, from the inside out.
What's interesting in all of this is that these are mostly large-scale pieces, falling into he 25-45 minute duration range, and often address large issues. It is as if the percussion quartet in the 21st century has become the domain the Big Statement, and the invented self. (Consider John Luther Adams' Inuksuit.) As I had realized hearing Prayer of the Possessed, no matter what music you wanted to make, you could most likely do it with percussionist as the core—in part because they are just up for anything—and composers of all stripes and experiences have taken up the challenge, writing large, important and terrific new works.
I’ve heard it said that the 20th century was the Percussion Century. The developments that occurred during that time were certainly staggering. But looking at the innovative and artistically important works that have been written just in the first 13 years of the new millennium, I'm starting to wonder if the 21st might surpass the 20th century as the most significant to the development of the genre. Time will tell, of course, but we're definitely off to a good start.