Classical Percussion



There’s a story up on the Wall Street Journal about the recent(ish) trend in classical concert percussion pieces, including Philip Glass’ Concerto Fantasy for Two Timpanists and Tan Dun’s Concerto for Water Percussion. It mostly covers the growing corps of soloists and the number of new music composers that are growing the repertoire, but it also asks the question of why it is so popular.

And yet the extramusical elements may be the reason percussion music is so popular with audiences, and often draws crowds that are substantially younger than average. Sometimes it bridges the divide between classical music and rock: Mr. Yamashta remains an icon in alternative rock circles; a percussion concerto by Stewart Copeland, the former drummer of The Police, will be given its premiere next year by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. Perhaps most intriguing is the fact that percussion music is in such demand despite its association with contemporary music—usually considered toxic for ticket sales.
“I think that concert presenters still scratch their heads and don’t understand why this phenomenon is occurring,” says Mr. Haas. “They don’t want to recognize the fact that drums, which not so long ago were considered to not be a concert instrument, have now taken over as the predominant attraction of new audiences.

I think I have an answer to this.
In a sense, rhythm is the last holdout of variety through geographic isolation. Throughout the history of Western classical music it has been possible to track rhythms (especially in dances) from their origin in folk and foreign traditions and the way that they spread around the continent. For example, the sarabande came to Spain from Central America in the middle of the 16th century, then became a staple of French dance suites a century later after it had been banned in Spain due its “obscenity.” With the internet, greater interest in world music, and a globalization fueled interest in cultural pluralism, Western music audiences of the 20th century have the ability to hear the music of any culture on earth.
It was a rhythmic century. Rock and Roll. Funk. Disco. Hip Hop. Jazz. And I think audience interest in percussion oriented pieces reflects a desire to hear concert music that is of its time. In other words, to have music written in the 21st century that ignores the experiments and sounds of percussion specialists like Aphex Twin, or the syncopation and rhythmic variety of a master MC is ignoring the sounds of their time.
There have been periods in music history characterized by growth in complexity of counterpoint, or changes in instrument building and orchestration, or innovations in form. I think this century is going to see a lot of experimentation in the rhythmic content of concert music.

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