Percussion’s vast instrumentarium

Portland Percussion Group expands percussion world with concert of score-call winners

By CHARLES ROSE

The world of contemporary percussion music is strange. While many composers we think of as “classical” wrote great percussion music—Varese, Xenakis, and Stockhausen among them—contemporary concert percussion music has a much broader scope of influences than most other fields. By their nature percussionists are extremely flexible, learning the nuances of playing dozens of different instruments that span the whole world of cultures, eras and aesthetics, united by a shared emphasis on rhythm, performance and dance. If there’s any genre of contemporary classical music that lovingly embraces the music of West Africa, Indonesia, Japan and Turkey as much as Western Europe, it is concert percussion.

The percussion scene of Portland is equally vast and colorful, even if on a smaller scale. High school marching bands, a world-class drum corps, some great shops, PSU’s massive percussion department, the Portland Percussion Group, and dozens of private teachers hanging posters in coffee shops around town all play their part in the fertile culture here. The Portland Percussion Group is among the most prestigious performing groups in town: the quartet of veteran performers Brian Gardiner, Paul Owen, Brett Paschal and Chris Whyte have been together since 2011, playing classics and constantly commissioning new works. Their concert Fixtures on October 21 consisted of Threads by composer and recently-retired Princeton professor Paul Lansky and three premieres from their recent call for scores.

In performance, Gardiner, Owen, Paschal and Whyte operate as a single unit, and perfectly locked together throughout the concert. That is a testament both to their individual skills and their cohesion: even through the heaviest fields of noise they emerged right back in tempo. I tend not to discuss performance in my reviews, mostly because I am a composer and spend most of my listening time analysing the music on the fly. At Fixtures, however, I couldn’t help but be enthralled with their precision and dynamic control.

I first heard of Lansky through a sample in Radiohead’s best song. His percussion quartet Threads is becoming a modern classic, and with good reason. Its many movements progress through three major timbres: pitched metals, unpitched drums, and “found percussion” consisting of metal pipes and clay pots. These textures stand on their own and interweave with each other over its thirty-plus minute duration, just as the title suggests. While there are moments of excitement when your ears are blasted with bongos and toms in the relatively small Lincoln Recital Hall, the overall impression is of a slowly evolving cyclical form, where ideas reemerge later in a new context. 

The first of the three score call winners was Daniel Webbon, whose Whatever was lost never thenceforth mattered kicked off the concert’s second half with an excited flurry of bright noise on cymbals, toms, and kick drums. After the concert Webbon told me that he has been playing drum set in jazz and church bands since he was a teenager, inspiring him to compose his quartet using drum set licks as a thematic base. Like Lansky, Webbon built up polyrhythms and syncopated layers before exploding them with a cymbal roll, fast single-strokes on toms, and loud bass drum hits. And sure enough, Webbon cited Lansky’s Threads as well as John Cage’s Third Construction as inspiration, particularly for his instrumentation.

The main rhythmic motive is based on a descending triplet figure, sometimes called a Bonham triplet (named for the famous Led Zeppelin drummer, who likely took it from famous jazz drummers like Max Roach and Elvin Jones). This motive is stretched and orchestrated playfully around the constant quarter-note pulse, requiring intense concentration from the PPG. Since snare drums and toms by definition have a sharp attack and an uncontrolled decay, rhythmic precision must be extremely tight, or else the music can fall apart quickly. The intensity of focus required is thrilling in the way that the Rite of Spring is to symphonic audiences.

Ben Justis’ Nucleation for four performers on two marimbas followed. Nucleation explores some less-common techniques, such as using the butt-end of the mallet and muting the bars with the leg, while staying consistently within an odd melodic minor mode that is at once sweet and unstable. Each phrase progresses through a new technique or gesture, starting with sweeping, dissonant arpeggios staggered through the four players and coming to a point of rest on a rumbling chorale in the deepest register.

Many composers start their writing process by thinking about the limitations of their instruments: where am I allowed to be creative and where am I confined? I asked Justis by email about the limitations of the marimba, and he told me, “it’s easy to make your marimba music difficult to play, especially when you’re using four mallets. If you ask for notes that are very far apart on the instrument, they can stray outside of the performer’s peripheral vision or put them in an awkward physical position. The marimba is also more limited than, say, string instruments when it comes to options for timbre or tone color.” But these restrictions of range and tone color bring into focus the subtleties of the mode, the mallet effects and, of course, the rhythms that were sometimes super tight and at other times loose and flowing.

Portland Percussion Group performed Ben Justis’ 'Nucleation' in Lincoln Recital Hall. Photo by Happi Yi.
Portland Percussion Group performed Ben Justis’ ‘Nucleation’ in Lincoln Recital Hall. Photo by Happi Yi.

Fixtures closed with the final score-call winner (to be published by Tapspace), Douglas Hertz’s Fixtures in the Fold. Hertz told me in our email conversation that he loves the “sandbox of sounds” that a percussion ensemble provides, allowing “previously undiscovered timbral combinations.” That flexibility, and a repertoire that is still being codified, allows composers and percussionists to build the music from new foundations without being tethered to the traditions of the genre. Anyone who writes for string quartet or orchestra must of course contend with the master works and avoid straying too far from audience expectations (this is less true for the string quartet, however, especially in the previous century). But concert percussion has only existed for less than a hundred years–and since classical music moves about as fast as tectonic plates, the new genre has yet to establish many universal conventions and tropes.

With that in mind, Fixtures in the Fold took these timbral possibilities to an extreme. Hertz drew inspiration from Patti Smith’s memoir Just Kids, wherein she describes her ever-changing relationship with objects as she grows older. The musical parallels are obvious: one passage was nothing more than a single pitch moving between the four percussionists, slowly changing color in a way reminiscent of good drone music. The most novel additions in the compact instrumentation were pitched wine bottles, a Tibetan singing bowl and a beer bottle (for a Bard College graduate, including beer and wine bottles in a concert piece isn’t that surprising), alongside more standard fare including a vibraphone and crotales.

I also asked the composers what they thought about the current state of concert percussion. Justis had this to say: 

I’m hoping that the percussive arts start to become more independent. There are great ensembles like PPG popping up all over; I think audiences like the visual aspect of percussion, the engaging repertoire that’s played, and the less-traditional vibe it presents. I wouldn’t be surprised if music producers for media such as film, podcasts, and TV started to rely on percussion’s vast instrumentarium as a standalone unit that lends a distinctive sound to their projects. Longer, more substantial works for percussion ensemble would be welcome too; it would affirm the instrument as being worthy of serious composition (and our ever-more-limited attention spans!)

Hertz told me that he appreciates concert percussion’s ability to draw people into contemporary music through its loud and exciting performances. Perhaps this excitement comes from percussion’s relatively new place within concert music, or maybe its connection to taiko, gamelan and marching band, which are just as much styles of performance as genres of music.

Portland Percussion Group in Lincoln Recital Hall. Photo by Happi Yi.
Portland Percussion Group in Lincoln Recital Hall. Photo by Happi Yi.

Whatever it is, though, sure enough I did notice that the crowd was much younger and more diverse than most contemporary classical concerts in Portland. The first thing I see when I enter the hall of a percussion concert is a stage covered in a menagerie of instruments: from Tibet, Africa and Turkey, as well as Europe and the United States. Each instrument has its own history and cultural context that inevitably gets glossed over when placed in the concert hall, but it is still rare to see such a rich array of instruments together. If the orchestra is an exclusive club that rarely lets newcomers in (and the saxophone has been trying for centuries), then the percussion ensemble is the inviting alternative clique, where the only thing required is a positive attitude.

Overwrought metaphors aside, though, percussion does feel like a culture-spanning genre that has the potential to breach the unnecessary divide between classical music and everything else. Considering that rockers John Bonham and Patti Smith inspired half the pieces on this program, the composers are clearly taking in a wide breadth of music. I hope that this trend continues, as more musicians become considered “composers” and the myopia of classical music begins to fade. 

Portland Percussion Group’s next concert in town will be on March 20th in the gorgeous Agnes Flanagan Chapel at Lewis and Clark College.

Charles Rose is a composer, writer, and recent graduate of Portland State University. He is the sound engineer for FearNoMusic and a contributor to PSU’s journal Subito.

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