Music Percussion Music
Facet – Percussion music
Percussion music is found in nearly every culture in the world and has existed since before 6000 B.C. In Australia, percussion music started with the aboriginals; from hand clapping and lap slapping to drums made from logs and reptile skins. Comparing it to the recent Australian compositions, we can infer that Australian Percussion music has certainly developed; new instruments, new rhythms, and a totally new ‘feel’ to the music. “One characteristic of percussion is that it’s open to anything else than what it already has. The strings in the orchestra are not that way – they want to become more and more what they are; but the percussion wants to become other than what it is.” John Cage.
After analysing all of my musical scores, I could infer that Australian Art music composers love to be different. In every score there is at least one thing non-conventional about the piece. The characteristic that is most noticeable is the chosen instruments of the composers. In the piece ‘Mixo-Masho’, Michael Atherton uses instruments that you wouldn’t find in a typical percussion score; He uses Water filled glasses, seven of them, each with a different pitch. The use of water filled glasses will change the tone colour of the piece; making the sound brighter and majestic. It will also change the texture; making the musical density sound thinner. Michael Atherton also suggests Stainless steel cooking bowls, and suspended terra cotta pots. In Peter Sculthorpe’s ‘Sun Music’ he uses the piano as a percussion instrument. Firstly he asks the performer to play, with sticks, any rapid rhythm on the piano:
He then directs the performer to use a wire brush on the piano:
Finally he explores tone clusters in a particular rhythm. The role of the piano has changed from the usual chord provider, to the rhythm provider:
The use of non-conventional instruments shows that composers of Australian Percussion music are pushing the boundaries and making their pieces more unique.
I have noticed that composers have become more trusting, and willing to experiment with their pieces. This is because a lot of the musical ideas are left up to the performers. In Brigid Burke’s ‘Night Light’ there are four sections, one of which is a ‘free section’. The beauty of this ‘free section’ is that she has allowed the performers to use extended techniques and explore their instruments to their full potential. Her aim for the section is ‘beginning very soft and building to frenzy’; this shows that the piece has extreme potential and a greater freedom and range. In Michael Atherton’s ‘Mixo-Masho’ he suggests that ‘instrumentation is open to the performer’. This allows performers to ‘find’ the music; uncover its possibilities and mould the piece’s tone colour to way they need it. He asks his performers to be daring, innovative, exploratory, and even iconoclastic in their recreation of the score. We can infer that composers have relied on their performers to re-create their percussive piece.
In all pieces, the composers have a desire for unity and contrast. Unity is created by the composers by repeating patterns of dynamics, maintaining the same rhythmic feel, and maintaining one texture. The percussion composers create contrast by introducing new instruments, changing the metre, changing dynamics and introducing counter melodies. In almost all of the pieces I analysed the use of syncopation was very popular and each composer experimented with metres. Peter Sculthorpes ‘Sun Music’ experimented with several metres, 4/8, 2/8, 3/8. Erik Griswold’s ‘Rope Bridge’ used 4/4, 6/4, 5/4, 3/4 and 7/8. All pieces have ranges of dynamics, with countless crescendos and decrescendos that range from pp to ff. The structures of each of the compositions are clearly marked. They are all put into section A, B C etc. Each section has a different ostinato pattern and motif.
In most of the compositions, the uses of symbols were introduced. These symbols outlined exactly what the composers wanted their performers to do. In Michael Smetanin’s ‘The Speed of Sound’ he has a whole page dedicated to ‘Symbols in the Notation’. In this page there are several symbols with writing next to them explaining to the performer what he is to do when he see’s one of these signs.
Another example is in Peter Sculthorpe’s ‘Sun Music’. In the diagram we can see that each symbol also has a description.
In these we can see that the composer knows exactly what he wants. Although many composers leave a lot up to the performer, they also have a greater need in their music, and the symbols define their needs.
From analyzing several percussion scores, I could infer that the presentation is equally important as the music itself. New boundaries were created as their music showed individuality, personality and uniqueness. Symbols didn’t just include ways to play instruments; they were about the presentation, including choreography and movement.
We can see, from the diagram above that in Erik Griswold’s composition ‘Strings Attached’ that his players ‘with a swift motion, or jerk, raise both sticks above your shoulders’. In another of his compositions ‘Rope Bridge’, he directs his performers to use ‘a right hand gesture that sweeps from right hip to left ear’ and the symbol of a hand meant ‘raise and hold sticks above head and slightly in front of body’. Here we can see the use of the symbol in the score:
These movements and choreography show that the presentation of the piece is equally as important as the music itself. The staging of the pieces are also instructed by composers. In Erik Griswold’s ‘Strings Attached’ we can see exactly where he wants his players standing and performing.
We can also see that he asks his composers to thread loose ends of rope though their drums sticks. These ropes are attached to a pole which is set in the middle of the six drummers. The movements and staging create symbolism and enhance the meaning of the piece. They take the audience on not only an audio journey, but a visual one too.
Australian Percussion music of the last fifty years has many qualities that make it stand out as Art Music. Whether it is the instrument choice, musical ideas being left up to the performer’s discretion, symbols, the staging, the choreography or the music itself, I have discovered that percussion music is a thorough facet and an essential part of Australian history.