Mixes: Percussion

Eric Shuster, circa 1987

Yesterday marked the latest Boadrum experience as Japanese avant-rockers Boredoms celebrated 10/10/2010 with 10 drummers performing all day in Melbourne, Australia.   Unfortunately I was unable to attend, although I felt like I was there in spirit.

I am a percussionist.  That’s me up there in my first professional headshot.

Early on, being a percussionist was about playing “Wipeout.”  Through college, my understanding of percussion grew to include far-out composers – Karlheinz Stockhausen, Morton Feldman, Steve Reich, Iannis Xenakis, and John Cage to name a few – all of whom have written music that sounds much different from The Surfaris.

But if I look back on my life in music up until this point, this is how it adds up.  I have been a listener for 25 years.  I have been a musician for about half of that time.  I’ve always found a strong attraction to music.  It is my passion.  But I have struggled with my relationship with music for a long time.  Only recently have I come to terms with the notion that my interests as a listener and as a performer are separate much of the time.

To put it more clearly, I struggle as a performer because I recognize the music that I’m typically listening to on my iPod is very different from the music I’m going to program for a recital.  As a matter of fact, there is very little percussion music that I will listen to, regardless if it is for recreation or not.  Therefore, I’ve come to accept my feelings for music as two separate loves: a love for listening and a love for performing.

However, there is a small section where these loves overlap.

This is a mix that satisfies me both as a listener and as a percussionist.

Making this mix was cool because it helped me reinforce what I really love about music from both sides of the coin.  Great songwriting, deep consideration for timbre, and a spectrum of rhythm that could run random as a pinball machine or as utterly nod-producing as anything Jay-Z has ever touched.

You can hear the influence of pop music as Dan Deacon, Steve Reich, So Percussion, and Erik Griswold all garner a very consonant and song-like quality to their pieces. Conversely, explorers like Alvin Lucier, Edgard Varèse, Morton Feldman, and Jonny Greenwood capture unique soundscapes and manipulate our concept of rhythm in saturated abstract works that are both a treat and a test to the ear.  And the beatmasters John Cage, Dirty Projectors, Jo Kondo, and Mount Eerie balance along the tightrope of lean to craft some of the illest feels I’ve ever heard.

I’d like you to start listening now, but as a percussionist I’d feel guilty to refrain from lending greater insight into each track.   See how nerdy I can get after the jump.

for Brian, John, and Zach

  1. Big Milk / Dan Deacon from Spiderman of the Rings [Carpark, 2007]
  2. Amores: Movement II (1943) / John Cage (1912-1992) as performed by Vita Novus from Eric Shuster Senior Recital, 2008
  3. Music For Solo Performer (excerpt) (1965) / Alvin Lucier (1931-) as performed by Pauline Oliveros from Music For Solo Performer [Lovely, 1982]
  4. Under The Umrella: Movement IV (1976) / Jo Kondo (1947-) as performed by Nexus from Jo Kondo: Mulberry – In The Woods – In Summer – Under The Umbrella [CP2, 2007]
  5. Ionisation (1929-31) / Edgard Varèse (1883-1965) as performed by members of the New York Philharmonic from Varèse: Arcana; Ameriques; Ionisation; Offrandes; Density 21.5; Octandre; Integrales [Sony, 1991]
  6. Six Marimbas (excerpt) (1986) / Steve Reich (1936-) as performed by the composer, members of Nexus, and members of the Manhattan Marimba Quartet from Sextet / Six Marimbas [Nonesuch, 1986]
  7. Warholian Wigs / Dirty Projectors from The Getty Address [Western Vinyl, 2005]
  8. The King of Denmark (1964) / Morton Feldman (1926-1987) as performed by Max Neuhaus from Electronics & Percussion – Five Realizations By Max Neuhaus [Columbia, 1968]
  9. Go / So Percussion from Amid The Noise [Cantaloupe, 2006]
  10. In The Bat’s Mouth / Mount Eerie from The Drums from No Flashlight [P.W. Elverum & Sun, 2005]
  11. Convergence / Jonny Greenwood from Bodysong [EMI, 2003]
  12. Concerto for Prepared Piano and Percussion: Movement VI (2007) / Erik Griswold as performed by the composer, Vanessa Tomlinson and Speak Percussion from Dream Percussion: Music of Erik Griswold [self-released, 2009]

1.  New York-based Dan Deacon has found his niche in the oddball side of Baltimore, co-founding the arts underground hub Wham City after completing graduate studies in electro-acoustic and computer music composition at SUNY Purchase with Joel Thome and Dary John Mizelle.  Deacon later admitted that his fate in music had much to do with hearing Karlheinz Stockhausen’s famous percussion work Zyklus (1959), claiming, “I don’t know if I would have transferred into the music program for composition if I hadn’t stumbled upon this record.”  His music is something like Steve Reich filtered through the Cartoon Network and despite being an electronic-based composer, Deacon – like Reich – established his own touring ensemble to back his work in real human form.  In my own opportunity to see the Dan Deacon Ensemble, he’d traveled into town in a diesel-to-vegetable oil converted school bus with more than a dozen instrumentalists – about half of which made up his percussion section.  In the modest Big Milk from his Carpark debut, Deacon achieves momentum not by accelerando or crescendo, but by a new form of compositional tension – delay – as layers of the melody pile over each other.

2.  John Cage, though widely known for 4’33” and as a member of the New York School of composers, regarded himself early on as a composer of percussion music after being disinterested in harmony.  Along with his West Coast contemporaries Henry Cowell and Lou Harrison, and luminaries elsewhere: New Orleans’ William Russell and Mexico City’s Carlos Chávez, John Cage was an early pioneer of percussion ensemble music and promoted the art form by producing recitals of percussion music in the 1930s and ’40s.  Most of the work premiered in these recitals now make up percussion ensemble’s historical repertoire: Cowell’s Ostinato Pianissimo (1934), Chávez’ Toccata (1942), and Cage’s own output.  Having grown up in California, the influence of Eastern culture is highly evident in Cage’s percussion works as is reflected in the use of traditional Asian instruments.  Take this movement of Amores, for example. Here, Cage’s tom-toms are not drumset tom-toms, but rather Chinese toms.  And as for the recording, the piece was performed by my good friends Jack, Joe, and myself for my senior recital.

3.  Considered Alvin Lucier’s first “mature” work – as his output from this work forward exhibits chiefly his interest in the physical properties of sound (see also I Am Sitting in a Room (1969)) – Music For Solo Performer instructs the performer sit still in front of an audience and channel their brain waves with EEG scalp electrodes. The alpha rhythms then emitted by the brain – when enormously amplified – are made audible via sympathetically vibrating percussion instruments.  Pretty “heady” stuff, you might say.

4.  Projected by Morton Feldman to be “another kind of classic as the years go by,” Jo Kondo’s Under The Umbrella is a work composed for 25 cowbells, to be played by 5 percussionists (5 cowbells each).  Kondo writes with a compositional aesthetic he refers to as “Sen no Ongaku” or “linear music,” and most of Under The Umbrella is composed this way: as a single “line” of notes, which are then hocketted throughout the group.   Now what I find so interesting about this piece is that although Kondo wrote for the an instrument that we traditionally hear as being without pitch, this work lends itself to being perceived as tonal through the extended use of a relatively homogenous timbre.   To this day I am in awe of how Kondo might have heard this in his head.

5.  The modern percussion sound – and in some regard the sound of the 20th century – owes its livelihood to early noise-maker Edgard Varèse and his cathartic percussion ensemble classic Ionisation.  You might have heard the angst and disillusionment that expressionist composers Arnold Schoenberg & Co. felt from World War I, but Varèse gave you the war itself, with sirens, military drums, and a slew of destructive sounds.  And think for a moment about this work’s foresight into our current state of globalization: by 1931 Varèse had written a piece of music that incorporated sounds from Europe, the Americas, and Asia.

6.  Transcribed from Steve Reich’s earlier Six Pianos (1973), Six Marimbas follows Reich’s evolution in what has come to be known as his brand of “minimalism.”  In this piece, Reich took cues from his original process in splicing and looping from his early tape works It’s Gonna Rain (1965) and Come Out (1966), but replaced speech for melodic fragment and tape player for perfumer.  And as a percussionist himself, Reich is also responsible for a handful of well-respected works in the repertoire, including his percussion magnum opus, Drumming (1970-1).

7.  The Getty Address by Dave Longstreth, a.k.a. the Yale-bred mastermind behind Dirty Projectors, is no less complicated in storyline and arrangement than any of Mozart’s classic operas.  But I’ll save that for later.  In the meantime, the labeled “glitch-opera” came to fruition through the recording of Longstreth’s arrangements and the subsequent chopping and editing in the studio.  The Getty Address was a great deal of work for Longstreth and took a considerable time to complete, but when you hear this record you are hearing completely new sounds that – despite occurring from familiar instruments like cowbell and marimba – reflect a whole new approach to composing for percussion in the era of studio post-production.  While I am excited for the new possibilities afforded by this technology, I do question what affect the developing role of the studio will have on the performance of a work.  But at least in the case of The Getty Address, he still got a pretty good gig out of it.

8.  Coming out of Feldman’s period of composing on graph paper as opposed to the traditional staff paper, The King of Denmark offers a looser, more flexible approach to interpretation and thusly, a greater bi-partisan relationship between the performer and composer for the realization of the work.  Feldman recalled writing the work in a matter of hours and in one sitting – that sitting being on the south shore of Long Island in August of 1964.  Inspired in sound by the “muffled sound of kids in the distance and transistor radios and drifts of conversation from other pockets of inhabitants on blankets” and in concept by King Christian X who allegedly (but now considered apocryphally) walked the streets of Copenhagen wearing the star of David as a silent protest during the Nazi occupation of Denmark in World War II, The King was translated through the idea of a mallet-less percussionist, reinforcing the notion that the sounds he heard, or “wisps” as he referred to them, are fleeting and won’t last long.  And this example exists not only for its indebtedness to Feldman, but equally to the late Max Neuhaus, one of the most innovative sound artists and percussionists of the 20th century.

9.  Hipster percussion ensemble formed out of the Yale percussion studio and now based in NYC, So Percussion have had a hand in a broad spectrum of music: reworking Steve Reich’s Drumming for their own ensemble, and collaborating with electronic gurus Matmos for their latest recording Treasure State (Cantaloupe, 2010).  Amid The Noise, based loosely on the change in seasons, is an album consisting entirely of founding member Jason Treuting’s original writing.  Here, much like his contemporaries Dan Deacon and Dave Longstreth, Treuting takes full consideration of the technology at hand and incorporates it into the work.

10.  Phil Elverum has always put a lot of work into his records, first under the moniker of Microphones and currently as Mount Eerie, to create huge sounds that overpower his voice and magnify the punity of his being in relation to the world.   Often times, this has to do with creating dense, layered drum tracks.  What might surprise you is that he does so here in No Flashlight with a mere cardboard box, water jug, the body of an acoustic guitar, and bass drum (sparingly).  And being a former drummer himself, his pride in his work led to a “drums only” release of No Flashlight when Elverum insisted, “If you have heard No Flashlight, youʼll know that “just a bunch of drums” from the album would stand on their own. The beats are dense enough for their own record, and listening to them, you can hear sounds coming from corners of the the rhythm lost in the full mix.”

11.  Collaborating with filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson for his critically-acclaimed There Will Be Blood (2007), Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood contributed new music for the film but also this intense selection from his 2003 album Bodysong.  This piece, although very challenging to listen to, is brilliant in its use for one of the most memorable scenes the film.

12.  I was introduced to the music of American-born, Australian-based composer and pianist Erik Griswold at this past year’s Percussive Arts Society International Convention when I was able to see his Concerto for Prepared Piano and Percussion performed live with Griswold as pianist.  I am at a loss for describing this work, especially now after preparing a considerable amount of writing.  I simply think that it is a beautiful song.

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1 Response to Mixes: Percussion

  1. Zachary Smotherman says:

    Seriously radical mix, Eric!

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