The rise of the percussionist-composer
Updated: Mar 4, 2020
This is an adaptation of a talk I gave at LKLD Live June 9, 2017, at the Bite-Size Boom percussion concert put on by the Imperial Symphony Orchestra.
I think that, by nature, percussionists are tinkerers. We are explorers.
We are discovering our world through sound daily. We are often asked to find or create instruments or sounds. As Adam Sliwinski puts it in the Cambridge Companion to Percussion, “Rather than specialist-performers, percussionists are more like curators of sound.”
Have you ever walked through Target to find a violinist bowing items on the shelf? Probably not. Or a brass player buzzing her lips on an object to see if it makes a good mouthpiece? I doubt it. But I can tell you I have tapped and scraped and shaken numerous bowls, glasses, toys, and other items on store shelves to hear the pitches and sounds they make. Sometimes out of curiosity, sometimes out of necessity as I’m searching for a set of mixing bowls which sound at specific pitches. Sure, I’ve received a few odd looks, but in the spirit of exploration, I don’t mind.
The art of percussion is an ancient one, thousands and thousands of years old. But the art of percussion as a musical idiom which stands on its own in Western art music is a rather new development (other cultures have embraced percussion-led music for millennia). The earliest percussion ensemble works are not even yet 100 years old, and I’m pretty sure that a majority of chamber and solo percussion works have been composed in my lifetime. Compare this to solo keyboard repertoire, or orchestral repertoire, which go back hundreds of years. As percussion has moved from the back of the stage to where it often stands today, the only thing on the stage, many changes in our repertoire and how it has developed have taken place.
Take the two ideas I’ve just presented; percussionists are explorers, tinkerers, and often improvisors (drumset especially), coupled with the fact that our repertoire is relatively small and young, and one result is that many percussionists have taken to composing music for our repertoire. We have this rise in what we call “percussionist-composers”—percussion performers and teachers who also compose on the side. Based on my experience and some informal research I’ve conducted, I estimate that as many as 25% (others estimate an even higher percentage) of college-level and professional percussionists today also compose music, and if you count arranging music for marching bands and drumlines, that percentage is likely as high as 80%. I would like to share a few thoughts about why I believe this is the case and follow that with a couple thoughts on what it means for our art and repertoire.
Why are more and more percussionists composing music?
First, in our increasingly globalized culture, we are seeing the melding of music genres, of high and low music, or art music and pop music, which seems to remove some of the boundaries in musicians’ minds about being a composer. For many, being a composer is no longer necessarily about creating art for the wealthy of society as it was a few generations ago, music only to be performed by people wearing tuxedos and dresses. Today, a classical percussionist might live a good portion of his or her life in the pop music world as a performer and song-writer, so it makes good sense that this same musician might be inspired to compose pop-influenced music for a percussion ensemble.
Second, and very related to the previous thought, may have something to do with our cultural interest in singer-songwriters. This class of musician (and genre of music) made its rise in the 1960s and 1970s as songwriters moved from writing as hired hands to performing their own songs, expressing directly to an audience the sentiments of their songs. And I see a possible parallel here between percussionists (who, largely because of drumset, often have a foot in the classical world and the pop world of music) and the pop music singer-songwriters. Think about it. Singer-songwriter. Percussionist-composer. It’s basically the same idea: performer-author. It would make sense that many of us percussionists, who are influenced by the pop artists we see and hear often, connect with the idea of expressing our original ideas through our own voice, our own performance. Steve Reich has even said of playing his own compositions, “It seemed clear that a healthy musical situation would only result when the functions of composer and performer were united.”1 Whether influenced by pop artists or not, I am not sure, but I am certain that this personal expression and enjoyment of performing my own music is a major reason I started composing and continue to write music I can perform, and I expect I am not alone.
Third, I mentioned marching bands and drumlines a moment ago, and I believe the increased popularity of these art forms (yes, I said art forms) is another reason percussionists are also composing music. Think of all the high schools and colleges and other marching ensembles who perform and compete in the marching activities. Every season, new music is composed and arranged for these ensembles, and in many cases, the music is becoming much more artistically creative and expressive. Largely due to competition, marching percussion arrangers are being challenged to compose and arrange creatively, which can then naturally extend to other types of composition, such as concert percussion repertoire. This is, in fact, exactly how I got my start composing music.
Fourth, who else knows the ins and outs of percussion instruments as well as percussionists? We have spent years and years immersed in an endless world of sounds, and we have collected a large palette from which to choose colors in composition. We understand what works and what doesn’t on various instruments. This is not to say that a non-percussionist composer won’t have a great understanding of the family of percussion (many do!), but even so, I sense a hesitancy from some composers when it comes to writing for percussion. I was consulted often by other composition students during my masters degree about writing for percussion, and I see it with my composition students now; the huge (and growing) world of percussion can be daunting! So while the demand for new percussion compositions rises quickly, I think it makes sense that those who know the instruments so well feel the confidence to dive in and write for percussion, not waiting for composers alone to meet the demand.
The final reason (for now…I am sure I could come up with more!) I believe more people are composing is because of the ease with which we are able to share our music with the world — I can compose and publish my own music from my living room, and because of technology, I can share it instantly. The barriers of entry into the world of composing and publishing are minuscule. I also think this may have something to do with the fact the internet and social media make it easy to express our voice to the world, so we assume that the world wants to hear what we have to say. Especially young people are taught that we have something to offer and so we must share it with the world.
Why does any of this matter?
Now, you may already be thinking what I’m about to say; all of this may not set up the best situation for our art. Just because it’s easy for me to compose music and share it with the world, that doesn’t mean that my music is great or that it will be a masterpiece in the percussion repertoire. Or, as Bob Becker puts it, “Unfortunately, an abundance of percussive skill does not ensure the ability to approach the rigors of creating a compositional voice of any originality or significance.”2 When you consider that most of the percussionists who are composing and arranging music today have no formal training in composition, it is understandable that a good portion of new music for percussion is not that great. Of course I recognize that I am writing this as a percussionist-composer, and I am very aware of my shortcomings as a composer, so I do not exempt myself from this scrutiny.
While other instrumentalists and vocalists are performing masterworks by Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and others, our young repertoire has fewer “masterworks”, and even so, many percussionists tend to ignore them in favor of the newest works, many of which are composed by percussionist-composers. It is often the case that percussion ensemble directors program works composed by a friend from college or even a former student of theirs. Of course I have no problem with this, as I often benefit from these exact scenarios when people perform my works, but we must be careful not to overlook works composed by men and women who are not percussionists, but first and foremost composers, and many of them quite brilliant at writing for percussion.
When we consider some of the most foundational works for percussion solo and ensemble, names such as Cage, Carter, Creston, Druckman, Reich, Stockhausen, Varése, Wuorinen, and Xenakis may come to mind. And we continue to see non-percussionist composers today compose popular works for percussion (Hatzis, Lang, Lansky, Maric, Mellits, Psathas, Viñao, Snowden, and others). Going back to the idea that percussionists know the instruments so well, I believe non-percussionists have more of an opportunity to come to the table with fewer preconceived notions of a sound or technical capability for a percussion instrument or set of instruments, thereby offering some of the most creative and unique compositions for percussion. How tempting it is to write only what is easy/idiomatic to play and what sounds like music we've played composed by other percussionist-composers!
So what can we do?
As a performer, composer, and educator, I believe it is important for me (and other percussionists) to recognize this trend in order to choose how to best serve our art. This means I seek to program and perform works which highlight some of the best composers and compositions, whether they are percussionists or not, and whether the pieces are new or not. And of course, as a composer, I will continue to strive to learn from other great musicians, and work to compose music which expresses my musical voice authentically, all toward the end of advancing the art and repertoire of percussion.
1 Writings on Music, 1965-2000 by Steve Reich, p. 78
2 Cambridge Companion to Percussion, edited by Russell Hartenberger, p. 164
(Photo: setup for Evan Chapman's Second Thoughts)