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What makes a piece of music great? (Part 2 of 3)

April 20, 2011

A few weeks back I had the privilege of sharing some great conversation with percussionist Colin Currie, his violinist friend, and my wife. Among the many topics of discussion was the topic of what percussionists value in a piece of music (they must have known I was blogging about this!).

Colin commissions and premieres new percussion works like it's his job. In IS his job. That's nearly all he does. So one can imagine how much new music he encounters, while also occasionally playing works that have had a few birthdays. As Colin described to me the concerto he was playing that weekend with the Indianapolis Symphony (Rautavaara's Incantations), the violinist friend sensed an implication that percussionists often seemed to value the new in a work. The innovation. The "never been done before".

 He asked Colin and me if this was the case, if percussionists value or devalue a work based on whether it pushes beyond the boundaries or not. Of course, two of us cannot answer for the entire world of percussionists, but in my experience, the answer is mostly yes. And Colin, who has literally been around the world many times over, agreed.

As I scan a list of titles in my mind, virtually all pieces that have had a real impact in the percussion repertoire are pieces that have a good deal of newRhythmic Caprice (Stevens), for example, was innovative in its use of the shaft of the mallets on the marimba. Many of the sounds of Tan Dun's Water Concerto had never been written into a percussion work, and its newness gave it value (at least in my opinion). I recently saw a premiere of Kevin Bobo's percussion ensemble work, Migraine Sketches, and my opinion of the piece was positively affected by the array of new sounds coming from the ensemble. Percussion works with electronic accompaniment (by Bruce Hamilton, for example) or live electronics are often valued simply because of their innovative ideas.

However, many will agree that novelty and innovation alone do not make a piece great. So in my next post I will attempt to go beyond who composed the piece and whether or not it has been done before to look at what else make a piece of music great.


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