Book Review: The Cambridge Companion to Percussion


percussion—from the Latin verb percutere, to strike forcibly

As a family of instruments that make sound by being struck as well as a community of musicians who do this striking, percussion and percussionists encompass a vast terrain. Percussion of one type or another is found in virtually every musical culture in the world, and the techniques for playing these instruments are astonishingly varied. For example, consider the dance drum ensembles of Ghana, the tabla and mridangam drumming from North and South India, metallophone gamelans in Bali and Java, the steel pan bands of Trinidad, frame drumming in the Middle East, not to mention the extraordinary innovations of American jazz and rock drummers. Percussion has a global presence and is the focal point of so much contemporary music, whether pop or classical, western or eastern, mainstream or weirdly experimental. Choose your metaphor: percussion and percussionists’ rhythms are music’s great animators, natural propellants, currents of energy that make kinetic everything they touch.

The Cambridge Companion to Percussion, edited by Russell Hartenberger, is part of Cambridge University Press’s Companions to Music series, which includes over fifty multi-authored books that cover topics ranging from musical style, composers, to instruments. This volume is an accessibly written and far-ranging introduction to the world of percussion and rhythm. Its authors include internationally renowned performers, composers, instrument builders, scholars, and scientists who have contributed essays on an array of topics, from the role of percussion in symphony orchestras, drum set grooving, the influence of world music on western percussion, the evolution of drum machines, to scientific research on the perception of sound. Hartenberger is the ideal editor for this book, given his august background as a performer and ethnomusicologist, his four decades teaching at the University of Toronto, being a founding member of the pioneering Nexus percussion ensemble, and his close association with the composer Steve Reich since the late 1960s. Drawing on this experience, Hartenberger provides a bird’s eye view of the percussion terrain by pointing readers in varied directions down in the chapter valleys below. The Cambridge Companion, he says, is intended to “be a valuable resource for students, percussionists, and all those who want a deeper understanding of percussion music and rhythm” (1) and it succeeds in being just this resource. This review offers a chapter by chapter summary of some of the book’s themes, interesting byways, and also includes some links to YouTube.

Parts one and two consider orchestral percussion and the development of percussion instruments. In “Timpani traditions and beyond” Hartenberger traces a history of how various traditions of timpani playing that originated in nineteenth-century Leipzig, Dresden, and other European cities made their way to North America in the twentieth century. Timpani (kettledrums) were the first percussion instruments to appear in classical symphony orchestras, and surprisingly, the musicians who first played them were often string players, wind players, and even singers (7). This account shows how ad hoc the field of orchestral percussion was in its early days, and historically situates the connections among some of the percussion giants of the past hundred years, including Saul Goodman, George Lawrence Stone, William Street, and Fred Hinger. Hartenberger also reveals how core principles of the early timpani schools of playing—e.g. creating tone and balance, cultivating precision, and creating a musical line (18)—have been enduring themes that connect these musicians (not to mention thousands of their students) to their European forebears. In “Orchestral percussion in the twenty-first century” Nexus member William L. Cahn shows how far the field of symphonic percussion has travelled in terms of its identity and the responsibilities and professional prospects of those who enter it. Cahn notes that one of the challenges faced by orchestras today is that they compete with recorded music’s ubiquitous presence. Cahn suggests that orchestral percussionists consider preserving and sharing “the sense of preciousness in their music, not only through their performances, but also through education and advocacy” (38).

Three additional chapters consider the development of mallet percussion, wind chimes, the percussion instrument industry, and electronic percussion. The marimba has become a paragon “bridge” instrument connecting the percussionist to what other musicians consider to be more “normal”-sounding music. Unlike a snare drum or cymbal, a marimba is a keyboard, its sound is mellow and round, and you can play Bach violin sonatas on it. In “Marimba Revolution” William Moersch explains the development of the modern marimba repertoire, surveying dozens of works, from classical concertos in the 1950s to Gordon Stout’s and Keiko Abe’s immensely popular solo pieces from the 1970s and 80s, Bob Becker’s arrangements of George Hamilton Green’s xylophone ragtimes, to more recent pieces that incorporate interactive live electronics. Garry Kvistad’s “Instrumental ingredients”, one of the book’s more unusual chapters, tells the story of how the author began exploring “ways to improve and adapt percussion instruments” (55) by applying the lessons of acoustician Thomas Rossing (author of Science of Percussion Instruments) on the natural harmonic overtone series to designing instruments. Kvistad explains how he reconstructed the tunings of ancient Greek scales and eventually formed one of the world’s premiere wind chime companies, Woodstock Chimes. In “The percussion industry” Rick Mattingly explains the close relationship between drumming practices and instrument innovations, providing numerous examples of “drummers creating a demand for a product that previously did not exist” (69) such as double bass drum pedals, sizzle cymbals, plastic drum heads, and Latin percussion. One of the seismic shifts in the musical instrument industry was the emergence of electronic percussion in the late 1970s and early 80s. In “Virtual Drumming” Thomas Brett surveys this history as it played out in the sounds of popular music. Brett explains that the technologies of drum machines and now, software, offered new approaches for creating rhythms, shaped conceptions of musical time, and redefined what it means to drum.

Part three considers percussion in performance. In “Lost and found” So Percussion member Adam Sliwinski considers the pivotal roles of noise and non-pitched/non-western percussion instruments in percussion chamber music repertoire, focusing on the enduring contributions of John Cage, particularly his 1941 piece, Third Construction. Sliwinski also outlines the changing function of percussionists who have become “like curators of sound”, valued for their “willingness to cope with new instruments, ideas, techniques, and aesthetic purposes” (107). In chapters eight and nine, percussion soloists Colin Currie and Aiyun Huang explain the growing repertoire of multi-percussion and solo percussion music by drawing on their own performing experiences. In “Taking Center stage” Currie describes the arc of his multi-faceted career, how he works with composers, and speaks of maintaining percussion’s “castle of credibility” (116) that depends on composing new music to “entice listeners to our beloved sound world” (127). In “Percussion Theater” Huang analyzes repertoire that highlight the seeing-hearing relationship. Through the works of Vinko Globokar, Thierry de Mey, and others, she makes observations about the theatrical aspects of playing percussion works which “are inherently theatrical because of the visceral nature of percussive gesture and corporeal sensibility required of the performer” (129). Rounding out this section is Steven Schick’s “Three Convergences”, which details this master percussionist’s experiences learning to conduct. Schick, known for his meticulous interpretations of complex contemporary percussion music, finds similarities between conducting and percussing. While the percussionist internalizes a language of organization, the conductor externalizes it, but the goal in both cases is the same: “to find a meaningful problem, and through minuscule steps toward mastery, occasionally find yourself in a state of grace through sound” (156).

Part four considers composing music for percussion instruments. In “Finding a voice” Bob Becker, a multi-instrumentalist virtuoso and co-founding member of Nexus, writes about his composing experience and considers the repertoire created by percussionist-composers. Becker articulates a matter not often discussed: Is the music written by percussionist-composers any good, or is it somehow too beholden to the percussing idiom (e.g. too reliant of drumming patterns, etc.) to be enduring music? Becker wonders whether there “is a compositional imperative to be found in the great variety of styles and techniques that need to be assimilated by a contemporary percussionist?” (163-164) The answer seems to be no. As Becker points out, “an abundance of percussive skill does not ensure the ability to approach the rigors of creating a compositional voice of any originality or significance” (164). Becker’s own compositions however, shaped by his longstanding experience with North Indian music and his “personal cognitive insight” (166) with its harmonic implications, are an enchanting exception. (Listen, for example, to “Mudra.”) Finding “a conceptual basis for writing music, and then developing and honing it” he says, “is a gamble” (164). Continuing this theme of the conceptual basis of composing, in “Flexibility as a defining factor” So Percussion member Jason Treuting uses examples from his work “June” to illustrate how he finds a balance between core musical structure and giving performers flexibility to make their own contributions. “What information did I need to pass on to the performers to ensure that the performances would represent my thoughts, and, on the other hand, what information could I leave open to the performers?” (170). The final chapter in this section is Steve Reich’s “Thoughts on percussion and rhythm” in which the esteemed American composer talks with Hartenberger about a number of familiar topics including his training and influences, the structures of African music, and the genesis of some of his well-known pieces. Reich can present his own views as indicative of broader shifts: “We Americans are very pragmatic people” he says when discussing how there is no hidden philosophical messages in his epic 1971 percussion piece, Drumming. “I think that’s one of our great strengths as opposed to those interminable theoretical questions others get bogged down with” (179). Nevertheless, fans of the composer will find much of interest here.

Part five of the book considers what is perhaps the most influential percussion instrument of the past fifty years, the drum set. In “In the pocket” the legendary drummer Peter Erskine explains how it is that a drummer goes about “providing rhythmic information to the band and listener while making the music feel good” (187). Erskine says that a drummer’s sense of rhythmic feel or timing depends on the musician’s “subdivision awareness” (191), the social dynamics of improvisation, drum fills, and the overarching importance of “a flowing musical statement” known as a groove (201). A good groove, says Erskine, is a “simple beat being played in good conscience and with focused intent” (192) that allows a drummer to suggest a melody. In “The ‘Funky Drummer’ break” Steven Pond moves onto percussion’s micro-terrain to investigate how it is that the soft “ghost notes” between the main beats of a groove give it energy and dynamism. Using Clyde Stubblefield’s drum break on James Brown’s “Funky Drummer” as an example, Pond shows how it’s the drum break’s sound as much as its rhythm that “leads the listening-dancer into a subliminal, visceral setting” of intimacy, in which the snare drum becomes a magical and potent voice (204). Pond suggests that drum breaks inspired a new way of attending to drumming’s sound (206). In “Way beyond wood and skin”, Jeff Packman explores the ways in which the drum set represents a complicated nexus “between human music makers and technological knowledge” (211). Packman cites the bass drum pedal, the hi hat, and brushes as some innovations that have triggered “creative adaptations” (219) by musicians as they explore the potentials of their equipment. “Here” says Packman, “sonic inspiration, mechanical development, and hard work engender complex coordination” (220) which pushes drumming to keep evolving.

Part six considers world percussion, specifically the influence of Indian, African, and Balinese musics. In “Speaking of rhythm” Hartenberger interviews two South Indian musicians, master mridangam player Trichy Sankaran and his daughter, vocalist and composer Suba Sankaran, to discuss “the influence of Indian music on Western music and the issues that arise from combining elements of both” (229). Among its insights, the interview reveals the ways in which these musicians conceptualize rhythm and pitch in music. In both cases, space is a key notion: Sankaran speaks of how “the duration between two events… is fundamental to realizing rhythms”, while Suba says that the “microtonal inflections between certain notes I often call the universe within two notes” (233). In “African influences on Western percussion performance and pedagogy” Michael Williams reminds readers how virtually “every popular musical expression draws from African musical sensibilities and influences.” In fact, the importance of what he calls “certain Africanisms such as groove, style, feel, voice, inherent pattern awareness, and ‘three-dimensional listening’” are reasons enough to make learning African music a part of the percussionist’s basic musical training (249). In a similar way, “The gamelan beleganjur as Balinese percussion ensemble” by ethnomusicologist Michael Bakan makes the case for exploring the music “in terms of Western musical and cultural sensibilities” (254) by introducing readers to the ensemble’s musical form and structure, its ritual and ceremonial uses, and its growing contemporary repertoire.

Rounding out the book is part seven, which comprises two chapters that take a scientific perspectives on percussion and rhythm. In “Lessons from the laboratory” psychologist/percussionist Michael Schutz analyzes scientific research on musical “movements lacking acoustic consequences” (267), that is, the role of the percussionist’s silent movements. Schutz focuses on how our time perception is shaped by feeling our own body movements, and how seeing the movements of other performers affects how we evaluate their performances. One case study considers the effects of seeing a marimbist use long versus short striking gestures after playing a note. The surprising finding (though perhaps not surprising to percussionists!) is that post-impact motion does control an audience’s perception of musical note duration (273)–which confirms my hunch that good musicians are like magicians. In this way, Schutz’s article dovetails with Huang’s article on percussion performance as theater (Chapter 9) in reminding us “that ancillary aspects of gestures can alter evaluations of concurrent acoustic information” (276). The final chapter is John Iversen’s “In the beginning was the beat” which considers the evolutionary origins of musical rhythm in humans. This chapter asks a series of hard-to-definitively-answer questions about why it is that humans, unlike other animals, link sound and movement, why our synchronized actions lead to social bonding, and whether or not the musical beat “was an invented technology for pushing our minds in pleasurable or even useful ways” (282). Readers interested in the cognitive neuroscience of music will enjoy Iversen’s detailed summaries of findings on beat perception, animal synchronization, and evolution/adaptation theories that seek to explain music’s purpose. Is music a mere pleasure technology, an “auditory cheesecake” as psychologist Steven Pinker once famously described it, or something more vital—a “transformative technology of the mind” (287) whose cognitive and even health virtues we are only beginning to understand?

In sum, The Cambridge Companion to Percussion is a concise yet action-packed and concept-rich volume that, like its subject matter, strikes forcibly in the range of ideas from its contributors. The book aims broadly, its chapters cover a vast quantity of musical material, the topics are timely, and the references in the endnotes essential. As my YouTube links suggest, readers can also use the book as a springboard for further online exploration of the sounds, composers, instruments, histories and speculations offered among its pages. In his introduction, Hartenberger quotes a mantra used by his first percussion teacher, Alan Abel, who once urged his student to “follow the line” of the music. So too Hartenberger urges us to follow the line of the themes in this book with the aim of discovering “future worlds heretofore unimagined” (3).

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