Saturday, 30 March 2013

Writing for percussion 4 - The Reich Stuff

Steve Reich & homogenous groupings
Here are a few examples of Steve Reich’s composing, which until about 1973 was almost entirely based around homogenous groups of instruments.
Although it’s not strictly relevant, as a taster for what was to follow, have a listen to the opening of his 1966 hit ‘Come Out’. The first phrase is taken from an interview with a Harlem youth wrongly convicted of murder (later acquitted), and the phrase ‘Come out to show them’ is lifted from a recording of that interview. It’s then looped and played on two separate tape machines, with one running slightly slower so that the music phases. More things happen later in the piece, but they’re not relevant here. I strongly recommend listening to this on headphones.

Thursday, 21 March 2013

Writing for percussion 3 - Keep it in the family

Percussion instruments by grouping
A great many successful percussion pieces and orchestrations work because the composer has thought about the instruments that can work well together. Treating the percussion department as a toy box to be dipped into with all the discrimination of a toddler high on Sunny Delight is usually the route to a messy, unstructured and wasteful bit of writing.
These groupings are not prescriptive, nor are they meant to be a substitute for imaginative colouring. However, thought put into the timbral palette will lead to a more satisfactory outcome.
Let’s take, for example, the following list of 26 fairly random percussion instruments. I’ve provided links to the Bell Percussion website (an invaluable source of reference for many things percussion related) for instruments that might not be so familiar to you.

Friday, 1 March 2013

Writing for percussion 2 - timpani for the devil

Timpani – what they are, what they do
Timpani – or kettledrums (the same thing, just a more old-fashioned name) – have been largely ever-present in the orchestra from the early 18th century onwards. Originally being found in pairs and of relatively small sizes, they would have been used processionally mounted either side of a horse.
Fast-forwarding to the 21st century, it’s now safe to assume a set of four, in sizes ranging from 23” in diameter to perhaps 32”, each of which is equipped with a pedal giving each timp a range of about a 6th – varying according to make.
Timpanists despair of anyone ever writing properly for the timps, and I’d love to be able to give you an insight into perfect timp writing, but it’s such a minefield that all I can do is call your attention to some examples of good and bad practice, throw you a few tips, then leave you to be insulted by timpanists. It’s inevitable. Don’t take it personally.

Writing for percussion 1 - I got 99 problems but pitch ain't one

(the full form of this blog, with attachments, is here...  I can't post sound files on Blogger, sadly)
Sound & Noise
(or, I’ve got 99 Problems, but pitch ain’t one)

This is the first part of a 6 part course designed to help with the unique issues of writing for percussion. Each session will concentrate on a different aspect of percussion, and each will have assignments, and on-the-spot writing projects. The composition part of the course will gradually increase, as the course is focussed on composition.
Regardless of your interest, background or future, you will need to know about percussion. It forms a part of every single outlet of contemporary music making, whether that be concert hall, theatre, jazz or dance music (although here the principles of percussion writing will be of more use than the practicalities).
This course aims to explore the language of rhythmic music through experimentation, composition and recording. Some of the assignments will be more relevant to your own needs, some less, but I hope that all will be useful. Each of the six sessions will have a different starting point and should add up to give a 360ยบ look at percussion.
I will be writing up the seminars in full form; this brief is just to keep things ticking over so I don’t get too far behind with my writing!

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