The (minor) miracle of a percussion section.

I’m often asked if there are different personalities among musicians who play different instruments. It is an extremely difficult question to answer; after all, it is hard to stop laughing when one is laughing that hard! To explain this to someone who has spent little to no time around musicians, it may seem a bit bewildering. After all, a musician is a musician (is a musician), isn’t he? But naturally, we musicians know differently! Anyone who has witnessed an exchange between an oboist bemoaning her reed, only to be interrupted by a violinist complaining about bowings (or seating)…well, assuming they’re standing far enough away to avoid being caught up in the fray, answers should reveal themselves quite easily.

Yes, I’ve written it before: we musicians are a strange lot, with our own personalities, quirks, idiosyncrasies, insecurities and social hierarchy. Most can be explained quite simply: violinists are confident (except for the 2nd violinists, who are…well…let’s not go there.) Violists are the confused middle children of the orchestra. Double bass players are…there. Oboists are charmingly neurotic. Bassoonists are slightly less charming. Trumpet players are also confident–but a little more, ahem, expressive about it. So on and so forth. But percussionists…well, percussionists end up in their own special category. They are sort of the third base coaches of the orchestra world: nobody really notices them unless they screw up. 

Percussion is a special case within the musical community. They are certainly easy targets: many of their instruments appear easy to play, even easy to master. After all, a number of their instruments (triangle, tambourine) are favorite playthings of the pre-kindergarten set, often employed as methods of torture and tests of patience for parents of young children and once-eager early childhood education students. And the timbre of the instruments may be recreated on any number of common household items, with kitchenware being especially popular. 

As always, it is not that simple. Percussion, after all, may allow an exceptionally well educated, mature, well-adjusted adult to utter the following phrase without irony: “I lost a $140,000.00 per year job because my triangle playing was sub-par.” Yes. read that again: “I lost a $140,000.00 per year job because my triangle playing was sub-par.” (Disclaimer: The author of this article has never personally uttered this phrase, though he admits that his triangle playing, while having its moments, is generally quite mediocre.) These instruments are hard. The great composers who wrote for them were unafraid to present a challenge. To be a percussionist requires much more than the ability to hit a drum or find the right keys on the xylophone! In fact, the only thing that should be struck by a percussionist is the word hit from his vocabulary. The percussionist must draw out the sound from the timpani; elicit crisp yet smooth notes from the snare; carefully extract myriad colors (at the right moment and in exactly the right manner) from the cymbals; the list goes on and on. The decisions, often made quickly and on the spur of the moment during rehearsal, are dizzying: which mallets to use? Which size and weight should the cymbals be? What size triangle–which beaters, too, and to hold or mount? Calf-heads or goatskin? Dresden or Berlin? Chain or pedal? Plastic heads or brass? Wood shell or copper?!

Perhaps most surprising of all is the makeup of a section and how well it can function together. Dysfunction would likely be assumed by most of their orchestral colleagues, of course, owing to the fact that the term ‘peanut gallery’ has often been applied to the usually colorful bunch of characters standing (or sitting around) at the back of the orchestra. When one thinks about it, the percussion section is unique: unlike other sections, they rarely, if ever, play together. 

It is not so in other sections. Section wind players learn to shade the principal–and other instruments within the section as a whole– in matters of tone and phrasing. The horns and brass, almost as a rule, develop a single, unified sound and color, with a particular blend being ideal. And the strings! Ah, learning to bow and even play vibrato with as much uniformity as possible–it is their chief concern most of the time, leading to incredible camaraderie (or, on occasion, rivalry.)

Composers rarely write for percussion with any consistency. There is often timpani, of course; that is a given, going back to the early Baroque. But the timpanist plays alone, with few exceptions. There does exist something of a basic unit, early on: the ‘Turkish’ section of triangle, cymbal and bass drum, though it may be argued that in many cases (such as Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraligo and Beethoven’s Ruins of Athens and 9th Symphony) the intention of the composer was to achieve an effect and not to require any particular sense of finesse (though, of course, musicality and finesse are essential when performing these works in the concert hall!) Beyond this, however, there is little in the repertoire to suggest any sort of attempt at consistency. Not only does this tend to vary from one work to another, but there is often a great range and variety within a single work. Percussion may be called for in one movement but not the next; in extreme (but hardly unusual) cases, an instrument may be called upon to play in just a few measures–even just a few notes–in the entire piece.

So it is incredible that the section, all playing sporadically and almost always playing different material (rhythmic, harmonic, timbrel) can achieve cohesion rather than chaos. And yet it happens: a camaraderie and personality develops within the section, jobs are assigned (the establishment of a principal cymbalist, auxiliary, bass drum, etc) and a sound and style emerge. From chaos emerges consistency: yet another miracle of music and the great institution of the orchestra.

Advertisements

The industrial nature of art.

I recently came across a posting which printed a letter written by Oscar Wilde to a fan who found curious the following line in The Picture of Dorian Gray: “All art is quite useless.”

True to his witty and sartorial nature, Wilde replied: 

My dear Sir

Art is useless because its aim is simply to create a mood. It is not meant to instruct, or to influence action in any way. It is superbly sterile, and the note of its pleasure is sterility. If the contemplation of a work of art is followed by activity of any kind, the work is either of a very second-rate order, or the spectator has failed to realise the complete artistic impression.

A work of art is useless as a flower is useless. A flower blossoms for its own joy. We gain a moment of joy by looking at it. That is all that is to be said about our relations to flowers. Of course man may sell the flower, and so make it useful to him, but this has nothing to do with the flower. It is not part of its essence. It is accidental. It is a misuse. All this is I fear very obscure. But the subject is a long one.

Truly yours,

Oscar Wilde

It is difficult to know if Wilde was being serious or, per usual, tongue in cheek with the flower analogy. However, if he was indeed being serious, he missed a wonderful chance to elucidate about art. A flower is absolutely useful: it provides a brilliant canvas upon a meadow which serves to attract all manner of life. It also provides pollen which sustains bees and butterflies who, in turn, pollinate other life, keeping nature in perfect working order. And a flower gives off seeds which allow future generations to grow and flourish! Finally, a flower may be unique to a certain environment or locale, ensuring that one may identify his surroundings. And so art is to us: it provides us a canvas upon which to express our experiences in life; it allows us to share ideas with others; it provides life for future generations, and a path for those who may lose their way; and, finally, it is both universal and unique to culture and country, allowing us to identify and empathize. Perhaps it is the so-called industry of mankind, which so often struggles to value art, which is most useless to nature.