My music tends to spring from harmonic ideas, but in writing a large-scale piece for percussion quartet, I realized that the idea of harmony itself was only one of several paths I could take. The quality of percussion is often more “sound” than “note,” and when you get rid of notes, of course, you lose harmony. How, then, to present a coherent 25 minutes of music, freed from my faithful anchor?
I started Austerity Measures by trying to be as organized as possible. Writing for percussion is more wide-open than almost any other medium (save for electronics, perhaps), and involves conceptualizing an original setup consisting of any combination of the thousands of instruments that exist. Multiplied by four, things can get unwieldy quickly.
The four setups in Austerity Measures, therefore, are themselves arranged roughly like a string quartet: two highs, a medium, and a low. Contained in each of these setups are various sub-setups, spanning raw, unpitched non-instruments to the pure, tempered keyboards of glockenspiel and marimba. These are ordered and grouped in terms of material and timbre, too—metals, woods, drums, clean sounds, dirty sounds, all in gradations from high to low.
The actual music of Austerity Measures is quite rigidly organized: it’s a theme and set of variations, a structure which lends itself to tidiness. Uncharacteristically, the theme is at the end, a goal which the music strives towards; therefore the beginning of the piece actually sounds least like it. The theme itself is a familiar one: the first of Bach’s Two-Part Inventions, in C major. I chose to use a piece of familiar, preexisting music so that the overall structure would be convincing; I needed to be able to gradually reveal the theme in a way that would be audible at first hearing.
Percussionists, especially as students, often play Bach on the marimba. Austerity Measures makes the process of learning Bach explicit—it’s almost as if the instruments themselves are figuring out how to do it. Again, this process is methodical. The first sounds heard in the piece are raw and unfinished: construction tools and other found-objects hijacked for rhythmic purpose. These rhythms are heard in subsequent variations on progressively more “finished”-sounding instruments: grinding ratchets and guiros, wooden planks and blocks, wailing sirens and flexatones eventually coalesce, first around single, stranded pitches, and finally around complete harmonies. By the time any actual Bach is heard, we realize we’ve been hearing it all along, just with the pitches removed.
Just as the first half of the piece focuses on Bach’s rhythms, the second half focuses on melodic and harmonic aspects, often veering off-course into my own material, and even working in bits of other Bach pieces. By the end, the music “realizes” it can do everything at once, and it very quickly rewinds back to the beginning. The end result is not about evolution or progress so much as it is about protean adaptability, perhaps the defining characteristic of percussion and percussionists.
recorded live at DeBartolo Center for the Performing Arts, South Bend, Indiana.
performers Third Coast Percussion (David Skidmore, Robert Dillon, Peter Martin, Sean Connors)