Temple Bell, Lion Roars and Sirens

The limitless world of the percussionist / By Susanne Stähr

(Photo: Franz Schindlbeck)

For violinists, the case is simple: they can concentrate entirely on one single instrument. For brass players, it gets a little more complicated as they generally have to master several instruments in different pitches and sizes in order to be able to practice their profession. But the situation for percussionists seems without limit, with a battery of instruments awaiting them. Their seemingly endless arsenal of instruments may come under the general heading of "percussion", but this only tells half the story: percussionists also use items that are not hit with sticks, beaters or mallets – they also crank wind machines, shake the thunder plate, blow whistles, sound sirens and create the noise of a lion's roar.

From noise to art music

It all started so innocently: in the same way a person naturally has a melodic instrument in his or her voice, the body also offers a number of possibilities for percussive sound production. Even our primal ancestors knew how to use them when they clapped their hands, stamped their feet or clicked their tongue or snapped their fingers, thereby enriching their ritual ceremonies with rhythmic impulses. In the fourth or third millennium BCE, they began to cover vessels with animal skins and drumming on them: it was the birth of the first percussion instruments that offered unforeseen possibilities. Speed, frequency, and volume of the regular “beats” that could be produced on it could be altered, including gradually accelerated in order to ultimately raise the listener to an ecstatic state. This miraculous effect obviously soon found its use in various fields, such as at festivals and in dances, in shamanic rituals, and also in parades and, above all, in the military. The terror spread by the regiments of the Ottomans in the Turkish wars from the 15th to the 17th centuries, was associated with the janissary bands which accompanied them, creating a terrifying noise with their big drums, triangles and cymbals.

A bad reputation

Accordingly, percussion had a bad reputation in art music for a long time. The timpani, introduced to Europe no later than the 13th century as part of the loot the Crusaders brought back from the Arab world, was the reason behind this rethink. The advantage was that not only did it make a sound, but it could be tuned to a fixed pitch by the precise tension of the membrane. If you put two or more of these instruments side by side, in different pitches, you could even play sound sequences with them: the simple drum suddenly became a harmonic and melodic instrument. And in the nineteenth century, clever instrument makers refined this ability even further, constructing pedal mechanisms that allowed timpanists to tune different pitches throughout pieces, right through to smooth changes between pitches, the timpani glissando. The German expression “mit Pauken und Trompeten” (with timpani and trumpets), meaning to roll out the red carpet, reveals much about the early use of this percussion instrument. At court, it was the preferred instrument to greet high-ranking personalities, and also for important announcements or when winners received their trophies at tournaments. In church music on the other hand – such as Johann Sebastian Bach – timpani and trumpets were used to represent the glory and omnipotence of God. In the theatre, they also played a prominent role in shaping the fanfares that brought the distinguished spectators into the auditorium, or giving the signal for the performance to begin – the historically-informed version of a ring tone.

Cowbells and whips

In any case, the rise of percussion was closely connected with the success of opera from the Baroque era onwards. Jean-Philippe Rameau, for example, used a tambourine in his stage works to evoke exotic colour. George Frideric Handel tried to release the melancholy King Saul from his depression with the bright glockenspiel. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart used the entire array of instruments of janissary music in his Abduction from the Seraglio in order to represent the horrors of the Orient. And that was just the beginning. With the invention of the tone poem and the return of naturalism to music, percussion also became increasingly important on the concert stage. The storms represented by Richard Strauss in his Alpine Symphony and Maurice Ravel in Daphnis et Chloé would be inconceivable without a wind machine and a thunder sheet. But they were easily surpassed by Edgard Varèse, who in his tone poem Amériques reflects the soundscape of New York’s harbour on the Hudson River using not only ratchets, gongs and bells, but also ships’ whistles, the roar of lions and the notorious siren. Of course, no specific programme was needed to stimulate composers’ imaginations. Gustav Mahler, for example, gives percussionists a symbolic role when they ring cow bells to suggest earthly remoteness, and in his Sixth Symphony, they bring down a monstrous hammer as a stunning symbol of a stroke of fate that hits the hero like an axe blow. Or think of Maurice Ravel: could a work open to greater effect than his G major piano concerto, when the first thing heard is the crack of a whip which rudely wakens the audience from its lethargy?

Making instruments of everyday objects

The examples show that they were often everyday objects that, thanks to their ability to make sounds, were turned into musical instruments and enriched the percussion section. The discovery of distant cultures and globalisation has significantly increased this trend. Japanese temple bells, Cuban bongos and African congas, American boobams, Chinese gongs and Brazilian maracas, Indian tablas and Tibetan prayer stones have long since populated the concert stage when contemporary music is on the programme. Some of these instruments are very delicate in their sound, others loud to the point of being painful. But one thing connects all these fundamentally different instruments: apart from special cases, every percussionist has to be able to play them. Percussionists therefore need not only an unerring sense of rhythm, they must also be tremendously versatile and resourceful. This is even more true when performing percussion concertos such as Peter Eötvös’ Speaking Drums: the soloist has to deal with more than 20 different instruments, from the marimba to the woodblock, and sprint back and forth between them – a challenge that is not only musical but also physical. On top of all that, he takes on the role of narrator or actor, simultaneously reciting sound poems which he declaims in the style of Asian martial arts practitioners. There are simply no limits to the percussionist's profession ...