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ClassicsOnline Home » American Music for Percussion, Vol. 1 (New England Conservatory Percussion Ensemble, Epstein)
Scored for as few as three marimbas (Splendid Wood) or as many as a hundred percussion instruments plus celesta, harp and piano (Grand Concerto), these five striking works by contemporary American composers abound in fascinating rhythms, ingenious combinations and juxtapositions of unusual instruments. Joan Tower’s DNA is built around pairs of instruments which, like the base pairs of DNA, contrive to make a whole work. Pulling Radishes was inspired by the measure and meaning of a 19thcentury Japanese one-sentence poem. El día de los muertos is a playful and nostalgic programmatic work based on the Mexican folk holiday The Day of the Dead, when the souls of the dead return to cavort with their living relatives in a joyous fiesta.
American Music for Percussion • 1
Tower • Sandler • Higdon • Rodríguez • Schuller
Joan Tower (b. 1938): DNA (2003)
Joan Tower’s music is noted for a number of defining qualities: driving rhythms and colorful orchestrations influenced by the sounds and sensations of a childhood spent in South America; approachability for listeners and players alike, resulting from her engagement with the performers of her music (often written with specific musicians in mind) and her own performances as a pianist and conductor. Early works were serial in conception. In the 1970s she moved toward more tonal, Messiaen-like sonorities. She has written a number of works paying homage to composers such as Beethoven (Concerto for Piano), Stravinsky (Petroushskates), and Copland (Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman). She was the first composer chosen for a Ford Made in America consortium commission, Made in America. Its top-selling recording won three 2008 GRAMMY® awards, including Best Classical Contemporary Composition. She was Composer in Residence with the St Louis Symphony (1985–88), Orchestra of St Lukes (1997–2007), and Season Composer with the Pittsburgh Symphony (2010–11). She is published by G. Schirmer.
Bradford and Dorothea Endicott commissioned the ten-minute work DNA for Frank Epstein and the NEC Percussion Ensemble. The first performance took place on 13th April, 2003 in Jordan Hall, at the New England Conservatory. Frank Epstein subsequently took the piece for performance to the Tanglewood Festival in July 2003, and to Zankel Hall, Carnegie Hall, New York City on 1st May, 2007.
DNA is written for percussion quintet as a way of capitalizing on the notion of DNA, and its rôle as the building block of all biological life. Deoxyribonucleic acid, as we know it chemically, is an elegant form, made up of double helixes and double strands in an endless spiraling ribbon. Using this feature as a starting point, the piece is built around pairs of instruments which are featured prominently throughout: hi-hats, castanets, timbales, and snares appear in duos and, like the base pairs of DNA, conspire to make a whole work. The fifth percussionist is primarily a soloist, as outsider to the pairs, playing on temple blocks, tambourine and congas, until he joins them in passages of trios, quartets and quintets. Joan Tower uses the basic concept of DNA in teaching all the time, when she is urging her students to find the DNA of building blocks of an idea for themselves.
DNA is dedicated to Frank Epstein, who is a percussionist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
— Joan Tower
Felicia Sandler (b. 1961): Pulling Radishes (2007)
Felicia Sandler has been described as a composer of music that is highly original, beautiful, and daring. Her compositions have been enthusiastically received in concert venues across the United States and both Eastern and Western Europe. She has been recognized with awards and commissions from the San Francisco Choral Society, the Dale Warland Singers, the American Composers Orchestra, the Big East Conference Band Directors Association, the Theodore Presser Music Foundation, and Meet the Composer, among others. Sandler’s instrumental works have been performed by the American Composer’s orchestra, Plymouth Symphony, U.S. Navy Band, and at a number of regional, national, and international meetings of CBDNA, IAWM, and SCI. Her choral works have been featured on programs by such fine ensembles as the Dale Warland Singers, the San Francisco Choral Society, Volti, the Peninsula Women’s Chorus, Musica Sacra in Cambridge, and at various regional and national meetings of the ACDA, CMEA, and OAKE. Sandler’s compositional style is at once full of energetic pulse (studies in West Africa having made an indelible impression), and deeply introspective. Her compositions are published by E.C. Schirmer, Mark Foster, and Dancing Flea Music Company. After receiving her Ph.D. in composition and theory from the University of Michigan in 2001, Sandler moved to Boston where she lives with her husband and son. She serves on the faculty of the New England Conservatory of Music.
“The man pulling radishes pointed the way with a radish”¹. This short, one-sentence poem is attributed to Issa, a Japanese poet from the early nineteenth century. I have often taken solace in it, sensing that in fact it is in the mundane aspects of our lives that we access and encounter life’s meaning. Likewise, in doing whatever it is that we do, we help point the way for others. “The one drumming pointed the way with a drum stick.”
Though I am not prone to “hidden recipes” in my music—the kinds of organizing methods of which only a composer is aware, and that listeners don’t readily perceive—I found that 45 (the number of letters that make up the short poem) and divisions/multiples thereof became a governing force in this piece. This is so in terms of the number of measures, beats, cycles, and so forth. The device helps create, simply, the container for the various types of energies present today in this particular radish-puller.
— Felicia Sandler
Jennifer Higdon (b. 1962): Splendid Wood (2006)
Born in Brooklyn, NY, on New Year’s eve, 1962, Jennifer Higdon is one of the most performed living American composers working today. She is the recipient of many awards, including a Pew Fellowship, a Guggenheim Fellowship and two awards from the American Academy of Arts & Letters. Her list of commissioners ranges from the Philadelphia Orchestra to the St Paul Chamber Orchestra; from Eighth Blackbird to the Tokyo String Quartet; and from The President’s Own Marine Band to such artists as Hilary Hahn and the bluegrass trio, Time for Three. She holds the Rock Chair in Composition at The Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.
Splendid Wood is a joyous celebration of the sound of wood, one of nature’s most basic materials, a part of all sorts of things in our world, but used most thrillingly and gloriously in instruments. Wood is the material that gives the marimba its unique sound, with a “round” sort of attack and a tone that blossoms out. This work reflects the evolving patterns inside a piece of wood, always shifting, and yet every part is related and contributes to the magnificence of the whole. This is a celebration of the splendor of the marimba.
Commissioned by Bradford and Dorothea Endicott, for Frank Epstein and the New England Conservatory Percussion Ensemble.
— Jennifer Higdon
Robert Rodríguez (b. 1946): El día de los muertos (2006)
Music by Robert Xavier Rodríguez has received over 2000 operatic and orchestral performances in recent seasons by such organizations as the New York City Opera, Brooklyn Academy of Music, Dallas Opera, Houston Grand Opera, Vienna Schauspielhaus, Israel Philharmonic, Mexico City Philharmonic, Cleveland Orchestra and the Seattle, Houston, Dallas, Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, Baltimore, St Louis, National, Boston and Chicago Symphonies. He has received a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Goddard Lieberson Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Prix Lili Boulanger and the Prix de Composition Prince Pierre de Monaco. Rodríguez has served as Composer-in-Residence with the San Antonio Symphony and the Dallas Symphony. Thirteen CDs featuring his music have been recorded (1999 GRAMMY® nomination), and his more than 100 works are published by G. Schirmer. He holds the Endowed Chair of University Professor of Music at the University of Texas at Dallas, where he is Director of the Musica Nova Ensemble.
El día de los muertos is a ten-minute work for eight percussionists which I began at the Bowdoin Music Festival (Brunswick, Maine) in June, 2006 and completed in Dallas the following AuguSt It was commissioned by Bradford and Dorothea Endicott for Frank Epstein and the New England Conservatory Percussion Ensemble, and it was premiered by that ensemble on 3rd December, 2006. As the title indicates, El día de los muertos is a programmatic work, based on the Mexican folk holiday The Day of the Dead. The Mexican version of All Souls’ Day has a distinctively playful and nostalgic identity which sets it apart from the ghostly images of the American and European Halloween, as exemplified in Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain and Saint-Saëns’ Danse Macabre. Following Aztec legends, the Mexican tradition represents the dead as sleeping in a cool, quiet place called Mictlan. To begin the holiday, the living send their children (symbolically, those who are farthest away from death) to the cemetery to invite the spirits of the dead to come out for a day to cavort with the living. In my scenario for the work, church bells ring to help the children awaken the spirits. The living prepare ceremonial dishes and create home altars with memorabilia of their departed loved ones. The skeletons then rise from their graves, and the spirits of the dead are reunited with the living. There is a joyous fiesta, with singing, story telling, feasting and dancing. At the end of the day, bells ring again and the revels end. The living, again led by the children, say goodbye to the dead, and the spirits return to their graves, where they resume their rest in Mictlan for another year.
The percussion writing for El día de los muertos is unusual in that it employs no drums other than timpani. Instead, there is a rich assortment of pitched percussion (crotales, glockenspiel, two vibraphones, chimes and several tuned gongs), with prominent use of two marimbas (the marimba being the national instrument of Mexico, as well as an apt musical representation of skeletons). These pitched sounds are accompanied by triangles, bell tree, wind chimes and a variety of non-pitched cymbals, shakers and unpitched gongs, with atmospheric use of maraca, rain stick and vibraslap, substituting for the uniquely Mexican instrument, the quijada, literally the jawbone of an ass. The work’s Mexican roots are reflected in the use of several popular Mexican folk-songs, most prominently A la puerta del cielo (At the Gate of Heaven) and La realidad (Reality). Other melodies are El Colunpico, Los pronunciados, Jacinto Trevino and Laredo. All of the Mexican melodies are combined in a quodlibet at the center of the work, where the living and the spirits of the dead are united. Two other, highly contrastive, musical elements are a two-chord dirge-like chaconne to depict the Aztecs land of the dead and, as a European liturgical reference, the Gregorian chant Offertorium for All Saints’ Day: Exultabunt sancti in gloria (The Saints shall rejoice in glory).
— Robert Rodríguez
Gunther Schuller (b. 1925): Grand Concerto for Percussion and Keyboards (2005)
Among the almost 180 compositions I have written there isn’t a single work for percussion ensemble, small or large. No one had ever asked me to write such a piece. When Frank Epstein asked me to write him such a work, I jumped at the chance, especially when he told me it would be for his large percussion ensemble at the New England Conservatory with the possibility for a première at Tanglewood. The idea of writing for a lot of percussion with their almost limitless sound and textural possibilities really turned me on. And I can truly say, although I like to think I have occasionally (or even often) been inspired in some of my earlier works over the years, I don’t think I was ever so inspired and challenged as in the case of the Grand Concerto. I wrote the piece in what amounted to about six full days (with numerous interruptions). It seemed as if such a work had been in me for some time; I decided right away to write for nine percussionists with large setups, i.e. lots of different instruments to hit and bang on, or to coax beautiful sounds from (percussionists in the last sixty years have learned to play every percussion instrument in God’s creation, from obvious things like timpani and snare drum, and dozens of other types of drums, and cymbals and gongs to mallet instruments like vibraphone, marimba, glockenspiel, xylophone.) I also knew right away that, since so many percussion instruments are what we call “non-pitched” instruments, I would have some pitched instruments, thus the choice of (what I have called collectively) three keyboards, including a harp. I don’t get along too easily as a composer without pitches, that is, without harmony and melody. The work is in four movements, played without interruption, in a rather traditional classical format: I. Slow accelerating to fast; II. Slow; III. Fast, a Scherzo; IV. Introduction (cadenza-like)—Allegro (Perpetuum Mobile).
Perhaps the most interesting challenge in writing this work was what one might call “logistics,” which one never encounters in orchestra or chamber music. In writing for a large percussion group, with each player performing on anywhere from a dozen instruments to almost thirty, the composer has to keep constant track of what instruments each of the nine players has been assigned, plus making sure that he or she can get to the next instrument (whatever it might be) in time—traveling time—and to have enough time to tune instruments that require tuning or, conversely, to damp instruments which require that. Writing this piece was like enjoying a tremendous gourmet feast Or to put it another way, I felt like a little four-year-old splashing wildly around in a big bathtub with dozens of plastic or rubber toys. (We all remember that, don’t we?) My imagination was constantly fired with the excitement of taking all those hundred-instruments sounds, like a chef’s ingredients, and mixing, collecting, combining—and/or featuring—in a seemingly limitless, inexhaustible variety.
Gunther Schuller’s Grand Concerto for Percussion and Keyboards is part of a large-scale commissioning project for Frank Epstein and the New England Conservatory Percussion Ensemble, supported by a major grant from Bradford and Dorothea Endicott.
— Gunther Schuller
¹ Mitchell, Stephen Ed., The Enlightened Heart, p. 99. Translated by Rovert Hass. Published by Harper & Row Publishers, 1989
Notes edited by Ellen Pfeifer
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